Albus didn’t want to wake up. He turned over, threw his duvet over his head and buried himself under the covers. He’d slept fitfully, his dreams both strange and terrifying. In them, his sister had sparked and sizzled with magic like some awful, uncontrollable firework while she chased him across the black lake, both of them mysteriously able to walk on water. Now, the lake had vanished. Instead, he was in the Great Hall, a dark, cobwebbed room with black walls and a floor like spilt ink. Lily danced around him, spinning and twirling like she was in the ballet, her bare feet stained black from the floor, her tutu drooping at the edges as if it was sickly. She was moving so fast, Albus struggled to see her face. If he could just catch a glimpse of her kind smile, her big brown eyes, he knew everything would be okay, that he wouldn’t feel so afraid. As if she’d heard his thoughts, Lily stopped dead, the inky floor rippling around her feet. Albus fixed his gaze upon her face, knowing he’d feel instantly calmer, but no such feeling washed over him. Instead, Albus gasped in horror. Lily’s mouth was a wreck. Her lips were disfigured and contorted. From top lip to bottom, stitches of thick, brown twine had been sewn through her flesh, fastening her mouth tightly shut. He jerked awake, throwing off his duvet and knocking over his bedside lamp. His heart raced, his pyjamas damp with sweat. He pressed his hand to his heart while he waited for his erratic breathing to slow down. Firmly, he shook away the image of his sister’s disfigured mouth. It wasn’t real, he told himself. It was just a dream. Just a stupid dream.
He reached for his glasses and put them on. Getting out of bed, he fixed his duvet then returned his lamp to the bedside table, taking his time to put it in exactly the right spot. Outside the window, the sky was grey, the morning light pale and ghostly. Albus didn’t need to look at his watch to know it was early. Despite this, he could hear his parents moving around downstairs. Thinking about his parents brought back the memory of the previous night and the conversation he’d overheard. He couldn’t bear the thought that Lily’s muteness could be fatal. Her magic might become blocked. That’s what Mum had said. Albus had never heard of such a thing, hadn’t even known it was possible for someone’s own magic to turn against them. If Lily couldn’t say spells, did that mean her magic would get trapped inside her? Albus couldn’t stand thinking about it.
He forced the horrible thoughts out of his mind and flicked on the Wizarding Wireless Network. The Were-Witches were playing – a cheerfully upbeat song that helped dispel some of the gloom that had settled over Albus. Still, nothing could ease his worries completely. He rubbed at his stomach, knowing he wouldn’t be able to eat a thing for breakfast.
His parents would come knocking for him soon; they’d have to leave early to get to King’s Cross before eleven o’clock. When Albus opened his wardrobe to get ready, he remembered with a feeling of apprehension that he still hadn’t taken out his school trunk, hadn’t even packed a single item. It was as this thought occurred to him that there came a knock at the door.
Albus’s father walked into the room, eyes darting between the many posters of Gonçalo Flores that covered the walls, then to the just-made bed, the toy broomstick balanced neatly on wall-hooks, the uncluttered floor and finally to Albus himself. “You’ve added a couple more posters, I see,” his dad commented, nodding towards the juggling Flores and then to the Flores performing acrobatics on his broom.
“Yeah, a while ago,” Albus replied. He’d had them for over two months.
“Right,” his dad replied, scrubbing at his black stubble. He looked like he hadn’t slept. His smile was tired, only the very corners turned upwards. “We’re leaving soon,” he continued. “Are you coming down for breakfast?”
“I’m not hungry,” Albus said. The thought of eating food made him want to be sick.
His dad nodded and there was understanding in his face. Albus wondered if his father had been nervous on his first day at Hogwarts. After all, he hadn’t known anything about the world of wizards and magic. It must’ve been pretty scary.
“You’re all packed?” his dad asked.
Albus nodded quickly.
