There was a dragon on the Quidditch pitch.
Crouching near the goal posts, it snapped at the Bludger, which buzzed around its arrow-shaped head.
Katie had fled into the entrance tunnel along with the other players and watched as the Bludger suddenly changed course and zoomed in a straight line towards the tunnel on the other side of the stadium.
The dragon’s wings flapped in irritation. A low growl rose from the depth of its throat, and smoke billowed from its snout. The coiled body stretched towards the entrance; scales ground against each other. Then, suddenly, the sky was full of lightning. Spells hit dragon hide as brooms circled overhead. The beast growled and roared, belching flame and smoke. Part of the spectator stands caught fire. The heavy scent of burning wood filled Katie’s nose. Mighty wings beat the air as the dragon attempted to take flight.
The witches and wizards who circled it on their brooms renewed their attack, and a Stunner struck its vulnerable eyes.
Blinded and enraged, it flooded the air with fire. Its long tail lashed out, shattering two of the three goal hoops on impact. Talons gouged the ground.
Stragglers fleeing from the stands screamed in fear.
Just like the people surrounding her, Katie was riveted by the spectacle before her. Watching the wild manoeuvres employed to evade the dragon’s fire stole her breath away. Anxiously, she steadied herself against the broad back of the person in front of her, rose onto the balls of her feet, and craned her neck for a better view.
"Katie, we need some help." Someone placed a hand on her shoulder and pulled her back. When she turned, she looked into the determined face of Penelope Clearwater, her team captain. The Romanian captain and two of her Chasers stood behind her. "We are going to do something about those fires. Are you coming with us?"
Without hesitation, Katie pulled her wand out of her robes and nodded in agreement. "Of course, I am."
They rushed through the tunnel to the outside of the stadium where the spectator’s entrances allowed access to the stands. Katie followed Penelope up the first set of stairs, while the Romanian players ran past them to the next one in order to reach the fire from the other side.
"You know, when you proposed a friendly match between the Arrows and the Dragons, I didn’t expect there to be any actual dragons involved," Katie panted as she reached the top of the stands.
Penelope only rolled her eyes. Her face mirrored Katie’s mixed expression of anxiety and exhilaration. Wands raised, they bounded over the stands and extinguished the fires that devoured the wooden benches. The Romanian players met them halfway, and Goran, one of the Chasers, put a shield in front of the creaking construction to protect them against further danger.
Martha, the Romanian captain, smiled apologetically. "We were worried that they had built the new stadium too close to the dragon reservation."
The dragon’s roar had dwindled to a low grumbling. Finally subdued by its keepers, it settled down, tail curling around its front paws. The great eyes blinked sleepily as it rested its head on the ground.
Wizards and witches swarmed onto the pitch; spectators, both excited and outraged, harried officials, and the remaining players of the Appleby Arrows and the Vatra Dornei Dragons crowded around the beast. Arguments broke out, and soon, a cacophony of sound filled the air.
"Do you think they’re going to let us finish the match?" Penelope asked.
Goran lowered his wand, breaking the shield. "They have to."
"I don’t think they can," Katie said.
"They can repair the stands in less than an hour. They only need to get the dragon back to the reservation. Look how many people are still here. It’s not as if we don’t have an audience."
"That leaves us with only one problem, then." Penelope and Katie exchanged a look.
"I’m sure they can replace it," Penelope said.
"They can’t. It’s against the rules."
"QUIET!" The magically amplified voice interrupted their conversation and made everybody flinch. "Will everybody please be quiet? Or do you want her to wake up again?" Movement swept through the crowd, and as one it retreated several steps. Loud arguments were abruptly quieted, only to be replaced by low whispers.
"I really want to know what’s going on down there." With a flick of her wand, Katie Summoned her broomstick and mounted it. The others followed suit. After a short flight, Katie touched down next to the referee who stood surrounded by both Quidditch teams, an official-looking witch with her hair in a tight bun, and Charlie Weasley.
With a grin on her face, Katie stepped up next to her former Gryffindor teammate. "Looks like you lost something," she said, interrupting the heated conversation.
Charlie looked down at her, blinked, and Katie noted with amusement that it took him a second to put a name to her face. Then, a smile made its way to his lips. "Looks like I found something," he replied.
"Well, considering the size of her, I’m sure it wasn’t too difficult. Though, she certainly made the match more interesting."
"Don’t tell me you were losing."
"We were leading ninety to eighty when your little lizard decided to join the game. She has good reflexes, but her manoeuvrability needs some work." Katie looked at the slumbering dragon. "Potential Keeper, I’d say."
"Ahem." The referee cleared his throat and regarded them with an air of amused sufferance. "Yes, well, the dragon’s suitability as a Quidditch player notwithstanding, it can’t stay here. We have a match to finish."
"We’ll get her back to the reservation right away. The stunning spell isn’t going to affect her for long. We’ll also reinforce the charms on the reservation’s perimeter. So, hopefully, this won’t happen again."
