It was the second time he had had to shield her against Marlowe. She mouthed a “thanks” and looked down, embarrased.
He shrugged it off, and instead, came over and gave her a one-sided hug.
The air-wall suddenly seemed to explode away, and the trapped blue curse richoted off the stone floor and instead fell on one of the empty benches, completely incinerating it to pieces.
Everyone had grown completely silent and still, their eyes moving from the two shaking teenagers in the middle of the arena to the pile of ashes that had once been a bench.
Professor McGonagall was the first to react. She lowered her wand (after obilerating the air-fence) and sped towards Maitri and Sirius, literally throwing her arms around them. Keeping a rigid arm around both of them, she steered them away from Marlowe and nodded to Byrne, who levitated the still boy out of the Great Hall. Professor Flitwick bounced over to Mi Chang and renervated her as well, and assigned a dazed looked Third Year Ravenclaw to assist her to the Hospital wing.
McGonagall then led them into a small room off the Great Hall, where Potter and Walker had been led to after qualifying to the finals. Maitri and Sirius found both the boys sitting on chairs at opposite ends of the room, staring off at the numerous portraits cluttered around. Upon seeing Sirius, Potter jumped up and ran forward to hug his best friend.
“I knew you’d make it, mate!” he declared, putting on the airs of a prophet. McGonagall gave a stern look, which made Potter retract his cheeky smile. The professor let go of Maitri and Sirius, the latter of whom was literally dragged away by his best friend to discuss about the glory of the second duel. Which, apparently, Potter and Walker had missed out on because of their instructions to stay in the room for some rules to be explained.
It was at that moment that Dumbledore stepped into the room. He was pale in the feeble candlelight, much whiter than Maitri had ever seen him.
“Mr, Potter and Mr. Walker can leave now,” the headmaster said. “I believe they have been given their guidelines for the last match?”
Professor Sinistra, who had been in charge of it, nodded curtly and gestured both of them to leave the room. Potter winked at Sirius and literally hopped out of the room in glee.
There was a great rumbling sound as students began to clear out of the Great Hall. Aurora Sinistra left the four of them and slipped back outside. It took quite a while for everything to quiten down, during which time, Maitri and Sirius looked from each other’s faces to McGonagall’s grave and Dumbledore’s pale faces.
“We are going to play the final level, right?” Maitri asked after a long while, glancing at Dumbledore’s tightening jawline. “We did, technically, win.”
McGonagall looked at the girl, surprised.
“You want to fight, dear?” the usually stern professor asked in an unusually soft voice. “Even after being hit by that curse?”
“I want to,” Maitri admitted. “Moreover, it didn’t last for very long, did it? Sirius here took care of it. I think we’d make a good team in the next duel.”
Sirius gave her a small smile, which she interpreted as him agreeing with her point.
“I think it would be better to let her in, Minerva,” Dumbledore said quietly.
“But, Albus, the Cruciatus-!” McGonagall began hotly.
“If it is what she wants to do,” Dumbledore interrupted her. “I think she should do it. Afterall, she is right. Mr. Black did manage to get her out of two very dangerous curses today.” He glanced down at the boy, almost approvingly. “Give them their guidelines and let them prepare for the last match.”
McGonagall gaped at Dumbledore for about a moment before she regained her senses and stared at both the students.
“Very well, then,” she said in an irritable voice. “Here are your rules for the last match. Both of you will work as a team. You can switch opponents and combine spells…”
The rules went on for a good 10 minutes, which was probably why the opponent pair did not get to see their duel at all. Most them were interesting, but Maitri realized that they required a group training. At least now, she was happy that there was a week ahead of her, and Alex and Severus to help her out. She wanted to win this tournament now, more than ever, especially having gotten humiliated by falling prey to that vicious curse of Marlowe’s in front of the whole school. A week from now, and nobody would again even think of using an Unforgivable curse on her.
“Well, that’s it, then,” McGonagall wrapped it up. “Mr. Black, be on time for your detention this evening. I’m not excusing you or Potter just because you got through to the final match!”
“But Minnie!” Sirius whined, some of his earlier cheekiness coming back to him. “We won the Quidditch Cup!”
Professor McGonagall just shook her head and walked out the room, nodding to Dumbledore as she passed by him.
“That’s not convincing, either!”
Sirius shrugged and exchanged a look with Professor Dumbledore, who nodded indifferently.
“I suppose you just have to find a new reason by dinner, Mr. Black,” the headmaster advised enigmatically. Sirius smiled wryly and nodded before following his Head of the House’s footsteps.
“What was that about?” Maitri asked, stepping closer to Dumbledore.
“Mr. Black’s campaign to impress Minerva with some rather unusual magicall skills,” the headmaster explained in mock seriousness. “Involving a few other, poor, students and a boxful of contained, developed magical items.”