His dad didn’t look fooled. He chuckled, the first sign of a real smile breaking across his features as his eyes pointedly surveyed the empty floor. “I was always a last-minute packer too,” he said. “Though I have to say my room was always a lot less tidy than yours.” He had told Albus this before. In fact, his dad had once said Albus inherited his tidiness from his Aunt Petunia. From what he’d heard about the woman, Albus hadn’t taken it as a compliment.
“We’re leaving in twenty minutes,” his dad continued, “so make sure you’re ready. We don’t want to miss the train.” He lingered in the doorway for a moment. There was an awkward pause. Albus wasn’t sure whether he should say something else. He thought of the conversation he’d overheard the previous night and wondered if he ought to ask his dad about it. But then, his dad sent him a half-hearted smiled and left the room, shutting the door quietly behind him.
Rain began to fall outside, spitting against the window and a fittingly gloomy song began playing from the radio – The Descent by Skull and Sky, an edgy rock band that specialised in depressing, solemn melodies. With rising anxiety, Albus pulled out his school trunk and began to pack. Halfway through, there came a tapping at the window and Albus grinned at the sight of his tawny owl, Salvador, who was pecking the glass with his beak. Albus hurried over to let him in and the reddish-brown owl with wide black eyes flew onto Albus’s arm and perched there, one talon holding a dead frog. Salvador pecked Albus affectionately then flew up to his cage, which sat on top of the wardrobe. There, he began to devour his meal. Albus swallowed down the urge to be sick as Salvador pulled slimy guts out of the little frog.
Returning to his packing, Albus neatly folded two sets of school robes and added them to his trunk. He laid them on top of the neat stacks of books he’d arranged at the bottom, ensuring each pile was the same height. Albus had decided to leave his third set of school robes till last so they would be near the top: he would need to change into them on the train. His wand, he buried out of sight. Next, he rolled up two of his Gonçalo Flores posters and tucked them in a hollow he’d left at the back of the trunk, ensuring they weren’t squashed or bent. After another five minutes of adding underwear, socks, muggle clothes and his winter cloak, he carefully took out his paints and brushes and added them to the trunk. He laid his sketchbook beside this and packed a couple of blank canvases. Finally, he added his pouch of wizard money, his quill and ink-pot (which he wrapped in an old pillowcase to prevent it leaking if it broke) and then his final set of robes. At that precise moment, the door burst open. Albus heard a set of heavy footfalls and then felt an arm lock round his neck. The arm pulled tight, strangling Albus. Then a set of knuckles violently rubbed his scalp. He struggled to pull in a breath. “Get off me!” he managed to shout.
James laughed and released Albus, whose face felt very hot and whose neck was now throbbing. Before Albus had caught his breath, James’s hand snatched at a corner of his sketchpad (that stuck out from beneath the set of robes) then jumped out of reach to start flicking through the pages. His heart sinking, Albus leapt after him, but James dodged out of his way, clearly amused as he flicked through page after page – page after page of sketches of Gonçalo Flores.
“You’re really in love with this guy!” James said, face bright with amusement as he continued to duck and dodge out of Albus’s reach.
“Give it back!” Albus yelled.
“Catch!” James shouted and he threw the sketchpad into the air. Albus threw out his hands, fumbled with it and then dropped it.
“A seeker in the making, you are!” James snorted sarcastically.
Albus picked up the sketchpad, scowled at his brother and then replaced it in his case, making sure to fold his robe over it so there weren’t creases in the fabric.
“What is it with you and that quidditch player?” James asked, gesturing towards one of the Flores posters.
Albus was in half a mind to ignore James. Why did he have to be so aggravating? Couldn’t he just come in and sit down and say ‘Good morning’? “It’s his face,” Albus replied at last, thinking of the way Flores’s features were so crooked and unsymmetrical and interesting. Then, seeing his brother’s bemused look, he sighed. “You wouldn’t understand.”
James shrugged. “Whatever,” he said. “I came up to ask if you’re ready. We were meant to leave ten minutes ago. Mum’s getting all snappy.”
