The Nunicorn

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A Nunicorn  – not a horse with a horn, a donkey with a hook!

The Nunicorn

(a story for children of all ages)

The myth about fairies and unicorns, Nobby thought to himself, was that they weren’t all nice and noble. He plodded his way along the dirt track, his heavy hooves leaving deep imprints in the mud. Earlier a pair of unicorns had galloped by, seeming to float over the ground and looking magnificent of course. They didn’t notice the thick clods they threw up into Nobby’s face. Nobby was a nunicorn and no one cared what he thought.

The cart creaked and swayed behind him. At least that did not weigh much. He was meant to have a load of bright red apples from the orchard, but instead he had a barrel of seashells. Pippin the apple fairy had promised to transform them for him on the outskirts of the fairy village.

Everyone thought fairies only drank nectar straight from flowers, and unicorns munched grass in unspoilt forest glades, but they all loved apples and someone had to haul them in. Pippin remembered what it was like to be an outcast and quietly helped Nobby in his thankless duty. They had to keep it a secret though because the magic people were still a bit scared of Pippin’s ability to turn anything she touched into an apple. Fortunately, while the fairies and unicorns were graceful and lovely they weren’t very bright, and so far Nobby had never been caught.

It was a long trudge from the seashore and Nobby was covered in sweat by the time he reached the meeting point with Pippin. She was nowhere to the seen. With a sigh, Nobby dipped his head and let the thick rope attached to the cart slip off the hook that protruded from his forehead.

“Ho Nobmeister!” A unicorn appeared in a sudden cloud of road dust, rearing up magnificently on his hind legs. It was Fidelio. The unicorn nosed his way to the cart, trying to nudge aside the canvas covering the barrel.

“Give us an apple,” he said. Most people who love unicorns don’t know they can speak, which is just as well because they are not very well spoken.

“Can’t,” Nobby replied, truthfully. It was impossible to lie to a unicorn.

“Why the flippin’ ‘eck not?” Fidelio snorted and pranced back a few steps.

Nobby desperately thought of an excuse. Where was Pippin, she had promised to be here?

“They’re not quite ready yet,” he said. It wasn’t precisely a lie, and Fidelio did not seem to notice.

“Want one.” Fidelio nosed towards the barrel again.

“It’s your choice of course,” Nobby said with a shrug, “but if you eat those I think you’ll get a terribly upset tummy.” He looked meaningfully at Fidelio’s bushy silver tail. “I’m not sure you could lift that high enough to keep it clean.”

Unicorns are also terribly vain. Fidelio backed away and Nobby breathed a sigh of relief.

“Oh Nobby, you’re exaggerating.” Nobby jumped at the new voice.

Pippin was leaning on the cart and held out an apple to Fidelio in one gloved hand. Her other hand was hidden behind her back.

“Yeah, Nobbo. Exaggerating.” If Fidelio wanted to complain more his words were lost in a sudden mouthful of apple. He pranced off with a shake of his magnificent mane.

“That was close.” Nobby twisted to give Pippin a nuzzle and she offered him an apple. As always it was juicy and crunchy and sweet.

“Sorry Nobby, there was a terrible storm last night and it has made travel really difficult.” Pippin flapped water from her wings and lifted a muddy shoe.

“Tell me about it, I’ve been slogging through this sticky muck all morning.”

“Oh Nobby,” Pippin said, scratching the base of his hook, “things will get better for you one day, I’m sure.”

Nobby dropped his head, Pippin was one of the few fairies that was kind to him. The others had no time for someone who looked as odd as he did. If something wasn’t lovely and pretty and nice the fairies had trouble accepting it. They assumed that anything outside their narrow view of what was beautiful must be either evil or pitied. The unicorns were just mean. A nunicorn, they said, wasn’t even a thing, it was a mistake. Everyone knew there were mundane horses and donkeys, and stupendous horses with a magic horn called unicorns. There were even legends of an exceptional horse with two magic horns called a bicorn, but no one had seen one of those. Then they looked at Nobby. Whoever heard of a donkey with a hook? they said. That is exactly what Nobby was.

“I’ve got an idea!” Pippin said, grabbing Nobby’s gristly mane in excitement. “If you could do something really brave, or really spectacular everyone would have to change the way they think about you.”

Nobby shook his head and took a couple of steps backwards. Pippin could get over excited and if she touched him with an ungloved hand she would turn him into an apple.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, maybe you could save someone in danger, or find something no one else could.”

“Like the bicorn?” Nobby snorted, “no that can’t be right. Why should I have to do something special to be treated with basic respect. What you’re saying is that because I am different I have to work harder than everyone else. Why is that fair?”

Pippin sighed. “I think you’re expecting the world to be fair, and it isn’t.”

Nobby regretted his outburst. The fairies had been unkind to Pippin and were still not welcoming. But he still felt angry. He and Pippin were as they were and fairies and unicorns should just accept it. He dipped his head and picked up the strap for the cart, resting it against his forehead.

“Come on Pippin. You hop into the cart and transform those shells, and I’ll get us underway. Everyone will be wondering where their apples have got to.”

They hadn’t gone far when they heard shouting from the road ahead. They rounded a corner and found the two unicorns that had gone galloping ahead stuck in muddy bog caused by a dip in the road. Fidelio was prancing around the edge of the bog and not doing anything useful.