Maitri chuckled with the headmaster as his attempt of a joke, but both of stopped rather quickly. Dumbledore looked at the tired girl for a moment and then slowly spread his arms, inviting her for a hug.
Maitri ran to him and hugged him tightly, letting her tears fall at last. She had been holding in ever since the Cruciatus, which now seemed like forever. Her old terror of death at Slytherin hands had returned briefly; even the bright sunlight from the enchanted ceiling of the Hall had had no effect – it felt exactly like people who wanted to just torture and kill her had surrounded her.
“He won’t come back, will he?” she asked in a small voice.
Dumbledore’s usually twinkling eyes were filled with a great sadness, tears accumulating at the corners.
“No, no,” he assured Maitri, brushing her long, plaited hair with his wrinkled hands. “No, he won’t. Don’t fear, dear child, don’t fear. Fear is the worst enemy, not pain, nor anger. Hush, hush, now.”
“Go on, take some deep breaths,” a soft musical voice was telling her. “Breathe in… breathe o-o-o-out; yes, that’s good.”
Maitri sat at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, on a flat piece of rock. It was almost dawn, and it had just occurred to her that she needed to meditate. There were many unwanted thoughts and not-so-needed fears running through her, which she desperately needed to sort out before the big, final dueling match.
Deep in the trance, Maitri had a soft, imaginary voice guiding her out. It sounded vaguely like Dhruvan and his mystical ways of speech. It helped her relax.
It was the day of the Finals. Maitri realized she couldn’t sleep past 3 o’clock, which led her to creep out silently into the Lake. But it was just too dark underwater, which had compelled her to try whiling her time with the Founders’ portraits – only to find the frames empty. The forest was a wonderful third option to calm her nerves.
When Maitri opened her eyes, a half-hour later, she took a double take. Right in front of her, almost nose to nose with her, was a unicorn. In addition, not just a unicorn, but an under-developed adult unicorn, which didn’t seem much bigger than the foals Hagrid and Maitri had coaxed from the forest for Kettleburn’s OWL revision, just a week ago.
The unicorn’s horn, though fully developed, rested lightly on the top of Maitri’s head. The beast itself breathed in the same rhythm as the girl, who couldn’t help but notice that there was some overpowering familiarity in its beautiful, deep, amber eyes, and the way it met her gaze.
“Hello,” Maitri whispered.
You are the Little One,
the unicorn neighed softly. Aren’t you?
“They call me so, yes.”
Can I have a look at your helping-stick?
“Helping… oh, my wand?” Maitri asked. The unicorn blinked once. Taking it as a yes, she pulled out her wand from one of her cloak pockets and held it in her palm. The unicorn stepped back a foot and lowered its pure white head until it was eye-level with the wand. Then, without warning, the unicorn opened its mouth and closed its lips around the tip of the purple wand. Maitri controlled her instinct to shoot sparks into the beast, but very barely. She was in utter terror of losing her wand.
A minute later, the unicorn released the wand and looked up at her again.
Can you shoot silver sparks for me, please?
Maitri continued to hold the unicorn’s gaze as she twirled her wand around in mid-air, causing bright silver sparks to shoot out. Since it was still relatively dark all around, the silver shined entirely too brightly.
The beast seemed mesmerized by the display of magic.
The silver, Little One, it neighed. Do you know the nature of it?
Maitri was taken aback. The nature of silver? What was that to unicorns? She pondered for a while before she realized the significance.
“It is the color of your blood, isn’t it?” she said, hoping that was the answer the unicorn was expecting.
Exactly the color of my blood, the unicorn neighed enigmatically. This is the only Spiritwood in miles, Little One.
Maitri couldn’t tell if the unicorn meant to connect both sentences. “I don’t really know,” she admitted.
But it is,
the unicorn assured her. Spiritwood can be made into a magically operative device only by association of unicorn blood. Which is why the silver of your magic is more like my blood than anyone else you may ever associate with.
The girl bit her lip and considered the words of the unicorn. She remembered the contents of her wand, too, as Ollivander had told her more than 4 years ago – selkie tailbone, unicorn bone marrow. It only then struck her that the bone marrow might have been taken from a living unicorn, since it was made for a witch or wizard to be used during his/her lifetime.
Maitri lifted her palm, trembling with anticipation, and held her hand hand out to the unicorn. The beast hesitated a moment before pressing its muzzle into the middle of her palm. The girl reeled in a deluge of shock, wonder and the awe of familiarity.
“It is your bone marrow in my wand, isn’t it?” she asked. There was an air of calm acceptance around the unicorn, which led her to believe the truth even before the great white head bobbed up and down. “How did it get there?”
