The castle grounds slumbered in the blue half-light of the moon as Aberforth wove his way across the grass. In spite of the lateness of the hour the windows in the groundskeeper’s hut were lit and welcoming. Reaching the cabin, he stumbled three-quarters of the way around the building before he realized he’d been heading for the window of the east wall loo. He checked himself and tacked back around to the front door.
At his knock the door was thrown open and there was Hagrid, smiling down on him like a great, hairy beam of sunshine.
“Abe!” Hagrid seized his hand, pumping it in a way that Aberforth was certain could not be good for his head, which had begun to throb just a bit.
“Haven’ seen ya in a Phoenix's age!” he exclaimed. “C’min, sit yerself down! Fancy a cuppa?” He held the teakettle aloft as Aberforth settled himself into a vast armchair before the fireplace, which still glowed with the coals of the evening’s fire.
Aberforth looked at the kettle and winced, holding up his hand. “No, no thanks Rube. Never touch the stuff if I can help it.” He looked around the small room expectantly. “I wouldn’t say no to somethin’ a mite stronger though, if you‘ve got it.”
Hagrid gave him an appraising look, but obligingly took the cover from a barrel in the corner and dipped out a tankard of mead. He handed it to Aberforth and settled himself on a chair opposite his friend’s. He watched as Aberforth downed half the tankard without drawing breath. “You look a mite rattled,” he observed.
His friend wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve and gave a long shudder. “I am that, and no mistake.” He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes, looking old and defeated.
Hagrid watched him with concern. Fang, too, seemed to pick up on the general atmosphere, and laid his head on Aberforth's knee, slobbering gently. For a long moment, the cabin was silent. At length, the dampness of his trouser leg seemed to recall Aberforth to himself, and he sat up, pushing his tankard forward for a refill. Hagrid topped it off and held out a plate of evil-looking fruitcake, which Aberforth pretended not to see. The older man leaned forward, and, pausing to refresh himself often from the tankard, told in grim detail what had taken place at The Hog’s Head that evening.
“…So I says, ’I’m goin’ for broke. I’m puttin me Inn on the table!’” he concluded with a sweep of his arm that sent a shower of mead raining down onto Hagrid.
The Gamekeeper gasped, and wiped his face with the corner of the tablecloth.
“You never did! Not the Hog’s Head!” He groaned. “Say you won, Abe. Tell me you didn’t lose the Inn.”
Aberforth shuffled his feet and stared at the floor of the cabin. He pushed off his greasy cloth cap and scratched his head as if he, too, found it all very puzzling.
“Well now, don’t get all in a flutter. It weren’t exactly as bad as all that, Rube. Mr. House, he were a right gentleman about it.” Aberforth deepened his voice, imitating the American’s.
“'Mr. Aberforth,' he says to me, 'I know any man can have a run of bad luck and though I’ve won your Inn from you fair and square I am prepared to bargain with you.'
“'I’m all ears,' says I.
“And then, if you can believe it Rube, he says, 'I didn’t come all the way from America to take your pub from you, Mr. Aberforth.' He says to me, 'As much as I admire this fine establishment of yours'--that’s what he called it, a 'fine establishment'--'As much as I admire it, it’s not really what I want.'” Aberforth was gratified to see that Hagrid was hanging, open-mouthed, on every word.
“And then, you know, I took him out back where we could talk more private-like and he tells me--listen now, here’s where it gets good--he tells me, 'Mr. Aberforth sir, what I’ve really come all the way to Britain for is a unicorn.'
He grinned at Hagrid’s shocked expression. He certainly made a very obliging audience.
“Well that chirks me up a bit. 'A unicorn?' says I.
“'Yes,' he says, 'a unicorn is just what I’m after, and I think you’re just the man to help me find one.'
“'How do you reckon?' I says.
“'We don’t have unicorns in America,' he tells me. 'They’re a strictly European phenomenon. And I understand there is a place nearby where they live.'
“I knowed right then he was talking ’bout the Enchanted Forest,” Aberforth clarified, in case his friend might have forgotten where the local unicorns lived.
