Chapter 26 A Game of Chess
The house was eerily silent, the only sound made by the boy’s quiet footsteps as he walked from room to room. The air was dusty and thick as he opened the heavy doors, peering into the empty spaces, searching. How long had he been searching? The boy’s breathing picked up anxiously, there should be someone in here, but the rooms he had checked radiated the sense of long abandonment, as if nothing living had crossed their threshold in many years. The boy walked faster, he needed to find someone, somebody important, but he couldn’t remember who or why.
The hallways were dark and gloomy, making the boy’s skin crawl with invisible ants, and his chest constricted, breath growing short, the house was so bare, lifeless. It was not supposed to be like that!
He descended the steep staircase, the stone stairs crumbling away under his feet as if from a great age. The boy squinted through the murky shadows, he needed to find someone! It wasn’t safe to be alone here, he was so scared…
There was a black door at the end of the ground floor hallway, he pulled on the handle, but it wouldn’t open for him. He knocked on the door.
“Is someone in there?” The boy called urgently, but his voice was snuffed out by the gloom, emerging as a ghostly whisper.
He knocked harder, calling, straining his vocal chords, but each time his shout came out as a mere echo of sound, as if he was calling up from a very deep well.
As soon as the thought crossed his mind, the house around him began to change. It shrank, walls closing in, stone becoming cold earth, trapping him in a narrow grave.
“No!” the boy gasped in frantic terror, hammering on the black door with bloody fists. “Are you there?!”
The ceiling came closer, a crashing weight on his head, and he fell to his knees, feeling the air thicken around him.
“Please, don’t leave me here,” he cried, suddenly able to recall who it was he had been searching for so urgently. “Don’t leave me alone here, father!”
Only silence answered him…
Harry’s eyes snapped open, a keening cry coming from his mouth. He blinked in the dim light of early morning, flinching away from a hand coming to choke him, to punish him for making a racket in the middle of the night. His throat constricted, terror blocking his windpipe as the bulbous eyes of his uncle seemed to glare melavolently at him out of the greyness. The hand touched his face, lightly brushing the hair out of his face, the sensation was so dissimilar to his past experiences that it startled a confused whimper out of his constricted throat.
“Ssh, everything is fine, Harry, you’re safe,” a tired voice murmured quietly, and he blinked rapidly, trying to bring a face above him into better focus. “That was only a bad dream. You are safe in your bed, see?”
His father. That was his father’s voice and face, and Harry’s face crumpled, his eyes filling with tears, because he remembered the man always appearing when he woke up, saying that everything was fine. But it wasn’t fine when he slept, it was terrible!
“I don’t wanna sleep anymore!” he wept, he couldn’t possibly bear to close his eyes again so soon.
Father breathed a heavy sigh, perching on the edge of the boy’s bed. He brushed Harry’s cheeks with gentle fingers, wiping away his tears.
“It’s much too early to get up yet,” he said softly, reaching for the plush lion which had fallen to the floor earlier. “You should sleep a few more hours. Come on, give your lion a hug now, and I’ll tell you a story to help you sleep. How does it sound?”
Harry shook his head, pushing himself into a sitting position with his elbows. The man’s story voice would make him drowsy very soon, and he wasn’t having it!
“Terrible! I don’t want a story!” he retorted, suddenly annoyed. “I wanna get up now!”
The man leaned back, folding his arms across his chest forbiddingly, fixing the child with a quelling look. Normally, Harry would have cringed from that potent glare, but now he met it with a glare of his own.
“You are being quite rude,” father stated in an unimpressed drawl. “I should put you over my knee for that attitude, boy. Maybe a hard spanking would help you sleep better.”
Harry swallowed the lump in his throat. He hated it when father said those things so casually, as though a spanking was somehow inevitable. He didn’t want to be spanked by the man, but he stubbornly didn’t lower his eyes in defeat. He’d rather be punished than go back to sleep.
Father watched him for several long minutes, pinching the bridge of his nose between the thumb and a forefinger. The boy couldn’t see any signs of sympathy in the hard planes of his face, only cold consideration as his black eyes seemed to drill right through him.
“If I were to allow this… exception,” the man began in a thoughtful tone, and Harry’s eyes went wide with hope. “You would need a nap during the day, and an early bedtime-,”
“I don’t take naps,” he protested loudly, eyes flashing in anger at the man’s cheating.
“You will and you’ll go quietly when I tell you to,” father cut him off harshly. “I don’t care to see any more of your defiant streak now. I understand that you’re upset after the night you’ve had, but enough is enough. Any more disrespect, and you’ll start the day with a stinging behind. Understood?”
Harry hung his head, it wasn’t like that at all, he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He just didn’t want to have another horrible nightmare, and now father was cross with him.
