May 26th, 2006, 3:15 pm
Chapter One of my version of HP7.
The Intruder in the Kitchen
Harry awoke with a jolt. For a few happy seconds he thought that everything was all right, that he really was at Hogwarts, that he really was with Dumbledore, chatting as in the old days, but then he looked around him and faintly discerned in the darkness the outlines of the furniture in his cramped bedroom at Privet Drive. He sagged with disappointment. It had been a dream. Dumbledore was really dead. He wasn’t coming back. And Harry still had a week to go before his seventeenth birthday, before he could leave the Dursleys’ house forever.
He lay still in the darkness for a few minutes, listening to the sound of his Uncle Vernon and cousin Dudley snoring loudly in the other bedrooms, and was about to go back to sleep when, suddenly, he heard another noise, a noise which made his heart stop for a moment. He could hear footsteps downstairs.
“Aunt Petunia?” he wondered. But then he heard the footsteps again, and it was obvious that they were heavy, masculine footsteps. He glanced at the illuminated dial of the clock by his bed. Just past three o’clock. Who could be in the house at this time of night? It couldn’t be Uncle Vernon or Dudley – they were fast asleep, their snores testified to that.
Trembling, Harry got out of bed, fumbled for his wand in the trunk beneath his bed, and crept down the stairs, careful not to make any sound. He knew that he probably wouldn’t need magic. He knew that the powerful magic of his mother’s blood, the only reason why he spent each summer with the Dursleys, should be able to protect him here, that no Death Eaters should be able to penetrate the four walls of his aunt and uncle’s house until he turned seventeen in a week’s time, but still, with Dumbledore dead and Voldemort returned to his full powers, Harry was taking no chances. He clutched his wand firmly in his right hand as he tiptoed down the stairs.
When he reached the bottom banister, he realised that Aunt Petunia had beaten him to it. She was standing in the doorway of the kitchen, in her dressing gown and curlers with a rolling pin clasped in her hand, looking at someone on the other side of the kitchen, berating him in a sharp voice.
“Get out of my house, whoever you are, before I call the police!” she shrieked, shaking the rolling pin, fiercely. “An Englishman’s home is his castle!”
He could see the back of her head, but from this angle couldn’t see who she was talking to.
But then Harry froze to the marrow when he heard a voice he knew very well, a voice he hated above any other in the human or the wizard worlds, the voice of the one person he hated even more than Voldemort himself. The voice spoke only three words:
“Good evening, Petunia”
“You!” hissed Aunt Petunia, in horrified recognition. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s nothing that need trouble your pitiful excuse for a brain. It’s no concern of yours. Stand aside, you infernally stupid woman!” he snapped, derisively.
Harry shuddered, horrified by the echo of the words he had heard so many times when the Dementors attacked, when he had been forced to replay the memory of his mother’s murder, but for some reason he could not move, he could not draw his wand.
“Stand aside!” repeated Snape, seeing that Petunia had still not budged from the doorway. “Don’t you realise it’s Harry I’m after, not you? Why would I have the remotest interest in your filthy Muggle life? Stand aside and let me have Harry and you won’t get hurt. It won’t be like last time…”
Then it was as if Harry came to life again. Thinking only of how this man had betrayed his parents and sent them to their deaths, and of how he had murdered Dumbledore, the truest friend Harry had ever known, in cold blood, when Dumbledore trusted him, Harry pushed past his aunt, pointed his wand at Snape, determined to take his revenge and make him suffer, and yelled at the top of his voice “CRUC…”
But Snape was too quick for him. He blocked the spell with a non-verbal curse and before Harry knew it, his wand had ripped out of his hand and was flying across the kitchen towards his greatest enemy.
“I thought I told you, Potter,” sneered Snape, his lip curling nastily. “No Unforgivable Curses from you. You always were a very slow student.”
“Murderer!” spat Harry. “Foul, evil murderer!”
”Well, I must say,” smirked Snape, “you’ve proved to be even stupider and more conceited than I thought. I don’t even have to waste time looking for you, because you’ve come to me. Arrogant, just like your father. Convinced that you’re impregnable, invincible. Walk headfirst into trouble, time and time again.”
“Don’t you dare talk to me about my father!” Harry fumed, striding angrily towards Snape. “You’re not fit to utter his name..”
“Well, well. Much as I’d like to hang about all night chatting, we have to leave, Potter. Someone with whom we are both on – ah- intimate terms has asked me to fetch you.”
Harry clenched his fists and stared at Snape harshly. “I suppose by that, you mean your master?”
Snape paused for a fraction of a second and looked at Harry strangely.
“Yes,” he said finally. “I do mean my master.”
The two stood glaring at one another, oblivious to the whimpering of Aunt Petunia who had curled into a heap by the door to the passageway.
“Come,” said Snape, “let us…”
But he didn’t have time to finish his sentence before there was a blinding flash of light and Lupin and Tonks apparated from nowhere in the centre of the kitchen. They pointed their wands at Snape, but there was another flash and he disappeared into thin air.
“Too late! We didn’t catch him,” sighed Tonks in frustration.
“No, my dear. We’re not too late,” insisted Remus. “We were in time to save Harry, that’s the main thing.”
He turned to Harry. “I’m so sorry. Arabella Figg told us she’d spotted Snape in Privet Drive, and we got here as soon as we could…”
But he broke off when he saw that Harry wasn’t listening, his face twisted as though a horrible fact was just dawning on him.
Harry ran across the room and grabbed Aunt Petunia by the shoulders, shaking her violently. He forced her against a wall and thrust his face an inch away from hers: “He called you ‘Petunia’! He recognised you! And you recognised him, too, didn’t you? You two know each other!”
Aunt Petunia was quivering in Harry’s grasp, her face as white
“I don’t know what you m-m-mean, Harry…” she stammered. “I don’t know him at all! I’ve never seen him in my life before!”
“DON’T LIE TO ME!” roared Harry, slamming her head back against the wall. “You’re in league with Voldemort! You let a Death Eater into this house!”
“All right, all right!” pleaded Aunt Petunia. “I know him by sight, that’s all. Now please will you let me go?”
“Well, then how come he knows your name? Tell me the truth!”
His aunt began to gabble in a panic, gulping in huge mouthfuls of air as she spoke. “I really know very little about him. I know his name. I know he’s called Severus Snape. And I suppose he must be a Death Eater, because Lily called him one, too, but that’s really all I do know, and I don’t even know what a Death Eater is…”
“WHAT?!” exploded Harry, stunned, and tightened his grip on Aunt Petunia’s throat.
“It’s all right, Harry!” said Lupin, in a reassuring tone, gently removing Harry’s hands from Petunia’s neck. “I can explain. I should have told you before. Somehow it didn’t seem important, though. Then after…well, what Snape did to Dumbledore, that was another reason I didn’t want to mention it. I thought it would upset you…”
“What?” asked Harry, his muscles tensing. “What didn’t seem important? There’s something about my mother that you didn’t think was important, that you didn’t bother to tell me because you didn’t think I’d WANT to know?”
“They tricked me!” interrupted Aunt Petunia in a hard voice, emboldened now that there were two members of the Order between her and Harry, who could reasonably be expected to restrain him from throttling her. “They made me think he was normal.”
“What are you talking about?” said Harry, his brow furrowing with utter bewilderment.
“If I’d had any suspicion he was one of your lot, I’d never have let him in the house.”
Lupin, spotting the growing expression of confusion and horror on Harry’s face, took a deep breath. “Lily and Severus used to hang out together sometimes in the summer holidays, Harry.”
“My mother and SNAPE?” Harry was dumbstruck. “I don’t believe you! I don’t believe you! Why would my mother want to waste a second of her time on THAT?”
“Coming to the door, ever so polite,” muttered Harry’s aunt to herself. “Butter wouldn’t have melted in his mouth. Then Lily would greet him and they would shut themselves in her room, as if they were playing like normal children. I actually thought he was a good influence, that he might knock that Hogwarts nonsense out of her head. And all the time, they were laughing at me, doing magic spells in her room, when I thought that they were just …”
Lupin made a tentative attempt to explain. “You have to understand, Harry, that at the time, Lily and Snape had something in common.”
“They had nothing in common!”
“Hear me out, Harry! A minute ago you were angry that I’d never told you this, and then when I try to tell you, you won’t let me and keep interrupting!”
When Harry fell silent, Lupin dropped his voice and continued. “Yes, they were utterly different in personality and interests. They didn’t really socialise together at school. But in the holidays they were both trapped in the same situation. They lived in Muggle houses, in the same town, miles from any magical people. And, from what I’ve heard, Severus’s father wouldn’t tolerate any magic in the house. He was worse than your uncle in that respect. Well, it was understandable that they would spend their holidays together.”
“My mother and Snape?” repeated Harry, numbly, as if he still couldn’t take it in.
“Think about it, Harry. If Lavender Brown, or Katie Bell, or Luna Lovegood, or anyone else from Hogwarts, lived just round the corner from Privet Drive, wouldn’t you want to spend your holidays with them, rather than with Muggle children or on your own?”
Harry nodded absently. What Lupin said was making some kind of sense, but…And then the blood rushed to his face in fury when the implications of what Remus had said hit home. He couldn’t bear it. Just when he thought he couldn’t possibly hate his old Potions teacher any more than he already did, this new reason came flying from nowhere and hit him between the eyes.
“You mean… he was her mate?”
But Lupin hadn’t noticed the thunderclouds gathering in Harry’s face. He went on, “And then again, you have to realise that Lily was a bit like that. She always took care of strays. It was her nature to root for the underdog. Snape had a hard time at school, and that made her want to take him under her wing…”
Harry erupted. “He handed her over to Voldemort when they were actually MATES?”
Tonks, Lupin and even Aunt Petunia stared at him, seeing an emotional force in Harry that they’d never seen before.
Harry clenched his fists so tightly that he thought his palms would bleed. “I solemnly vow that I will not rest until I have ripped that piece of slime from limb to limb and fed his heart to the spiders of the forest. I will devise tortures for him that are more painful than anything ever known to man.”
“Harry…” began Tonks, placing a hand on his arm.
“Don’t ‘Harry’ me!” He shrugged her hand away, violently.
“We need to get you out of here!” she retorted, insistently. “If Snape could get in here, then you’re not safe.”
Harry laughed, strangely. “Are any of us safe anywhere these days?”
He looked up. “No,” he said. “I won’t go. I promised Dumbledore that I would stay at the Dursleys until my seventeenth birthday, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
Lupin looked puzzled and extremely worried. “Dumbledore wanted you to stay here because it’s the one place he thought Voldemort and his henchmen wouldn’t be able to touch you. Could he have been…wrong?”
“He must have been!” said Tonks. “Snape got inside here, we all saw him! The magic of blood that Dumbledore talked about can’t be infallible, if that could happen. And it cold happen again!”
“Well, I’ll just have to take that chance, for one more week.”
They stared at him.
“I’m not flouting Dumbledore’s wishes, not when he’s not here to argue with me. That would be disloyal and cowardly and…”
“OK,” said Lupin, shrugging his shoulders in a resigned fashion. “We’ll just have to increase security, have Order members on the spot at all times.”
Aunt Petunia gave a yelp and curled into a quivering ball at the idea of wizards in her house 24/7, but Harry ignored her, and strode out of the kitchen, up the stairs, past Uncle Vernon and Dudley (who had been cowering behind their bedroom doors ever since the fracas downstairs had started, too scared to come out and defend their wife and mother), and went back to bed.
August 6th, 2006, 5:31 pm
Uncle Vernon seemed to have recovered from his fright by the time Harry came down to breakfast the next morning, though. His face was swollen and purple with anger, like a great big beetroot.
“I won’t have it!” he boomed, as Harry took his seat at the kitchen table, and, as if to emphasise the point, he crashed his big, fat fist down on the table so that all the crockery rattled. “Your lot tramping through the house at all hours, frightening my wife…”
“Frightening you, you mean,” muttered Harry, but Uncle Vernon was too caught up in his own ranting to catch it.
“…making a noise, disturbing the neighbours, breaking and entering…I always said your lot were a bunch of criminals! No respect for private property or the laws of trespass…”
“I didn’t invite him in, you know!” said Harry, sharply.
Uncle Vernon stopped and glared at him.
“I didn’t want him here any more than you did. He only came to kill me, but don’t worry about me…”
Uncle Vernon went white. “What did you say?”
“I said, ‘He only came to kill me, but don’t worry…’”
“That’s it! I’ve had it! Attracting dangerous criminals to the house. Why, it’s the last straw. You have to go. Leave the house this minute! Petunia! Petunia! Harry has to leave!”
Aunt Petunia came into the room, clutching the post which had just been delivered in her hand. She looked frightened, too, but there was an odd steely determination in her voice that Harry had never heard before when she looked her husband in the eye and said, “No, Vernon. He can’t leave. Not before next week.”
Harry felt queasy and confused. This was very strange. Aunt Petunia standing up for him, against Uncle Vernon? Was he going to wake up in a minute and find this was a dream?
“We gave our word to that…that…that headmaster chap,” she continued.
“We didn’t know what a lot of trouble it would cause us,” bellowed Uncle Vernon. “I don’t give a damn about that chap who called himself a headmaster. We have to put ourselves and our own son first!”
“That’s what I mean,” said Petunia, furtively, glancing briefly at Harry. “It’s Dudley and us that I’m thinking of.”
Uncle Vernon crinkled his brow as if in puzzlement.
“Remember what he said would happen if we went back on our word!” hissed Petunia.
“What?” said Harry. “What did Dumbledore say would happen?”
But Aunt Petunia was deliberately ignoring him, concentrating very hard on sorting through the post.
“Two bills, a letter for you from your sister, Vernon,” she said, passing the items to her husband, “Dudders’s motorbike magazine that he gets through the post, and a letter….” She stopped and froze with the letter in her hand, her eyes bulging in surprise. She swallowed and then continued in a weak voice, “A letter for Harry…”
“What?” said Uncle Vernon, frowning, “Let me see that!”
And he snatched the letter out of his wife’s hands.
Harry reached for the letter at the same time, but Uncle Vernon was too quick. It didn’t matter, though, because after a brief examination of the envelope, Uncle Vernon threw it across to Harry, sneering, “Well, well, well. So you do have some normal friends then?” He turned to Petunia, in explanation. “Don’t worry. It’s not one of those…owl things from THEM. It’s just a normal letter with an ordinary Royal Mail stamp.”
And so it was. Harry scanned the envelope, turning it over and over in his hands, but it wasn’t made of parchment – just bog standard Basildon Bond stationery. It was postmarked “London E17” and addressed to H.J. Potter at his aunt and uncle’s address. The handwriting looked faintly familiar to Harry, but he couldn’t for the life of him place it. Apparently, just an ordinary Muggle letter. But why would an ordinary Muggle be writing to Harry?
Harry tore open the envelope. Inside was a postcard of a Victorian building labelled “The Museum of Childhood, Walthamstow.” Again, Harry had a niggling feeling he recognised the building, but he couldn’t say where he had seen it. There were one or two tourists standing in the foreground of the picture, but they weren’t moving. This really was just a normal Muggle postcard, nothing magical at all.
Frowning, Harry turned it over and read the message on the back, but that only caused him deepening bafflement.
Having a lovely time in Walthamstow. Apparently this museum used to be an orphanage! I do love riddles – have done since childhood. They’re so comforting when I’m far from home. I usually abhor museums, but the crux of the matter is, there’s nothing else to do here. Yo (crossed out) Yo (crossed out)You must visit it some time!
The message was too long for most people to fit on one side of a postcard, but Perseus had very tiny handwriting, so it fitted comfortably with plenty of room to spare.
Many, many questions were now running through Harry’s head. Who on earth was Perseus Evans? A relative on his mother’s side? And why was this mysterious Perseus sending him inane postcards from a grim part of East London? What, in any case, was so exciting about some boring old museum to prompt all that breathless excitement and manic underlining?
As Harry was pondering all this, Uncle Vernon was craning over his shoulder, trying to read the message.
“Here, Petunia! It’s from one of your family!” He frowned. “Perseus Evans? You haven’t got some rich old uncle, have you, who might leave all his money to Harry, not you, when he dies?”
“Perseus?” asked Petunia, snatching the card away from Harry. “There’s no-one of that name in my family. Let me have a look!”
“It’s all right,” lied Harry. “Perseus is an old friend from primary school.” (Fortunately, Dudley, who went to the same primary school and who knew that Harry hadn’t had any friends, hadn’t got out of bed yet, so wasn’t around to contradict this.)
“Is he called Evans, too?” asked Aunt Petunia, suspiciously.
“Yeah. Funny coincidence, isn’t it? Still, I suppose it’s a fairly common name. Plus, he is Welsh…” Harry wisely decided to stop here, before he invented a whole back story for Perseus that he would never remember if he was challenged on it later.
It wasn’t a very convincing lie, but luckily neither his aunt nor his uncle was interested enough in Harry’s friends to be listening carefully. They left him alone to puzzle over his postcard in peace, and Uncle Vernon even seemed to have forgotten about his threat to kick Harry out.
August 16th, 2006, 3:40 pm
After Uncle Vernon left for work, Dudley finally surfaced for the day. After he had pigged out on an enormous breakfast, he claimed he was bored and demanded that Aunt Petunia buy him some new computer games. Petunia, as always, couldn’t resist the clamourings of her spoilt only son, so she took him out on a shopping trip, leaving Harry alone with his thoughts.
One thing was for certain – the postcard from the mysterious Perseus had pushed all thoughts of Snape quite out of Harry’s mind. He read it over and over again, pored over the envelope for clues, but was none the wiser. In the end, he decided to look up the museum in the postcard in the London A-Z. He knew that Uncle Vernon had one somewhere – he remembered him consulting it when he took Aunt Petunia up to London to see an Andrew Lloyd-Webber show for their last wedding anniversary. Now where had he put it? Not in the kitchen drawer, not on the telephone table in the hall where the ‘phone directories lived….It came to Harry in a flash. Uncle Vernon had put the A-Z in the cupboard under the stairs, the very same cupboard where Harry had lived for much of the first eleven years of his life.
Harry padded out into the hall, wrenched open the door to the cupboard, and screamed in fright as he saw a tall figure standing in the darkness.
He relaxed though, when he saw who it was. So Lupin’s promise to increase security hadn’t been an idle one. Kingsley Shacklebolt was smiling at him from the depths of the cupboard.
“Hey, Harry! How’s it going? Hope I didn’t frighten you there. We heard about your…uninvited visitor last night.”
“Er, yes,” murmured Harry in embarrassment. In the cold light of day, Snape’s intrusion into his aunt’s house seemed less frightening, and he felt guilty that Kingsley or one of his fellow Order members would be stuck in the cupboard for hours at a time.
“Do you have to stay in there? Isn’t it uncomfortable?” he asked, guiltily.
Kingsley grinned. “We wanted to be somewhere close enough that we could be on hand if he tries it again. But we didn’t want to scare your uncle and aunt.”
“Well,” said Harry, “They’re all out at the moment. So why don’t you come and sit in the living room for a bit?”
Kingsley looked glad of the chance to stretch his legs for a bit and have a chat with another wizard. He lolled in one of the overstuffed armchairs while Harry made him a cup of coffee, and then they chatted for a while about the latest news in the Daily Prophet and what was happening in the Order of the Phoenix.
“It’s been hard without…” Shacklebolt stopped to clear his throat and Harry could see a few tears glistening in his eyes…”Without Dumbledore,” he continued, in a shaky voice. “Alastor Moody has taken over as Head of the Order and he’s a fine man, a very fine leader, but it’s not…it’s not the same.”
Harry knew what Kingsley meant. He was sure that Minerva McGonagall would be a fine Headteacher, but she couldn’t replace Dumbledore. Hogwarts just wouldn’t be the same, and Harry still couldn’t summon up any desire to return there next term.
“Dumbledore’s murder, though, has had a profound effect on the wizarding community,” went on Shacklebolt. “It seems to have given people courage. I worried that everyone would lose hope when they knew he was gone, that they’d just give up and make things easy for You-Know-Who. But it hasn’t happened. When people hear about how he died, it just makes them more…determined. It’s like they don’t want to betray his memory. They don’t want to let him down.”
