Worm-Snakes and the Miner's Curse

It was lovely being home for the Easter holidays. The downside was, however, that Harry found he was tripping over people everywhere. Every time he knocked on the door to one of the toilets, someone was using it. Every time he wandered into the kitchen, at least two or three people were in there raiding the pantry. The Slytherin-hostage work party could generally be found cluttering up the garden or some of the newly-cleared rooms, and Draco had taken to enjoying afternoon naps in the bedroom they now shared.

Harry's family were entirely unpredictable and could be found anywhere at any given point – he'd even stumbled across Remus tucked under one of the library tables reading a book earlier that morning. Harry nearly had a heart attack when he went to sit down and he knees bumped up against something large and warm.

In spite of this Harry could never remember being happier. Only a couple of days had passed since his family had returned and this morning they'd had to leave for the Ministry early to sort out more of the paperwork involved in being unexpectedly resurrected. Harry had taken advantage of the break to retreat to the parlour, where an old roll-top writer's desk was positioned across from the hideous Black family tapestry, to catch up on planning his lessons and schemes of work for the coming term.

He bent over it now, quill scratching across the parchment as he scowled through the dull ache that was spreading across his brow again. He's been much more prone to headaches and migraines since the Marauder's had taken up residence in his brain and he hoped it wasn't a permanent side effect of the whole Master of Death thing.

Behind him, the floo flared, and Harry swung round to see Andromeda stepping over the grate with Teddy in her arms. She looked apprehensive and Harry wasn't surprised. When he had floo'd to let her know that the ceremony had been a success, she'd looked like she was torn between joy and sadness. Teddy had been hers (and Harry's) for almost three years now, but Remus was his father. It was going to be a real wrench letting that responsibility go.

"Hello, Andromeda. Hi Teddy." Harry stood and motioned her to follow him through to the kitchen.

"Are they here?" she asked.

"Not right now. They should be back any minute now. They've been at the Ministry doing…" Harry waved his hand, "…you know; back-from-the-dead things."

Andromeda sighed as they entered the kitchen. "You know, your eloquence never ceases to astound me, Harry. I sometimes think – " She broke off, staring wide-eyed at the kitchen table where Draco and Narcissa were eating breakfast.

Narcissa half rose from her chair at the sight of her sister.

"What's she doing here?" they chorused in almost exactly the same tone of voice.

Andromeda rounded on Harry. "Did you go and break her out of prison, Harry? What were you thinking?"

"Ah…er…" Harry looked frantically at Draco for support, but the Slytherin raised his hands and shook his head. "That she was innocent?" he tried.

"Innocent?" Andromeda pointed an accusatory finger aimed right at Narcissa's nose. "She can't be trusted!"

"Can't be trusted?" Narcissa's voice was shrill. "You can't be trusted! Sneaking around with Muggle boys and breaking Mum's heart."

"You married a Death Eater!"

"Your son-in-law is a werewolf!"

The two stared at each other, only a couple of feet between them, anger and betrayal etched into their faces. Teddy glanced between them from his perch on Andromeda's hip, then proceeded to break wind loudly.

Narcissa reared back, covering her nose. "Great Merlin, Andromeda! What are you feeding that child? Draco never smelled like that."

Draco looked smug, as though his mother declaring that his farts were non-pungent was some sort of great achievement.

"How would you know? Didn't your house elves change all his nappies?"

"You act all sanctimonious and self-righteous, but you're no better than the rest of us. I didn't see you fighting on the frontline of the war."

"Whereas you actually put Voldemort up in your home! I'm telling you, Harry, she's not to be trusted."

Narcissa actually snorted, which was the most unladylike thing Harry had ever heard from her. "Oh please. What about that time you borrowed my dress robes and tried to transfigure them into a Muggle gown? You blamed it on Bella!"

"It was Bella!"

"It was not. I did prior incantatem on your wand."

"The wand which Bella stole."

"Er…" Harry tried.

They both rounded on him. "What?"

Harry suddenly remembered that Andromeda was an ex-Ravenclaw who had (Remus once informed him) specialised in studying the composition and decomposition of curse magic in her youth. Narcissa was a brilliant witch who had probably spent a fair portion of the War taking notes from Voldemort on how to deal with people who annoyed her. "Ah...er…nothing. Frog in my throat. Not a literal one, obviously, just – you know – a figurative one. As in, I was just clearing my throat. Er."