“Help,” the unicorns cried. “We’re stuck in this sticky stuff and getting stucker. It’s all over our shiny coats and getting stuck in our silky manes.” They both whinnied and shook their heads, spraying mud all over. Fidelio gave a yelp and backed away, unwilling to get dirty.

“Now’s your chance Nobby.” Pippin jumped down from the cart and hurried to the edge of the mud.

“I’m not doing this for your silly plan Pip. I’m doing this because it is the right thing to do,” Nobby grumbled. He dropped the strap attached to the cart and with a twist of his hook unhitched it from the cart as well.

Pippin bent down to pick it up.

“Wait!” Nobby shouted.

Pippin had been about to touch the strap with an ungloved hand. It would have turned into an apple and there would be no way to save the unicorns.

“That was lucky.” Pippin picked up the strap in her gloved hand and threw one end to the trapped unicorns. They started fighting over it.

“Give it here.”

“Leggo, give it me.”

“Stop it,” Nobby shouted at them. To his surprise they did. “One at a time or neither of you is getting out.”

Sheepishly one of the unicorns dipped its head into the strap.

“Out the way Nobmeister, this is a job for unicorn power.” Fidelio hitched the other end of the strap on his horn and began to pull. The stuck unicorn edged forward and fell back as the strap slipped off Fidelio’s horn.

“Just getting’ the hang of it,” Fidelio said. He took up the strap again. This time it slipped straight off. “Fiddlesticks,” Fidelio said. He turned to the two unicorns. “Sorry folks looks like you’re stuck forever.”

Nobby and Pippin shared an amused look. Pippin took the strap and dropped it over Nobby’s hook.

Nobby began to pull. The unicorn was heavy, and it was well stuck. Nobby pulled harder. His hooves began to slip on the wet ground. He braced himself and pulled with all his might. The edges of his vision went red, stars danced in front of his eyes. He felt his horn grow suddenly very hot. In the distance a horsey shape emerged from the trees. It shone like a black diamond and swam in Nobby’s vision. It seemed to have two horns.

Nobby gasped just as the first unicorn came out of the muck with a loud sucking schlopping pop.

“Did you see that?” he gasped.

“You were amazing Nobby,” said Pippin.

“Did you… oh nevermind.” The other unicorn was straining for the strap. When he was ready Nobby pulled again. This time his hook grew hot the first time, and just before the unicorn popped out of the mud Nobby saw the strange figure in the trees again.

Both unicorns were standing with their heads bowed, covered in mud. Fidelio pranced back and trotted around them.

“Look at the state of you. It’ll take weeks to clean that off and I don’t think you’ll ever get rid of the smell.” He stopped and looked down at Nobby. “Good job Nobbo. Seems like you’re a decent sort after all. I’ll be sure to tell the others.” With that he was off, somehow avoiding the mud pool himself.

“Well?” Pippin asked.

“Well what?”

“You’re a hero now. You should go and make the most of it.”

Nobby shook his head. He couldn’t shake the image of the strange horse with two horns.

“I’m going to go away for a while Pip. I’m off to find the bicorn. Not for them, but for me.”

Pippin’s eyes went wide. She reached out to stroke his mane and stopped. She had been reaching with an ungloved hand. “You’ll not find much if I turn you into an apple. Speaking of apples, what about those?” She pointed to the cart.

“I think the fairies and unicorns can haul their own apples for a while.”

END

Find out more about my writing here.

 

For those who have read my adult fiction, a biographical note. These children’s stories are where I started. I was enraged by a fairy story franchise that played on the acquisitiveness of children, churning out books with regurgitated storylines I can’t describe as “plots”, and merely changing the colour or gemstone of the fairy involved. So I started making up my own for the kids, rather than buy them more of this trash (because they had to have X the Xish fairy to complete the set…)

My kids preferred my stories and so the saga began. Recently my younger daughter asked me to rehash this one for her as she has a textiles project to do at school, based on her favourite story. Since I was writing it down I thought I would share it will my beloved blog followers.

Somewhere I have about 20k words of the story of Pippin Apple, which was intended to be a novel, but life intervened.

And no, I can’t draw.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Publication Announcement – “Désolé Habibti” in “On Fire”

Just in time for your Christmas stockings – my story  Désolé Habibti is in this gorgeous new anthology from Transmundane Press.

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About Désolé Habibti

Miriam returns to Lebanon for the last meeting with her great-grandmother. She is made the keeper of the secret to the family’s security. Her ancestors possess a Djinn that has protected their descendants from disasters for centuries. The Djinn can be compelled with one final wish before he is freed. On returning to San Diego Miriam learns her mother has cancer. She now faces a terrible choice over the power at her command.

And if that was not enough there are 24 other stories to gorge yourselves on.

More excerpts, readings and book launchy stuff to come.

If you are interested in my other published works check out my author site.

 

The Price of One – Short Story on Scarlet Leaf Review

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The Price of One – my ghost story / lyrical tour around London’s South Bank is in this month’s online edition of Scarlet Leaf Review.

The narrator is dead, and still very much in love. When a street vendor offers him a potion that brings him temporarily to life he and his heartbroken paramour grasp it with both hands.

