Chapter 4 : Act IV
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Sirius stared in confusion at the three boys in front of him, unable to make sense of what just happened. They couldn’t have been that much older than him, but their obvious mastery of some magic, enough to save him from certain torture, had Sirius awestruck.
The middle one, who had introduced himself as James, still had a wide, crooked grin on his face as he looked at Sirius expectantly. The longer Sirius stared at him in silence, though, the more his grin started slipping into a frown.
“The least you could do is say thank you,” James finally said, running a hand through hair as dark as the night surrounding them, tousled locks sticking out in every direction.
“How did you do that?” he asked instead, unable to mask the curiosity in his tone.
James twirled the long oak wand he held between his fingers as he rocked back on his feet. He stared at Sirius with a thoughtful expression on his face before shrugging. “It’s just magic.”
“You can’t be that much older than me, and I haven’t been allowed to learn the basics yet.”
“When it comes down to living or dying, some sodding magic law isn’t going to stop me from doing what I need to.”
“James,” hissed the boy to his left, giving him a look that Sirius could not decipher.
Sirius took this opportunity to get a look at the other boys. The moonlight did not grant him enough light to see their full features, especially since the other two boys remained half-hidden in the shadows, but he could tell that they were both shorter than James and had lighter-coloured hair. One looked thin and fragile, while the other was stouter.
“What’s the matter, Peter? Afraid he’ll run and tell his mummy that we used magic when we weren’t of age?”
So the stout one was named Peter, Sirius noted curiously. Peter twitched his nose in agitation, but he refused to be baited by James. Instead, he remained quiet and pursed his lips, glaring at Sirius. Sirius huffed quietly but bit back the snide comment that was on the tip of his tongue.
“What are we going to do with him?” the thin one asked.
James looked between Sirius and the two boys flanking him and frowned. “Typical, Remus, wanting to pick up every stray. We can’t feed another mouth.”
The boy named Remus shuffled his feet anxiously and Sirius bit back a gasp as he stepped further into the light, revealing a face marred by long, jagged scars. Remus’s eyes flickered to the young prince, still sitting uncomfortably on the cold, hard ground.
“We can’t just leave him here.”
“I don’t want to owe you for anything. Just let me go,” Sirius interjected, feeling uneasy under James’s watchful eye.
“You already owe us for saving your life,” James said, his face twisted in an ugly sneer. His gaze was calculating and Sirius squirmed when he suddenly smirked. “I’ll take those fine-looking socks you have on your feet as payment for our services. They look nice and warm, and my poor feet are getting a little cold now that the seasons are changing.”
James wiggled his toes and Sirius could see his big toe poking out of a hole in the cracked, worn leather of the shoes he wore. Sirius frowned and looked down at his thick socks, green and black threads interwoven in a delicate pattern. They were an old pair Regulus had given him a few Christmases past and while they held some sentimental value, the sudden chill that ripped through him as the wind picked up reminded him that he wore no shoes and was dressed in his sleeping attire.
James, having spent the last few years fending for himself, and then later on Peter and Remus as well, learned how to read other people fairly quickly; a necessity, if he was to survive the forest and all the dangers it contained. He could sense Sirius’s hesitation and while he could really use the socks, he proffered another means of payment. “What’s so important about you?”
Sirius lifted his gaze from his socks and shook his head in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
It took James a great deal of restraint to not roll his eyes. “Those men wanted you dead. Why?”
Again, Sirius hesitated and James didn’t think he did much without putting a lot of thought into it. “Well, come on then, we don’t have all night.”
“I don’t know!” Sirius exclaimed. While these boys did save his life, revealing he was the prince and next in line for the throne did not seem like the safest move at that moment. He frowned suddenly, wondering then if he even still held the title now that he was banished from his own home upon threat of death.
“Well, you’ve got some fancy schmancy socks on your feet,” James drawled, and Sirius got the distinct impression that the other two boys didn’t speak much and just let James do all the talking. He stepped forward and fingered the cloth of Sirius’s pajamas before laughing breathlessly. “That feels like real silk. You’re filthy rich, aren’t you?”
