Harry Potter / The Half Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6) by J.K. Rowling

1. The Other Minister

2. Spinner’s End

3. Will and Won’t

4. Horace Slughorn

5. An Excess of Phlegm

6. Draco’s Detour

7. The Slug Club

8. Snape Victorious

9. The Half-Blood Prince

10. The House of Gaunt

11. Hermioine’s Helping Hand

12. Silver & Opals

13. The Secret Riddle

14. Felix Felicis

15. The Unbreakable Vow

16. A Very Frosty Christmas

17. A Sluggish Memory

18. Birthday Surprises

19. Elf Tails

20. Lord Voldemort’s Request

21. The Unknowable Room

22. After the Burial

23. Horcruxes

24. Sectumsempra

25. The Seer Overheard

26. The Cave

27. The Lightning-Struck Tower

28. Flight of the Prince

29. ThePhoenix Lament

30. The White Tomb

CHAPTER 1

The Other Minister

It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind. He was waiting for a call from the President of a far distant country, and between wondering when the wretched man would telephone, and trying to suppress unpleasant memories of what had been a very long, tiring, and difficult week, there was not much space in his head for anything else.

The more he attempted to focus on the print on the page before him, the more clearly the Prime Minister could see the gloating face of one of his political opponents. This particular opponent had appeared on the news that very day, not only to enumerate all the terrible things that had happened in the last week (as though anyone needed reminding) but also to explain why each and every one of them was the government’s fault.

The Prime Minister’s pulse quickened at the very thought of these accusations, for they were neither fair nor true. How on earth was his government supposed to have stopped that bridge collapsing? It was outrageous for anybody to suggest that they were not spending enough on bridges. The bridge was fewer than ten years old, and the best experts were at a loss to explain why it had snapped cleanly in two, sending a dozen cars into the watery depths of the river below.

And how dare anyone suggest that it was lack of policemen that had resulted in those two very nasty and well-publicized murders? Or that the government should have somehow foreseen the freak hurricane in the West Country that had caused so much damage to both people and property? And was it his fault that one of his Junior Ministers, Herbert Chorley, had chosen this week to act so peculiarly that he was now going to be spending a lot more time with his family?

“A grim mood has gripped the country,” the opponent had concluded, barely concealing his own broad grin.

And unfortunately, this was perfectly true. The Prime Minister felt it himself; people really did seem more miserable than usual. Even the weather was dismal; all this chilly mist in the middle of July… It wasn’t right, it wasn’t normal…

He turned over the second page of the memo, saw how much longer it went on, and gave it up as a bad job. Stretching his arms above his head he looked around his office mournfully.

It was a handsome room, with a fine marble fireplace facing the long sash windows, firmly closed against the unseasonable chill. With a slight shiver, the Prime Minister got up and moved over to the window, looking out at the thin mist that was pressing itself against the glass. It was then, as he stood with his back to the room, that he heard a soft cough behind him.

He froze, nose to nose with his own scared-looking reflection in the dark glass. He knew that cough. He had heard it before. He turned very slowly to face the empty room. : ¦

“Hello?” he said, trying to sound braver than he felt.

For a brief moment he allowed himself the impossible hope that nobody would answer him. However, a voice responded at once, a crisp, decisive voice that sounded as though it were reading a prepared statement. It was coming — as the Prime Minister had known at the first cough — from the froglike little man wearing a long silver wig who was depicted in a small, dirty oil painting in the far corner of the room.

“To the Prime Minister of Muggles. Urgent we meet. Kindly respond immediately. Sincerely, Fudge.”

The man in the painting looked inquiringly at the Prime Minister.

“Er,” said the Prime Minister, “listen… Its not a very good time for me… I’m waiting for a telephone call, you see… from the President of–”

“That can be rearranged,” said the portrait at once. The Prime Minister’s heart sank. He had been afraid of that.

“But I really was rather hoping to speak–”

“We shall arrange for the President to forget to call. He will telephone tomorrow night instead,” said the little man. “Kindly respond immediately to Mr. Fudge.”

“I… oh … very well,” said the Prime Minister weakly. “Yes, I’ll see Fudge.”

He hurried back to his desk, straightening his tie as he went. He had barely resumed his seat, and arranged his face into what he hoped was a relaxed and unfazed expression, when bright green flames burst into life in the empty grate beneath his marble mantelpiece.

He watched, trying not to betray a flicker of surprise or alarm, as a portly man appeared within the flames, spinning as fast as a top. Seconds later, he had climbed out onto a rather fine antique rug, brushing ash from the sleeves of his long pin-striped cloak, a lime-green bowler hat in his hand.

“Ah… Prime Minister,” said Cornelius Fudge, striding forward with his hand outstretched. “Good to see you again.”

The Prime Minister could not honestly return this compliment, so said nothing at all. He was not remotely pleased to see Fudge, whose occasional appearances, apart from being downright alarming in themselves, generally meant that he was about to hear some very bad news.

Furthermore, Fudge was looking distinctly careworn. He was thinner, balder, and grayer, and his face had a crumpled look. The Prime Minister had seen that kind of look in politicians before, and it never boded well.

“How can I help you?” he said, shaking Fudge’s hand very briefly and gesturing toward the hardest of the chairs in front of the desk.

“Difficult to know where to begin,” muttered Fudge, pulling up the chair, sitting down, and placing his green bowler upon his knees. “What a week, what a week…”

“Had a bad one too, have you?” asked the Prime Minister stiffly, hoping to convey by this that he had quite enough on his plate already without any extra helpings from Fudge.

“Yes, of course,” said Fudge, rubbing his eyes wearily and looking morosely at the Prime Minister. “I’ve been having the same week you have, Prime Minister. The Brockdale Bridge… the Bones and Vance murders… not to mention the ruckus in the West Country…”

“You–er–your–I mean to say, some of your people were–were involved in those–those things, were they?”

Fudge fixed the Prime Minister with a rather stern look. “Of course they were,” he said, “Surely you’ve realized what’s going on?”

“I…” hesitated the Prime Minister.

It was precisely this sort of behavior that made him dislike Fudge’s visits so much. He was, after all, the Prime Minister and did not appreciate being made to feel like an ignorant schoolboy. But of course, it had been like this from his very first meeting with Fudge on his very first evening as Prime Minister. He remembered it as though it were yesterday and knew it would haunt him until his dying day.

He had been standing alone in this very office, savoring the triumph that was his after so many years of dreaming and scheming, when he had heard a cough behind him, just like tonight, and turned to find that ugly little portrait talking to him, announcing that the Minister of Magic was about to arrive and introduce himself.

Naturally, he had thought that the long campaign and the strain of the election had caused him to go mad. He had been utterly terrified to find a portrait talking to him, though this had been nothing to how he felt when a self-proclaimed wizard had bounced out of the fireplace and shaken his hand.

He had remained speechless throughout Fudge’s kindly explanation that there were witches and wizards still living in secret all over the world and his reassurances that he was not to bother his head about them as the Ministry of Magic took responsibility for the whole Wizarding community and prevented the non-magical population from getting wind of them.

It was, said Fudge, a difficult job that encompassed everything from regulations on responsible use of broomsticks to keeping the dragon population under control (the Prime Minister remembered clutching the desk for support at this point). Fudge had then patted the shoulder of the still-dumbstruck Prime Minister in a fatherly sort of way.

“Not to worry,” he had said, “it’s odds-on you’ll never see me again. I’ll only bother you if there’s something really serious going on our end, something that’s likely to affect the Muggles–the non-magical population, I should say. Otherwise, it’s live and let live. And I must say, you’re taking it a lot better than your predecessor. He tried to throw me out the window, thought I was a hoax planned by the opposition.”

At this, the Prime Minister had found his voice at last. “You’re–you’re not a hoax, then?”

It had been his last, desperate hope.

“No,” said Fudge gently. “No, I’m afraid I’m not. Look.”

And he had turned the Prime Minister’s teacup into a gerbil.

“But,” said the Prime Minister breathlessly, watching his teacup chewing on the corner of his next speech, “but why–why has nobody told me–?”

“The Minister of Magic only reveals him–or herself to the Muggle Prime Minister of the day,” said Fudge, poking his wand back inside his jacket. “We find it the best way to maintain secrecy.”

“But then,” bleated the Prime Minister, “why hasn’t a former Prime Minister warned me–?”

At this, Fudge had actually laughed.

“My dear Prime Minister, are you ever going to tell anybody?”

Still chortling, Fudge had thrown some powder into the fireplace, stepped into the emerald flames, and vanished with a whooshing sound. The Prime Minister had stood there, quite motionless, and realized that he would never, as long as he lived, dare mention this encounter to a living soul, for who in the wide world would believe him?

The shock had taken a little while to wear off. For a time, he had tried to convince himself that Fudge had indeed been a hallucination brought on by lack of sleep during his grueling election campaign. In a vain attempt to rid himself of all reminders of this uncomfortable encounter, he had given the gerbil to his delighted niece and instructed his private secretary to take down the portrait of the ugly little man who had announced Fudge’s arrival.

To the Prime Minister’s dismay, however, the portrait had proved impossible to remove. When several carpenters, a builder or two, an art historian, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer had all tried unsuccessfully to prise it from the wall, the Prime Minister had abandoned the attempt and simply resolved to hope that the thing remained motionless and silent for the rest of his term in office.

Occasionally he could have sworn he saw out of the corner of his eye the occupant of the painting yawning, or else scratching his nose; even, once or twice, simply walking out of his frame and leaving nothing but a stretch of muddy-brown canvas behind. However, he had trained himself not to look at the picture very much, and always to tell himself firmly that his eyes were playing tricks on him when anything like this happened.

Then, three years ago, on a night very like tonight, the Prime Minister had been alone in his office when the portrait had once again announced the imminent arrival of Fudge, who had burst out of the fireplace, sopping wet and in a state of considerable panic. Before the Prime Minister could ask why he was dripping all over the Axminster, Fudge had started ranting about a prison the Prime Minister had never heard of, a man named “Serious” Black, something that sounded like “Hogwarts,” and a boy called Harry Potter, none of which made the remotest sense to the Prime Minister.

“…I’ve just come from Azkaban,” Fudge had panted, tipping a large amount of water out of the rim of his bowler hat into his pocket. “Middle of the North Sea , you know, nasty flight… the dementors are in uproar”–he shuddered–“they’ve never had a breakout before.

Anyway, I had to come to you, Prime Minister. Black’s a known Muggle killer and may be planning to rejoin You-Know-Who…. But of course, you don’t even know who You-Know-Who is!” He had gazed hopelessly at the Prime Minister for a moment, then said, “Well, sit down, sit down, I’d better fill you in… Have a whiskey…”

The Prime Minister rather resented being told to sit down in his own office, let alone offered his own whiskey, but he sat nevertheless. Fudge pulled out his wand, conjured two large glasses full of amber liquid out of thin air, pushed one of them into the Prime Minister’s hand, and drew up a chair.

Fudge had talked for more than an hour. At one point, he had refused to say a certain name aloud and wrote it instead on a piece of parchment, which he had thrust into the Prime Minister’s whiskey-free hand. When at last Fudge had stood up to leave, the Prime Minister had stood up too.

“So you think that…” He had squinted down at the name in his left hand. “Lord Vol–”

“He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named!” snarled Fudge.

“I’m sorry… You think that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is still alive, then?”

“Well, Dumbledore says he is,” said Fudge, as he had fastened his pin-striped cloak under his chin, “but we’ve never found him. If you ask me, he’s not dangerous unless he’s got support, so it’s Black we ought to be worrying about. You’ll put out that warning, then? Excellent. Well, I hope we don’t see each other again, Prime Minister! Good night.”

But they had seen each other again. Less than a year later a harassed-looking Fudge had appeared out of thin air in the cabinet room to inform the Prime Minister that there had been a spot of bother at the Quidditch (or that was what it had sounded like) World Cup and that several Muggles had been “involved,” but that the Prime Minister was not to worry, the fact that You-Know-Who’s Mark had been seen again meant nothing; Fudge was sure it was an isolated incident, and the Muggle Liaison Office was dealing with all memory modifications as they spoke.

