The broken chess piece
The stair way was pitch black. No light penetrated by this third flight. Step, step, step, step.
Grrr... rrrr... rrr... rrr... Grrr... rrrr... rrr... rrr...
A steady growling noise from somewhere above kept time with the climbing footsteps, but Antigone Sutch did not hesitate. Step, step, step, step.
She reached the top. It wasn't a landing, merely a step a little broader than the others. One solid door with no handle was straight ahead of her. She set her palm against the cold metal plate that could be felt in the centre of the door. It opened instantly.
The noise continued louder in here; the marble continued to roll slowly back and forth across the bare wood floor. It was still pitch black. Antigone raised her wand, murmured "Lumos," and crossed the small, dark room to the door beyond. She pushed it open.
There was light in here. Poor, straggling twilight from the small, grubby dormer window at the end of the room. A workbench littered with wood shavings was squeezed under the window, and the speaker sat at it. Her brother Abraxus.
All Sutches looked like that. The blue-black hair; the pale skin, the vague hint of mongoloid eyelids that came with their family's magic. All Sutches except... Tiggy gestured in vague inquiry towards the noise of the marble in the other room.
Rax shrugged. "It was all that would keep him quiet."
Tiggy nodded. "You hungry?"
"Little sister, there's no point in asking me that." Rax stood up and stretched cramped arms. "I'm always hungry... I could eat a bear!"
It was a well-worn joke for a perpetual problem, and Tiggy smiled. "Bears were too expensive. I'll make soup."
Rax flicked his wand at the wood shavings, and they whirled in a flurry to the empty grate. "Need a hand?"
Tiggy shook her head. "The basket's not that heavy. You keep working."
She went back through the dividing door. Grrr... rrr... rrr... rrr... The marble rolled unceasingly in the dark.
Grrr... rrr... rrr... rrr... It came from somewhere in the far corner, and Tiggy raised her wand a little higher. The usual spot, behind the wing chair. It was Anticles Sutch's favourite hiding place.
"I'm going to make dinner now," Tiggy announced, for the sake of covering over the ceaseless noise, rather than because she expected any answer. "We're having soup. You like soup, don't you, Cles?"
Grrr... rrr... rrr... rrr...
"What did you do while I was out, then? Were you good?" Tiggy held her wand up to the old oil lamp on its hook from the ceiling. The oil was awfully low, and there hadn't been any for sale cheap anywhere for weeks, but she couldn't see to cook without some light. Not soup, anyway. "Ignitio."
She trimmed the wick to keep the light as low and economical as possible, and began to unpack the basket. "Parsnips. Parsnip soup. The mangy tops don't really matter." The old black cauldron swung off the crane and on to the table at her wand command, and two knives began to chop the vegetables. "Were you good?" Tiggy repeated. "Like Tiggy told you to be? Good for Rax? That's my fine little brother."
Grrr... rrr... rrr... rrr...
"Rax is very busy at present, isn't he? It's a big order, even if it won't pay very well. Pay something, won't it, Cles? Enough to buy more lamp oil. Not that you mind."
Grrr... rrr... rrr...Click! The marble had gone down a hole. Tiggy whirled around before any noise could come from behind the wing chair. "There now, there now... Tiggy get it back for you," she murmured soothingly, crouching down to peer about on the floor. There were so many mouse holes in the floor back here – it could have gone down any of them.
She poked her wand down a likely looking large hole. "Accio marble?" The hands searching for their marble reached suddenly out towards the wand, and Tiggy snatched it back from the hole. On no account must Anticles ever get hold of a wand. He could do quite enough damage as it was...
A warning whine rose as the hands felt only emptiness with no marble, the small body stiffened. "Oh, Cles..." With a resigned sigh, Tiggy rose and scooped him up onto one hip, her wand held at arm's length in the other hand. She carried him across the room to the mantelpiece and stowed the wand in the charm-protected pot from where no accidental magic could summon it. "Rax... I'm going to need a hand with dinner after all."
Long ago, life had not been like this. The Sutches made wizard chess pieces; had done so, father and son, for generations. Ever since, in fact, East-Indian-Trader-Sutch had brought home to England his Mongol wife. With her had come a large dowry, the faces, the chess pieces – and the magic. It was a strong line of magic: there were no squibs among the Sutches, and the magic on their chess sets did not fail. But they did not pay very well. Perhaps the chess pieces lasted too well. Perhaps the Sutches were always doomed to things that were too good – like the Mongol wife.