“We could always take him and hold him for ransom,” Peter finally spoke up gleefully. “Think of the money he’d be worth.” His eyes widened as his thoughts drifted towards piles of gold and finally being able to afford a warm bed to sleep in.
“Please,” Sirius pleaded with them, slightly ashamed as his voice cracked. He thought of Scarface and Crooked-Teeth, the cruel, angry words they had spat at him, and the threat that hung over his head. “They’ll kill me if I go back. It would be best if I stayed away, at least for a while. Could you… could you at least untie me and I’ll be on my way? You can have my socks, just please don’t hurt me.” He held his wrists out and grimaced when the tight ropes rubbed at his already raw skin.
James knelt down quickly and yanked the socks off Sirius’s feet, sighing happily when he felt how thick and warm the material was. “I don’t think I remember the spell to cut rope, do you, Peter?” James grinned, once he had rejoined his companions.
“Can’t say I do.” Peter threw Sirius a nasty smirk before turning his sight towards James and eyeing him enviously when he slipped his shoes off to hastily pull the socks onto his feet.
Sirius cursed quietly under his breath, realizing quickly that he had been deceived. His eyes started to water and he scrunched them closed to stave off the tears, wincing when he felt a sharp pain from the scrape on his cheek.
James tossed a cheeky grin back in his direction once his feet were safely and warmly ensconced in both Sirius’s socks and his own shoes. “Thanks for the socks, mate. Best be off now, it is way past our bedtime!”
James turned on his heel with Peter following quickly behind him. Remus paused for a moment, biting his lip with an uncertain expression on his face. He glanced at the swiftly disappearing backs of his friends and muttered, “Damn it all to hell,” before he whipped out his own stolen wand. “Diffindo.”
The ropes tying Sirius’s hands and feet together were sliced, falling in coils to the forest floor. Sirius sighed in relief, rubbing the red, raw skin. He looked up as Remus started jogging to catch up to the other two boys. “Thank you,” he called out, but Remus had vanished easily, slipping silently into the shadows of the forest like a ghost, and Sirius wasn’t sure if he had even heard him.
Word spread quickly through the castle that Prince Sirius had run away. Maids muttered to one another while directing brooms and dusters with flicks of their wands and the portraits jumped from frame to frame, gossiping like old women.
Dumbledore hid himself away in his tower office, a fairly large oval room the king had bestowed upon his favorite advisor for times when the man sought solitude from the castle’s constant hum of activity. The walls were painted a deep red with gold trim and wooden shelves lined much of the room, filled with books of various sizes and knick-knacks he had accumulated over his years of travel. It was home. Now, he sat at his desk as his eyes feasted upon the words written on various pieces of parchment and books scattered across the wooden desktop.
The king’s death did not sit well with Dumbledore. He knew the monarch struggled to rule his kingdom and household while drowning under the weight of his grief, but it had been nearly a decade since the loss of his wife and his death seemed too sudden to be anything but suspicious. While Moody had determined the king had died of natural causes, Dumbledore knew the man better than anyone else in the castle and as far as he was concerned, Orion had been perfectly healthy right up until his death. With the prince disappearing and Cygnus poised to take the throne until either prince was of age, Dumbledore was as desperate as ever to determine the cause of Orion’s death.
Currently, he was researching different spells that may have been used. Moody claimed that there was no sign of spell work present in the king’s chambers aside from those used by the Healer. Dumbledore, however, was determined to see if there was a spell in existence that could possibly evade the Detection magic used by the Head Guard. He flipped through pages of both ancient and more recent books as he skimmed the text, frantically seeking answers. So far he had no luck, but Dumbledore’s loyalties to Orion and his sons laid deep and the uneasiness he felt around Cygnus pushed him towards more sleepless nights.
Sirius shivered violently as the bitter wind nipped at his fragile, bare skin. The silk he wore may have been expensive but it did little to protect him from the weather; it was nothing more than something pretty to admire. Commoners assumed that the life of the royal family was all glitter and glamour, and Sirius would be lying if he said it wasn’t. But he thought it all rather dull –the balls, the fine china, and delicate linens – there was nothing of substance to any of it. He had grand ideas for when he would be king, if he was to ever be king, but now he wasn’t sure if he’d make it until morning. He was curled up as tightly as he could between the large exposed roots of a tree, the low-hanging branches offering some shelter. His toes were numb and his feet stung if he moved them at all, little pebbles that littered the ground digging into his soft skin. He cursed James and his own inability to bargain with the boy.