“Oh, and I almost forgot,” Fudge had added. “We’re importing three foreign dragons and a sphinx for the Triwizard Tournament, quite routine, but the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures tells me that its down in the rule book that we have to notify you if we’re bringing highly dangerous creatures into the country.”

“I–what–dragons?” spluttered the Prime Minister.

“Yes, three,” said Fudge. “And a sphinx. Well, good day to you.”

The Prime Minister had hoped beyond hope that dragons and sphinxes would be the worst of it, but no. Less than two years later, Fudge had erupted out of the fire yet again, this time with the news that there had been a mass breakout from Azkaban.

“A mass breakout?” repeated the Prime Minister hoarsely.

“No need to worry, no need to worry!” shouted Fudge, already with one foot in the flames. “We’ll have them rounded up in no time–just thought you ought to know!”

And before the Prime Minister could shout, “Now, wait just one moment!” Fudge had vanished in a shower of green sparks.

Whatever the press and the opposition might say, the Prime Minister was not a foolish man. It had not escaped his notice that, despite Fudge’s assurances at their first meeting, they were now seeing rather a lot of each other, nor that Fudge was becoming more flustered with each visit.

Little though he liked to think about the Minister of Magic (or, as he always called Fudge in his head, the Other Minister), the Prime Minister could not help but fear that the next time Fudge appeared it would be with graver news still. The site, therefore, of Fudge stepping out of the fire once more, looking disheveled and fretful and sternly surprised that the Prime Minister did not know exactly why he was there, was about the worst thing that had happened in the course of this extremely gloomy week.

“How should I know what’s going on in the–er–Wizarding community?” snapped the Prime Minister now. “I have a country to run and quite enough concerns at the moment without–”

“We have the same concerns,” Fudge interrupted. “The Brock-dale Bridge didn’t wear out. That wasn’t really a hurricane. Those murders were not the work of Muggles. And Herbert Chorley’s family would be safer without him. We are currently making arrangements to have him transferred to St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. The move should be effected tonight.”

“What do you… I’m afraid I … What?” blustered the Prime Minister.

Fudge took a great, deep breath and said, “Prime Minister, I am very sorry to have to tell you that he’s back. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is back.”

“Back? When you say ‘back’… he’s alive? I mean–”

The Prime Minister groped in his memory for the details of that horrible conversation of three years previously, when Fudge had told him about the wizard who was feared above all others, the wizard who had committed a thousand terrible crimes before his mysterious disappearance fifteen years earlier.

“Yes, alive,” said Fudge. “That is–I don’t know–is a man alive if he can’t be killed? I don’t really understand it, and Dumbledore won’t explain properly–but anyway, he’s certainly got a body and is walking and talking and killing, so I suppose, for the purposes of our discussion, yes, he’s alive.”

The Prime Minister did not know what to say to this, but a persistent habit of wishing to appear well-informed on any subject that came up made him cast around for any details he could remember of their previous conversations.

“Is Serious Black with–er–He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?”

“Black? Black?” said Fudge distractedly, turning his bowler rapidly in his fingers. “Sirius Black, you mean? Merlin’s beard, no. Black’s dead. Turns out we were–er–mistaken about Black. He was innocent after all. And he wasn’t in league with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named either. I mean,” he added defensively, spinning the bowler hat still faster, “all the evidence pointed–we had more than fifty eyewitnesses–but anyway, as I say, he’s dead. Murdered, as a matter of fact. On Ministry of Magic premises. There’s going to be an inquiry, actually…”

To his great surprise, the Prime Minister felt a fleeting stab of pity for Fudge at this point. It was, however, eclipsed almost immediately by a glow of smugness at the thought that, deficient though he himself might be in the area of materializing out of fireplaces, there had never been a murder in any of the government departments under his charge… Not yet, anyway…

While the Prime Minister surreptitiously touched the wood of his desk, Fudge continued, “But Blacks by-the-by now. The point is, we’re at war, Prime Minister, and steps must be taken.”

“At war?” repeated the Prime Minister nervously. “Surely that’s a little bit of an overstatement?”

“He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has now been joined by those of his followers who broke out of Azkaban in January,” said Fudge, speaking more and more rapidly and twirling his bowler so fast that it was a lime-green blur. “Since they have moved into the open, they have been wreaking havoc. The Brockdale Bridge –he did it, Prime Minister, he threatened a mass Muggle killing unless I stood aside for him and–”

“Good grief, so it’s your fault those people were killed and I’m having to answer questions about rusted rigging and corroded expansion joints and I don’t know what else!” said the Prime Minister furiously.

“My fault!” said Fudge, coloring up. “Are you saying you would have caved in to blackmail like that?”

“Maybe not,” said the Prime Minister, standing up and striding about the room, “but I would have put all my efforts into catching the blackmailer before he committed any such atrocity!”

“Do you really think I wasn’t already making every effort?” demanded Fudge heatedly. “Every Auror in the Ministry was–and is–trying to find him and round up his followers, but we happen to be talking about one of the most powerful wizards of all time, a wizard who has eluded capture for almost three decades!”

“So I suppose you’re going to tell me he caused the hurricane in the West Country too?” said the Prime Minister, his temper rising with every pace he took. It was infuriating to discover the reason for all these terrible disasters and not to be able to tell the public, almost worse than it being the government’s fault after all.

“That was no hurricane,” said Fudge miserably.

“Excuse me!” barked the Prime Minister, now positively stamping up and down. “Trees uprooted, roofs ripped off, lampposts bent, horrible injuries–”

“It was the Death Eaters,” said Fudge. “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s followers. And… and we suspect giant involvement.”

The Prime Minister stopped in his tracks as though he had hit an invisible wall. “What involvement?”

Fudge grimaced. “He used giants last time, when he wanted to go for the grand effect,” he said. “The Office of Misinformation has been working around the clock, we’ve had teams of Obliviators out trying to modify the memories of all the Muggles who saw what really happened, we’ve got most of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures running around Somerset , but we can’t find the giant–it’s been a disaster.”

“You don’t say!” said the Prime Minister furiously.

“I won’t deny that morale is pretty low at the Ministry,” said Fudge. “What with all that, and then losing Amelia Bones.”

“Losing who?”

“Amelia Bones. Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. We think He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named may have murdered her in person, because she was a very gifted witch and–and all the evidence was that she put up a real fight.”

Fudge cleared his throat and, with an effort, it seemed, stopped spinning his bowler hat.

“But that murder was in the newspapers,” said the Prime Minister, momentarily diverted from his anger. “Our newspapers. Amelia Bones… it just said she was a middle-aged woman who lived alone. It was a–a nasty killing, wasn’t it? It’s had rather a lot of publicity. The police are baffled, you see.”

Fudge sighed. “Well, of course they are,” he said. “Killed in a room that was locked from the inside, wasn’t she? We, on the other hand, know exactly who did it, not that that gets us any further toward catching him. And then there was Emmeline Vance, maybe you didn’t hear about that one–”

“Oh yes I did!” said the Prime Minister. “It happened just around the corner from here, as a matter of fact. The papers had a field day with it, ‘breakdown of law and order in the Prime Minister’s backyard–‘”

“And as if all that wasn’t enough,” said Fudge, barely listening to the Prime Minister, “we’ve got dementors swarming all over the place, attacking people left, right, and center…”

Once upon a happier time this sentence would have been unintelligible to the Prime Minister, but he was wiser now.

“I thought dementors guard the prisoners in Azkaban,” he said cautiously.

“They did,” said Fudge wearily. “But not anymore. They’ve deserted the prison and joined He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. I won’t pretend that wasn’t a blow.”

“But,” said the Prime Minister, with a sense of dawning horror, “didn’t you tell me they’re the creatures that drain hope and happiness out of people?”

“That’s right. And they’re breeding. That’s what’s causing all this mist.”

The Prime Minister sank, weak-kneed, into the nearest chair. The idea of invisible creatures swooping through the towns and countryside, spreading despair and hopelessness in his voters, made him feel quite faint.

“Now see here, Fudge–you’ve got to do something! It’s your responsibility as Minister of Magic!”

“My dear Prime Minister, you can’t honestly think I’m still Minister of Magic after all this? I was sacked three days ago! The whole Wizarding community has been screaming for my resignation for a fortnight. I’ve never known them so united in my whole term of office!” said Fudge, with a brave attempt at a smile.

The Prime Minister was momentarily lost for words. Despite his indignation at the position into which he had been placed, he still rather felt for the shrunken-looking man sitting opposite him.

“I’m very sorry,” he said finally. “If there’s anything I can do?”

“It’s very kind of you, Prime Minister, but there is nothing. I was sent here tonight to bring you up to date on recent events and to introduce you to my successor. I rather thought he’d be here by now, but of course, he’s very busy at the moment, with so much going on.”

Fudge looked around at the portrait of the ugly little man wearing the long curly silver wig, who was digging in his ear with the point of a quill. Catching Fudge’s eye, the portrait said, “He’ll be here in a moment, he’s just finishing a letter to Dumbledore.”

“I wish him luck,” said Fudge, sounding bitter for the first time. “I’ve been writing to Dumbledore twice a day for the past fortnight, but he won’t budge. If he’d just been prepared to persuade the boy, I might still be… Well, maybe Scrimgeour will have more success.”

Fudge subsided into what was clearly an aggrieved silence, but it was broken almost immediately by the portrait, which suddenly spoke in its crisp, official voice.

“To the Prime Minister of Muggles. Requesting a meeting. Urgent. Kindly respond immediately. Rufus Scrimgeour, Minister of Magic.”

“Yes, yes, fine,” said the Prime Minister distractedly, and he barely flinched as the flames in the grate turned emerald green again, rose up, and revealed a second spinning wizard in their heart, disgorging him moments later onto the antique rug.

Fudge got to his feet and, after a moment’s hesitation, the Prime Minister did the same, watching the new arrival straighten up, dust down his long black robes, and look around.

The Prime Minister’s first, foolish thought was that Rufus Scrimgeour looked rather like an old lion. There were streaks of gray in his mane of tawny hair and his bushy eyebrows; he had keen yellowish eyes behind a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles and a certain rangy, loping grace even though he walked with a slight limp. There was an immediate impression of shrewdness and toughness; the Prime Minister thought he understood why the Wizarding community preferred Scrimgeour to Fudge as a leader in these dangerous times.

“How do you do?” said the Prime Minister politely, holding out his hand.

Scrimgeour grasped it briefly, his eyes scanning the room, then pulled out a wand from under his robes.

“Fudge told you everything?” he asked, striding over to the door and tapping the keyhole with his wand. The Prime Minister heard the lock click.

“Er–yes,” said the Prime Minister. “And if you don’t mind, I’d rather that door remained unlocked.”

“I’d rather not be interrupted,” said Scrimgeour shortly, “or watched,” he added, pointing his wand at the windows, so that the curtains swept across them. “Right, well, I’m a busy man, so let’s get down to business. First of all, we need to discuss your security.”

The Prime Minister drew himself up to his fullest height and replied, “I am perfectly happy with the security I’ve already got, thank you very–”

“Well, we’re not,” Scrimgeour cut in. “It’ll be a poor lookout for the Muggles if their Prime Minister gets put under the Imperius Curse. The new secretary in your outer office–”

“I’m not getting rid of Kingsley Shacklebolt, if that’s what you’re suggesting!” said the Prime Minister hotly. “He’s highly efficient, gets through twice the work the rest of them–”

“That’s because he’s a wizard,” said Scrimgeour, without a flicker of a smile. “A highly trained Auror, who has been assigned to you for your protection.”

“Now, wait a moment!” declared the Prime Minister. “You can’t just put your people into my office, I decide who works for me–”

“I thought you were happy with Shacklebolt?” said Scrimgeour coldly.

“I am–that’s to say, I was–”

“Then there’s no problem, is there?” said Scrimgeour.

“I… well, as long as Shacklebolt’s work continues to be… er… excellent,” said the Prime Minister lamely, but Scrimgeour barely seemed to hear him.

“Now, about Herbert Chorley, your Junior Minister,” he continued. “The one who has been entertaining the public by impersonating a duck.”

“What about him?” asked the Prime Minister.