Please head over there, give it a read, show it some love.

http://www.scarletleafreview.com/short-stories1/category/ali-abbas

 

The Footsteps of the Valiant

I had a tilt at the Bartleby Snopes dialogue only writing contest this year, an entirely new format for me. The rules are simple – only dialogue, no “he said”, no directions, just conversation. They keep the top five entries on the boil and reject everything else. I clung on for a few days, but inevitably got tinned.

That said I had a bit of fun with this and I hope you do to:

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Studded Door

 

The Footsteps of the Valiant

 

“Who’s there?”

“Archon? Archon, is that you?”

“It is. Child, you don’t sound like one of my regular guards.”

“No, your holiness. Far from it. I have come to save you.”

“Bless you daughter, but you are taking a terrible risk. Flee, before they find you.”

“Don’t worry; no one will be coming for a while. Your long captivity is almost over.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“The guards on this watch have been bribed. They’re all looking away.”

“‘By their own greed shall they be undone’ as it says in Acolytes Three.”

“Yes, your Holiness.”

“What is it that you are doing? All I can hear is a scratching at the door.”

“Trying to pick the lock. This one looks like a regular forbidding dungeon door with a big unsophisticated lock that a halfwit gaoler can manage, but it turns out to be surprisingly complex.”

“Well, they have had me locked up in here for a long time, I’m sad to say you are not the first devout soul with fire in your belly and righteousness in your heart to try and save me.”

“I know, there are memorial cobbles hidden throughout the city with the names of the holy martyrs.”

“Cobbles?”

“They prise one up, engrave it and replace it overnight. There’s also a threnody that is sung by everyone in attendance: “The Footsteps of the Valiant”, it’s quite a moving tune.”

“Cobbles are not lacking in humility I suppose.”

“You are a prisoner of the state Holiness. They could hardly erect statues.”

“No indeed. How are you getting along with that lock?”

“It won’t be long; the Duke had a similar one on his strong room. There’s a trick to it.”

“I see. I take it the path of righteousness has not always been the one you have chosen?”

“No your holiness I’m a thief. I don’t actually have any of that belly or heart stuff. Your followers got tired of sending each other to certain death trying to save you. They hired me. I’m a professional.”

“So what about that business with the holy martyrs and the cobbles?”

“It never hurts to empathise with the client. Especially when the client thinks they have a cause. It can get you ten, maybe fifteen basis points on the price. Bitter, hard bitten pros with no emotional intelligence have to sell their services at a discount.”

“My goodness, I had no idea it could be so complicated. I must admit I’m not sure how I feel about being rescued by someone who has not been saved.”

“Oh it’s your flock that are saving you. The money was raised by subscription. As best I can make out, you’ve had everyone from widows and orphans contributing pennies, to businessmen putting an entire year’s profits into the fund. It was very touching, but of course it doesn’t pay to get sentimental.”

“But you are the one who is doing the saving.”

“‘Judge not the sword, but the hand that wields it.’ That’s from Ruminations Six.”

“You know your scripture!”

“Good research on the client, adds another ten points to the price every time. Those surly hero guys hanging around in taverns half drunk and unshaven really don’t know what they’re doing. I have an office, and a secretary. Prospective clients get cinnamon tea and a brochure.”

“I suppose that makes me feel better about it. How is that lock coming?”

“Nearly there. Just one turn…got it. Stand back your Holiness. There’s a torch out here, and the sudden light may be painful.”

“That won’t be a problem.”

“Oh.”

“To be fair, no one else has ever got this far. We’ll have to review security arrangements.”

“Gosh. It’s rather nice in here isn’t it?”

“Well, there had to be some trade-off for being locked up all these years.”

“Your carpets are as good as the Duke’s and I happen to know that’s a third century jade vase.”

“You’re an educated woman.”

“Well, yes. But that one I stole to order for…”

“That was you? God bless you. It was originally stolen from the Church by the second Hieromancy. ‘It will profit them not the things they take unto themselves. For all shall be returned to its rightful place in time for judgement.’ Divination Twelve, in case you were wondering.”

“It seems I’ve been an agent for the Church before then. It’s good to know we’re on the same side.”

“Indeed. If you like what you see here, you should come out onto the balcony.”

“How do you have a balcony in a dungeon?”

“Come and see.”

“Oh. Oh my word.”

“It’s quite something, isn’t it?”

“I never imagined there would be a cavern inside the mountain. Where does the light come from?”

“As I understand it there are crystals in the rock that run right the way up to the surface. Or they redirect light to each other or some such. It does give the whole thing a lovely glow. And the rainbow over the waterfall is almost permanent.”

“I did wonder why you stayed here.”

“I am a prisoner, child.”

“Yes, but there are stories about how you gave sermons in two villages at the same time. I always wondered why someone who could do that would allow themselves to be locked up.”

“You believe the stories? I’m surprised.”

“I stole some records from before the dissolution of the Church. The parishes kept records of who came and went.”

“You really do your research very thoroughly.”

“Thanks, I had an intern do the actual data work.”

“And these records showed me in two parishes at the same time?”

“Yes, and it happened more than once.”