Luckily for him, Teddy chose that moment to follow through on the wind and the smell rose around them like an evil spell. Narcissa retched a little and took another step back.

"This isn't over, Cissy," Andromeda said, as she put Teddy down and rifled through the bag on her shoulder.

"What isn't over?" Narcissa asked, her voice muffled by her sleeve. "All I'm trying to do is survive. My reputation and family have been destroyed, my son and I are on the run from the authorities, my husband is in jail, and I've lost most of my money. And if that is not appalling enough, I am, by necessity, a voluntary hostage of Harry Potter, of all people."

"Bet you didn't see this coming when you used to do those fortune telling quizzes in Witch Weekly," Andromeda said. She pulled out a shrunken changing mat, placed it on the kitchen floor and touched it with her wand to regrow it.

"Don't be smug, Andromeda." Narcissa was now at the kitchen door. "I'm not the one wrist-deep in foul-smelling toddler faeces right now."

She stalked out.

"So," Draco said cheerfully after a moment. "That went well, I thought."

The look Andromeda threw him was as foul as the smell permeating the room. Draco flinched and backed away, grabbing a nearby teapot and pretending he had been quietly making a cup all along.

With quick economical moves, Andromeda changed a squirming Teddy and cast a spell that immediately freshened the air.

"Oh God," Harry said, taking a series of grateful, gulping breaths. "You've got to teach me that one!"

She smiled at him for the first time that day. "Of course. It's really simple, actually. You just –"

The distinctive sound of the floo flaring came from the parlour and she broke off. Four familiar voices rose above the roar of the fire, and Harry's heart clenched as Andromeda picked up Teddy and held him close to her.

"Harry?" James's voice called.

"In the kitchen!"

Footsteps approached, and Harry's heart hammered as he watched Andromeda's pale face. James was the first person through the door, followed by Lily. Remus and Sirius brought up the rear. They all drew to a halt, however, at the sight of Teddy and Andromeda. Remus made a hungry, abortive move towards his son, but checked himself quickly.

There were a few moments of intense silence while they stood regarding one another. The Marauders looked tense and apprehensive. Andromeda's expression was tight with shock.

"You did it, Harry Potter," she whispered. "You actually did it."

With Teddy still clutched to her chest, she took a hesitant step forward. Her eyes flicked over James and Lily in wonder, but it was Sirius she approached first. She shifted to hold Teddy up with one arm, then reached out to cup Sirius's smooth, unlined face with a shaky hand, brushing her thumb through a strand of black hair that brushed his cheek.

"Look at you. Just look at you! Sirius bloody Black, back from dead and completely untouched by the last eighteen years." She gave a short, hiccoughing laugh. "Only you could wrangle this, cousin."

Then she turned to look at Remus, who looked to be nearly vibrating with the effort of not reaching out for Teddy. He eyed her; poised with an almost wolf-like wariness, looking both terribly young and terribly old at the same time.

"And Remus. It's been a long time since I've seen you looking like this."

Remus looked like he didn't know whether to smile at her or cry. He sort of grimaced instead. It was clear he was finding it hard to look at anything but Teddy, and Andromeda apparently realised this, too. She straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath, then shifted Teddy so he was facing Remus.

"Look Teddy. This is your daddy. He's been away a long time, but he's come back for you."

Teddy regarded Remus with interest, but a complete lack of recognition.

"Hello Teddy," Remus said quietly. "Would you like to come and play something with me?"

Teddy buried his face shyly in Andromeda's neck, and Remus's face fell.

"Snakes!" Draco blurted, and the awkward moment broke as they all turned to look at him. "Snakes, Teddy," he continued, and Teddy raised his head to look at Draco with a grin on his face. Draco and snakes were two of his favourite things, no matter how often everyone else (Draco included) had tried to dissuade him from his love of both. "Lup… uh… your daddy loves them. I'm sure if you go with him he'll help you dig all the ones out of Harry's toy trunk and build a house for them."

Teddy's face lit up even further and he turned to look at Remus hopefully.

"Yes! Snakes! I love them!" Remus blurted, with more enthusiasm than anyone had shown for the reptiles since Tom Riddle had discovered he was a Parselmouth.