“He has clearly reacted to a poorly performed Imperius Curse,” said Scrimgeour. “It’s addled his brains, but he could still be dangerous.”

“He’s only quacking!” said the Prime Minister weakly. “Surely a bit of a rest… Maybe go easy on the drink…”

“A team of Healers from St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries are examining him as we speak. So far he has attempted to strangle three of them,” said Scrimgeour. “I think it best that we remove him from Muggle society for a while.”

“I… well… He’ll be all right, won’t he?” said the Prime Minister anxiously.

Scrimgeour merely shrugged, already moving back toward the fireplace.

“Well, that’s really all I had to say. I will keep you posted of developments, Prime Minister–or, at least, I shall probably be too busy to come personally, in which case I shall send Fudge here. He has consented to stay on in an advisory capacity.”

Fudge attempted to smile, but was unsuccessful; he merely looked as though he had a toothache. Scrimgeour was already rummaging in his pocket for the mysterious powder that turned the fire green. The Prime Minister gazed hopelessly at the pair of them for a moment, then the words he had fought to suppress all evening burst from him at last.

“But for heaven’s sake–you’re wizards! You can do magic! Surely you can sort out–well–anything!”

Scrimgeour turned slowly on the spot and exchanged an incredulous look with Fudge, who really did manage a smile this time as he said kindly, “The trouble is, the other side can do magic too, Prime Minister.”

And with that, the two wizards stepped one after the other into the bright green fire and vanished.

CHAPTER 2

Spinner’s End

Many miles away the chilly mist that had pressed against the Prime Minister’s windows drifted over a dirty river that wound between overgrown, rubbish-strewn banks. An immense chimney, relic of a disused mill, reared up, shadowy and ominous. There was no sound apart from the whisper of the black water and no sign of life apart from a scrawny fox that had slunk down the bank to nose hopefully at some old fish-and-chip wrappings in the tall grass.

But then, with a very faint pop, a slim, hooded figure appeared out of thin air on the edge of the river. The fox froze, wary eyes fixed upon this strange new phenomenon. The figure seemed to take its bearings for a few moments, then set off with light, quick strides, its long cloak rustling over the grass.

With a second and louder pop, another hooded figure materialized.

“Wait!”

The harsh cry startled the fox, now crouching almost flat in the undergrowth. It leapt from its hiding place and up the bank. There was a flash of green light, a yelp, and the fox fell back to the ground, dead.

The second figure turned over the animal with its toe.

“Just a fox,” said a woman’s voice dismissively from under the hood. “I thought perhaps an Auror–Cissy, wait!”

But her quarry, who had paused and looked back at the flash of light, was already scrambling up the bank the fox had just fallen down.

“Cissy–Narcissa–listen to me–”

The second woman caught the first and seized her arm, but the other wrenched it away.

“Go back, Bella!”

“You must listen to me!”

“I’ve listened already. I’ve made my decision. Leave me alone!”

The woman named Narcissa gained the top of the bank, where a line of old railings separated the river from a narrow, cobbled street. The other woman, Bella, followed at once. Side by side they stood looking across the road at the rows and rows of dilapidated brick houses, their windows dull and blind in the darkness.

“He lives here?” asked Bella in a voice of contempt. “Here? In this Muggle dunghill? We must be the first of our kind ever to set foot–”

But Narcissa was not listening; she had slipped through a gap in the rusty railings and was already hurrying across the road.

“Cissy, wait!”

Bella followed, her cloak streaming behind, and saw Narcissa darting through an alley between the houses into a second, almost identical street. Some of the streetlamps were broken; the two women were running between patches of light and deep darkness. The pursuer caught up with her prey just as she turned another corner, this time succeeding in catching hold of her arm and swinging her around so that they faced each other.

“Cissy, you must not do this, you can’t trust him–”

“The Dark Lord trusts him, doesn’t he?”

“The Dark Lord is… I believe… mistaken,” Bella panted, and her eyes gleamed momentarily under her hood as she looked around to check that they were indeed alone. “In any case, we were told not to speak of the plan to anyone. This is a betrayal of the Dark Lord’s–”

“Let go, Bella!” snarled Narcissa, and she drew a wand from beneath her cloak, holding it threateningly in the other’s face. Bella merely laughed.

“Cissy, your own sister? You wouldn’t–”

“There is nothing I wouldn’t do anymore!” Narcissa breathed, a note of hysteria in her voice, and as she brought down the wand like a knife, there was another flash of light. Bella let go of her sister’s arm as though burned.

“Narcissa!”

But Narcissa had rushed ahead. Rubbing her hand, her pursuer followed again, keeping her distance now, as they moved deeper into the deserted labyrinth of brick houses. At last, Narcissa hurried up a street named Spinner’s End, over which the towering mill chimney seemed to hover like a giant admonitory finger.

Her footsteps echoed on the cobbles as she passed boarded and broken windows, until she reached the very last house, where a dim light glimmered through the curtains in a downstairs room.

She had knocked on the door before Bella, cursing under her breath, had caught up. Together they stood waiting, panting slightly, breathing in the smell of the dirty river that was carried to them on the night breeze.

After a few seconds, they heard movement behind the door and it opened a crack. A sliver of a man could be seen looking out at them, a man with long black hair parted in curtains around a sallow face and black eyes.

Narcissa threw back her hood. She was so pale that she seemed to shine in the darkness; the long blonde hair streaming down her back gave her the look of a drowned person.

“Narcissa!” said the man, opening the door a little wider, so that the light fell upon her and her sister too. “What a pleasant surprise!

“Severus,” she said in a strained whisper. “May I speak to you? It’s urgent.”

“But of course.”

He stood back to allow her to pass him into the house. Her still-hooded sister followed without invitation.

“Snape,” she said curtly as she passed him.

“Bellatrix,” he replied, his thin mouth curling into a slightly mocking smile as he closed the door with a snap behind them.

They had stepped directly into a tiny sitting room, which had the feeling of a dark, padded cell. The walls were completely covered in books, most of them bound in old black or brown leather; a threadbare sofa, an old armchair, and a rickety table stood grouped together in a pool of dim light cast by a candle-filled lamp hung from the ceiling. The place had an air of neglect, as though it was not usually inhabited.

Snape gestured Narcissa to the sofa. She threw off her cloak, cast it aside, and sat down, staring at her white and trembling hands clasped in her lap. Bellatrix lowered her hood more slowly. Dark as her sister was fair, with heavily lidded eyes and a strong jaw, she did not take her gaze from Snape as she moved to stand behind Narcissa.

“So, what can I do for you?” Snape asked, settling himself in the armchair opposite the two sisters.

“We… we are alone, aren’t we?” Narcissa asked quietly.

‘Yes, of course. Well, Wormtail’s here, but we’re not counting vermin, are we?”

He pointed his wand at the wall of books behind him and with a bang, a hidden door flew open, revealing a narrow staircase upon which a small man stood frozen.

“As you have clearly realized, Wormtail, we have guests,” said Snape lazily.

The man crept, hunchbacked, down the last few steps and moved into the room. He had small, watery eyes, a pointed nose, and wore an unpleasant simper. His left hand was caressing his right, which looked as though it was encased in a bright silver glove.

“Narcissa!” he said, in a squeaky voice. “And Bellatrix! How charming–”

“Wormtail will get us drinks, if you’d like them,” said Snape. “And then he will return to his bedroom.”

Wormtail winced as though Snape had thrown something at him.

“I am not your servant!” he squeaked, avoiding Snape’s eye.

“Really? I was under the impression that the Dark Lord placed you here to assist me.”

“To assist, yes–but not to make you drinks and–and clean your house!”

“I had no idea, Wormtail, that you were craving more dangerous assignments,” said Snape silkily. “This can be easily arranged: I shall speak to the Dark Lord–”

“I can speak to him myself if I want to!”

“Of course you can,” said Snape, sneering. “But in the meantime, bring us drinks. Some of the elf-made wine will do.”

Wormtail hesitated for a moment, looking as though he might argue, but then turned and headed through a second hidden door. They heard banging and a clinking of glasses. Within seconds he was back, bearing a dusty bottle and three glasses upon a tray. He dropped these on the rickety table and scurried from their presence, slamming the book-covered door behind him.

Snape poured out three glasses of bloodred wine and handed two of them to the sisters. Narcissa murmured a word of thanks, whilst Bellatrix said nothing, but continued to glower at Snape. This did not seem to discompose him; on the contrary, he looked rather amused.

“The Dark Lord,” he said, raising his glass and draining it.

The sisters copied him. Snape refilled their glasses. As Narcissa took her second drink she said in a rush, “Severus, I’m sorry to come here like this, but I had to see you. I think you are the only one who can help me–”

Snape held up a hand to stop her, then pointed his wand again at the concealed staircase door. There was a loud bang and a squeal, followed by the sound of Wormtail scurrying back up the stairs.

“My apologies,” said Snape. “He has lately taken to listening at doors, I don’t know what he means by it… You were saying, Narcissa?”

She took a great, shuddering breath and started again.

“Severus, I know I ought not to be here, I have been told to say nothing to anyone, but–”

“Then you ought to hold your tongue!” snarled Bellatrix. “Particularly in present company!”

‘”Present company’?” repeated Snape sardonically. “And what urn I to understand by that, Bellatrix?”

“That I don’t trust you, Snape, as you very well know!”

Narcissa let out a noise that might have been a dry sob and covered her face with her hands. Snape set his glass down upon the table and sat back again, his hands upon the arms of his chair, smiling into Bellatrix’s glowering face.

“Narcissa, I think we ought to hear what Bellatrix is bursting to say; it will save tedious interruptions. Well, continue, Bellatrix,” said Snape. “Why is it that you do not trust me?”

“A hundred reasons!” she said loudly, striding out from behind the sofa to slam her glass upon the table. “Where to start! Where were you when the Dark Lord fell? Why did you never make any attempt to find him when he vanished? What have you been doing all these years that you’ve lived in Dumbledore’s pocket? Why did you stop the Dark Lord procuring the Sorcerer’s Stone? Why did you not return at once when the Dark Lord was reborn? Where were you a few weeks ago when we battled to retrieve the prophecy for the Dark Lord? And why, Snape, is Harry Potter still alive, when you have had him at your mercy for five years?”

She paused, her chest rising and falling rapidly, the color high in her cheeks. Behind her, Narcissa sat motionless, her face still hidden in her hands.

Snape smiled.

“Before I answer you â oh yes, Bellatrix, I am going to answer! You can carry my words back to the others who whisper behind my back, and carry false tales of my treachery to the Dark Lord! Before I answer you, I say, let me ask a question in turn. Do you really think that the Dark Lord has not asked me each and every one of those questions? And do you really think that, had I not been able to give satisfactory answers, I would be sitting here talking to you?”

She hesitated.

“I know he believes you, but. . .”

“You think he is mistaken? Or that I have somehow hoodwinked him? Fooled the Dark Lord, the greatest wizard, the most accomplished Legilimens the world has ever seen?”

Bellatrix said nothing, but looked, for the first time, a little discomfited. Snape did not press the point. He picked up his drink again, sipped it, and continued, “You ask where I was when the Dark Lord fell. I was where he had ordered me to be, at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, because he wished me to spy upon Albus Dumbledore. You know, I presume, that it was on the Dark Lord’s orders that I took up the post?”

She nodded almost imperceptibly and then opened her mouth, but Snape forestalled her.

“You ask why I did not attempt to find him when he vanished. For the same reason that Avery, Yaxley, the Carrows, Greyback, Lucius” â he inclined his head slightly to Narcissa â “and many others did not attempt to find him. I believed him finished. I am not proud of it, I was wrong, but there it is. … If he had not forgiven we who lost faith at that time, he would have very few followers left.”

“He’d have me!” said Bellatrix passionately. “I, who spent many years in Azkaban for him!”

“Yes, indeed, most admirable,” said Snape in a bored voice. “Of i nurse, you weren’t a lot of use to him in prison, but the gesture was undoubtedly fine â”

“Gesture!” she shrieked; in her fury she looked slightly mad. “While I endured the dementors, you remained at Hogwarts, comfortably playing Dumbledore’s pet!”