The unicorn settled down on the grass near Maitri and rested its head on her lap, in such a way that the horn didn’t hurt her. The girl was first surprised, but she slowly began to stroke the animal and felt it relax at her touch. She mused as she went over Professor Kettleburn’s advice on how much unicorns prefer the light touch of a lady over a man.
Unicorns, dear one, the beast exhaled slowly and softly, are not beings who are easily caught by human snares, despite what you may believe. We do not suddenly weaken and let a human catch up with us if there is danger. We certainly do not get ourselves caught because we want to be petted and prodded by ignorant adolescents.
Maitri gasped in surprise; the unicorn had read her thoughts.
We are compassionate beings, the unicorn continued. We see the wonder in a human’s eyes, the frantic anxiety of your beating heart, and the want to make us comfortable to your presence. We know that most of the human young are just as ignorant and innocent as our own foals, which is why few among out herd allow ourselves to be coaxed by the huge man to come back here.
“So, planned captures,” Maitri repeated, still stroking the soft mane of the unicorn. “Was that how you gave out the bone marrow for my wand?”
It started out as a very gentle coup, the unicorn replied. The girl noted that the tone of the beast’s neigh had suddenly turned sour. I was a foal, still in my silver hide, and with a horn that rivaled all my age. I was easily the most magnificient foal in my herd, and destined to become the biggest stallion and lead the herd. I was more compassionate than a dryad was; I was faster than the wind and brighter than the moon and the snow put together.
Maitri could understand the sourness as she surveyed the underdeveloped body of the unicorn. It was the correct size of a healthy adolescent foal, but it was atleast two sizes smaller than even the average adult unicorn.
The human child sent out to coax me was no more than eight human years – a fearless, kind and loving creature, the unicorn continued. I let her draw me out, fascinated by the brave act. She led me to a human adult, her mother, I presume, who stroked me just as lovingly. It was the first time I had interacted with humans, and their love moved me much that I decided to give out a gift to them. I let my tail catch on a broken nail, and plucked out a few hairs. The girl was delighted to see the long, bright strands of silver glisten in the light. That night, for the first time in ages, the family of the little girl had a plateful of dinner and some food to spare for the next day.
Maitri doubled up and lighly hugged the unicorn’s neck. It was a beautiful deed. The Slytherin girl realized that the young girl, whoever had coaxed out this unicorn, had been desperate and brave enough to approach a unicorn for help in order to support her hungry family.
The human-filly, the unicorn neighed again. Was even more kind to me after that. She gave me the freshest grass to feast upon, the clearest water she could find, and sang to me. I stayed with the family, knowing that I was a great help to them, and because the child made my heart warm. I gave them more of my tailhairs, some of my mane, a pint of sweat and a broken tooth. It gave them what they needed to survive, and made them love me more.
One day, the youngest human filly in the family, no more than two summers, fell prey to an unthinkable disease. Various people visited the family, and left them with lesser hope remaining. As a last resort, I went forward and attended to the child, who was, I know, suffering from the onset of a dark disease. The only cure would be to drink an infusion of wolfsbane with unicorn blood or crushed bone. To this family I loved more than the world, I decided to let go of my first, glorious horn.
Tears were running down Maitri’s cheeks now. For a unicorn, to give up a horn would have been more painful than a human to give up their eye or tongue.
It was not painless: I had to will my bone sever at the point at which it may grow again. A unicorn’s horn may grow many times over, but the first one is always the most potent.
“I’ve heard,” Maitri whispered encouragingly when the unicorn stopped unexpectedly. “That unicorn horns are so magical that they heal any disease and bring alive a person on the doorstep of death.”
That is true, Little One, the unicorn replied. My first horn, well grown, over two feet long, was the best thing about me. The mother took it, gave it to her oldest child and told him to fetch the healer who could brew the infusion. The human foal, as young as fourteen winters, disappeared for a long while. The next time I set eyes on him, he was tied and dragged in ropes by a score of men with handles of fire. You see, Little One, I was weak, with the pain of the loss, and imbalanced by the absence of my horn. Despite my attempts to come between the family and the thugs, I was pushed aside and clubbed. Before I lost my consciousness, I was made aware of the fact that the family I loved so much had been burned alive in their own home.
Maitri gasped in horror. To hurt a unicorn was to live with a curse. To kill a family was beyond all curses!
The tale does not end there, lovely child, the unicorn continued sadly. Though I had been led to believe the entire family died, hours later I woke up to find the boy alive, and tied down to the same length of wood as I. The horn I had given up, I gleaned, hung with a hilt from our captor’s belt. With my teeth and magic, I was able to free the child and myself; we overpowered our captor, and retrieved the horn. This attracted the attention of the other men, who closed in and attacked us. I stood between them and the child, believing some of my strengths had come back and nudged him to flee as fast as he could. The boy ran, ran and ran. But I was no match for the strength of a score of adult humans.