“I wasn’t disrespectful,” he argued weakly, despite knowing that he could only get into deeper trouble by doing so. Sometimes, father didn’t mind him disagreeing, but there was always a point when he said to stop it, and he could tell he was past that.
Harry flinched at the touch of fingers curling around his chin, forcing his head up. His eyes flew to the man’s face in fear, lips going dry at the expression there. He gasped, feeling father’s thumb rubbing his cheek.
“You remind me of myself as a child,” he said in a tone of surprising gentleness. “I never knew when to quit arguing with my father either. He wasn’t very impressed with my tenacity as I recall.”
“Did he hit you?” Harry asked in a strained whisper, before clamping his mouth shut in absolute terror. He didn’t ask that aloud, had he? He could feel blood draining from his face, congealing in his stomach and making it ache.
Father raised his eyebrows at the direct inquiry, and the boy braced himself for the inevitable explosion. Uncle Vernon hated questions, and it was the type of question that was sure to earn him a hard slap across the face. It was both nosy and impertinent.
“He did,” father admitted with a sigh, meeting the child’s frightened gaze steadily. “More often than I thought he should have, he was very difficult to please, my father. I imagine that’s how you feel about me, too, isn’t it?”
The boy froze, completely freaked out by the question. Was he supposed to answer it, honestly? The man grimaced, but then he let his chin go, running a hand through the boy’s messy mop.
“That’s fine, Harry,” he murmured. “You’re entitled to an opinion. It would be rather hypocritical of me, if I got cross after what I’d just said. Come, if we have to start the day at this unholy hour, let’s not dawdle about it.”
Harry breathed easier, he didn’t really believe father would let him get up after his rudeness, and he didn’t have the gumption to continue pushing it. The man wouldn’t put up with any more of it, and he knew it. Not wasting another moment, Harry slid to the floor and rushed to find some clothes for the day.
“I’ll be in the kitchen, you may join me when you’re ready,” father said, heading for the door.
“Why do you do it,” the child asked very softly, staring at the brand-new shirt his father had bought for him. “If you didn’t like it happening to you?”
Father paused at the door, but Harry didn’t dare look at him. He could feel the man’s eyes on him, his fists tightened, creasing the shirt hopelessly as he fought the urge to run from the conversation.
“I suppose,” the man mused after a silent moment, his tone very wry. “I came to appreciate the method in later life.”
Harry couldn’t ignore that outrageous statement, and turned to glare at the man.
“But it hurts so much!” he exclaimed in disbelief.
Father crossed his arms, fixing his son with a piercing gaze.
“Tell me, Harry,” he asked seriously. “Which do you remember better; my belt or the corner Mrs Wilkinson put you in?”
The boy flushed in embarrassment.
“You know about that?”
The man smirked.
“It’s my job to know what you get up to,” he said, and that wasn’t very encouraging at all. “Answer my question, now. Be honest.”
As if he’d dare lie, Harry thought with a bitter grimace. He averted his eyes, unable to hold eye contact as he answered.
“Belt,” he whispered reluctantly.
“Exactly,” father sighed, tapping his chin with his fingers thoughtfully as he considered the child. “And I am certain that a year from today you’ll have forgotten why you stood in that silly corner, but you will remember the reason I applied the belt even when many years have passed. Speaking plainly, Harry, painful consequences stick in our memory for much longer, and we learn from them faster. I don’t particularly enjoy putting you over my knee, spanking and making your bottom sting, but I cannot deny that doing so is effective, and you have to learn to live with that possibility. Spanking hurts, yes, I remember, but what we do in life always has a price, our mistakes hurt, too, some more than others. It is better to learn now, when the price is only a throbbing behind, rather than something more difficult to heal from,” he paused, regarding the boy with something unbearably heavy in his gaze. “I understand your aunt and uncle may have raised you differently, but I will not sugar-coat reality for you, Harry. Punishment isn’t meant to be pleasant and easy.”
The boy swallowed hard, unsure what he thought about this explanation. Being punished was undeniably awful, but he had to admit it was a relief that father didn’t do it out of malice. He certainly didn’t want to go back to how things were at the Dursleys, even if uncle Vernon’s punishments weren’t painful in the same sense. And wasn’t that strange? Not long ago Harry was sure he wished for nothing more than going back to his relatives, but lately he couldn’t imagine that. He wasn’t so stupid to misunderstand what his reccurring nightmare meant, odd as it was, Harry was growing attached to his father, and he was terrified the man would abandon him the same way the Dursleys did.
“I still don’t like it,” he muttered under his breath.
The man snorted in amusement, he stepped closer, leaning down to touch his lips to the boy’s forehead.
“I’m counting on it,” he murmured. “Now, get dressed.”
The strange conversation left him unbalanced for several minutes. The serious topic was somehow well-suited to the pre-dawn dimness. Harry supposed he was glad he had asked the question, at least he knew father understood how hard it was for a child to get spanked. He wondered if he would hit his kids as well, when he was grown up. He didn’t believe he ever would, but what if his perspective changed, too?
