cclx. brierstone

There were times when Harriet had to question Hermione's sanity.

Most people saw her friend group and probably assumed Hermione was the grounded one, the logical person rounding out their motley bunch, and while Harriet wouldn't say she was illogical, Hermione certainly had strange…ideas sometimes. Ideas that led to very poor decisions.

Two weeks after Harriet's awful detention with Umbridge, Hogwarts had their first Hogsmeade weekend—the first Harriet could attend, feeling more than a mite smug when she could wave the permission slip signed by Mr. Flamel under Filch's nose. Elara rolled her eyes as Harriet sauntered past him.

"You do know it would be best if we didn't go to the village at all, yes?"

"Well," Hermione muttered into her scarf. "Technically, we won't be staying long…."

She directed their group to the Three Broomsticks. Madam Rosmerta barely had a chance to unlock the doors before Hermione pushed them through to the loo, where they changed out of their uniforms into street clothes. They ducked under Harriet's Invisibility Cloak—Elara grumbling about having to duck—and crept out of the village like a limping Quintaped.

Once out of sight from Hogsmeade, they whipped off the Cloak with a breath of relief. The valley spilled in front of them, a long, wind-swept series of knolls, hills, and winding creeks, the mountains bold in the distance, the Forbidden Forest looming to the west. Harriet enjoyed the walk along the cobbled lane, the morning air brisk and bracing where it blew in from the eastern foothills. They chatted about nothing in particular, commenting on their classmates or their last dreadfully dull Defense period. It felt nice in the moment—relaxing—what with everything hanging over their heads.

They entered Lower Hogsfield, a borough mostly comprised of farms and orchards, the tops of greenhouses peeking above healthy, thriving shrubs, homes dug into the rolling hills like smials. They neared the village center where the roads were thickest and called the Knight Bus. The bus nearly took out an iron lamp as it swung into view.

The trio climbed aboard, and Hermione gave the conductor, Marvin Maplebach, an address for somewhere between Westmorland and Lancashire. "Verwerry Village, please."

"Right you are," Maplebach answered, repeating the name to the driver. He eyed the three of them and frowned. "Why aren't you lot in school?"

Hermione didn't hesitate. "Don't be ridiculous," she said with her nose in the air. "We're not in school. We're alumni."

"Ah…."

Harriet pulled on the brim of her witch-hat, keeping her face from view.

Verwerry didn't much resemble anything in the northern valley, and Harriet would call it more of a warren than a village. It consisted of one skinny road and a town square that might have belonged to a castle bailey long ago. The road cut through a portion of dense, colorless woodlands, and footpaths branched off toward different estates and properties. More than a few people lingered outside a seedy pub.

The Knight Bus dropped them off at a corner near a nondescript building. Hermione brought out her Atlas and shielded it from view with her robes, the blue light glittering over her face.

"It's this way," she said, directing them toward the north road.

"How d'you know?" Harriet asked, adjusting her hat again. "The Atlas doesn't tell us information for somewhere we haven't been."

"The Atlas tells us exactly what it's fed," Hermione corrected. "And I added a map of the area to the Aerie. Of course, it's not as accurate or as informative as when we've been through a place, but it will at least show us where Brierstone Estate is…."

It was the first time Harriet had heard the name of their destination, though the information meant nothing to her. She'd never heard of Brierstone and had no clue who lived there, though Elara's brow furrowed and her lips pinched in recognition.

The wood continued with them as they walked, the occasional house peeking through the sharp, ungroomed foliage, the trees thick and old and more than a bit spooky. Harriet kept one hand on her Cloak tucked into her satchel, the strap over her shoulder tugging toward the ground.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Harriet asked. "Not that I'm not game for your plan, but I don't much fancy another trip to Azkaban."

"It'll be fine," Hermione asserted, though her fingers tightened where they held the Atlas. "They're not—statistically, the family is quite secular and not prone to involving the Ministry in disputes. Not that anything will go wrong, of course."

"If I end up cursed and stuck in a jar, I'm going to haunt you."

They walked for another mile before Hermione urged them off the road and through an arborvitae hedge, muttering censored oaths as she pulled spiderwebs from her hair and something rustled in the dead leaves. They pressed forward until an iron fence appeared on the other side, twice as tall as Harriet and so blatantly formed by magic, it hummed with energy like a struck tuning fork.

"Don't touch it," Elara said, wrinkling her nose as she inspected one of the metal bars. "It's definitely cursed."

"Cursed?" Hermione squawked. She stepped back and almost toppled into one of the arborvitae. "Not just hexed?"

"No. Cursed with something Dark, although—." Elara neared the gate and sniffed it. Her gloved hand hovered along its surface as if palpitating a forcefield. "Do you smell the spice to it? Under the sweetness?"

Hermione overcame her initial trepidation and stood by Elara, her nose to the gate. She inhaled. "Oh. That's curious. Is it cinnamon?"