"'Snakes in Harry's trunk," Teddy told him earnestly, his hair turning a kind of mottled shade that strongly resembled scales. "Green one. Big. Go 'Ssssssssssss!' And yellow one wobbly. Like this!" He proceeded to squirm so violently he slipped from his grandmother's arms.

"Well, why don't you come with me and we can find them?" Remus held out his hand and his whole face softened as Teddy clutched him eagerly and dragged him out to the living room where the toy trunk was stored.

Everyone turned to look at Draco. "What?" he said defensively.

"That was kind," James said in an almost accusatory tone of voice.

"Was not."

"Was too. People are going to start thinking you care."

Draco looked horrified by this prospect. "It was an act of complete self-interest. That child is a sentient dung bomb. Anyone would have wanted him out of here while they're trying to eat."

They all smiled at him.

"Stop looking at me like that. Stop it! Right, that's it – I'm going off to find some decent Slytherin company." He yanked open the pantry, grabbed the first thing that came to hand, fumbled in the drawer for a spoon, and stalked out in a manner that was eerily similar to his mother.

"Do you think we should have mentioned that pot noodles need hot water?" asked Harry. Hermione had stocked the pantry with various Muggle foods in the hope of educating the Slytherins a bit more on Muggle culture. Harry was not convinced Draco would know what to do with the tub of beef-and-tomato he'd grabbed.

"I reckon we let him figure it out himself," James said. "He's literate. Theoretically."

"James." Lily looked at him reproachfully.

"What? You go tell him if you want to."

Lily frowned at him as she followed Draco out.

An awkward silence followed in which Harry, James, Sirius, and Andromeda regarded one another. After a few seconds, Sirius cleared his throat and grabbed James's sleeve. "Let's just go and…you know…supervise Remus and things."

They sidled out and Andromeda turned to look at Harry.

"What now?" he asked defensively.

"You tell me. There's no predicting what you're going to do next, Harry Potter. I'd appreciate some warning next time."

"I did warn you," Harry said, feeling a bit indignant. "You knew I was bringing them back."

"I knew you were going to try. Things I didn't know include the fact you were breaking my sister out of prison, that you appear to be turning Grimmauld Place into a refuge for Slytherins on the run, that my grandson seems to hero worship Draco Malfoy of all people and, oh yes, how about the small fact that Remus and Sirius appear to be de-aged."

"I didn't de-age them. Death did. Talk to him about it."

Andromeda stared at him for a few moments, then shook her head, a wry smile on her face. "This day. Honestly." She moved to the table and sat down, dropping her head into her hands.

"Andromeda?" Harry touched her arm. "I really am sorry about all this."

"Are you?"

Harry thought about it. "Well. No. But I am sorry that I think I've hurt you with it. And I am sorry that things with Teddy are going to be strange, and that you might feel that he's been taken from you. I'm also sorry that if you want to stay in his life you'll have to see Remus with Sirius rather than…" He found couldn't say her name.

Lifting her head, Andromeda tilted her head towards the living room where they could hear Teddy chatting excitedly and Remus laughing. "That Remus in there? That's not my Dora's Remus. Hers was tired and broken and old before his time. He loved her with everything he had because he'd lost practically everything else he had to live for."

"He loved her because she was an amazing woman," Harry said. "He hasn't forgotten her. It was one of the first things he did when he came back, you know. Visited her grave. Even though it meant visiting his own as well."

"You may be right, but it's still different. I knew him and Sirius when they were part of the Order in the first war. He's got that spark back. It might even be easier seeing him like this, with a young face. This Remus – the one from back then - was entirely Sirius's. Nearly all of us knew it, even if we couldn't say it."

"It's just his face that's changed," Harry pointed out. "His mind is the same."

"I know." She smiled. "But it might be enough to fool my poor old heart."

Harry dropped into the chair beside her. "What do you want to do? About Teddy?"

"I'm not sure," Andromeda admitted. "I think it might be a good idea for us to take you up on your idea to come and live here for a while, if that's okay? Teddy needs to get used to having his father around. We need to… slowly switch parenting across in the least disruptive way. We all need a slow transition."

"Remus will want to keep you in his life as much as possible."