“Not quite,” said Snape calmly. “He wouldn’t give me the Defense Against the Dark Arts job, you know. Seemed to think it might, ah, bring about a relapse , . . tempt me into my old ways.”

“This was your sacrifice for the Dark Lord, not to teach your favorite subject?” she jeered. “Why did you stay there all that time, Snape? Still spying on Dumbledore for a master you believed dead?”

“Hardly,” said Snape, “although the Dark Lord is pleased that I never deserted my post: I had sixteen years of information on Dumbledore to give him when he returned, a rather more useful welcome-back present than endless reminiscences of how unpleasant Azkaban is. . . .”

“But you stayed â”

“Yes, Bellatrix, I stayed,” said Snape, betraying a hint of impatience for the first time. “I had a comfortable job that I preferred to a stint in Azkaban. They were rounding up the Death Eaters, you know. Dumbledore’s protection kept me out of jail; it was most convenient and I used it. I repeat: The Dark Lord does not complain that I stayed, so I do not see why you do.

“I think you next wanted to know,” he pressed on a little more loudly, for Bellatrix showed every sign of interrupting, “why I stood between the Dark Lord and the Sorcerer’s Stone. That is easily answered. He did not know whether he could trust me. He thought, like you, that I had turned from faithful Death Eater to Dumbledore’s stooge. He was in a pitiable condition, very weak, sharing the body of a mediocre wizard. He did not dare reveal himself to a former ally if that ally might turn him over to Dumbledore or the Ministry.

I deeply regret that he did not trust me. He would have returned to power three years sooner. As it was, I saw only greedy and unworthy Quirrell attempting to steal the stone and, I admit, I did all I could to thwart him.”

Bellatrix’s mouth twisted as though she had taken an unpleasant dose of medicine.

“But you didn’t return when he came back, you didn’t fly back to him at once when you felt the Dark Mark burn â”

“Correct. I returned two hours later. I returned on Dumbledore’s orders.”

“On Dumbledore’s â ?” she began, in tones of outrage.

“Think!” said Snape, impatient again. “Think! By waiting two hours, just two hours, I ensured that I could remain at Hogwarts as a spy! By allowing Dumbledore to think that I was only returning to the Dark Lord’s side because I was ordered to, I have been able to pass information on Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix ever since! Consider, Bellatrix: The Dark Mark had been growing stronger for months. I knew he must be about to return, all the Death Eaters knew! I had plenty of time to think about what I wanted to do, to plan my next move, to escape like Karkaroff, didn’t I?

“The Dark Lord’s initial displeasure at my lateness vanished entirely, 1 assure you, when I explained that 1 remained faithful, although Dumbledore thought I was his man. Yes, the Dark Lord thought that I had left him forever, but he was wrong.”

“But what use have you been?” sneered Bellatrix. “What useful information have we had from you?”

“My information has been conveyed directly to the Dark Lord,” said Snape. “If he chooses not to share it with you â”

“He shares everything with me!” said Bellatrix, firing up at once. “He calls me his most loyal, his most faithful â”

“Does he?” said Snape, his voice delicately inflected to suggest his disbelief. “Does he still, after the fiasco at the Ministry?”

“That was not my fault!” said Bellatrix, flushing. “The Dark Lord has, in the past, entrusted me with his most precious â if Lucius hadn’t â”

“Don’t you dare â don’t you dare blame my husband!” said Narcissa, in a low and deadly voice, looking up at her sister.

“There is no point apportioning blame,” said Snape smoothly. “What is done, is done.”

“But not by you!” said Bellatrix furiously. “No, you were once again absent while the rest of us ran dangers, were you not, Snape?”

“My orders were to remain behind,” said Snape. “Perhaps you disagree with the Dark Lord, perhaps you think that Dumbledore would not have noticed if I had joined forces with the Death Eaters to fight the Order of the Phoenix ? And â forgive me â you speak of dangers . . . you were facing six teenagers, were you not?”

“They were joined, as you very well know, by half of the Order before long!” snarled Bellatrix. “And, while we are on the subject of the Order, you still claim you cannot reveal the whereabouts of their headquarters, don’t you?”

“I am not the Secret-Keeper; I cannot speak the name of the place. You understand how the enchantment works, I think? The Dark Lord is satisfied with the information I have passed him on the Order. It led, as perhaps you have guessed, to the recent capture and murder of Emmeline Vance, and it certainly helped dispose of Sirius Black, though I give you full credit for finishing him off.”

He inclined his head and toasted her. Her expression did nor soften.

“You are avoiding my last question, Snape. Harry Potter. You could have killed him at any point in the past five years. You have not done it. Why?”

“Have you discussed this matter with the Dark Lord?” asked Snape.

“He . . . lately, we … I am asking you, Snape!”

“If I had murdered Harry Potter, the Dark Lord could not have used his blood to regenerate, making him invincible â”

“You claim you foresaw his use of the boy!” she jeered.

“I do not claim it; I had no idea of his plans; I have already confessed that I thought the Dark Lord dead. I am merely trying to explain why the Dark Lord is not sorry that Potter survived, at least until a year ago. . . .”

“But why did you keep him alive?”

“Have you not understood me? It was only Dumbledore’s protection that was keeping me out of Azkaban! Do you disagree that murdering his favorite student might have turned him against me? But there was more to it than that.

I should remind you that when Potter first arrived at Hogwarts there were still many stories circulating about him, rumors that he himself was a great Dark wizard, which was how he had survived the Dark Lord’s attack. Indeed, many of the Dark Lords old followers thought Potter might be a standard around which we could all rally once more. I was curious, 1 admit it, and not at all inclined to murder him the moment he set fool in the castle.

“Of course, it became apparent to me very quickly that he had no extraordinary talent at all. He has fought his way out of a number of tight corners by a simple combination of sheer luck and more talented friends. He is mediocre to the last degree, though as obnoxious and self-satisfied as was his father before him. I have done my utmost to have him thrown out of Hogwarts, where I believe he scarcely belongs, but kill him, or allow him to be killed in front of me? I would have been a fool to risk it with Dumbledore close at hand.”

“And through all this we are supposed to believe Dumbledore has never suspected you?” asked Bellatrix. “He has no idea of your true allegiance, he trusts you implicitly still?”

“I have played my part well,” said Snape. “And you overlook Dumbledore’s greatest weakness: He has to believe the best of people. I spun him a tale of deepest remorse when I joined his staff, fresh from my Death Eater days, and he embraced me with open arms â though, as I say, never allowing me nearer the Dark Arts than he could help.

Dumbledore has been a great wizard â oh yes, he has,” (for Bellatrix had made a scathing noise), “the Dark Lord acknowledges it. I am pleased to say, however, that Dumbledore is growing old. The duel with the Dark Lord last month shook him. He has since sustained a serious injury because his reactions are slower than they once were. But through all these years, he has never stopped trusting Severus Snape, and therein lies my great value to the Dark Lord.”

Bellatrix still looked unhappy, though she appeared unsure how best to attack Snape next. Taking advantage of her silence, Snape turned to her sister.

“Now . . . you came to ask me for help, Narcissa?”

Narcissa looked up at him, her face eloquent with despair.

“Yes, Severus. I â I think you are the only one who can help me, I have nowhere else to turn. Lucius is in jail and . . .”

She closed her eyes and two large tears seeped from beneath her eyelids.

“The Dark Lord has forbidden me to speak of it,” Narcissa continued, her eyes still closed. “He wishes none to know of the plan. It is … very secret. But â”

“If he has forbidden it, you ought not to speak,” said Snape at once. “The Dark Lord’s word is law.”

Narcissa gasped as though he had doused her with cold water. Bellatrix looked satisfied for the first time since she had entered the house.

“There!” she said triumphantly to her sister. “Even Snape says so: You were told not to talk, so hold your silence!”

But Snape had gotten to his feet and strode to the small window, peered through the curtains at the deserted street, then closed them again with a jerk. He turned around to face Narcissa, frowning.

“It so happens that I know of the plan,” he said in a low voice. “I am one of the few the Dark Lord has told. Nevertheless, had I not been in on the secret, Narcissa, you would have been guilty of great treachery to the Dark Lord.”

“I thought you must know about it!” said Narcissa, breathing more freely. “He trusts you so, Severus. …”

“You know about the plan?” said Bellatrix, her fleeting expression of satisfaction replaced by a look of outrage. “You know?”

“Certainly,” said Snape. “But what help do you require, Nar-cissa? If you are imagining I can persuade the Dark Lord to change his mind, I am afraid there is no hope, none at all.”

“Severus,” she whispered, tears sliding down her pale cheeks. “My son . . . my only son . . .”

“Draco should be proud,” said Bellatrix indifferently. “The Dark Lord is granting him a great honor. And I will say this for Draco: he isn’t shrinking away from his duty, he seems glad of a chance to prove himself, excited at the prospect â”

Narcissa began to cry in earnest, gazing beseechingly all the while at Snape.

“That’s because he is sixteen and has no idea what lies in store! Why, Severus? Why my son? It is too dangerous! This is vengeance lor Lucius’s mistake, I know it!”

Snape said nothing. He looked away from the sight of her tears as though they were indecent, but he could not pretend not to hear her.

“That’s why he’s chosen Draco, isn’t it?” she persisted. “To punish Lucius?”

“If Draco succeeds,” said Snape, still looking away from her, “he will be honored above all others.”

“But he won’t succeed!” sobbed Narcissa. “How can he, when the Dark Lord himself â ?”

Bellatrix gasped; Narcissa seemed to lose her nerve.

“I only meant. . . that nobody has yet succeeded. . . . Severus . . . please . . . You are, you have always been, Draco’s favorite teacher. . . . You are Lucius’s old friend. … I beg you. .. . You are the Dark Lord’s favorite, his most trusted advisor. . . . Will you speak to him, persuade him â ?”

“The Dark Lord will not be persuaded, and I am not stupid enough to attempt it,” said Snape flatly. “I cannot pretend that the Dark Lord is not angry with Lucius. Lucius was supposed to be in charge. He got himself captured, along with how many others, and failed to retrieve the prophecy into the bargain. Yes, the Dark Lord is angry, Narcissa, very angry indeed.”

“Then I am right, he has chosen Draco in revenge!” choked Narcissa. “He does not mean him to succeed, he wants him to be killed trying!”

When Snape said nothing, Narcissa seemed to lose what little self-restraint she still possessed. Standing up, she staggered to Snape and seized the front of his robes. Her face close to his, her tears falling onto his chest, she gasped, “You could do it. You could do it instead of Draco, Severus. You would succeed, of course you would, and he would reward you beyond all of us â”

Snape caught hold of her wrists and removed her clutching hands. Looking down into her tearstained face, he said slowly, “He intends me to do it in the end, I think. But he is determined that Draco should try first. You see, in the unlikely event that Draco succeeds, I shall be able to remain at Hogwarts a little longer, fulfilling my useful role as spy.”

“In other words, it doesn’t matter to him if Draco is killed!”

“The Dark Lord is very angry,” repeated Snape quietly. “He failed to hear the prophecy. You know as well as I do, Narcissa, that he does not forgive easily.”

She crumpled, falling at his feet, sobbing and moaning on the floor.

“My only son . . . my only son . . .”

“You should be proud!” said Bellatrix ruthlessly. “If I had sons, I would be glad to give them up to the service of the Dark Lord!”

Narcissa gave a little scream of despair and clutched at her long blonde hair. Snape stooped, seized her by the arms, lifted her up, and steered her back onto the sofa. He then poured her more wine and forced the glass into her hand.

“Narcissa, that’s enough. Drink this. Listen to me.”

She quieted a little; slopping wine down herself, she took a shaky sip.

“It might be possible … for me to help Draco.”

She sat up, her face paper-white, her eyes huge.

“Severus â oh, Severus â you would help him? Would you look after him, see he comes to no harm?”

“I can try.”

She flung away her glass; it skidded across the table as she slid off the sofa into a kneeling position at Snape’s feet, seized his hand in both of hers, and pressed her lips to it.

“If you are there to protect him . . . Severus, will you swear it? Will you make the Unbreakable Vow?”

“The Unbreakable Vow?”

Snape’s expression was blank, unreadable. Bellatrix, however, let out a cackle of triumphant laughter.