Harry understood this, too. Now, even though Dumbledore was no longer here to witness his behaviour, Harry, more than ever, desperately didn’t want to let him down. He fervently hoped he could live up to the great trust Dumbledore had placed in him.
“Yes, Harry,” Kingsley went on, “The best way we can fight You-Know-Who is to carry on living our lives, in every aspect, without intimidation. When we cower away in fear, when we don’t dare to dream, to plan our futures – that’s when we’ll know he’s won.”
Then Kingsley grinned.
“That reminds me. I was asked to give you this.”
And he passed Harry a parchment envelope, marked with his name in gold ink.
Harry looked at Kingsley quizzically.
“Nobody trusts the Owl Post any more,” explained the auror. “We can’t guarantee it won’t be intercepted. That’s why the Weasleys asked me to deliver this by hand when they knew I’d be seeing you.”
Harry ripped open the envelope excitedly and found it contained a card that looked as if it had been spun from pure gold. When he first looked at it, it appeared blank, but then letters began to dance across it in silver ink to the sound of ethereal music, like the tinkling of a hundred invisible harps. The message swam into view and then just as rapidly melted into the weave of the card, but not before Harry had had a good chance to read it. In both English and French it read:
“Monsieur and Madame Delacour respectfully request the pleasure of the company of Mr Harry James Potter at the marriage of their daughter, Fleur Angelique, to William Athelstan Ramsbottom Weasley at The Burrow on 10th August. RSVP.”
Harry grinned, as much with pleasure at the thought of the coming wedding as with hilarity at Bill’s full name.
“That’s great!” he said. “Of course I’m coming! I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”
“And Molly says you’re to come and stay at the Burrow as soon as your birthday’s past.”
Harry frowned. He wanted to go to the Burrow. He wanted to go desperately. But he worried about getting under Mrs Weasley’s feet at such a busy time, and he didn’t want to think he’d only been asked out of pity or concern, because Mrs W knew as well as he did that the Dursleys’ house would cease to be a safe haven for him once he turned 17.
Reading the expression on Harry’s face, Kingsley jumped in, “She could use your help with the arrangements. She’ll really need all hands on deck. They’re planning the wedding of the century. And they’ve asked Hermione Granger to help them get ready, too.”
“Well, in that case…yeah!” Harry beamed. “I’d love to come next week. Tell Mrs Weasley, yes, thanks very much!”
Then suddenly he was interrupted by a brisk chirping sound. The Dursleys’ telephone.
“Oops! Better get that, “ Harry explained enigmatically to a puzzled Shacklebolt. He knew he’d be in for it if he ignored it and it turned out to be one of Aunt Petunia’s friends. He’d probably be in for it, anyway, accused by them of rudeness or surliness because he didn’t put on an affected, nasal telephone voice or adopt any of their telephone clichés like “Harry speaking, how may I help?”, “May I ask who’s calling?” or “Hold the line, please, I’ll just go and see if she’s available.” With luck, at this time of day, it would just be a double glazing salesman, anyway. This was his hope, as he lifted the receiver and apprehensively said, “Hello?”
There was a sharp intake of breath at the other end of the line, and then, “Harry? Thank goodness it’s you! I was dreading talking to that awful aunt of yours. She’d probably do something mean like pretend it was a wrong number, like your uncle did to Ron last time he tried to ring you in the holidays…”
“Hermione?” gasped Harry, laughing with relief. “Is that really you? What are you doing…phoning me?”
“Well, they say owls may not be safe and I couldn’t not talk to you all summer. Have you got your invitation?”
“Yes, just arrived.”
“Me, too. But that’s why I’m ringing, really. Harry, we really ought to get Bill and Fleur a present. I was wondering….do you want to meet in Diagon Alley this week and shop for one together?”
Just like a girl! Shopping for wedding presents hadn’t even entered Harry’s head. But Hermione was right, just the same – they really ought to buy something for the couple, and they’d be bound to meet someone in the Leaky Cauldron who could advise them on what was suitable to give a wizard and witch for a wedding present.
“Good idea!” said Harry. “Let’s spend the day in London on Wednesday.”
And then he glanced down at the London A-Z, still clutched in his left hand.
“Er, Hermione? There’s something else I’d quite like to do while we’re in London.”
“I don’t really want to discuss it on the ‘phone. It may not be safe.”
Hermione made a contemptuous noise. “There’s really no need to panic. I mean, I’m sure Voldemort wouldn’t think of intercepting Muggle communications. Most wizards don’t even know how to use a telephone!”
But Harry didn’t want to be too sure. After all, Voldemort was raised a Muggle, too.
So they made an arrangement to meet at the Leaky Cauldron on Wednesday and agreed to discuss it there.
August 30th, 2006, 6:27 pm
The Leaky Cauldron
On Wednesday morning, Harry crept out of the house before his uncle or aunt were up and caught an early commuter train to London. He had arranged to meet Hermione at the Leaky Cauldron at half-past nine. Normally he would have dismissed so early a meeting time as typical Hermione madness, but he didn’t know how long it would take them to find a suitable wedding present in Diagon Alley and he wanted to have plenty of time left to go to East London and investigate the old orphanage in Perseus Evans’s mysterious postcard.
It seemed strange to be traveling on Muggle transport. It was the first time he had traveled to Diagon Alley by train since his first visit, six years ago, with Hagrid.
Yawning compulsively, he tried to keep himself awake by surreptitiously reading the newspaper over the shoulder of the Muggle sitting next to him. It made gloomy reading – there were several grisly unsolved murders, a primary school that had mysteriously collapsed with no apparent cause, killing everyone inside, and several fatal incidents of cars spinning out of control with no trace of mechanical failure. Harry felt a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He was sure that Voldemort was behind all this.
During his six years at Hogwarts, Harry had given little thought to the Muggle world, from which he pretty much considered himself to have made a lucky escape. But now he realised with a shock that Muggles stood to lose as much, if not more, than wizards, if Voldemort’s reign was allowed to continue unchecked. He began to feel acutely ashamed of himself for having dismissed the Muggle world as distant and irrelevant – that was the attitude of people like the Malfoys.
From Paddington, he took the Underground to Charing Cross. Again the commuters’ newspapers blared lurid headlines of unexplained disasters. As Harry walked up Charing Cross Road towards the Leaky Cauldron, he couldn’t stop thinking more than ever of how imperative it was that Voldemort was stopped. With a feeling of despair and loneliness, he remembered that fate had ordained him, and him alone, for the job.
Hermione was already waiting for him in the bar of the Leaky Cauldron, nursing a Butterbeer. She was very glad to see him as, even though the pub was virtually deserted at that time of the morning, she had already attracted unwelcome attention from one of the few customers. A huge, unkempt, red-faced wizard had squeezed onto the bench next to her and was offering to buy her a drink.
“Another Butterbeer, my lovely?” Then he nudged her suggestively and winked. “Or maybe something stronger?”
“No, thank you,” said Hermione, politely and assertively, but with a tell-tale rising note of panic in her voice. “I’m waiting for a friend. He should be here any minute.”
Harry noted the stress she put on the word “he.”
“Don’t be silly, my lovely,” oozed the wizard, lasciviously, leaning across to stroke her cheek, “If he’s keeping you waiting, he doesn’t deserve what he’s missing. A beautiful young witch like you should never be short of a companion.”
“Hermione!” called Harry, loudly, waving enthusiastically.
“Darling!” she responded with relief.
She jumped up, pushed past the wizard and engulfed Harry in a massive bear hug.
“Please pretend you’re my boyfriend!” she whispered desperately in his ear, before kissing him passionately on the lips!
Stunned, Harry nevertheless did his best to put on a good boyfriend impersonation, putting an arm round her shoulder and leading her out of the pub, but not before he’d noticed that Hermione’s tormentor was eyeing his scar strangely. Harry felt an uncomfortable prickle down his spine and for a second he thought his scar was itching, too. But that was ridiculous! It was just a nervous reaction to the thing he always hated – being recognized as the Chosen One, the Boy Who Lived, wasn’t it?
Since Florian Fortescue’s ice cream parlour had closed down, the only option they had less was to go to a Muggle café on the Charing Cross Road while they discussed their plans for the day. As Harry had not had breakfast before leaving Privet Drive, he tucked into a sausage bap while Hermione drank her tea.
“Thanks for that,” she said gratefully, breathing a sigh of relief. “I got here early and he’d been chatting me up for half an hour. I didn’t think you’d ever come or that I’d ever get rid of him.”
“Glad we shook him off. Who was he, anyway?”
Hermione shrugged. “Search me. Tom didn’t seem to know him, either.” She frowned. “There can’t be many wizards who’re strangers in Diagon Alley.” She pondered this for a moment, but then dismissed the thought. “So,” she went on, brightly,” What’s the plan? I need to change some muggle money into gold.” She glanced at her watch. “Oh good! It’s gone ten. Gringotts will be open now. Is there anything you want to do?”
Harry paused for a moment as a red double decker bus roared past, drowning all conversation. Then he told her about the museum in Walthamstow and Perseus Evans’s postcard, which he laid on the table between them.
Hermione’s eyes grew as wide as saucers as she listened.
“You don’t mean you intend to go there? Harry, be careful! It could be a trap!”
“It’s not a trap! It’s just an odd postcard, that’s all.”
Hermione rolled her eyes. “Like the diary you found in Year 2 was just a diary? Or the Potions book you used last year was just a textbook?”
“But this is different!” insisted Harry, indignantly. “It could just be from some muggle, for all I know. Whoever sent it certainly knows how the muggle postal system works – it had the correct postage and everything.” Harry smiled, as he remembered the letter the Dursleys had once received from Mrs Weasley, covered in stamps. “Why would a wizard contact me by post? And how many wizards would know how to do it without attracting attention to themselves?”
Hermione stared more closely at the postcard on the table and then started suddenly.
“It was no muggle who sent this postcard, Harry. Look!”
She pointed to the underlined words in the postcard and Harry clapped his hand instinctively to his forehead. How could he have been so stupid to miss the message which it spelled out?
WALTHAMSTOW ORPHANAGE. RIDDLE’S CHILDHOOD HOME. HORCRUX HERE. YO-YO.
Harry flicked the card over and looked again at the picture. No wonder it had looked so familiar – he had seen this building once before, in a memory in Dumbledore’s Pensieve. It was the building which Dumbledore had visited to inform the eleven-year-old Tom Riddle – the future Lord Voldemort – that he had been allocated a place at Hogwarts.
He was speechless with shock for a few minutes. Then he stammered, “I…I…but…I don’t understand! That’s impossible! Nobody else knows about the horcruxes! Nobody! Just you, me and Ron.”
Hermione, however, took her usual practical approach. “Well, let’s look at this logically. Is it possible that Dumbledore told somebody else? One of the teachers, perhaps?”
“No!” Harry almost shouted, frightening the waitress, who jumped. He lowered his voice. “It was between me and him. He…” Harry frowned. “He was quite weird about it, actually. He wouldn’t even let me tell McGonagall. That’s how secret it was.” A thought flickered through his mind and he felt his heart leap with a faint hope. “You don’t think the card could be from Dumbledore, do you?”
His eyes fixed on Hermione hopefully, but there was no mistaking the look of pity in her eye.
“Dumbledore’s dead, Harry,” she replied, gently, placing a warm hand on his.
“I know, but…could he have posted the card before he….before he…?”
He couldn’t bring himself to say the word “died.” He just couldn’t.
“I don’t think so,” said Hermione, her mind working fast. “But someone knows about the horcruxes, someone wants you to go to that museum. I don’t like it, Harry. I don’t like it at all. as far as I can see, the only other person who knows all about these horcruxes is…Voldemort.”
“I’m still going to go,” he said, stubbornly. “This afternoon. As soon as we’ve got the present, I’m going to check it out. I’ll be careful. I won’t necessarily act yet. But I have to see it for myself.”
Hermione sighed. After six years of friendship, she knew that when Harry was this determined there was no way of dissuading him, no matter how mad a course of action he was contemplating, no matter how great the danger. There was only one thing for it. she took a deep breath.
“In that case, I’m coming with you.”
Harry looked shocked, but Hermione could be equally stubborn when she put her mind to it.
“I hope you’ve got your wand with you.”
“Good,” she said, with a smile. “So have I.”
October 4th, 2006, 2:00 pm
Harry had worried that they wouldn’t have time to do their shopping and get to the museum before his last train back to Little Whinging.
However, he needn’t have worried – in the event, they were able to leave Diagon Alley before 12. Hermione quickly changed her Muggle money for gold at Gringotts. They were both dismayed when they saw how few shops were now open and initially despaired of finding a present for Bill and Fleur anywhere.
“Unless you think they’d fancy something from Borgin and Burkes, this could be a dead loss,” muttered Hermione, darkly.
A few peddlers, though, had taken advantage of the closed shops by setting up makeshift street stalls and selling their wares from trays and boxes.
At first glance it seemed that none of them would have anything worth looking at. There was a shrivelled old woman in a headscarf with a bucket of home-grown herbs and magical plants, a man selling black kittens from a grimy cage, and a bored-looking boy with a box of second-hand (and mostly broken) magical equipment – snapped wands stuck back together with Spellotape, old cauldrons with big dents in them where they’d been repeatedly dropped and one with gaping rust holes. Harry was just wondering how the boy managed to drum up any custom at all when Hermione suddenly grabbed him very tightly by the arm and pointed at something at the bottom of the boy’s box.
“What about those, Harry?”
Following Hermione’s gaze, the boy dipped his fingers in the box and drew out a set of six silver goblets. At least, Harry assumed that they were silver – they were so tarnished that it was difficult to see what they were made of. They were engraved with some form of decoration on the side, but they were so dirty, it was indecipherable.
“Self-refilling goblets,” said the boy, in a monotonous and adenoidal drone. “These don’t come on the market very often. And these are cheap at half the price.”
“You must be crazy,” said Harry to Hermione. “Why would Bill and Fleur want a pile of dirty old junk?”
“You’re just not seeing the potential!” insisted Hermione, reddening. “He’s right, you know. Refilling goblets are incredibly rare. OK, “ she admitted, rubbing one of the goblets with her thumbnail, revealing a faint glimmer of silver beneath the grime, “They may not look much now, but just add a touch of polish and they will look fantastic!”
“I can’t believe that you, of all people, are suggesting this!” exploded Harry. “We don’t know anything about these goblets – where they come from, who’s owned them before, whether they’re cursed with Dark Magic, even whether or not they actually work.”
Harry thought it quite likely that the shifty-looking hawker was trying to palm them off with a pile of common or garden tin.
“Oh, come on, Harry!” she bit back, defensively, although she did start to peer into one of the goblets a little more intently and surreptitiously tapped it with the end of her wand. “We can test them later. If it comes to that, we can always ask Mr Weasley to check them over for us before we actually give them to Bill and Fleur. But they’re too good a bargain to miss. I’ve seen some like these in books and, believe me, these are going for a song. And, anyway,” she said, throwing a glance round the alley, “What else are we going to find? If we don’t buy these, I think we might as well head for Debenhams.”
Harry began to weaken. When she put it like that…
“Also,” she went on, pressing her advantage, “I thought you wanted to finish up here as quickly as possible, so we could go and explore the orphanage.”
That, of course, clinched it for Harry. They handed over the gold, Hermione put the goblets, now wrapped in a grubby back copy of the Daily Prophet, in her rucksack, and they made their way, via the Leaky Cauldron, to the Underground. Fortunately, Hermione’s over-heated admirer was nowhere in sight this time.
They caught a bus to Warren Street tube and a train from there to Walthamstow. Although it seemed very odd going on an adventure with Hermione and without Ron, Harry couldn’t help feeling relieved that he wasn’t travelling on the Underground with a pure-blood, and most of all, that he wasn’t travelling with a Weasley – he was spared all sorts of odd behaviour and embarrassing questions about how the most basic Muggle facilities worked. Hermione knew how ticket machines worked, what you did with the ticket once you’d bought it, the correct way to use an escalator….
As they sat on the train, they discussed the postcard again.
“I still say we need to be careful,” said Hermione. “Whoever sent that card expected this. He – or she – will be waiting for us to turn up there.”
“But the museum will be packed with Muggles at this time of day. If we mingle with the crowds, we should be perfectly safe.”
“Oh, yeah!” spat Hermione, derisively, jabbing her finger towards the headline of the newspaper of the Muggle opposite her. “Muggles are really safe at the moment.”
There was an angry silence for a moment. Then she went on, a shade more optimistically, “So, what’s your plan?”
Harry blushed. He didn’t really have one, but he couldn’t lose face by letting Hermione know that.
“Oh well,” he blustered vaguely, “Go there, find the yo-yo, see if I can tell what spells he’s using to guard it, work out a way of stealing it…”
“Sort of a reconnaissance mission? So you’re not actually planning to do anything today? I like that. It’s not like either of us can do magic outside school yet, anyway. you can always go back next week, once you’ve turned 17.”
Harry didn’t actually say anything, but he didn’t care anymore if he was expelled from Hogwarts. He wasn’t sure he was going back, anyway, so what did it matter? If performing magic were necessary to steal the yo-yo, he’d do it there and then, and not give a damn about the Ministry of Magic. If they disciplined him, he could always carry on using magic illegally, like Hagrid had done. He just had to work out a way of stopping them breaking his wand…
But Harry was spared further discussion of what he was going to do, because at that moment the train pulled into Walthamstow Central. Feeling a lump of anticipation in his stomach, Harry slowly stood and fumbled for his ticket.
November 23rd, 2006, 7:36 pm
Chapter 6 The Orphanage
The Orphanage wasn’t far from the Underground station, in a cluster of Victorian buildings in Walthamstow Village – a quiet and pretty warren of streets that seemed nothing to do with the rest of the brash suburb.
But there was nothing pretty about the building which housed the museum. An ugly, red brick façade, which looked more like a factory or a prison than a children’s home, surrounded by high walls and sharp railings faced Harry and Hermione from the street. The forbidding iron gates stood open, and a brightly painted sign announced “The Museum of Childhood”, while an old-time merry-go-round dominated the courtyard, adding a lighter-hearted feel, but there was no mistaking the chill atmosphere of the original place.
Harry and Hermione walked up to a little window by the door and bought tickets. There wasn’t a queue and the museum didn’t look at all busy. Hermione picked up a leaflet with information, including a plan of the building. After studying it for a few seconds she nudged Harry’s arm and directed his attention to a room at the back of the building on the second floor called the Gallery of Toys.
“I think we should start to look there, don’t you?” she asked.
But to get there they had to walk through a number of rooms first. The museum clearly wasn’t very popular, there were hardly any other visitors, and so the guards and curators looked up every time they entered a room and stared at them. It was frustrating, when they were fizzing with impatience to get to the Gallery of Toys, but in order not to attract attention to themselves, they felt that they had to pay at least cursory attention to the exhibits.
The first gallery they entered housed an exhibition on baby clothes – extravagant lace christening gowns, crocheted matinee jackets, velvet sailor suits adorned little mannequins and dolls. To Harry’s disgust, Hermione gasped and showed genuine interest in the flouncy dresses and ribbons that clothed some of the female dolls, and he felt his heart pound with frustration at the delay in reaching his quarry, but he managed to drag her away before too long.
Then they passed through a room dedicated to advertising aimed at children, where the hopelessly antiquated hoardings, magazine pages and video clips were at least a bit of a laugh. Harry let out a loud snort of laughter at a 1950s advertisement for a children’s laxative and was rewarded by a glare and a loud “Ssh!” from the attendant.
“What does it matter?” whispered Harry to Hermione, a little too loudly, “It’s not like there are any other visitors here for us to disturb.”
However, after wasting as little time as possible on the early exhibitions, they headed for the stairs that led to the first and second floors.
Harry began to stride up the stairs two steps at a time in his anxiety to track down the yo-yo, but Hermione, who was dawdling up, looking at the pictures on the walls as she went, suddenly called him back with a harsh cry. Harry reluctantly went down to where she was, to see what the fuss was about, and saw that the pictures on the walls were photographs of the old orphanage itself. He felt a little queasy when he saw the hardships that the children in the photographs were subjected to. Girls as young as five and six were wringing heavy laundry and stirring boiling pans in the kitchen, while little boys were pushing back-breaking loads in wheelbarrows or pictured with chimney brushes or industrial equipment.
