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Snakes and Ladders by Sheriff
Chapter 3 : The Sting
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 3


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Greg’s week in Joshua’s company at Hogwarts Castle passed with a mixture of exploration and discovery as the boys looked into the history of both the castle and the Room of Requirement.

As the Scottish summer followed warm sunshine with gusting rain, the twelve-year-olds’ experiments turned the room into an all-weather Quidditch pitch, an exact copy of Greg’s bedroom in Chudleigh, when Joshua had asked him what his house looked like, and an exhaustive library, designed to cater for the boys’ every question about the inner workings of the school. However, Greg’s original games room remained their favourite creation, and most nights were spent in the shadow of the pool table, where, by the end of the week, Joshua was able to match, and even occasionally beat, his friend.

By the time July became August, Greg thought that the other boy’s demeanour had brightened considerably, although neither of them had returned to the subject of the final few weeks of term.

‘Are we going to tell anyone about the Room?’ The blond boy asked one afternoon, as the two children sat on a bulwark of tree roots that extended into the Black Lake, splashing their feet into the cool water.

Joshua fell still, biting his lip as he looked across to the other boy. ‘I don’t know,’ he muttered. ‘I haven’t really thought about it.’

‘You discovered it,’ Greg recalled. ‘It should be your decision. I mean, I know we aren’t just going to tell everyone about it, but should we tell the others?’

‘Um,’ Joshua hesitated. ‘I don’t want everyone to know about it,’ he confessed, ‘and if we told a couple of people, how would we know that they’d keep it a secret? And how would we pick who we told?’ The boy sighed, picking up a pebble and half-heartedly tossing it into the lake. ‘I suppose we should keep it a secret for now,’ he suggested. ‘Then, I guess, it’s somewhere to go if we ever need to...’

‘Alright,’ Greg nodded, not wanting to hear his friend expand on his last sentence. ‘What are you doing for the rest of the summer?’’

Joshua winced. ‘I’m not sure,’ he admitted, considering his answer. ‘Spencer’s coming in a couple of weeks, but...’ He shook his head. ‘Room of Requirement, I suppose.’ Joshua tried to smile, but Greg could see that it was far from genuine.

‘I’m going to stay at Theo’s for a bit,’ Greg began, ‘in London.’

‘Cool,’ Joshua answered back, his voice echoing emptily against the trees that surrounded the boys.

‘You should come too,’ the Slytherin suggested, trying to lighten his friend’s mood.

Joshua shrugged. ‘Dunno,’ he muttered, hesitating. ‘Theo doesn’t like me, though, does he?’

‘What?’ Greg blinked. ‘What makes you think that? Don’t you remember that night? Theo was the one who stopped you... he stood in front of the Wild Hunt for you!’

‘But I thought...’ Joshua hung his head, recalling the moment when Theo had rugby-tackled him to the floor to keep him from running headlong into the clutches of the Huntsmen. ‘I don’t know what I thought. He never spoke to me...’

‘You never spoke to him,’ Greg echoed. ‘You never spoke to anyone,’ he offered, softly. ‘We didn’t want to say anything.’

Joshua nodded, forlornly. ‘Do, do you think he’d let me stay? Would there be room?’

‘There’d be room,’ Greg answered quickly. ‘Me and Lukie stayed there at Christmas, when we,’ he swallowed, remembering the first piece of work the three Slytherins had completed together. ‘When we did the project on the Wild Hunt.’

Joshua smiled, slowly and wryly, and reached up to brush his fringe away from his eyes. ‘It would be better than staying here on my own,’ he murmured.

‘I’ll ask him straightaway when I get back,’ Greg promised, ‘I’ll ring him, then I’ll let you know... but... how... You haven’t got phones at Hogwarts. I haven’t got an owl...’

‘Miss Pomfrey is taking you back again, isn’t she?’ Joshua checked. ‘Could you ask her to hang on a minute? I’m sure she will,’ he tried to convince himself. ‘I mean, what else is she going to do?’

Greg shrugged. ‘Wait and see.’

‘Yeah,’ Joshua couldn’t argue. ‘Wait and see.’

Happily for the boys, the school nurse had not needed much persuading to stay for long enough to hear the answer to Greg’s question – and Theo had been just as quick to agree to his friend’s idea.

‘It’s okay,’ Greg dropped his phone, darting into the front room to relay the message. ‘Josh can stay at Theo’s,’ he hurried. ‘I’m going on Friday,’ he added, ‘could you bring Josh then?’