“Aren’t you listening, Narcissa? Oh, he’ll try, I’m sure. . . . The usual empty words, the usual slithering out of action . . . oh, on the Dark Lord’s orders, of course!”

Snape did not look at Bellatrix. His black eyes were fixed upon Narcissa’s tear-filled blue ones as she continued to clutch his hand.

“Certainly, Narcissa, I shall make the Unbreakable Vow,” he said quietly. “Perhaps your sister will consent to be our Bonder.”

Bellatrix’s mouth fell open. Snape lowered himself so that he was kneeling opposite Narcissa. Beneath Bellatrix’s astonished gaze, they grasped right hands.

“You will need your wand, Bellatrix,” said Snape coldly.

She drew it, still looking astonished.

“And you will need to move a little closer,” he said.

She stepped forward so that she stood over them, and placed the tip of her wand on their linked hands.

Narcissa spoke.

“Will you, Severus, watch over my son, Draco, as he attempts to fulfill the Dark Lord’s wishes?”

“I will,” said Snape.

A thin tongue of brilliant flame issued from the wand and wound its way around their hands like a red-hot wire.

“And will you, to the best of your ability, protect him from harm?”

“I will,” said Snape.

A second tongue of flame shot from the wand and interlinked with the first, making a fine, glowing chain.

“And, should it prove necessary… if it seems Draco will fail. . .” whispered Narcissa (Snape’s hand twitched within hers, but he did not draw away), “will you carry out the deed that the Dark Lord has ordered Draco to perform?”

There was a moment’s silence. Bellatrix watched, her wand upon their clasped hands, her eyes wide.

“I will,” said Snape.

Bellatrix’s astounded face glowed red in the blaze of a third unique of flame, which shot from the wand, twisted with the others, and bound itself thickly around their clasped hands, like a rope, like a fiery snake.

CHAPTER 3

Will and Won’t

Harry Potter was snoring loudly. He had been sitting in a chair beside his bedroom window for the best part of four hours, staring out at the darkening street, and had finally fallen asleep with one side of his face pressed against the cold window pane, his glasses askew and his mouth wide open. The misty fug his breath had left on the window sparkled in the orange glare of the streetlamp outside, and the artificial light drained his face of all color, so that he looked ghostly beneath his shock of untidy black hair.

The room was strewn with various possessions and a good smattering of rubbish. Owl feathers, apple cores, and sweet wrappers littered the floor, a number of spell books lay higgledy-piggledy among the tangled robes on his bed, and a mess of newspapers sat in a puddle of light on his desk. The headline of one blared:

HARRY POTTER: THE CHOSEN ONE?

Rumors continue to fly about the mysterious recent disturbance at the Ministry of Magic, during which He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was sighted once more.

“We’re not allowed to talk about it, don’t ask me anything” said one agitated Obliviator, who refused to give his name as he left the Ministry last night.

Nevertheless, highly placed sources within the Ministry have confirmed that the disturbance centered on the fabled Hall of Prophecy.

Though Ministry spokes wizards have hitherto refused even to confirm the existence of such a place, a growing number of the Wizarding community believe that the Death Eaters now serving sentences in Azkaban for trespass and attempted theft were attempting to steal a prophecy. The nature of that prophecy is unknown, although speculation is rife that it concerns Harry Potter, the only person ever known to have survived the Killing Curse, and who is also known to have been at the Ministry on the night in question. Some are going so far as to call Potter “the Chosen One,” believing that the prophecy names him as the only one who will be able to rid us of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

The current whereabouts of the prophecy, if it exists, are unknown, although (ctd. page2, column 5)

A second newspaper lay beside die first. This one bore die headline:

SCRIMGEOUR SUCCEEDS FUDGE

Most of this front page was taken up with a large black-and-white picture of a man with a lion like mane of thick hair and a rather ravaged face. The picture was moving â the man was waving at the ceiling.

Rufus Scrimgeour, previously Head of the Auror office in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, has succeeded Cornelius Fudge as Minister of Magic. The appointment has largely been greeted with enthusiasm by the Wizarding community, though rumors of a rift between the new Minister and Albus Dumbledore, newly reinstated Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, surfaced within hours of Scrimgeour taking office.

Scrimgeourâs representatives admitted that he had met with Dumbledore at once upon taking possession of the top job, but refused to comment on the topics under discussion. Albus Dumbledore is known to (ctd. page 3, column 2)

To the left of this paper sat another, which had been folded so that a story bearing the title ministry guarantees students’ safety was visible.

Newly appointed Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour, spoke today of the tough new measures taken by his Ministry to ensure the safety of students returning to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry this autumn.

“For obvious reasons, the Ministry will not be going into detail about its stringent new security plans,” said the Minister, although an insider confirmed that measures include defensive spells and charms, a complex array of counter curses, and a small task force of Aurors dedicated solely to the protection of Hogwarts School .

Most seem reassured by the new Minister’s tough stand on student safety. Said Mrs. Augusta Longbottom, “My grandson, Neville â a good friend of Harry Potter’s, incidentally, who fought the Death Eaters alongside him at the Ministry in June and â

But the rest of this story was obscured by the large birdcage .standing on top of it. Inside it was a magnificent snowy owl. Her amber eyes surveyed the room imperiously, her head swiveling occasionally to gaze at her snoring master. Once or twice she clicked her beak impatiently, but Harry was too deeply asleep to hear her.

A large trunk stood in the very middle of the room. Its lid was open; it looked expectant; yet it was almost empty but for a residue of old underwear, sweets, empty ink bottles, and broken quills that coated the very bottom. Nearby, on the floor, lay a purple leaflet emblazoned with the words:

—-ISSUED ON BEHALF OF—-

The Ministry of Magic

PROTECTING YOUR HOME AND FAMILY AGAINST DARK FORCES

The Wizarding community is currently under threat from an organization calling itself the Death Eaters. Observing the following simple security guidelines will help protect you, your family, and your home from attack.

1. You are advised not to leave the house alone.

2. Particular care should be taken during the hours of darkness. Wherever possible, arrange to complete journeys before night has fallen.

3. Review the security arrangements around your house, making sure that all family members are aware of emergency measures such as Shield and Disillusionment Charms, and, in the case of underage family members, Side-Along-Apparition.

4. Agree on security questions with close friends and family so as to detect Death Eaters masquerading as others by use of the Polyjuice Potion (see page 2).

5. Should you feel that a family member, colleague, friend, or neighbor is acting in a strange manner, contact the Magical Law Enforcement Squad at once. They may have been put under the Imperius Curse (see page 4).

6. Should the Dark Mark appear over any dwelling place or other building, DO NOT ENTER, but contact the Auror office immediately.

7. Unconfirmed sightings suggest that the Death Eaters may now be using Inferi (see page 10). Any sighting of an Inferius, or encounter with same, should be reported to the Ministry IMMEDIATELY.

Harry grunted in his sleep and his face slid down the window an inch or so, making his glasses still more lopsided, but he did not wake up. An alarm clock, repaired by Harry several years ago, ticked loudly on the sill, showing one minute to eleven. Beside it, held in place by Harry’s relaxed hand, was a piece of parchment covered in thin, slanting writing. Harry had read this letter so often since its arrival three days ago that although it had been delivered in a tightly furled scroll, it now lay quite flat.

Dear Harry,

If it is convenient to you, I shall call at number four, Privet Drive this coming Friday at eleven p.m. to escort you to the Burrow, where you have been invited to spend the remainder of your school holidays.

If you are agreeable, I should also be glad of your assistance in a matter to which I hope to attend on the way to the . Burrow. I shall explain this more fully when I see you.

Kindly send your answer by return of this owl. Hoping to see you this Friday,

I am, yours most sincerely,

Albus Dumbledore

Though he already knew it by heart, Harry had been stealing glances at this missive every few minutes since seven o’clock that evening, when he had first taken up his position beside his bedroom window, which had a reasonable view of both ends of Privet Drive . He knew it was pointless to keep rereading Dumbledore’s words; Harry had sent back his “yes” with the delivering owl, as requested, and all he could do now was wait: Either Dumbledore was going to come, or he was not.

But Harry had not packed. It just seemed too good to be true that he was going to be rescued from the Dursleys after a mere fortnight of their company. He could not shrug off the feeling that something was going to go wrong â his reply to Dumbledore’s letter might have gone astray; Dumbledore could be prevented from collecting him; the letter might turn out not to be from Dumbledore at all, but a trick or joke or trap.

Harry had not been able to face packing and then being let down and having to unpack again. The only gesture he had made to the possibility of a journey was to shut his snowy owl, Hedwig, safely in her cage.

The minute hand on the alarm clock reached the number twelve and, at that precise moment, the street-lamp outside the window went out.

Harry awoke as though the sudden darkness were an alarm. Hastily straightening his glasses and unsticking his cheek from the glass, he pressed his nose against the window instead and squinted down at the pavement. A tall figure in a long, billowing cloak was walking up the garden path.

Harry jumped up as though he had received an electric shock, knocked over his chair, and started snatching anything and everything within reach from the floor and throwing it into the trunk. Even as he lobbed a set of robes, two spell books, and a packet of crisps across the room, the doorbell rang. Downstairs in the living room his Uncle Vernon shouted, “Who the blazes is calling at this lime of night?”

Harry froze with a brass telescope in one hand and a pair of trainers in the other. He had completely forgotten to warn the Dursleys that Dumbledore might be coming. Feeling both panicky mid close to laughter, he clambered over the trunk and wrenched open his bedroom door in time to hear a deep voice say, “Good evening. You must be Mr. Dursley. I daresay Harry has told you I would be coming for him?”

Harry ran down the stairs two at a time, coming to an abrupt halt several steps from the bottom, as long experience had taught him to remain out of arm’s reach of his uncle whenever possible.

There in the doorway stood a tall, thin man with waist-length silver hair and beard. Half-moon spectacles were perched on his crooked nose, and he was wearing a long black traveling cloak and .1 pointed hat. Vernon Dursley, whose mustache was quite as bushy as Dumbledore’s, though black, and who was wearing a puce dressing gown, was staring at the visitor as though he could not believe his tiny eyes.

“Judging by your look of stunned disbelief, Harry did not warn you that I was coming,” said Dumbledore pleasantly. “However, let us assume that you have invited me warmly into your house. It is unwise to linger overlong on doorsteps in these troubled times.”

He stepped smartly over the threshold and closed the front door behind him.

“It is a long time since my last visit,” said Dumbledore, peering down his crooked nose at Uncle Vernon. “I must say, your agapanthus are flourishing.”

Vernon Dursley said nothing at all. Harry did not doubt that speech would return to him, and soon â the vein pulsing in his uncles temple was reaching danger point â but something about Dumbledore seemed to have robbed him temporarily of breath. It might have been the blatant wizardishness of his appearance, but it might, too, have been that even Uncle Vernon could sense that here was a man whom it would be very difficult to bully.

“Ah, good evening Harry,” said Dumbledore, looking up at him through his half-moon glasses with a most satisfied expression. “Excellent, excellent.”

These words seemed to rouse Uncle Vernon. It was clear that as far as he was concerned, any man who could look at Harry and say “excellent” was a man with whom he could never see eye to eye.

“I don’t mean to be rude â” he began, in a tone that threatened rudeness in every syllable.

“–yet, sadly, accidental rudeness occurs alarmingly often,” Dumbledore finished the sentence gravely. “Best to say nothing at all, my dear man. Ah, and this must be Petunia.”

The kitchen door had opened, and there stood Harry’s aunt, wearing rubber gloves and a housecoat over her nightdress, clearly halfway through her usual pre-bedtime wipe-down of all the kitchen surfaces. Her rather horsey face registered nothing but shock.

“Albus Dumbledore,” said Dumbledore, when Uncle Vernon failed to effect an introduction. “We have corresponded, of course.” Harry thought this an odd way of reminding Aunt Petunia that he had once sent her an exploding letter, but Aunt Petunia did not challenge the term. “And this must be your son, Dudley?”

Dudley had that moment peered round the living room door. His large, blond head rising out of the stripy collar of his pajamas looked oddly disembodied, his mouth gaping in astonishment and I car. Dumbledore waited a moment or two, apparently to see whether any of the Dursleys were going to say anything, but as the â¢.ilcncc stretched on he smiled.