The girl sobbed silently, hugging the unicorn. There were waves of pain emanating from its neighs, and Maitri couldn’t help getting affected by it.
I was captured, again, and chained up. Before a month passed, however, my horn started to grow again – this led them to deduce my actual identity. Once they realized I was a unicorn, and not a full grown one, they plucked out my tail and my mane. I was starved if I didn’t let go of anything. I held off for weeks until I lost consciousness, and the men plucked me out to the point of making my hide raw and thin. And then I’d be shut for days and weeks until my mane and tail grew out again.
Maitri was confused. She was almost certain that normal horses couldn’t regrow tails once they were plucked out. Perhaps, a unicorn may be different. And that difference had nearly cost this one his life.
I don’t know how many years passed this way. I was captive to brutal humans, and children feared they would punished if they came near me. My horn wouldn’t grow as fast as my earlier one did. My coat slowly lost its silver sheen and dulled out to the white of my herd adults. The men even collected the silver moulted hair and wove them into chains. I was valuable to them even in my weakest state possible. They grew prosperous selling all that they tore off me. They never suspected the curse growing upon them. They forgot about the boy who ran away with my first horn.
I did not. I still remember the day the child came back as a human adult. He had the same anger that had burned in him the day I set him free. He came back with an army of creatures, closely related to my own kind: Thestrals. And he had with him three people of extraordinary magical powers. And in his hand, my horn, which had been strengthened with a coating of faerie blood and pixie dust.
I clearly remember the demise of every single men in the settlement, the unicorn told the girl, who was beginning to understand where the tale was going to. I was suddenly free, and I was cared for. The man-who-was-a-child remembered me, and took me under his care. One of his friends, a great healer in her time, assumed responsibilities to return me to my health. But the damage had been done, and I had been affected too much to grow out into a proper adult unicorn.
Maitri’s cheek was resting lightly on the side of the unicorn’s head. She could feel the warmth and the shame of the creature, and hugged it even closer.
The man whom I rescued as a child, rescued me, and returned me to this forest that I grew up in. But I couldn’t return to my herd. They would shun me. I was a shame. He understood me, and allowed me to roam the precints of his new home, and continued to use my horn as his magical aid. After his death, many, many years later, he was laid to rest, and the horn was – with my permission – given to a magical-stick maker, who later strengthened it by binding it to the bone of a mermaid’s tail and the wings of a dryad. Over the time, the bone, I heard, had dissolved out, but the marrow that produced my blood still lived on.
“And now, I have the wand,” Maitri completed softly. The knowledge was overwhelming. It hadn’t struck her before, that her seemingly normal wand had once been fashioned from an actual unicorn horn. Even more petrifying was the fact that it was living marrow in its core. Every bit of magic that came out of the wand definitely was spiked with the unicorn’s own blood magic, and therefore twice more significant than normal wand with powdered unicorn horn, or tailhair or even manehair. “Wow,” the girl breathed.
She traced the now visible scars on the unicorn’s neck and torso, where she surmised ropes had bound the creature. It was an immensely sad business, to know that someone had tied down a unicorn foal that is meant to frolick in the light and wake of magic. The abuse of magic or magical creatures, from the later half of the 20th century, warranted serious action. However, by the long-faded nature of the scars, Maitri suspected that many years had passed since the incident.
“When did you come by Hogwarts?” Maitri asked and regretted as soon as she did. The question sounded awkward even inside her mind than out in the air.
Well over a thousand years, the beast replied calmly. The girl’s eyes widened; she had underestimated the lifespan of unicorns. And for the past four winters, I have tried to meet you alone, Little One, to have one more chance to touch my first horn.
She looked at the wand, which was still in her hand, and tried to visualize what all it had been through. She then tried to figure what kind of a person must the boy have been to have learnt to use for magical aid. Surely, it must have been one of the greatest wizards in the land.
“Who was it, who wielded this wand first?” she asked the unicorn.
The child whom I rescued was no ordinary person, the unicorn replied. Even as foals and fillies, the family that had cherished me were much different from other humans.
All the five children could converse with animals, the unicorn explained. The girl who coaxed me was a speaker of the Horse; the youngest filly, a speaker of Birds; the third foal, a speaker of Frogs; the second filly, a speaker of the Fishes. The eldest child was a speaker of Lizards. Especially, snakes.
Parseltongue screamed Maitri’s mind. Nevertheless, if those children had abilities to speak to different families in the animal kingdom, Maitri could understand the speech of almost all those animals. So what was she?
“I… I can understand what all animals mean to say,” she confided softly. “So, what is it that is different about me and other humans?”