Poppy Pomfrey nodded, getting to her feet and bidding farewell to Elaine Bennett. ‘What time will he be expected?’

‘Um,’ Greg stuttered, ‘in the afternoon, I think.’

‘Your train is at ten o’clock,’ his mother supplied, helpfully. ‘You’ll be there mid-afternoon.’

‘Three o’clock,’ the nurse suggested. ‘Mr Forrest’s address will be on our files. Thank you, Mrs Bennett,’ she made for the doorway.

‘Thank you,’ Greg echoed, following the witch to the front of his house and watching as she vanished from his front garden, the tell-tale crack of Apparition echoing across the quiet road. The twelve-year-old reached for the brass handle of the front door, easing it closed before retracing his steps into his living room. ‘Mum,’ he remembered the name he had read on the memorial obelisk at Hogwarts. ‘Thank you, too. Thank you for everything.’ He approached his mother, wrapping his arms around her waist.

‘Gregory...’ she returned his gesture, feeling her son bury his head against her. ‘I...’

‘Josh,’ the boy murmured. ‘His Mum died when he was little, and his Dad... his Dad’s really ill, they don’t know what’s going to happen. He’s just on his own...’ He bit his lip, realising that tears were beginning to well at the backs of his eyes, and suddenly feeling very much like a little boy once again. ‘I never want that to happen to you.’

Elaine pulled her son closer, holding him tightly against her chest. ‘Greg,’ she whispered, ‘I hope it never does, either, but should it ever happen then I hope your friends look after you just like this.’

‘Me too,’ Greg sniffed, wiping his eyes. ‘Me too.’



‘Why didn’t you tell us you’d signed us up for a rugby course?’ Greg stared at the sets of protective padding that Theo had laid out across his bed on the first morning of the boys’ stay.

‘I wanted it to be a surprise,’ Theo smiled, before his grin spread wider as he watched the other two children exchange stunned looks.

‘I’ve hardly ever played before,’ Greg protested, ‘and I bet Josh hasn’t, either!’ The Gryffindor shook his head, agreeing with his friend’s pronouncement.

‘Oh come on, it’ll be fun,’ Theo brushed off the other boys’ concern. ‘I mean, you both play Quidditch, don’t you? What’s going to be worse than what the beaters can do to you?’

Greg shook his head, picking up one of the sets of padding and turning it over in his hands. ‘Then why do you need all this, then?’

‘I don’t,’ Theo smiled again. ‘I just thought that you might.’

Greg shrugged. ‘Fair enough,’ he nodded. ‘Might as well.’ He pulled the dark layer of fabric over his chest, before slipping into a thin cotton shirt. ‘Do they know we’re no good?’

Theo laughed. ‘I’ve done this course every summer for years,’ he recalled. ‘Some of the kids who do it can hardly even run...’ He shook his head. Come on, Josh,’ he persisted, tossing the remaining set of pads to the brown-haired boy. ‘You’ll be fine!’

‘I guess...’ Joshua muttered.

‘I know,’ Theo insisted. ‘Just don’t punch anyone in the nose,’ he casually referenced the fateful evening when the Wild Hunt had returned to Hogwarts.

Joshua blushed. ‘I won’t,’ he whispered.

‘I know you won’t,’ this time Greg spoke up. ‘Theo’s only joking.’ Greg shot his best friend a meaningful glare, quickly shaking his head as he did so. ‘We may as well try it... besides, it’s no good sitting round here all day, is it?’

Joshua nodded, slowly. ‘Okay,’ he managed, before tentatively pulling the jersey over his head, ‘but you can explain it if anything goes wrong.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Theo grinned. ‘It won’t.’ He sprung up from his bed, ferreting into the corner of the room to dig out a rugby ball, which he spun firmly across towards Greg’s hands. ‘See? Easy!’

Greg rolled his eyes. ‘Easy for you, mate.’

‘Still easy!’ Theo stuck his tongue out. ‘Now come on, we’ll be late, we’ve got to get the Tube across there...’

A brief subway journey across the London suburbs left the three boys with an equally short walk to the stretch of fields where the summer school would take place.

‘Old Deer Park,’ Greg read the sign at the edge of the pitches. ‘Home of London Welsh.’ He blinked, turning back to his best friend before repeating his last word. ‘Welsh?’

‘Yeah,’ Theo nodded, nonchalantly. ‘They started off as a club for Welsh people who had moved to London,’ he explained. ‘Look at the badge,’ he pointed to the club logo, a dragon embroidered on his red shirt. ‘It’s not all like that any more,’ the boy continued, ‘but there are still lots of Welsh players and coaches.’