“It was constantly impressed on orphans that they were a financial burden on honest, god-fearing folk,” read the notice next to the pictures, “and they were expected to work hard for their keep. If they failed to keep up or to complete their work satisfactorily they were punished very harshly.”
And then there were illustrations of this – the birch that was used to whip the children in the 19th century hung menacingly on the wall, there were headbands reading “I am a slattern” or “Chatterbox”, hand-stitched by their unfortunate wearers. But then Harry saw what Hermione was pointing at – a 1940s black-and-white photograph of a small, blushing, black-haired boy standing on a chair in front of his laughing classmates, holding a sign which read “Tom Riddle is a liar and a thief.” When Harry drew nearer to get a closer glimpse of the photograph, he found himself staring into the black eyes of the boy he had met in his second year at Hogwarts, the boy whose diary he had found, the boy who had tried to kill him.
Harry couldn’t say anything for a moment.
“What’s the matter?” asked Hermione with concern. “Is it your scar?”
But it wasn’t. Harry knew that the small boy in the picture was not yet a great evil wizard and the photograph was no Horcrux. He really was just a fatherless, motherless boy, living in straitened circumstances, abused and neglected. A boy not unlike Harry at the same age. Suddenly, Harry didn’t want to run up the stairs to the second floor any more – he wanted to pay greater attention to the exhibits about the orphanage. Slowly, very slowly, Harry mounted the stairs, scrutinizing every photo and placard and artifact with intense interest. Until he got to the next landing, there was nothing specifically on Riddle, but he learnt what Riddle would have been given to eat every day (not very much, and what there was wouldn’t have been very nice), what clothes Riddle would have worn (second-hand, too small, threadbare and scratchy), how many baths Riddle would have had a week (just the one, in icy cold water), where Riddle would have slept (in a bare, unheated, scantily furnished room, where posters, toys and storybooks other than the Bible were strictly forbidden). Once more he felt the strange emotion that he had felt when Dumbledore told him the sad story of Merope Gaunt and how she had embraced death after her husband had left her, careless for the welfare of her unborn child – he felt the vaguest inklings of pity for Voldemort.
But it was on the landing between the first and second floors that Harry found the next reminder of Riddle. There was an open register book, in which orphans’ permission to leave the premises was recorded. Although there was a big sign on the book reading “Do Not Touch”, Harry ignored it, and flicked the pages back until he found the entries for the 1940’s and 50’s. He pored through pages of entries referring to Mavis Butters and Geoffrey Stewart and Ella Haversham and Reginald Highball, before he finally lighted on the name T.M.Riddle and was just about to read what he said when a curator appeared from nowhere, glared down his nose at Harry and shouted “Can’t you read?” at him. “This notice says ‘Don’t Touch’! If I catch you at it again, I’ll have you thrown out of this Museum, whether you’ve paid for your ticket or not!”
Harry murmured an apology and scuttled back down to the half-landing below, where he hovered, waiting for the man to go. As soon as the curator did finally stalk off to the second-floor corridor, leaving the stairwell unguarded, Harry rushed back to the ledger and found his place again. “T.M. Riddle. Permission to go to the Walthamstow Public Library…” Harry read, when he was disturbed by a low chuckling behind him. He looked round and saw a very old man with a broom, watching him from some kind of janitor’s cupboard, which he hadn’t noticed before, set into the half-landing below. He had the sense that the man had been watching him for some time, but the man didn’t seem angry. In fact, from his crinkling eyes and rosy face, Harry got the impression that he was quite amused.
“I’ve caught ya at it again, ‘an I?” laughed the man triumphantly, hobbling up the stairs towards Harry. “Eh, don’t worry, I ain’t going to tell on ya to ol’ Dobbs, am I? I saw ‘im get his knickers in a twist just now. Don’t take any notice of the likes of ‘im. Ought to be glad that youngsters like you are showing an interest in the place, not jumpin’ dahn your froats, ‘cos ya turned over a coupla pages in some tatty old book.”
Hernione looked at him questioningly.
“I seen ya just now, lookin’ at them pitchers dahn there. That’s nice, I thought to meself. Not many youngsters wanna know about the orphanage these days.” He turned to Harry, “Anyway, wotcha lookin’ at, eh?” His eyes widened when he read the page beneath Harry’s fingers. “Oh, Riddle, eh? Little Tom Riddle! Blimey, that takes me back a bit. Ya wouldn’t believe it, lookin’ at me now, but I was quite a youngster myself when he was here. Ooh, I could tell ya both a story or two about ‘im, I could!”
Harry and Hermione glanced at each other, startled. “C-c-could you?” they stammered in unison.
“’Course I could! Didn’t get the job of caretaker yesterday, did I? I been workin’ ‘ere since the place was a children’s ‘ome, although it was more like a dogs’ ‘ome, the way they treated the poor little blighters.” He glanced down at the ledger again. “Yes, I remember the Riddle boy, all right. Oo could forget him, bleedin’ pain in the armpit that ’e was?”
Hermione smiled what Harry recognized as her totally-manufactured- charm smile and said in honeyed tones. “Really? How interesting! I’m sure you have some fascinating stories you could tell us!” and then positively batted her eyelashes.
“Tell ya what, Miss, that I could. If ya kids ‘ave got time to ‘ave a cuppa with me in my little room, I’ll gladly tell ya what I remember …”
“Well -” began Harry, in a lukewarm fashion, conscious of how little time they had. But Hermione was already following the caretaker to his little cubby hole, so he had no choice but to follow.
Still, there was something pleasantly reminiscent of Hagrid’s hut about the caretaker’s cupboard, with its pinboards covered with quirky newspaper cuttings and brightly coloured animal pictures, and pigeonholes stuffed with junk. The caretaker, who quickly introduced himself as Alf, was evidently a great animal-lover and a magpie collector of curious bits and pieces. And the chocolate biscuits and jaffa cakes that he offered them with their steaming cups of sweet tea were a far sight better than Hagrid’s inedible rock cakes.
“Nah, then,” he asked, finally, when they were settled with drinks and snacks, lowering his old bones into an ancient armchair, with holes where the stuffing was bursting out, “What d’ya wanna know?”
“Oh, anything you can tell us about the history of this place.We’re terribly interested…” began Hermione, but Harry cut her off.
“I’D like to know more about Tom Riddle,” he said, assertively. “He’s…well, he’s sort of an ancestor of mine, I think.”
Alf looked a bit perplexed. “Is he nah? Well, to tell ya the troof, I’m sorry to ‘ear that. ‘Cos you seem like an uncommonly nice young gentleman and young Tom was…well, ‘e was a nasty piece of work, and that’s all that can be said of it.”
“Really?” said Harry. “I heard that he could charm the back leg off a donkey.”
“Well, that ‘e could, it can’t be denied,” agreed Alf. “Could turn on the charm any time ‘e wanted. But he was cunning and mean. A bully, a liar, ‘oo always had his fingers where they shouldn’t be, in uvver people’s stuff. The other kids was petrified of ‘im, ‘alf the time, but too scared to speak up against ‘im. ‘E never got caught, though, that was the frustratin’ thing. Things would go missin’, and we’d all know it was ‘im what ‘ad taken them, but we never caught them on ‘im.”
“But he must have been caught at least once,” said Hermione, frowning. “That picture on the stairs?”
“Oh, you’re a sharp-eyed nipper, ain’t ya?” laughed Alf. “Indeed, he did get caught just the once. That was thanks to young Toby. There was more than one of us ‘oo was uncommonly pleased to see ‘im get ‘is come-uppance at last. But we never did get to the bottom of all that trouble what followed.”
As Alf seemed to have forgotten that they didn’t know what he was talking about, Harry coughed gently, to bring him back to the track.
“Oh, sorry, young sir, I’m runnin’ away wiv myself, ain’t I? Toby was a young Jewish boy from Germany, ‘oo was about an age wiv Tom. ‘E and ’is sister, Leah, got sent ‘ere after their parents were killed by ‘Itler. Terrible business, that was. Nice kids, they were, too, quiet, polite. Never ‘ad no trouble from eiver of ‘em.
Well, anyway, Leah ‘ad this pretty little Star of David necklace that she was allowed to wear under her uniform, because of her religion an’ that, that some of the other nippers used to say was made of solid gold. Pretty as anything it was. And never took it off, she didn’t. Said that it ‘ad been her mother’s and it was all she had left of her poor ol’ mum, so she wouldn’t be parted from it for that reason. I don’t think she cared if it was made of gold or tin or treacle.
Now, needless to say, Mr Itchy Fingers Riddle took a liking to that necklace and decided he wanted it for ‘imself. One day, when Leah…now, what was her last name again? I can’t remember. One of them foreign names, I do know, but what it was, I’m sure I can’t say. You do lose your memory like that when you get to my age….anyway, she and Tom ‘ad been sent to take some staff letters to the Post Office together, and when they came back, she ran in crying, with no necklace round her neck no more, just a nasty cut and bruising where it ‘ad been snatched off her. Stolen, it ‘ad been.”
Hermione gasped. “And Vold…I mean, Tom, had stolen it, as openly as that?”
“Well,” said Alf, scratching his head, “She wouldn’t ackcherly say as he’d stolen it. That was the thing whenever Tom Riddle was mixed up in anything. ‘E seemed to ‘ave this strange sort of power over the other nippers. They just wouldn’t tell on ‘im, no matter ‘ow bad the crime. All as she would say was that the necklace had been stolen while they were out and she didn’t get a good look at the thief, ‘e just came at her from nowhere.”
“And what did V…Riddle say had happened?” asked Harry, intrigued, despite himself.
“Well, ‘e said he couldn’t rightly say. That it ‘ad ‘appened while e’d been inside the Post Office, and e’d just come out in time to chase the thief away, but ‘adn’t caught a good glimpse of ‘im. Of course, we ‘ad our suspicions, but wiv ‘er backing ‘im up like that, there weren’t nuffink we could do.”
“So how did he get caught?” asked Hermione, mystified.
“It was a few days later. Poor little Leah ‘ad been beside ‘erself. She didn’t want to eat nuffink, she just cried all the time, but she wouldn’t change her story. Then it must have been the Tuesday…no, wait, it was the Wednesday, that’s right, ‘cos the theft ‘ad ‘appened on the Friday…little Toby come to see the Matron and said that Leah ‘ad confided in ‘im that Tom ‘ad stolen the Star of David, but that ‘e wasn’t to tell no-one, because Tom ‘ad said that if she ever told anyone the troof, she would die and the ‘ole family would be cursed. She said ‘e meant it, too, that all the nippers knew ‘e could do strange fings, fings that you knew just weren’t possible. Well, the Matron said it was all right bandying these kinds of accusations about, but where was the proof. And then Toby said that they should look beneath Riddle’s pillow, that the necklace was ‘idden there. So they did, and lo and behold, there it was!”
“So he was caught red-handed?” asked Harry.
“Well, even then, ‘e tried to lie and wriggle ‘is way out of it. ‘E said that Leah ‘ad given it to ‘im as a present and then changed ‘er mind. That she’d asked ‘im to pretend it was stolen, because she wanted the attention.”
“But surely no-one believed him?” gasped Hermione.
“Incredible as it might seem, young lady,” said Alf, turning towards her, “Some of the staff did believe ‘im. He was very carry…carrer….what’s the word?”
“Charismatic?” suggested Harry.
“Yes, that’s it! And, you see, them times wasn’t quite like now. Back then there was still people ‘oo ‘ad ‘orrible ideas about people of ‘er race. Prejudiced, they were. They’d always believe a Gentile above a Jew every time.”
“It must have taken a lot of courage for Toby to tell the truth, when he knew he faced that much prejudice,” said Hermione, with true admiration in her voice. “It’s amazing that he was brave enough, even knowing that he’d face prejudice, when none of the other children ever had the courage to stand up to Riddle.”
“To tell you the truth, Miss, I fink that after the shocking fings e’d seen in Germany as a tiny lad, ‘e wasn’t afraid of nuffink any more. And, then again, it was ‘is mother’s you see, that necklace. I fink it meant a smuch to him as it did to ‘is sister.”
“But still…” pondered Hermione, clearly impressed. “So did those racist staff egt their own way?”
“Well, no. Luckily Matron believed Toby and Leah got the necklace back and Tom got ‘is come-uppance all right, exactly like what you saw in that photo dahn there.”
“So it all turned out all right in the end, then?” sighed Hermione, with relief.
There was silence for a moment, and then Harry and Hermione were shocked to see that Alf was wiping a tear from his eyes.
“Oh, dearie me, I’m sorry,” said Alf, when he saw that they’d noticed. “What an old softy you’ll fink me now. It was just so sad. Only a few weeks later the poor little mite passed away.”
“She died?!” exclaimed Harry and Hermione in unison, in shocked incredulity.
“Dearie me, yes, I’m afraid so. Only a tiny mite, she were. Ten years old. Found stone cold dead in ‘er bed one morning, when the other children got up. The doctors said it was sudden ‘eart failure. They said ‘er ‘eart must ‘ave always been weak. they said it often ‘apened that way wiv them ref….ref…now what’s the word? Sounds a bit like ‘referees’ but that’s not it…”
“Refugees?” suggested Harry.
“Yes, that’s it! They said that weak ‘earts often ‘appened wiv these refugees. No question of foul play.” He scratched his head puzzlingly. “Still, it was ever so strange, though. What, wiv young Tom saying she’d die if she told on him to anyone. It was the talk of the orphanage for a long time after, I can tell you, wiv people whisperin’ that somehow young Riddle ‘ad killed ‘er. After that, the other nippers was even more scared to cross ‘im, I can tell ya that for nuffink. Oh, I wish I could remember the poor little blighter’s name Leah…what was it? I know it was a word. Something you might bring back from Germany if you was there on your holidays. Lederhosen? No. Stein? No.”
Alf glanced across at Harry, and seeing his aghast face, got the wrong end of the stick. “But beg your pardon, mister,” he said, hurriedly, “I was forgetting that Tom Riddle was a relation of yours. You don’t want to ‘ear nasty stories like that about your ancestor, do ya?. I’ll see if I can find a more pleasant tale to tell regarding Young Tom. Let me see…”
He sat in deep thought for a few minutes, with growing panic on his face, as he clearly realized that there weren’t any nice stories regarding young Tom Riddle.
“Dearie me, it’s the memory, you see...” he said, apologetically. “It goes when you’re my age, you know. I’m sure there was lots good to say about Tom, I just don’t recall it now, it was too long ago.” Then he stopped as his brain had obviously hit on something. “Now then,” he said. “Hang on, I do remember something. Not good, exactly, but not bad, either. ‘E was very scared of bees, was Tom.”
“Yes. It was funny, that. He weren’t scared of wasps, not a bit, and they’re normally the worst. But bees would send him into a terrible panic, particularly them big bumble bees. I once heard tell ‘e was allergic to their sting, but I don’t know if that’s true or whether it’s just one of them fairy stories. Anyway, if a bee would fly into the room, ‘e’d run into a corner and ‘ide and cry like a little baby, ‘e would. It was quite comical to see, seeing as ‘e was normally such a hard nut.”
Alf guffawed loudly, drinking in the memory. Then he glanced at his watch.
“Dearie me, ‘ave we been nattering that long? I’d better move me bones and show me face in the Museum, before that Dobbs is after me with a stick! Tell ya what, though. come wiv me, an’ I can give you me own guided tour of the Museum.”
Hermione seemed ready to take him up on his offer, but Harry subtly kicked her and hissed at her under his breath, just quietly enough to escape the hearing of the slightly deaf old caretaker, “Haven’t got time! Spent too long here already! Need to grab yo-yo before my last train back to Little Whinging!”
“Oh, we’d love to, sir, we really would. But we haven’t got much time. We’re terribly interested in 1940’s and ‘50s toys, you see, especially yo-yos, we collect them, and we’re desperate to see the Toy Gallery before my friend has to catch his train. We came to London especially.”
Alf frowned in surprise. “Well, I’m afraid you’ve ‘ad a wasted journey, my lovely, in that case, ‘an ya? Ya won’t find no yo-yos in the Toy Gallery, ‘cos there ain’t none. All rockin’ orses and dolls’ ahses and train sets in there, it is. Posh toys. Ain’t no yo-yos in there at all. Oo told ya that there were? ‘E musta been pulling your leg. I’d do ‘im, if I were you, when ya get home.”
“No yo-yos anywhere in the Museum?” asked Hermione with horror, her mask of charm slipping slightly. “Are you SURE?”
“Well, none on display, at any rate,” chuckled Alf. “Just the one I keep in me pocket, that’s all,” and he withdrew an ancient, battered wooden yo-yo from the pocket of his overall, and then showed off by practicing complex yo-yo moves in front of them.
Hermione clapped sycophantically. “Oooh, Alf, you’re so CLEVER!” and even Harry managed a “Well done!”
“Need something ter amuse me on a long day at work wiv ‘ardly no visitors, don’t I? Uvverwise I’d go off me ‘ead wiv boredom. Don’t often get polite young nippers like you, what want to listen to anm old fart like me taking a trip dahn Memory Lane, more’s the pity. I fahnd this one a year or two back, behind a cupboard in one of the old dormitories they was clearing out to make way for a new exhibition.” He stopped and frowned. “Funnily enough, it was the dorm where young Riddle used ter sleep. Must ‘ave been from about his time, ‘an all. For all I know, it could ackcherly ‘ave been Riddle’s,” he chuckled.
“How lovely!” said Hermione, gazing covetously at the yo-yo. “You don’t think we could have a go with the yo-yo, could you? It looks terribly good fun!”
Alf looked at her a bit strangely, unsurprisingly, as it was the most basic of yo-yos, and Hermione had clearly forgotten that minutes earlier she had professed to be an expert collector of such items.
“Be my guest!” he proclaimed, holding out the yo-yo to her.
Hermione grabbed it with ill-disguised greed, and practiced some inexpert moves as she tried to work out how she could steal it without using magic. Alf’s sight wasn’t too good, but surely even he would detect if they didn’t give it back or tried to snatch it out of his pocket after they’d returned it?
But they needn’t have worried, because when Hermione eventually handed the toy back to the caretaker with reluctance, he suddenly said, “Tell yer what, ya can keep it, if ya like, seein’ yer such a fan of old yo-yos.”
“Oh, no, Alf, surely not! I couldn’t!” she shrieked with mock modesty, crossing her fingers tightly behind her back and praying he would insist she take it. Luckily, he did.
“Oh, thank you, thank you!” she burbled, as gratefully as if he had offered the crown jewels.
Harry thanked him, too, for the tea and the chat, but his heart pounded with impatient anticipation as he was desperate to get away and examine the yo-yo for signs that it was the Horcrux that Perseus Evans had led them to.
After handshaking and promises that they’d come back and visit Alf again one day, Harry and Hermione were finally able to bid their replies, and had already taken a step down the staircase towards the exit when, by chance, Alf happened to mention, almost to himself, “It’s a funny old world. No-one’s asked me nuffink about nuffink for the years since they turned this place into a Museum. Then there’s two people come along asking questions in as many days.”
Harry and Hermione both froze, the urgency to get away suddenly evaporated. They slowly swiveled on their heels and faced the old caretaker.
“What?” they said, almost in time, but Hermione was so shocked that her words came out as a whisper.
“Yes, there was that man that was here yesterday.”
December 2nd, 2006, 9:18 pm
Chapter 7 The Thief
“A man was here asking about Riddle yesterday?” erupted Harry, irrationally furious with the old man for not mentioning this before.
“No, no, no!” chuckled Alf. “Whatever give you that idea? That would ‘ave been a right old coincidence, wouldn’t it? No, ‘e was one of them TV researchers doin’ research into…what was it? “ He scratched his head. “Infant morality? No, that ain’t it…Infant morphology?”
“Infant mortality?” suggested Hermione.
“Yes! Clever girl! That was it! ‘E was doin’ research into infant mortality just after the Second World War, ‘e said. Well, of course, I told ‘im there weren’t none really. AFTER the War they lived a lot longer, on the ‘ole. If ‘e wanted to know about mortality IN the War, that would ‘ave been a different kettle of fish all together. In fact, the only story I could tell ‘im about AFTER the War was the one I just told you, about little Leah what’s-er-name.”
“And was he very interested?” asked Hermione, breathlessly.