Sirius did not sleep at all that night, and he sighed in relief when the sky began to lighten to a dull gray. He whimpered when he tried to uncurl himself, muscles protesting sharply at the movement. His breath came out in short gasps as he lurched to his feet, tears slipping from beneath his eyelids before he could stop them as he leaned heavily against the tree for support. The pain in his feet was almost unbearable and Sirius sucked in a shuddering breath before attempting to stumble forward. Unable to support his weight, he fell heavily to his knees.
“I’m surprised you made it through the night. Why didn’t you ask to come along with us?” a quiet voice suddenly asked, breaking through the early morning silence.
Sirius whipped his head around, groaning at the pain from the kink in his neck, and he almost cried in relief when he saw Remus leaning against a tree, holding a goblet in his hands.
He licked his lips, feeling how dry and cracked they were and desperately wished for some water. “My pride,” he croaked, suddenly ashamed that he could have died because he did not wish to come across as a charity case; he was a prince, not a vagabond, after all.
“Here,” Remus said, kneeling beside Sirius and pressing the goblet into his hands. “Drink up.”
Sirius’s hands trembled as he brought the cup to his lips. The water was cold and while Sirius was grateful that Remus decided to come back for him, he half-wished the water was warmer, as he was already chilled to the bone. He lifted his eyes to see Remus watching him carefully, and while he gulped down the water, he got a closer look at the boy. His face was disfigured by four lines of raised, puckered skin, darker than his pale complexion, stretching from his left eye to his right jaw. Remus ducked his head, his light-coloured skin tainted by a slight blush.
“What happened to you?”
“Don’t.” Remus’s voice took on a hard edge to it and Sirius nodded quickly to appease the boy. “Come on, James said I could take you home.”
“I don’t think I can walk,” Sirius shamefully admitted.
Remus sighed but didn’t say anything to embarrass him further. Instead, he slipped out of his coat and helped Sirius into it. Then he threw Sirius’s arm across his shoulder, grabbing his hand with his own, and wrapped his other arm around Sirius’s waist, pulling the younger boy to his feet.
“Does this work?”
They took a few tentative steps and though Sirius tended to drag his feet a bit, he agreed that it would work. The walk back towards the boys’ cabin took longer than usual, but the more Sirius walked, the less painful his feet began to feel.
By the time he could see smoke curling and drifting up above the canopy of trees, it was mid-morning and Remus and Sirius were now walking at a brisk pace to reach the warmth of the house. Sirius stood silently in front of the dilapidated cabin, with its wooden planks slightly rotted and one of the front shutters dangling from its hinges. It wasn’t a palace, by any means, but after the night he had had, Sirius almost raced for the front door, his body already warmed by the thought of a fire and a blanket to keep the chill away.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” James declared, and Sirius flushed, both from embarrassment and the sudden heat from the fire the boys seemed to have conjured with magic. Peter was wrapped up in a blanket in a corner, refusing to look at Sirius.
The cabin itself was barely furnished. There were piles of blankets in three of the corners, which Sirius assumed were the boys’ beds, and a small fireplace. Three thick, long, charred sticks leaned against the wall, and a pot hung from a crudely-made hook in the fireplace. On a shelf rested a few chipped, mismatched bowls and some brand-new goblets that had Sirius wondering if they were stolen. It seemed likely, given the state of the cabin and the clothes the boys wore.
James had his feet up on a rickety old table, leaning back in an equally unstable chair, and he wiggled his toes, clad in Sirius’s warm, black socks. “Thanks again for the socks. They kept my feet toasty warm last night. It was a bit cold out, no?” He smiled, then, a predatory smile that made Sirius shiver.
Remus shoved James hard as he passed by on his way to the fire and the wooden chair splintered as James toppled to the floor. “Shove off, James. Give the poor boy a break. He could’ve lost his toes last night.”