"I know, Harry. And I really do understand. This is a good thing, really. I'm old and the task of raising another child so soon after losing Dora – well, it's been difficult at times. I think that eventually I might like taking on the normal role of a grandmother. I can spoil him and give him back."

"Yes," Harry said a little wistfully. In truth, he would miss the weekends when it was his turn to have Teddy as well. For three years, the little boy had been his and Andromeda's to raise. Although she did the brunt of it, he'd still done his fair share. It was hard to let go.

Warm, worn fingers closed over his where they rested on the table, and he looked up into Andromeda's tired face. "We're survivors, Harry. We've both got through a lot worse than this."

"Worse than living in a house full of Slytherins and newly-resurrected family members and losing custody of a child we both love, while out there Crouch is building an army of ex-Death Eaters, Dementors, and unkillable, creepy-tongued skeletons things which everyone wants me to fight?"

"You died."

"Okay, yes. Valid point. That was marginally worse."

"If you can get through that largely unscathed, I should think there's hope for you yet."

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"The problem is," said James, "that by telling everyone that the Powers That Be sent us back from the dead to fight this war with Crouch, we convinced everyone that we're back from the dead to fight this war with Crouch."

He, Sirius, Lily, and Harry were perched on the edge of the dragon-with-a-person-in-its-jaws fountain in the back garden watching Remus teach Teddy how to dig for worms. The garden was almost fully pruned and cleared of the most homicidal and illegal plants, now. There was plenty of turned earth and mud to attract little boys.

"Well." Harry looked at him. "That was the idea wasn't it?"

"Sort of." James sighed. "It's just… they expect us to have answers. They're under the impression that we came back with some sort of How To Beat Crouch In Five Easy Moves instruction manual."

"They think we ought to know how to kill the skeleton things," Lily added.

"Ah. So that's why things took so long at the Ministry this morning."

There was a delighted squeal and Teddy held his hand aloft, a large worm clutched in his little fist. "Snake! Snake!"

"Worm, worm," Remus tried to tell him.

"Snake! Sssssss!"

"We don't really know what we're meant to do," Lily said.

"It's okay." Harry diverted his attention away from Remus and Teddy, who were now covered in mud and digging even more vigorously than before. "Now that we're past the Master of Death thing I'll have a bit more free time. I'm planning to go through the Hogwarts library to find out some more information on what these things are."

"But you have your bake sale and everything to arrange," Sirius pointed out.

"It's fine. I think that murderous walking skeleton things with paralysing tongue-venom take precedence over learning to bake fairy cakes."

"Still having issues in that area?" Lily asked sympathetically.

"Even Geoffrey wouldn't eat the last lot. All other cakes are fine, but I seem to have a real block against fairy cakes. I may have accidentally cursed myself when I made those evil ones that Geoffrey ate right at the beginning. "

They fell into silence as they watched Remus and Teddy building a mud cave for the worm called Snake to live in.

"I just don't know what we're meant to do," James said eventually. "If the Ministry don't have a record of these things, how on earth are we meant to find anything out?"

"I don't know," Harry admitted. "we're just going to have to keep looking and hope something crops up."

"Speaking of cropping up," Lily said, turning to face Harry, "I don't suppose you know what Draco is doing with all those leftover potions ingredients?"

Harry blinked at the rapid change of subject. "What ingredients?"

"You brought back a whole lot of leftover ingredients from the Master of Death potion and the forced Animagus transformation potion Draco brewed in Hogwarts. Hermione went through them last night and said there were more missing than there should have been for the amount that was used up in the potions."

Harry felt a threat of unease uncurl in his chest. "Which ones were missing?"

"Veela hair and runespoor scales are the two most expensive. But there's a fairly long list of other exotic ingredients as well."

Harry frowned. "I have no idea what –"

"Animagus potion," James and Sirius chorused at once.

"What?"

"Those are two key ingredients of the Animagus potion," Sirius explained. "Looks like Malfoy wants to be a ferret full time now."

"Is that dangerous?"

"Yep. And devilishly difficult. I wonder how far he's got? Could he have finished it yet?"

"Yes," Lily told them. "Hermione said there's no telling when the ingredients went missing. He could have been doing it as a secret side project all along. He's spent plenty of time alone down in the dungeons brewing."

The three of them turned to look at Harry expectantly.