“Well, yes, ‘e were, now you come to mention it. ‘E seemed to find it quite exciting. Said it would make good TV. I got quite worked up meself, I’ll admit, when ‘e said that. Asked ‘im if ‘e’d be coming back later with a film crew, ‘cos to be honest I didn’t ‘alf mind being on the box meself. ‘Ad visions of making a late bid for TV stardom, I did. But ‘e said, although ‘e’d check it out wiv the producer, that probably wouldn’t be necessary.”
“He didn’t ask you about the yo-yo did he?” asked Harry, impatiently.
Alf gave him a very strange look. “’Course ‘e didn’t! What would a TV researcher want wiv a tatty old yo-yo like that? No, ‘e just wanted to look through the relevant documents, that’s all. Then ‘e left.””
“Documents?” echoed Hermione.
“Yeah, them registers what you was lookin’ at when ol’ Dobbsy ‘ad a go. I showed ‘im the page where Tom and Leah ‘ad permission to go to the Post Office, then I showed ‘im the page in the death register where Leah’s death was written. That must ‘ave ‘ad ‘er surname written there, an’ I only looked at it yesterday, but I’m blowed if I can remember what it was!”
“C-c-could you possibly show us the registers, too?” asked Hermione, her heart beating ferociously fast with anticipation, hardly believing where this was leading. “Would that be all right?”
“’Course it would, me darlin’!” Alf beamed. Harry rolled his eyes. What was it with Hermione today? All the men they met seemed to instantly develop a crush on her.
Alf clamped a hearty arm round Hermione’s shoulder, then edged painfully slowly up the stairs to where the registers were.
“Now then,” he said, licking his thumb, and then carefully turning the pages over, one by one. He stopped at what he obviously thought was the relevant page, and slowly traced down the page with his finger. When he got to the bottom of the page, he frowned, then fumbled in his pocket for a battered pair of spectacles, put them on, and then went through the same procedure again.
This time, when he reached the bottom of the page, he seemed more perturbed than before. He let out a soft exclamation of “That can’t be right!” and rapidly flicked through the pages on either side. Then he noticed with horror something in the crease of the book where the pages joined, and Harry and Hermione saw it at the same moment. All three of them let out an anguished cry. It was a jagged end of paper where a page had been ripped out. Somebody had deliberately torn out the record of Leah’s death.
Alf turned to the other register, the record of orphans’ permission to leave the orphanage, but there were jagged ends of paper there, too. Finally, in desperation, Alf searched for the orphans’ entry register, but that, too, bore tell-tale signs. The three of them spent the next hour looking through the papers on display and hidden away in Alf’s office, but every single record of Toby’s and Leah’s stay at the orphanage had been carefully removed.
“I’ve been an old fool!” sobbed Alf, when it was finally obvious what had happened. “That bloke was no TV researcher! A con artist, ‘e was, like they warn you about on Crimewatch, and I was too stupid to know it, just ‘cos ‘e flattered me by listening to my stories.And now ‘e’s vandalised our records!”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” said Hermione, soothingly. “You weren’t to know. From what you’ve said, he sounds like he was very persuasive. I would probably have been taken in, too.”
“What I can’t understand, though,” said Alf, his voice bitter with frustration, “Is how ‘e managed to do it wivout me knowing. I was wiv ‘im the ‘old time. Never took me eyes off ‘im once when ‘e was going through the records. How come I didn’t see ‘im do it?”
Hermione and Harry glanced at each other. They had already formed the same theory that would explain that, and they didn’t like it at all.
“Perhaps he came back later and broke in,” she lied. “Or maybe he had an accomplice. I’m sure the police will find this out, once you’ve reported it.”
“Oh, there ain’t no point reportin’ it,” wailed Alf. “They can’t even catch the murderers and crack dealers round ‘ere. Why would they waste time chasing after someone what ‘ad just stolen a couple of pages from a couple of tatty ol’ books, what isn’t worth nuffink?! The only person those registers meant anyfink to was me. And now they’ve gone!”
“Let’s think positively!” said Hermione in a bright, bossy tone, grabbing a pen and notebook from her bag. “We’ll start by compiling a description. What did he look like?”
Alf frowned. “Typical media type, I would ‘ave said. Needed an ‘aircut! ‘Air waftin’ round his shoulders, like a girl’s.”
Hermione shot a sharp look at Harry. She knew that he was thinking the same thing. This sounded like a typical wizard type, as well as a typical media type!
“Blond hair or dark? Curly or straight?” she asked, scribbling in her pad.
Alf screwed up his face to concentrate. “I fink it was dark and straight, but I couldn’t honestly swear to it.”
“Tall or short?”
“Oh, ‘e was definitely on the tallish side. Six foot, I’d ‘ave said.”
“What was he wearing?”
“Funny stuff. ‘E was one of them Goths, if you know what I mean. All black and flowing.”
Hermione finished making notes, then sighed and put her pen away. She insisted on accompanying Alf to the local police station, where the bored looking desk sergeant filled in a form about the theft and took Alf’s description of the criminal, but it was obvious that Alf wasn’t being overly pessimistic when he said that the police would do nothing about it. Not that it mattered, anyway, because this clearly wasn’t a Muggle crime. Whoever had lied their way into Alf’s confidence and stolen the pages from the registers was obviously a wizard and had used spells to stop the caretaker seeing what he was doing.
“Do you think he used a Memory charm, as well?” asked Harry, when they were finally on the Tube again, making their way back to their respective stations. “Is that why Alf couldn’t remember Leah’s surname?”
They’d left Walthamstow so late that it was rush hour by the time they got on the underground, so Harry had to lean around a pasty-looking teenager in a hoodie with a scarf covering half his face, and dart under a sweaty businessman’s armpit, in order to get close enough to Hermione for her to hear him.
“I’m not sure,” said Hermione, thoughtfully. “That had crossed my mind, too. Not necessarily. Alf is quite forgetful, anyway, you can see that. But it does make you wonder. Did the thief tear out the pages because he wanted the information, or did he tear them out because he didn’t want anyone else finding out about Toby and Leah?”
“And why are Toby and Leah important, anyway?” mused Harry. “They were Muggles! It doesn’t make sense. Riddle is the only one in the orphanage who could possibly be of interest to a wizard, isn’t he?”
Hermione went quiet for a minute. “Unless….well, if the yo-yo is what we think it is…” her words tailed off as she contemplated the horror of it. Finally, she resumed, “Well, we know that you can only make one of those if you….” She didn’t want to say the words “kill someone” – it was too awful to think about – but Harry immediately knew what she meant.
“You think Voldemort used Leah’s death to make a HORCRUX? No! That’s impossible!” The sweaty businessman took his eyes away from his paper for a brief moment in alarm, and the boy in the hoodie shifted his feet in embarrassment, and Harry realized he had been shouting, so he lowered his voice and went on in a sharp whisper. “Dumbledore told me that he didn’t even know he was a wizard until he got his invitation to Hogwarts. He’d realized he had certain powers and he could actually control them a bit, but he certainly didn’t learn about horcruxes until he asked Slughorn at school. And you saw that picture of him holding the banner. He looked about ten years old! Leah must have died before he went to Hogwarts. He couldn’t have used her death to make a horcrux! He hadn’t even got his wand by then!”
“I don’t know, Harry, I’m just trying to work it out,” snapped Hermione defensively. “It doesn’t make any sense to me either, but Perseus Evans said it was a horcrux, and I’m just trying to look at all the options!”
“Mummy? What’s a horcrux?” asked a little girl in a pushchair, a little way down the carriage.
“There’s no such word!” barked her mother, turning to glare in Harry’s and Hermione’s direction.
The train was slowing down now, pulling into Highbury and Islington station, and Harry had to shift his weight to keep his balance and stop himself from falling into the boy with the scarf and the hooded top. A tall, fat man was pushing his was down the carriage, getting ready to get off at the next stop, and people were pushing and shoving to try to move out of the way to make room for him.
“I’m sorry, Harry,” said Hermione. “I can’t explain it in rational terms, but I just have this overwhelming feeling that it’s important that we find out more about Leah – at least her full name.”
“Well, how are we going to do that?” said Harry, moving out of the way for the fat man, as the train shuddered to a halt and the doors slid open.
“I have an idea…” began Hermione and then suddenly screamed, “Hey! Give it BACK!” and began hurtling down the platform after the fat man, shoving startled passengers out of her way as she went. Stunned, Harry had no choice but to run after her.
She’d only gone a few yards when, held back by the impenetrable throng, she fumbled in her coat pocket for her wand, drew it out and, holding it aloft above the heads of the crowd she pointed it in the direction of the fat man “PETR-” she yelled.
But before she had a chance to finish the spell, the man turned round, pointed his own wand back at her and screamed “Expelliarmus!” back. Hermione was suddenly pulled sharply backwards, like a taut piece of elastic suddenly recoiling, and about ten people behind her in the crowd were also pulled back like dominoes by the force. They all ended up sprawled in a pile on the floor, and everyone on the platform, suspecting a terrorist attack, began to panic.
Harry felt a rising sense of panic in his gut, too, but he knew that this was no conventional terrorist attack. What was causing him panic was that he had recognized the fat man when he turned – he was the wizard who had been coming on to Hermione in the Leaky Cauldron that morning. Harry reached for his own wand but found himself frozen. The fat wizard had used a non-verbal spell.
“Don’t!” shouted the wizard at him, his face twisted with derision. “I’m on your side, you idiots! Although God only knows why Dumbledore trusted you! I’ve never seen such a bunch of amateurs! Talking openly about wizard things in a public place, amongst Muggles! Drawing your wands in the middle of a Tube platform at rush hour! How much memory modification do you think this is going to require? I’m just glad I’m not going to be here when the Minister of Magic gets here. And, by the way, as if that wasn’t enough, if you hadn’t noticed, you’ve been followed all day - by him.” And he pointed behind Harry.
Harry, still couldn’t move, frozen by the spell, so he couldn’t turn to see what the fat wizard was pointing at. He could only look on as the fat wizard, now being pursued by a dozen Muggles who were eager to make a citizen’s arrest, disapparated from the middle of Highbury and Islington Underground station.
But Hermione could follow the fat wizard’s gaze, and saw that he was pointing at the pasty teenager in the hoodie, who had followed them off the train, and who now calmly disapparated as well, leaving Harry and Hermione to face hundreds of screaming, panicking Muggles, and the Minister of Magic, who was now pushing his way towards them through the crowds from the direction of the escalators.
Hermione lay on the ground sobbing. “Oh, Harry! I’m so sorry! I couldn’t stop him. He’s got the yo-yo!”
December 6th, 2006, 10:08 am
An Uncomfortable Interview
With the fat wizard’s disapparation, the spell binding Harry broke. He immediately crouched beside Hermione and put a hand on her shoulder to try to comfort her. She had hit her face against a commuter’s shoe buckle when she fell to the ground, and blood was trickling down her cheek from a nasty cut, but it wasn’t that that was causing her such agony. It was the knowledge that they had allowed themselves to be followed by not one but TWO strangers, and that they had lost the horcrux that they had gone to such pains to recover, purely through their own foolishness.
“I’ve let you down so badly, Harry! I didn’t see him, didn’t recognise him until it was too late. And he pickpocketed me in a flash – by the time I’d registered he’d brushed my coat, he was gone. You should have taken Ron with you, not me! He would never have messed up like this!” she wailed.
In his fear and frustration, part of Harry was inclined to agree with her, although logically he knew that Ron would probably have messed up far worse than Hermione, and that the afternoon’s events had hardly been his own greatest moment of glory, either.
“It’s OK,” he said, as kindly as he could manage. “It’s….”
But when he caught sight of the look on Rufus Scrimgeour’s face, the words dried in his mouth. He didn’t think he had ever seen anyone look this angry.
“LISTEN UP, EVERYONE!” barked the Minister into some kind of amplifying device, with such an air of authority that the panicking crowds did fall quiet. “It is imperative that you all keep your heads. I represent Her Majesty’s government, and I can give you my firm assurance that you are in no immediate danger. What has happened on this platform this evening, distressing as it may have been, especially in these troubled times, was no more than an ill-advised student prank. Senseless, irresponsible, and in extraordinarily bad taste, but not, I repeat, dangerous in the slightest. I am on my way now to apprehend the persons responsible and I give you my word that they will be dealt with most severely.” His eyes met Harry’s for a split-second, before continuing with an unpleasant emphasis, “Most severely, indeed.” He paused for slightly longer than seemed strictly necessary. “However, it is vital that you evacuate the station now, calmly, slowly, in single file and in UTTER SILENCE, to avoid the further dangers of stampedes and crushing, and to allow me and the other proper agents of the authorities to undertake our investigations. Is that understood?”
The passengers nodded meekly or murmured their assent and, incredibly, began filing off the platform methodically, shepherded by Underground staff, as passively as if they had been placed under the Imperius Curse.
Rufus Scrimgeour ushered Harry and Hermione towards one of the benches that lined the platform wall, where they sat waiting for the exodus to end.
“I know how bad this looks, Mr Scrimgeour, but I swear…” began Harry at one point, but the Minister cut him off.
“NOT until all the Muggles have left!” he spat furiously under his breath.
It seemed as if it would take forever for the packed platform to empty. Hermione was sitting staring hard at the floor, blushing deeply, refusing to meet Harry’s eye and apparently oblivious to the nasty gash on her cheek and the trail of blood still trickling from it. Harry kept staring at the platform sign and tried to play word games, seeing how many other words he could form from the letters of “Highbury & Islington”, to try to avoid thinking about what had just happened and what would happen next. LIGHT. BURN. THORN. STONY. HISTORY. IGNITION….
After what seemed like an age, the last Muggle disappeared through the archway towards the escalators and Scrimgeour raised his arm in signal to the remaining few Underground staff that they, too, could leave. With his arms clasped behind his back, he took a few paces down the platform, as if deep in thought, and then swung round to address the teenagers in an ominously quiet voice, taut with suppressed anger.
“So, Mr Potter. Once again, you have shown complete contempt for all democratically agreed, civilised rules of the wizarding world, contempt for our national security in these troubled times, not to mention contempt for the huge numbers of fine wizards who are, even as we speak, risking their lives trying to protect you.”
“I didn’t…” Harry tried to say.
“Practising underage magic, once again!” Scrimgeour bulldozed over him. “This is the third occasion, I believe?”
“The first time it wasn’t me, it was a House Elf!” Harry retorted, indignantly, “And the second time I was saving my cousin from Demen….”
“Moreover,” Scrimgeour went on, as if Harry hadn’t spoken, “Causing mass havoc amongst muggles by practising magic in a public place.” He shook his head. “Consider yourself lucky, my boy, that the wizard community is currently in a state of emergency. Under normal conditions, such a gross breach of our common code would undoubtedly warrant a spell in Azkaban. As it is, once my investigation is completed, you may be free to go, but there can be no question of your ever being allowed to practice magic or form part of the wizard community ever again. You may consider yourselves Muggles in all but name from this moment forth. Hand over your wands!”
He thrust out his hand to receive the offending instruments. Hermione handed hers over straight away, still too ashamed to look up and show her face to Scrimgeour.
Harry just stared at the Minister for a few seconds, numb with disbelief. This couldn’t be happening! Not only had he lost the first horcux he had uncovered within hours of finding it, possibly handing it back to the very enemy from whom it was supposed to be a secret that he even knew such things existed, but he was about to lose his only means of finding the remaining horcruxes and destroying Voldemort! He had given his word to his beloved mentor, Dumbledore, shortly before he died, that he would give all he had to fulfil this quest, and, already, through sheer foolishness, he had thrown it all away. Sabotaged the dying wish of the bravest, purest man he had ever known, sabotaged the last chance the world had to defeat Voldemort, by basically just being an idiot.
Scrimgeour glared at Harry impatiently, until he fumbled for his wand and reluctantly placed its tip in the Minister’s hand, his own hand lingering on the hilt, not wanting to let go of the precious piece of wood that encased a feather shed from Fawkes’s tail.
Suddenly, a brisk voice from behind Scrimgeour piped up, “If I might have a moment of your time, Rufus!”
The Minister swung round in surprise, wielding the two wands defensively, and took a step back in shock when he saw who had entered the platform unseen.
“Minerva!” he greeted her. “This is a surprise! As you may have overheard, I have regrettably been forced to discipline two of your students. Now, unfortunately, two of your EX-students…”
At this, Hermione couldn’t stop herself from letting out a loud sob.
“I am perfectly aware of what happened on this station today, Rufus, and I can only apologise for the scandalous behaviour of these members of my house.” McGonagall took a step closer to Scrimgeour, and lowered her voice a little, but not so much as to prevent Harry and Hermione from hearing what she was saying. “Utterly out of character though it was, I can make no excuses for it. But surely the decision as to their punishment should take place by tribunal, not by one man? And surely, as headteacher of Hogwarts, it is my decision not yours whether these students are expelled or no?”
“In peacetime, Minerva, your summary of the situation would be in all points correct. But it cannot have escaped your notice that we are now under martial law. Extraordinary powers have been granted to the Minister to deal with emergencies as and when they arise.
And this is undeniably an exceptional situation, almost unprecedented in the mass involvement of Muggles. Memory modification is out of the question where these sorts of numbers are concerned, and mention of the incident will be all over the muggle news in no time at all. We will have to resort to unsatisfactory and time-consuming measures to keep the lid on this scandal.”
“I know all this, Rufus, and I am sure that it will all be very distressing for you. But I still hold that it will be in your best interests, and in the best interests of our kind, to hold a proper investigation into this matter. Listen to Potter’s side of the story! He may have had compelling reasons for acting the way he did.”
Scrimgeour’s eyes narrowed unpleasantly. He obviously didn’t take kindly to being questioned by anyone.
“There can be no reason compelling enough to excuse the unseemly chaos that was unleashed on this station today!” he retorted.
“We must also,” went on Professor McGonagall, perfectly calmly, as if the Minister hadn’t even spoken, “remember who this boy is! Is it really in the best interests of the wizarding community to remove permanently from its midst the Chosen One? The one whom, according to well-known prophecy, may be our only hope of winning this catastrophic conflict?”
Scrimgeour was beginning to flex and unflex his fingers in a kind of nervous tic. McGonagall let him do so for a few seconds, eying him quizzically, one eyebrow cocked in what could have been slight amusement.
“All I’m asking, Rufus, is that you take a few days to think about it, that’s all,” she said in the end, touching his arm, soothingly. “Take a few witness statements. Speak to Mr Potter and Miss Granger. Consult with some of your advisors. If, after this breathing space, you still wish to continue with this draconian punishment, which Potter may well deserve, I shall not stand in your way.”
The Minister was silent for a moment, but the professor was being so reasonable that it would have been churlish to refuse.
“Very well,” he muttered, at last. “I will take a few days to consider. But bear in mind,” he looked at Harry and Hermione, “That my decision will probably remain unchanged. Prepare yourselves for the fact that you may no longer be welcome in wizard circles. And I suggest that you spend the time investigating muggle career options.”
Hermione let out a horrified gasp.
“These wands,” he thrust them deep within his cloak, “Remain confiscate, most probably never to be returned. Now, I will escort Mr Potter back to his home in Privet Drive. Professor McGonagall, if you would be so good as to accompany Miss Granger…”
He ushered Harry before him and made as if to move off briskly, but McGonagall looked hesitant.
“I think,” she said, somewhat distractedly, “That it might be better if I escort Mr Potter and you take charge of Miss Granger.”
Scrimgeour looked quite annoyed. “Really, Minerva! As the Chosen One, Harry deserves the highest standard of protection, such as only the Ministry can afford. While this girl,” he gestured derisively in Hermione’s direction, “May be a vulnerable minor, whose safety is of the utmost importance, she scarcely ranks…”
He stopped suddenly, and Harry saw that he was staring at Hermione, a very strange look on his face, as if he had just noticed something about her for the first time.
“On second thoughts,” he murmured, his voice now much softer, “That is an excellent idea! Kindly take the boy straight home. I will be in touch within a few days.”
And sweeping Hermione up in his cloak, he propelled her swiftly towards the escalators.
“Well, Mr Potter,” said Professor McGonagall, when they had gone, smiling pleasantly. “My broom is parked above ground. I trust that, provided I take steps to ensure that I don’t frighten your uncle and aunt by making our landing too visible, you have no objection to our flying to Privet Drive?”