“Yeah, I’m nearly ready,” Albus replied. “I just have to change out of my pyjamas.”
“And Mum wants to know if you’re eating anything,” James said as he inspected the golden snitch on Albus’s bedside table.
“I’m not hungry.” Even as he said it, Albus felt a twisting, tightening feeling in his stomach. There was no way he’d be able to eat.
“Worried you won’t get into Gryffindor?” James asked. He’d picked up the snitch and was now throwing it in the air for himself to catch.
Albus wasn’t sure whether to answer. There were a lot of things he was worried about. Not getting into Gryffindor was only one of what felt like a thousand others.
James seemed to take Albus’s silence as a ‘yes’. “Don’t worry,” he said. “If you’re not in Gryffindor, you won’t have to share a common room with me. There’s a bright side to everything.”
Despite himself, Albus laughed. “That’s true.”
James put down the snitch and then smirked. “Just don’t end up in Slytherin,” he said, his tone more serious. “Mum and Dad would disown you. And I think I’d have to as well.”
Albus felt his smile falter.
James punched him playfully on the arm and strode out of the room.
Albus tried to imagine his parents’ reaction if he really did end up in Slytherin house. From what Albus knew, Slytherin had produced more dark wizards than the other Hogwarts houses put together. It was, after all, the house Voldemort himself had been sorted into. He folded his arms across his chest and sat down on his bed, the wooden frame creaking.
I have to be in Gryffindor, he thought.
As if to cheer him up, his favourite song began playing on the radio – Unicorn by The Glitter Goblins. He wasn’t sure why he liked it so much. It was about pale, silver beauty. The lead singer sang about the moon, about blonde hair and depthless eyes. Albus had the feeling the singer wasn’t actually talking about a unicorn, but rather a woman. He’d wanted to paint that woman ever since he’d heard the song and wished he knew who it was written about. As the melody filled the room, Albus closed his eyes, told himself to stop worrying, that he was Harry Potter’s son and definitely wouldn’t end up in Slytherin, and listened to the song. Feeling calmer, he changed into his jeans, shirt and jumper, closed and buckled his trunk, pulled down Salvador’s cage (which was now empty of all traces of frog) from the top of the wardrobe and took one last look around his room. He wouldn’t have a dorm to himself at Hogwarts. Dad had said he’d shared a dormitory with four other boys when he was at school. Albus thought of his late-night sketching and wondered if he’d have to find something else to draw besides Gonçalo Flores.
By the time he was ready to leave, Unicorn had come to an end. Albus flicked off the radio, picked up Salvador’s cage, and hefted the handle at the front of his trunk. He proceeded to drag the enormous thing out of his room, the weight of it far too heavy to lift.
It took a lot of effort to get everything down the stairs, the trunk thudding loudly onto each step while Salvador squawked in his cage as it lurched left and right despite Albus’s attempts to keep it steady.
Once he was downstairs, his dad whipped the cage and the trunk off of him and carried them through the rain to the car. Albus’s mum seemed to be jabbering away to herself as she pulled on Lily’s coat. Behind her, a quill and parchment floated in the air, the quill darting across it. Albus rolled his eyes at the sight of the quill. No doubt it was dictating Mum’s every word. He caught snatches of what she said, “… still not found and questions must be… Rabastan’s escape has still not been… how he managed to leave the country…”
At the mention of the name ‘Rabastan’, Albus’s gaze was drawn to one of the many newspapers clippings that had been tacked to the wall. He’d read the article countless times since his mum had written it. Of course, she’d broken the news to Albus, James and Lily before they’d read it in the paper, but it had sent chills through Albus nonetheless.
