"Pray you, no more of this; 'tis like the howling
of Irish wolves against the moon."
~from As You Like It
Chapter One: A Tragedy of Errors
It was a quiet night in the city of Falmouth. A little after nine o'clock, the streets were all but deserted. On one particular avenue of townhouses built in the glory days of King George III, a common barn owl perched on the crossbar of a streetlamp. It used this vantage point to peer over the rooftops down to the calm ocean. The owl was the sole living thing to be seen in the narrow street: only the slivers of electric light filtering between the cotton curtains gave testament to the presence of other beings nearby.
The silence was disrupted by a sharp noise, almost like the report of a starter's pistol. It tore through the dusk, echoing off the houses and the uneven cobbled surface of the road. The owl ruffled its feathers briefly, but did not seem startled. It cocked its head to one side, eyeing with proprietary criticism the man who had just appeared next to a brown Morris Minor parked on the downhill curb. The man tucked a twisted willow wand into the folds of his well-tailored robes, and tugged once at the clasp of his cloak while he surveyed the street. He spied the owl, and tipped his pointed hat to it. The bird seemed to accept the gesture of acknowledgement, for it straightened its neck.
The man strode swiftly up the steps of the house to which the Minor belonged, and rapped hastily at the door. When no response was immediately forthcoming, he knocked again with greater urgency. At last the door opened, and a brown-haired woman in a blue housedress peered out.
She was almost twenty-five, but she still managed to look like a girl of eighteen. Her hair was coifed becomingly in the very latest style, and her frock and her stockings were immaculate. She wore a pair of coordinated blue pumps and silver earrings that glittered like strands of stars.
The worry on her face faded almost instantly into a smile of recognition. 'Ross!' she laughed, standing up on her toes to throw her arms about his neck. 'Why on earth are you so late?'
The man's mouth curled into a smile, but his eyes cast a furtive, searching glance at the street behind him. Seeing nothing, he took his wife about the waist and lifted her over the threshold and into the entryway. He closed the door, fastening each of the three Muggle locks with care, and then whipped out his wand to reinforce them with a warding charm.
The woman watched him with a curious expression on her face. She was never quite certain how she ought to react when he used magic so instinctively, but she did understand that there was an urgency in his actions that bordered on the paranoiac. She waited until the wand vanished back amid the folds of navy blue fabric. Then she said; 'You've done that every night for over a week now. What on earth is going on?'
'Nothing,' Ross said, brushing past her into the sitting room where an amicable fire was burning. 'I just don't trust your kind of locks.'
Her heels clicked against the carefully polished floor. 'You never had a problem with my lock before,' she said; 'and you installed those other two yourself last fortnight.'
He turned away from the hearth and gave her a very hard look. 'Leave it alone, Dorothy. Did you use the back door today?'
'Of course not. You told me I shouldn't. What you didn't bother to tell me was why.' She put out her arm to touch his sleeve. 'Please. Whatever it is, we'll face it together.'
He shrugged her off and tried once more to smile. 'I just want to be safe,' he said. His hand found her waist again and his fingers touched the place where her stomach protruded a little farther than it ought to; a little farther than it had on the day he had put in the extra locks. 'We have the children to think about,' he whispered, moving in for a kiss.
Dorothy backed away. 'Not unless you tell me the truth,' she said resolutely. She waited for an answer, but none was forthcoming. 'No? Then I'm going upstairs. There's a plate in the oven for you.'
She turned and swept out of the room with that peculiar aristocratic grace that had first caught his eye. Sighing heavily, he drew a hand over his face. The worry lines that he had striven to hide from her settled into deep crevices between his brows and on either side of his mouth. They aged him instantly, heaping on ten years in a matter of moments. He was too young for this responsibility. Three innocent lives were in his hands, and he hadn't remembered that until it was too late.
He sank down in his chair by the fire, staring into the leaping orange flames. The doors were locked and warded. The windows were reinforced with an Unbreakable Charm. Nothing could get into the house without his knowledge and permission. Besides, he told himself as he reached to unlace his boots, they lived on a crowded street in the heart of a quiet city not only full of Muggles but also sporting a sizeable and active wizarding community. The risks of mounting an attack here far outweighed the gravity of the disagreement.