Harry shook his head in dumb gratitude and amazement.
It was a windless night, so it was possible for them to talk on the broom as they made their journey to Little Whinging and hear each other perfectly well. Harry had some cause to regret this, as McGonagall was, understandably, eager to hear the full details of what had happened, but Harry, constrained by his last promise to Dumbledore, did not feel able to tell her all that had passed. He was particularly careful to omit any mention of horcruxes, but it was hard to explain the postcard from the mysterious Evans without telling her about the horcruxes, and hard to explain why, out of the blue, he and Hermione had chosen to visit a muggle museum in East London, without reference to the postcard.
In his heavily edited account, he eventually included the fact that an anonymous postcard had tipped him off that the museum had been Voldemort’s childhood home and that he would find there information vital to his final battle with his enemy. He told the professor about Hermione’s encounter with the fat wizard in the Leaky Cauldron that morning, how they had dismissed him as being just a lech and had thought no more about him. He said that they had found nothing of interest in the museum, but an attendant had told them that another man had been there the week previously, asking about events at roughly the time Riddle had been an inmate there. Harry said that he and Hermione had been suspicious of this man, whose description made him sound like a wizard, and that they had subsequently discovered that certain pages, relating to the time at which Riddle would have been a pupil of the Orphanage, had been removed from the registers, but he claimed that they had no idea what these pages contained. He told her that the fat wizard had been travelling in their carriage on the Underground on the journey back and that (and he blushed deeply as he told the lie) when he saw that Hermione had spotted him following her, he had tried to flee. Harry told the truth from thereon, that he and Hermione had pursued the wizard and tried to subdue him with spells, but that he had pulled his wand on them too quickly. He also admitted that the fat wizard had drawn their attention to the fact that ANOTHER wizard had been following them all day, a wizard disguised as a hooded teenager, who had disapparated as soon as the fat guy had identified him.
McGonagall questioned him closely about his account, and he hoped that he would remember to stick to the same story throughout. He also knew he had to contact Hermione as soon as possible, and check that she was singing from the same hymn sheet during her questioning.
“And you have no idea whatsoever who sent you the postcard?” asked the professor, searchingly.
“No,” said Harry, truthfully. “He signed it P. Evans, so I thought he might be…I thought he might be related to my mum, but I asked my aunt and she said she’d never heard of anyone in her family with that name.”
“Do you have the postcard with you?”
“Erm, no….,” blustered Harry, guiltily, before relaxing a little when he realised that this wasn’t, in fact, a lie – Hermione had been the last person to look at the postcard and it was, even now, sitting in the bottom of her knapsack. “We burnt it,” he said, decisively. “We thought it was too dangerous an object to leave lying around.”
“We really SHOULD have burnt it,” he thought to himself.
“Very sensible, too,” said McGonagall, approvingly. “And you really have not even one iota of an idea what your anonymous correspondent hoped you would find at the Museum?”
“No! protested Harry, a little too vigorously. “Just general background information, I guess. And we did, too. We saw a picture of Voldemort being punished as a boy for lying and we heard that he was a bit of a bully and that he’s allergic to bees…”
McGonagall took a sharp intake of breath. “That sounds like meaningless trivia to me. I shouldn’t set too much store by it. I’m afraid that it sounds very much to me as though your anonymous correspondent wished to throw you very sharply off the scent.”
“Perhaps,” agreed Harry, relieved that McGonagall did not seem inclined to pursue her line of questioning about the orphanage visit.
“And the wizard whom you pursued from the Underground train. Can you describe him?”
“Big. In every sense. Very tall, very fat. Dirty blond hair.”
“And you had never seen him before today? He wasn’t, for example, one of the Order or one of the Death Eaters whom you saw when…when…” Her voice choked.
“No,” said Harry hurriedly. “I’d never seen him in my life before.”
McGonagall knitted her brows into a puzzled frown. “Did he have an accent?”
Harry thought hard. Now that she mentioned it, that was very curious. It had not occurred to him at the time, but his accent on the Tube station had been markedly different from his accent in the Leaky Cauldron. In the tavern he had spoken roughly, like a West Country yokel, but when fleeing from them down the train platform he had spoken in an arrogant, patrician tone…he had sounded pretty posh, actually.
“I see,” said McGonagall darkly, when Harry explained this. “And would it seem to you that either or both of those accents was assumed?”
Harry replayed the two conversations over and over again in his head, trying to analyse the vocal patterns. “Er…I don’t really know,” he hazarded eventually, “But the posh voice seemed a bit more genuine. I couldn’t swear to it, because the accent in the Leaky Cauldron didn’t seem fake at the time, but looking back, yeah, if I had to pick one as his real voice, it would be the one on the platform.” He still felt very uncertain, though, and hoped that he wasn’t giving misleading information to the investigation.
“The other man, the one whom the first wizard identified as following you, what did he look like?”
“I hardly saw his face,” confessed Harry. “He was hiding it with a scarf and a hood. I should have been suspicious at the time,” he reproached himself, suddenly. “Why would anyone need to wrap themselves up like that at the height of summer unless they had something to hide? But you know how these city gangs dress…” He tailed off, realizing from the stony silence that Professor McGonagall most certainly did not know how muggle gangs dressed, and references to the rap and hip-hop culture would evidently be quite lost on her. “He was a teenager,” he went on. “Very pale skin, spots. I didn’t catch sight of his hair.” He stopped, trying to concentrate on the picture in his mind’s eye. His heart skipped a tiny beat. He had felt a glimmer of recognition at the back of his mind, but it eluded him. “There was something faintly familiar about him, now I think about it, but I can’t for the life of me think what,” he finally admitted.
McGonagall glanced at him shrewdly. “Don’t try to force it, Harry,” she said, gently. “Put it to the back of your mind and concentrate on other things and it is quite likely that, in a few days’ time, when you’re least expecting it, you’ll think of it again. If that happens, Harry, I would like you to let me know immediately. Can you give me your word that that is what you will do?”
Harry was bewildered. “But how will I contact you? The owl post isn’t safe and, anyway, if I’ve been stripped of my wand, am I still allowed to use owls…?”
“Calm yourself, Harry. You may use Hedwig to contact me. The vulnerability of the owl post has, to my mind, been much exaggerated. There is no bar on banned wizards using the owl post and, in any case, I intend to do everything in my power to have your wand reinstated before term begins.”
“And Hermione?” asked Harry, eagerly. “Can you get her wand reinstated, too?”
The professor paused for just a beat to long before she said, “Of course. Naturally I shall try…”
Harry’s eyes widened in horror. “But she lives for Hogwarts! It’s her whole life! She’s worked much harder than the rest of us put together to earn her place there. And this is her first offence! If you can get me off, then surely…”
“I don’t even know yet that I can ‘get you off’, to use your somewhat inelegant expression. But the fact remains that you didn’t actually draw your wand, while she did.”
“The only reason I didn’t draw my wand is because he blocked me in time. I would have done, you know, if I could.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that you didn’t.”
“And Hermione’s already 17, anyway. How can she be prosecuted for using underage magic?”
“Oh, she can’t. That, at least, is in her favour. But she most certainly can be prosecuted for using magic in a public place, packed to the rafters with muggles. This is very serious indeed. Not even her previously unblemished record is likely to save her. Oh dear! If only she hadn’t drawn first! Had she drawn in response to a direct threat from this fat wizard, we might have pleaded self-defence. But he had his back to her, according to your account. And we know he’d made no attempt to cast a spell until provoked by her…”
“She thought he was a Death Eater, professor. What was she supposed to do, let him get away?”
McGonagall shook her head sadly. “The Ministry’s rules are quite strict. There is little flexibility, even to take into account such exceptional circumstances. I shall see what I can do, Harry, but I cannot promise more than that.”
Harry would have argued further, but at that point McGonagall tipped the broom handle sharply downwards and he could see Privet Drive gradually coming into focus below them. When they landed in the front garden, right in the middle of Uncle Vernon’s prize azalea bed, there was no-one on the street to see them, although Harry thought he noticed Arabella Figg’s curtains opposite twitch ever so slightly.
“Now then!” said the professor, brightly, as she dusted down her robes. “If you would be so kind as to ring the doorbell for me, I shall speak to your aunt.”
“Sp-sp-speak to Aunt Petunia?” stuttered Harry, blanching. “Why?”
“This is a serious disciplinary matter with major implications for your future. It is necessary to inform a guardian.”
“I m sorry, Harry,” said McGonagall, slightly more gently, “But, really, I have no choice.”
With a heavy, heavy heart, Harry lifted his hand to the bell.
February 20th, 2007, 8:36 pm
The Weirdest Birthday Ever
“Expelled from that lunatic school?” smirked Uncle Vernon, when McGonagall told the Dursleys about what had happened, not even bothering to hide his glee. “Turfed out of your lot’s world in disgrace?”
But Harry couldn’t help noticing that Aunt Petunia went very quiet and her pasty face blanched even whiter than normal.
“Now, Mr Dursley,” explained McGonagall in her most waspish, no-nonsense tone. “Let us not be hasty in judging the implications. I assure you that I am doing all I can to save the situation. But I cannot deny that Harry has been most foolhardy, most foolhardy indeed, and his situation is a serious one. It would be best if you were to prepare your nephew for the possibility that he may have to return, at least temporarily, to the Muggle world.”
“Prepare him?” guffawed Uncle Vernon. “I’ve spent the last seventeen ruddy years trying to stamp this weirdo business right out of his head and bring him down to earth! Nobody could have done more than me to try to make him normal! But he’s always gone his own way, and it’s too late now. He hasn’t had a normal education. He hasn’t got any qualifications that a normal school or normal employer would recognize. Who’d give him a job? He’s only fit for the scrapheap. And I will not have a dole-drawing dosser living in my house…”
It was only through exercising a great effort that Harry prevented himself from punching Vernon during this monologue. But then, to Harry’s utter amazement, his uncle was interrupted by his aunt in a strange, timid yet urgent voice. “But wh- wh- who will deal with You-Know-Who, if Harry can’t have his wand back?”
There was a short silence while Uncle Vernon and Harry both stared at Petunia in speechless shock, but then, amazingly, she continued.
“He can’t take Y- y- y-….HIM….on without a wand, can he? I didn’t think it worked like that?”
“Petunia!” roared Uncle Vernon in outraged disbelief. “Why are you waffling on about their kind of rubbish? Don’t encourage them, for Pete’s sake!”
“Mrs Dursley,” assured McGonagall in a calm tone, placing a kindly hand on Aunt Petunia’s arm, “I promise you now that I will do all I can to ensure that Harry is able to meet Lord Voldemort, just as the prophecy foretold.”
And she rode off on her broomstick before anyone can argue further.
Harry was desperate to ask his aunt what she knew and why, after sixteen years of opposing his exposure to magic, she was now so anxious that he got his wand back, but she swiftly changed the subject to Dudley’s forthcoming school skiing trip, and between that and Vernon’s crowing over his nephew’s disgrace, Harry couldn’t get a word in edgeways.
He tried to raise the subject over the next few days, but somehow Petunia always seemed to avoid him. He had no choice but to while away the days before his birthday worrying about the trial to come. The Order of the Phoenix members who were guarding him occasionally popped out of the cupboard under the stairs if no-one was around and offered him words of encouragement and reassurance, but Harry remained pessimistic.
The night before his birthday, Harry heard a soft knock at his bedroom door, at about eleven o’clock, after the Dursleys had gone to bed.
“Come in!” whispered Harry, just loud enough for the person the other side of the door to hear but without waking his relatives. The door handle turned and, to Harry’s surprise, Remus Lupin tiptoed into the room, carrying a bundle of wrapped presents under his arm.
“I’ve brought these from the Burrow,” Lupin grinned in explanation. “Molly knows you’re traveling up there by the Knight Bus tomorrow evening, but she didn’t want you to have to wait until then for your presents.”
There was a small parcel from Mrs Weasley, a gold-coloured envelope from Ginny (Harry felt a painful wrench in his chest on recognising her handwriting), a pillow-shaped package from Ron, a neat box from Hermione, a scruffy-looking bag from Hagrid, and a large cardboard pouch from Lupin and Tonks.
Harry beamed with delight. He’d never received so much before on his birthday, and it felt so good to be surrounded by so much well-wishing. Finally, he felt part of a big, loving family.
He glanced at his watch. Still nearly an hour to go before he could open them.
“Are you all right, Harry?” asked Lupin, with concern. “It’s been quite a week for you…”
Harry shrugged. “I’m worried about losing my wand,” he admitted. “Leaving Hogwarts wouldn’t be so bad. I had half a mind not to return this year, anyway. With Voldemort back to his full power, suddenly school seems insignificant, in a way. I’d hate to leave under that kind of cloud, though. I’d at least like to go out in style, quit while I’m ahead, whatever. But leaving Hogwarts wouldn’t be the end of the world. But to have to go back to living as a Muggle! Not to have my wand!…”
“School is never insignificant!” frowned Lupin, with alarm. “With Voldemort in his full power, it is more important than ever that you complete your education, do you understand that, Harry?” Lupin suddenly realized that he was gripping Harry’s arm with more force than was strictly necessary and Harry was wincing in pain. He relaxed his hold, sighed, and went on in a calmer, quieter tone. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’ll lose your wand. Scrimgeour has been asking questions, taking statements. He seems to be carrying out this enquiry thoroughly and professionally. And in the current climate, a moment of rash panic will probably be forgiven. I think you’ll escape with a very sharp rebuke and nothing more.”
Lupin grew thoughtful.
“What about Snape, though? Have you seen any sign of him since the other night?”
Harry shook his head. “Have you or any of the Order?”
“No,” said Lupin, slowly. “I think we must have warned him off. We mustn’t get complacent, but it seems you’ll probably be safe for the rest of the summer. I don’t think he’d dare try anything at the Weasley wedding, and if he does, there’ll be plenty of aurors around to protect you. Bill’s a very popular wizard. I don’t think we can be so certain that he won’t try anything at Hogwarts, though.”
“But isn’t Hogwarts protected by more magic than any other place of earth?” asked Harry, his eyes widening in surprise.
“Yes,” sighed Lupin, “But it’s also Severus’s home territory. Voldemort himself can’t know Hogwarts half as well as Snape. He has spent most of his life there, as student and teacher, don’t forget. And being the reclusive type that he is, he’s had plenty of time to explore it, with no-one around to watch him. I remember him continually creeping about the corridors when we were students. Highly inquisitive. If there are chinks in Hogwarts’s armour, I’d put money on the fact that Severus will know about them. You must be on your guard, Harry. You can’t afford to take risks this year. No matter how strong the temptation, can you promise me that you won’t run off on adventures with Ron and Hermione the way you’ve done in the past?”
“Yes,” said Harry, heavily, not daring to meet Lupin’s eye. He intended to keep within the strict wording of his promise, anyway. If he ran off on adventures, it would be on his own this year. It wouldn’t be fair to take Ron or Hermione on his lethal quest for Horcruxes. But he had a feeling that at the end of this year, from Lupin’s point of view, he would have broken his promise.
“Now,” said Lupin, glancing at his watch and clapping his hands to signify the fact that it had finally gone twelve, “How about these presents?”
Soon Harry was sitting in a sea of wrapping paper, sharing Mrs Weasley’s home-made fudge with Lupin, wearing a friendship bracelet (woven from unicorn hair by Ginny), admiring the magical Quidditch binoculars from Hermione and Chudley Canons robes from Ron, and trying to persuade Hedwig to wear the rhinestone-studded owl collar that Hagrid had given him. The only present left to open was Lupin’s own. As Harry eagerly slit open the mouth of the pouch, though, Lupin placed a warning hand on his arm.
“Don’t expect too much! I’m afraid I’m not a rich man,” he blushed. “If Tonks and I could have bought you a top-of-the-range broomstick or a solid gold cauldron, we would. But we settled on the best thing we could think of.”
Harry pulled out a sheaf of twenty-year-old wizard photographs. The first one showed the Marauders, lolling by the lake on a summer’s day, pulling silly poses for the camera, which kept on changing as the boys moved. The second was a formal group photo of Harry’s parents’ year at Hogwarts. Harry immediately spotted his mother’s red hair blowing in the breeze. It took him a while to place his father, but the unmistakeable shock of messy black hair, so much like his own, could be found in the third row from the back, slightly to the right. Sirius was sitting on his left, his attention drawn to something slightly out of shot. The third showed Lily and James with their arms round each other, gazing into each other’s eyes, and now and then sneaking a kiss. The fourth and last picture showed Lily sitting on her own, reading a book, in what looked like a Muggle back garden.
Harry gazed at the pictures for several long minutes, his eyes filling with tears which streamed down the inside of his glasses until he could no longer focus on the photographs. Lupin had not dared look at him since he removed the pictures from their envelope.
“I’m so sorry it’s not much, Harry,” he muttered, ashamedly.
“Not much?” breathed Harry, in a hoarse, astounded voice. “This is the best present anyone has ever given me. There is nothing I wanted more in the world.”
And for a moment he forgot that he was an adult wizard, a seventeen-year-old man. He flung his arms around Lupin and hugged him as long and as hard as a child hugging a favourite uncle. And Lupin hugged him back with the same intensity.
They talked (in whispers, so as not to wake the Dursleys) until three in the morning. When Lupin finally left, Harry put Hedwig back in her cage (now wearing the collar, with very bad grace) and crept back to bed, not optimistic that he would get much sleep after such an exciting night. As he drew near his bed, he tripped over something lying on the floor.
Cursing himself for leaving things lying around, he picked the object up to see what it was. To his astonishment, it was another birthday parcel. Lupin must have dropped it and forgotten about it. It was tightly wrapped in ageing parchment and had a parchment label attached to it. Harry strained to read what it said, and then his heart stopped for what seemed like a minute when he made out the words “To my beloved godson, a very belated present. It is high time I returned these to you.”
Godson? A present from…Sirius??! Harry scratched his head. But that was impossible! Sirius had been dead for more than a year! But perhaps he had given this present to Lupin for safekeeping before he died. A special coming-of age present? But what did it mean “returned these to you”?
Trembling with anticipation, Harry ripped off the parchment cover and found two old leather-bound books inside. He carefully opened the first to the fly leaf, where he saw the title “Darkest of the Dark” printed in gothic lettering. A cursory flick through revealed that the book was the kind of thing normally kept in the Restricted section of Hogwarts Library – a book which dealt with such a deep branch of the Dark Arts that it was normally kept from students. Normally, this kind of book would have fascinated Harry, passionate as he was about fighting the Dark Arts, but he was more interested in the handwritten inscription on the fly leaf, in a curly, copper-plate hand. The year was written – and it was the year that Harry’s father had left school – and then it said “To S, Happy 17th Birthday! This should help you get a good grade in our favourite subject! (But I’m going to beat you, anyway – ha, ha!)”
Harry’s heart leapt. Could this be a present from his father to Sirius? Was that what Sirius had meant by “returning” the book to Harry? He knew that they had both loathed the Dark Arts and that, next to Quidditch, Defence Against the Dark Arts had been their favourite thing at Hogwarts. The friendly joshing about who would beat who in the exams also seemed typical of Sirius’s and James’s friendship, to judge by the laidback academic arrogance they had shown in Snape’s memory in the Pensieve.
Harry was so eager to see if there was an inscription in the other book, he barely glanced at the title embossed on the front, and quickly opened it to the fly leaf. There again was the same curly handwriting, and this time it was unmistakable who had written the inscription, because it was signed:
“To my best friend, Can’t believe we’re leaving Hogwarts at last, after 7 wonderful years! I will miss you SO much. Promise me you’ll come and stay lots after we’ve got married. Life won’t be the same without you. Hopefully when you look at this book you’ll never forget all the mischief we got up to while we were here. Love from, James and Lily.”
Harry stared and stared at this inscription, in disbelief. He had never seen either of his parents’ signatures before, and there they both were on the same page. He stroked the paper hungrily, as if somehow by touching their names he could touch his dead parents. Lupin’s present had been wonderful, but this was the best present he could ever have imagined.
When he eventually snatched a couple of hours’ sleep, it was cuddling both books, left open at the inscriptions, with the note from Sirius under his pillow.