Within Tiggy's recollection was a time that was too good. There had been something else. Something that paid better. She had not really understood what. The something had involved people. People who came and went through their house – there had been a house, then. People who came and went by night; who might stay for a day or a night; who hung black hoods and masks up in the hall. Life had been happy.
And then the people had stopped coming. Father had stopped going out. And everybody, everywhere, was talking about The-Boy-Who-Lived, and You-Know-Who-Vanishing – whatever that meant. Tiggy didn't know Who. Rax never said whether he did. Cles was too little.
One more night, the People had come back. Low, angry voices. Sodden cloaks in the hall. Three men and a dark-browed woman, whose harsh voice penetrated even to the playroom on the top floor: "...try to find him!"
They only stayed one night. And in the next week good became too good. Everybody, everywhere, was talking about 'The Longbottoms.' Angry men in red, Auror robes came by day and took Father away. In the Ministry interrogation cells, Pericles Sutch, arrested Death Eater, had started to talk.
The Daily Prophet had proclaimed it as a triumph.
The next day Pericles Sutch was dead in his cell. And little, bright, innocently-three-year-old Anticles had answered the front door.
He had probably saved their lives. That magical bond demanded they protect what remained of his.
Rax opened the dividing door. "What's the matter?"
"The marble went down a hole," said Tiggy, gently swinging Cles to and fro on her hip. "I tried to summon it back and he grabbed for the wand. It's upset him."
"Oh." There was nothing more to be said. They both knew what Cles upset was like. Rax came in, shut the door and investigated the table. "Parsnip soup again?"
"Parsnips are cheap. Unless you fancy the surplus meat from Mother Hubbard's fingernail business?"
"Root veg is fine." He peered about, and jabbed his wand up at the lamp. "I can't see."
"Well, I could," Tiggy half-snapped. "Turn it down again, or we'll die in the dark."
"I'd rather take the risk of that in the future than be poisoned in the semi-gloom now," Rax retorted, lowering the light levels again. "Tell me where to find a potato."
"In the basket. The squashy things with eyes."
"I thought you said you didn't get anything from Mother Hubbard," said Rax so quickly they both burst out laughing.
"There now... there now..." The laughter had upset Cles, and Tiggy reverted to swaying him. "There, there..." she murmured soothingly again. It wasn't working. She changed the words:
"Sssss... ssss... ssss... ssss... Sssss... ssss... ssss... ssss..." A slow, strangled hissing noise. In the past it had been made by the scariest of the People as they came and went. Tiggy hated it: hated to hear it, hated to make it. It was the only thing that truly calmed Cles.
He had been like this since they had found him on the day Father died: the Dark Side's revenge on a man who had seen and heard and said too much. Anticles had been missing for hours. Then he had reappeared on the doorstep. Bald. Blind. A shrunken baby who never grew or changed again. With a malicious touch, elephant-eared. And, whether by design or as a side effect, mad.
Tiggy had occasionally wondered since what the point of attacking Cles had been. Father had been killed already. But mostly, just as when she had been eight, that was how life was. That was how Cles was. He was still magic. All Sutches were. But he could not use it, or control it. Only his mindless, baby, moods brought it dangerously out. For fourteen years they had lived to avoid those. He was still their brother.
No Healer could touch that Dark Magic. No Healer would deal with a Sutch at all, they had found. Mother had grown ill and weak from the shock. No Healer would come to her. She had died. Everything had gone. All they had had left was Grandfather, who had lived in these two shabby rooms at the top of the stairs, in a house on Knockturn Alley.
Old Artaxerxes Sutch had not been pleased to have them. Three extra mouths to feed. School was out of the question. He could not manage 'the brat.' When Rax and then Tiggy turned eleven and the Hogwarts enquirers came, he locked the children in the attic. "He would teach them himself." The Sutches' reputation went before them. Nobody expected that the children of a self-confessed Death Eater, who had not given up with his Master's defeat, would do anything other than be trained in the Dark Arts. No more was said.
Grandfather was dead by the time they came regarding Anticles. It was Rax who locked the door and faced the intruders at the bottom of the stairs. "My brother will be educated as I was." There was no hope of that. But no-one was going to find out about Cles. No-one was going to take him away and lock him in a cell. Let them think what they liked...