James simply laughed and with the flick of his wrist, the splinters came back together in a haphazard manner, making the chair even more unsteady. Then he bowed to Sirius with an over-exaggerated flourish. “Welcome to our humble abode. We are but mere marauders, so we have nothing except our paltry belongings. So long as you can provide for your own food, you can stay.”
He was almost frightened to ask. “By what means?”
Remus hid a smirk behind the lip of the cup he was drinking from and James smiled, slightly condescendingly. Sirius briefly wondered if he knew how to look any other way. “Is that your way of asking if we steal our food?”
“Perhaps? Listen to his proper talk. You really are a privileged little snot, aren’t you? Perhaps Peter had the right idea with the ransom.”
Now that he was warmed by the fire and the adrenaline from last night had worn off, Sirius began contemplating the seriousness of Crooked-Teeth’s threats. He could always risk his life to return, call the men’s bluff and re-take his place as the future king. But then he remembered the pain of the Cruciatus Curse and the fear that made his heart gallop faster than his favourite racing horse when Crooked-Teeth tried to murder him using the Killing Curse. Was it worth the risk? Kings should be strong and brave and here he was, cowering in some abandoned cabin after being robbed of his socks by some thieving boys not much older than he was. What kind of king did that make him?
“Please don’t,” he finally said fearfully.
James fixed him with a hard stare. “Are you sure, rich boy? We don’t have any of the comforts you are used to. Our only belongings are those we can manage to steal. These are hard times for everyone and villagers don’t hand out money to poor, orphaned boys as freely as they used to. You could go home with your fancy clothes and your extravagant life.”
“I don’t want to die.” The sleeve of Remus’s coat was long and covered most of his hand; he fingered the cuff anxiously, pleading with his eyes.
James finally sighed in resignation but Peter began to cry out in protest. “What does it matter if he dies? Imagine the money we could get for him. Once they have him back, he’s not our responsibility.”
“Have a heart, Peter!” Remus exclaimed angrily. “James and I took you in and nursed you back to health when you had nowhere else to go.”
Peter frowned and pulled the blanket tighter around his chubby body. “It’s been just the three of us for years. We don’t need anyone else. This could be our biggest payout yet, but you and your bleeding heart want to save everyone. One more person means less food and clothing for the rest of us.”
“You could benefit from a little less food,” James shot back, and Sirius almost felt bad when he heard Peter suck in a sharp breath and pull the blanket up over his head.
“James,” Remus murmured, shooting the blanket lump that was Peter a sympathetic look. “That was a bit harsh.”
“Too fucking bad,” James growled, and Sirius flinched at the crude word coming from the mouth of such a young boy. In that moment, he wanted to know what each of their stories were, what drove them to such squalor in order to survive. “He’s being a selfish prat, questioning my decision. Who does he think he is? Maybe we could give this kid some of his blankets too.”
Remus rolled his eyes but motioned Sirius closer to the fire. “Hey, what’s your name?”
He briefly contemplating making up a name, but in the end decided that trying to remember to respond to said false name was more work than it was worth. “Sirius.”
“All right, Sirius. I’m Remus, if you didn’t know that already. You know James, and that’s Peter,” he said, waving his hand in the direction of the blanket lump. “You can have some of my blankets until we can scavenge some more scraps.”
Remus began yanking a few blankets from his pile and shoved them into Sirius’s arms. “You can go sleep in that corner. You look like you haven’t slept all night, so take a nap. James and I are going to head out into the forest and see if our traps caught any food. You can have some of our meat until we teach you how to make your own snares and traps. Any vegetables or bread you want to eat with your meat is usually stolen out of nearby villagers’ garbage.” He smiled, and he wasn’t patronizing like James when Sirius wrinkled his nose in disgust. “You’ll get used to it. Though you might get sick the first few times.”
“You’re quite welcome to go back to your posh life, rich boy, where you may or may not be murdered,” James said, his ill-fitting jacket dwarfing his lanky frame. “Obviously we could care less, except for maybe Remus. He’d probably cry. He has a soft spot for strays, if you haven’t noticed.”