The next morning Harry wondered down to breakfast, his head muzzy with lack of sleep, but madly happy, nonetheless. He didn’t expect the Dursleys to remember his birthday – they had never made a big fuss about it, and they had forgotten it completely for the last few years. This year, however, they clearly had remembered. In fact, Uncle Vernon was positively in party mood.
“It’s Harry’s birthday today!” he announced to Dudley, the minute Harry walked through the kitchen door. “You know what this means? We’ll be shot of him at last! We promised that weirdo so-called headmaster that we’d keep him until midnight on his seventeenth birthday. That time is nearly up, and at twelve tonight it will be good riddance to bad rubbish. This calls for celebration, I think!”
And to Harry’s amazement, he cracked open a bottle of champagne at the breakfast table. Aunt Petunia got some orange juice from the fridge and began mixing huge beakers of Buck’s Fizz for herself, Uncle Vernon and Dudley, but they were all in such a good mood, they were even generous enough to allow Harry a thimbleful.
Thankfully, their mellow generosity didn’t extend to actually talking to Harry, so he was able to daydream in peace, as he ate his toast, about his trip to the Burrow tonight, about his birthday presents and, of course, about his parents. He was so deep in his thoughts that he barely heard the soft click of the letterbox as the postman delivered the mail or the elephantine thuds as his massive cousin lumbered up the passage to pick up the post. He was roused from his reverie only when Dudley shouted in a jealous tantrum, “Dad! Harry’s got another letter from that old schoolfriend! Why does he get all the post? He doesn’t even live here anymore!”
Harry quickly grabbed the letter out of Dudley’s hands, before Aunt Petunia had a chance to decide that Harry actually receiving his own mail was too great an infringement of her beloved son’s human rights, raced up to his bedroom and shut the door.
He stared at the envelope. It was, indeed, in the same tiny handwriting as Perseus Evans’s first postcard, and once again it was impeccably addressed and stamped (Perseus must have got top marks in Muggle Studies when he was at Hogwarts, thought Harry), but this time franked with a Surrey postmark, not far from where the Dursleys lived. This sent a shiver down Harry’s spine. Was the mysterious Evans following him?
He tore open the envelope and, to his astonishment, found a birthday card inside, a normal, muggle birthday card, appropriate for a boy of his age. Opening it with intense curiosity, he found the following message:
Happy birthday. I hope you will forgive me for missing your birthday in previous years, but this is the first year when it has felt safe to mark the occasion.
Now, if I might turn my attention swiftly to less festive matters, I must confess that, frankly, I was extremely disappointed with your performance on Wednesday. Allowing the Granger girl to be rash enough to perform magic in a packed public place and having your own wand confiscated was foolhardy enough, but allowing yourself to be followed and robbed by a dangerous Death Eater was quite inexcusable.
Fortunately the yo-yo was a decoy. Probably contemporaneous with Riddle, but not in the least magical and quite valueless. I only used it to lure you to Alf. Now that you have spoken to him, it should be perfectly clear what you are really looking for. Keep your wits about you and take much more care next time.
P.S. The Death Eater is extremely dangerous. I was highly surprised to encounter him, as he is widely thought to be dead. Should you meet him again, do not attempt to speak with him, but flee for your life.
By the time he had finished reading, Harry’s mouth had dropped open with stunned bewilderment. Who was this guy? He wrote as if he knew Harry well, and he had clearly been following him on Wednesday. Was he the boy in the hoodie in the carriage? Harry still felt the boy had been nigglingly familiar, but his identity still eluded him. Could it be one of Harry’s classmates from Hogwarts? But the letter was written with such confidence, such authority…surely it must be from someone high in the Order, a mature adult? Once again, Harry couldn’t quite suppress the hope that it was from Dumbledore, that somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, he was still alive…But, no, Harry himself had been present at Dumbledore’s funeral. It couldn’t be.
And what did Evans mean, “This is the first year when it has felt safe to mark the occasion”? Why would it be unsafe to send Harry a BIRTHDAY CARD? Unless…Harry felt an icy grip under his ribs, around his heart. Could it be a Death Eater, newly released from Azkaban? Or a supporter of the Dark Lord, safe to attack Harry now his protector Dumbledore was out of the way?
But why would a Death Eater admit that? And why would a Death Eater warn him about another Death Eater?
Harry’s brain was in a whirl. Nothing made sense and he had no idea who all these people were and who, if anyone, he could trust anymore.
He lay on his bed pondering this for at least an hour. He heard the door slam and Uncle Vernon’s car start up as he sped away to his work at the drill factory. He heard a faint whine of voices as Dudley switched on the TV in the living room. Eventually, he decided that the coast was clear and that it might be nice to creep downstairs and snitch a can of Coke from Dudley’s supplies in the kitchen before anyone noticed. He got up, grabbed the door handle, pulled open the door to his room… and to his utter surprise found Aunt Petunia standing hunched in the doorway, as if she had been listening at the door for some time.
Harry opened his mouth to let out a cry of surprise, but his aunt quickly slapped a hand over his mouth to muffle the sound and put a finger to his lips to signify that he should make no noise. Slowly, she turned on her heel, and began tiptoeing silently down the passageway, beckoning Harry to follow. He pursued her, mystified, as she retreated into her own bedroom. Once there, she opened a door in the large fitted wardrobe that ran the whole length of the room, and began to rummage quietly in a corner, behind a row of floral dresses. Eventually she seemed to find hat she was looking for, as she pulled a small velvet bag out from the inside of an old pair of court shoes, then came and sat on the bed next to Harry.
“We mustn’t let Dudders hear!” she whispered. “He and Vernon know nothing about this, and if they find out, they won’t let you keep it! Your uncle will say you owe it to him as payment for your board and lodging all these years. Part of me agrees with him, many’s the time I’ve been tempted to sell it, but…at the end of the day, a promise is a promise…”
“But what is it?” asked Harry.
“Your mother always wore it. Never even took it off to bathe. The last time I saw her, she made me promise that if anything should ever happen to her and her worthless husband, I should make sure it came to you. Then Dumbledore left it on the doorstep with you with a letter saying the same thing, that it should be given to you on your seventeenth birthday.”
“Yes,” repeated Harry, “but what is it?”
“I thought about selling it then. Ugly as it is, you could tell it was expensive. It could have paid for a new bathroom, or a better car for Vernon. After all, what had my sister ever done for me? But somehow, I could never bring myself to do it. I hid it from Vernon. He would have had no such qualms…”
“Yes,” snapped Harry impatiently, fed up with all this whispering, “but WHAT IS IT?”
“See for yourself!” she spat, nastily, tossing the bag in his direction. “Now, take it away, quickly, before I change my mind!”
Then she stalked out of the room and went down to the kitchen, to make Dudley, who was moaning about what hungry work it was watching the telly, his fifth snack of the day.
Harry remained sitting on Aunt Petunia’s bed, dazed. Slowly he put his hand inside the velvet bag, and pulled out….a fabulous gold ring. About a dozen thick gold threads were twisted together, and knotted round what appeared to be a large pearl. Harry slipped it onto his index finger and immediately he felt a warm vibration, like static electricity, course through his body. It was surprising, but not unpleasant. Gradually he grew used to the sensation and he couldn’t feel the shock anymore, he merely felt a heightened energy within. There was no doubt about it – his mother’s ring was clearly magical.
March 13th, 2007, 12:30 am
The Pledge Ring
Harry was itching to find out more from his aunt, but every time he tried to talk to her during the course of the day she shot him a venomous glance and once whispered to him that, if he mentioned the subject again, then she would tell Uncle Vernon and he would snatch the ring away and sell it before Harry had the chance to say “Magic.” Harry had no doubt that she was telling the truth. It was no idle threat, and Uncle Vernon would be sure to do as Petunia said. Wandless as he was, Harry would have no power to stop him. He didn’t even dare to wear the ring, in case Dudley spotted it and wrestled it off him. Instead, he kept it in its velvet pouch, tied round his neck on a cord. He could feel a faint buzzing against his chest through the bag, but nothing like the powerful pulse which it had given off when he wore it directly on his finger. His head was full of questions but, reluctantly, he conceded that he would learn no more in the Dursleys’ house. He would show the ring to Arthur Weasley tonight and ask him if he knew what it was and why it had been in his mother’s possession.
The day seemed to drag by. Harry spent the day flicking through the books which he had received from his godfather and although normally the information they contained would have riveted him, he couldn’t concentrate in his extreme impatience to get away.
This impatience was shared by his cousin and uncle. When the latter returned from work, he positively sagged with disappointment that Harry was still there, only cheering up a little when Harry reminded him that, under the terms which they had agreed with Dumbledore, Harry would be gone by the final stroke of midnight tonight, (although not a moment before). While in previous years Vernon Dursley had been known to lock Harry’s trunk in the cupboard under the stairs and try to prevent Harry from accessing it, this year he personally took it out, dusted it off, and left it conveniently by the front door. He carried Harry’s stuff down from his bedroom, including Hedwig in her cage. He asked numerous times if he could give Harry a lift somewhere (while Harry politely declined and explained that the Knight Bus would collect him from the front door, but that no wizard would cross the threshold).
Finally, after what seemed like a couple of years, midnight arrived, the Knight Bus screeched to a halt in Privet Drive, and Stan Shunpike pulled Harry, Hedwig and the trunk aboard. Harry could say his final goodbyes to Little Whinging. He would never return again. The Dursleys, anxious to make sure that he had really gone, had stayed up past their bedtime and gathered round the door to see him off. Neither his uncle nor his cousin bothered to say goodbye – Vernon gave a sort of curt nod as a valediction, while Dudley just stared vacantly. Unexpectedly, however, Aunt Petunia gripped her nephew’s hand and murmured “Good luck” at him, just before the Knight Bus shot away.
The journey was no more comfortable than the last time Harry had taken the Knight Bus, and he was tired and shaken by the time Stan deposited him and his things outside the Burrow. The whole family, plus a rather downcast-looking Hermione, greeted him on his arrival, but he didn’t have much chance to talk that night, he just wanted to crawl under his quilt and go straight off to sleep.
He did, however, show his ring to Ron before they went to sleep, telling him an abbreviated story of Aunt Petunia’s strange behaviour. Ron stared at the ring in absolute amazement.
“Blimey!” he kept repeating, blinking in disbelief. “That’s just…no way!”
“What?” asked Harry, in frustration.
“Well,” Ron managed to say, finally, “it looks like it’s a ….pledge ring. But, no, it can’t be…”
“Why not? And what’s a pledge ring?” asked Harry, feeling inadequate once again for the gaps which a Muggle upbringing had left in his knowledge of wizardry.
“Pledge rings are like…” Ron scratched his head as he tried to think how to put it. “Well, they’re sort of the embodiment of a promise. You give them to someone when you promise to help them.”
“Like an IOU?” pondered Harry.
“Well, no. They’re much more serious than that. You promise the person everything you’ve got. If you give someone a pledge ring you’d die rather than refuse to come to their aid when they need you.”
“So it’s like an Unbreakable Vow?”
“Sort of…” He frowned. “Well, actually no, not at all, now I come to think of it.”
“Well, how is it different?” Harry snapped, exasperated.
“For a start, an Unbreakable Vow is specific. Like when Sna…” Ron broke off, as he realized that he’d started to give the most tactless, painful example he could possibly have thought of.
Harry shivered, but then said, “No, go on, Ron. Like when Snape made his Unbreakable Vow to Malfoy’s mother? Is that what you were going to say?”
Ron blushed. “Er…yeah. You see, he only promised to help Malfoy to…er…with that one particular thing.” Ron turned redder as redder as it became more and more glaringly obvious why he should have chosen just about any example in the world of an Unbreakable Vow other than this one. “That’s all he had to do. He didn’t have to help Malfoy with anything else. Once he did that, he was free of the Vow. But if he’d given Malfoy’s mum a pledge ring, he would have had to do anything she said, anytime she wanted. Write Malfoy’s homework, wash Malfoy’s socks, wipe Malfoy’s bum, if that’s what his old lady commanded.”
“So it’s a bit like being a House Elf?” suggested Harry.
“Kind of,” conceded Ron. “But not.”
“In what way, ‘not’?”
“Well, it’s voluntary, for a start. You choose to give the person a pledge ring, no-one makes you.”
Harry was puzzled. “Why on earth would anyone do it, then? Why make yourself someone’s slave for life?”
“It’s not quite like that, you know!” insisted Ron, waving his arms in his frustration at being unable to explain exactly what he meant. “On second thoughts the House Elf thing was a bad analogy. It’s my fault – I shouldn’t have said that about wiping Malfoy’s bum, because most people who had pledge rings didn’t want trivial things like that, it was usually big things, like saving lives, paying off massive debts, fighting enemies, that sort of thing.”
“OK, but even so, you’d be promising a lot. Why would anyone do it?”
“It was usually gratitude. You know, they’d done something big for you, so to show them how grateful you were, you’d give them a pledge ring. Sometimes it was love. If you really loved someone, you’d give them a pledge ring, kind of for proof…”
Harry sat bolt upright, his bedclothes sliding to the floor. “You don’t think it was a present from my dad, do you?”
Ron shook his head. “Sorry, mate, but that’s impossible.”
Harry looked at him, quizzically.
Ron winced again as he realized he had once again touched upon an extremely uncomfortable subject. “Um..well…your mum and dad are both dead, aren’t they? And you’re their only son?”
Harry nodded in response to both questions.
“There you are, then!” As Harry clearly didn’t understand his triumphant expression, Ron went on. “Pledge rings, and the pledges they commemorated, were passed down through families. If you gave a pledge ring, then after you died, your heir was expected to honour the pledge. If someone gave you a pledge ring, then after you died, your heir could still call in favours from the pledge-trother.”
“So then…?” asked Harry, stifling a yawn, more tired – and confused! – than ever.
“Well, as both your parents’ only heir, you’d inherit both your dad’s pledge debt and your mum’s pledge ring. You’d owe a pledge to yourself, then, wouldn’t you? And that’s impossible!”
Although half-asleep, Harry could sort of see the sense of this, but he could still see other possibilities. “Well, maybe the pledge doesn’t count anymore, I’ve just still got the ring!” Yet even as he said that, he could feel the ring pulsating against his finger (since leaving the Dursleys, he had transferred it from the bag), and although he knew nothing about pledge rings other than what Ron had just told him, he knew that only a living pledge could produce that sensation.
“Nah, mate,” said Ron, in confirmation. “I think the ring would have died.”
“The ring would have what?”
“Died.” Ron seemed to think this was self-explanatory, but seeing the look on Harry’s face, he elucidated. “If the last heir of either the pledge-trother or the recipient died, the ring died with them. The same if the ring was stolen- it was useless to anyone else. The stone would die – it would turn black and shrivel. And the binders – the cords holding the stone in place – would wither and rot, like blades of grass. You’d just be left with an ugly black wrinkly stone, like some kind of fruit pip. And the same would happen, of course, if the pledge was repaid.”
Harry groaned. “Like any of this pledge ring stuff isn’t?”
Ron grinned. “True!” He sighed. “OK, I don’t really understand it, but in certain circumstances, if the pledge-trother made an enormous sacrifice for the recipient, the pledge was considered to have been finally honoured, the debt paid off. I don’t know what the rules were, but I know it had to be something absolutely huge. Usually even death wasn’t enough. The Blacks had a pledge for nearly four hundred years and they only paid it off when one of Sirius’s ancestors sacrificed her child for the recipient.” Harry’s face registered his horror. “It’s true,” nodded Ron, “he had an incurable disease and she transferred it to her four-year-old daughter. She died five days later in terrible agony, and the family threw a big party, they were so pleased to be rid of the debt. They weren’t a nice lot, most of the Blacks. Sirius was lucky to turn out so normal.”
Harry took the ring off and stared at it in shock. “That’s horrible! These rings must be evil!”
“No, they’re not,” Ron reassured him, easing the ring back onto his trembling finger. “I told you, it was the Blacks who were evil, pledging themselves to the kind of people who’d make them sacrifice a child! Your mum would never get involved in anything evil, would she?”
“I suppose not,” conceded Harry. “But she was muggleborn. Maybe she didn’t know what she was getting herself into…”
Ron shook his head. “Pledge rings weren’t dark. It was the people who used them that were sometimes dark – demanding the pledge-trother did unspeakable things or trothing themselves lightly, without thinking about the consequences. When I was a child, my mum used to tell me cautionary tales about people who’d pledged their troth when they were drunk and lived to regret it. Very little in wizardry is actually evil unless used by an evil person. Trust me, if your mum accepted the pledge, it must have been above board. You’ll be safe with that ring. And let’s face it, with what you plan to do this year, you’ll probably need all the help you can get!”
And then Ron blushed again, realizing that he’d said yet another incredibly tactless thing. but Harry hadn’t noticed, struck by something else.
“Ron? Why do you keep using the past tense? You keep saying, ‘Pledge rings weren’t evil’, ‘If the ring was stolen’, like they don’t exist anymore.”
Ron frowned. “By and large, they don’t.” Harry was looking very confused again, so he hurriedly went on. “You can’t just buy them in the shops, you know. Not even somewhere like Borgin and Burkes. No-one knows how to make them anymore, so the only ones in existence are ones that have been handed down in families for years and years and years. They’re incredibly rare, because most of them have died – either the family has died out or the pledge has been repaid. Most of the few that still live are already pledged – tied up in centuries-old pledges. I’ve never heard of a virgin pledge-ring. I didn’t think there had been any for hundreds of years.”
Harry looked up sharply at the word “virgin”.
“A pledge-ring that’s never been pledged,” explained Ron. “I’d always been told that there was no such thing. Hasn’t been such a thing for about a thousand years.” His brow creased in utter bewilderment. “So how could someone have pledged one to your mother only twenty years ago? It doesn’t make sense.”
Harry sighed. None of it made any sense to him, so this was hardly more surprising than the rest.
“Does your family have a pledge ring?” he asked, trying to distract Ron from his conundrum.
It worked. “Us!” squawked Ron. “You’ve got to be having a laugh!”
Harry stared blankly, trying to work out why what he’d said that had been so funny.
“Pledge rings were never given to the likes of us! They were only given to ‘the right kind of wizarding family’.” Here Ron did a wicked impersonation of Malfoy’s braying tones.
Then he noticed that Harry was still staring at him blankly.
“Hey, didn’t I say? They were invented by Salazar Slytherin. He only made a few and he passed them onto his cronies. He never passed on the secret of how to make them, so all the pledge-rings in existence date from his time. You’ve got to laugh, though. He must be rolling in his grave at the thought of one of his precious pledge-rings ending up in the hands of someone like your mum!”
And then he went quiet, realizing that if tactlessness were an Olympic sport, he’d just have bagged a gold medal.
March 19th, 2007, 12:33 am
A Generous Present
If Harry had been even slightly less tired, he wouldn’t have slept at all after that revelation. Fortunately, though, he was exhausted after his birthday, and he slept the sleep of the dead. When Ron shook him awake to say that the family were waiting for him downstairs for breakfast, it was already past 9 o’clock.
“Oh,” added Ron, “Be careful what you say to Hermione, by the way. She’s been in a really weird mood since she got here.”
Harry felt a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Has she had any news...you know, about our wands…?”
Ron shook his head. “I don’t think so, no. Scrimgeour gave her a bit of a grilling when he took her home from London. She’s had a couple of Ministry people who’ve come and asked her questions while she’s been here. I expect you’ll get the same. But we’ve heard nothing official, as yet.”
Ron looked worried. “You don’t think they’ll really go through with it, do you? I mean, we’ve always got away with everything before, haven’t we? That time we drove Dad’s car into the Whomping Willow, I really thought we’d had it. If we managed to wriggle our way out of that one, surely you can wriggle your way out of this?”
Harry shrugged. He wasn’t feeling at all confident.
At breakfast, he managed to find out from Hermione herself what was going on.
“My parents are furious!” she confided, as Harry wolfed down a bowl of porridge and she picked at half a grapefruit. “I’ve never seen my dad so angry. He knows that, in wizarding terms, this is a bit like being in trouble with the police and he thinks I’m turning into some sort of criminal.”
