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Snakes and Ladders by Sheriff
Chapter 6 : Self Defence
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 3


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It took Greg a handful of seconds after waking up the next morning to remember the argument that had soured the night before, and as the thought crossed his mind he thumped the base of his pillows, hard. ‘Tosser,’ he said to himself, pushing himself up from his bed and casting his eyes around the quiet dormitory. According to the snake-shaped hands of the clock in the corner of the room, it was not yet six o’clock, but the early September sunshine had begun to spill through the lakeside windows, and Greg was in no mood to skulk back to bed.

Grabbing the first shirt he could find in the top of his trunk, and pulling it carelessly over his freckled shoulders, he made his way up to what he was sure would be any empty common room.

‘Hey, Greg.’

‘Ossie?’ The second-year blinked in surprise, looking across the room to the older boy. ‘What are you doing up?’

Oscar grinned. ‘I could ask you the same thing,’

‘Couldn’t sleep,’ Greg told a half-truth.

‘Well, I’m on prefect duty,’ Oscar answered his friend’s earlier question. ‘First night, someone’s meant to be up just in case the first-years need help. Me and Seb have been taking it in turns.’

‘Just first-years?’ Greg spoke without thinking.

‘Why?’ The older boy saw through him in an instant. ‘What’s up?’

Greg sighed. Oscar could tell when something was wrong: he had learnt that last year. What was there to be gained from hiding anything now? ‘Last night,’ the second-year whispered, slumping onto the black leather of the armchair across from the prefect. ‘Isaac was being a tosser,’ he relayed the story of the argument in the dormitory.

‘Do you think Isaac knew what you meant?’ Oscar pushed himself up in his chair as he finished listening to Greg’s story, and the younger boy nodded. ‘So why do you think he said that?’

Greg shrugged. ‘To take the piss?’

‘Maybe,’ Oscar nodded. ‘Do you think he was having a go at you? Do you think he expected you to tell him to fuck off?’

‘Um, well...’ Greg swallowed. ‘Probably not.’ He felt a claw of guilt begin to grasp at his stomach. ‘Do... do you think I over-reacted?’

‘Do you?’

Greg nodded, slowly. ‘It seems so stupid now...’

‘It’s alright, mate,’ Oscar reassured his friend. ‘It’s the first day back, and everyone’s tired after the long journey. It’s easy to screw up,’ he offered, ‘but it’s a shitty thing for Zac to be joking about. Do you want me to talk to him?’

‘No,’ Greg shook his head. ‘It’s my problem... but thanks, anyway,’ he looked up and made eye contact with the prefect for the first time in their conversation. ‘So,’ he changed the subject, ‘how are the first-years?’

‘Asleep, I hope,’ Oscar smiled. ‘I’ve been here since five, and I haven’t seen any of them. Seriously, though, it’s hard to tell,’ he added. ‘I won’t mention the girls,’ he grinned, and Greg rolled his eyes. ‘I sat down, up here, with all of them after we came back from the feast, and told them not to believe any stories they’d heard – and that it was up to us to make the Slytherin into the kind of House we wanted it to be.’

‘Like you said to us,’ Greg remembered.

The prefect sighed. ‘I got about as much out of them, too. I think Morgan’s going to be alright, but we knew him already... and Leif, well, you were sat next to him, weren’t you? He’s scared out his mind. Homesick as well, I’d bet.’

‘That’s why you were talking to him about Iceland, then...’

‘Yeah,’ Oscar nodded, ‘and I know you think I was making it all up, but some of the things Dad showed us really were interesting. I’d just rather go somewhere a bit hotter in the summer.’

‘Yeah, me too.’ Greg smiled. ‘So what have you been doing since five o’clock, then?’

Oscar picked up a book from the table beside his armchair. ‘Reading this,’ he answered. ‘Beyond the Wand – Professor Jenkins’ textbook.’

‘Any good?’

The fifth-year groaned. ‘It feels like it’s been written by Binns,’ he complained. ‘Some of the stuff makes sense, but it’s bloody hard to read without feeling like you’re going to pass out. Check this out,’ he opened the hardback, scouring for an early page before passing it across to the younger boy. ‘Line-of-sight.’