“'I would like to have one,' House tells me. 'You would like your Inn back. I see no reason why we can’t both be satisfied in this situation. Why don’t we say that if you can procure me a unicorn within the next twenty-four hours we’ll call it even. You can then maintain the proprietorship of your pub, I will slip quietly back to New Jersey with my unicorn, and we’ll forget we ever met one another here tonight.'”
Aberforth finished this recitation with a sideways look at Hagrid, who was listening with his mouth wide open.
“It were real gentlemanly of him to offer,” he added, kicking morosely at the frayed edge of the hearth rug.
“But Abe!” Hagrid sputtered. “You can’t--It ain’t--How in the name of Morgana are you going to get ahold of a unicorn? Even if it was possible to catch one--and I wouldn‘t count on that--it ain’t legal to trade ‘em!”
“That‘s never stopped me before,” said Aberforth testily, “nor you neither.” He shot another shifty glance at Hagrid. “I was…erm…hoping maybe I could count on your help?”
“Can‘t do it,” said Hagrid flatly. “Look, yeh know I’d do most anything’ for yeh. But Dumbledore, Albus that is, he’s my friend jes’ like you are. An’ he’s been awful good to me. An’…my job an’ all…It‘s more‘n I can risk.” He waved his big hands helplessly.
Aberforth nodded wisely and attempted a carefree smile, but it came out as more of a ghastly grimace. Then, even that dissolved as tears began to leak from the wrinkled corners of his eyes and his shoulders shook with sobs.
Half an hour later Aberforth stood by himself at the edge of the forest, peering into its depths, mustering his nerve. He had a feeling he was going to need every ounce of it he possessed. He stepped forward and the spruce boughs seemed to pull him in, absorbing him into the darkness before they closed up again behind him.
“Lumos.” The tip of his wand ignited. He was on a narrow footpath, knobbly with roots and pitted with ruts where heavy rains had washed away the soil. From the undergrowth on either side of the path he could hear strange rustlings and snappings. In the treetops, something moaned.
“All right. All right then,” he muttered, and groped for his hip flask again. Resolutely, he put one foot in front of the other. He might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but even he had a pretty good idea that unicorns weren’t likely to be found this close to the Hogwarts‘ grounds. They were cagey creatures and chary of humans; they would live deep inside the forest. He was in for a long walk.
He searched for three hours, starting at every snap of every twig, seeing shapes and strange eyes in the shadows beyond his wand light. Once or twice he wondered if hadn’t seen a lethifold, moving along the ground, cleverly evading his light, blending in with the shadows and sweeping away when he tried to get a closer look. He also suspected he had been followed, at one point, by a nundu. People said nundus didn’t live in Great Britain; ha! That just showed what they knew. And that strange bird with the haunting cries…most likely, it was an augurey. Aberforth tried to remember if hearing an augurey's cry meant he was going to die soon, or merely that it was going to rain. At last, his nerves on edge and his flask empty, he collapsed against a boulder in a small clearing.
It didn’t seem right that a man should have to risk his life like this in the course of an honest day’s work. Or an honest night’s work, in this case. He was bone-tired and chilled to the marrow. He pulled his cloak more tightly around himself and closed his eyes for just a moment.
When he awoke, the sun was high in the sky and something was tugging at the edge of his cloak. He jumped away from the creature, shouting and groping for his wand, which he snatched up and, with a trembling hand, pointed at the animal. The animal bleated.
Aberforth blinked. It was only a goat. A goat eating his cloak.
He lowered his wand noticing as he did so that he had picked it up backward, with the tip of it pointing back at himself. He chuckled. It was a good thing he hadn’t tried to Stun the beast; now that would have been awkward! And then the chuckle died in his throat and his eyes grew wide. He had an idea.
He walked slowly around the goat, studying it from every angle as the creature began to lick at the hip flask lying on the ground. It was probably one of the herd that old Jigger had bred in the forest, so he could harvest the bezoars that grew in their stomachs.