"Why're you all looking at me?"

"He's your… you know…" Lily waved her hand vaguely.

"Hostage?" James supplied.

"Bedroom-friend?" suggested Sirius.

"Shut up." Harry sighed and turn to watch as Teddy tried to rescue Snake the worm from a cave-in. "Fine. I'll talk to him."

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"Well what else am I meant to do?" Draco demanded that evening as he pulled his nightshirt on over his skinny chest. "You went and burned the sodding invisibility cloak bringing your family back."

Harry stared at him, pausing in the middle of pulling one of his socks off. "Yes? So? It was my cloak."

"It was my freedom. I'm not staying shut up here with all this lot cluttering up the place when you go back to Hogwarts. I'm coming with you."

"But…" Harry tugged half-heartedly at the sock again. "What if someone sees you?"

"They'll see a white ferret. Your new familiar."

"What? No."

"Yes."

"No."

"What are you going to do to stop me?"

"You're my hostage!"

"So you need to keep me with you. Please, Harry."

They stared at one another, Draco still only half in his nightshirt and Harry with a sock hanging limply from his hand.

"You can do it then?" Harry asked eventually, moving to sit on the edge of his bed. "How long did it take?"

Draco shrugged and finished pulling on his nightshirt before flopping down on his own. "The thing that took the longest time was translating the process, to be honest. I managed to get hold of this ancient old book by Gertie Trebbletome – had to pretend to be you to do it, by the way – as it's the only reliable written instruction manual. Most people apply to the Ministry for instructors. Took me ages to translate everything, and then the potion took ages to brew as well. I only finished it a few weeks ago. I've taken it now, but I'm having some issues completing the transformation."

"What do you mean; 'some issues'?" Harry asked, a thread of worry running through him. "Did something go wrong?"

"No. It's just – the potion doesn't just magically give you the ability to be an Animagus. It just opens up the channels that make the transformation possible. The actual change is down to the wizard – or witch – themselves. It takes a lot of concentration, determination and precision. Sort of like learning to Apparate, but much, much harder."

"So you can't do it?"

"Not yet. Well, I can go halfway."

Harry grinned, imagining Draco as a half-ferret. "Show me?"

"Not on your life!"

"Why? Do you look ridiculous?"

"Not as ridiculous as your hair looks every day, but ridiculous enough that I'm not going to allow myself to be seen in public."

"I allow my hair to be seen in public every day."

Draco just looked at him.

"Shut up."

Yawning, Draco yanked back his covers and rolled under them. "I'm thinking about asking your dog-father for advice."

"Oh yeah?" Harry finished pulling off his socks and trousers and scrabbled for his pyjamas. "Why not my father-father?"

"Because Black is mildly less annoying in certain lights."

"You're still not coming to Hogwarts with me disguised as my ferret."

"I really am."

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"So…?" Harry asked a couple of days later as he wandered into their room to find Draco packing his belongings into a trunk he'd clearly scrounged from one of the newly-cleared rooms. It had a Black crest on it, and Harry had a vague memory of Sirius jokingly claiming it had rarely been used as it had a tendency to digest any underwear placed inside it. At least, he amended as he watched Draco toss in a couple of pairs of socks, Sirius might have been joking.

"So I asked him for help," Draco said.

"And what did he say?"

"He laughed his arse off to begin with, then he started going on at me asking why anyone would bother becoming an Animagus if they knew it would only turn them into more of a ferret than they already are, and then he actually helped me."

"He did?" Harry had to admit he was surprised. He'd not really got much of a read on how Sirius, or James for that matter, felt about Draco, but he'd not thought their emotions would be positive enough to inspire them to help him in any way.

"Yeah." Draco shrugged. "He's not actually a bad teacher once you get past the idiocy and nonsense."

"So? Can you do it now?"

Draco shook his head. "It's more complicated than I thought. Transforming bits and pieces of your body can be done with a bit of effort and concentration, and every time you re-do a change you've already made it's much easier. However the full transformation requires more than that. You have to give yourself over fully to the magic. It has to run through your veins and right into your bones. Black says that the first time you change, you have to not care that you might die trying. I just don't know how to get to that point."

Harry stared at Draco as he began piling his robes and shoes into the trunk. He'd built up a fair wardrobe in his time as a hostage. Some he had persuaded Harry to let him mail-order, but more than a third had once belonged to Harry himself.