Greg took the book from his friend and began to read aloud. ‘The inherent topological advantages present in the majority of rural landscapes make strategic positioning and careful utilisation of the natural relief an essential factor in determining the outcome of many contests...’ He lowered the book again, and exhaled deeply. ‘Bloody hell! I don’t know how you stayed awake, trying to read that!’

‘Not easy, mate,’ Oscar laughed. ‘Not easy at all. I guess History of Magic lessons have taught me something after all...’ He grinned. ‘Have you looked at your new textbook yet?’

Greg winced. ‘Only a little,’ he answered. ‘I wondered if there was anything in it about Wisht Hounds and the Wild Hunt, and there isn’t, not really...’ he swallowed. ‘There’s a chapter about spectral animals and legends and ghosts, but most of the book’s about, um, real live creatures.’

‘Things that can bite or scratch you, basically?’ Oscar asked, and the second-year nodded. ‘That’s usually Hagrid’s bit,’ he observed. ‘Well, we’ll soon see, I guess...’ The boys’ conversation continued, skipping from one subject to another as they killed the time before breakfast, until the noise of feet against the spiral staircase that led up from the dormitories caught their attention.

Greg stiffened as he noticed Isaac’s figure standing on the top step, with Theo and Lucas just behind him. ‘Morning,’ Greg offered, stiltedly.

‘Hi,’ Isaac replied, equally stiffly, taking a handful of nervous paces towards the other second-year. ‘Look, about last night,’ his words started to tumble out. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like you thought I did...’

‘It doesn’t matter...’

‘It wasn’t funny anyway...’

‘It’s okay, I over-reacted...’

‘I shouldn’t have said it...’

‘Alright, alright!’ Oscar raised his voice, drowning out the two twelve-year-olds’ stumbling apologies. ‘We get it! You’re both screw-ups!’

Theo laughed, and soon the other second-years had joined in. ‘Slytherins stick together, remember?’ He held his hand out, and the other boys copied his gesture. ‘Always.’

‘Good,’ Oscar added, as they let their hands break apart again. ‘No good having you lot arguing when we’re trying to get the new first-years to settle in alright.’ He took a breath. ‘You do know that’s a shitty thing to make jokes about, right, Zac?’

Isaac nodded, forlornly. ‘Yeah,’ he admitted. ‘Like that squib joke last year,’ Isaac shivered at the memory.

‘Okay,’ the prefect acknowledged the younger boy. ‘So, all’s forgiven, then?’

‘Yes,’ Greg answered, forcefully, before changing the subject of their conversation pointedly. ‘It must be nearly breakfast time by now, right? Shall we go and see if it’s ready yet?’

*

Greg’s hopeful forecast proved accurate, and as the boys settled down to their first breakfast of the new year, the topic of their conversation moved towards the term ahead, and – most pressingly, as it was a Saturday – what they would do with the coming weekend. With the sun out, however, the warm grass of the fields and the invitingly cool shore of the Black Lake made any discussion redundant.

Come the end of Sunday evening’s supper, as the Heads of Houses scuttled around the Great Hall, passing out timetables and finalising arrangements for the term ahead, it was almost a shock for the second-years to remember they had lessons the following morning.

‘Double Defence first thing tomorrow,’ Theo read his sheet of parchment, ‘with the Gryffindors again.’

‘I think we’re with the same Houses as last year for everything,’ Lucas scanned his copy of the timetable. ‘Yeah, everything.’

‘It doesn’t look as busy as last year...’ Isaac remarked. ‘Where are the study lessons?’

‘Study lessons?’ Oscar overheard. ‘They’re for first-years only!’ He smiled as Isaac let out a yell of delight. ‘You’re still meant to do the work though, just without all that extra help.’

‘We’ve got extra periods in Defence and Charms, too,’ Greg noted, ‘but at least Wednesday morning looks alright.’

Lucas shook his head. ‘We’ll be catching up then, instead. Look at the homework on Monday and Tuesday... and we’ll have Quidditch practice that night, too, won’t we?’