“I’m compassionate, James,” Remus sniffed. “There’s a difference.”
“Bleeding heart.” James repeated Peter’s previous words, but these were said with affection and not malice. James ruffled Remus’s hair, only to be elbowed in the gut. Sirius smiled in amusement as James was bent over at the waist, gasping for air. “Watch it! Your elbow is pointy.”
“You deserved it.” Remus was digging through another pile beside his blankets and said a quiet ‘Aha!’ when he pulled out another jacket. “You keep that one, Sirius, and go to sleep. We’ll be back before nightfall.”
Sirius shuffled over to his designated corner, but shot an uncomfortable glance towards Peter. James snorted, pulling a hunting knife off the shelf by the fire and slipping it behind his belt. “He’s harmless.”
“Until he decides he’d rather have me dead,” Sirius muttered as the door closed with a loud thud behind the two boys. He knelt on the floor to build his cocoon of warmth, groaning when he remembered falling earlier and scraping up his knees. Casting another quick look at Peter and not seeing any movement, Sirius crawled into the blankets, and after shoving one of them under his head for a pillow, he fell into a dreamless sleep.
With the rest of the servants retired for the evening, Kreacher and Dumbledore walked along one of the lower level corridors where there was little chance for them to be overheard. The two men had been advisors to the king for many years together and both mourned the loss of not only a leader, but of a great friend.
“How is the young prince faring with all of this turmoil?” Dumbledore questioned as they paused. He glanced quickly at Kreacher out of the corner of his eye and then turned his attention to the wall closest to him, examining the extensive Black family tree; the names sewn into green velvet with silver thread.
“As well as any young man, who has just lost both his father and brother can. I was expecting a much larger tantrum this morning and I was afraid he would need another Calming Draught. It is only a matter of time, though. I do not believe Regulus is prepared for all that is expected of him.”
“No,” Dumbledore agreed. “I fault Cygnus’s teaching methods for excluding Regulus from learning about the duties of the heir. He was too confident that Sirius would be the next ruler. We all were. Now we have a prince who knows nothing about ruling a kingdom and a man on the throne who will use him as a puppet.”
Dumbledore’s eyes focused on Cygnus’s name, tracing his lineage back to Phineas Nigellus, who was also a second-born son that took the crown after his own brother, Sirius, failed to live past his eighth year. Phineas was a hard ruler, Dumbledore recalled from old texts and diaries, and he followed generations before him that tried to purify the pureblood lineage, a goal that had yet to be successful.
Kreacher frowned, his eyes darting back and forth to gauge the surrounding portraits’ interest in their conversation. None of them seemed particularly enthralled, but one would rather be safe than sorry.
“You truly believe that?” he asked quietly.
Dumbledore sighed heavily, and Kreacher could tell that the last few days weighed heavily on the older man’s mind. There were bags under his eyes and a weariness that had not been there days before. “It is a situation that I have thought probable. It is impossible to tell at this moment what Cygnus’s plans for this kingdom are, but I have a feeling that we will find out soon enough. We can discuss this matter in greater detail in more private quarters, Matthias.”
Kreacher bowed his head slightly. “Of course. How are the funeral plans coming along?” he asked, swiftly changing the subject as the two men continued to stroll along the corridor.
“Most of the arrangements have been made and everything should be completed on schedule for the funeral to be held two days from now. Cygnus’s coronation will follow three days after that.”
“How wonderful,” Kreacher replied dryly.
“Matthias,” Dumbledore warned, though he silently agreed with the sentiment.
The two men came to an intersection. “I should leave you to your evening,” Kreacher said, motioning towards the hall on the left that would take him to the back stairs and up into the prince’s personal corridor. “I would like to check on Regulus before I retire.”
“Of course. Please pass along my well wishes to the young prince. I hope Alastor finds Sirius soon.”
“As we all do,” Kreacher responded sadly before offering Dumbledore a brief wave farewell.
