As an unofficial rule, the members of the extended Noble and Most Ancient House of Black were required to spend a minimum of a week of the summer season of each year holidaying at Noire House, the family's grand country house buried deep in the heart of rural Suffolk. A great manor whose aged facade of grey stone reminded any approaching visitor more of a haunted house than a seat of nobility on first sight, the house was set at the heart of a large country estate (also owned by the Blacks), consisting of tumbling meadows and fields, bordered by thick forest and warded by every protection against Muggle and Magical enemy alike.
Family legend told of the estate having previously belonging to a wealthy family of Muggles many hundreds of years ago, who seemed to all mysteriously fall prey to a surprisingly isolated bout of the plague just a few days after a tall, black-haired man in a long, flowing cloak and pointed hat was spotted by nearby farmers admiring the manor house from afar. The fact that the peculiar visitor had happened to be on the lookout for a suitable location for which to set up his household and an estate in which to invest his considerable assets was purely coincidence, or so the locals told each other loudly in public in spite of their inner suspicions, for fear that the same plague should somehow find their door on which to come a-knocking.
The manor house, curiously renamed to Noire House, had ceased to be a topic of conversation within the Muggle village just a few short weeks after the dark, mysterious stranger and his peculiarly-dressed family acquired it, for it seemed to somehow vanish from the facade of the countryside altogether, never to be seen or heard of by those lacking the purest of wizarding blood again.
It was here that the Black family patriarch and selectively enthusiastic member of the Wizengamont, Arcturus Black, lived out his latter years. A formidable, famously ill-tempered man who's facade was as aged and grey as that of the house in which he'd set up home just over a decade ago, Arcturus wiled away his days as any respectful elder of a family belonging to the Sacred Twenty-Eight should; pouring over the family records with his critical, iron gaze, snapping angrily at whichever of his many unfortunate house elves had left a smudge of dirt lingering unchecked on one of his many self-shot wampus-skin rugs and complaining bitterly about the lack of the respect he was entitled to being shown towards him by his family members through their disgraceful lack of visits to him at Noire House - to whichever particular member of his aforementioned family had taken one for the team and visited the head of their family that day.
Several years of trial and error had taught the members of the various branches of the family that the best way to keep the temperamental old dragon of a family patriarch appeased (and to secure next year's gold allowance) was to ensure that each branch of the family sacrificed a part of their summer season to holiday at Noire House for a fun-filled week of socialising, jarvey-hunting and relaxation (once Arcturus had turned in for the night at precisely nine o'clock, as he did every night).
It was simply one of the less savoury part of being a member of the House of Black - learning to endure these yearly visits with a perfected facade of enjoyment, an act practised and perfected to the point where they could almost convince themselves that the aged patriarch believed them. This was the case for every member of the Black family, except one.
Ten-year-old Sirius Black III was baffled as to why he seemed to be the only member of his family who avidly looked forward to their annual summer trip to Noire House at the beginning of each August. Since he was old enough to remember, in the week leading up to their departure from Grimmauld Place, he had watched his father grow even more grim-faced and withdrawn and his mother grow even more short-tempered and snappy as she organised the house elf's packing of their belongings into large trunks for the trip, each one stamped large and proud with the Black family crest, as if there were some chance of the crates getting lost on the journey between fireplaces.
They seemed to positively dread it.
"Why on Earth you insist on us spending a whole three weeks up at the house this year is still beyond me, Orion Black" complained Walburga as she tapped her fingers impatiently against her crossed arms.
She was supervising her two sons as they fastened their travelling cloaks around them for the journey to Noire House. Sirius had quickly realised that today was a bad day to test his mother's patience - his attempt to argue that there was no point wearing his travelling cloak for a Floo trip that would take but a few seconds had been quickly snuffed out by his mother waving her wand at him which set his cloak draping itself firmly over his shoulders, bearing down on him heavily with an uncomfortable weight that only lifted when he at last began to obediently buckle the fastenings across his chest.
"We are going because he is my father, Walburga, and the head of this family, in case you have forgotten" Orion replied, examining his reflection in the gold-framed mirror above the fireplace.
"Of course I haven't forgotten" said Walburga waspishly as she briskly took over the fastening of her younger son's cloak buckles from his own clumsy fingers. "I simply don't see why the usual fortnight's visit wouldn't suffice this year"
"I wasn't aware there was a limit on the appropriate time one should spend with one's family" Orion's voice was wry as he brushed a ringed finger over his moustache, smoothing down a rogue hair or two. "I'm sure I don't need to remind you that my father hasn't been in the best of health this year"
"And don't we know about it" Orion's wife retorted sharply.
Regulus's cloak now complete, she grasped each of her boys firmly by the chin and tilted their faces from side to side by way of inspection, with Sirius having to endure the rogue strands of his feathery black hair being firmly smoothed down before he was deemed presentable.
