Huge tracts of land, a sworded affair, and a few tips of the cap.
Millicent and Harry made a smooth landing from their latest Portkey jump. Millicent said it was because they hadn’t gone very far- less than twenty miles, into western Somerset.
They were on a wide, open moor, across a gravel road from a gate with a rampant bull motif. Behind the gates was a manor house larger than the Flamels’, but not quite large enough to be called a mansion. And from that house came the second-largest man that Harry had ever seen.
The man approaching them was close to seven feet tall and dressed in flannels and jeans. He had tangled black hair, a homely face, and an expression that made Harry more than a bit uneasy.
“Welcome home, Millie! Come along, Mr. Potter,” Vance said with a distinct edge on the second statement. Both of them hustled to comply.
The house was rather sparsely furnished, with cushioned wooden chairs and a sofa in sizes suggesting the stature of its inhabitants. The blonde woman standing in front of the sofa confirmed this; she was definitely more than six feet tall, or about a head taller than Millicent. She introduced herself as Amanda Bulstrode and asked them to sit down.
“Mrs. Bones told us that you would be visiting for about ten days, Harry. We’re glad to see you,” she said while giving her husband a significant look, “and we hope that you make yourself at home. We hope you pardon the décor, since we don’t usually get a lot of visitors. I’ll go and make lunch ready. Come along, Vance,” and with that she headed for the kitchen.
This left Millicent and Harry alone in the living room. “That was your father, I take it?” inquired Harry.
“Yes, he is. He’s not usually like this,” she said.
“Do you know why? Has he told you why?”
“No, but I think I can guess. He usually doesn’t talk a whole lot, so he may not actually tell you, but he’s not happy that I married you. He’s told me so in several letters,” she explained.
“Why didn’t you say so? Maybe we could have had someone talk to him, to explain the situation,” Harry argued.
“How would we do that? ‘Oh, your twelve-year-old daughter just got married last night. Don’t worry, though, because we’ve got a couple of chaperones around, except for when they have to be somewhere else in the big old castle.’”
When she put it that way, Harry felt badly embarrassed. “Millicent, I’m sorry that you don’t like being married to me. I’m sure there’s some way to divorce me or something. We can ask…”
She interrupted him. “No, Harry. I really do appreciate you, and I might even love you. But you’ve got to admit that is an awful lot to swallow, and he’s taking it hard. I’m probably the only child he’ll ever have, after all.”
“Why is that?” Harry asked.
“I was a big baby. Mum had a lot of trouble delivering me, she says, and she doesn’t think they can have any more kids.”
“I’m sorry, Millie.”
“Don’t be. It isn’t your fault. Damn, this is depressing. And this had been such a fun summer so far. I think Da and I were finally starting to get along,” Millicent mused.
“If you really don’t want me here…” Harry should have known that these marriages were going to cause serious problems.
“I do! I do! We’re going to talk to him. I think there’s something else he worries about, other than me, but I’m not sure what. He’s never been the most talkative man, but if he has to say something, he’ll say it eventually.”
Eventually turned out to be the following evening, after dinner and before sunset. During his first full day at the Bulstrodes’, Harry mostly talked with Millicent about her brief and unhappy time in Slytherin and her longer and happier time growing up in Somerset. Millie said that she had several friends here, and hadn’t really thought of herself as all that large because giant blood was not uncommon in the area; indeed, some of the Muggles had it too and didn’t know it.
Meals at the Bulstrode house deserved and received serious attention.
“Do you have other vegetables besides peas?” asked Harry.
“We do have some fresh corn, but why don’t you want to eat the peas?” queried Amanda.
“Well, when I was five, my cousin decided that it would be funny to make me eat peas,” answered Harry.
“I don’t understand why that would be so funny.”
“He decided that he wanted me to eat peas with my nose,” responded Harry. “I was sneezing peas for the next four days. That’s why I don’t want to see them anymore.”
With that, Amanda retrieved the corn cobs and started preparing them. Amanda’s repertoire was somewhat limited, but her skill was not, and the quantities again suggested that the Bulstrodes expected guests who never came.
“I wonder why everyone I’ve stayed with cooks so much food?” Harry asked, half to himself.
Amanda heard him and answered, “We’ve heard that you haven’t been eating well at home. The other parents and I have been communicating regularly, mostly by owl, since we joined your... I guess it’s a family. Also, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, you’re smaller than we are, so scaling up from three people to four can leave some leftovers.”
It was certainly true. Harry was almost a head shorter than Millicent, and he came up to the middle of Amanda’s chest and the bottom of Vance’s.
“Millie… Harry, I think I need to talk to you.” With those words, Vance opened the door at the back of the house and walked out into the fields. The children followed him.