‘Matt?’ Isaac repeated his friend’s question, only more loudly and with much less subtlety. ‘When’s Quidditch practice this year?’

‘What?’ Matthew looked up. ‘Who says you’re on the team again?’ He grinned, before glancing back at his timetable. ‘Probably Tuesdays, same as last year.’

‘How’s yours look, Morgan?’ Greg asked the first-year, suddenly conscious of the fact that he paid very little attention to the younger boy since the evening of the Sorting.

Morgan shrugged, showing the sheet of parchment to his housemate. ‘I don’t know what any of this means,’ he muttered.

‘Oh,’ Greg ran his eyes over the first-year’s timetable. ‘That looks just like ours did last year... except you’ve got your lessons with different Houses... you’ve got loads more with Ravenclaw than we ever did.’

‘What do these subjects mean?’ Morgan asked, plaintively. ‘I mean, I can guess History, and Potions, but what’s Transfiguration, and Charms?’

‘Transfiguration is changing stuff from one thing to another,’ Greg answered, ‘and Charms is just wand work. You’ll be fine,’ he added, dismissively. ‘It’ll all make sense when you get used to it.’ He glanced upwards, noticing the other second-years getting up from the table and stood to follow them back to the Slytherin dungeons. ‘See you tomorrow,’ he called behind him, leaving Morgan sitting on his own and staring at his timetable for the term ahead.

‘That’s the problem,’ the first-year whispered to himself. ‘I’m not used to it yet.’

*

The previous year, Defence Against the Dark Arts had taken place in a long, narrow classroom at the base of the Gryffindor tower, not far from the ground floor apartment that Greg now knew that Jacob Tregeagle still called home. This year, however, with a change of staffing, their lessons had moved across the castle, to a corridor that was not far from the school kitchens. The four Slytherins arrived to find the classroom door open, and a handful of their friends already waiting inside.

‘Hey, guys,’ Theo greeted four of the Gryffindor boys, before glancing around the spartan classroom. ‘Not much here, is there...?’

‘No,’ Aidan Mills, a boy with a thin face and a bundle of messy brown hair answered. ‘We were just saying, this is his first lesson, he must want to try something funny on us.’

‘Yeah,’ the blond Slytherin nodded. ‘I mean, what is there? There’s like one desk in that corner,’ he gestured to what was obviously the teacher’s own small table, planted in front of a comfortable-looking recliner.

‘A few plants,’ Aidan added.

‘More than a few plants,’ Isaac countered, ‘that looks like a bloody forest over in that corner!’

‘Look at the ground as well,’ Spencer Dawlish, sharp-featured and spiky-haired, remarked. ‘It’s like it’s covered in moss or something,’ he peered closer, trotting over to the end of the room. ‘Feels like it as well.’

Ciaran Abercrombie followed his housemate to inspect the vegetation. ‘Weird,’ he concluded, running his hand through his sandy fringe. ‘Wonder what that’s for? What are we meant to be learning this year?’

As Ciaran spoke, a number of the boys’ heads turned automatically towards Joshua, and although they looked away almost as quickly, the other Gryffindor had easily noticed his friends’ attention.

‘I don’t know,’ he sighed, staring down at his own feet. ‘I did ask Dad, and he said he would have looked at more powerful counter-curses and things like that, but the new guy will be allowed to do it how he wants to...’ he tailed off, and Greg jumped in to change the subject.

‘There’s a few things over there as well, aren’t there?’ He pointed towards a shadow that stuck out behind the open door, and Theo quickly followed his friend’s direction.

‘Looks like it’s just a bunch of scrap metal,’ he poked his head into the shade. ‘Weird,’ he echoed Ciaran’s description of the imitation forest, before letting a shard of the collection drop to the ground with a clatter as a gaggle of Gryffindors, with Isaac’s sister Holly amongst their number, streamed through the doorway into the room.

‘I didn’t know we were doing Harpies yet,’ Isaac deadpanned, before breaking into a smile as his friends laughed. ‘Hey, Greg,’ he chastised the other boy, mockingly, ‘I thought I wasn’t meant to talk about girls like that?’

Greg blushed. ‘It’s fine for them,’ he tried to regain his composure, ‘you can talk about Megan Campbell any way you want.’