"I suppose your sudden desire to spend the better part of a month in the company of your father has nothing at all to do with him complaining about your shameful lack of visits during his bout of the flu last winter in his twice-daily letters? I don't recall you being anywhere near this enthusiastic last year"
"We will be late" said Orion firmly, his tone dismissing the possibility of suggestion that this conversation was anything other than finished. "We are expected at twelve o'clock sharp"
Sirius pretended not to have seen the glare his father's grey eyes shot at his mother, with a subtle nod to their two sons. Clearly, his father did not wish for either him or Regulus to hear the rest of the argument that would surely resume once the pair had been sent off to bed that evening.
Sirius's father strode towards the fireplace, a wordless gesture for his family to follow him. With a hand gripped firmly onto the shoulder of each of her sons, Walburga steered them forwards to stand beside her husband, who reached for the ornate, silver jar of Floo powder on the mantle.
The only thing Sirius understood about his parents' words regarding their upcoming trip to the country was that they should not, under any circumstances, be repeated in front of Grandfather. But otherwise, their lack of excitement surrounding the trip baffled him.
Sirius himself couldn't wait to get out of London. Despite having to endure the company of his grandfather and whichever other relatives had decided to visit during their stay, the trip to the Black country estate was the highlight of the young wizard's year. He relished the fresh, summer air of the Suffolk countryside, untainted by the coal-smog of the Muggle-dense city he was forced to call home for the rest of the year. He practically brimmed with excitement at the thought of endless fields to run about in, instead of the small, concrete rear yard of Grimmauld Place he was confined to on dry days. And he absolutely couldn't wait to be free of the constraint of the schoolroom, and all the expectations and criticisms of his performance that came with it.
What Sirius loved most of all about the visits to Noire House was that, aside from the scheduled audiences with his stern-faced grandfather after breakfast and dinner each morning and evening (which always left his little brother Regulus trembling), he was almost entirely left alone to his own amusement - provided he kept out of trouble, that was...
Sirius dug his nails harder into the bark of the tree branch he was clinging to, hiding high above the forest ground from his little brother.
"Sirius! It's not funny anymore, where are you?!" Regulus's anxious voice called out into the trees.
Sirius held back a snicker at the sight of his seven year old brother running about, frantically searching for him.
It was Sirius who had suggested hide-and-seek as their game for the afternoon, irritatingly aware that Regulus would refuse to join him in a race to see who could hop across the river via the slippery stepping stones the fastest, and that he was too nervous to poke sticks down the deep burrows in the forest floor to try and flush out a jarvey or two.
Sirius had made it his goal this summer to find and catch one of the highly elusive jarveys. He was fascinated by the ferret-like creatures, with their long, slinky bodies and curious power of speech. Last summer, he had been allowed to accompany his father, grandfather and uncles on a jarvey hunting expedition. The Black estate was well-known for boasting a high population of jarveys, ripe for the hunting for their skins, which could be sold for gold which could be fed back into the estate. Several times each summer season, the estate would play host to hunting parties, attended by members of the other high-standing Pureblood families.
Sirius had brimmed with excitement at the prospect of catching jarveys on his first hunt last year. He'd practically jumped up and down on the spot with glee when grandfather's expertly-trained crups drove the first jarvey out of its burrow, only stifling his excited cheer after receiving a firm jerk on the back of his robes from his father.
"Be still, boy" Orion had snapped at him, leaning close to his ear, though his eyes darted around to ensure none of the other wizards in attendance had noticed his son's foolish display. "Do you want to scare it back into the burrow?"
But when the jarvey in question began screeching out a long, loud stream of expletives, Sirius could not possibly contain himself. He burst out laughing in a fit of juvenile splutters, which only aggravated the jarvey further, causing it to swear all the more louder, spitting its foul tirade at Sirius.
Unaware of the effect his howls of laughter had on the creature, Sirius was only saved from serious injury when Orion instinctively cast a shield charm between his son and the jarvey as it lunged, teeth and claws bared, at Sirius's face.
Bouncing off of the magical shield, the jarvey tumbled into the undergrowth and quickly scrambled away before any in the party could catch it.
Sirius had been punished for ruining the hunt by being kept shut inside the house for the rest of the week, unable to run free in the sunshine, with only the books of his grandfather's vast library and his mother and aunts for company.
This year, Sirius was determined to prove his family wrong in their declaration that he was clearly still far too childish to attend a jarvey hunt (as Orion had sharply declared as he practically dragged his son home by the scruff of his robes), by catching one all by himself and presenting it proudly to his father and grandfather.
But his plan would have to wait for today. Regulus, being the tiresome bore that he was, refused to allow Sirius to poke sticks down holes suspected to be the homes of jarveys, tugging at his robes and whining about the risks of the creatures' sharp teeth and claws. And since his little brother was far too anxious to go back into the house by himself for fear of running into Grandfather, Sirius was stuck with the boy trailing after him for the afternoon.