“Shall we assume that you have invited me into your sitting room?”

Dudley scrambled out of the way as Dumbledore passed him. Harry, still clutching the telescope and trainers, jumped the last few stairs and followed Dumbledore, who had settled himself in the armchair nearest the fire and was taking in the surroundings with an expression of benign interest. He looked quite extraordinarily out of place.

“Aren’t â- aren’t we leaving, sir?” Harry asked anxiously.

“Yes, indeed we are, but there are a few matters we need to discuss first,” said Dumbledore. “And I would prefer not to do so in the open. We shall trespass upon your aunt and uncle’s hospitality only a little longer.”

“You will, will you?”

Vernon Dursley had entered the room, Petunia at his shoulder, and Dudley skulking behind them both.

“Yes,” said Dumbledore simply, “I shall.”

He drew his wand so rapidly that Harry barely saw it; with a casual flick, the sofa zoomed forward and knocked the knees out from under all three of the Dursleys so that they collapsed upon it in a heap. Another flick of the wand and the sofa zoomed back to its original position.

“We may as well be comfortable,” said Dumbledore pleasantly.

As he replaced his wand in his pocket, Harry saw that his hand was blackened and shriveled; it looked as though his flesh had been burned away.

“Sir â what happened to your â ?”

“Later, Harry,” said Dumbledore. “Please sit down.”

Harry took the remaining armchair, choosing not to look at the Dursleys, who seemed stunned into silence.

“I would assume that you were going to offer me refreshment,” Dumbledore said to Uncle Vernon, “but the evidence so far suggests that that would be optimistic to the point of foolishness.”

A third twitch of the wand, and a dusty bottle and five glasses appeared in midair. The bottle tipped and poured a generous measure of honey-colored liquid into each of the glasses, which then floated to each person in the room.

“Madam Rosmertaâs finest oak-matured mead,” said Dumbledore, raising his glass to Harry, who caught hold of his own and sipped. He had never tasted anything like it before, but enjoyed it immensely. The Dursleys, after quick, scared looks at one another, tried to ignore their glasses completely, a difficult feat, as they were nudging them gently on the sides of their heads. Harry could not suppress a suspicion that Dumbledore was rather enjoying himself.

“Well, Harry,” said Dumbledore, turning toward him, “a difficulty has arisen which I hope you will be able to solve for us. By us, I mean the Order of thePhoenix . But first of all I must tell you that Sirius’s will was discovered a week ago and that he left you everything he owned.”

Over on the sofa, Uncle Vernonâs head turned, but Harry did not look at him, nor could he think of anything to say except, “Oh. Right.”

“This is, in the main, fairly straightforward,” Dumbledore went on. “You add a reasonable amount of gold to your account at Gringotts, and you inherit all of Sirius’s personal possessions. The slightly problematic part of the legacy â”

“His godfather’s dead?” said Uncle Vernon loudly from the sofa. Dumbledore and Harry both turned to look at him. The glass of mead was now knocking quite insistently on the side of Vernonâs head; he attempted to beat it away. “He’s dead? His godfather?”

“Yes,” said Dumbledore. He did not ask Harry why he had not confided in the Dursleys. “Our problem,” he continued to Harry, as if there had been no interruption, “is that Sirius also left you number twelve,Grimmauld Place .”

“He’s been left a house?” said Uncle Vernon greedily, his small eyes narrowing, but nobody answered him.

“You can keep using it as headquarters,” said Harry. “I don’t care. You can have it, I don’t really want it.” Harry never wanted to set foot in number twelve,Grimmauld Place again if he could help it. He thought he would be haunted forever by the memory of Sirius prowling its dark musty rooms alone, imprisoned within the place he had wanted so desperately to leave.

“That is generous,” said Dumbledore. “We have, however, vacated the building temporarily.”

“Why?”

“Well,” said Dumbledore, ignoring the mutterings of Uncle Vernon, who was now being rapped smartly over the head by the persistent glass of mead, “Black family tradition decreed that the house was handed down the direct line, to the next male with the name of ‘Black.’ Sirius was the very last of the line as his younger brother, Regulus, predeceased him and both were childless. While his will makes it perfectly plain that he wants you to have the house, it is nevertheless possible that some spell or enchantment has been set upon the place to ensure that it cannot be owned by anyone other than a pureblood.”

A vivid image of the shrieking, spitting portrait of Sirius’s mother that hung in the hall of number twelve,Grimmauld Place flashed into Harry’s mind. “I bet there has,” he said.

“Quite,” said Dumbledore. “And if such an enchantment exists, then the ownership of the house is most likely to pass to the eldest of Sirius’s living relatives, which would mean his cousin, Bellatrix Lestrange.”

Without realizing what he was doing, Harry sprang to his feet; the telescope and trainers in his lap rolled across the floor. Bellatrix Lestrange, Sirius’s killer, inherit his house?

“No,” he said.

“Well, obviously we would prefer that she didn’t get it either,” said Dumbledore calmly. “The situation is fraught with complications. We do not know whether the enchantments we ourselves have placed upon it, for example, making it Unplottable, will hold now that ownership has passed from Sirius’s hands. It might be that Bellatrix will arrive on the doorstep at any moment. Naturally we had to move out until such time as we have clarified the position,”

“But how are you going to find out if I’m allowed to own it?”

“Fortunately,” said Dumbledore, “there is a simple test.”

He placed his empty glass on a small table beside his chair, but before he could do anything else, Uncle Vernon shouted, “Will you get these ruddy things off us?”

Harry looked around; all three of the Dursleys were cowering with their arms over their heads as their glasses bounced up and down on their skulls, their contents flying everywhere.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said Dumbledore politely, and he raised his wand again. -All three glasses vanished. “But it would have been better manners to drink it, you know.”

It looked as though Uncle Vernon was bursting with any number of unpleasant retorts, but he merely shrank back into the cushions with Aunt Petunia and Dudley and said nothing, keeping his small piggy eyes on Dumbledore’s wand.

“You see,” Dumbledore said, turning back to Harry and again speaking as though Uncle Vernon had not uttered, “if you have indeed inherited the house, you have also inherited â”

He flicked his wand for a fifth time. There was a loud crack, and a house-elf appeared, with a snout for a nose, giant bat’s ears, and enormous bloodshot eyes, crouching on the Dursleys’ shag carpet and covered in grimy rags.

Aunt Petunia let out a hair-raising shriek; nothing this filthy had entered her house in living memory.Dudley drew his large, bare, pink feet off the floor and sat with them raised almost above his head, as though he thought the creature might run up his pajama trousers, and Uncle Vernon bellowed, “What the hell is that?”

“Kreacher,” finished Dumbledore.

“Kreacher wont, Kreacher won’t, Kreacher wont!” croaked the house-elf, quite as loudly as Uncle Vernon, stamping his long, gnarled feet and pulling his ears. “K readier belongs to Miss Bellatrix, oh yes, Kreacher belongs to the Blacks, Kreacher wants his new mistress, Kreacher won’t go to the Potter brat, Kreacher won’t, won’t, wont â”

“As you can see, Harry,” said Dumbledore loudly, over Kreacher’s continued croaks of “wont, won’t, won’t,” “Kreacher is showing a certain reluctance to pass into your ownership.”

“I don’t care,” said Harry again, looking with disgust at the writhing, stamping house-elf. “I don’t want him.”

“Won’t, wonât, won’t, won’t â”

“You would prefer him to pass into the ownership of Bellatrix Lestrange? Bearing in mind that he has lived at the headquarters of the Order of thePhoenix for the past year?”

“Won’t, won’t, wonât, won’t â”

Harry stared at Dumbledore. He knew that Kreacher could not be permitted to go and live with Bellatrix Lestrange, but the idea of owning him, of having responsibility for the creature that had betrayed Sirius, was repugnant.

“Give him an order,” said Dumbledore. “If he has passed into your ownership, he will have to obey. If not, then we shall have to think of some other means of keeping him from his rightful mistress.”

“Won’t, won’t, wonât, WON’T!”

Kreacher’s voice had risen to a scream. Harry could think of nothing to say, except, “Kreacher, shut up!”

It looked for a moment as though Kreacher was going to choke. He grabbed his throat, his mouth still working furiously, his eyes bulging. After a few seconds of frantic gulping, he threw himself face forward onto the carpet (Aunt Petunia whimpered) and beat the floor with his hands and feet, giving himself over to a violent, but entirely silent, tantrum.

“Well, that simplifies matters,” said Dumbledore cheerfully. “It seems that Sirius knew what he was doing. You are the rightful owner of number twelve,Grimmauld Place and of Kreacher.”

“Do I â do I have to keep him with me?” Harry asked, aghast, us Kreacher thrashed around at his feet.

“Not if you don’t want to,” said Dumbledore. “If I might make ii suggestion, you could send him to Hogwarts to work in the kitchen there. In that way, the other house-elves could keep an eye on him.”

“Yeah,” said Harry in relief, “yeah, I’ll do that. Er â Kreacher â I want you to go to Hogwarts and work in the kitchens there with the other house-elves.”

Kreacher, who was now lying flat on his back with his arms and legs in the air, gave Harry one upside-down look of deepest loathing and, with another loud crack, vanished.

“Good,” said Dumbledore. “There is also the matter of the hip-pogriff, Buckbeak. Hagrid has been looking after him since Sirius died, but Buckbeak is yours now, so if you would prefer to make different arrangements â”

“No,” said Harry at once, “he can stay with Hagrid. I think Buckbeak would prefer that.”

“Hagrid will be delighted,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “He was thrilled to see Buckbeak again. Incidentally, we have decided, in the interests of Buckbeak’s safety, to rechristen him ‘Witherwings’ for the time being, though I doubt that the Ministry would ever guess he is the hippogriff they once sentenced to death. Now, Harry, is your trunk packed?”

Erm . ..

“Doubtful that I would turn up?” Dumbledore suggested shrewdly.

“I’ll just go and â er â finish off,” said Harry hastily, hurrying to pick up his fallen telescope and trainers.

It took him a little over ten minutes to track down everything he needed; at last he had managed to extract his Invisibility Cloak from under the bed, screwed the top back on his jar of color-change ink, and forced the lid of his trunk shut on his cauldron. Then, heaving his trunk in one hand and holding Hedwig’s cage in the other, he made his way back downstairs,

He was disappointed to discover that Dumbledore was not waiting in the hall, which meant that he had to return to the living room.

Nobody was talking. Dumbledore was humming quietly, apparently quite at his ease, but the atmosphere was thicker than cold custard, and Harry did not dare look at the Dursleys as he said, “Professor â I’m ready now.”

“Good,” said Dumbledore. “Just one last thing, then.” And he turned to speak to the Dursleys once more.

“As you will no doubt be aware, Harry comes of age in a years time â”

“No,” said Aunt Petunia, speaking for the first time since Dumbledore’s arrival.

“I’m sorry?” said Dumbledore politely.

“No, he doesn’t. He’s a month younger than Dudley , and Dudders doesn’t turn eighteen until the year after next.”

“Ah,” said Dumbledore pleasantly, “but in the Wizarding world, we come of age at seventeen.”

Uncle Vernon muttered, “Preposterous,” but Dumbledore ignored him,

“Now, as you already know, the wizard called Lord Voldemort Was returned to this country. The Wizarding community is currently in a state of open warfare. Harry, whom Lord Voldemort has already attempted to kill on a number of occasions, is in even greater danger now than the day when I left him upon your doorstep fifteen years ago, with a letter explaining about his parents’ murder and expressing the hope that you would care for him ;is though he were your own.”

Dumbledore paused, and although his voice remained light and calm, and he gave no obvious sign of anger, Harry felt a kind of chill emanating from him and noticed that the Dursleys drew very slightly closer together.

“You did not do as I asked. You have never treated Harry as a son. He has known nothing but neglect and often cruelty at your hands. The best that can be said is that he has at least escaped the appalling damage you have inflicted upon the unfortunate boy sitting between you.”

Both Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon looked around instinctively, as though expecting to see someone other than Dudley squeezed between them.