"Mhm. It's particular to blood magic. It's tied to the family somehow, perhaps a ward forbidding entrée to those who'd seek to harm them, or a means of discouraging unwelcome visitors."

"Fascinating…."

Harriet rolled her eyes as she tugged the Invisibility Cloak free again. A glance into the satchel showed Rick had somehow snuck in and was enjoying a leftover Sugarplum Faerie, nestled in the bottom with her crumpled uniform. She ignored him and tied the satchel closed.

"Can you two get under this Cloak before whoever lives here looks out a window and sees three loons out sniffing his fence?"

Blushing, Hermione and Elara did as told, and Harriet morphed into her Animagus form.

The property beyond the kept grounds looked much like a typical Victorian manor house, though the bricks had a dark wash, and the black shingles on the pitched roof had faded to a silvery gray with age. It was larger than a single-family house but more modest than an estate like the Malfoy's abandoned residence. Hermione had been insistent on not telling them who lived here, stating it made Harriet and Elara less culpable if they were caught.

Considering Harriet was doing the actual breaking and entering, she doubted it would matter if she knew the name of the person she was stealing blackmail material from or not.

"We'll give you an hour," Hermione said, invisible, though Harriet cocked her head toward the empty place she would be in. "That should be plenty to have a quick peek around his desk, grab anything you need, and then leave. Noble families have the open rafters where owls can dip in and out as they please."

"What if it's Charmed against strange birds like Grimmauld?" Elara's voice challenged.

"It won't be. I'm sure some parts of the house are warded against it, but the study will not. He's a member of the Wizengamot; he needs to accept public post." Hermione paused. "This is a theory, of course. If it's too dangerous, come back and we'll leave." Another paused. "Oh, what am I thinking? Maybe we should just—."

Harriet clacked her beak. Barmy! She fluttered her wings and took flight.

She made a casual, indirect circuit around the looming house, and as she did so, Harriet considered why she'd agreed to this madness in the first place. Everything in her gut urged her to keep her head down, but it was Hermione, of course. Like in their second year when she'd been so terrified of what the professors had been keeping from them, she'd created the Polyjuice Potion and Harriet had drank it. She'd do a lot of stupid things if it meant Hermione got to keep her peace of mind. Even sneak into a stranger's house.

She turned herself, dipping lower to glide toward the lip of an upper-story window. She'd been practicing, but her grasp on the finer movements of her crow form remained shaky, so she nearly crashed into the window. Harriet kept her feet under her with a bit of ungainly wing flapping.

Peering through the mullioned glass, she saw the foot of a bed and the side of a dark armoire, so she moved on. Twice more, she peeked into the house before she discovered a promising room. Mustering herself, Harriet puffed her feathers, then sprang upward, propelling her little body with two flaps so she could reach the opening in the rafters protected by the overhang. There were a few owl feathers caught in the old wood up there, nipped off larger birds as they squeezed through.

Harriet peered down into the empty study. The bowed outer wall varied tall windows and cramped bookshelves between its sharp, flat angles, the desk positioned at the center of the broad alcove. The owner kept several plants on low tables and climbable shelves, and there was a huge iron bottle rack on one wall that reached the arched ceiling, each cradle filled with a carafe or scroll or a stack of vials. The room's colors were muted, the furniture and its accents lending a more practical air than one might expect from pure-bloods. There were several antique cupboards with ivy vines lazing across the scrolled tops, and at the far end, a set of double doors partly opened to the dim corridor beyond.

Most importantly, there was no one inside and no watching portraits.

Holding her breath, Harriet fluttered to the floor, landing on a plush, if faded, Persian carpet. She hopped along until she reached the door, transforming out of sight behind it so she could gently nudge first one, and then other, closed without letting the latch catch.

Not wanting to press her luck and linger, Harriet hurried back toward the desk. She grimaced when she found it obnoxiously tidy, nothing left on the blotter but a stack of empty parchment, a cleaned wax stamp, and an impersonal appointment diary. She opened the last item. "Couldn't pencil in a date with your mistress, could you?" Harriet complained as she flipped through the pages. "No 'very illegal meeting, must tell no one' either? Bollocks." She tried the desk drawers and found them locked. "Bollocks!"

Footsteps entered the outer corridor—slow and unrushed but undoubtedly headed toward the study. Forcing herself not to panic, Harriet took a calming breath and changed forms. She hopped and flapped, scrabbling her talons over the lip of an antique cabinet as she crawled onto it. The top was flat behind the decorative crown and thick with dust, ivy wending over the high, scrolled edge. Harriet settled herself there out of sight and tipped her eye under one of the leaves.

A long shadow filled the small gap of light left between the shut doors, and a man passed inside, not noticing the doors weren't how he'd left them. He had his attention centered on a journal in his hand, studying it with one long finger inching down the page. He abruptly paused on his way toward one of the side tables and looked up.