“Unfortunately it’s not a miracle or some God given power. The truth is a little more prosaic. I served four parishes as a young priest, and I had to walk from one to another. I wasn’t actually that devout, and they were all about fifteen miles apart around the Sky Lake.”

“I know, I have the records, remember?”

“Yes, but what you have to factor in is that two of the parishes were in a different diocese.”

“So?”

“I got paid by the sermon. I knew no one would cross check the records from one diocese to the other. They used to hate each other.”

“You were fiddling your attendance to get paid more.”

“Wouldn’t you?”

“I’m a thief, not a fraudster.”

“I always thought putting around the story that I was able to perform miracles by being in more than one place at a time was quite inspired.”

“Divine inspiration?”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“I take it you aren’t coming with me then?”

“Not as such, no.”

“You can let go of my arm.”

“You see, the Duke and I have an arrangement. He needs the people to believe in something to stop them falling for heathen influences. And the firebrands have a predictable cause to rally around. It makes them easier to track.”

“You’re quite strong for an old man.”

“You see those spars and blocks in the corner?”

“Yes.”

“That’s actually exercise equipment. I also do yoga. I’m in pretty good shape for someone who hasn’t been outside in a decade.”

“Do you have to grip so tight?”

“The arrangement serves the church as well. Nothing keeps the people as devout as a live case of someone suffering for their souls. Donations have never been so high, even though the services are held in secret.”

“I imagine that saves a lot in overheads.”

“You’re very astute. Church buildings are in need of constant repair. This way the worthy lend us their houses, and I’ve cut an entire layer of management out of the structure. It’s very efficient.”

“My arm is hurting pretty badly, do you think you could let go?”

“I’m afraid not. There are very few people who know what is happening. Even the guards just pass what they think they’re feeding me through a hole in the door. My meals actually come on a dumb waiter from the palace kitchens.”

“I’m really pleased for you, but I really think I ought to get going. I only bribed one shift of guards and they’ll change soon.”

“And there’s the rub. The arrangement works because it is secret. And a secret is only a secret if no one knows it.”

“Penitents Seven?”

“Good guess. Penitents is a go to book if you’re in doubt because no one ever reads that one, but actually that is all my own.”

“It’s an awfully long way down.”

“‘He who dies to serve the faith shall live for ever.'”

“Does it matter that I’m a she?”

“Not to God. On the plus side, maybe you’ll get your own cobblestone.”

 

THE END

If you are interested in my writing take a look here

 

The Lesser Evil

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The Lesser Evil

(Harry Potter Fan Fiction)

 

“Why does she keep touching you?” Ginny asks the question lightly, as if enquiring about the weather. She doesn’t even look at me as she leafs through the newspaper. There’s no suggestion that this is different to the quiet routine of our evenings when the kids are away at school.

I don’t answer. The armchair has me in its grip, too exhausted to move. My work is meticulously filed, my reports thoroughly written. So different from my school days. Diligence delays the moment of my return to this place.

“I just think it’s odd. Any excuse to put her fingers on you, hold your hand.” Now she does look up. My eyes are closed but I can feel her gaze, still and curious. “At dinner on Sunday she wiped that smudge of icing off your cheek.”

The speech must have been rehearsed. All the while I was in the office she would have stared into one of my pictures and worked on the pacing and intonation. The questions are to put this into the realm of another’s fault. It’s not Ginny. It’s not me. It’s the other woman. How strange she is, this interloper in our lives. How maddening to us both the quirks of her behaviour.

Ginny knows if she brings the locus here, into our living room, into something between us, it would be to invite the blame to sit at our hearth and add its silent accusation.

“I hadn’t noticed.” The lie falls easily into the space she has left for it.

“I don’t mind for my own sake, but she’s married to my brother.” Sub text: your best friend. “You know how he can get.”

I do know how he can get. His anger I can handle. It is a red thing, a live flash that can be doused and cooled. The sister, my wife, she’s like me. Her rage is black, deep and lasting. You might mistake the coals as dark and cold, but put your hand on them and they will stick to your skin, burn through to the bone.

“I’ll tell her to stop.” I know she’ll reject my opening offer in this negotiation.

“That would be weird.”

“You tell her.”

“That would be worse.”

“Then I’ll stay away from her.”

“That would be best. Just don’t make it obvious you’re avoiding her.”

“Ok.”

“Ok.”

The silence returns, blanketing. For her the task has been accomplished. How could we possibly be to blame? The problem was outside of us, beyond our hearth. Accountability has been localised there, as has the response. There is no more to say on the subject. Unless it is a test, a tableau and trap, a probing of my own responses. Sitting by my own fire, I can’t let down my guard.

When there is a sufficient distance, the taste of the last conversation a memory, she asks “How was your day?”

“Tiring.”

“Still the same case?”

“Yes.”

“Any leads?”

“None. Just a trail of bodies.”

“There’s nothing in the paper.”

“Just the obituaries, otherwise we’re keeping it quiet.”

“Those were reported as old age and natural causes.”

“They weren’t.” I have to get out of this house. The constant wariness is kicking me deeper and deeper into a well of fatigue. “I’m going to get some air.”

“Would you like me to come?”

“It’s OK, I need to get the day out of my system. I’m not great company right now.” Subtext: It’s not your fault. You’re OK, I’m not OK.