"Well, I certainly hope it won’t." The Romanian ministry official put one hand on her hip and regarded Charlie with obvious distaste. "You were told to reinforce those spells months ago."
Charlie held up his hands. "We did. I don’t know how she managed to get through, but I promise you: we’ll find out."
"See that you do." She tugged on her purple robes and squared her shoulders. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have to assure the generous guests whose money made the construction of this stadium possible that their investment was not as ill-advised as it would seem."
She turned and left them staring after her. Goran shook his head. "She is not so bad," he said. "But this stadium is very important to her. We have applied to host the next World Cup, you know."
"If she wants to add to Romania’s prestige, she shouldn’t have built the stadium so close to the dragon reservation," Penelope huffed.
Charlie intervened. "As far as I know, she didn’t want to build it here, but she was overruled by the committee." He clapped his hands together. "Now, let’s get Norberta back home before she wakes up."
They turned towards the dragon, which had been secured with spelled ropes and sailing canvas. The tarp rose and fell with its every breath. The stands were already undergoing repairs, and most of the fire damage had disappeared. Ropes had been secured to broomsticks, and two of Charlie’s colleagues, a young man and a tall, middle-aged woman approached. "We’re almost done. The sooner we get her out of here the better. We can’t keep her eggs warm for much longer."
Katie looked at Charlie in surprise. "She’s nesting?"
"Yes, which makes it even stranger that she flew off. They usually don’t leave their nests at all until the young ones hatch." He shrugged. "During the early stages of development, spelled fire is a poor substitute for real dragon fire. If we don’t get her back soon ..." he didn’t finish the sentence.
"Ah ... Charlie, there is a small problem." Katie looked over her shoulder and motioned for the referee to join them.
"What kind of problem?"
"She swallowed the Snitch."
Charlie stared at her in disbelief. "You’re pulling my leg."
Katie only raised an eyebrow.
Charlie burst out laughing. He regarded the dragon fondly. "Girl, when you cause trouble you don’t stop half-way, do you?"
The referee took the news with considerably less amusement. Mumbling under his breath, he pulled out a small booklet and began flipping pages.
"Surely, we can just use another Snitch," Penelope joined in.
Both Charlie and Katie shook their heads. "No, that’s against the rules."
"But this can’t be the first time that a Snitch was lost."
The referee cleared his throat again. "Well, strictly speaking, the Snitch is not lost, since we know where it is. And the game cannot end until the Snitch is caught."
"Well, it was caught. By a dragon," Goran said.
"Unfortunately, the dragon was not playing on either of the participating teams at the time of the catch."
"So what usually happens if ... let’s say, someone in the stands catches the Snitch?" Penelope asked.
The referee look outraged. "Such a person would be immediately dismissed from the stadium and fined up to five thousand galleons for trying to disrupt the match. The Snitch would then be released again in the middle of the pitch."
"So what you’re saying is that we can’t resume the match until the dragon ‘releases’ the Snitch." Goran was not the only one who looked disgusted.
"What I’m saying is that the match will not be over until the dragon ‘releases’ the Snitch. The match will resume as soon as the goal posts have been repaired."
"Nothing stops Quidditch," Katie trilled with fake enthusiasm. Her expression serious, she turned to Charlie. "How long will it take for us to get our Snitch back?"
Charlie’s smile had disappeared as well. "Dragons have a slow metabolism. Maybe a week. And with the charms on the Snitch that confine it to within two hundred feet of the stadium we can’t bring Norberta back to the reservation, either."
"Are you sure?"
"Well, I don’t know what happens to a Snitch once it’s been swallowed by a dragon, but I can’t risk it. If we move Norberta outside that perimeter it might cause serious damage to her inner organs and may even kill her." He addressed his colleagues. "Darren, I need you to fly back to the reservation and let Stefania know what happened. She needs to organize the transport of Norberta’s eggs. Ekaterina, we need to set up an enclosure outside the stadium. And we need to move fa-"
"Hold on. Now, just one minute here." The referee clapped his book shut with an agitated gesture. "You can’t just set up camp with a fully grown dragon. You can see for yourself how many people came here to watch the match. It will be pandemonium. It’s far too dangerous."
"If you have a better idea ..."
Martha and Penelope, who had wandered off to speak privately for a moment, rejoined the conversation. "The stadium wasn’t completely sold out, and about a fourth of the people went home after the dragon appeared. You could set up the enclosure on the practice pitch; this way, you don’t have to start from scratch. The pitch is behind the east curve of the stadium. If we keep that section of the stands free and put up additional Shielding Charms, we should be all right."
Penelope took over. "If we are going to keep playing for a whole week, we also need to bring in reserve players. We’ll have to send owls to the Bulgarian and British ministries to help us organize this."
Silence followed this announcement. Quidditch didn’t stop for anything. Not for bad weather, earthquakes, or erupting volcanoes. Certainly not for dragons. Once a match had started, it didn’t end until the Snitch was caught. Those were the rules. And it was a matter of pride for every Quidditch player that no match had ever been aborted. There was no question as to whether or not they would quit.