"What if you never get to that point?" Harry asked eventually.

"Then I remain a normal wizard with an uncanny ability to sprout small white ears at the moment's notice."

"But… you're still packing like you're coming to Hogwarts with me."

Draco rolled his eyes and threw a pair of socks at Harry's head. "You're such an idiot, Potter. There's more than one way for me to transform into your amazing magical wonder-ferret."

Harry looked at him blankly.

"You do it. When I want to leave the room and stretch my legs, you turn me into a ferret. I know you can do it since that was how you broke me out. When I return, you turn me back."

"But what if something dreadful happens to you in ferret form and I'm not there to turn you back?" Harry said.

"Lots more dreadful things would happen to me in human form," Draco pointed out.

Which, okay, was a fair point.

"So," Harry mused, "you have to get to the point where you don't care that you might die. Maybe you should move out of here and go share a room with Goyle tonight."

"What? Why?"

"You did say you'd rather die than share a room with him again."

"He's a slob! Did you know I once caught him picking his nose and wiping the snot on my bedclothes?"

"Well, if snotty bedclothes don't inspire you to go ferret, I don't know what will."

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Returning to Hogwarts was both a relief and rather terrifying. It was only once Harry was sitting at the staff table eating breakfast on the first day of the new term that he realised this was the first time he would be doing it by himself. Okay, he had Draco in ferret-form currently perched on his shoulder nibbling on bacon, but even in human form the Slytherin had never been much help when it came to teaching.

He was used to having Remus's calm instructions and good advice when it came to lesson planning and delivery. He was used to having James's and Sirius's unique, if effective, suggestions when it came to managing difficult students. He was used to having Lily's insight and sensitivity when dealing with a child who was upset about something. Now he was on his own, and his heart was doing a nervous tap-dance in his chest.

He had Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff sixth years first, which came as something of a relief. He was not sure he could have coped with the ingrained Slytherin-Gryffindor rivalry at this point.

When breakfast was over, he hurried to his classroom and began preparing for his first lesson. One by one, the students trudged in and took their seats, yanking quills, books and crumpled parchment from their bags.

Harry felt himself relax. It was such a familiar sight now. They were used to him and he was used to them. It was going to be okay.

"Right," he said, once everyone had settled. "So today we're –" He broke off when one girl's hand shot into the air. "What is it, Jenette?"

"Is it true that a bunch of your family members miraculously came back to life?"

"Ah…" Harry fumbled, train of thought derailed. "Yes. Of course it is. There was a whole article about it in The Quibbler. Please refer to that rather than plying me with questions. We have a lot to cover this term."

"But…"

"No." Harry straightened and ran his eyes over all of them who were watching him raptly. "Listen carefully, because I'm only going to say this once. Yes, my family have come back. Some of them, anyway. I'm sure you can all imagine that it has been a very emotional and difficult time for us, so I would very much appreciate it if you would not pester me about it."

Another hand rose uncertainly. "Yes, John?"

"I don't mean to cause offence, Professor, but I just wanted to know – why them? Why not Dumbledore? Everyone said he was the only one You-Know-Who was ever afraid of."

Harry sighed. "Dumbledore fought in a lot of battles. He lived a long life and by the end he was tired and happy to go to his rest. It would have been cruel in the extreme to bring him back."

"Besides," Jenette piped up again, "think through it logically. You Know Who might have been afraid of Dumbledore, but the two times he was actually defeated was by the Potters. Frankly, I'd rather have the Potter family on our side in this war."

Harry saw a number of students nodding in agreement and felt a heavy weight developing low in his stomach. The whole Wizarding world was relying on them, and they really had no clue what they were doing. He glanced down at the picture of the skeleton-thing which was mixed up with the papers on his desk. He'd been planning on stopping by the library during his break between lessons for a bit of research.

There was a sharp chattering sound and Harry glanced up to see Draco-the-ferret sitting up on his hind legs on his chair, scowling as much as a ferret is able to scowl, which isn't very much.

"Awww!" came a chorus of voices from the class.

"Is he yours, Professor?" a girl called Joanna called.