“Us â mistreat Dudders? What d’you â ?” began Uncle Vernon furiously, but Dumbledore raised his ringer for silence, a silence which fell as though he had struck Uncle Vernon dumb.

“The magic I evoked fifteen years ago means that Harry has powerful protection while he can still call this house ‘home.’ However miserable he has been here, however unwelcome, however badly treated, you have at least, grudgingly, allowed him houseroom.

This magic will cease to operate the moment that Harry turns seventeen; in other words, at the moment he becomes a man. I ask only this: that you allow Harry to return, once more, to this house, before his seventeenth birthday, which will ensure that the protection continues until that time.”

None of the Dursleys said anything.Dudley was frowning slightly, as though he was still trying to work out when he had ever been mistreated. Uncle Vernon looked as though he had something stuck in his throat; Aunt Petunia, however, was oddly flushed.

“Well, Harry . . . time for us to be off,” said Dumbledore at last, standing up and straightening his long black cloak. “Until we meet again,” he said to the Dursleys, who looked as though that moment could wait forever as far as they were concerned, and after doffing his hat, he swept from the room.

“Bye,” said Harry hastily to the Dursleys, and followed Dumbledore, who paused beside Harry’s trunk, upon which Hedwig’s cage was perched.

“We do not want to be encumbered by these just now,” he said, pulling out his wand again. “I shall send them to the Burrow to await us there. However, I would like you to bring your Invisibility Cloak . . . just in case.”

Harry extracted his cloak from his trunk with some difficulty, trying not to show Dumbledore the mess within. When he had stuffed it into an inside pocket of his jacket, Dumbledore waved his wand and the trunk, cage, and Hedwig vanished. Dumbledore then waved his wand again, and the front door opened onto cool, misty darkness.

“And now, Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”

CHAPTER 4

Horace Slughorn

Despite the fact that he had spent every waking moment of the past few days hoping desperately that Dumbledore would indeed come to fetch him, Harry felt distinctly awkward as 11 u-y set off down Privet Drive together. He had never had a proper conversation with the headmaster outside of Hogwarts before; there was usually a desk between them. The memory of their last face-to-face encounter kept intruding too, and it rather heightened Harry’s sense of embarrassment; he had shouted a lot on that occasion, not to mention done his best to smash several of Dumbledore’s most prized possessions.

Dumbledore, however, seemed completely relaxed.

“Keep your wand at the ready, Harry,” he said brightly.

“But I thought I’m not allowed to use magic outside school, sir?”

“If there is an attack,” said Dumbledore, “I give you permission to use any counter jinx or curse that might occur to you. However, I do not think you need worry about being attacked tonight.”

“Why not, sir?”

“You are with me,” said Dumbledore simply. “This will do, Harry.”

He came to an abrupt halt at the end of Privet Drive .

“You have not, of course, passed your Apparition Test,” he said.

“No,” said Harry. “I thought you had to be seventeen?”

“You do,” said Dumbledore. “So you will need to hold on to my arm very tightly. My left, if you don’t mind â as you have noticed, my wand arm is a little fragile at the moment.”

Harry gripped Dumbledoreâs proffered forearm.

“Very good,” said Dumbledore. “Well, here we go.”

Harry felt Dumbledoreâs arm twist away from him and redoubled his grip; the next thing he knew, everything went black; he was being pressed very hard from all directions; he could not breathe, there were iron bands tightening around his chest; his eyeballs were being forced back into his head; his eardrums were being pushed deeper into his skull and then â-

He gulped great lungfuls of cold night air and opened his streaming eyes. He felt as though he had just been forced through a very tight rubber tube. It was a few seconds before he realized thatPrivet Drive had vanished. He and Dumbledore were now standing in what appeared to be a deserted village square, in the center of which stood an old war memorial and a few benches. His comprehension catching up with his senses, Harry realized that he had just Apparated for the first time in his life.

“Are you all right?” asked Dumbledore, looking down at him solicitously. “The sensation does take some getting used to.”

“I’m fine,” said Harry, rubbing his ears, which felt as though they had leftPrivet Drive rather reluctantly. “But I think I might prefer brooms. . . .”

Dumbledore smiled, drew his traveling cloak a little more lightly around his neck, and said, “This way.”

He set off at a brisk pace, past an empty inn and a few houses. According to a clock on a nearby church, it was almost midnight .

“So tell me, Harry,” said Dumbledore. “Your scar … has it been hurting at all?”

Harry raised a hand unconsciously to his forehead and rubbed the lightning-shaped mark.

“No,” he said, “and I’ve been wondering about that. I thought it would be burning all the time now Voldemort’s getting so powerful again.”

He glanced up at Dumbledore and saw that he was wearing a satisfied expression.

“I, on the other hand, thought otherwise,” said Dumbledore. “Lord Voldemort has finally realized the dangerous access to his thoughts and feelings you have been enjoying. It appears that he is now employing Occlumency against you.”

“Well, I’m not complaining,” said Harry, who missed neither the disturbing dreams nor the startling flashes of insight into Voldemort’s mind.

They turned a corner, passing a telephone box and a bus shelter. Harry looked sideways at Dumbledore again. “Professor?”

“Harry?”

“Er â where exactly are we?”

“This, Harry, is the charming village of Budleigh Babberton .”

“And what are we doing here?”

“Ah yes, of course, I haven’t told you,” said Dumbledore. “Well, I have lost count of the number of times I have said this in recent years, but we are, once again, one member of staff short. We are here to persuade an old colleague of mine to come out of retirement and return to Hogwarts.”

“How can I help with that, sir?” ¦

“Oh, I think we’ll find a use for you,” said Dumbledore vaguely. “Left here, Harry.”

They proceeded up a steep, narrow street lined with houses. All the windows were dark. The odd chill that had lain over Privet Drive for two weeks persisted here too. Thinking of dementors, Harry cast a look over his shoulder and grasped his wand reassuringly in his pocket.

“Professor, why couldn’t we just Apparate directly into your old colleague’s house?”

“Because it would be quite as rude as kicking down the front door,” said Dumbledore. “Courtesy dictates that we offer fellow wizards the opportunity of denying us entry. In any case, most Wizarding dwellings are magically protected from unwanted Apparators. At Hogwarts, for instance â”

“â you can’t Apparate anywhere inside the buildings or grounds,” said Harry quickly. “Hermione Granger told me.”

“And she is quite right. We turn left again.”

The church clock chimed midnight behind them. Harry wondered why Dumbledore did not consider it rude to call on his old colleague so late, but now that conversation had been established, he had more pressing questions to ask.

“Sir, I saw in the Daily Prophet that Fudge has been sacked. . . .”

“Correct,” said Dumbledore, now turning up a steep side street. “He has been replaced, as I am sure you also saw, by Rufus Scrimgeour, who used to be Head of the Auror office.”

“Is he … Do you think he’s good?” asked Harry.

“An interesting question,” said Dumbledore. “He is able, certainly. A more decisive and forceful personality than Cornelius.”

“Yes, but I meant â”

“I know what you meant. Rufus is a man of action and, having fought Dark wizards for most of his working life, does not under-estimate Lord Voldemort.”

Harry waited, but Dumbledore did not say anything about the disagreement with Scrimgeour that the Daily Prophet had reported, and he did not have the nerve to pursue the subject, so he changed ii. “And … sir … I saw about Madam Bones.”

“Yes,” said Dumbledore quietly. “A terrible loss. She was a great witch. Just up here, I think â ouch.”

He had pointed with his injured hand.

“Professor, what happened to your â ?”

“I have no time to explain now,” said Dumbledore. “It is a thrilling tale, I wish to do it justice.”

He smiled at Harry, who understood that he was not being snubbed, and that he had permission to keep asking questions.

“Sir â I got a Ministry of Magic leaflet by owl, about security measures we should all take against the Death Eaters. . . .”

“Yes, I received one myself,” said Dumbledore, still smiling. “Did you find it useful?”

“Not really.”

“No, I thought not. You have not asked me, for instance, what is my favorite flavor of jam, to check that I am indeed Professor Dumbledore and not an impostor.”

“I didn’t. . .” Harry began, not entirely sure whether he was being reprimanded or not.

“For future reference, Harry, it is raspberry. . . although of course, if I were a Death Eater, I would have been sure to research my own jam preferences before impersonating myself.”

“Er. . . right,” said Harry. “Well, on that leaflet, it said something about Inferi. What exactly are they? The leaflet wasn’t very clear.”

“They are corpses,” said Dumbledore calmly. “Dead bodies that have been bewitched to do a Dark wizard’s bidding. Inferi have not been seen for a long time, however, not since Voldemort was last powerful. . . . He killed enough people to make an army of them, of course. This is the place, Harry, just here. . . .”

They were nearing a small, neat stone house set in its own garden. Harry was too busy digesting the horrible idea of Inferi to have much attention left for anything else, but as they reached the front gate, Dumbledore stopped dead and Harry walked into him.

“Oh dear. Oh dear, dear, dear.”

Harry followed his gaze up the carefully tended front path and felt his heart sink. The front door was hanging off its hinges.

Dumbledore glanced up and down the street. It seemed quite deserted.

“Wand out and follow me, Harry,” he said quietly.

He opened the gate and walked swiftly and silently up the garden path, Harry at his heels, then pushed the front door very slowly, his wand raised and at the ready.

“Lumos.”

Dumbledore’s wand tip ignited, casting its light up a narrow hallway. To the left, another door stood open. Holding his illuminated wand aloft, Dumbledore walked into the sitting room with Harry right behind him.

A scene of total devastation met their eyes. A grandfather clock lay splintered at their feet, its face cracked, its pendulum lying a little farther away like a dropped sword. A piano was on its side, its keys strewn across the floor. The wreckage of a fallen chandelier flittered nearby. Cushions lay deflated, feathers oozing from slashes in their sides; fragments of glass and china lay like powder over everything. Dumbledore raised his wand even higher, so that its light was thrown upon the walls, where something darkly red and glutinous was spattered over the wallpaper. Harry’s small intake of breath made Dumbledore look around.

“Not pretty, is it?” he said heavily. “Yes, something horrible has happened here.”

Dumbledore moved carefully into the middle of the room, scrutinizing the wreckage at his feet. Harry followed, gazing around, half-scared of what he might see hidden behind the wreck of the piano or the overturned sofa, but there was no sign of a body.

“Maybe there was a fight and â and they dragged him off, Professor?” Harry suggested, trying not to imagine how badly wounded a man would have to be to leave those stains spattered halfway up the walls.

“I don’t think so,” said Dumbledore quietly, peering behind an overstuffed armchair lying on its side.

“You mean he’s â ?”

“Still here somewhere? Yes.”

And without warning, Dumbledore swooped, plunging the tip of his wand into the seat of the overstuffed armchair, which yelled, “Ouch!”

“Good evening, Horace,” said Dumbledore, straightening up again.

Harryâs jaw dropped. Where a split second before there had been an armchair, there now crouched an enormously fat, bald, old man who was massaging his lower belly and squinting up at Dumbledore with an aggrieved and watery eye.

“There was no need to stick the wand in that hard,” he said gruffly, clambering to his feet. “It hurt.”

The wandlight sparkled on his shiny pate, his prominent eyes, his enormous, silver, walrus like mustache, and the highly polished buttons on the maroon velvet jacket he was wearing over a pair of lilac silk pajamas. The top of his head barely reached Dumbledore’s chin.

“What gave it away?” he grunted as he staggered to his feet, still rubbing his lower belly. He seemed remarkably unabashed for a man who had just been discovered pretending to be an armchair.

“My dear Horace,” said Dumbledore, looking amused, “if the Death Eaters really had come to call, the Dark Mark would have been set over the house.”

The wizard clapped a pudgy hand to his vast forehead.

“The Dark Mark,” he muttered. “Knew there was something … ah well. Wouldn’t have had time anyway, I’d only just put the finishing touches to my upholstery when you entered the room.”

He heaved a great sigh that made the ends of his mustache flutter.

“Would you like my assistance clearing up?” asked Dumbledore politely.

“Please,” said the other.

They stood back to back, the tall thin wizard and the short round one, and waved their wands in one identical sweeping motion.