Bloody hell, Harriet thought, a thrill ruffling her feathers. He looks like Snape!

The man standing in the halo of brighter candlelight left flared in the corridor did indeed look much like Professor Snape, though when he turned his head toward the desk, Harriet noted a few differences. He was older, silver streaking the temples of the black hair he kept restrained with a plain, gray ribbon, and his skin had more of an olive complexion than Snape's. His clothes were more expensive, and the cravat he wore could be considered Gryffindor red—a bold color Snape wouldn't be caught dead in. He had the same hawkishness to him, though, and as his narrowed black eyes swept the study, Harriet almost lost her Animagus form out of sheer nerves.

A minute passed. The wizard surveyed the room, but Harriet had left the desk just as she found it, only closing the doors to ensure no one would sneak up on her. Eventually, he dipped his head toward the journal again, and he continued to the table. Harriet had neglected to notice it at first, but now that she saw it, she realized the table was a brewing station. It wasn't one necessarily meant for cauldrons, but rather for vials and trays where a potioneer could test and review samples and ingredients. At the moment, the wizard had it mostly clear aside from a scroll of parchment he was adding notes to.

When the wizard finished, he set the quill aside and departed, though not before returning the journal to a shelf and taking another selection with him. Harriet didn't dare move until the wizard's footsteps faded in the corridor, the doors once more left open. She couldn't close them, knowing the wizard would notice in an instant, so she jumped down from the cabinet as a crow and stayed that way as she hovered to the table.

Her talons gripped the wooden edge as her little head tilted this way and that. Hmm, Harriet considered as she read the parchment. Looks like a recipe. This part here…oh, he's in the process of testing it. So, he created the potion. Hmm. Harriet clacked her beak. Looks important. Blackmail important? Let's find out.

She fussed about rolling the thick sheaf, then snapped it up in her tiny, scaled feet. Harriet wriggled her back feathers in victory, then took flight.

xXx

"This is brilliant," Hermione said, breathless, as she read the stolen recipe. All three of the witches panted for breath as they hustled along the country lane from Hogsfield to Hogsmeade. In theory, they didn't need to rush, as they had time to idle in the village if they wished, but it would best to return to the castle as soon as possible. Harriet regretted not being able to peruse Honeydukes. "It must have been sheer luck he left this out just at the right moment for you to take. He's compiling the recipe to meet Guild standards for publication."

"I couldn't find anything incriminating. That's what you really wanted, innit?" Harriet replied over her shoulder.

"Not necessarily. I wish for him to listen, and the key to getting the ear of any House Lord is to have something he or she wants in exchange." Hermione rolled the parchment up again, beaming from ear to ear. "Mr. Prince will definitely want this returned. He'll listen now."

So his surname is Prince, huh? Harriet turned to face forward as they entered the village's outer reaches. Eden Prince has to be a relative, but where else have I heard that before? Has Snape said it?

Elara sighed. "He only holds three votes in the Wizengamot. That's if he's willing to be swayed."

"Yes, but—." Hermione stuck a knowing finger in the air. "He has direct influence over the new Proxy for the House of Selwyn and its rights. They're young and not looking to strike out with their own opinion, so they'll vote the way of House Prince. They hold fifteen votes."

That gave Elara pause. "Clever," she conceded.

They used the Invisibility Cloak to enter the back door of the Three Broomsticks, tripping a poor drunk sod as he came outside and face-planted on the muddy cobblestones. The trio quickly changed in the loo, then ducked into the tavern, mingling among the other students having a late lunch. Madam Rosmerta may have looked at them funny as they passed through, but Harriet and her friends didn't wait around for her to comment.

Other students dotted the road back to Hogwarts. "Blimey, I'm starved," Harriet sighed as she saw the castle gleaming ahead. "D'you think I could kip down to the kitchens for a snack before supper?"

"You know full well Rikkety loves to dote on you," Elara said.

"Don't make more work for the poor elves right before dinner," Hermione scolded.

"How could you say that, as if they haven't got half a tonne of scones waiting at any given moment—?"

"Hem-hem."

Harriet froze, and her skin crawled as if assailed by an army of ants. It required an obscene effort for her to lift her chin and look toward the school's open gates and find who waited for them there. Madam Umbridge stood in her pink robes, smiling wide like a toothy, unfed shark who'd happened upon an injured seal.

"Miss Potter," she said, folding her hands together. "If you would come with me."

Harriet gulped. Uh-oh.


A/N: I think I mentioned it before, but I just don't believe Hogsmeade was the "only" totally wizarding village. That's just silly. I really liked the map in Hogwarts Legacy, so I use it sometimes to envision places in the valley and hills surrounding the school. (I think the game came out when we were still in Y4, lol. Would have been awesome to have from the story's beginning).

Hermione: "We're going to sneak off campus."

Harriet: "For something fun?"

Hermione: "For breaking and entering."

Harriet: "…."