And so he had suggested hide-and-seek. A nice, safe game that didn't make Regulus's grey eyes go wide with nerves. Sirius had left his brother to count to twenty by the back door of the house, and the second Regulus's hands covered his eyes, the elder brother was off like a shot, galloping across the vast, empty field towards the dark of the tress up ahead.
Mama always warned them every morning after breakfast, before they were shooed outside to play, not to go too far into the forest. Unfortunately for Regulus, his bold big brother had a very different definition of "too far" than he did.
Sirius darted through the trees, skilfully leaping over fallen logs and skidding round rocks and mounds in his path, until the sunlight-bathed clearing was far behind him.
At last, Sirius found the perfect tree to take for a hiding spot. It's branches jutted out at convenient angles for him to climb, and its foliage hung thick and heavy enough to hide him within. He tugged open the clasp of his cloak (which Mama forced them both into every morning before they were released from the house, regardless of it being the height of summer), letting it fall to the forest floor, abandoned.
Sirius clawed his way up the tree confidently. Unlike Regulus, he loved climbing trees, relishing the feeling of being high up above the ground, a view he was otherwise denied since Papa still refused to get him his first broomstick. Once he was about five or six metres up, Sirius crawled along one of the stronger-looking branches and settled down to lie in wait for Regulus to come looking for him.
It was really rather relaxing, laying there in the shade of the trees, though still feeling the warmth of the sun leaking through the minute gaps in the leaves, sighing peacefully. There was never any chance to do this at home in grey, dreary London. If there were any trees to fall asleep in, Sirius hadn't found them. Besides, the smog of the city meant there were no trickles of warm sunlight to bask in.
Sirius closed his eyes, his head rested on his arms, and listened to the sounds of the jobberknolls whistling and flapping about him. Today was a good day. There were no near-death birds nearby to ruin the serenity of the forest with their unappetising shrieks.
Sirius had spent most of the previous afternoon attempting to knock a jobberknoll out of the trees by throwing stones at them, but his aim hadn't been very good. He'd cursed with words that made Regulus's eyes stretch as wide as saucers, complaining that he didn't yet have a wand to hurl the stones more accurately with magic.
It was close to half an hour before Sirius finally heard the soft footsteps of his brother trudging cautiously through the forest in search of him. He lifted his head, tilting it towards the sound of his brother's voice calling for him. A moment later, Regulus's little form, obediently still clad in his own cloak, came into view below.
"Sirius?" Regulus called out, a trace of worry evident in his voice. "I don't want to play anymore, I can't find you!"
Sirius smirked to himself as he crouched lower behind a branch bearing a thick coat of leaves, hiding himself further as Regulus craned his head up at the canopy.
"Sirius, come out! I don't like this anymore!" Regulus's anxious voice called again.
Regulus was now directly below Sirius's tree, coming to a halt beside it and gasping at the sight of Sirius's cloak discarded on the ground. The younger boy picked it up and clutched the material tight.
"Sirius! Please, come out! This is too scary now!"
Regulus's voice wobbled. He was clearly close to tears.
At that moment, Sirius suddenly released his grip on the branch he was clinging to and fell to the forest floor, landing in a heap directly in front of Regulus, who screamed in surprise.
"Got ya!" Sirius shrieked as he landed, ignoring the dull ache in the arm he'd landed on and jumping up at his brother with a wide, cheeky smile.
Regulus gave his brother a half-hearted shove to the chest before wiping his eyes quickly on the back of his robes sleeve.
"Scared you, didn't I?" Sirius asked gleefully, barely acknowledging the shove.
"Don't do that!" said Regulus with a sniff. "I was really worried! I found your cloak and- I thought you'd been got by- by a wampus or something!"
"Don't be daft Reg" said Sirius airily, snatching his cloak back from his brother and slinging it over his shoulder. He neither noticed nor cared about the dirt stains and twigs clinging to the thick material. "There aren't any wild wampuses in Britain, you know that"
"Well it was still a mean trick. I thought something had got you" Regulus whimpered.
Sirius tossed his head, barking out a laugh.
"No stupid creature would be daft enough to cross me" he said, throwing an arm around his brother and clasping him tight. "I'd take it down, no problem"
"But you fell off of one of Grandfather's hippogriffs when he tried to teach you to ride, last week"
Sirius shot his brother an irked glare.
"Do you want me to leave you here in this forest for the wampus to get you?"
Regulus's eyes were with alarm.
"But you said there weren't any wampuses!"
"Come on Reg, I thought you were supposed to be the good one who listened to Mama" said Sirius with a smirk as he took his brother by the hand and led him back down the forest path towards the clearing. "Don't you remember what she said last night? After dinner, when I said I didn't know where half the after-dinner cake had gone?"
