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Lion, Eagle, Badger, Snake by Sheriff
Chapter 1: Chudleigh
A single picture sat on the table beside Gregory Bennett’s bed. The eleven-year-old boy lay down on top of his duvet cover, gazing at the image of his own face staring back.
All around the boy’s untidy blond hair, his old classmates stood, grinning excitedly towards the camera, whilst Greg’s photograph simply stared glumly back out of the frame.
‘They never got it,’ he sighed, rolling away from the picture to stare up towards the whitewashed ceiling. ‘The quarter-finals of the cup, and they never got it.’ Greg shut his eyes, remembering the football match where the photograph had been taken, when Chudleigh Primary School had been heavily beaten by a team from the nearby city of Exeter. The team photo had been taken after the full-time whistle, and Greg still could not understand how so many of his team mates were grinning after losing so badly.
He reached out, knocking the picture over so that it fell face-down onto the bedside table, and dragged himself across to the bedroom window. The first rays of watery morning sunshine had begun to break through a thin layer of cloud that had settled over the distant Haldon hills, lending a warm glow to the streets of the quiet Devon village.
Greg turned around, grabbing a thin, white football shirt from the end of his bedsheets and pulling it over his tangled hair. ‘I’m going out in the garden, mum,’ he called as he hurried down the staircase of the low-slung detached house, ‘playing football.’
‘Just like every other morning,’ Elaine Bennett answered from another upstairs room as her only son turned the key in the front door.
The grass that covered the square front garden of the Bennetts’ house at 11, Manaton Close, Chudleigh, had been charred to a yellow-brown thatch by a combination of the August sunshine and the constant wear from Greg’s trainers. A battered football, some of its leather panels hanging by a thread and others missing completely, settled underneath a wooden goal frame, waiting for the boy’s attention.
The eleven-year-old rolled the ball away from the netting with the sole of his foot, before lifting it up onto his shoelaces and beginning a series of keep-ups. ‘One, two, three, chest, knee, four, five, six...’ He repeated the sequence to himself, controlling the ball as best he could whilst taking the occasional shot into the netting that hung still on the windless morning.
It was a regular routine for Greg, come sunshine or showers, and one that his neighbours had come to expect as they passed the Bennetts’ house. The next person who would reach the front gates, however, knew the family better than many other passers-by would have done.
Matthew Sawyer was almost three years older than Greg, but even so the two boys had been close friends since either of them could remember. Their mothers had gone to school together, worked together, been bridesmaids at one another’s weddings, and now lived a few hundred yards away from each other. Matthew wasn’t technically Greg’s cousin, and his mother had no blood reason to be called Auntie Jen, but neither of the two children had ever questioned it.
Whilst the boys didn’t see as much of each other as they did when they were younger – Matthew had left the village primary school to join a boarding school in Scotland three summers ago – Greg was still delighted to see the fourteen-year-old push open the steel gates of number eleven, and make his way up the new brick paving on driveway. ‘Alright, Greg?’
‘Yep, fine,’ the eleven-year-old replied with a smile. ‘What about you?’ He looked up from the football, which – as usual – sat beside his feet. ‘Did you have a good holiday?’
‘Yeah,’ A smile crossed Matthew’s tanned face as the older boy lifted a copy of the local newspaper, the Express and Echo, out of a reflective yellow bag that hung over his shoulder. ‘Thanks. We just got back yesterday.’
‘Cool,’ Greg answered. ‘I went to a football camp with City last week. I really want to get into the A team at the Grammar School.’
‘Well done for getting in.’ Matthew nodded. ‘Go on, then,’ he grinned. ‘Show us how good you are.’
Greg swivelled on his left foot, turning and striking the battered football in one movement, only to see it crash into the wooden crossbar of the goal and loop, frustratingly, over the low wall that ran around the front of the garden.
‘Are you sure you want to stick to football?’ Matthew laughed. ‘I reckon you might be better off in the rugby team...’ The older boy shoved the newspaper through the Bennetts’ letterbox.
Greg rolled his eyes, ‘Shut up, Matt!’