LESTRANGE ESCAPES AZKABAN
Known Death Eater, Rabastan Lestrange, brother to Rodolphus Lestrange, has achieved a feat that up until a few hours ago, Ministry officials were claiming was impossible under the new security measures in place at Azkaban prison. Many witches and wizards have long been sceptical of the Ministry’s decision to remove dementors from the prison after they sided with Voldemort in the Battle of Hogwarts eighteen years ago. In the time since, the efficacy of these new measures has never been put to the test. Not until a few hours ago that is. If sources are to be believed, Azkaban guards visited Rabastan’s cell in the early hours of the morning on their regular checks around the prison only to discover he was missing. How he managed to escape is unknown. His whereabouts are a mystery. Reports suggest he might travel abroad.
“It’s difficult to know where he’ll go,” spoke a Ministry insider. “He doesn’t have any connections outside Azkaban that we know of.” Rabastan’s connections have mostly been hunted down by Aurors and sent to Azkaban or else they died during that infamous final battle at Hogwarts. Rabastan’s old master is dead as is most of his family. Rabastan’s brother is in Azkaban, his wife, Asunia, who was tortured into insanity by anti-Voldemort fanatics Agram Pole and Celia Waters a few months after Voldemort’s downfall, is in St Mungo’s. Many heralded Pole and Waters’s act as righteous and just. It is well documented that Rabastan took part in the torture of Frank and Alice Longbottom that resulted in the couple losing their minds. The chilling irony that his wife went on to suffer the same fate is seen by some as Rabastan’s punishment for what he did to the Longbottoms. Asunia has spent the last eighteen years in St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries with no change to her condition.
“It is imperative that witches and wizards everywhere keep their eyes peeled for signs of him,” spoke a Ministry witch. “He is, after all, a man with nothing to lose.” The Ministry advises that people stay calm. Any information on Rabastan’s location should be reported immediately to the Auror Office.
Albus found himself staring at the picture of Rabastan Lestrange that had been positioned at the very centre of the article. The man barely moved in the picture other than to blink. He had a plain face. It wouldn’t have been very interesting to draw. His grey eyes were small and his long, black hair hung down past his shoulders, thin and tangled. The only thing of any note was a small birthmark on his neck, the size of a knut.
Albus jumped as his mother came up behind him.
“Are you ready?” she asked, laying a warm hand on his shoulder. Her red hair was tied up messily. Her light brown eyes reminded Albus of caramel.
“You’re writing an article,” Albus said, indicating the floating quill and parchment next to her shoulder.
“Yes,” she replied. “Oh, Lily take this will you?” Lily had been about to head to the car when Mum shoved a scarf and hat at her.
Lily signed that she didn’t need them, but Mum wrapped the scarf around Lily’s neck and plonked the hat on her head anyway. Huffing, Lily hurried to the car, one end of her scarf flapping behind her.
“What’s the article about?” Albus asked his mum while she took the keys from the hook and ushered Albus out the door. He grabbed his coat and hurriedly slipped on his shoes.
“We think Rabastan has returned to England,” she replied. “I’ve had a couple of owls, people claiming they’ve spotted him.” Albus followed her onto the porch. She pulled the door shut and locked it.
“He’s not in Switzerland any more?” Albus asked. He heard the high-pitched panic in his own voice and winced.
“We think he’s back in the country,” his mum replied. As Albus headed to the car, he felt spots of rain falling on his head. The sky was murky, the wind blustery. Albus thought of the long-haired, grey-eyed Rabastan and found himself peering across the fields that surrounded the house, eyes catching on the trees waving in the breeze, on shadows cast by the thick clouds, then at the sky itself, where he felt sure one of the darkest clouds had morphed into the shape of a wolf.
When his parents had first told Albus, James and Lily that Rabastan had escaped, Albus had felt terrified. James hadn’t seemed remotely worried. “He’s just one man,” James had said. “I don’t know why you’re all getting so worked up about it.”
But Albus thought he’d known why his parents had been worried about it. If an ex-Death Eater, who had lost everything he cared about, had escaped Azkaban, there was only one person he’d blame for his losses.