"Let's just say he's decided to follow me everywhere and leave it at that," Harry said dryly. "Now we really do need to be getting on with the lesson, so if you can all settle down and listen, that would be great. I have been asked to organise today's lesson by Madame Pomfrey following a recent spate of trips to the Hospital Wing – mostly by girls, but also by a few boys as well. I'm sure you all know what it's about?"

There was some sniggering around the classroom and Harry nodded.

"Now I believe there was an article in a teenage magazine recently detailing a spell you can use for plucking unwanted body hair. Unfortunately, what the editor failed to consider is that the words and wand movement for this charm are remarkably similar to those of the fingernail-ripping curse. I'm sure I don't need to emphasise how important it is that you know exactly what the differences are."

There were some rather fervent nods, and Harry wondered whether any of these students had already fallen victim to the error.

"Right – everyone get a piece of blank parchment and draw two columns on it. At the top of the left column, write 'innocent hair-removal charm', on the top of the right column, write 'medieval torture curse for the ripping out of fingernails'. Now I want you to work in pairs to come up with as many similarities and differences as you can between the two. You have ten minutes starting now."

There was a bustle of movement and chatter, and Harry felt himself relax for the first time that day Things really were going to be okay.

By the end of the class, the students were happy and chattering as they packed their bags, and Harry was humming quietly to himself as he tidied up the lesson resources. He jumped when someone cleared their throat behind him and he looked up to see a Ravenclaw girl called Gabisile – or Gabi, as she liked to be known – standing behind him looking very worried.

"Can I help you?" Harry asked. Gabisile was usually a quiet student who didn't speak up much in class. She was one of those people who is innately tidy from the tips of her polished shoes to the neat cornrows of her dark hair. Her homework assignments never arrived crumpled or covered in mysterious stains, which had earned her a place right near the top of Harry's favourite students list.

"Er…I couldn't help spotting that on my way out and I just wondered if we'd be learning about them?" Harry glanced down to see she was pointing at the picture of the skeleton-thing. "Only," she continued, "I'd hoped they were one of those things that weren't real, you see. I'm Muggle-born and I know that some of our mythical creatures are real and some aren't and I just hoped…you know? They used to give me nightmares when I was little."

Harry froze, his heart hammering. "Do you know what that is?" Gabisile, he remembered, came from South Africa originally. She and her family had moved to England when she was eleven so she could attend Hogwarts once her magic had become apparent. There were Wizarding schools in South Africa, but Hogwarts had a name for being one of the best in the world. If one had enough money to move countries to attend, it was often considered a good idea.

"Doesn't everyone?" she asked. "I don't know what you call them here, but we used to call them Esinquma Nge Ithambo, which basically translates to 'he cuts with bone'." She pulled the picture towards her and pointed to the long, sharpened thumb-bone which formed the sword-like instrument the creatures used to strip people of their flesh. "Some people just shortened it to Nge Ithambo when they were telling stories about them – stories that I really, really hope aren't true, you know?"

"Gabi." Harry felt his knees weaken and he sat down abruptly on his chair. "Can you please pull up a chair?"

"Am I in trouble?"

"Not at all, I promise. It's just, we've been trying to find out what these things are for a long time and no one recognised them. I don't think it occurred to anyone to look them up in South African Muggle folk stories."

"Why have you been trying to find out? Are there some here?"

"Crouch has been using them. We think he's been creating them, or possibly breeding them, in old coal and tin mines throughout the country."

Gabisile nodded. "He was probably just waking them up, if the legends are true."

"Can you tell me about them?"

"Well, my dad actually owned a gold mine, you know? It wasn't a big one, but we were quite wealthy. There were lots of miners who worked in it and some of them and their families used to live on site. When I was a kid I would go down and play with the children of the miners. You know how kids always try to scare each other? Well we would often tell each other stories about the Esinquma Nge Ithambo. I don't know why because all our parents spent time down in the mines and the idea of them used to terrify us."

She hesitated, and Harry gave her a nod to continue.

"Well, according to the stories, the first one was made when a miner found himself to be very sick. He went to a Sangoma – that's a witch doctor, you know? – who healed him. He promised the witch doctor a portion of the gold he'd mined over that year, but once he was well, his greed overcame him and he kept most of it for himself. Not only that, but he also stole a lot of gold from other miners as well. When the Sangoma found out he was very angry and he cast a curse to turn him into the first Esinquma Nge Ithambo. He said to the miner that as punishment for his insatiable greed, he would now experience a new hunger that could never be satisfied – the hunger for human flesh."