Grandfather had not taught them Dark Arts, but what he had learned at Hogwarts seventy years before. Transfiguration, Charms – they were tricky because the practical magic upset Cles, especially if it went wrong. But History of Magic, Ancient Runes, Arithmancy, even Herbology and Potions – all those were wonderfully possible to learn out of a book. They had to share Grandfather's old school books. Even fourth-hand textbooks from Whitburn & Thom's bookshop at the grotty end of Diagon Alley were too expensive. But they were still books. Tiggy loved books. They were friends, companions, comrades. If you only had a few, you could appreciate their characters. Bathilda Bagshot's History of Magic was fat and dumpy, its spotted pages edged with gold like an old lady's hands with liver spots and gold rings. Introduction to Arithmancy by Profezzorio Calcuolli was thin and upright: exactly Tiggy's idea of a stern schoolmaster. And 1001 Household Spells and Charms, published 1903, out of which Tiggy had rapidly to learn how to help round the household, was simply motherly. It was big and sturdy; its faded red cover, and ripped spine sticking out like an apron, were reassuring; and the many previous owners' notes were like words of extra advice when you were in an especial fix.
Apart from schoolbooks, all Tiggy had were five volumes that had once been Grandmother's. An incomplete set of Young Witches of the World: five thrilling if old-fashioned tales of witches who had wonderful adventures in different far-flung regions of the globe. Their endpapers were scribbled on, their dust jackets missing and covers faded – but Tiggy loved them. Their faded covers always seemed comfortingly like her own shabby clothes, and the characters in them had difficulties too. Even once she knew them by heart, Tiggy would pass the long hours when Cles was fretting overnight by rocking his trundle bed with one hand, and reading Young Witches by the light of her wand in the other.
Her wand. It was their Mother's wand. Rax and Tiggy had had to share it, for wands again were too expensive, even if any wand maker would have sold a wand to a Sutch. When Grandfather had been dying, he had made Rax disarm him: "Then the wand will obey you."
The wand obeyed Rax. So did the chess pieces. 'Lessons' had only ever been in the mornings. In the afternoons, they had learned the Sutches' trade. Wood, bone, ivory... chess sets must be carved and old pieces repaired – that was the only way they could live. Rax was better at it than Tiggy. When Grandfather died, he became the breadwinner, the full-time carver. Tiggy was the housekeeper, and did the other work on the chess pieces – the rough cutting of blocks, the polishing, the taking-to-the-post.
Nobody looked at the shabby witch in the queue at the post office. Grandfather had taught them perfectly one more thing: To Mind their Own Business. It was the way to live on Knockturn Alley. To know your neighbours so far and no further. To have them know you so far and no further. They had no trouble. Actual Death Eaters were few in Knockturn Alley. So many years after, Death Eaters in general were imprisoned or dead like Father, or busy preserving the veneer of strict respectability which had kept them out of Azkaban. Knockturn Alley was not respectability. Here were the small and questionable, the petty crooks and dodgy pasts and unsavoury-but-not-convicted interests. The ruined family of a known Death Eater were let alone.
"Sss... sss... sss..."
Anticles was asleep before the soup was done, and Tiggy had to spoon it into him.
"We had an owl today," Rax remarked, scraping his bowl very thoroughly.
"An enquiry..." said Rax, with sceptical emphasis. "Mr Dedalus Diggle wanted to know the price of a full set of giant garden chess pieces. Probably to work out whether it was worth buying a muggle set to enchant himself and risk the Ministry's wrath or not."
Tiggy peered round the small kitchen, and considered the size of the front room. "How giant?"
"About two foot high, he said – if he likes the quote." Rax shrugged. "I'd better get the first batch of these Christmas cracker sets finished, just in case." He looked at Tiggy. "I'll need some light, little sister."
"Take it," said Tiggy, pointing at the lamp with resignation. "If you get a batch done for me to post, I can probably get some oil on tick from the post office witch's sister-in-law at the Apothecaries on Diagon Alley. I'll go and see tomorrow."
A/N: Historical note for the non-British – the British Empire in India began via the private East India Trading Company in the 17th century. Their 'Traders' made vast fortunes and lived like royalty both in India and when they returned home. Such was East-Indian-Trader-Sutch – a most undeniable muggle!