Heavy, uneven footsteps sounded on the first floor stairs; THUMP-bump, THUMP-bump, THUMP-bump, THUMP. As these morphed into a light and eager pattering, Ross sat up a little straighter in his seat and tried to force away all signs of anxiety.
A bundle of energy in a stripped blue nightshirt came careening into the room, brown curls bouncing in his eyes. 'Da!' he shouted, using the momentum of his flying feet to clamber into his father's lap. He threw his arms around the man's neck and squeezed him with every ounce of his strength.
Ross wrapped an arm around his son, hugging him almost desperately. The boy twisted around so that he could sit on his father's lap, and Ross brushed his lips against the crown of his head. His hair smelled like sunlight and the bleached Muggle soap that Dorothy always bought. The child looked up, brown eyes twinkling. 'Ten more minutes?' he asked.
Ross chuckled, amusement almost driving away the ghosts of worry. 'What does your mother say?'
'She said I should give you a hug-and-kiss goodnight,' the boy said with the grave solemnity he always reserved for delivering his mother's messages. Then he bounced a little and grinned. 'She's going to sleep in my bed tonight!'
For the child this was a special treat, usually reserved for sick days and Christmas night. For Ross, it meant a cold night alone, staring at the ceiling and wondering how he could put right his foolish misjudgement.
His face must have fallen, for the child looked suddenly concerned. 'You can sleep in my bed tomorrow night,' he offered generously. 'Only Mother asked first and it's a rather small bed.'
No one plied the art of compromise as deftly as a four-year-old. Ross smiled. 'I ought to have you sort out all of my quarrels,' he said.
The little boy grinned. 'N-kay,' he said, stretching his neck to plant a kiss on Ross's chin. 'Goodnight.'
'Goodnight, sleep tight, don't let the Murtlaps bite,' Ross recited. The little boy giggled. There were Murtlaps aplenty in Falmouth, though they were found chiefly on the beaches.
The child offered his arms to his father once more, and they embraced. Then he hopped off of Ross's knee and padded out of the room far more sedately than he had entered. The THUMP-bumps sounded on the stairs again; he always put both feet on a step before reaching for the next. Dorothy said that it was sure proof that he would grow up firmly grounded.
Ross got out his wand and extinguished the fire. There was no point in sitting up alone. He glanced at the sofa and wondered whether he ought to bother with his bed. In the end he turned away. It was his bed, after all, and lonely or not he'd still sleep better there than on the couch – assuming he could sleep at all.
If he went upstairs now he would only excite the child while Dorothy would be working to settle him down for the night. So Ross moved into the kitchen. The faint smell of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding emanated from the bowels of the gas cooker. He did not eat his dinner, but tucked it into the icebox instead. He went to the back window and peered out into the little garden. There was no sign of anything amiss, but it was difficult to tell with the kitchen light behind him.
He went to the back door, disarming the warding spell and undoing the bolt. On the back stoop it was easier to see the little rosebushes, still and undisturbed. Dorothy's vegetable patch lay in its neat squares. The acanthus stalks were already almost four feet tall and blossoming fragrantly. The alleyway behind the house was quiet, and over the water the moon was rising, huge and yellow and full. Seeing it, Ross smiled rather smugly. They were safe tonight at least. The maniac he had so thoughtlessly offended would have more immediate problems tonight.
He went inside, resetting the warding charm as he went. In his moment of relief, he forgot to turn the deadbolt.
Ross lay awake, staring at the sliver of moonlight that fell between the curtains. It was no use. The relief of his anxiety was not enough; there was the quarrel with Dorothy. They seldom fought, and he could not think of a time when they had gone to bed angry with one another. He was too young to surrender to the jaded notion that all married couples spent the occasional night apart. He got out of bed and crossed the hall.
Dorothy was lying on her sided, curled around the body of her sleeping son. As Ross entered she raised her head. She too had been unable to sleep.
'What is it?' she asked, whispering so as not to wake the child.
Ross shuffled up to the side of the bed as the little boy had often done. 'I had a bad dream,' he said, in a passable imitation of their son.
Dorothy sat up properly, easing her arm from under the drowsy little head beside her. 'What kind of dream?' she asked, playing along.
'I dreamt I kept a secret from my wife, and it hurt her.'