Gabisile gripped the edge of Harry's desk, her knuckles sharp through her skin.

"So the hunger overcame the miner. It was so bad he started to eat his own flesh. When he had stripped himself to the bone, he went to find others to do the same. He would hide down in the darkest parts of the mine and whenever a miner got lost or wandered off on his own, the Esinquma Nge Ithambo would catch him and do the same. The poison contained in his tongue passed on the disease to the person who had been caught so that they, too, would become a Nge Ithambo. Slowly the curse spread, and people always used to say: 'never wander off on your own to the darkest parts of the mine, for you will wake the Esinquma Nge Ithambo and they will get you.'"

Harry felt utterly sick, and Gabisile didn't look much better. The girl's face was grey.

"I'm sorry to have to ask you this, Gabi," he said, "but do you remember if there was any way that these things could be defeated?"

"The kids used to say that snake venom would do it," she told him. "If snake venom got onto the tongue of the Nge Ithambo it would neutralise the venom of the creature and break the curse. The tongue would shrivel and then it would spread and the Nge Ithambo would die."

"Any particular species of venomous snake?"

"Most people used to say the Black Mamba. It's considered the most dangerous venomous snake in South Africa."

Harry's heart was actually hammering in his chest. His palms were sweating and he felt hopeful for the first time in days.

"Does the snake have to bite the tongue?"

"I don't think so," said Gabisile. "People used to say some miners kept a glass vial of the venom around their neck so that if they encountered the Esinquma Nge Ithambo, they could throw it at the skull and when it shattered against it, venom would drip onto the tongue and kill it."

"So it doesn't need to be a lot," Harry mused. "Just a few drops."

"I may be wrong," Gabisile said, looking very worried. "These are all just stories. There were so many different ones and some of them even contradicted each other."

"You've been amazing," Harry assured her. "If even half of what you've told us is correct, the whole of Britain will be in your debt. You could have saved thousands of lives here."

She look back at him, tears standing out in her dark eyes. "Yes?"

"Yeah."

There was a knock at the door and Harry looked up to see a couple of students from his next class peering around the doorframe.

"Can we come in, Professor?"

"Yes, yes. Come in and get your things ready. Thank you, Gabi. If you think of anything else, please come and find me. You really have been more help than you can ever know."

"I will, Professor," Gabisile said, standing up and picking up her bag. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and made her way to the door.

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A/N on the origins of the Esinquma Nge Ithambo in this story. Feel free to ignore this if you aren't interested. You won't be missing anything important, I promise!

When I was a little girl, my grandmother gave me a book of traditional African folktales (African Stories, retold by Robert Hull). Some of them were beautiful, while others (in keeping with folk stories throughout the world) were bowel-clenchingly terrifying.

One tale (that gave me recurring nightmares about skeletons chasing me for months when I was seven) was called 'The Hunter and the Ghost'. Here are a couple of extracts to give you a flavour of the story:

"Halfway through the night, a white glow appeared in the doorway and a skeleton shape half-stepped, half-drifted carefully indoors."

"Some people think ghosts don't eat and drink, and don't experience hunger. Of course that isn't true. They like animal meat of all kinds, such as antelope, but what they particularly enjoy is human meat. You could even say they're mad for human flesh, to be eaten at night, because all ghosts hunger to regain their own lost human flesh."

"Now ghosts, made of bones, cannot handle objects. They cannot pickup men's spears or knives and have to find another way of cutting meat. In the same way that lobsters have one great claw, ghosts grow a huge thumbnail on one hand. It's about a third of a metre long and quite wide. When it's shaped and sharpened it can be used in the same way as a knife."

This story inspired the Esinquma Nge Ithambo. Although this legend originated in the Congo, I don't know much about the country. I do, however, know a lot about South Africa, so I decided to place my creatures there (I reckon if they travelled underground they could have spread throughout the whole continent of Africa giving rise to different legends in different countries).

South Africa has eleven official languages, but I chose to use Zulu, as I think it is one of the most beautiful. I am not very good at it, so if there are any fluent Zulu speakers reading this, please feel free to send me a message with any corrections!