The second-years’ chatter was brought to a halt, however, as a door on the far side of the room swung open at the same time as the door onto the corridor snapped shut. ‘Good morning, students,’ Dylan Jenkins, the man who had replaced Joshua’s father as the Defence Against the Dark Arts professor, stood, barely a head taller than the boys, in the second doorway, his bald head reflecting the low candlelight around the room, and adding to the glow that the burnished yellow trim of his robes seemed to emit in the semi-darkness.

‘Way to make an entrance,’ Theo whispered in Greg’s ear. ‘It’s like a Houdini show or something.’

‘Dylan Jenkins,’ the man introduced himself, and for a handful of the second-years, the soft Welsh lilt in his accent stood out immediately. ‘Ex-Auror,’ he continued, ‘as my predecessor was before me.’ The professor’s eyes scanned the gathered children, and a couple of the boys edged closer to Joshua. ‘My condolences,’ Jenkins lowered his voice. ‘This is not the way in which I would have wished to take up this position,’ he bowed his head for a moment, ‘but take it, someone must,’ he sighed. ‘So, who can tell me what you have learned in the last year?’

Spencer lifted a hand, cautiously, and the professor turned to face him.

‘Yes, Mr...’

‘Dawlish,’ the Gryffindor answered. ‘Spencer Dawlish. We learned Stupefy.’

Jenkins nodded, before reaching for his wand so quickly that the boy had barely noticed its movement by the time the teacher spoke. ‘Stupefy!’ A jet of red light shot from his wand, striking Spencer squarely in the chest and knocking him swiftly to the ground. ‘The stunning spell,’ Jenkins repeated, almost in a whisper. ‘Effective, if a little crude,’ he flicked his wand towards the lifeless twelve-year-old, sending out a white beam that roused the boy.

‘What the...’ Spencer stammered, as Joshua helped him to his feet. ‘What happened?’

‘Stupefy, Mr Dawlish,’ the teacher repeated. ‘That was the spell you recalled, yes?’

‘Yes, sir,’ Spencer nodded, hurriedly.

‘Five points to Gryffindor,’ he concluded. ‘Anyone else?’ Jenkins regarded his class, who looked shiftily at one another in turn, wondering if anyone saw the House points as a reward worth suffering for.

‘Sir?’ The long silence broke as Isaac spoke up, drawing the room’s attention. ‘Isaac Davies. We learned Levicorpus.’

Jenkins nodded, simply. ‘Levicorpus!’

‘Protego!’

The flash of light that sparked from the teacher’s wand struck a purple sphere that had grown in front of the Slytherin, and rebounded across the classroom before crashing aimlessly into part of the panelled wall as a wide grin creased Jenkins’ face.

‘Very good, Mr Davies. Very good indeed. Ten points to Slytherin!’ A brief cheer sounded as Theo ruffled his friend’s hair in congratulation, before the boys fell quiet as the teacher spoke once more.

‘Attack, and Defence. The fundamentals of conflict, whether magical or physical, summed up in one exchange.’ He flicked his wand again, conjuring loose tabards around the chests of the waiting children. ‘This will be very simple,’ the professor intoned. ‘The colour of your vest signifies your team. The team of the last man standing wins.’

*

There was a split second of silence before the first wand was drawn, and the stillness of the lesson disintegrated into a free-for-all of wild lights. Several of the students ducked for cover as others crumpled to the floor amidst the scattering of spells. Greg threw himself to the ground, rolling hurriedly behind the stack of scrap metal that he had noticed minutes earlier, peering over a shard of corrugated iron as he scanned the horizon, his wand drawn, for friend or foe.

‘Ciaran! Over here!’ Greg yelled, noticing the yellow fabric stretched around his friend’s waist that showed he was a team mate. ‘Protego!’ He aimed a weak shield in the Gryffindor’s direction, covering Ciaran’s back as the sandy-haired boy skidded in beside him.

‘Thanks,’ Ciaran breathed. ‘Do you know who else is on our team?’

Greg glanced left and right, before his eyes came to rest on a motionless body. ‘One of the Gryffindor girls,’ he answered. ‘Not that she’s gonna be any use to us now.’