‘Sorry, mate,’ Matthew reached out, ruffling his friend’s already messy hair. ‘I’ll go and get it for you, but only cause my round goes that way!’ The fourteen-year-old retraced his steps along the driveway, pushing the fringe of his long, straight brown hair out of his eyes as he lobbed the ball back into the garden. For once, however, football couldn’t have been further from his friend’s mind. ‘Greg?’ Matthew asked. ‘Greg, are you alright, mate?’
Matthew’s confusion didn’t last for more than a couple of seconds, as a long, low hooting sound alerted him to the distraction that now consumed the concentration of the younger boy. An owl, sandy brown in its plumage and flecked with streaks of a darker colour, almost mahogany, was making its way unerringly towards number eleven, carrying what looked like a sheet of parchment in its talons. Greg’s mouth fell open as he stared, eyes wide and fixed on the bird’s unchanging wingbeat.
‘Oh, my...’ Matthew shook his head, reaching out to keep his balance as he stumbled backwards, scarcely able to believe what his eyes were telling him was happening. Greg’s eyes remained glued to their unexpected visitor as the bird delivered its responsibility through the same letterbox that had taken the local paper seconds before.
‘Matt...’ The blond-haired boy stuttered. ‘Did you see... did that bird... just...?’
‘Yeah, I saw it, mate.’ The easy humour of moments ago had drifted away from Matthew’s voice. ‘Come on, let’s go and look at what it says. I’ll come with you.’ Greg remained standing, static, in the centre of the Bennetts’ lawn as Matthew planted his left hand on the top of the imitation dry-stone wall. He pivoted on his outstretched hand, launching himself over the fuchsias and back onto the dry, boot-scarred grass.
‘Come on, mate.’ Matthew noticed a chill on his friend’s skin as he gave the younger boy a gentle shove in the back.
‘Um... yeah.’ Greg blinked, shaking himself from his trance and allowing Matthew to guide him toward oak-panelled front door of his house. The older boy pushed the door open and glanced down at the envelope lying on top of the newspaper, its rich red seal and tea-stain beige contrasting with the black and white of the newspaper’s sports pages. Matthew reached down and picked up the parchment with his right hand, keeping his left around the eleven-year-old’s shoulders. ‘Uncle Joe? Auntie Elaine?’
After a moment, a woman’s voice called from upstairs. ‘Matthew?’
Matthew hesitated, ‘Yeah...’ he paused. ‘You need to come down here,’ he swallowed. ‘It’s about Greg.’
‘Greg? Where’s Greg?’ Elaine Bennett heard the words that Matthew hadn’t said as well as those which he had spoken. ‘What’s happened to Greg?’ the voice from upstairs heightened in pitch, echoing over the sound of anguished footsteps.
Matthew swore under his breath before the Elaine’s voiced called out again, louder than ever. ‘Is my boy alright? Where is he?’
‘He’s... he’s fine, he’s here. It’s just...’
Greg’s mother appeared at the top of the staircase and looked down at the two boys standing by the doorway, her only son’s face pale and his eyes withdrawn. The rash of freckles over the bridge of Greg’s nose stood out more than ever as a stream of sweat trickled from the untidy fringe of his blond hair, and down onto his white football shirt. ‘Gregory!’
Elaine Bennett rushed down the staircase towards the young boy as she swept him up in her arms, dwarfing the eleven-year-old in all imaginable dimensions. Matthew took a step backward, watching as Greg closed his eyes and pressed his face into his mother’s chest. Matthew noticed a stray tear running down his friend’s face, before stepping back into the corner of the hallway, trying to shrink away from the mother and son.
It was the best part of two minutes before Mrs Bennett remembered the presence of Matthew. ‘Did you see...?’
Matthew cut off Greg’s mother’s question mid-sentence. ‘Yeah, yes I did. I think you both probably ought to sit down.’
Mrs Bennett nodded gently and, taking her son into her arms, turned her back on Matthew and walked through into the front room of 11, Manaton Close. Matthew followed, clutching the owl-borne parchment that had played havoc with his morning’s paper round, and gave the question burning at the forefront of his mind a final second’s worth of thought. Bracing himself, he pushed himself away from the hallway wall and quietly followed the Bennetts into the front room.
