THE MEN THAT I USED TO SPORT WITH

THE MEN THAT I USED TO SPORT WITH

PROLOGUE

I WENT UP INTO THE MOUNTAIN

The night was cold and gusty; a lopsided moon, clothed in ever-changing shreds of clouds, drifted towards west. The elements were aware that the figure hurrying through the Forbidden Forest had a purpose which would have been at odds with a less ominous scenery.

It was early November, the castle and grounds of Hogwarts lay under an inch-high, rather threadbare blanket of snow, which had fallen only the day before. But here, in the very heart of the wood, beneath the canopy of trees as old as the castle itself, there was not even a smattering of white. The frost had come early; the earth was hard and dry under a layer of dead leaves forming a carpet of decay that muffled the sounds of footsteps. It was wet in places, and slippery, and made for dangerous footing.

The figure proceeded swiftly but carefully, its left hand holding on to the hood of a heavy winter cloak, to keep it in place, the right gripping a wand between thumb and index finger, the other three fingers fanning out as if ready to cushion a fall.

It was the left hand, thrown into relief every now and then by a pale needle of moonlight piercing the leafy ceiling, that told the centaur watching from the shades that the figure hurrying past him was a female of the human species. He frowned and shook his head in ever-new wonderment – humans, always so wrapped up in their own futile pursuits, so sure of themselves and their perception of reality, so easily caught by surprise.

Noiselessly, he slid an arrow out of the quiver and lifted his bow. The female was trespassing. A good fright and maybe a little flesh wound, nothing serious, would teach her to keep out of centaur territory.

The wind was changing – he could tell from the whiff of moisture it was now carrying.

Humidity and, clinging to the minuscule droplets, the smell of distress. The female was very obviously experiencing some strong emotion; whether fear, sadness or something else, he couldn't say. His nostrils flared – yes, the telltale tang of human anguish was there, unmistakeably.

Curiosity awakened, the centaur let the arrow glide back into the quiver and silently followed the figure. She walked on through the near-absolute darkness, stumbling only once, and finally came to a halt at the edge of a clearing. After a few seconds' pause to calm her ragged breathing, she raised a wand.

The centaur ducked reflexively, then smirked at his own reaction. She hadn't noticed him. The wand pointed in the opposite direction.

His sense of smell was better developed than his hearing; he thought she might have pronounced a summoning spell, but was sure only when the object she'd called came soaring through the night and landed in her outstretched palm with a barely audible slap.

The centaur narrowed his eyes. There was too little light, but he thought he had seen the thing shimmer faintly. It could be anything, really. He further approached the figure, who was now standing hunched, examining whatever her spell had brought to her.

The bow threatened to slip from his shoulder, momentarily distracting the centaur from his observation. When he looked back at the woman, his right hand flew to his mouth, stifling a gasp.

The woman wasn't alone anymore.

She was also quite obviously unhappy with the shadowy figure that had appeared next to her.

'Severus!' It came out as a sibilant whisper. 'But I… I wanted Sirius!'

The shadowy form gave an unghostly snort. 'Story of my life in a nutshell.'

The woman made a noise half between a sob and a hiss.

The centaur's shoulder brushed against a low-hanging branch, dislodging a shrivelled chestnut husk that the wind had failed to remove. Its spikes made it bounce off the tree's roots with a sharp crack followed by the distinct rustle of the husk rolling into a mound of dry leaves.

The woman gave a small shriek and ran off into the darkness, leaving behind a disgruntled, shadowy figure and the object she'd summoned earlier, but dropped in fright.

Seconds later, the centaur heard a faraway crack. They were close to the border of Hogwarts' territory; the woman had Disapparated as soon as she'd crossed the wards.

After a few unsuccessful attempts at picking the thing up from the ground, the shadowy figure seemed to understand that its immaterial hands went straight through whichever solid object they touched. It disappeared into the darkness, muttering invectives.

The clearing remained empty and silent. The centaur emerged from his hiding place and picked up the object. Humans, he thought, scratching his head. They really were irrational beings – who else would put themselves in danger in order to possess a worthless old ring with a broken stone? Probably a family heirloom of some kind; humans were peculiar about things handed down over generations, no matter how useless, broken or worthless.

Or had she used it to…?

It might not be so worthless then, but dangerous, very dangerous.

He dropped the ring into his quiver. He had more important things to do than idly speculate on the doings of humans. The unicorn mare would give birth any day now, and it was his turn to keep watch over her.

The ring could wait until later.