The unicorn did not answer immediately. He slowly stood on his hooves, and turned to face the girl. Somehow, the slow pace of the action made him seem much wearier, battered and scarred.
What you are, dear child, is that you’re a child of the forest. Of the wild. The unicorn’s eyes fixed hers with a curiously kind expression. Of those who live on magic, and not with.
Maitri returned the gaze and felt her stomach tightly getting wound by the unicorn’s inexplicable words. A flash of red touch the corner of her vision, and Maitri looked up to see Fawkes circling the Headmaster’s office.
When she looked back, the unicorn was gone. So was her peace of mind.
There was a deep sense of fulfillment when you beat the air out of a rival – someone, say, like Snivellus. Or maybe, that little mongoose-faced Avery. Even that oaf, Muciber.
However, the decision whether you wanted to best your best friend was a tricky one. Sirius was at the end of his wits the days following the crucial semi-final duel. Evan Walker, he can easily hate; but, James, who was like a second brother to him, was kind of a hard opponent. Reason number one: he was a terribly good dueler, who didn’t exactly mind even Voldemort for an opponent, and would last long enough for Dumbledore to directly assign him detention. Reason number two, Sirius did not exactly like fighting with James. It messed up the Marauder-ship.
“That’s the silliest reason in the world, Sirius,” Emily had said when he told her about his inhibitions against dueling James. “And moreover, you could always speak to Maitri and make sure she handles him, and not you.”
“It’s not supposed to be like the last match, Ro,” he tried to explain. “The final one involves both teammates firing combines or collective spells at the other team! There’s no way I can pick one opponent over the other.”
Emily fixed him with a confused half-smile, before leaning in to place a chaste, quick kiss on his lips.
“I think you’ll get over this dilemma in the ring,” she assured him. “You are the most macho and noble Gryffindor I’ve ever seen, and that means you are not going to leave a teammate behind unprotected. Remember, Maitri Harys is my friend, too, which means I’m straddling you with the responsibility.”
Sirius could do nothing but smile weakly as his guts knotted themselves tightly in the region around his stomach.
“Opponents,” Professor Byrne announced. “Bow to each other!”
Maitri bent her neck as little as possible, doing her best to not take her eyes off Potter or Walker. Potter was glaring at her in open hostility. She tried to match him.
“Let the duel begin!”
Maitri caught the flair of a gesture on her right; Sirius was signaling her to move closer and cover his flank. Slowly, the two of them managed to edge close enough to protect each other’s back, even as they maintained the ritualistic pre-duel circling.
Over the past few days, under the tutelage of Alexander Messiers (and some private lessons for Maitri with a vengeful Severus Snape), Sirius and his teammate practised to fight as one person instead of two. Emily MacArthur had supervised the last few sessions and approved of Sirius’ noble rushes to Maitri’s aid. Ever since the unicorn, Maitri had a conviction to make the first owner of her wand, the Parseltongue hero, proud; she doubled her efforts and learnt, for the first time, to conjure flames, rocks and mountains of cotton floss.
The last had been a kind of joke between Sirius Black and Remus Lupin. A joke which involved the phrase ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’. Emily and Alex had been properly confused. Maitri shook her head gravely at Lupin, who winked at her, acknowledging her interpretation.
“Focus!” Sirius hissed sharply, making Maitri jump of the trance of floss. The girl surveyed the opponents, and realized that they were to attack in less than a-
“Petrificus totalus!” roared Walker.
Maitri sprang her wandless shield in front of herself and muttered a Sanskrit extention to it, which would enable it to encircle around Sirius as well. She caught a proud smile from the direction Alex was sitting in.
This was the game plan: Sirius on the attack, Maitri on the defense. Sirius with the harsh curses, Maitri with the wandless, nonverbal shields. Sirius with the strength of two spellsmen, Maitri with the speed. It was rather simple, and much approved after the fright of the earlier match.
James Potter was annoyed. He was hoping to get the Slytherin girl to face him instead of his best friend. It was easy to curse somebody snobbish, was weaker than him and had a green crest on their school robes. Sirius was one of the better fighters in the entire school; his precision, skill and aim were partly the reason that made him a Gryffindor Beater. But the girl – the girl was a different matter. She got through by pure cunning and luck. Everyone who could understand Slytherins would know that, of course.
Evan Walker found the match exhilarating. The boy opposite was skilled, but how long would he be able to fight for that wisp of a girl? Two on one was fun, he thought, grinning as he sent another curse zipping towards the opponents. However, the grin turned feral when it, once again, bounced off that godforsaken shield the girl had put up. Walker snarled his famour snarl.
Maitri trembled at the energy waves from both the Gryffindor opponents. Sirius twitched visibly next to her, trying to find foot to down at least one of them. Maitri caught Emily’s worried glance and read it full meaning: I don’t want him hurt, nor you injured, but it’s him I love more.