It took him some twenty minutes to get downstairs, his stomach roiling in unease, not knowing what to expect from this unconventional morning. Father met his gaze the moment Harry stepped into the kitchen. He was dressed in his customary black, leaning against the counter with his arms folded across his chest, and a stern expression.
“Do you want breakfast, now?” he asked, making the boy tense in wariness. The man didn’t sound angry or anything, but after the talk upstairs he kept searching for signs that he would be punished for asking something so personal. He ran his eyes over father’s face, before shaking his head. He couldn’t imagine anything less appealing than food at that moment. Father pursed his lips. “Just tea, then.”
Father turned to the counter, picking out the dishes from the cupboards. Harry watched him choose two chipped mugs that would have never been allowed in aunt Petunia’s pristine kitchen, and smiled a tiny bit. They were homey and welcoming, and he was comfortable handling them. He had always been terrified of damaging his aunt’s expensive china, knowing all hell would break loose if he did. Somehow, he didn’t think breaking one of these would be such a big deal, not enough for the belt, surely? Harry dropped his eyes, thinking. He wasn’t altogether certain about it, but he didn’t think father cared overly much about his mugs. He sometimes wanted to break one on purpose, just to see what would happen, but he always chickened out, remembering that time he’d thrown the book to the floor…
“Come along,” father said, making him jump.
He looked up, following the filled tray with his eyes. It floated in the air, bobbing up and down as the man directed it with his wand. The boy trailed after the floating tray into the corridor, endlessly fascinated by every sign of magic.
“Where are we going?” he asked softly.
The answer became obvious when father stopped in front of the door to his forbidden study. Harry sucked in a frightened breath, freezing in the corridor, remembering all too well the last time he was allowed in there. The man looked back over his shoulder, raising his eyebrows at the stark fear on the child’s pale face.
“Do you play chess, Harry?” he asked in his very softest voice, the one he used when reading a bedtime story.
The boy’s chest relaxed, his eyes darting to father’s face, but there was no sign of displeasure on it, only curiosity. He shook his head.
“I don’t know how,” he said with an apologetic shrug. “I’m sorry.”
“Come in,” father said, turning back to open the door. “I’ll teach you, no son of mine can be so ignorant.”
Harry let out a hysterical laugh, the man had no idea how extensive his ignorance really was. He made his legs move before the sudden hilarity turned into sobbing.
“I had no idea I was so vastly amusing,” the man muttered darkly, sending the floating tray to settle on the desk.
The boy paused, scrutinising every inch of the wooden surface, heart hammering fit to burst. There were books and piles of documents filled with spidery script on one side, an inkpot, quills and pens littered the entire space. There was no ruler, he wasn’t even sure why he expected to see it there.
“Haven’t you heard that curiosity killed the cat, boy?” father scolded him sharply. “Sit down.”
Harry’s legs folded under him, and he plopped hard into the wooden chair. He winced, glad that he hadn’t been spanked very rigorously lately, he looked up warily, meeting father’s disapproving eyes. The man pointed his wand at the desk, stocking the books into a neat pile, and with another flick folding the documents into scrolls, leaving the middle of the desk bare.
“I wasn’t-,” he tried to explain.
“Spying?” the man suggested in a hard voice, rounding the desk and depositing a wooden box on it. “That’s fortunate, otherwise you’d be in very deep trouble now.”
Harry hunched his shoulders, he couldn’t defend himself without confessing his stupidity about the written word. Unable to come up with a story that could excuse his apparent nosiness, he decided to remain silent and hope father wouldn’t punish him this time.
The man huffed in annoyance, and sat down behind the desk, pushing one of the steaming mugs towards the boy.
“Drink,” he snapped, and Harry rushed to obey, curling his fingers around the hot mug. He took a tiny sip, enjoying the strong taste. He wasn’t allowed tea very often, and he was treating every opportunity with this reverence, like he was sharing something special. He looked up, meeting father’s eyes over his mug. The man set his tea down, raising an eyebrow. “Are we playing?”
Harry lowered his tea and nodded, eyeing the wooden box with wary curiosity. Father opened the box and started jabbing the game pieces with his wand.
“Move, you lazy louts,” he grumbled, and to Harry’s complete astonishment, they did!
At first glance, they seemed to be people-shaped wooden carvings, but the jab from the wand made them alive. They began to stretch and move, separating into two groups; one in white cloaks, the other in black. They proceeded to form ranks on the chessboard, glaring at one another and drawing weapons.
“They’re alive?!” the boy demanded, finally managing to retract his gaping jaw.
“They’re wizard chess,” father replied with a derisive snort. “They’re animated wood, pretty annoying especially when allowed to talk.”