Ciaran grimaced, bunkering down beside his friend in the shadow of the scrap metal. ‘What the hell’s going on...?’

‘It’s a war game, isn’t it?’ Greg replied, unsteadily, watching Isaac roll away from a stray curse, before springing to his feet and launching his own offensive spells in to the mix. ‘Aidan said he’d want to try something funny on us...’

Ciaran stifled a laugh. ‘It won’t be funny if someone gets hurt,’ he deadpanned.

‘No one will get hurt,’ Greg answered without thinking about it. ‘No one knows any spells strong enough to do that.... now keep quiet and hope no one sees us.’ He pressed himself tight to the ground, subtly manoeuvring some of the shards of sheet metal into a makeshift barricade, and peering into a gap to watch the open combat that still raged throughout Professor Jenkins’ classroom as the teacher looked impassively on.

A well-aimed leg-locker curse from Spencer Dawlish took care of Chloe Marshall, the last girl left standing, but the Gryffindor had to duck smartly to avoid a riposte from Aidan, Chloe’s erstwhile team mate.

‘You’ll need to do better than that, mate!’ Dawlish taunted, spinning around to face his housemate and forcing him to dodge in turn. The spiky-haired boy’s attack was halted, however, as a jet of white light emerged from the treetops in the corner of the classroom, striking him on the shoulder and leaving Aidan with the simple task of casting a body-bind curse that would take Dawlish out of the reckoning for the second time that lesson.

‘Looks like we’re not the only ones hiding,’ Greg whispered to Ciaran, ‘someone must be up there.’

‘They’ve given themselves away now, though,’ the Gryffindor observed, accurately, as Lucas and Isaac halted their own clumsy duel to stare at the tree-tops.

‘Truce,’ Lucas lowered his wand. ‘We can’t win if there’s someone in the trees taking us out.’

Isaac nodded. ‘I bet they’re on Aidan’s side, too.’ He spun on his heel, turning sharply to the Gryffindor. ‘Expelliarmus!’

‘Immobulus!’ Lucas followed the other boy’s attack with a spell of his own, paralysing Aidan before looking back to the branches of the forest ahead of them. ‘Who do you think’s up there?’

‘Who’s left?’ Isaac answered with a question of his own. ‘Greg, Ciaran...’

‘Theo?’

‘No,’ the brown-haired boy shook his head. ‘I got him when he was fighting Holly.’

‘Right,’ Glyn nodded. ‘All the girls are out, and so are Aidan and Spencer.’

‘It could be Josh,’ Isaac suggested. ‘How are we going to get him down?’ He bit his lip in thought, before quickly flashing a shield charm around himself as another jet of light dropped from the leaves.

Lucas’ brow furrowed. ‘Can we cut the tree down? Would Diffindo work?’

‘Can you do Diffindo?’ Isaac shrugged. ‘What about Incendio?’

‘What, burn it down?’ Lucas swallowed. ‘Is that safe?’

Isaac grinned. ‘That depends if he wants to stay in it or not.’

‘No, not that!’ The redhead snapped back. ‘I mean the classroom! The walls are wood, aren’t they? What about the floorboards?’

‘That’s the professor’s problem, isn’t it?’ Isaac concluded, coldly. ‘He said Last Man Standing... INCENDIO!’ He jabbed his wand towards the tree roots, which begun to smoulder and crackle before the beginnings of small flames took hold, successfully evicting the boy in the branches from his hiding place.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Joshua shinned hurriedly down the back of the tree trunk, rushing to snuff out the fire with the heel of his left foot.

‘Getting you down out of that bloody tree,’ Isaac was unperturbed, ‘and it’s worked, hasn’t it?’

‘You could have fucking killed me!’ Joshua’s temper flared, and a jet of uncontrolled red light speared out of his wand towards the Slytherin. The spell beat Isaac’s feeble attempt at a shield charm before scoring a thick gash on his right thigh, which began to leak with blood even before the brown-haired boy screamed as he hit the ground.

‘Zac!’ Lucas turned, wide-eyed with horror, as Isaac fell. ‘Josh!’ He stammered. ‘What was that?’

