Charlie Riley let his head sink into the grass of the rugby pitch as the shrill blast of the referee’s whistle signalled that Ascot School had conceded another try.
‘Come on, Riley,’ another boy’s voice goaded him as the opposition’s fly-half nervelessly drop-kicked the ball between the posts to further extend his team’s lead. ‘He’s got past you three times now!’
‘It wasn’t all my fault!’ Charlie retorted, getting to his feet as the referee blew for the end of the first half. ‘What did you expect me to do?’
‘Tackle him?’ The other boy rolled his eyes.
Charlie shook his head in disbelief. ‘It was two against one! If I’d have tackled him, he’d have just passed to their winger!’
‘Sure,’ Charlie’s teammate sneered, ‘how come we beat them last year, then? Nothing’s changed, but now they keep scoring past you…’
‘Last year I had some help!’ Charlie snapped. ‘Last year Nathan was playing outside!’
‘Nathan?’ The other boy repeated. ‘You mean that nutter who tried to kill you with the cricket stump? What could he do?’
Charlie shoved his teammate away. ‘He could tackle a hell of a lot better than you can, you moron!’
‘Come on, come on, calm down,’ the voice of the boys’ coach interrupted their argument as he called them in to a circle. ‘That won’t help anybody. Riley,’ he called the frustrated boy by his surname, ‘take your anger out on St. Matthew’s, not on your own team mates.’
‘He started it!’ Charlie defended himself, his face reddening beneath his short, brown fringe.
The coach shook his head. ‘How old are you, nine? Get on with the game! Everybody needs to up their tackle count…’
Charlie nodded, pretending to listen to the man’s words, but all the while fixing his glare on the boy across the huddle. Saul Denness, the captain of the rugby team, who had been the one to start the argument just moments before. How many tackles had he made, Charlie wondered, and how many times had he just waved somebody towards Charlie’s part of the field? Last year, with Nathan alongside him, Charlie had felt like he could cope with almost anything, but today was different. Today, Charlie realised, he felt alone on a rugby pitch for the first time.
Ascot’s huddle broke up before the eleven-year-old had any time to dwell on this uncomfortable revelation, and the boy was snapped back into the present by a shove in the back from Saul.
‘You heard what he said, Riley,’ the captain taunted him. ‘Start tackling.’
‘Piss off, Denness,’ Charlie refused to look at the other boy. ‘Why don’t you try it for once?’ He turned his back, running off to find his starting position, and locked eyes with the opposition player who had caused his team such trouble. ‘I’ll get you this time,’ Charlie told himself, ‘I’ll show him.’
It didn’t take Charlie long to get another opportunity to make the tackle, and with Saul’s criticism ringing in his ears, he made sure that he made contact with his opponent.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ The captain dragged Charlie to his feet a moment later, watching the opposition’s winger add to his team’s lead.
‘What did it look like?’ Charlie shouted, shoving the other boy away from him. ‘You told me to tackle him, so I tackled him.’
Saul groaned. ‘They still scored!’
‘I told you they’d still fucking score!’ Charlie shouted. ‘It’s cause no one else fucking tackles! I can’t do it all by myself!’
‘Shut up, Riley, you can’t tackle either, you…’ The captain never had the chance to finish his sentence, as Charlie’s temper got the better of him. The brown-haired boy swung a fist at his teammate, landing his punch on the other boy’s nose with a crack that carried to the touchlines of the rugby pitch.
‘RILEY!’ The voice of the Ascot coach echoed out, but the eleven-year-old was never going to listen to the man. Throwing his jersey onto the turf, Charlie stormed off the field, kicking the door of the changing rooms open before lashing out, taking out his anger on the metal boot racks beneath his locker.
‘Fucking Denness!’ Charlie pretended that his eyes weren’t burning as he shoved his school uniform into his rucksack, hurling his boots down into the locker in its place. With nothing more than the thin layer of his rugby padding covering his chest and shoulders, Charlie headed for the school’s bike sheds with only one thought in his mind: home.
There was nobody else in the Riley family’s detached house as Charlie let himself in the front door, locking his bicycle away in the wide porch before closing the door behind him. Nobody would be back for another couple of hours – the time when he would be due home from a normal Wednesday at Ascot School – and, he recognised as he dragged himself up the stairs, there was nobody at all to talk to; nobody who would understand how he felt at that moment. Nobody, perhaps, except Nathan Llewellyn.