Greg’s thoughts carried him back to the stories and Welsh history that Glyndwr Jones, a Hufflepuff boy in their year and a close friend, had discovered as part of the children’s efforts to understand the threat of the Wild Hunt. ‘Then did...’ he stuttered, ‘did you know anything about all of the stories? About Owain Glyndwr?’

Theo shook his head. ‘The only stories they told us were about rugby,’ he recalled. ‘The Five Nations champions of the 1970s, Gareth Edwards’ try for the Barbarians...’

Greg cut his friend off mid-sentence, shaking his head. ‘I have no idea what you are on about,’ he laughed, taking in the thoroughly baffled look on Joshua’s face.

‘I’ve got it on DVD,’ Theo shrugged. ‘I’ll show you later, when we get home. Then you’ll understand.’

Greg looked back towards Joshua, who still looked as if he were listening in to a foreign language, and the two boys shared a grin.

‘I have no idea what he’s talking about either...’ Joshua confided, drawing closer to his friend as they watched Theo bound ahead to greet the club coaches.

‘Me neither,’ Greg admitted, ‘but I know he absolutely loves rugby, way more than even Quidditch, so we should give it a go, right?’

‘I suppose,’ Joshua muttered, following the muggle-borns’ footsteps as he approached the coaches in time to overhear Theo introducing him.

‘These are my friends from school,’ the blond boy explained. ‘Greg and Josh.’

The heavy-set man that Theo was talking to nodded, a friendly smile crossing his face. ‘Rugby players, too?’ Greg immediately identified the soft Welsh lilt in the man’s accent as his friend stammered an answer.

‘Um... not really,’ Theo offered. ‘We don’t play much rugby at school,’ he began an explanation, casting a nervous sideways glance towards Greg.

‘More football,’ Greg supplied. He wasn’t lying, he reasoned, even if he wasn’t exactly telling the truth. ‘Theo always tells us rugby’s better, though.’ This much, at least, was definitely true.

‘Well, you’ll find out for yourself today then, boy,’ the coach grinned. ‘Enjoy.’

‘Football?’ Joshua echoed, as they drifted away from the gates into the fields themselves.

Greg rolled his eyes. ‘What else was I supposed to say?’

Any further chance for the boys to discuss their cover story, however, disappeared when a loud, low voice, which belonged to the coach who had greeted them moments earlier, rumbled across the grounds of Old Deer Park.

‘Come on boys, gather in, gather in...’

*

A short while later, the three wizards found themselves jogging through a simple passing drill, spinning the rugby ball across the narrow distance between themselves and their partner, who clapped their hands and – hopefully – caught the ball. Joshua was working with Theo, who had suggested that the Gryffindor would learn more quickly from him than Greg, who hadn’t argued. This left the other Slytherin to pair up with a dark-haired boy who introduced himself as Morgan Williams, and the children remained in these small groups for much of the morning, before joining together to begin match practice as lunchtime approached.

‘What’s a flanker?’ Greg asked, blankly, as he heard the coach tell him and Joshua their playing positions.

‘On the back of the scrum,’ Theo answered, smiling. ‘I’m scrum-half, I’ll show you what you need to do. Try and watch everyone else to start with... you’ll figure it out.’

Greg nodded slowly, deciding against arguing with his friend’s confident prediction. ‘Where are you playing, Morgan?’

‘Prop...’ Morgan answered, shaking his head. ‘I’ve never played there before,’ he protested, ‘and look at me – do I look like a prop?’

Greg shrugged. ‘I don’t bloody know! What’s a prop meant to look like?’

Theo laughed, whilst Morgan tried and failed to stifle a giggle. ‘Props are at the front of the scrum, they’re usually big and fat!’

Morgan couldn’t have been much further from his description. A few months younger than the two Slytherins, he stood a similar height, but his build was much closer to Joshua’s scrawny frame.

‘Well, at least you know what you’re doing,’ Greg reasoned. ‘At least you know the rules.’

This time Morgan laughed properly as the coach’s shrill whistle ordered the boys into their positions. ‘Just remember to pass it backwards,’ he reminded the newcomers.

‘I know that one!’ Greg stuck his tongue out, before following Theo’s directions into position as the match kicked off. However, in spite of all of his friend’s efforts, and the coaches’ encouragements, the boys seemed to spend more time on the ground than in the game.