“I’ll keep dinner warm for you.”

“Thanks.”

I leave the house without my coat. It is a miserable, frigid February. I consider going back for it, but the door opens and it floats out by itself to settle on my shoulders. The fact that she still cares only makes this harder.

Just outside the village a path veers off from the road and heads off across the fields and farms, shielded by hedgerows. A stream winds its way through, heavy with a month of rain. I stop on the little hump backed bridge and stare into the water. It’s too dark to see my reflection. That’s just as well.

Sometimes in the mirror I can see the shadows. He’s left his mark on both of us, a stain that can’t be removed. Funny how I can’t say His name any more. I used to shout out it so bravely, so cavalierly when He was something I could fight.

I wish there was something I could turn my anger onto now. Someone I could charge at, my head down, heedless of the consequences and howl invectives. A sink into which I could pour the constant bubble of my resentment.

I was forged and scarred in war; I can’t live in a time of peace.

The path here seemed so natural, so obviously correct, and as easy to take as the path to the bridge. We had won a war and lost half a generation. The bodies of our friends lay broken amid the ruins of Hogwarts. In that bittersweet aftermath how sane it seemed to grab whatever happiness was available, share it between us. We knew it might be lost in an instant. We married young, bore children to fill the void.

The danger did not return. How easy to look back now and say “Had I known then what I know now, I would have chosen differently.”

That is a lie. We did not have it in us to do that. Could we have walked away? Could I have said to my closest friend, my brother-in-arms “This happiness you have found is less than the happiness I deserve”? Could I have admitted to the girl who waited for me, “You were only ever a safe haven, a refuge I found from the sacrifice I made for your brother”?

She is here. The one. The destiny that was so obviously written for me that I resisted it, fought against it like it was a prison coming to claim me. The one who was the very best of us. She respected my need for freedom even though it meant she settled for an ordinary man.

Her arm snakes its way around my waist. There is warmth against the chill. I rest my head on the soft bed of her curls. She puts her head against the hammer in my chest. The skittering chaos of my heartbeat slows and steadies. The rest I should have found at home seeps into my bones, scorning the chill and the drizzle.

“How long?” I need to pace this respite.

“He’s discovered Netflix and Quentin Tarantino. He won’t realise I’ve gone for a while.”

The kiss is simple and sustained. An umbilical that feeds us both. A union.

The moon is up. She steps back and by its light pulls away a few hairs that have stuck to my coat. She drops them in the river, and then she’s gone. I wait, listening to the stream and then follow her back into the village, past the glowing windows of her house and into mine.

 

* * *

 

Ginny is curled, foetal against my back. Part of me wants to turn around and offer her some comfort. She is as much a victim of bad decisions and the change of time as anyone. And she has carried the burden of His presence, as I did. That deserves a bottomless well of compassion.

I can still smell the other lingering in my arms, on my breast. If I turn around and hold Ginny, she will know someone has been in her place. Not offering her comfort is a lesser evil, a mercy that she will not ever understand or appreciate.

Compassion, comfort, mercy. So easily confused with love in the fear and alarum of battle. So obviously not love when the dust settles.

Sleep has only claimed me for a little while when the tapping comes. A folded card is marking a regular tat tat tat on the bedside table. The words printed neatly on the inside glow gently in the dark.

“What is it?” A sleepy question. Night will reclaim her in moments.

“Work, I have to go.”

“Be careful.” Mumbled, and then she has drifted away.

I slide out of bed, careful not to let the cold in. I change in the kitchen, well away from the bedroom so I don’t wake her. I stir up the fire and add another log. When it is crackling I add a handful of powder. It flares green and I step through.

I emerge in a room which is frigid and dark. The small fireplace behind me, long unused, spits out dust. I step to one side. My partner appears. Best friend. Brother-in-arms. Cuckold.

Her perfume is heavy on him, beneath it their sweat. My hackles rise. I fight the urge to lash out.

“Harry? Is that you?”

“Yeah.”

Light emerges from wand tips.

The corpses are a couple. Very old. They could have died in their sleep, both sitting in their armchairs, a small coffee table between them. The man’s face is twisted in horror, as if he has been scared to death. The woman looks bewildered. There is not a scratch on them, no sign of violence. Nothing else has been disturbed.

There are pictures on the mantelpiece: the couple in younger, healthier times, a young woman who could be a grand daughter, and another couple with a toddler, who could have been the same young woman in her infancy. None of the images move in their frames. This is new; thus far all the victims have been wizards and witches, old and living alone.

I try to concentrate on the faces in the pictures, but my senses are flooded with the smells he has brought in with him. They cut through the cold air and the death stink. He moves around the room, knowing there is nothing to find. I stand still, jaw clenched. The ink stain on the inside of my ribs aches. It marks the place where the Dark Lord had his grip and was ripped out by my own death.

I feel it seep up and around me, loosening my grip on my magic. I stamp on it. Hard.

There is a change in the air, a scrape of claws on the carpet. A dog bursts in at ankle height and gives a single bark.

“Stupefy.”

“Silencio.”

He muffles the sound, I stun the dog. My spell blasts it back down the narrow hall, sliding across the floor into the kitchen to lie limp and still.