Charlie pulled his rugby padding over his head, dropping it onto his bedroom floor before collapsing onto his sheets, burying his head into his pillow as a long-ignored memory began to replay in his mind.
It was the final game of their cricket season, the previous summer, against Belvoir House School. Ascot had lost – and Nathan had made a mistake in the final minutes, dropping a hard, flat throw from Charlie, fielding in the deep, which would have run out the opposition’s best batsman.
Charlie recalled the yell of frustration that had escaped as he watched the ball spill onto the ground. ‘God, Nathan! You just lost us the game! You know that, right?’
Belvoir House never offered another chance, and minutes later, with the winning runs scored, and the boys back inside the pavilion, Charlie – with his teammates’ voices egging him on – had reminded Nathan of his error. ‘You only had to catch it, and we’d have got him out!’ He persisted, oblivious to the keeper’s tears. ‘You just fucked up our whole season, you useless piece of shit!’ The changing room filled with sycophantic laughter, jeering at Nathan’s despair as the blond boy hid his face below folded arms.
This was the moment when the stump had been thrown. Charlie shivered, remembering the fizzing sound that had split the air around him and the splintering smash that had shattered the wooden wall by his side. Part of Charlie’s brain protested as it saw the memory, however, nagging him with an awkward question that he couldn’t answer. Nathan’s hands had been wrapped tightly together, shielding his own face from the glare of his teammates. How, then, could he have thrown the stump?
Charlie shuddered again, as his memory replayed the foul insults he had hurled towards a boy who, the day before, would have called him his best friend. ‘You’re the piece of shit, Charlie Riley,’ the eleven–year-old told himself, feeling his throat tighten as he spoke. He bolted for the bathroom, and vomited.
Charlie stood up, slowly, cleaning himself up before turning to face himself in the mirror as the sound of the flushing toilet filled the room. ‘You’re the piece of shit,’ he whispered again, staring at a reflected face that was seemed much paler than he remembered. ‘No wonder he didn’t come back.’ Charlie trudged back to his own bedroom, running his finger along a bookshelf filled with copies of his school’s magazine. ‘September 2017,’ he read the date on the spine of the volume at the right-hand end, pulling it from the shelf and dropping onto his bed as the magazine fell open onto its middle pages.
‘Leavers,’ Charlie read aloud, his eyes falling onto a smiling picture of a blond boy in his cricket whites – a photograph, Charlie realised, which must have been taken before that match. ‘Llewellyn, Nathan Rhodri. Major Scholarship, Merchiston Castle School.’ Charlie flung the magazine onto the floor, scrambling onto the swivel chair beside his desk and flipping open the front page of an A4 notepad. Lifting the cold metal of a fountain pen from the side of his desk, Charlie began to write.
I’m sorry. I know it’s too late now to make any difference to what I did, but something happened today to make me realise how stupid I’d been. I called you a piece of shit, but I should have called myself that.
You didn’t mean to drop that throw. I know that. You couldn’t have thrown the stump at me, either, but whatever happened, I deserved it. I don’t know why I shouted at you like that. I know how it made you feel, really I do. The same thing happened to me today, in rugby.
We lost to St Matthew’s, and Saul was having a massive go at me because their centres kept scoring. It’s not the same without you playing at outside. No one else tackles! Anyway, I lost my temper, and smacked Saul in the face. I’m going to be in so much trouble, but he deserved it. Same as I deserved it after that game.
I don’t know if you’ll want to write back, or even if you ever want to talk to me again, but I really hope you do. I hope you are enjoying it at your new school.
The eleven-year-old skim-read back through his letter, before digging into the top drawer of his desk and pulling out an envelope into which he could push his letter. ‘Please write back, Nathan,’ he pleaded, tamely. ‘No one else will get it. Please.’
Fifty miles away, on a housing estate to the north of Oxford, another eleven-year-old found himself feeling similarly alone.
Connor Norris’ messy blond hair lay unkempt and neglected, hanging over his eyes as the boy slowly wound his way along the hedge-lined footpath that led away from the main road, and back to his terraced house.