Harry watched wide-eyed as the line of hallabardiers at the front began thumping the butts of their weapons into the board, their mouths moving, probably shouting insults at the other side.
“I can’t hear anything,” he wondered.
“Easier to avoid a headache that way, trust me,” father said wryly. “Can you find the king? That piece must be protected at all costs.”
And so it went. Father had him identify all the pieces, before explaining how each of them moved and fought. There was the king, the queen, two bishops, knights and towers, and eight pawns [though the boy insisted they should be called hallabardiers, as they had hallabards].
“That makes no sense!” he grumbled, after he arranged the pieces correctly on the board for the third time. “Why doesn’t the king have a sword, when even his wife has one?”
The man put a fist to his mouth to stifle a yawn.
“Because she is his general, too,” he muttered, rolling his eyes. “Your move, Harry. White begins.”
Harry’s eyes went wide with excitement, finally they could play! He was beginning to despair that the lesson would never end.
“Knight, forward!” he commanded in a firm voice, only to flush in embarrassment when his knights raised their eyebrows at him, as if to ask ‘Who, me?’. “Er… You, you’re John. Sir John, forward!”
Father put a hand over his eyes, evidently not wanting to watch the boy’s disgrace. Harry was glaring at the stupid knight as he pointed to two places forward and one to the right, only then he mounted his horse and jumped over the line of hallabardiers.
“Done?” the man sighed. “Pawn, from C7 to C5.”
The first game didn’t last very long, as father trapped his king in four moves, and Harry had to watch him drop his crown in surrender. The second game wasn’t much better. It wasn’t until the fourth that he had a moment of triumph when queen Elisabeth [by that time all his pieces had names] decapitated one of father’s pawns. Harry jumped to his feet in excitement, watching as two hallabardiers dragged the body off the board. His glee was short-lived, however, as the queen was stabbed the next moment by a hallabard.
“Stop pouting, and pay attention,” father chided him. “You can’t attack blindly, the point of the game isn’t to decimate my army, but to encircle my king.”
Harry scowled, but told Richard the bishop to move. He lost again, and when they started another game, his ranks entered the battlefield with shoulders slumped in defeat, and resentful faces. Father didn’t go easy on him, mercilessly attacking his army until their morale was non-existent. The boy managed to win small skirmishes, his best showing was to take a knight, a bishop and two pawns in one game, but the overall battle was depressingly one-sided. He yawned, fighting a war was exhausting.
“We’ll finish this game, and have breakfast,” father suggested, and he nodded wearily.
“Will I ever beat you?” Harry asked morosely as they packed the game.
“Perhaps,” the man smirked. “When you have a lot more experience with the game. For now, try Eliot as an opponent.”
He made a face, Eliot and he hadn’t played together since his last visit. Harry was afraid of going back, and father hadn’t forced him to accept the younger boy’s invitations yet. He missed his friend, though.
“Couldn’t,” Harry began in a meek voice. “Couldn’t I invite Eliot… here?”
The man paused in his breakfast preparation to fix the child with a discerning look. Harry squirmed in his chair, wanting to avert his eyes under the scrutiny, but unable to. He shouldn’t have asked, now he was in for it!
“I’ll consider the possibility,” father responded after a long moment. “We’d need to hide all the magic, somehow.”
The boy could feel his face relax with a smile. That was something he couldn’t quite get used to, Harry was allowed to ask for things, now. Father wasn’t often keen on indulging the child’s whims, but he wasn’t yelled at or beaten just for asking. That chance was something he’d never had before. Father didn’t say no, and Harry hoped.
Breakfast today was boiled eggs and sausages with toast, Harry picked at his food without much enthusiasm. That didn’t happen very often these days, the potion he still took before every meal usually made him ravenous, but at the moment he didn’t seem to have the energy to chew and swallow. His jaw cracked with a huge yawn, and he rested his head on a hand. Between one bite and the next, Harry blinked, and his eyes didn’t open until he felt himself being lifted in the air. He whimpered, trying to dislodge the fluffy cloud that was filling his head. He blinked again, his eyelids were incredibly sticky for some reason.
“Quiet, little monkey,” father murmured in his ear, one of his hands rubbing his back in soothing circles. “Everything is alright. Relax.”
Harry’s head lay on father’s shoulder, it was heavy, and the sensation of swaying was making it even more so.
“Don’t wanna sleep,” he mumbled drowsily, but the motion of waves was pulling him inexorably under.
Father was telling a story. There was a girl with red curls in it, and she was playing on the swings with her sister. She let go of the swing, and went soaring over the playground like a circus performer. Harry sighed contentedly, as the scene unfolded in his mind’s eye, his friend’s Abigail’s face lighting up with excitement as she launched herself into empty air. The soft voice trailed slowly off, but not before he was settled comfortably in bed, tucked in, a hand loosely wrapped around a plush lion. The boy was too deeply asleep to notice.