The colour in Joshua’s face had drained to an ashen white and, though he tried to open his mouth to answer Lucas’ question, no words came out.

‘Alright!’ Professor Jenkins’ voice boomed out over the panicked silence. ‘Cease fire!’ He hurried across the room, dropping to his knees alongside the stricken Slytherin. ‘Vulnera Sanentur,’ he intoned. ‘Vulnera Sanentur...’

‘Sir...’ Lucas whispered, nervously, as Greg and Ciaran emerged from their hiding place. ‘What happened?’

‘A curse,’ Jenkins answered, abruptly, ‘but I suppose you knew that. As to which curse, however, I am little wiser than you. I have my theories, but without an incantation...’

‘Wasn’t it just accidental magic, sir?’ Greg suggested. ‘He didn’t mean it, did he?’

‘I didn’t!’ Joshua latched onto Greg’s offering desperately. ‘Isaac, you know I didn’t!’

Isaac groaned, wincing as the wound began to heal under the professor’s care.

‘I swear I didn’t!’ Joshua repeated, almost hyperventilating as his breath escaped in fits and starts. ‘I don’t even know what that was!’

‘I believe you, Josh,’ Greg reassured his friend. ‘He’s going to be alright, isn’t he, sir?’ He squatted beside Isaac, as his housemate made a shaky attempt to get to his feet.

Jenkins nodded, holding an arm out as insurance should Isaac lose his balance. ‘Yes, I expect so,’ the professor answered. ‘Almost all scars will heal if you treat them quickly enough.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Joshua held his hand out. ‘Really.’

Isaac nodded, unsteadily. ‘It’s fine,’ he mumbled. ‘I should have blocked it, and besides, I did just try and burn down the tree you were in... I guess I kind of deserved it.’

The professor breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the boys shake hands. ‘I think this ought to be game over, boys, wouldn’t you agree?’

‘Agreed,’ the four children echoed, glancing around the scattered debris and motionless bodies that littered the room.

‘Do you know Rennervate?’ Jenkins asked.

The boys looked to one another, before Greg spoke up for the four of them. ‘We know the spell, but we’ve never tried it,’ he explained. ‘We know Finite Incantatem.’

Jenkins smiled, grimly. ‘That will have to do.’

*

It took the four children and their teacher less than five minutes to revive their classmates, before Professor Jenkins called them into the corner of the room by the forest, perching himself on the roots of the tree that Isaac had attacked as the students gathered on the floorboards around him.

‘Now then,’ the teacher began, ‘I know what I wanted you to learn today,’ he paused, ‘but the way things have turned out, there’s going to be rather more than just that one thing.’ He looked around the sober faces of the children in front of him. ‘What do you think you’ve learned?’

Greg raised a tentative hand. ‘Never let your guard down,’ he offered, ‘always be prepared?’

Jenkins nodded. ‘I am sure you all know that accidental magic is most often seen when someone is angry, or frightened – and what is more frightening than the midst of battle?’ A flicker of agreement murmured around the room before the teacher continued. ‘Anybody else?’

‘Healing spells,’ Lucas suggested. ‘I know you said most scars will heal if you get them quick enough, but if you didn’t know that spell then Zac might still be bleeding...’ he tailed off.

‘One of the most important spells I have ever learned,’ the professor agreed with the twelve-year-old’s idea. ‘How many healing spells do you know?’

‘Me?’ Lucas stuttered, surprised. ‘Um... Tergeo, Episkey...’

Jenkins raised an eyebrow. ‘Can you use them?’

Lucas winced. ‘No,’ he whispered.

‘Worth learning this year then, I dare say,’ the professor concluded, and none of the second-years argued. ‘Joshua,’ he turned to the Gryffindor boy. ‘What about you? Why were you in the treetops?’

‘It was the best place to be,’ Joshua answered, slowly. ‘I could see them, but they couldn’t see me.’

Professor Jenkins managed a thin smile. ‘Now, this was the point that I really wanted to make,’ he concurred. ‘The land around you can be your greatest ally, or your fiercest enemy... depending on how you use it.’
 


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