It wasn’t fair, he complained to himself. It wasn’t fair that his best friend’s mum had kicked him out, and that some long-lost uncle had then gone and paid for him to go off to a boarding school in Scotland. It wasn’t fair that he didn’t know anyone at Gosford High, and it wasn’t fair that he had got detention because he hadn’t learned what an ice-rink was in French. Connor tried the handle of his front door, before hunting under the doormat to find a key and letting himself in. ‘I wish Dan was still here,’ he lamented, checking through the stack of junk mail that sat inside the door. ‘He said he’d write…’
Connor dropped the pile of envelopes and flyers back onto the ground. ‘I don’t even know which school he’s gone to,’ the boy grimaced, thinking out loud. ‘What if he doesn’t come back? What if…’ Connor shook his head, cursing his own fear as he dragged himself upstairs, before sinking onto a beanbag at the edge of his bedroom, and staring forlornly at the jumble of letters on the pages of a French textbook. ‘Please write, Dan…’ the eleven-year-old sighed. ‘Please.’
Albus had taken to looking skywards every morning, as the rattle of the rafters signalled the arrival of the flock of post owls. He had eagerly devoured the latest copies of the Daily Prophet, searching for any extra information about the mysterious strangers in Diagon Alley. To the obvious frustration of the newspapers’ journalists, however, the Ministry of Magic had divulged nothing more, and the boy’s glance up to the Friday morning owls was borne out of hope rather than anything more substantial.
‘Hang on,’ Albus’ eyes did a double-take as they registered the sight of an unfamiliar, jet black bird on its way towards the Slytherin table. ‘Whose owl is that?’ The boy watched as the unknown owl swooped gracefully down to the first-years’ end of the table, dropping an envelope into Nathan’s hands and snatching a rasher of bacon from the boy’s plate. ‘Nathan?’ Albus queried. ‘Is that your…’
‘No,’ the blond boy shook his head, decisively, as he read the handwriting on the envelope and noted the first-class stamp in the top right-hand corner. ‘It’s not even got the right address… it says Merchiston Castle School.’
‘Who’s it from?’ Daniel pressed his housemate as Nathan turned the envelope over, running his fingers along the seal before folding out the contents within. ‘Nathan?’ Daniel asked again.
‘Nath?’ Louis echoed, watching his friend’s eyes bug wide as he read the letter, and warily placing his hand on the other boy’s shoulder. ‘You alright?’
Nathan nodded, slowly. ‘It’s from Charlie Riley,’ he whispered. ‘My best friend at Ascot… until, until…’
‘The stump thing?’ Daniel supplied, bluntly, and Nathan nodded again.
‘Yeah…’ he mumbled. ‘Shit…’ Nathan shook his head, letting his forearms drop against the tabletop.
‘What’s it say?’ Louis asked, tentatively. ‘Is it…’
‘It’s fine,’ Nathan stopped his friend from asking anything else. ‘He said he’s sorry…’ His eyes fell back onto the letter. ‘He said he deserved it.’
Louis blinked. ‘Really?’
‘Yeah,’ Nathan pushed the letter towards the other boy. ‘He wants me to write back.’
Daniel’s eyes narrowed. ‘What can you tell him, though?’ He queried. ‘I said I’d write to my best friend from primary, but I don’t know what to say, with the Statute of Secrecy and everything...’
‘You mean you haven’t written to him?’ Albus checked. ‘Not at all?’
Daniel shook his head.
‘You should,’ his housemate decreed.
‘That’s easy for you to say,’ Daniel retorted. ‘You don’t have to write it.’
‘That doesn’t mean you have to ignore it,’ Albus wouldn’t be dissuaded, ‘or do it all on your own. You should both write back,’ he suggested, ‘and we’ll get Professor Bennett to check that everything’s alright.’
Neither muggle-born had any complaints about Albus’ suggestion, and by the time the boys were gathered around their House table again that evening, they had two scruffy letters to show their Head of House.
‘Did you go to a primary school?’ Daniel asked the two cousins through a mouthful of mashed potato.