"She said that no word from your mouth could ever be trusted to be true" Regulus parroted obediently.
"Exactly" said Sirius.
The two brothers walked for several minutes. Sirius could feel his little brother's tense muscles begin to relax the closer the got to the clearing.
Suddenly, Sirius skidded to a halt just as the edge of the forest was coming into view at last. Releasing his hold on Regulus's hand, he suddenly darted off of the main path towards a large mound of soil he'd spotted not far away. He dropped the cloak slung over his shoulder in his haste. It landed in the dirt where Regulus picked it up a moment later, carefully brushing the soil from the material.
"Sirius, come back!" Regulus urged, scurrying after him. "What is it?"
"It's a jarvey burrow!" said Sirius excitedly. He sunk to his hands and knees in the dirt, ignorant of the generous addition to the dirt smudges tarnishing his robes. "It must be! Look at it, it's just the right size"
"What do you mean, 'so'?" Sirius snapped, eyeing his brother with annoyance. "It's a jarvey burrow, Reg! It's an opportunity, to prove Papa wrong at last!"
"You're not seriously going to try and catch a jarvey again, are you?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Sirius was irked by the obvious tone of disbelief in his brother's voice. He scrambled to his feet and walked over to stand in front of Regulus, looking down at him, hands on his hips.
"You saying I can't catch a jarvey?" he demanded.
"Well-" Regulus shrank a little under his brother's stony gaze. "It's just-"
Sirius's stare hardened threateningly.
"You don't even have a wand yet" Regulus finished feebly.
Sirius tilted his head up high in an unconsciously haughty gesture.
"I don't need a wand" he said confidently. "Anyway-"
Sirius kicked a nearby stone with the toe of his shoe, leaving a scuff mark on the expensive leather.
"-Papa won't let me join the proper jarvey hunt again, after last year. But if I bring him one and show him that I'm just as good as them, then he'll be sorry"
Sirius marched over to a nearby tree, where broken twigs lay scattered around the trunk. He snatched up a sizeable stick and swished it in the air, as if he expected a stream of sparks to emit from the end.
"Who needs a wand, eh?" he asked with a snicker at his brother.
"Any wizard with sense" was the answer Regulus wished he had the bravery to tell his overconfident elder brother, but after his previous threat to leave him here at the mercy of the wampus which may or may not be crouching in the bushes at this very moment, he held his tongue.
He watched, his fists balling the material of his cloak anxiously, as Sirius crouched by the suspected jarvey den and posed his stick to poke it deep inside the dark mouth of the tunnel.
"Sirius, wait!" he called out suddenly, making his brother jump in surprise.
"Now what?" Sirius sighed, scowling at his brother impatiently.
"Please don't do it, if there is a jarvey in there, you'll just make it angry by poking it, and it'll bite and claw you!"
"Bloody hell, Reg, don't be such a bore!"
Regulus winced slightly at Sirius's bad language. Mama had given him such a clip round the ear the first time she had heard Sirius use that phrase that he'd been cautious not to let her hear him ever since, such was the severity of her threat to take away his voice for a week if he dared to utter the words again. But that didn't stop him letting loose when the only witness was his little brother.
"But you need a wand to catch it properly!" Regulus protested. "And besides, the stick won't flush it out anyway. Don't you remember what Professor Weston said when we studied jarveys last month? Only the crups can drive them out of their burrows. They won't be scared by your stick, just angry"
Any other time, Sirius would snap that his brother was an insufferable know-it-all, reciting their tutor's lesson word for word, but on this one occasion, he was distracted by his brother provided him with just the brainwave he needed.
"Yes, that's it, Reg!" Sirius said, scrambling to his feet urgently, dust clouds billowing around his robe hems, dirtying them further. "We need a crup!"
"And how are we going to get one?" Regulus asked. "Ask Grandfather?"
"No" Sirius retorted, as though his brother had said something laughably stupid. "He'd never say yes. We'll just go to the kennels and get one"
"We can't steal a crup, Sirius!"
"It's not stealing, Reg, it's just borrowing. We'll give it back when we're done"
Sirius strode along the forest path towards the clearing, leaving Regulus to hurry along after him in his wake for fear of being left behind.
"The kennel keeper won't just let us borrow a crup, Sirius. He'll tell Grandfather and we'll get into such trouble!"
"That old half-blood? He'll be fine with it, he likes us" Sirius replied dismissively. "Anyway, he can't really deny us, can he? We're Blacks, and he just works here"
His mission clear in his mind, Sirius took off into a sprint the second they were free from the shade of the trees, bounding though the grassy meadow towards the kennel building in the distance, his little brother at his heels, still carrying his elder brother's cloak, panting from the effort of trying to keep up with his pace.