“Steady on Harry.” Ron’s spell was better, considered and proportionate to the threat. We are here to find clues and clear up the evidence of death by magic, not unleash our anger on a small West Highland Terrier.

“Someone could pick out its memories. Had to be sure.” Another lie that slips out easily. He falls for it, as he does every time. It is a lie that suits many purposes. He’ll tell his wife, who will know it is nonsense, and she will seek me out to comfort me. I’m getting too good at this.

“Good thinking.” He casts his light around the room. “Let’s finish up here, I doubt we’ll find anything, but we have to be sure.”

“Yeah.”

He goes out, leaving the ghost of her scent behind in the room.

 

* * *

 

Work passes slowly the next day. There is paperwork to file on the deaths, adding to the roll call of a serial killer. No one in the magical community has been stirred by them yet. The victims are all old, their deaths expected. Families are saddened but not surprised, the police have no evidence on which to hang suspicion. Only a few of us carry the burden of knowledge.

A junior Auror has left background research on the murdered couple on my desk. Brian and Edith Leahy of Gosport. Brian was in the late stages of terminal cancer, but refused palliative care because of Edith’s dementia. He would not let her live alone, or in a hospice. Fifty years of marriage, one son with his family had moved to Denmark. Brian had cared for Edith through years of his own illness. The bland facts of the lives snuffed out are an injustice. There should be more to show for that devotion. I leave the report on my desk.

On the roof of the Ministry, I stare at the leaden sky. The old couple had precious little time left, and their deaths were perhaps a blessing in disguise. I lean over the parapet and dry heave. A dribble of spit falls onto the streets of London. Once I fought for those precious moments of life. I should aspire to be like Brian Leahy, and if that is not possible then at least to mourn his death.

In the afternoon we gather round curled scrolls and notes pinned to a board. We scrub hands through our hair and over tired eyes. We have no leads, no clues. The only reasonable surmise is that there is a dark wizard at work. I know what I have to do next. Ron’s not happy about it, and he wants to come too. That would be an escalation. There is history here, and that needs to be respected.

I leave him at the office and appear outside the gates of the old manor house. It is as forbidding as I remember from the last time I came here, bound and beaten. They make me wait. It is an important part of a valid wariness, a demonstration of who is coming into whose domain.

Lucius sits at the head of his dining table. The only light in the room is from the enormous fireplace. He tries to sit up straighter when I am shown in, tries to sneer, but he is a broken shadow of a man. He has the dark rage too, but in him it is the pathetic whining of a cur. There is a goblet in his right hand, which trembles with the knowledge of his impotence. His left hand snaps onto his right wrist to steady the goblet, and then in a burst of furious action he hurls it into the fire.

There is a snap as a house elf appears, diving into the fire to retrieve the goblet and emerging with its rags a-smoulder. I don’t flinch and I don’t react. He mumbles to himself and then calls for more wine.

It takes a few minutes for Draco to appear. His is lean and tall and gaunt. Pale as a ghost. He shows me into his study wordlessly. Only when the door is closed and the unwelcoming halls are locked out does he speak.

“Why are you here?”

“I need information.”

“I thought ferreting out things you weren’t meant to know was your particular skill.”

I don’t rise to it. Eventually he motions me to a chair. From a sideboard he pours two drinks, and puts one on the coaster in front of me. He doesn’t sit. He stands at the window and looks at me in its reflection.

I take a sip. Fire-whisky. It is smooth and sharp like a goblin made knife.

“There’s a serial killer on the loose.”

“Should I be worried?”

“He’s targeting the very old and infirm.”

“Maybe I should invite him in. He could be doing me a favour.” He looks out through the walls to where his father sits.

“It looks like the work of a dark wizard. Killing curses. Six so far.”

“You think of dark wizards and you come here. Should I be flattered?” There is bitterness in his voice. His family are still wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, but their power and influence is much diminished among ordinary wizarding folk.

“Six deaths. Someone is trying to emulate your old master.”

“Why would they tell me about it?”

“Because if there is a rising of dark wizards they will need you and your money.”

He laughs at that, a genuine display of mirth. “You never had real money. You don’t stay this rich by giving it away to every madman with fire in his eyes.”

I don’t have an answer to that. The black rage is in me, clawing under the surface, but I am in his domain and I need his help.

He keeps looking at me in the reflection and occasionally sips his drink. “The war’s over. Why are you still fighting?” He turns from the window to look at me directly and answers his own question. “You’re looking for a wall to bash your head against. You’ve won, and now you don’t know what to do with yourself.”

“There’s always something to fight for.” It’s a weak answer. I’ve ceded ground to him, and he knows it.

“No. The things you fight for in peace are simple, prosaic. Raising yourself to see to the kids at night, resisting the urge to shout at them, letting them grow into who they want to be.” He pauses, looking for the key to get in. “Keeping the fires of passion burning when the fuel is spent.” I know I have not reacted, but he nods slowly to himself with the ghost of a smile. “I lost in the war and I’ve won more from it than you have, because I can live in the peace.” He hasn’t taken his eyes off me. “That isn’t enough for the Chosen One though, is it? You need the big achievements, the cries of acclaim. It’s not enough to be a hero in your own household.”

He’s echoing my own thoughts from the day before. Knowing that his mind has taken him to the same place as mine makes me feel like I’m wearing soiled clothes. I’m running out of the patience to take his barbs. “Do you know who is behind the killings?”