‘Yeah,’ Louis fudged his answer, ‘but it wasn’t the same. It was in Godric’s Hollow, which is a village that’s half-magical and half-muggle… and the primary school is the same. We got to know the muggle kids, but our best friends were always all magical, cause, well, we knew… The headteacher was a wizard as well, so any accidental magic got sorted out without any problems.’
A wry grin spread over Daniel’s face. ‘So you never got into trouble, then?’
Albus laughed. ‘Louis wouldn’t ever have got into any trouble anyway! He was teacher’s pet…’
‘Hey,’ his cousin reddened. ‘Coming from someone who just sat in the corner and never said anything!’
Now it was Albus’ turn to blush and Louis grinned. ‘Why didn’t we ever become friends at primary?’ The dark-haired boy asked, and his cousin shrugged, before grimacing as an answer came into his mind.
‘I think I know,’ his voice dropped. ‘Rose.’
‘Oh,’ Albus swallowed. ‘Shit. Sorry, I…’
‘Don’t,’ Louis shook his head. ‘It doesn’t matter, really it doesn’t. It’s history, right?’
Albus nodded, slowly, downing a cupful of pumpkin juice. ‘Yes,’ he confirmed ‘and, like Neal says, we learn from history.’
‘Like what we’re allowed to say in our letters?’ Nathan tried to change the subject, wiping a gravy stain from the edges of his mouth. ‘Shall we ask Professor Bennett now, before he goes?’
A general murmur of agreement followed the blond boy’s idea, and the four children scrambled to their feet and crossed the short distance towards the staff table, where the teacher sat, listening to a long lecture from Hermione Weasley, the Deputy Head. Greg glanced to his right, hearing the boys’ footsteps, and acknowledged their arrival with a curt nod. ‘Well, here’s my opportunity, Hermione,’ he interrupted, tersely. ‘I’ll let you know,’ he got to his feet. ‘Come on, boys,’ he instructed the children, shepherding them out of the Great Hall. ‘We’ll talk in my office.’
The group of Slytherins followed their Head of House along the maze of corridors and passages towards the teacher’s office. ‘Come in, lads,’ Greg held the door open, ushering the boys inside. ‘Colloportus.’ He sighed. ‘How much did you hear?’
‘Hear when?’ Daniel spoke for the first-years. ‘Just now?’ The boy shook his head. ‘Nothing. We just wanted to ask you something.’
‘Alright,’ the teacher nodded, poker-faced. ‘Ask away.’
Daniel glanced quickly at his housemates, before taking a deep breath and beginning their question. ‘We… I mean, me and Nathan… we want to write to our friends from our old schools, but we’re not sure what we’re allowed to say. We’ve been doing about the Statute of Secrecy in History of Magic, and people going to prison if they tell about the magical world, and we’re worried if…’
‘Dan,’ the teacher held his hand up, halting the boy’s stream of words as a smile spread across his face. ‘Stop. You’ve said more than enough.’ Greg walked across his quarters, planting himself in the tattered armchair beside the fireplace and beckoning the boys to squeeze onto a sofa opposite. ‘That conversation I’ve just had with Professor Weasley… it was about the security risks surrounding muggle-born children, following last week’s incident at the Leaky Cauldron. Thank you for confirming that you are not going to need a lecture about the importance of the statute.’ He paused. ‘I reckon Professor Kennedy’s already said enough about that, anyway.’
Louis managed a thin smile. ‘Yeah,’ he agreed. ‘We thought we’d ask you whether what we’d written was alright?’
Nathan reached into his trouser pocket, unfolding the parchment on which he’d written his letter, and beginning to read.
You’re not a piece of shit.
The eleven-year-old blushed immediately, realising what he had said in front of the teacher. ‘That’s what he said, in his letter, that he was…’
‘It’s alright, Nathan,’ Greg reassured the boy. ‘There’s a big difference between swearing, and swearing at someone. Sometimes there’s just nothing else you can say.’
Nathan nodded, looking back to his letter without another word.
If you were then you wouldn’t have written to me and you wouldn’t have said sorry. It’s okay. We can still be friends.
Saul is an idiot. He thinks he’s so much better than he really is. Just ignore him. There is a girl here at my school who’s been horrible to me and some of my new friends, but we’re all just trying to ignore her, no matter what she does.