They walked out for about half a mile, to a small outcrop of rock in the middle of the field. Vance sat down, and the children followed suit.
“Harry, Amanda tells me that I haven’t been very polite to you.”
“Well, Da,” said Millicent, but Harry shushed her.
“I understand why you don’t like me, or at least I think I do. All I can say is that I’m sorry.”
“You shouldn’t be, Harry. While I wish that I’d had more warning about things, if this was the only way to spare Millicent seven years of abuse in Slytherin, I think it’s worth it. I was a Slytherin myself, and I was miserable most of the time. But I think it may have been easier for me than for her.”
“Why is that, Da?”
“Because I was a boy, and I stood five feet seven when I was eleven. But Slytherins have a very chauvinist mindset and while you’re big for your age, Millie, you’ve noticed that the older boys are much bigger than you, I’m sure. Sometimes, they’ve been known to do… bad things. I stopped them when I could in my day, but it wasn’t enough.”
“I’ve heard rumors. I think I know what you mean, Da. No need for any more details.”
Vance turned to Harry. “Anyway, I do owe you for that. As for the Harem, while losing Millie…”
“I’m not planning to take her anywhere without your consent, sir,” said Harry quickly.
“That’s not what I mean. There was another idea at work, and I’m not very proud of it, but I think I’d better admit it.” Millie and Harry both listened carefully to the older man.
“Wizarding law makes it almost impossible for women to inherit property. That means that this land that you see won’t go to Millicent. It will come to you.”
The land looked rather ordinary to Harry; flat plains and moors stretching for several miles in all directions, blocked off by the occasional fence. He knew better than to say this, though. If he had to guess, he’d say that the nearest fence, presumably holding the Bulstrodes’ ranch, included land about a mile on each side.
“This land has been in the family for over a thousand years, Harry.”
Harry had a hard time grasping that idea. “Wow. That’s as long as Hogwarts has been around!”
“Actually, probably a little longer. The first deed was dated in 972. It was a few generations later, that my ancestor, Shobbington, and his sons…”
“Rode bulls to London to complain about its inclusion in the Domesday Book. The king agreed to leave the family alone and the family changed its name,” Millie and Vance chorused.
“I’ve told this story before, haven’t I?” asked an amused Vance.
“A few times, yes,” responded Millie. “But you always told the story so well.”
“Anyway, for forty generations, this land has come down through the family line and it has come to me. The giant blood in us means that we don’t live as long as most wizards. We average the proverbial three score and ten, and I’m almost fifty now. I was so happy when Millie was born and so glad to see her growing up, because that meant someone would be here to take care of the land when I was gone. But then, you married her and now the land would come to you… and it doesn’t mean as much to you as to her or to me.”
“Sir, I wouldn’t…”
“Don’t make promises you won’t keep, Harry,” Vance said with just a hint of a growl. “You’ve never been out here before, and I doubt you’d want to live here. But this is something that’s a part of me and of my family, and I’m still mourning losing it as much as I mourned losing Millie to you. I know it’s not entirely logical, but can you forgive me?”
“Yes, of course,” said Millie and Harry together.
“I promise to try to be friendlier from now on, Harry. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll have something to show you tomorrow that you may like.”
Harry was a deep sleeper. He had to be, with eleven other people sharing his bed; otherwise he’d have never been able to sleep for an hour straight, with someone always moving or talking around him. So he had to be shaken awake.
This bothered Harry quite a bit, since he wasn’t usually awakened by white apparitions with black spots where their faces should be. He jumped and tried to crawl away from the figure.
“Harry! It’s me! It’s me!” the figure screamed, pulling up the black mask to reveal Millicent’s face.
“Millie! What on Earth are you wearing?”
“This is a fencing outfit,” Millicent explained. “Dad always wanted to teach me about how to fight with swords. I think he’d like to teach you, too. I didn’t know that you’d still be asleep.”
“Just give me a few minutes to change,” Harry said, still a bit shaky. Millicent left the room to let him do so, and was waiting for him when he emerged.
“So why does Dad want to teach us to use swords?”
“Three main reasons, he told me. The first is that it’s good exercise: you remember how much heavier I used to be, and Dad kept trying to get me to join him but I refused because I didn’t see the point. I think I do now,” she finished, smiling at her husband. “The second is that it makes a good means of self-defense in case of an emergency. And the third is that many purebloods are fencers; it’s considered one of the traditional ways for purebloods to maintain their figures, as well as a way to socialize at tournaments and such.”
“Is your dad good at it?”
“Well, he placed in a few tournaments back in the day, but he’s so big that he has trouble with the fine control many moves require. He also says his reflexes have slowed a bit. Mom’s better than he is now, as a matter of fact.”