“No. It’s not anyone who looks to me and mine.” He goes back to looking at me in reflection. “But there are whispers in the wind.”

“Tell me.”

“Whispers that tell me this is as much your doing as anyone’s.”

My grip tightens on the glass. It is goblin made, no pressure I could put on it would make it break. I could use it to hammer the manor house into rubble. “What do you mean?”

“I said your skill was ferreting out secrets. I learned about Polyjuice potion from you. Your exploits have launched a whole industry making invisibility cloaks. None of them a shadow on yours, of course.” He swirls the little that remains in his glass. “And then there was your odd behaviour in the battle. Everyone else was fighting for their lives and you were chasing round the school looking for a trinket. Word gets out, people make connections.” He laughs again. “You burst out of the bank on a dragon. People have worked out you were looking for objects connected to the Dark Lord. The word being whispered in secret places is “‘Horcrux’.”

“That’s not a word many people know.”

“You’re deluded. In any case you might take an interest in a book that went missing from the school library. Very dark magic, very highly restricted.”

“Do you know who took it?”

“‘Who’ could be anyone.” He finally moves away from the window and drops into the chair on the other side of the desk. “One of my own businesses is selling ready made Polyjuice potion. Just add a hair and you can be anyone you please.”

“Do you keep a list of your clients?”

“Just the interesting ones.”

“I’ll need to see it.”

“It’s at the shop. Stop by tomorrow. I’ll tell them to expect you.”

I put the glass carefully back on the coaster. He shows me out by a side door and we don’t exchange pleasantries.

The study was stuffy and the whisky was heady stuff. I walk for a few miles trying to come to terms with what is happening, trying to hold in the horror. Someone is trying to make a Horcrux. Someone wants to split their soul to make themselves immortal through cold blooded murder. Alone now, I let my body shudder and shake. It’s a hideous thought.

I don’t go straight home. I wait on the bridge. It’s late. She won’t come at this hour, but even the faint hope of it is better than the sterile confines of home. And then she is there, slipping into the circle of my arm. She gives me a fierce, tight hug and rests her forehead on my cheek, breathing heavily. The whisky still clouds my lips. She replaces her forehead with a kiss and then she’s gone.

 

* * *

 

“Any message for the kids?”

“You’re going to Hogwarts?”

“Following up on a lead. There was a book stolen from the library. I thought I might stay for lunch while I’m there.”

“Just tell them I love them.”

“They’ll hate that.”

“Then make sure you do it in front of all their friends.”

I leave with a smile. The kids do that to us. They give us a shared purpose; push the darkness into a corner. I go to the office first and brief Ron on the evening’s discussion. He offers to get the list of customers from the shop. He doesn’t like going back to Hogwarts, and I don’t press him on it.

The school gates show signs of repair. Ancient stones alongside fresh cut new ones. It’s like that throughout, except for those parts that had to be torn down entirely. I look in on Neville first. He’s elbow deep in muck in the greenhouse, but still puts out a hand to shake mine before withdrawing it with a rueful smile.

“How are the kids getting on?”

“They don’t have green fingers, but they pay attention. They’ll be fine. How’s Ginny?”

“Fine, she sends her regards.”

“This isn’t a social call.”

“No. What do you know about the book that was stolen?”

“It’s baffling really. Middle of the day, the library was busy. The alarms on the restricted section went off. We’ve accounted for all the children, and none of them set off the alarm.” He stops for a minute, washing the dirt from his arms. “The thing is the book went after we’d cleared the library, but before the detection spells were reset.”

“I’ve heard invisibility cloaks are becoming more common.”

“They are. We’ve confiscated several, but they’re not that effective. We had four teachers in there scouring the place. Someone got by us, picked up the book and got out again without us noticing.” He steers me out towards the hall for lunch. “We’ve told the students it was a drill.” He puts a hand on my arm to stop me. “I sent a report to Ginny, this used to be her department. Now she’s back at work I thought you’d know all the details.”

“Ginny didn’t come back to work.” That had been the plan, once the children were all at school and her days would be empty. “It’s not been the right time.” He doesn’t pry, and I thank him silently for that.

“The report will be on her desk.”

“I’ll look for it.”

After lunch I go to the library. My Auror’s badge opens up the restricted section for me. There’s thick dust everywhere. The house elves are not allowed to clean in here. Only one shelf has been disturbed. The stolen book is back in its place, and has been put there recently. Whoever put it back didn’t trigger the alarms this time. He’s getting better, more skilled, more cunning.

Before I leave I open up the map. I trace the familiar parts of the castle and look for names I recognise, the children of friends. The new additions to the castle aren’t on the map, and students seem to walk through walls and then disappear entirely as they pass through remodelled sections. I spot my sons moving between lessons. Another name catches my eye as I begin to fold the map away. Disappearing off the edge is Ginny Potter.

I open out the map again and rub my finger over the spot where I saw her name, but there is nothing there now.

I have a sick feeling developing in my stomach. By the time I get back to the office, Ron has gone. He’s taken the customer list with him. I sit at my desk for some time, rubbing my scar for the first time in ages. It hasn’t troubled me at all since the battle, but I feel its presence on my head now.