Maitri tried to pry her way into defense, but, even to her chagrin, Sirius managed to keep both Walker and Potter in check. Then, something both Sirius and Maitri didn’t anticipate happened.
Potter and Walker split. Moving away from each other, the two boys made sure they were on opposite ends of the dueling circle, with Maitri and Sirius in the middle. This forced the two in the centre to turn their backs towards each other to face an opponent.
According to the new rules, a team was to work together. Hence, Potter and Walker fired as many spells combined at both the opponent members. Maitri held up the shield, but now it was more difficult because she couldn’t check whether Sirius could fire away just as many spells through the thick shield (a strong shield often hindered spells from both sides).
“Drop the shield!” he hissed a few seconds later, unable to get any strong curses past Maitri’s defence. The latter winced and lowered the strength of the shield.
Potter ignored Walker’s grin as the older boy struck Sirius with a Spell-form Kick, but noted that the Slytherin girl immediately reached for her partner’s shoulder and whispered low into his ear, after which the boy straightened up as though not affected at all. He redoubled his effort to strike the girl, but she was too quick for him and blocked it just in time.
James was irritated, Sirius noticed, fending off Walker’s Disarming spell. Maitri’s short Sanskrit spell healed him almost immediately – he had to admit she was getting better at them over time. Sirius found his best friend’s eyes wandering at the corner where he knew Lily Evans sat, a row behind Severus Snape, talking to Marlene Mckinnon.
“Levicorpus!” Maitri hissed, jerking Sirius from his short lapse. A bright flash soared under his outstretched arm and hit Walker, who, like a puppet with strings, was lifted upside down in midair, held by an invisible force around his ankles. The crowd broke out into laughter as Walker’s robes fell over his head, exposing bright, multi-colored underpants.
Maitri gasped as the entire Hall paused for a moment, laughter rolling in waves. She turned and stared at Severus, who’d slipped her the name of the spell just before the duel and had assured her that it would slow down an opponent… in an unexpected manner.
“Quick,” she whispered to Sirius. “What’s Latin for ‘free’? ‘Unbind’?”
“Merlin! Are you kidding?” the boy said, letting out a burp of laughter. “You don’t even the counter-spell?”
James Potter had stopped in tracks, trying to explain to Walker that he’d still be able to curse from his upside-down position, if only he could get the hem of his robes out of the way.
Maitri narrowed her eyes at Sirius, who huffed almost audibly.
“Liberus, freeus, I don’t know!”
“Alright, Liberus!” Maitri waved her wand wildly, to no avail. “Oh, wait – Liberacorpus!”
Walker fell with a thump and fainted promptly upon contact with the ground. It was now Potter against two.
James aimed directly for the Slytherin, and tried not to be frustrated when Sirius jumped in front of the girl like a masochist with a look Peter Pettigrew would label as the ‘Don’t-mess-with-someone-as-Sirius-as-I-am’ look.
“You’re being ridiculous,” Maitri informed Sirius in a low tone. “Let me fight.”
“Not after what Marlowe did,” Sirius snapped back, shutting her up. He was exhausted by the duel, but he didn’t want her to think so. James was a tricky dueler and one had to concentrate too well to get put up with him. The powerful spells had already taken much of his energy, and all he could now focus on was make sure Maitri didn’t get a full on blast of James’ Gryffindor-Wrath.
It was more of an accident really, that James’ neatly executed Disarming Spell gotdeflected on one of Maitri’s shields and hit Sirius instead, toppling him over and causing his wand to fly over the dueling ring and land near Walker’s motionless form.
Maitri glanced at Sirius, and tried to figure out whether he got injured somehow, but Potter was already upon her like a hawk.
Though it was only a simple school-level match, Potter already seemed set to take upon an army of wizards, with his frenzy of attacks that he’d trained himself to execute to a point of perfection. Maitri ducked and swerved a lot of unexpected spells (thinking that she should probably get her Transfiguration spells upto Potter’s mark) and often paused mini-seconds trying to analyse the complex array of spells he seemed to be good at.
Punchers, Disformations, Confoundments, Disarmaments… some of them were weak and Maitri suspected that they were attempts to make spells of his own. However, it was not long before Potter fell into spouting the usual curses as other Hogwarts’ students, though he aimed to hurt Maitri more than any spell could.
The girl soon found that Potter was a much more difficult dueling opponent on the single-opposition base. The boy seemed somehow relieved to have Sirius out of the way, and fought with a zest free of anxiety and guilt. In fact, Maitri found herself enjoying the duel like the one she’d had against McKinnon, only twice better because Potter was more skilled. It was a delightful game, and neither of them managed to land any curses on each other, though one of Maitri’s knife-throwing spells came very close to getting itself embedded on Potter before he ducked, just in time.
