It happened just a week after Term had begun, and coincidentally, perhaps, on Cedric’s fourteenth birthday – the eve of which had witnessed rowdy carnival in the Hufflepuff common room and noisy admiration of his new owl, Pallas. Before dawn of the day itself, however, the not uncommon need of even the most sociable of boys for loneliness and quiet drew him to Hogwarts’ ancient, almost deserted chapel, where the Fat Friar was chanting the Office in nativitate Virginis. The Friar was an old friend, and let Diggory sit undisturbed under the soft rose and gold of the painted windows. Only when Cedric rose to wander the castle grounds did the ghostly father press into his hands a small book, the Eclogues of the Roman wizard Virgilius.
A shrieking and piping announced that the first years had just discovered the Quidditch pitch. Cedric turned aside, therefore, into a little birch copse that slept on the edge of the dark forest beyond. There he stretched himself out on his back under a nodding tree, opening the book at random.
Iam redit et Virgo… He glanced down at a footnote: ‘Astraea, Goddess of Justice, associated with the constellation Virgo; her return from Heaven was supposed to herald the Golden Age.’ Dea…dignata cubili est … The text, with all reverence to the Friar, was not thrilling. In the soft grey morning, with the forest murmuring behind him, a fellow who’d been up a bit late-ish might well drift off…
He saw her, Astraea, with sword and scales, picked out in silver stars. She came to him, and lay her blade across his chest, her head upon his drumming heart – such peace –
Good Lord, there wizards.’ At which, an irrepressible sense of loss seized him, but – the Unicorn was still there. He lifted his hands to her, pleading: ‘Don’t go, Astraea. Please.’
Delicately she stepped back to him, and nuzzled his hand. Then she was gone.
‘Absit a nobis – far be it from us to disturb your meditations, doubtless much more profound than any slight tuition we may impart.’ The permanent sneer seared onto Professor Kettleburn’s face by a Swedish Short-snout wrinkled yet more unpleasantly. ‘Nevertheless, my young Badger, a proper recognition of authority, be it never so small, shall be extended in this class to the designated instructor. I have asked you no less than three times to distinguish the Short-Tempered Knarl, Hortitortor irascibilis, from the Common or Garden Hedgehog, Erinaceus europaeus.’
‘I’m very sorry, sir.’
‘Hmph.’ Professor Kettleburn’s stumped hands wheeled his chair close, and he peered at Cedric with scaly, lidless eyes. ‘It is only your due, Diggory, to state you are the rare boy who says "I’m sorry" and actually means it. Well, look slippy, as you young people say, and answer my question – before I wither away to a skeleton and frighten Professor Quirrell to death.’
After class, Cedric approached the Professor. ‘I’m awfully sorry about what happened, sir.’
‘It should not signify, Diggory – but I have noticed a certain abstraction in your manner for several weeks past. What strange star has thus entranced our Digger? Some bold new Quidditch manoeuvre?’
‘No, sir, nothing like that. May I ask you a question, sir, on … on Magizoology?’
‘Please do not employ that detestable neologism to me. If you mean "magical creatures", say "magical creatures".’
‘Yes, sir, magical creatures. Unicorns, sir. Fantastic Beasts says they prefer witches to wizards. I was wondering if that was always the case, sir.’
Kettleburn spluttered like a cauldron boiling over. ‘Fantastic Beasts, forsooth! Newt Scamander, pah! Twenty-seven paltry paragraphs, incomplete, unscholarly, unsound, by a jumped-up Ministry jack-in-office and Jarvey-fancier! I should never, of course, disparage our esteemed Headmaster, but I protested bitterly – most bitterly – when he forced that wretched screed upon my classes. But education at Hogwarts has gone straight to the Bundimuns!
‘Look here, Diggory, the point you raise is a perfect example. The Unicorn is the finest, purest, most innocent of all creatures there are. Naturally, therefore, they detest any hint of … er … impudicity. All our classical sources – wizards like Solinus and Physiologus, who knew what they were talking about – tell us the Unicorn therefore favours virgines. This word, though it may be translated as "maidens" or "young witches", more properly refers to … er … a lack of carnal experience,’ (Kettleburn crimsoned beneath his white network of scars) ‘in either a young witch or a young wizard.’
‘So a Unicorn might actually make friends with… oh, a boy, say? I mean, he wouldn’t have to be any special kind of boy or anything.’
‘I have known it happen.’ The Professor lifted his red-rimmed eyes. Abruptly: ‘Now, my Badger of Badgers – be off with you, before I am forced to impose a hundred lines from Fantastic Beasts – a Fate to which I should hesitate to consign any wizard.’
Cedric grinned. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Oh, and Diggory!’
‘I should say, a very special kind of boy indeed.’
Cedric reddened and ran.