There was a moment of silence when he was afraid that she would lie back down, but then she held out her hand. He took it and helped her to balance as she climbed over their sleeping son. She led him into the corridor and drew the nursery door closed.
'Are you ready to tell me now?' she asked.
He nodded. 'Two weeks ago, I went to the Leaky Cauldron after work.'
'For your secretary's birthday,' Dorothy said, nodding. 'I knew that; you told me.'
'What I didn't tell you is that I got into a fight.'
Her brow furrowed a little, and the glow of the nightlight cast a curious shadow on her face. 'A fight in a pub? A brawl?'
Ross shook his head. 'It didn't get that far. He charged at me but – well, a couple of Hit Wizards were there with our party and they grabbed him right away. Before that happened, though, I said some things… that I probably shouldn't have said.'
'What kind of things?' asked Dorothy.
'I called him names. I said… everything I said was true, but I still shouldn't have said it. Perdita Flaig from the Being Division was there; she hasn't looked me in the eye since.'
Dorothy stared at him, uncomprehending. 'So you're trying to lock her out in case she suddenly gets the urge to try looking you in the eye?'
'No.' Ross cast about miserably. He and Perdita had been at school together – quite good friends, too. Her stinging disapproval filled him with shame, and for that reason alone he would have longed to take back the hateful words. 'No, I've been locking the doors because the… the…' Even now that he had learned his lesson it was impossible to get the noun to come out smoothly, casually, as if the more natural phrasing was not foremost in his mind. '…the man I insulted. While Graft and Diggle were throwing him out he threatened to come after me.'
'Over some insults tossed about in a pub altercation?' Dorothy smiled. 'Ross, that's ridiculous. You can't really believe him.'
'He's… not a well man, Dorothy. He's unstable. But I'm starting to think that if he meant to come after me he would have done it by now. Anyway, we're safe tonight.'
She looked puzzled again. 'How do you know that?'
Ross smirked. 'He's got a prior commitment. He'll be too busy to bother with us.'
Dorothy did not seem quite so convinced. 'Well, I think you should tell somebody about it. Those Hit Wizard friends of yours, Graft and…'
'Diggle. You ought to let them know you're keeping an eye out. They heard him threaten you, didn't they?' Ross nodded. 'Well, tomorrow I want you to go see them as soon as you get in to work, and tell them you're worried. If this man really is as "unstable" as you seem to think, the police ought to know about it. The wizard police, I mean.'
'I will,' he promised.
Dorothy smiled and pulled him down into a kiss. 'Good,' she murmured.
He slid one hand under the hem of her frothy Muggle nightgown and settled it on her waist. His thumb grazed the tiny mass of their unborn child and he drew Dorothy nearer to him. She made no attempt to stay him.
They moved into their bedroom, settling already into one another's familiar contours. Ross closed the door with his left hand, reaching behind him to latch it. Their little boy slept like a rock, but there was the occasional nightmare that brought him from bed. They could do with a few seconds' warning before he burst in on them.
Dorothy put a hand on the crest of his hip and drew him towards the bed. Her other fingers found the neckline of his robes. Ross hefted them over his head and let them fall unceremoniously to the ground. Then he leaned in towards his wife and drank deep of the draught of reconciliation.
The little boy awoke to find his bed empty. His mother was gone. The smell of rosewater still lingered on the pillow, and he could feel the indentation on the mattress where she had lain, but she was not there. He sat up, perplexed. It was still night-time; the darkness beyond his window testified to that. She wouldn't be up fixingbreakfast. Perhaps she had gone to sleep in the big bed. That was just as well. Da had looked awfully sad when he'd heard she wanted to stay with the child.
Satisfied, he settled back down into the warmth of his blankets. He groped for his bear, who usually slept next to his pillow. His hand closed on a rumpled corner of the bed-sheet.
He was across the room in under ten seconds. If he stood on his very tip-toes he could press the switch that turned on the electric light overhead. The incandescent glow blinded him briefly, but he scrubbed away the sleep from his eyes and surveyed the room. His toys were put away neatly in the toy chest. His books were lined up on the shelf, sorted by the colour of the spines. His bed was somewhat tousled, but there was no sign of his bear. He got down on all fours to peer under the bed. There was nothing there but his little shoes.
Then he remembered. He had been playing on the front lawn that afternoon, under Mother's careful supervision. He had left his bear – Edward Bear, Mother always called him laughingly – under the ash tree by the path.