‘Do you really like this more than football?’ Greg pushed himself to his feet for what felt like the tenth time in as many minutes. ‘Or the other sport?’

Theo shook his head. ‘This game’s shit,’ he picked up the loose ball, spinning it from hand to hand. ‘The scrum’s not supposed to keep falling down like that; we’re meant to get the ball out and run with it...’

‘You’ve got to bind!’ Greg overheard one of the coaches’ exasperated voices. ‘Grab on to his shirt, and keep hold!’

‘I’m trying!’ A few yards away, Morgan protested loudly. ‘He keeps moving, he won’t let me!’

‘Well, I’ll watch for that,’ the coach answered, taking a couple of steps backwards. ‘Theo,’ he called, beckoning the blond boy. ‘Come on, let’s try again. Crouch, Touch, Pause...’

‘OUCH!’ The boy playing opposite Morgan jerked his left arm upwards, a horrified look spreading across his face. ‘What the hell?’ He rubbed his forearm angrily as a pink, speckled rash exploded across his skin. ‘What the hell are you doing?’

‘Hey, hey!’ The coach blew his whistle loudly, holding a strong arm across Morgan’s incensed opponent. ‘Stop that. Now!’ He glared at the boy as the structure of the scrum broke apart. ‘What’s going on?’

The player held his left arm out. ‘Look at that,’ he fumed, ‘that’s where he touched me. He made that happen!’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ the coach dismissed the boy’s claim. ‘That’s impossible...’

‘It happened!’ The boy snapped back. ‘He touched me, and there was a flash of white light, and then this happened,’ he gestured to the angry rash that speckled the length of his forearm. ‘He did this!’

Morgan’s cheeks reddened. ‘You should have let me bind properly!’ He spluttered, his eyes watering, before turning his back on the other players and marching furiously away from their gathering.

‘Well,’ the coach coughed, drawing the boys’ attention back from Morgan’s despondent figure, slumped on a wide tree stump at the edge of a woodland. ‘We need to have a look at that rash...’ he mumbled. ‘I suppose this is a good time for a lunch break.’

‘Did you see it?’ Greg asked Joshua anxiously as the group of boys went their separate ways. ‘What happened?’

‘Pretty much what he said,’ the Gryffindor answered. ‘Morgan tried to get a grip, like the coach told him to, but the other kid wouldn’t let him, so Morgan grabbed his arm. Then there was a flash of white light, and, well, you saw what happened next, right?’

‘The flash of light?’ Greg repeated. ‘Do you think that... maybe...’ He shook his head. ‘No, that’s stupid.’

‘What?’ Joshua pushed his friend.

‘Well,’ Greg winced. ‘I wondered, if, maybe, you thought it could have been...’

‘A Stinging Hex?’ Joshua’s tone of voice didn’t change. ‘Fodio. That’s what it looked like to me.’

The three boys turned almost as one, staring across the rugby fields towards Morgan, who remained sitting, almost motionless, his head hidden in his hands.

‘Accidental magic...?’ Theo ventured, making sure that he understood what the other boys were suggesting, and his friends nodded.

‘How old did he say he was again, Greg?’ Joshua checked.

‘Eleven,’ the other boy answered instantly. ‘First-year next year if he’s a... if we’re right.’

‘Letters haven’t come yet, either,’ Joshua observed. ‘He won’t know.’

Theo shuddered. ‘If that’s what it was, that must have scared the shit out of him... Even if it wasn’t...’

‘Let’s go talk to him,’ Greg suggested, before feeling the need to justify himself as the other boys fell silent. ‘He was alright this morning, wasn’t he?’ Greg swallowed. ‘Anyway, look at him now! No one deserves to be left like that!’ He turned on his heel, setting a determined pace towards Morgan’s tree stump and leaving his friends scrambling to catch up.

‘Hey, Morgan,’ Greg called out softly as he neared the dark-haired boy, who looked up sharply.

‘What?’ His eyes, blotchy and red-rimmed, narrowed as Greg approached. ‘Leave me alone!’

‘Morgan...’ Greg implored, trying to reason with the other boy.

‘I said leave me alone!’ the eleven-year-old stood up, oblivious to the tears streaking his cheeks. ‘I didn’t mean to do it!’

‘So you did do it?’ Theo asked, tactlessly.

‘Shut up!’ Morgan jumped to his feet, lashing out wildly at the older boys, only for Greg to catch him by the wrist.