The car journey was long and uncomfortable (just as it had been every year since James had started Hogwarts). With Albus, James and Lily squashed in the back (the two boys with owl cages on their laps) there wasn’t much space. Albus wished James had cleaned out Lightning’s cage. The smell of it had filled up the whole car. Lily sat in the middle of the two boys, her head on James’s shoulder. She fell asleep after only ten minutes. Albus didn’t understand how she’d managed it, squeezed as tightly together as they were. For the first half an hour of the journey, they listened to Mum dictating her latest article to the floating quill and parchment. When she was done, silence fell.
“I remember my first day at Hogwarts,” Dad piped up as they headed along the M3. “I was so excited. I’d been counting down the days.”
Albus pressed his face to the window, a sinking feeling inside him. So his father hadn’t been nervous. Even though he’d only just found out about magic and wizards and witches, his dad couldn’t wait to go to Hogwarts when he was Albus’s age.
Albus thought about what James had said the day before. Don’t be so worried about everything.
Why is it that I worry so much? he wondered gloomily.
“And you’ll see Neville,” Mum said, turning in her seat and squeezing Albus’s knee. “He’ll keep an eye on you, Albus.”
“I’ll have to get used to calling him Professor Longbottom,” Albus said. “I’m so used to saying Uncle Neville.”
“How is Uncle Nev?” James asked. “I only ever see him at school now.”
Albus thought he saw his parents exchange a glance. It was true that they hardly saw Uncle Neville any more. In fact, Albus was trying to remember the last time he’d visited. It must’ve been over a year ago, maybe more.
When Mum spoke, her voice was light. “Ever since he broke up with your Aunt Luna, Neville’s just been a bit down that’s all.”
“But I thought he was the one that ditched her,” James said.
Mum sighed. “Yes, James,” she replied in a restrained voice, “but there were many factors—”
“Like the malediction thing.”
Mum looked at Dad and then back at James. Albus frowned. What had James meant? What was a ‘malediction thing’? Mum’s shoulder’s sagged. It seemed that a great sadness came over her. As much as he hated to see her looking so down, Albus couldn’t help wishing he had his sketchpad. He wondered whether he would’ve been able to capture her expression.
“James, I asked you not to mention it in front of Albus and Lily,” she said quietly. She glanced at Lily, checking, it seemed, that she was still asleep.
“What is it?” Albus asked, leaning forwards so that his chest was pressed against the side of Salvador’s cage. “What’s a malediction?”
Albus didn’t miss the accusatory look Mum sent James. She rubbed her forehead as if she was trying to scrub away an unpleasant thought. When she spoke, her voice was uncharacteristically quiet. “A blood malediction is a curse,” she said. “We never knew Luna had it. Not for years. Apparently, even Luna didn’t know. Her father only told her when she began transforming.”
“Transforming?” Albus said, stunned.
“She turned into a monster every night and ate people!” James said, grinning.
Albus shook his head. “Don’t you take anything seriously?”
“You’re not funny,” Mum said to him. “When someone has a blood malediction, they’re called a Maledictus. Luna is one. When someone has a malediction, they can turn into an animal.”
“Like an Animagus?” Albus asked.
“No, not exactly,” Mum replied, a tremor in her voice. “Unlike an Animagus, there comes a time when a Maledictus can’t turn back into a person. Eventually, they are cursed to be an animal forever.”
Albus’s eyes widened and he understood now why Mum had looked so sad. He tried to imagine being an animal forever – never being able to communicate with people, never having hands, never drawing again, never being able to hold someone…
“What animal does she turn into?” Albus asked when he found his voice.
It was Dad who answered this time. “We don’t know,” he said. “And don’t go asking Neville questions about it.”
“I won’t,” Albus said solemnly. Even James had gone quiet.
So Aunt Luna was a Maledictus. Had she already made the final transformation? Was she out there somewhere now, stuck as an animal, unable to turn back again?
Poor Uncle Neville. Albus hated to think of him at home alone.
I’ll make sure I try really hard in Herbology.