Matthew sat down on an ageing brown-and-beige armchair which lay opposite a matching three-seat sofa where his friend perched, shielded by his mother. ‘Matthew?’ Mrs Bennett’s voice echoed inside the boy’s mind and he shook himself out of a daydream and back into the summer of 2005. ‘You said that you saw...’
‘Here.’ Matthew placed the envelope in front of Greg on the small glass-topped table that separated the two seats. ‘This was delivered by owl a moment ago.’
‘Owl?!’ His mother’s response came in an angry snap. ‘Matthew Sawyer, are you trying to tell me that my son is scared out of his mind because a bloody owl has been delivering the mail?’
Matthew took a deep breath, steadying himself for a brief second and, forcing his voice to remain calm, spoke as politely as he could muster. ‘Please read through the letter’.
Awkward silence descended upon the house for the third time in as many minutes, as the three of them eyed the envelope. It was eventually the younger boy who moved forward, hands shaking slightly and damp still lining his eyes, to pick up the parchment. Matthew smiled, albeit weakly, as his friend eased his finger across the seal at the back of the envelope.
Slowly sliding the contents of the envelope – several sheets of a parchment identical in colour and texture from their container – out from its inside, Greg began to read. His voice barely registered above the ticking of an old carriage clock that sat on the fireplace.
Dear Mr Bennett,
We are delighted to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts’ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry…
He broke off, his breathing quickened and his face pale again. ‘Hog-what?’
‘Hogwarts’ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.’ Matthew was quietly impressed with the calmness of his voice as he heard it leave his lips. ‘You know I told you I go to a boarding school in Scotland,’ he swallowed. ‘Well, I didn’t tell you the whole truth. I don’t go to Merchiston Castle – I go to Hogwarts. It’s a boarding school for – erm – people who are capable of performing magic.’
Matthew reached into the pocket of his slightly worn blue jeans. ‘This’, he said, aware of the Bennetts’ gazes focusing on the object he’d removed from his trousers, ‘is my wand… eight inches long, willow with powdered dragon claw. I can’t show you any spellwork or anything because I’m underage…’ Matthew ended his sentence abruptly and held the wand out to his friend.
‘For real?’ Greg extended his left hand to feel the wand, and looked apprehensively into the older boy’s eyes for the first time in their conversation.
Matthew took the time to look back at Greg and answered simply. ‘Yes.’
‘You’re not just taking the – you know?’
Matthew managed half a smile. ‘No, mate. I swear to it – every word I’ve said is as true as it can be. You’ve been my friend since we were both little. I wouldn’t do this to you for the hell of it, would I?’
The younger boy smiled back for the first time since he had been playing football minutes ago and continued to read from the letter.
‘Can I get you a drink or something?’ Matthew stood up, edging towards the doorway between the front room and the hallway.
‘I’d love a glass of water.’ Mrs Bennett understood Matthew’s intentions instantly. ‘You know where the kitchen is, don’t you?’
‘Where can I get all of this stuff?’ As Matthew returned with three glasses of water, he was bombarded with a volley of questions as Greg’s voice filled out into its normal confident tone. How do I get onto Platform 9¾? How can I send them an owl? What…’
‘Slow down, slow down, mate!’ Matthew laughed. ‘Sounds like you’ve decided you fancy going then!’
‘Yeah… thank you.’
‘Well…’ Greg’s voice faltered a little, ‘if you hadn’t been, you know, then I dunno what would’ve happened… I guess, I guess…’ Greg tailed off as he looked towards the other boy in the hope that Matthew understood the unconvincing attempt at a sentence that he’d just come up with.
‘Don’t worry about anything, Greg – they’d have made sure you got there in the end. It took them sixteen letters and then Professor Flitwick had to apparate into my bedroom before I was convinced someone wasn’t taking the mickey…’ Matthew tailed off at his friend’s blank look.