Strictly speaking he wasn't allowed on the front lawn without his mother. Her grave warning that he would regret it if he disobeyed her resonated in his mind. Well then, she would just have to get up and come with him. Or else let him crawl into bed between her and Da. Either solution would suit him just fine.
He crossed the hallway, but his parents' door was closed. Frowning, he reached up to jiggle the door-handle. Still the door did not open. It was locked.
He thought about knocking, but he did not want to wake his father. His father had an important job in London, and he needed his sleep. The little boy yawned expansively. He needed his sleep too, but he could hardly be expected to go back to bed without his mother or his bear. If he got Mother he would wake up Da, so it had to be the bear.
He descended the stairs carefully; THUMP-bump, THUMP-bump. He hurried to the front door. He would be down to the ash tree and back before anybody missed him. He reached for the door-handle and stopped. He had forgotten the new locks.
Frustrated, he sat down in the middle of the entryway. He knew how to wiggle the knob lock so that it opened, but the other two – the deadbolt and the chain – were too high for him to reach. The back door had a deadbolt now, too. There had been a great frenzy of locksmithing two weeks ago.
He was defeated. If only he had left his bear in the garden, he might have gone out the back way.
A grin spread across his face. He could go out that way, and he could climb over the little white gate and get onto the front lawn. Happily he padded down the hall to the other end of the house. Once again his mother's warning resonated in his ears, but regret was such a vague concept to a four-year-old that the caveat seemed much less important than his present mission.
He checked the deadbolt and almost laughed out loud with delight. It wasn't locked! The knob that worked it was going up-and-down like a nose. When the door was locked, it went side-to-side like a mouth, smiling because nobody could get in. Gleefully he gripped the door knob and wiggled until it clicked loose in his hand. He turned it and tugged.
The door did not move.
He tugged harder. It was stuck somehow; that was all. He pulled and pulled with all his might, but it still would not yield.
In the sitting room his mother's cuckoo clock rang out three times. The little boy counted with the clock, husbanding his strength and focus for one final mammoth effort.
He thought of his bear, out there under the ash tree. He thought of the way the door usually felt when he turned the knob and it swung open. He thought about thrusting his whole weight upon it. He turned the knob and pulled. Nothing happened. He tried again
Then suddenly there was a crackling in the air and a quick whiff of magic, and the boy sprang backwards as the door opened. He landed on his backside against the cellar door. He popped to his feet and stepped out into the cool summer night, meticulously drawing the door behind him so that it clicked closed.
His bare toes gripped the edge of the stoop as he peered out into the garden. It looked different by moonlight. The roses were black, and the vegetable garden looked like a sea of twisted roots. The acanthus stalks were rustling ominously in the wind. He hoped there were no Murtlaps hiding in the flowers.
Mustering his courage, he turned his mind back to his errand. Down the pebble path, up over the gate, grab his bear and run back before he was missed. There were streetlights in front of the house; it wouldn't be so dark out on the lawn. Carefully he put out his left foot, lowering it into the pebbles with a soft shushing sound. His right foot followed. He took two firm, sure steps forward, then another and another.
The acanthus stalks rustled again.
The boy held his breath. He could hear something in the darkness, and it didn't sound like a Murtlap. It was a low, rumbling sound like the engine of the Morris Minor when his mother turned the key. His heart started to hammer against his chest as the flower-stalks danced in the moonlight. His analytical young mind worked through the list of simple explanations, and that was when he realized that there was no wind.
There was something hiding in the acanthus bed. He scanned the length of the fence frantically, trying to figure out what it was. Stories of dragons and Erumpents filled his imagination with a blur of frightening images. He took a tiny step backward. The rumbling noise grew deeper. There was a low, ominous snarl.
Terrified, he tried to run. The pebbles beneath his heels slipped, and he fell to his hands and knees. Pain shot up from his palms, but he scrambled to his feet. Something was coming out of the flowers now, something huge and dark with a great shaggy head and bony shoulders that rolled as it walked. All this he took in with one swift glance before he ran for the door. He seized the knob, but his hands were slippery with blood and he could not make it turn. There was a bone-chilling howl as the great monster sprung.
And afterward, for a long time, there was nothing but pain.