It was white, roughly the same color as a unicorn. Well, perhaps not quite so silvery, but he was sure there was a charm that could fix that. The goat had two horns, in the places where a goat’s horns usually grew. Aberforth squinted at the animal’s head, envisioning the two horns fusing together into the middle of its forehead. Hmmm. Dicey, but not impossible to do. The size of the creature…a simple Engorgement Charm should do the trick.
The longer he thought about it, the better he liked the idea. House would never know. Leastways, not until he got the darned thing back to America, and by then it would be too late to do anything about it. He didn’t even feel guilty about the deception; House himself hadn’t exactly acted in an aboveboard fashion. Blackmail, Aberforth remembered piously, was against the law. He raised his wand.
He hesitated. The Spell for making something bigger, he thought, was Engorgiento. Or was it Gorgimente? He panicked, but only for a moment. Magic was all about mind over matter; most likely it didn’t matter what he said, either way. As long as he knew what he meant the spell should work, he thought.
He squinted along the length of his wand. “Engorgomo!” he cried.
At first nothing happened. Then, slowly, the goat’s head began to swell. Only its head.
“Ah!” cried Aberforth. “Ah--Finite! Finite Incantato!” Too late, he remembered he should have said ‘Incantatem.’
But it didn’t seem to matter, because the goat’s head, grotesquely inflated, had at least stopped growing. It rested now on the forest floor, with the beast’s forefeet on the ground behind it, its hind feet waving impotently in the air. The creature bleated piteously, setting up a deafening racket in the forest stillness.
“Shut up!” cried Aberforth desperately. “Silencio!” He had evidently got that one right, because the goat stopped its noise, although its mouth continued to open and close.
He gazed at it in consternation. This was going to take a bit of tweaking. How to make the head shrink down a bit? He took a deep breath.
“Diminuend…Diminuend…ment?” he finished feebly. The goat’s head gave a violent twitch and deflated until it was only half the size it had started out. The animal’s hind legs fell to the ground with a thud and it scrabbled to its feet and ran, frantically shaking its tiny head.
His unicorn! It was getting away!
“Impedify!” he cried. Oops. It should have been ‘Impedimenta,’ he realized, as the goat continued to gallop in place as though on an invisible treadmill. The beast was clearly becoming more and more panicked, though at least it wasn’t going anywhere and its cries were still silent. Perhaps he ought to leave the size alone for now and work on the color.
He raised his wand again and tried to envision the goat with a silvery shimmer to its coat.
“Agamem!” There was a flash of white light and a cloud of smoke. When it cleared, the goat was glowing with an incandescent light. It was still pawing the forest floor with all four hooves, its shrunken mouth moving impotently. Aberforth suddenly felt very weary.
“Stupefy!” Gratefully, he watched the goat collapse to the ground, its feet and mouth still, its coat pulsating with an odd, metallic glow. He sat down with his back to the boulder again, to think.
A sudden rustling in the treetops broke the stillness that had descended on the forest when he silenced the goat. An owl swooped to the forest floor beside him and held out its leg. There was a note attached to the leg. Aberforth groaned.
Dear Mr. Dumbledore, he read, when the owl had gone on its way.
It has come to our attention that, between the hours of 10:12 a.m. and 10:23 a.m. this morning, you practiced several inappropriate charms on a goat. Be advised that this is in direct violation of Magical Decree # 14B which states that, 'No creature, magical or otherwise, is to be used in an experimental manner without prior consent of The Ministry of Magic.'
As this is your fourth violation of a Magical Decree this year, we request that you wait where you are: An Emergency Proxy of the Ministry of Magic will be with you shortly. Please be prepared to surrender your wand at that time.
Yours very truly,
Improper Use of Magic Office
Ministry of Magic
Almost before he had finished reading the letter Aberforth heard the sound of footsteps approaching. Hastily, he shoved his wand and the letter into the pocket of his robe just as the branches parted, and into the clearing stepped his own brother, Albus Dumbledore.