Hermione turned her pinched and frightened face towards Harry. “What makes it worse, she went on, “is the fact that they don’t understand. Everything that I’ve been studying for the past six years means absolutely nothing to them. How am I going to cope as a muggle, Harry?” she wailed. “I’m not going to have anything in common with anyone. How am I going to even begin to find a lingua franca…”
“It’s not going to come to that, Hermione!” insisted Harry, shocked, and growing increasingly frightened as it dawned on him that perhaps it WAS going to come to that, for both of them!
But Hermione carried on as if he hadn’t even spoken. “We went to visit the local sixth-form college last week. It’s not too bad a place, I suppose. Dad had to pretend that we’d been living abroad for the last five years to explain the fact that I haven’t studied the National Curriculum and I haven’t got any GCSEs. They were a bit confused, but in the end they said I could have a place there next year…” her voice faltered and her face crumpled. “But they said I’d have to start from scratch and study for my GCSEs before I could even start on ‘A’ levels!” Her words were punctuated by heavy sobs. “I’m going to be the class dunce! I’m going to be at least two years behind everyone else!”
Harry went pale with apprehension. What would he do if he wasn’t allowed his wand back? Where could he go? He hadn’t thought this through.
His thoughts were interrupted by Mrs Weasley, who was commandeering the whole household into helping with the wedding arrangements. She had drawn up a complicated rota of tasks for the day. She herself was going to take Ginny for her final bridesmaid’s dress fitting. Mr Weasley, who’d taken the week off work, was to be dispatched to mow the meadow. Hermione, Fred and George were to make magical place cards for the guests (Harry rightly suspected that Hermione had been roped in to make sure that Fred and George didn’t charm a few magical surprises into the cards), while the first task allotted to Ron and Harry was making an inventory of wedding presents already received. Ron groaned – this sounded as boring as one of Filch’s detentions. He’d much rather be doing something practical. But at least it seemed to have snapped Hermione out of her depression.
“Oh!” she cried. “That reminds me. Mr Weasley, would you mind if I showed you something and asked your opinion?” In response to his inquisitive stare, she explained: “It’s the present that Harry and I have bought for Bill and Fleur. As neither of us are Muggle raised, we wanted to know if it’s appropriate. And, also, we wanted to make sure there’s nothing….dodgy…about it.”
Mr Weasley looked surprised but flattered to be consulted. “Of course!” he said. “Bring it down here and I’ll take a look at it straight away.”
“Don’t forget the meadow, Arthur!” warned Mrs Weasley, as she wrapped herself in her cloak and rummaged for some floo powder.
“Of course not, dear,” he reassured her, hurrying to kiss her cheek before she and Ginny disappeared into the fireplace.
Hermione ran up to her room and returned with a cardboard box with the contents individually wrapped in newspaper inside it. Slowly and carefully, she began to unwind one of the newspaper parcels.
“So what did you get them?” Ron asked Harry, with interest.
Harry shrugged. “Just some old goblets. They’re not that impressive, to be honest. It was Hermione’s idea. I didn’t really have a clue what to…WOW!”
Ron, Harry, Fred, George and Mr Weasley all stared in amazement when they saw the gleaming piece of silver emerging from the newspaper. Where the sunlight streaming through the kitchen window caught the metal, the goblet glinted so dazzlingly that the effect was almost blinding. There was no doubt, now that they had been cleaned up, that these goblets were expensive magical antiques.
“And I was worried that we’d bought a pile of old junk!” murmured Harry, staggered and relieved, both at the same time.
“I hope I didn’t do the wrong thing,” Hermione worried aloud, oblivious to the stunned, admiring stares of the boys. “I just used ordinary Muggle silver polish on them and then buffed them with a plain duster. It took forever, but they did come up nice in the end. It won’t affect the goblets’ powers, though, will it? I tried to look it up in the Elvish Book of Magical Household Hints, but the section on care of precious metals really isn’t very comprehensive… I wish I’d thought to ask Mrs Weasley…”
“Magnificent!” beamed Mr Weasley, as he took the goblet out of Hermione’s hand and held it up to the light to admire it. “Dear God, these must be centuries old!” When he lowered the goblet, to the boys’ amazement, it was filled to the brim with red wine. “Goodness me! Self-filling, too! What a generous present!” He glance round. “It’s a little early in the day, perhaps, but, seeing it’s a special occasion…”
And he took advantage of his wife’s absence to take a deep draught of the crimson liquid.
Before Hermione could stop them, Fred and George had unwrapped the other goblets and were gulping from them.
“Great wine, Hermione!” grinned George.
“Yes, thanks very much!” chipped in Fred.
“Give them back!” exploded Hermione. “They’re not for you! They’re a present! Harry, don’t just stand there! Stop them!”
But Harry wasn’t listening. He was standing, gaping in astonishment, his eyes fixed on the side of Fred’s goblet, where an eagle, its wings outstretched, could clearly be discerned, engraved into the metal. It must have been totally covered up with grime when they examined the goblets in Diagon Alley.
“Let me see that!” he burst out, spilling wine as he wrested the cup from Fred’s grasp. When he looked closer at the goblet, he saw that, beneath the eagle, a large letter R was engraved in gothic script. Glancing wildly round, he could now see that the other goblets were marked with the same motif, although the carving had been worn down on the others, and they weren’t as clear as Fred’s. He felt ice trickle through his intestines and he had to sit down as his legs felt suddenly weak. No! This couldn’t be….That was impossible!
“Beautiful workmanship!” Mr Weasley was still enthusing, examining his own goblet in minute detail. “Goblin-made, I suspect. I’m sure Bill will be able to tell straight away. Where on earth did you get them? They must have cost heaps and heaps of gold. I feel quite humbled by your generosity.”
And now Harry worried even more. The goblets had been cheap. Far too cheap. They should have cost a lot of gold, more gold probably than Harry had in his Gringotts account. Why had the pale boy in Diagon Alley let them go for so little? Could it really be that he had been fooled by their dirty appearance and didn’t recognize them for the treasures that they were? Or had he meant to give them to Harry? Was this some kind of trap?
And then the realization hit Harry between the eyes and, looking up at Hermione’s white face twisted into a mask of horror, he knew that the same thought had hit her at exactly that instant. He knew now where he had seen that boy before - the boy in the hoodie on the Underground, the boy whom the fat blond wizard had said had been following them all day, the boy who had disapparated as soon as his cover was blown. It was the boy who had sold them the goblets in Diagon Alley.
March 29th, 2007, 2:54 pm
It was after lunch before Ron, Hermione and Harry could confer about what they had discovered. They sat on Ron’s bed in the attic of the Burrow and brought each other up to speed about the strange events of the past week.
“What do we do now?” wailed Hermione. “We can’t hand over the goblets to Bill and Fleur now, surely, not now that we know that they might contain a piece of Voldemort’s soul…”
“We don’t know that!” insisted Ron.
“Oh, yeah!” spat Harry, sarcastically. “It might be a complete coincidence that a set of thousand-year-old goblets which just happened to be marked with the sign of Rowena Ravenclaw fell into my hands at exactly the time I’m supposed to be looking for Horcruxes. Sold to me by a boy who just happened to spend the rest of the day following me. Don’t tell me, it was all perfectly innocent, he just happened to be passing Walthamstow at the same time as I was. As you do.”
Ron blushed. “Well, yeah, when you put it like that, I don’t like the thought of something like that ending up in my brother’s house…”
“But how can we not give them the goblets now?” asked Hermione, thumping one of Harry’s books with her hand for emphasis. “Your whole family have seen them and love them. They’ll think we’re just being really mean and decided to keep them for ourselves when we realized how valuable they were. And we can’t tell them the reason why we don’t want to hand them over, because we’re not supposed to tell anyone about horcruxes!”
“Hang on,” said Harry, turning one of the goblets round in his fingers, scrutinizing the engraving intently, a thought forming in his brain. “They can’t all be horcruxes. We didn’t tell your dad how many goblets we bought for Bill and Fleur, did we? What if we find which of the goblets is the horcrux and give Bill and Fleur the other five?”
“And how do we do that?” asked Ron, cynically. “You didn’t find any lessons on how to recognize a horcrux amongst Slughorn’s memories, did you?”
Harry sighed. That was a big problem, and he knew it. And even if he succeeded in finding the goblet, he didn’t have a clue how to destroy it. Why, oh why, did Dumbledore have to die? He would have known exactly what to do.
“Plus, should we even be tackling this horcrux ourselves?” weighed in Hermione, thumping the book again, even more aggressively. “We were tricked into buying those goblets. Someone wants us to have them, someone who’s deceived us and spied on us. That doesn’t give me a good feeling. Something tells me that whoever palmed those goblets off on us doesn’t want to help us – they want to destroy us. I think we should get rid of them.”
“No!” Harry burst out, surprising even himself with his passion. “That’s not what I promised Dumbledore!”
The others looked shocked that he was shouting, so he made a conscious effort to calm himself down and explained, as levelly as possible, “Dumbledore left it to me and you guys. I don’t know why, but I think that’s important. If he told me to destroy the horcruxes, without asking for anyone else’s help, I just can’t pass these up, no matter how fishy the whole situation is…”
Hermione slammed her hand down on the book again, in exasperation.
Harry frowned coldly. “Would you mind not slapping that book around? It was a present.”
But at that moment they were interrupted by a knock on the door. Ron uttered a strangled “Come in,” and Mr Weasley appeared on the threshold. He looked a little awkward.
“Er, Harry, could you come downstairs a moment? Some people from the Ministry are here to see you.”
Harry’s heart sank. That was all he needed! But there was no point in showing resistance. Hurriedly and fruitlessly trying to comb his unruly hair with his fingers, to make himself look slightly more respectable and law-abiding, Harry followed Arthur Weasley down the stairs.
Rufus Scrimgeour, flanked by two rather humourless-looking witches, was sitting at the Weasleys’ kitchen table, surrounded by official-looking paperwork. He was busy reading through a form when Harry entered the room, but when one of the witches gave a dry cough, he looked up, locked Harry in his piercing gaze, and gave a tight, mirthless smile.
“Ah, Mr Potter! Please take a seat. We thought that, in view of your age and, indeed, of our current troubled times, a formal trial would not be appropriate. We have decided, therefore, to conduct our enquiries informally.”
Harry sat down and underwent an inquisition from the three. He once again recounted the events that had taken place in the Underground, leaving out the parts about Perseus Evans and the horcruxes, of course. He tried not to get irritated by the sound of the witches’ quills scratching on parchment or by the dry cough that one of them had, oddly reminiscent of Umbridge, but he was impatient to get through the interview as quickly as possible and find out his fate.
At the end of the questioning, Scrimgeour neatly rolled his parchment and packed it in his briefcase, while the witches followed suit.
“Thank you, Mr Potter, you may go now.”
Harry looked aghast. “But…aren’t you going to tell me whether or not I’m getting my wand back?”
Scrimgeour looked up at him with irritation and one of the witches audibly tutted. “Certainly not. That decision will be made over the next few days, with due regard to process and order. The verdict will be communicated to you in due course.”
Harry felt angry and frustrated, but he didn’t want to get himself into even worse trouble by letting it show.
“Oh well,” he forced himself to ask politely. “Shall I send Hermione down now?”
To his surprise, Scrimgeour turned red and looked away. “No,” he said, in a slightly strangled voice. “I’m afraid that won’t be necessary.”
Harry looked up in alarm, but before he could ask any further questions, the ministry officials had all swept out of the room.
He felt rather heavy-hearted about facing Hermione, after this worrying turn of events, but another thought was playing on his mind as he mounted the stairs back up to the attic.
“I’ve just remembered,” he announced when he reentered the room, quashing the question that was forming on Ron’s lips about the Ministry interrogation, “I promised to send an owl to McGonagall as soon as I remembered who the boy in the hoodie was. Quick! Get me some parchment!”
“Are you mad?!” squawked Ron. “The owl post’s not safe anymore! Everyone knows that!”
Harry shook his head. “No, McGonagall was quite insistent that it would be OK. I really ought to let her know…”
He broke off, realizing that Hermione had been suspiciously quiet ever since he came into the room. He would have expected her to protest even louder than Ron, but she was just sitting there, clutching his book (the one which she had been thumping for emphasis earlier), with a sly smile on her face.
“What?” he asked, the hairs on his back starting to prickle with anticipation. Whenever Hermione went this quiet and that cat-who-just-got-the-cream look appeared on her face, it usually meant that she knew something, something vital to whatever they were trying to do.
Hermione gestured to the book. “I hope you don’t mind, but I couldn’t resist taking a peek at your present. It was just too tempting, and, besides, I don’t know when I might get the chance to read a really good magic book again...”
“Don’t spin it out,” urged Ron, in exasperation, “Just tell him, Hermione.”
“Tell me what?” asked Harry, feeling a sudden urge to sit down.
“You know,” said Hermione, in her most annoying bossy voice, “You really should make use of all these wonderful presents you get. They’re totally wasted on you. If you’d actually read the book, instead of just slobbering over the signature in the front, then shoving it in your trunk and forgetting about it, you’d have realized…” and she flipped the thick, vellum pages over until she reached the gothic-lettered table of contents in the front “…that there’s an entire chapter on horcruxes.” She beamed at him smugly, pointing at the page.
Harry stared at the letters beneath her finger. She was right. “Darkest of the Dark”, unlike any book in the Hogwarts library, even in the restricted section, contained a lengthy section on the wickedest of magical inventions, including sub-chapters on how to recognize one and how to destroy one. It was easy to see why his father had thought that this would be a perfect coming-of-age present for a man who was passionate about fighting everything that Lord Voldemort stood for.
Hungrily, he snatched the book from Hermione and rushed to the chapter on Horcruxes. It was hard to make out the sense of the narrow, spiky, embellished lettering at first, but his all-consuming desire to find out what he had to do made him persevere and overcome this obstacle, and the additional distraction of Ron repeatedly tugging at his arm, asking “What does it say, then?”
He skim-read the introduction, which told him little he didn’t already know – what a horcrux was, how to make one (Harry shuddered when he read this, as he struggled to fathom the monstrous mentality which could even contemplate doing this), examples of famous wizards throughout history who had made them. Then he reached the part he was really interested in: “How to Know a Horcrux”
“Though it look much like any other thing, there be certain marks by which a horcrux may be known. Many a great wizard has been fooled by a false horcrux, or by a hidden horcrux, and yet, if he knows the ways by which such things may be made to show themselves to man, any man may enter into the secret of these black and deadly things.
To prove a thing thought to be a horcrux, it is needful to have these things: a goblet of wine, a lighted candle, a handful of salt, a needle.
Mark well: howsoever it look to the eye, be it e’er so precious and wrought from cold, dead metal, the nature of a horcrux is that it be a living thing and that it be evil at heart.
To test whe’er it be living, spill a drop of wine onto the thing thought to be a horcrux. If the wine shrink to your eye, then the said object be a horcrux, for it be a living thing that hath drunk the wine. If the thing drink not the wine, howsoever, it may yet be a horcrux. Fall not into such folly as to be tricked by a horcrux. For they are cunning wicked things, that know to dissemble and deceive a man. To this belongs more tests.
To test again whe’er it be living, hold a lighted candle against the thought horcrux. If the thing shrink from the touch of the flame, as if it be in pain, then know, it lives indeed, the flame hath scorched it. If the thing shrink not, howsoever, it may yet be a horcrux. Trust it not. For such as make these vile and hateful things are full of guile and craft and may have found out ways to beguile a man. To this yet belongs more tests.
To test whe’er it be wicked, take a handful of salt and rub yon salt into the mettle of the thought horcrux. If the thing blacken to the eye and cry out as it has been scorched, then it be a horcrux, for salt be a substance such as is clean and pure and mickle that is evil cannot bear its touch. And yet trust it not, even though it blacken not and hold its peace. For mickle are the guileful ways of such as work this kind of evil. This may be craft. To this yet belongs more tests.
At the last, take yon needle and pierce some part of your own flesh. Pierce deep until you draw deep blood. Let shed the blood on the thing that is thought to be horcrux, and mark how that thing drink the blood. It be horcrux, indeed, for evil thrives on innocent blood, and drinks it as it were mother’s milk, suckled on the breast. And as it drink not the horcrux, it be not horcrux, as it hath passed all other tests. For no horcrux known to man is yet so guileful that it can deceive in all these ways, or if it be, I heard it not. Trust not in one test, or in two, or in three. But in all four tests there can be faith.”
When Harry reached the end of this passage, he knew what he had to do. But Ron and Hermione, who had been reading over his shoulder, were also of one mind. Hermione ran to the kitchen to get a bag of salt and to sneak a goblet of wine, Ron found his mother’s sewing basket and borrowed three needles, while Harry rummaged in his trunk for some candles and matches.
While he waited for the others to return from downstairs, he just had time to dash off a quick note to McGonagall and put it in Hedwig’s beak.
“Be careful!” he whispered in her ear, stroking her feathers affectionately, before she fluttered off out of the garret window. “Don’t get caught. Make sure you reach the Professor safely. I so don’t want to lose you!”
When they were at last fully equipped, the three sat in a circle with two of the goblets each in front of them. Harry felt strangely apprehensive. Could he trust this book? Was there danger involved in testing a horcrux? But surely Sirius wouldn’t have left him a book that could harm him, would he? He was surprised to see Hermione so calm, and eager to begin the test.
“I thought you were dead against us having anything to do with the horcrux?” he challenged her, suspiciously.
She reddened a little. “Well, I’m not happy about you trying to destroy the horcrux on your own, but where’s the harm in just sorting it out from the others? As Ron said, palming it off on his brother would be even worse. We can worry about what to do with it, when we’ve got five nice, safe goblets to give as a wedding present. And besides…” she reddened further “…this feels nice. It’s…well…it’s probably the nearest thing to being in a practical lesson that I’ll be able to experience in a long time!”
Harry rolled his eyes. Trust Hermione to be attracted to the task because it reminded her of school!
But she was right. There was something reminiscent of a Potions class as they tested two goblets each in silence, dripping them with wine, burning them in the flames of a candle, rubbing them with salt. Harry felt that the horcrux-testing ought to be more of a ritual, a quasi-religious experience, but there was definitely something clinically scientific about it.
“Ugh, what a mess!”
Hermione looked aghast at the state of the goblets, sticky with congealed wine and encrusted salt, tarnished where the flames had touched them, by the time the first three tests had been performed. She had spent hours polishing them into the state which ahd so impressed the Weasleys, and Harry could see that she wasn’t looking forward to having to buff them up again. But she had no further cause for concern. All six goblets passed the first three tests with flying colours – there was no shrinking, the wine just ran off, no strange cries pierced the air, and the goblets did not turn black where the salt touched them. Harry glanced across at the others and saw that they were thinking the same as him. He was very much of the mind that none of the goblets “be horcrux” and that he’d just got himself into a silly panic at the sight of the eagle – eagles were used lots in heraldry. This was no firm evidence that the goblets had ever belonged to Ravenclaw – the eagle could just have been for decoration. He was starting to think that he was one of the mickle who be beguiled by false horcrux.
When it came to the test of blood, then, Harry hardly expected anything to happen. Ron went first. Turning white and wincing, Ron stabbed himself sharply in the finger, not daring to look, hardly daring to breathe, as the blood dripped onto his two goblets. Nothing happened. The blood merely mingled with the mess already tarnishing their surfaces. Ron sagged with disappointment and wrapped his sore finger in a handkerchief.
Hermione went next. She was braver at the sight of blood and more matter-of-fact about the whole thing, but her blood made no more difference to her two goblets than Ron’s had. She, too was just faced with just a pair of dirty goblets. Her disappointment was even more acute and she buried her head in her hands, not bothering to watch what Harry did, so sure was she that there could be no more dramatic outcome.
Harry rather went through the motions. He made a tiny prick in his left thumb and flicked a minute droplet of his blood first onto the fifth goblet, then onto the last, and then got up to find a cloth to staunch his bleeding, so convinced was he that this wasn’t going to work.
He stopped, however, when he heard Ron’s sharp intake of breath followed by a strangled cry. He turned and, to his astonishment, saw that the sixth goblet was clean. The drop of his blood had completely disappeared.
“It was there,” cried Ron, “One minute it was there, and then the next, the metal, sort of sucked it in!”
Hermione removed her hands from her eyes and watched as Harry pricked himself again and shook another drop onto the goblet. This time they all saw as the cold metal greedily drank the blood.