The ducking gave Maitri just the time she needed. She took in a deep breath and, before Potter got ready to cast his next spell, she placed her wand on the floor in front of her and shakily met his confused stare.
“I concede!” she announced, feeling as though a great weight had been lifted off her chest when she saw Potter lowering his own wand.
The crowded hall broke out into whispers. Sirius, who was propped up on his elbows shared a long look with Emily, who seemed just as confused as everyone around her.
“QUIET!” boomed the deep voice of Professor Dumbledore. The noise abruptly vanished.
Spells zoomed towards the magically fenced dueling ring and disabled all the advanced spells sealing the enclosure. Professors McGonagall and Slughorn then made their way towards the two still standing students in the ring. Slughorn gave Maitri a small, reassuring smile as he waddled over to stand by her.
Maitri returned the wan smile. She heard his thoughts before she read his expression. He knew why she did what she did.
Professor Dumbledore made his way through the intensely keyed up knots of students and stood in the middle of the ring, looking at both the students with an inscrutable expression. The other professors followed him, walking with silent synchrony.
“Why did you concede, Ms. Harys?” he asked in a deep tone that made Maitri think that he was angry, disappointed or definitely curious.
“Exhaustion,” Maitri lied easy. “Mr. Potter’s spells are too powerful. I don’t think I could have held on till the end.”
“You admit defeat?” Professor Flitwick asked in disbelief.
Maitri nodded and kept her eyes to her wand, which was still lay at her feet. She could feel Sirius’ searing stare from her right as Emily, who had been allowed to tend to him, was helping him to his feet. One of Walker’s friends was also present, reviving him.
“Hence, by the Merlinian rules of Magic Dueling,” Professor Byrne declared. “Mr. James Potter of Gryffindor is the single individual winner.”
An overwhelming round of cheers erupted around them. James found himself grinning uncontrollably. Remus and Peter were jumping up and down in glee while Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors yelled at the top of their voices.
“Which naturally means that Ms. Maitri Harys of Slytherin is the single individual runner-up,” Byrne continued, raising his voice above the din. A smatter of polite applause greeted Maitri from the side where Ravenclaws and Slytherins stood. She smiled grimly; no matter what, Slytherin would not show its ugly side for the fame it was now getting.
“In light of the last two rounds, however, there is another accolade to be mentioned,” Professor Dumbledore said, raising his hands to quieten the crows. “As had been seen in the last half-hour, Ms. Harys and Mr. Black had put up a wonderfully united front as a dueling team: naturally, it is them who are the Best Dueling Partners.”
Sirius made an effort to smile, but he was almost fuming inside. He knew that Maitri was not tired and could have bettered James with a few more spells. Her innocent expression, he knew, was a false one. The way she kept her eyes away from him, Snape and Messiers made him sure that there was another, ulterior motive hidden in her action unknown to anyone. Even Professor Dumbledore could see it, with his pointed gaze on the girl who refused to budge out with the simple truth.
Emily hugged him tightly and wished him. Sirius couldn’t help but become overwhelmed by her wonderful presence for the moment, but vowed to himself that he would have a talk with Harys about it soon enough.
Maitri did not want to meet the eyes of anyone. It was one thing being unhurt, but she knew that her Gryffindor friends would have expected her to fight even if there wasn’t a chance of her winning. It was even worse to admit that she wouldn’t fight anymore, as though she were a lowly coward. Perhaps, Potter did think she was a lowly coward.
Slughorn patted the top of her head before he moved back and let her friends envelope her. Alex hugged her, just plain relieved that she wasn’t hurt anyway. Lily screamed in her ears, clearly delighted; Narcissa grinned at her through watery eyes (had she been crying over her?), while Regulus was nowhere nearby. Severus stood back, watching her silently.
He had seen Regulus leave the moment Maitri had conceded. It had taken him five minutes more to understand something that had taken a flash of a second for the younger boy to grasp.
When Maitri caught Severus’ eyes, she closed her own eyes in anticipation. He had worked out for himself the reason for her admittance.
Severus groaned inwardly at the pale, weak smile on Maitri’s face. Oh, you poor fool, he thought, what have you done to yourself?
Do you really think they will accept you as one of them?
Regulus fled from the Great Hall as soon as he could. As though someone whispered in his head, he understood why Maitri put her wand down, met Potter with a steady, unwavering gaze as she announced to concede.
He didn’t head towards the dungeons, where he knew, people would stand jeering about his best friend, no matter how much she did for the house – for them. The teachers maintained a balanced outlook on the Slytherin students’ attitude just because most of them like Maitri, and hopedb that there were more like her in the house she had been sorted into.