Harry and Millicent arrived in a large, wood-paneled room with padded floors. Bookshelves ranged along two walls and a window filled most of another. A large tray of breakfast food sat on a table near the fourth wall, and the Bulstrodes, wearing fencing outfits similar to Millicent’s, were sitting down near the tray.
“Hello, Harry!” called Amanda. “Welcome to our practice room. This is where we do our fighting. We’re glad that you and Millicent have agreed to join us.”
“Millicent, I’m glad that you finally decided to start fencing with us this summer. It means a lot to me to be able to teach you,” Vance said.
After the children had eaten and drunk their fill, the lessons began.
For the rest of that morning, and each morning for the following week, Harry learned how to parry, thrust, feint, and defend. The Bulstrodes used specially charmed swords for instruction; they would cut through anything nonliving, but would not cut any kind of living tissue. That didn’t mean they didn’t sting when they hit a person, and it didn’t make the falls and tumbles any less painful. The adult Bulstrodes said that they saw significant progress during the course of that week.
After lunch and a little rest to recuperate, Harry usually joined Millicent and Vance walking around the fields and tending to the cattle each afternoon. Harry had never spent much time outside, and found it quite pleasant. The breezes coming from the Bristol Channel and the warmth of the sun were enjoyable, and helped cool him from the work that they were doing to ensure that the cattle were properly fed and watered, and that the manure was collected to fertilize crops.
After dinner each evening, the Bulstrodes usually listened to the wireless. Millie and Harry usually retired to one of their rooms to talk about their friends. Harry wondered how they were doing, since he hadn’t heard directly from any of them since arriving at the Bulstrodes’. Millicent assured him that they’d be fine, and promised to send him a birthday present and any messages she thought of before then.
On the last day of his visit, with Harry due to visit the Joneses next, Vance presented Harry with a box containing a pair of dueling swords, charmed in the same way as the swords he had been using. Harry was choked up and said that he appreciated the early birthday present. Vance responded, “No. This is in addition to our present. You’re one of our family now, and I don’t want either of us to forget it.”
Harry gathered his belongings, took the Portkey that the Bulstrodes had received the previous day, and disappeared at nine o’clock on the morning on the 19th.
“This is a goddamn outrage!”
“Calm down, Patricia. We can work this out,” Amelia calmly responded.
“Work this out? WORK THIS OUT? We let ten years of abuse go on without any kind of response, and you think ‘we can work this out’?”
Patricia Stoneham in high dudgeon was a truly intimidating sight. Not because of her physical attributes- she was short and slender with blonde hair turning grey- but because she managed to summon an aura of authority that few could match.
Stoneham had joined the Auror Corps in 1943, to go after the Dark Lord Grindlewald and his minions, and graduated just after Dumbledore’s legendary duel that ended that war. She had been on active duty ever since, and was now Alastor Moody’s immediate underling, the Auror Corps’ second in command and senior field agent. Like her boss, she had lost an eye (her left) in the line of duty, and although she had kept all of her limbs, she always wore long sleeves and long pants so that her scars were not visible. Instead of a magical eye like Moody’s, however, she wore an eyepatch. As she said, “I understand why Moody got his replacement eye, but I just can’t do it. I go into the field with what God gave me, and it’s always been good enough.”
“I have never seen a worse story of child abuse in all my days, Bones,” she fumed; she was usually friendly with Amelia, but couldn’t tolerate her boss’s attempts to placate her. “We have reports here of malnutrition, several apparent broken bones, active attempts to bully away any potential friends- and you tell me ‘we can work this out’?”
“Please, Patricia, listen to me. Yes, I agree with you; this is serious as hell. We filed dozens of reports with both Magical and Muggle Child Services, and nothing came of them.”
“I must be getting old,” muttered Stoneham. “When I was a young agent, we were taught to follow up any lead we got. I remember the words of that young agent Rorschach, ‘There is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon, I shall not compromise.’ And today we let ourselves be defeated by bureaucrats.”
“I agree with you, Patricia. We’ve been terribly, terribly negligent. And that’s why I am talking to you today. We’ve lost years. We won’t lose another day if I can help it. I am assigning you to track down what became of all of those reports, and to apprehend those responsible.”
“It would be my pleasure, Amelia,” Stoneham responded, finally placated. I shall head down to the files as soon as we’re done here.”
“You don’t want the help of our trainees?”
“Director,” said Stoneham stiffly as she headed to the door, “There is no one I trust to do this investigation more than myself. In addition, there is a possibility that other officers have been involved in the coverup; I don’t want word getting back to them. Judging by the privacy of this meeting, I believe that you suspect the same.”
“Very well taken, Patricia,” Bones responded. “By all means, act as you think best.”