April 13th, 2007, 10:39 pm
Harry didn’t often follow Hermione’s cautious advice but, having read of the dangers of trying to destroy horcruxes, and having seen Dumbledore’s withered hand when he retrieved and destroyed a horcrux ring last year, he was only too happy to hide the goblet and leave its destruction for later. It was enough that they had removed it from the set, and thus had a safe present to give to Bill and Fleur. There would be plenty of time to destroy the goblet, once he knew more about what he was doing and had constructed something resembling a firm plan. At the moment he felt that he was groping in the dark.
He went through it all again with Ron and Hermione, as they cleaned the five safe goblets again (none of them dared polish the horcrux – Hermione shuddered and felt a little nauseous at the thought that she had actually cleaned it previously – and it had been swiftly wrapped in old newspaper and shoved beneath Harry’s bed, as if it were dangerously contaminated). The events of the past couple of weeks made no sense to them, either, though, least of all the communications from the mysterious Perseus Evans.
Ron got a bit sidetracked by the whole concept of the Royal Mail and muggle greetings cards – he kept shaking Harry’s birthday card, trying to make the pictures move, and said more than once “So muggle boys actually like getting cards with footballers on, do they?” and “But how can a card get from one end of England to the other if it can’t fly? I don’t understand.”
Harry and Hermione, though, were far more preoccupied with the questions of who Perseus Evans was, what he wanted, and whether or not he could be trusted. The part of the card that foxed Harry the most was “I only used it to lure you to Alf. Now that you have spoken to him, it should be perfectly clear what you are really looking for.”
“No, it’s not ‘perfectly clear’! It’s not clear at all!” moaned Harry, bitterly, having racked his brains to try to remember what Alf had told them and to work out what it was that Evans thought was such an obvious thing for him to look for.
“I wonder…” muttered Hermione to herself, then, catching Harry’s glance, quickly said “Yes, I’ve got an idea., but it’s probably nothing.”
Harry raise done eyebrow. “Care to share it with us?”
But Hermione shook her head decisively. “ I’m going to do some research after the wedding and it may come to nothing. But if I’m right, I’ll tell you then. I don’t want to tell you now, because if I’m wrong, not only will I look very stupid, but all three of us may go haring up the wrong tree for far too long, and that would waste valuable time.”
“Can’t you even give us a clue?” sighed Ron.
But she merely picked up a book called “Higher Tier GCSE Business Studies” and began to read it ostentatiously, and both of them knew Hermione well enough to know that there was no pressing her once she had that adamant glint in her eye.
In any case, soon after that, Molly Weasley called them downstairs for supper, and they all became engrossed in another idyllic domestic evening at the Burrow.
The next morning, Harry woke reasonably early and made it down to breakfast before Ron, Ginny and the twins. Hermione and Arthur Weasley were already sitting at the table eating toast, and Mrs Weasley was standing at the stove stirring a cauldron of delicious-smelling spiced porridge.
“Good morning, Harry,” beamed Mrs Weasley. “Porridge?”
He nodded enthusiastically, and she ladled out a huge bowlful for him.
“Arthur’s told me about the wonderful present which you and Hermione have bought for Bill and Fleur,” she went on, handing him his breakfast. “It’s so very kind of you both! You really shouldn’t go spending all your galleons on us, though.”
Harry shrugged, embarrassed. “It’s nothing,” he said (reddening because he knew that what they had paid for the goblets WAS nothing!). “You’ve always been so kind to me, it’s the least I could do.” He caught Hermione’s eye and shared a guilty grin, then quickly stuffed a large spoon of porridge into his mouth so that he wouldn’t have to say any more on the subject.
At that moment, though, they were interrupted by a scraping of talons against the kitchen window, which put an end to all conversation, anyway.
“Goodness me!” shrieked Molly, shocked. “Owls! I didn’t think anyone was sending them anymore.”
She scrabbled at the latch of the window and let the owls in, but the smile died on her face when she saw that the first bore two pieces of parchment, sealed with the Ministry of Magic’s insignia, addressed to Harry and Hermione respectively. All three let out a cry simultaneously.
“It’s the Ministry’s decision!” gasped Hermione, even though that was patently obvious to everyone.
The second owl only had the morning’s edition of the Daily Prophet, which nobody gave a second glance.
Harry gently took his letter from the owl and opened it with trembling fingers. He waited a few seconds, listening to his heart knocking against his ribs, before he dared to unfold it and read it. Even then, he was shaking so much, he nearly dropped it.
“Dear Mr Potter,” it read, “After due consideration, the Ministry find you not guilty of using underage magic or of using magic in a public place in the presence of muggles.
The Ministry does, nevertheless, find you guilty of drawing your wand before muggles and of bringing the wizarding community into disrepute. As you are well aware, both of these are serious offences, especially in the current climate.
In view of the good character statements received from Arthur Weasley and from your headmistress, Minerva McGonagall, it is the Ministry’s considered decision, however, to issue a suspended punishment. You are free to return to Hogwarts at the beginning of term and your wand will be returned forthwith.
I need hardly add, however, that should your conduct be brought to the Ministry’s attention again, for any reason whatsoever, you will be expelled from Hogwarts immediately and your wand destroyed.
Minister of Magic”
Harry breathed a long sigh of relief, wiped his face with his hands, and then whooped with joy.
“They let me off!” he yelled, noticing that Ron and George were now standing in the kitchen doorway, peering anxiously in. “I’m getting my wand back!”
But, to his surprise, they didn’t congratulate him or even smile. Wondering why not, he turned and saw what they were looking at – Hermione was slumped at the other end of the table, clutching her head in her hands, her shoulders heaving with waves of silent tears. A crumpled letter lay on the table beside her. Despite his non-existent legilimency skills, Harry didn’t need to read it to know what it said.
Guilty of using magic in a public place in the presence of muggles.
Guilty of bringing the wizarding community into gross disrepute.
Hermione had been expelled from Hogwarts and her wand had already been destroyed.
“It’s not going to change our friendship,” said Ron vehemently, cautiously putting an arm around Hermione’s shoulder. “Harry and I will still be your best friends! We’ll write every week, every day, until they come to their senses and give you your wand back.”
The trio were sitting under the apple tree in the garden an hour later. Mrs Weasley had forced a large cup of hot sweet tea down Hermione’s throat, fortified with a hearty slug of whisky, to help her deal with the shock, then wisely left her to her friends, advising them to take her out into the fresh air.
“Yeah,” concurred Harry. “We’ll write letters to the Ministry, too, campaigning on your behalf. We’ll get the whole school to sign a petition. We’ll be worse than you campaigning for SPEW! We’ll force them to change their minds!”
Hermione shook her head. “It won’t do any good,” she wailed. “They’ve made up their minds. Nothing’s going to change their decision.” She turned and looked them both in the eye. “And you won’t stay friends, not for long. Not when I can’t send owls and have to rely on the muggle post and my letters probably won’t even get there. Not when I can’t do spells and don’t get the Daily Prophet so I can’t keep up with wizard news and can’t understand half the things you say. Not when I don’t have access to a wizarding library, so I can’t even help you with your homework anymore. You’ll write for about a term and then it’ll just fizzle out. You’ll forget about me sooner or later, I know you will.”
“NO, WE WON’T!!” chorused both boys together.
“How could we ever forget about you?” asked Harry, incredulously. “After all we’ve been through together? Being attacked by a troll, going back in time to help Sirius and Buckbeak escape, working out a way of getting through the Triwizard challenges, fighting Death Eaters…! How could anyone forget someone who’d done all that with them?”
“All that will be in the past!” insisted Hermione, shaking her head so violently that Ron instinctively moved his hand from her shoulder and softly stroked her hair to calm her. “We can’t ever have a future together, so what will be the point? People move on.”
“We won’t move on…” began Harry, but broke off when he saw Ron’s face. Ron was slowly turning the colour of a beetroot and he kept opening and shutting his mouth, as if starting to say something, but thinking better of it.
“Hermione,” he eventually managed to get out. “I…I…have something to say to you.”
To Harry’s astonishment, Ron was trembling as if a whole family of giant spiders had materialised in front of him, as he turned, looked Hermione in the eye, took a deep breath as if gearing himself up for the most difficult task he had ever had to face, and launched into an impassioned declaration.
“I will NEVER forget about you. Please don’t say that. Please don’t even think it, even for a second. If it turns out they won’t let you have your wand back, I’ll leave Hogwarts, I’ll break my own wand in two, and, instead of apparating or using a broomstick, I’ll learn to travel on the pipe…”
“The Tube!” interjected Harry, but neither Ron nor Hermione appeared to hear him.
“…to go up and down excavators…”
“Escalators!” corrected Harry, but again in vain.
“…to use any crazy muggle invention that you have to use. I’ll abandon the wizarding world before I abandon you. I….” and he paused and frowned, as if realizing something for the first time, something which on a deep, subconscious level he had known for years and years, but which, until now, he had never allowed to float into his conscious mind, “…I…I love you.”
He stared at Hermione for a few seconds, his face frozen with shock – he had shocked himself by this revelation. Hermione looked shocked, too, but a warm flush started to fill her cheeks and Harry suddenly knew that, for once in his life, Ron had managed to say exactly the right thing, exactly what Hermione wanted and needed to hear.
The two of them gazed at one another, and then, timidly, they leant towards one another and began to kiss.
Harry felt incredibly awkward, and knew that this was a moment that he was not meant to share. Not wanting to intrude upon their happiness a moment longer, he quietly slipped away, and returned to the sanctuary of the Burrow kitchen.
George was standing by the stove, looking strangely perplexed for one who was usually the epitome of laid-back nonchalance.
“Hey, Harry!” he called, when he saw him. “You haven’t seen Fred this morning, have you?”
“No, “ said Harry, reaching for the Daily Prophet, which was still lying neglected on the kitchen table. He might as well kill time catching up on the wizard news. “Why?”
George scratched his head in bewilderment. “I haven’t seen him since last night,” he said. “When I woke up this morning, he was already up. It’s not like him. Normally I have to drag him out of bed. I thought he might have wandered up to the paddock, but I just looked and he’s not there.” George was looking more worried than ever now. “And he didn’t say he was going anywhere particular this morning, either. He…well, that never happens, basically…we’re identical twins! We tell each other everything! Harry, I’m starting to worry.”
“I’m sure there’s a simple explana…” Harry started to reassure George, but stopped, open-mouthed, his attention riveted by the front page of the paper.
MURDER IN DIAGON ALLEY, screamed the headline.
That, in itself, wasn’t enough to shock Harry, not in these troubled times. These days the Prophet carried gruesome tales of killings and disappearances practically every day. What had stunned him into speechlessness was the picture beneath the headline. It was the pale boy, the boy who had sold them the goblets, and then followed them all the way to Walthamstow and back. His throat had been slit from ear to ear.
April 19th, 2007, 6:52 pm
“I told you the owl post wasn’t safe!” rebuked Ron later, much later, when Harry had the chance to show the others the Daily Prophet and confide his fear that his owl to McGonagall had been intercepted and that he had brought about the pale boy’s death. “Why didn’t you listen to me?”
“Oh, thanks very much!” spat Harry, sarcastically. “Make me feel much better, why don’t you?”
In truth, he felt oddly isolated, in a way he hadn’t felt since his fourth year at Hogwarts when, for a time, no-one, not even Ron, would believe that he hadn’t thrown his own name into the Goblet of Fire. A year at Hogwarts without Hermione was unimaginable – it would be grim beyond contemplation and added fuel to his desire to leave before his final year. But it was also strange to think that Ron and Hermione were in love.
He was pleased for them - surprised, but genuinely delighted – he couldn’t imagine a better partner for either of them. But at the same time he was a little jealous, and even frightened. The three of them had always been such close friends, but there had been a particular bond between him and Ron, ever since they had met at King’s Cross Station on their first trip to school. Indeed, apart from that awful time in the fourth year when Ron briefly stopped talking to him, he had always felt that, if any of them were the outsider in their three-sided relationship, it was Hermione. With Ron, for once in his life, Harry had felt that he had found a friend who valued him before anyone else, a friend who knew him so well, that they could almost communicate without words. As Hermione grew more and more important to Ron, would he himself diminish in significance? Would their friendship dwindle to a shadow of what it once had been and, if so, who would he turn to now?
There had been a time last year when the inevitable answer to that question would be “Ginny.” But he had sacrificed that relationship because he couldn’t afford to put Ginny’s life at risk and, now that he had committed himself to walking the lonely path of the Chosen One, there could be no going back. But that path suddenly seemed to have become a lot lonelier still.
For some reason, he suddenly thought of the scrawled dedication in the front of the book he had inherited for his seventeenth birthday.
“To my best friend, Can’t believe we’re leaving Hogwarts at last, after 7 wonderful years! I will miss you SO much. Promise me you’ll come and stay lots after we’ve got married. Life won’t be the same without you. Hopefully when you look at this book you’ll never forget all the mischief we got up to while we were here.”
Was he imagining the tinge of guilt behind the enthusiastic reassurances of undying friendship? The subtle message that, no matter how wonderful the fun they’d got up to together at school, the writer had moved on and was embarking on a new chapter in his life and that, although his old friend would still be a part of that new life, he’d only be a tangential part? For the first time in his life, he wondered how Sirius had felt when his best friend had paired up with Lily. He’d always assumed that he’d been deliriously happy for James, but now he wasn’t so sure.
And the sense of loneliness and isolation only swelled in him as he recalled, once again with bitterness, that Sirius was no longer there to share his feelings with. HE would have understood. Sometimes he thought that there was no-one else in the world who would ever understand him the way his godfather had, and he was overcome once more by feelings of hatred for the man whom he would always hold responsible for sending Sirius to his death.
“Don’t give Harry a hard time, Ron!” Hermione was nagging her new boyfriend, still holding his hand, as she had been doing all afternoon, but now pressing it painfully hard with emphasis. “It’s not his fault!”
She stopped, noticing the sudden spasm of pain and anger cross Harry’s face.
“Snape!” he yelled, with fury. “I’d bet you anything that he’s behind this! He followed me here, he knows I’m here, he probably intercepted Hedwig himself!”
He looked up, in sudden fear.
“And she hasn’t come back yet, has she? Maybe he slit her throat, as well.”
Hermione put a restraining hand on his arm.
“Don’t get upset until you have the facts! I’m sure that Hedwig will be back by nightfall. I’m more worried about where Fred could have got to…”
“Oh, don’t worry about Fred!” shrugged Ron, with a conspicuous lack of concern. “Fred can look after himself.”
“George doesn’t seem to think so,” frowned Hermione.
“George just can’t accept that Fred is a separate person from him, with a right to a life of his own! They’re adults now – OBVIOUSLY they’re going to grow apart a bit, and Fred’s not going to tell George as much as he did when they were at school.”
Harry blushed slightly when Ron said this, as he was describing feelings that weren’t that far from what he was feeling about Ron.
Even Ron realized he had gone a bit too far, though, because he ran a hand through his ginger mop and said, in a quieter tone,
“He’s only been gone a few hours, guys. I’ll start to worry if he’s not back by suppertime.”
At that moment, they were interrupted by the beating of wings against the window.
“Hedwig!” all three of them cried at once, and ran to let her in.
She looked like she had been through the wars. Her feathers were wet and bedraggled and there was a split in one of her claws, which made it look very much as if someone had forcibly pulled the letter from her grip. She cooed in distress and rubbed her head violently against Harry’s arm, as if trying to tell him something, but she wasn’t a human, she wasn’t even an animagus, and, frustratingly, she couldn’t tell him what she’d been through since he sent her on her errand yesterday.
All they had to go on was the Daily Prophet report. The boy, a 17-year-old itinerant pedlar called Habakkuk Houndsley, was apparently well-known amongst the street traders on Knockturn Alley. He had been scraping a living selling second-hand wizarding goods there for about 18 months.
“Hmph!” remarked Ron. “Well, that just about proves he was on the side of You-Know-Who, doesn’t it?”
Hermione frowned. “In that case, though, why would a Death Eater want to kill him?”
The boys shrugged, and they all read on.
Habakkuk’s mother and stepfather were wizards of impoverished means living somewhere in the North of England. He had studied at Durmstrang for a few terms (Ron raised his eyebrows when he read this), but had been expelled early on in his second year because he couldn’t afford the expensive equipment on the school’s approved list and had thereafter been educated at home…or not, the Trio speculated, as those of his acquaintances who were interviewed all seemed to remark that he was little better than a Squib, able to perform very few magical spells. He had run away from home aged about fifteen (there were dark hints that his stepfather was not a pleasant man, but no specific details were spelled out) and since then he had been sleeping rough on the muggle streets of London while he plied his miserable trade in Wizard London during the day.
“All of us traders tried to keep an eye out for him,” confided Gertrude Crone, a 183-year-old amulet seller from Knockturn Alley. “I looked on him as a kind of surrogate grandson. He was a sweet young thing, very young for his age and far too trusting, and we all feared that he’d run into trouble one day. The cheats and the thieves could see him coming a mile off, and he was always being taken advantage of. Even we never imagined that something like this would happen, though. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to harm him. He was a gentle sort, who wouldn’t have hurt a fly.”
“He was a friendly lad,” remarked Ptolemy Fright, a dealer in poisoned artifacts, who often made deliveries to Borgin and Burkes and frequently came across the dead boy in the course of his work. “Always said hello and exchanged a few pleasantries when we passed.
It’s so tragic! Clearly, he fell in with a bad lot and got dragged so far in, up to his neck, that something went badly wrong.
I blame myself for not noticing what was happening. When I saw him last Wednesday, he was obviously not quite himself. I waved and shouted a greeting, as normal, but he just gave me a shadow of a smile and didn’t say anything. If only I’d said something then! If only I’d asked more questions! Maybe he already knew he was on someone’s hitlist and the end was nigh.”
But there were no obvious suspects. Nobody had seen Habakkuk speaking to any strangers recently, he didn’t seem to have come into any unexpected money, he hadn’t disappeared at unusual times for an unusually long amount of time. It was clear that the newspaper, as well as all of Habakkuk’s friends, was completely stumped as to who could have killed him and why. The modus operandi – cutting the throat with a knife – seemed to point to a muggle, rather than a wizard, and this didn’t seem inconsistent with Habakkuk’s lifestyle, living amongst muggles by night. But what would a muggle be doing on Diagon Alley? And surely this death couldn’t be completely unrelated to the spate of murders committed by You-Know-Who and his followers?
“Hmm,” muttered Hermione, “I wonder…Ron?”
He looked up, inquisitively.
She gave him her most winning smile. “I couldn’t borrow Pigwidgeon, could I?”
He almost jumped out of his skin. “Have you lost your mind? You want to send an owl…MY owl…just moments after Harry’s owl nearly got killed and we’ve had our most potent reminder yet that the owl post has been infiltrated by You-Know-Who?”
Hermione looked down bashfully. “But I want to send him abroad. There’s very little chance that Voldemort would try to intercept an overseas owl from this house. He’d probably think Charlie was trying to contact one of his friends in Romania.”
Ron’s eyes narrowed. “Abroad?” He paused for a minute, before angrily snapping. “It’s Krum, isn’t it? I knew it! I thought you said you’d finished with him a long time ago…”
Hermione sighed. “I have finished with him, Ron! Haven’t you listened to anything I’ve been saying to you for the last hour? He and I are just friends, penpals, that’s all. But he could help us find out what happened to Hedwig and why…”
“Don’t insult my intelligence! Why would KRUM know the first thing about what happened to Hedwig…”
“Because he went to Durmstrang!” Hermione’s eyes flashed with anger, in her frustration to get her point across. “He must have known Habakkuk Houndlsey! “
A stunned silence fell on both the boys, as they contemplated the truth of this observation.
Capitalising on her advantage, Hermione went on, in a patient, measured tone. “I want to ask him what Houndsley was like at school, whether he had any connection with the Dark Arts, who his friends were, whether Viktor thinks it likely, or even possible, that he could have been working for Voldemort. It could be really important!”
Ron hesitated, unsure what to say.
“Please!” begged Hermione. “I thought you said you loved me, that you’d do anything for me…”
Ron sighed. “OK,” he conceded. “You can borrow Pigwidgeon. But if anything happens to my owl, you’re responsible.”