The referee cleared his throat. "Yes, well. In that case we’d better get started." He looked distinctly uncomfortable. "I suppose that I better inform Madame Brecska." He turned away and started to look for some purple robes.
* * * * *
In less than an hour, the goal posts had been repaired, and the spectators had been assigned new seats away from the east curve of the stadium. Once everyone had been informed of the Snitch’s whereabouts, and all organizational information had been imparted, the Quaffle and Bludgers were released, and the match resumed its course.
Charlie heard the rising cheers from the stadium, but was too preoccupied with the tasks at hand to pay much attention.
Darren had returned only a few minutes ago, accompanied by three keepers from the reservation and a crate containing Norberta’s eggs. Protective Charms and shields were erected to reinforce the boundary of the practice pitch, and Charlie waved his wand one last time to strengthen the wooden palisade.
Norberta restlessly prowled the confined space, her head swinging from side to side as she tried to gain a better view of the stadium. Her scaly legs where trembling slightly, and her wings lay limply on the ground.
"She still looks a bit groggy," Ekaterina said.
Charlie nodded. "Not for long. We should get her eggs in there, before the Stunners wear off completely."
They joined Darren and the others, and each of them heaved a jet-black dragon egg onto a blanket and carried it onto the pitch. Norberta growled from the depths of her throat when she saw them approach, but her reaction was slow, and her attention still fixed on the stadium.
Flanked by a protective detail of half a dozen witches and wizards, they ducked under the dragon's neck and carefully arranged the eggs in the nest. Then, watching from a safe distance, they waited for Norberta to breathe fire on the eggs to keep them warm.
Nothing happened. Norberta’s gaze remained fixed on the stadium.
Charlie scratched his head. "Unbelievable. Since when are dragons more interested in Quidditch than their own eggs?"
He raised his wand, and a circle of orange flames rose around the eggs. In response, Norberta roared, and a jet of fire hurled his way. Charlie cursed and threw himself to the ground.
"Is everyone all right?" he shouted as he pushed himself back to his feet. Ekaterina dusted dirt off her robes, and Darren, who was still on the ground, mumbled an affirmation.
His gaze fixing on the annoyed dragon, he watched with a mixture of relief and exasperation as Norberta finally turned her attention to her nest and bathed her eggs in dragon fire. With the early September sun low enough to skim the treetops, Charlie sent Darren and most of the others back to the reservation. Darren would return with tents and supplies, so they could settle in for the week along with Ekaterina and five other keepers who would take turns to guard Norberta.
Conjuring a pitcher of water, Charlie took a few swallows, and then dumped the remaining liquid over his head. The day had been hot and humid, and his robes clung uncomfortably to his skin. Combing his wet hair out of his face, he looked around, noting the tents, which had sprung up around the stadium. Curious, he approached. As another uprising of cheers erupted from the stadium, he saw Madame Brecska standing in the middle of the group of tents, her bun coming undone, her wand swirling and flicking in the air as she marshalled a group of harried-looking wizards about.
"Make sure we have enough beds for all the players. They are going to be exhausted. I want this section of the camp sealed off to everyone who is not a participant or Ministry official. Any spectator who wishes to stay can put his tent up on the other side of the west curve; that’ll put them as far away from the dragon as possible. I want guards stationed at both ends of the stadium to make sure no one wanders anywhere near the enclosure. Oh, hello, Mr. Weasley."
Without breaking stride, she nodded in greeting and dismissed her audience. Charlie fell into step beside her, and they walked around the far curve to see another group of tents, which had been erected among the willow trees.
A collective gasp from the stadium made them stop in their tracks. The following wild applause elicited a sigh from Madame Brecska. "I’d much rather be in there than out here."
Charlie offered a sympathetic smile. "I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time to watch the match during the next week."
"Yes, well." She squared her shoulders and threw him an indecipherable glance. "How is your dragon? I don’t suppose there is any potion or other concoction that would speed this up a little?"
Charlie shook his head. "Sorry, but we’ll just have to wait. A dragon’s magical nature alters all potions with which it comes in contact. There is a reason why dragon bile is so expensive. Potions rarely have an effect on them, and if they do, it’s never the one for which the potion was designed."
Madame Brecska delicately wrinkled her nose. “Will that snitch even be usable when we get it back?”
“We’ll have to wait and see.”
Grumbling, Madame Brecska surveyed the camp and imparted orders to the Ministry official who came up to her and had apparently been assigned to oversee this part of the organization.
"The reserve players of the Vatra Dornei Dragons who weren’t already here, have arrived a few minutes ago, and we expect the Arrow’s reserve team to join us within the hour. After consulting with the team captains, we agreed on a six hour rotation. That way, hopefully everyone will be able to get enough sleep, and we can avoid any serious injuries and accidents." She gave him a forced, if not unfriendly smile. "Now, tell me how things are progressing on your end."
* * * * *