Regulus snarled at thought. There was no one like Maitri. No one knew how to appreciate her for being where she was, braving the hostility from people who had once been in favour of her, for standing up for her friends, for standing up in the spur of the moment what she knew was noble. Nobody, Regulus thought disparagingly, would appreciate the decision she had taken only a few minutes ago, even if they understood the truth behind it. Even if they knew the price it had nearly costed. There would be criticisms, even few low comments about cowardice, but no one except Regulus will respect her for it. Maybe Severus, but then again, his emotions always got the better of him.
Regulus climbed up the last set of stairs and stepped on to the roof of the Astronomy tower. As he leaned on the parapet, he saw a part of his Astronomy classroom, the lower level terrace that had invisible walls and ceiling to prevent weather from damaging it in any way. He took a deep breath and stepped over the parapet and on to one of the platforms on the turret. The Black boy hesitated for a moment before crouching down to check on the corner of the dark stone walls.
Regulus forced himself to be distracted by the steady growth of the peculiarly bright green moss that thrived on the harsh turret. He had accidentally discovered it a few months ago when his eyes strayed too far in an Astronomy session and caught a strange green glow. For a moment, his heart had stopped beating, his mind thinking it was one of Voldemort’s insignia – a Dark Mark; it had turned out to be a rare magical moss available only in very few landscapes in the British Isles. The Third Year had researched a bit and found that the moss, commonly known as Paraclei, was a Musco concelsus – a Disguise moss. And as far as Regulus knew, it would be most useful for someone who wanted to blend in with a crowd.
Someone like Maitri Harys – who decided she’d throw away the title of winning just because she felt Potter deserved it, someone she knew was far well-known and popular in Hogwarts than she herself was; Maitri, who had been highly panicked every single second between the putting down of her wand and the disappearance of the magical ring; Maitri, who was doing her best to seem normal, defeatable and harmless, despite her reputation as the Slytherin who had slapped Alice Messiers.
Regulus stared at the pulsating moss darkly as he pictured Maitri looking down at her wand, hoping wildly of the acceptance she was longing for. He knew how she felt, torn between her loyalties to her house and to her heritage, because he, too, felt the painful pull towards two directions: his brother and his own ideals. However, he couldn’t talk, couldn’t voice, act out his feelings like she did. He had too much at stake than any other normal Slytherin student. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t aspire to become part of the crowd that embraced the Light. All he could do was hope his best friend got the chance to, at the least.
Regulus stood up shakily and wiped his messy hands on his robes, not bothering the mossy stains on the otherwise spick fabric. He had intended to originally harvest the moss and present it to Maitri on her birthday, but he’d been caught by Filch the day prior, preventing him from doing it.
He climbed back over the parapet and shakily sat down on the other side, trembling all over. He sat still for a moment, then a two, before silent tears slid down his face. Regulus stayed this way for a while, till the sun climbed high westward in the sky before he made his way inside, into the darkness of the stone walls.
The trees at the outer skirts of the Forbidden Forest stopped swaying to the non-existent afternoon breeze. They bristled, as though they sensed something foreign, something new walking amongst them.
Borin, a young male centaur with skin as bright as gold and hair as pale as wheat, stood on his hind legs, bracing his front hooves on an ancient oak, looking around for a presence he was sure there wasn’t anywhere around just a moment earlier. His hair stood out on their ends as he surveyed the clearing he was currently gathering wood from.
He thought he glimpsed something pure white at a distance, and let his hooves down. One of the unicorns, probably, he thought, musing over the bright shade of white the thing had seemed to be. Wandering around the Half-Giant’s pumpkin patch, no doubt. Borin grunted to himself and turned away.
Not too far away from where the centaur had glimpsed the white “thing”, stood a strange creature, neither human, nor animal, resembling a faun-ish version of a half-leopard, with a mop of pure white man that reached its waist. With curiously colored eyes, both golden and purple in the bright daylight, the creature looked at the huge castle of Hogwarts.
No, not at. The creature looked into the castle, those magical eyes penetrating into the ancient, solid walls of stone, layers and layers of them, till they fell on the dark Spiritwood encased wand which lay at the feet of an ordinary seeming girl with thick, black hair.
As though she had sensed the creature’s eyes on her, Maitri looked up and looked to her right, looking for the person who was staring at her so intensely – and met the wall instead.
The creature, however, let out a scream upon the girl’s action. Falling back, the human part of it turned to a snow leopard, in synchrony with the lower half of the body. The shape-shifter then ran deep into the forest, with only one coherent thought in its head.
Her powers were developing. Much faster and much, much sharper than the creature had expected.
A/N: Sorry for the loooong hibernation! Had to train a band to sing!!! >_<
(Psst! The chapter! How was it?)