‘Morgan,’ Greg repeated the boy’s name once again, holding firmly onto his arm. ‘I know you didn’t mean it,’ he asserted.

‘What?’ The dark-haired boy jolted. ‘Really...?’ His arm fell limp inside Greg’s grip.

‘Really,’ Greg loosened his grasp, allowing the eleven-year-old to drop back onto the tree stump before sitting down alongside him. ‘Has anything like that happened to you before?’ Greg ventured.

Morgan shook his head, sadly. ‘I don’t know how it happened,’ he stammered. ‘He wouldn’t let me bind properly, he kept moving his arm, so I just grabbed hold of it instead. Then there was this flash of light...’ He tailed off. ‘I don’t know what happened,’ he repeated. ‘It was like... magic...’

Greg glanced, nervously, back at the other wizards as a torrent of thoughts began to pulse through his head. How sure was he that Morgan was a fellow underage wizard? Was he allowed to talk about Hogwarts to someone who hadn’t yet received his letter? What about the International Statute of Secrecy? ‘Maybe it was,’ he settled for a deliberately vague response.

Morgan swallowed, looking uncertainly across at the other boy. ‘What do you mean?’ He pressed. ‘Magic’s not real...’

‘That’s what I thought,’ Greg countered, ‘until I discovered it was.’

Morgan fell silent. ‘What?’ He blinked. ‘What are you on about? Magic’s not real...’

‘Then explain what just happened,’ Joshua interrupted. ‘Whether you meant it or not, look what you did to his arm. It was a Stinging Hex, I’m sure of it.’

Morgan’s mouth fell open. ‘Stinging... what...’ He gasped for breath, his eyes watering once again. ‘What are you talking about? Stop taking the piss!’

‘I’m not taking the piss,’ Greg answered back, as calmly as he could muster, remembering his own neighbour’s reassuring presence when he had discovered the existence of the magical world the previous summer. ‘It’s all true. We all go to a boarding school in Scotland where we learn all about it, and how to control it... but sometimes people do magic they don’t understand by accident when they’re frightened, or angry.’

‘R... Really?’ Morgan shivered.

‘Really,’ Greg assured him. ‘Why would we make this up?’

‘To take the piss,’ Morgan answered, sadly.

‘After all that?’ Theo cut in. ‘After what that tosser was doing at the scrum, you think we’d take the piss out of you?’ He shook his head. ‘What kind of person would want to do that?’

Morgan shrank back on the tree stump. ‘I know enough of them.’

‘So do I,’ Joshua flinched, ‘I used to be one...’

Greg looked up, catching his friend’s eye and offering him a reassuring smile. ‘You aren’t any more.’

‘What happens to me now?’ Morgan asked, quietly. ‘If it’s all true? You said you all go to the boarding school – what about me?’

‘We haven’t had our letters about the second year yet,’ Greg explained. ‘You’ll get one too,’ he tried to make his voice sound convincing. ‘It’ll tell you everything you need to know... and if you still have any questions, then come and ask us, or if we’re not all still around...’

‘Ask me,’ Theo patted the London Welsh badge on his rugby shirt. ‘Team mates,’ he nodded.

‘All alright over there?’ A coach’s voice called over to the four children. ‘Morgan?’

‘Yes,’ the dark-haired boy stood up, ‘fine.’

‘Your mother is coming to pick you up,’ the man explained. ‘We think it’s probably a good idea if you have the rest of the day off.’

‘He hasn’t done anything wrong!’ Theo stood in front of the eleven-year-old.

The man grimaced. ‘That’s not how everyone sees it, I’m afraid...’

‘Will he be allowed back tomorrow?’ Theo was unrepentant as the coach hesitated. ‘If he’s not allowed back, we’re not coming back either.’

Greg and Joshua glanced at one another – they had never heard Theo make a threat like that as long as they had known him, and the Slytherin knew full well just how highly his best friend regarded his rugby coaches.

‘Well, I can’t say for sure... We’ll see...’ The man stuttered. ‘Morgan, can you come with me, please?’

‘See you tomorrow, mate,’ Theo called out, unnecessarily loudly, as Morgan walked away compliantly, only turning briefly to acknowledge the blond boy’s shout of farewell.

‘Since when did Slytherins do that?’ Joshua shook his head, marvelling as Theo fixed his stare on the back of the coach’s head.

‘Don’t know,’ Theo shrugged, ‘but I guess after you’ve stood in front of a thousand-year-old ghost huntsman who wants to rip you apart, then everything else doesn’t seem so bad.’


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