It’s great here, we are learning a lot of new things every day, but I do miss home sometimes. It is a lot colder in Scotland than it is in Ascot. I’ll be back home at Christmas – you can come and stay over if you want.
He lowered the paper again, making eye contact with the teacher once more. ‘Is that alright?’
‘That’s fine, mate,’ the teacher smiled. ‘Why on earth did you think there might be something wrong with it?’
The boy shrugged. ‘I just wanted to make sure…’
‘No worries,’ Greg acknowledged. ‘Better safe than sorry, right? What about yours, Dan?
The other muggle-born copied his housemate in unfolding a piece of parchment from his own pocket.
I’m sorry I haven’t written to you before. I couldn’t think of what to say. It is better than Primary was. We are learning some new subjects, but History is my favourite. What about you? How many new friends have you made, and what are they like?
You can write to me, the address is Merchiston Castle School, in Edinburgh.
‘I take it the only reason you’ve put “History” is because you wouldn’t be allowed to say “Transfiguration”?’ The man delighted in watching Daniel’s discomfort. ‘Just be aware, he might ask you some other questions about school and you’ve got to be careful you don’t tell him anything that might make him think something’s up… it’s not lying, guys,’ he assured the first-years, ‘it’s just being careful with the truth. You’re muggle-borns, and you’re sensible kids. You’ll know what your friends might find weird. It’s just like our little arrangement with Merchiston,’ the teacher observed, ‘which I see you’ve figured out. Their Senior Master’s a wizard,’ he clarified.
‘Thanks, sir,’ Nathan replied for the group, and the teacher grinned.
‘Any time, boys,’ Greg acknowledged him. ‘How have things been with Miss Skeeter this week?
‘Um,’ Albus was the first to reply, albeit unconvincingly. ‘She’s the one in Nathan’s letter,’ he explained. ‘We’re just trying to ignore her. It’s worse for Toby and Xander, they’re in Ravenclaw too so they can’t avoid her. She keeps calling them snake charmers, just cause they’re our friends.’
Greg nodded. ‘Anything you want me to try and do about it?’
The boys exchanged glances, before Daniel spoke up on the group’s behalf. ‘No, sir,’ he answered, bluntly.
‘Got it,’ the man accepted. ‘One of those things where a teacher’s voice isn’t going to make any difference, am I right?’
‘Right,’ Daniel replied.
‘Understood,’ Greg got to his feet with a spring in his step. ‘I take it that’s it, then?’ The teacher made his way towards the doorway. ‘Alohomora,’ he pointed his wand at its lock. ‘Have a great weekend!’
‘Do you think we should have said something?’ Albus asked his housemates as they wound their way back to the Slytherin common room.
Daniel shook his head, decisively. ‘No, Al,’ he insisted. ‘Like he said, what could he do about it, anyway? Besides, It’s Xan and Toby who’ve got it worst, when there’s no teachers around.’
Albus sighed, recognising the truth in his friend’s words. ‘I guess you’re right,’ he grimaced. ‘It’s down to us instead.’ He touched his wand against the black marble wall that hid the entrance to the dungeons. ‘Newton Abbot.’
‘How do we send these letters off, Albus?’ Nathan asked as the four boys filed into the common room. ‘I haven’t got an owl.’
‘You can borrow mine,’ an older boy, who Louis quickly recognised as Max Deverill, the Quidditch team’s seeker, called from the top of the staircase, envelope in hand. ‘I’m off up to the owlery now. Are yours going anywhere near Wiltshire?’
‘Ascot,’ Nathan answered, ‘and Daniel’s in Oxford, so not too far.’
The other muggle-born boy hesitated. ‘What about stamps, though?’ He questioned, before explaining his concern to the fourth-year. ‘These letters are for our friends, who are muggles. They’ll think it’s weird if they don’t have stamps on them.’
Max smiled. ‘My family’s not magical either. This is why they invented the stamp charm. Have you put them in their envelopes yet?’
Daniel shook his head.
‘Go and sort them out, then,’ the older boy instructed, ‘and I’ll take them up to the owlery when I go.’
‘Thank you,’ Nathan hurried towards the spiral staircase. ‘They’ll never know we’re at Hogwarts.