Dumbledore continued straight until he reached another staircase that spiralled up into the towers. He took the stairs quickly, opening the door on his left once he reached the first landing, stepping into his own office. He slipped a vial out of his pocket and took a swig of the vibrant blue liquid he asked Madam Pomfrey to brew for him; he would need it if he was to get any research done tonight, his drowsy body already fighting against the effects of the draught. He collapsed in his chair, waiting a few minutes until he began to feel rejuvenated, and then drew the pile of parchments that were scattered across his desk closer to him, determined still to find an answer.
Sirius was startled awake by a loud bang and raucous laughter. He poked his head out of his blankets and found James and Remus stumbling into the cabin, James with a string of hares tossed over his shoulder and Remus carrying a pile of clothes in his arms. He shivered, noting that the fire had died down since he fell asleep, and, casting a glance at the motionless lump, determined that Peter hadn’t been awake at all either to tend to the flames.
“Can’t even keep a fire going, rich boy?” James teased, but it was light-hearted and Sirius wondered what had happened out in the forest to make James ease up on him a bit. He shrugged in response but said nothing else when he finally extracted himself from his makeshift bed. He shuffled over to the table where Remus was untying the hares and watched James pull out his wand, uttering a spell that shot an orb of fire into the smouldering tinder.
“What are you going to do with those?”
Remus and James shared a look and then turned to him with identical grins. “You ever skin a hare, Sirius?” Remus asked, reaching behind him to pull out his hunting knife. Sirius noticed James had his out as well and was slicing through the skin along the back of the animal.
Sirius’s stomach turned unpleasantly. He was familiar with the meat of the creature, Ms Winky having often cooked it in a hearty stew, but he never saw any part of the animal except what had already been cooked. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“If you expect to eat our food, you need to help with the cooking. Remus and I will do it this time, but you need to watch carefully because we’ll expect you to help.”
Sirius thought he might get sick a couple of times while he watched Remus and James prepare the hares for cooking, but he managed to make it through their demonstration with nothing more than a newfound admiration for Ms Winky and those who helped her in the kitchen. The two boys sliced the meat into small chunks, easy enough to eat in a stew as well as skewered on the sticks Sirius had noticed sitting by the fire. Remus rummaged through a basket he had not seen earlier, and pulled out some herbs, carrots and onions. He shoved them in Sirius’s direction and nodded to his knife. “Cut those for the stew.”
Sirius stared at him helplessly before he took the knife and tried to remember what Ms Winky’s vegetables looked like before attempting to do the same. Remus was sorting through the clothes he had brought in and he glanced over Sirius’s shoulder a few times, nodding his approval. James had brought in some old metal pails from outside, filled with water that he then poured into the cooking pot.
“There’s a stream straight back behind the cabin,” James said in response to Sirius’s questioning glance. “You about done with those?”
Sirius looked down and shrugged. “I suppose so.”
With a swish of James’s wand, the water began to boil slightly, so Sirius helped him carry the herbs and vegetables over to the pot and dumped them in, followed by half of the meat.
“We’ll let it cook overnight,” Remus said, pulling on a knitted sweater over the shirt he was wearing and then laying a small pile beside Sirius’s bed. “Here are some clothes for you to wear so you aren’t left wearing your fancy nightclothes.”
“Thanks,” Sirius replied, grateful now that they were willing to come back for him.
“Oi, Peter, get your lazy arse up and help us cook the rest of this meat for tonight’s dinner,” James cried, aiming a well-placed kick to Peter’s round bottom.
With an indignant squeak, Peter emerged from his bed with a face red from the warmth of his bed. The three boys skewered the meat on their sticks and took turns cooking over the fire, laughing and joking as though they didn’t have a care in the world. Sirius had sat back down on his bed and watched them wistfully, wishing he was home laughing with Regulus. He was envious of their seemingly easy friendship and wondered how he would fit into the dynamic that took years for them to create.
Remus turned to him then, a gentle smile on his face, and beckoned him over to join them. Their inside jokes were lost on him but he tried to slip into the conversation as if he had always belonged there, which only drove the boys to make fun of his posh and out-of-place accent. Sirius ducked his head in embarrassment, but Peter nudged him with his shoulder and tilted his skewer of meat in Sirius’s direction as a peace offering. Sirius smiled his thanks and knew then that making fun of him was simply their way of letting him know they were starting to accept him.
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