I go to the bridge first. I need courage before I walk into my own home. I need to be grounded, certain. I also need to see the customer list, to confirm or close the yawning pit of suspicion that is opening up in front of me. That means going to Ron’s house, which is a sweet torture all of its own.

I haven’t given her the signal. Somehow she knows I need her. She arrives out of breath, wearing a lighter autumn coat. She stops short of me, her expression haggard and wan. Suddenly her lips are on mine. Her kiss is not the chaste, dry connection of lips we have indulged in up to now. She is impatient and hungry. I ease her away, gently at first, and then a little more forcefully.

“Please, no,” I gasp. She pushes my arms away and begins pulling at my coat buttons. “Remember what we agreed,” I beg. It’s increasingly difficult to turn her down.

“I need you,” she growls.

“I know. I feel the same, but not now, not like this.” This time when I push her away, she stays back. Then in a swirl of her coat she has gone.

I gulp big lungfuls of air. On top of all the confusion I don’t need this right now. I give her ten minutes and then follow. Ron answers the door. He has a hollow look in his eyes. “There’s something I don’t understand,” he says.

“Ginny’s on that list of customers.”

“How did you know?” His jaw is slack in surprise.

“It’s just a sick joke. Let me handle it.” Another lie without a flicker on my conscience. I don’t take the list, I don’t need it. As I turn to leave I see the coat rack in their hall. There’s no sign of the autumn coat. I keep turning, avoiding the desire to stare, or rush over and check. I’ve been incalculably stupid.

At home Ginny is sitting in an armchair by the fire. Her wand is on the table, well out of her reach. I stand at the door to the living room. Where do I start this conversation?

She saves me the trouble. “I forgot about the map. The cloak doesn’t fool the map, does it?”

“No.”

“When they test my wand they’ll know it was me.” Her voice is matter of fact. There is none of the anger that bubbles inside of me, stifling me. I force out a single word.

“Why?”

“Be more specific.” It is a fair challenge. There is so much here I don’t understand. I can’t form a more pointed question. Eventually she offers information to break the silence. “They were all old. Very old, near death. I may only have stolen days from them, months at most.” There’s a glass of wine in front of her. She dips her finger into it and flicks the drops into the fire. The alcohol burns off, and then the drops sizzle against the logs. She does it six times over, once for every life.

“He’s still in here.” She sucks the wine off her finger and then points it at her chest. “The way He’s still inside you.”

“We don’t have to be what He wanted to make us.”

“No, we don’t. But to be free of Him I have to get Him out.” She looks up at me at last. Her eyes are calm, her breathing is steady. “It’s a fantastic idea, don’t you think? Carve out the diseased part of my soul into a Horcrux and destroy it.” She looks away. “Maybe then I can be the woman you need, rather than a fellow prisoner.” She looks at me again, still wholly in control. “I thought I had found a way to fix what’s broken inside me, and now I’m prepared to face the consequences.” She stands up and holds out her hands, wrists together. “Another successful case for the great Auror, finding the killer in his own home.”

“You killed six people.” It’s not a question. It’s barely a statement. I still can’t process what she has done.

“I admit it. My only regret is that I didn’t succeed. I just didn’t have the hate and malice it takes to create a Horcrux.” She puts her hands down at her side. “Just remember that I did it because you wouldn’t face our problems head on to fix them. Brave Harry, ready to die for the world but turns and runs from his dysfunctional marriage.” The turn of her head fails to hide a little sneer of disgust. “I haven’t indulged in the escape you’ve given yourself.”

“You know.”

“You’re an imbecile Harry,” she scoffs. “I knew before you even began. I cracked your little code ages ago. I’ve followed you out most evenings, watching your childish hand holding and baby kissing.”

“My cloak.”

“Our cloak. What’s yours is mine, what’s mine is yours. For better or worse.”

“Was today the first time you impersonated her?” This is safer territory, I can handle my own betrayal better than her brutality.

“Maybe.”

My mind races through every meeting on the bridge. How often was it my own wife in disguise? Which moments of infidelity were partial, of the heart and mind only, not of the body? That must have been so much worse. If I pick apart the reasons, trace her motivations, somewhere under the darkness and beyond the insanity I’ll find myself. I can’t run from this. No one can save me from it. We’re in it together.

“What do we do now?” I ask.

We stand facing each other for an age. The fire dies down to a dull glow. I pick up her wand from the table. There is an acceptance in her eyes. Through all this she has been more courageous than me. Mad and remorseless, but also courageous.

There is a need for accountability and a penance. Someone has to pay for what has happened. For the sake of our children I cannot let it be her. My question is not hers to answer. I have the answer inside me. The murders will go unsolved, but they will stop. We’re already in the prison we have built for ourselves.

I snap the wand across my knee and throw into the remains of the fire. The flames flare up briefly, and then sink back. Her eyes widen in surprise.

“What do we do now?” she asks.

“The only thing we know how to do. Fight the darkness.”

THE END

I initially put forwards the bones of the relationship theory in this story in this post

All the characters, components and paraphernalia above belong to JK Rowling and/or her publishers. The story itself is my original work, it is intended as an homage to the wonderful world Ms Rowling created.

If you are interested in my writing take a look here