‘Er… forget I said it. You wanna walk before you start running’. He smiled. ‘Tell you what, come round my place this afternoon and I’ll show you all my first-year kit, see if you can use any of it. Then I guess we can go to Diagon Alley tomorrow if we need much else.’
‘Later!’ Matthew grinned. ‘I’ll ring you… but right now I’ve still got fifty Express & Echoes in my delivery bag at the end of your driveway. Just don’t tell anyone any of this; there are plenty of good reasons that we keep to ourselves. See you later.’
‘See you, mate.’ Greg, now with colour firmly returned to his face, closed his front door, picked up the letter once again and hurtled up the staircase. Covering three steps at a time, he bounded through his bedroom door and collapsed onto his bed, reading the parchment through once, twice, three more times. ‘Wow…’
If Matthew had been asked to list the most unlikely things he could think of to interrupt a morning’s paper round, “Hogwarts’ Business” would certainly have ranked highly, probably just behind crashing his bike into an overturned UFO. One teenage wizard in a tiny Devonian village was one thing – two began to make him wonder. Maybe it wasn’t just coincidence that one of Britain and Ireland’s twelve professional Quidditch teams had chosen this unlikely spot as its base all those years ago.
It was with quaffles, bludgers and snitches on his mind that he completed his scheduled deliveries and returned to his empty house, only a handful of streets away from Manaton Close – where, he thought, Greg was in all likelihood still beside himself with anticipation as to what the next year held in store. After absentmindedly making his way through a decidedly non-magical pair of cheese sandwiches, he picked up the telephone to call his friend. It was answered in less than a ring.
‘Are you sitting on the phone or something?!’ The older boy laughed at his friend’s unabashed enthusiasm, contrasting it to the shaken picture he’d presented a little more than an hour ago.
Greg made a noise that sounded like a cross between a cough and a groan, which Matthew took to be one of agreement. ‘Erm… I…’
‘So, basically, that’s a yes, right? I guess you don’t need any more persuading to come round and have a look at my stuff then, do you?’
‘No, next Tuesday. When do you think?’
‘See you in a minute.’
Matthew heard the sound of the receiver being slammed back onto its hook and rolled his eyes before saying, aloud but to himself, ‘Kids… I swear I wasn’t this mad…’
He had barely the time to replace his end of the phone line before the impatient hammering came upon the front door. Looking upon his friend, whose hair once again lay in a matted and sweat-filled jumble on top of an eager face which bore every hallmark of having sprinted the three hundred metres between the two boys’ houses, he couldn’t suppress a grin. ‘What took you?’
The younger boy looked back at him with mock frustration. ‘Don’t try and be funny, Matt. Your jokes have never been any good.’
‘All the more reason to keep practising, then?’
‘See what I mean? Anyway, where’s your stuff? I’ve never seen it here before, I’d never…’ Greg’s sentences merged into one as his excitement once again got the better of the more refined functions of his brain.
‘Slow down!’ Matt reached out and pulled his friend over the threshold of his home, pushing the door closed behind him. ‘You’d never guess, but I don’t generally leave it hanging around for anyone and everyone to see… what’s someone going to think if they see Intermediate Defensive Magic: Counter-curses and jinxes lying on the coffee table? Just cause you’re excited doesn’t mean you get to turn your brain off…’
‘Okay, okay, I get you, so where d’you keep it? How much stuff have you got? How do you get it here? Would any of it be any good for a first-year?’ Greg paused, seemingly out of questions.
Matthew was tempted to interrupt again midway through the stream, but decided to let his friend’s rambling run its natural course before taking back control of the conversation. ‘In the attic. Yes, the attic you thought wasn’t safe to go in. Now, you’re going to get a drink and calm yourself down before you explode or something!’
Greg looked back at him, about to argue again. ‘But…’
‘No buts! If you’re this excited just thinking about my stuff, I don’t want to see what happens when you see my broomstick...’ He smiled, dropping a kindly arm round his friend’s shoulders and leading him through into the kitchen before adding, as an afterthought, ‘I never thought I’d sound so much like my dad…’