The furniture flew back to its original places; ornaments reformed in midair, feathers zoomed into their cushions; torn books repaired themselves as they landed upon their shelves; oil lanterns soared onto side tables and reignited; a vast collection of splintered silver picture frames flew glittering across the room and alighted, whole and untarnished, upon a desk; rips, cracks, and holes healed everywhere, and the walls wiped themselves clean.

“What kind of blood was that, incidentally?” asked Dumbledore loudly over the chiming of the newly unsmashed grandfather flock.

“On the walls? Dragon,” shouted the wizard called Horace, as, with a deafening grinding and tinkling, the chandelier screwed itself back into the ceiling.

There was a final plunk from the piano, and silence.

“Yes, dragon,” repeated the wizard conversationally. “My last bottle, and prices are sky-high at the moment. Still, it might be reusable.”

He stumped over to a small crystal bottle standing on top of a sideboard and held it up to the light, examining the thick liquid within.

“Hmm. Bit dusty.”

He set the bottle back on the sideboard and sighed. It was then that his gaze fell upon Harry.

“Oho,” he said, his large round eyes flying to Harry’s forehead and the lightning-shaped scar it bore. “Oho!”

“This,” said Dumbledore, moving forward to make the introduction, “is Harry Potter. Harry, this is an old Friend and colleague of mine, Horace Slughorn.”

Slughorn turned on Dumbledore, his expression shrewd. “So that’s how you thought you’d persuade me, is it? Well, the answer’s no, Albus.”

He pushed past Harry, his face turned resolutely away with the air of a man trying to resist temptation.

“I suppose we can have a drink, at least?” asked Dumbledore. “For old time’s sake?”

Slughorn hesitated.

“All right then, one drink,” he said ungraciously.

Dumbledore smiled at Harry and directed him toward a chair not unlike the one that Slughorn had so recently impersonated, which stood right beside the newly burning fire and a brightly glowing oil lamp. Harry took the seat with the distinct impression that Dumbledore, for some reason, wanted to keep him as visible as possible. Certainly when Slughorn, who had been busy with decanters and glasses, turned to face the room again, his eyes fell immediately upon Harry.

“Hmpf,” he said, looking away quickly as though frightened of hurting his eyes. “Here â” He gave a drink to Dumbledore, who had sat down without invitation, thrust the tray at Harry, and then sank into the cushions of the repaired sofa and a disgruntled silence. His legs were so short they did not touch the floor.

“Well, how have you been keeping, Horace?” Dumbledore asked.

“Not so well,” said Slughorn at once. “Weak chest. Wheezy. Rheumatism too. Can’t move like I used to. Well, that’s to be expected. Old age. Fatigue.”

“And yet you must have moved fairly quickly to prepare such a welcome for us at such short notice,” said Dumbledore. “You can’t have had more than three minutes’ warning?”

Slughorn said, half irritably, half proudly, “Two. Didn’t hear my Intruder Charm go off, I was taking a bath. Still,” he added sternly, seeming to pull himself back together again, “the fact remains that I’m an old man, Albus. A tired old man who’s earned the right to a quiet life and a few creature comforts.”

He certainly had those, thought Harry, looking around the room. It was stuffy and cluttered, yet nobody could say it was uncomfortable; there were soft chairs and footstools, drinks and books, boxes of chocolates and plump cushions. If Harry had not known who lived there, he would have guessed at a rich, fussy old lady.

“You’re not yet as old as I am, Horace,” said Dumbledore.

“Well, maybe you ought to think about retirement yourself,” said Slughorn bluntly. His pale gooseberry eyes had found Dumbledore’s injured hand. “Reactions not what they were, I see.”

“You’re quite right,” said Dumbledore serenely, shaking back his sleeve to reveal the tips of those burned and blackened ringers; the sight of them made the back of Harry’s neck prickle unpleasantly. “1 am undoubtedly slower than I was. But on the other hand . . .”

He shrugged and spread his hands wide, as though to say that age had its compensations, and Harry noticed a ring on his uninjured hand that he had never seen Dumbledore wear before: It was large, rather clumsily made of what looked like gold, and was set with a heavy black stone that had cracked down the middle. Slughorn’s eyes lingered for a moment on the ring too, and Harry saw a tiny frown momentarily crease his wide forehead.

“So, all these precautions against intruders, Horace … are they for the Death Eaters’ benefit, or mine?” asked Dumbledore.

“What would the Death Eaters want with a poor broken-down old buffer like me?” demanded Slughorn.

“I imagine that they would want you to turn your considerable talents to coercion, torture, and murder,” said Dumbledore. “Are you really telling me that they haven’t come recruiting yet?”

Slughorn eyed Dumbledore balefully for a moment, then muttered, “I haven’t given them the chance. I’ve been on the move for a year. Never stay in one place more than a week. Move from Muggle house to Muggle house â the owners of this place are on holiday in the Canary Islands â it’s been very pleasant, I’ll be sorry to leave. It’s quite easy once you know how, one simple Freezing Charm on these absurd burglar alarms they use instead of Sneako-scopes and make sure the neighbors don’t spot you bringing in the piano.”

“Ingenious,” said Dumbledore. “But it sounds a rather tiring existence for a broken-down old buffer in search of a quiet life. Now, if you were to return to Hogwarts â”

“If you’re going to tell me my life would be more peaceful at that pestilential school, you can save your breath, Albus! I might have been in hiding, but some funny rumors have reached me since Dolores Umbridge left! If that’s how you treat teachers these days â”

“Professor Umbridge ran afoul of our centaur herd,” said Dumbledore. “I think you, Horace, would have known better than to stride into the forest and call a horde of angry centaurs ‘filthy half-breeds.'”

“That’s what she did, did she?” said Slughorn. “Idiotic woman. Never liked her.”

Harry chuckled and both Dumbledore and Slughorn looked round at him.

“Sorry,” Harry said hastily. “It’s just â I didn’t like her either.”

Dumbledore stood up rather suddenly.

“Are you leaving?” asked Slughorn at once, looking hopeful.

“No, I was wondering whether I might use your bathroom,” said Dumbledore.

“Oh,” said Slughorn, clearly disappointed. “Second on the left down the hall.”

Dumbledore strode from the room. Once the door had closed behind him, there was silence. After a few moments, Slughorn got to his feet but seemed uncertain what to do with himself. He shot a furtive look at Harry, then crossed to the fire and turned his back on it, warming his wide behind.

“Don’t think I don’t know why he’s brought you,” he said abruptly.

Harry merely looked at Slughorn. Slughorn’s watery eyes slid over Harry’s scar, this time taking in the rest of his face.

“You look very like your father.”

“Yeah, I’ve been told,” said Harry.

“Except for your eyes. You’ve got â-”

“My mother’s eyes, yeah.” Harry had heard it so often he found it a bit wearing.

“Hmpf. Yes, well. You shouldn’t have favorites as a teacher, of course, but she was one of mine. Your mother,” Slughorn added, in answer to Harryâs questioning look. “Lily Evans. One of the brightest I ever taught. Vivacious, you know. Charming girl. I used to tell her she ought to have been in my House. Very cheeky answers I used to get back too.” .

Harry’s thoughts were interrupted by a nudge in the ribs from Ginny. Professor McGonagall had risen to her feet and the mournful hum in the Hall died away at once.

‘It is nearly time,’ she said. ‘Please follow your Heads of House out into the grounds. Gryffindors, after me.’

They filed out from behind their benches in near silence. Harry glimpsed Slughorn at the head of the Slytherin column, wearing magnificent long emerald-green robes embroidered with silver.

He had never seen Professor Sprout, Head of the Hufflepuffs, looking so clean; there was not a single patch on her hat, and when they reached the Entrance Hall, they found Madam Pince standing beside Filch, she in a thick black veil that fell to her knees, he in an ancient black suit and tie reek­ing of mothbails.

They were heading, as Harry saw when he stepped out on to the stone steps from the front doors, towards the lake. The warmth of the sun caressed his face as they followed Professor McGonagall in silence to the place where hundreds of chairs had been set out in rows. An aisle ran down the centre of them: there was a marble table standing at the front, all chairs facing it. It was the most beautiful summer’s day.

An extraordinary assortment of people had already settled into half of the chairs: shabby and smart, old and young. Most Harry did not recognise, but there were a few that he did, including members of the Order of the Phoenix: Kingsley Shacklebolt, Mad-Eye Moody, Tonks, her hair miraculously returned to vividest pink, Remus Lupin, with whom she seemed to be holding hands, Mr and Mrs Weasley, Bill sup­ported by Fleur and followed by Fred and George, who were wearing jackets of black dragonskin.

Then there was Madame Maxime, who took up two-and-a-half chairs on her own, Tom, the landlord of the Leaky Cauldron, Arabella Figg, Harry’s Squib neighbour, the hairy bass player from the wizarding group the Weird bisters, ernie Frang, dnver ol the Knight Bus, Madam Malkin, of the robe shop in Diagon Alley, and some people whom Harry merely knew by sight, such as the barman of the Hog’s Head and the witch who pushed the trolley on the Hogwarts Express.

The castle ghosts were there too, barely visible in the bright sunlight, discernible only when they moved, shimmering insubstantially in the gleaming air.

Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny filed into seats at the end of a row beside the lake. People were whispering to each other; it sounded like a breeze in the grass, but the bird song was louder by far. The crowd continued to swell; with a great rush of affection for both of them, Harry saw Neville being helped into a seat by Luna.

They alone of all the DA had responded to Hermione’s summons the night that Dumbledore had died, and Harry knew why: they were the ones who had missed the DA most … probably the ones who had checked their coins regularly in the hope that there would be another meeting …

Cornelius Fudge walked past them towards the front rows, his expression miserable, twirling his green bowler hat as usual; Harry next recognised Rita Skeeter, who, he was infuri­ated to see, had a notebook clutched in her red-takmed hand; and then, with a worse jolt of fury, Dolores Umbridge, an unconvincing expression of grief upon her toadlike face, a black velvet bow set a top her iron-coloured curls.

At the sight of the centaur Firenze, who was standing like a sentinel near the water’s edge, she gave a start and scurried hastily into a seat a good distance away.

The staff were seated at last. Harry could see Scrimgeour looking grave and dignified in the front row with Professor McGonagall. He wondered whether Scrimgeour or any of these important people were really sorry that Dumbledore wasand he forgot his dislike of the Ministry in looking around for the source of it. He was not the only one: many heads were turning, searching, a little alarmed.

‘In there,’ whispered Ginny in Harry’s ear.

And he saw them in the clear green sunlit water, inches below the surface, reminding him horribly of the Inferi; a chorus of merpeople singing in a strange language he did not understand, their pallid faces rippling, their purplish hair flowing all around them. The music made the hair on Harry’s neck stand up and yet it was not unpleasant. It spoke very clearly of loss and of despair.

As he looked down into the wild faces of the singers he had the feeling that they, at least, were sorry for Dumbledore’s passing. Then Ginny nudged him again and he looked round.

Hagrid was walking slowly up the aisle between the chairs. He was crying quite silently, his face gleaming with tears, and in his arms, wrapped in purple velvet spangled with golden stars, was what Harry knew to be Dumbledore’s body. A sharp pain rose in Harry’s throat at this sight: for a moment, the strange music and the knowledge that Dumbledore’s body was so close seemed to take all warmth from the day.

Ron looked white and shocked. Tears were falling thick and fast into both Ginny and Hermione’s laps.

They could not see clearly what was happening at the front. Hagrid seemed to have placed the body carefully upon the table. Now he retreated down the aisle, blowing his nose with loud trumpeting noises that drew scandalised looks from some, including, Harry saw, Dolores Umbridge … but Harry knew that Dumbledore would not have cared. He tried to make a friendly gesture to Hagrid as he passed, but Hagrid’s eyes were so swollen it was a wonder he could see where he was going. Harry glanced at the back row to which Hagrid

was heading and realised what was guiding him, for there, dressed in a jacket and trousers each the size of a small mar­quee, was the giant Grawp, his great ugly boulder-like head bowed, docile, almost human. Hagrid sat down next to his half-brother and Grawp palled Hagrid hard on the head, so that his chair legs sank into the ground. Harry had a wonder­ful momentary urge to laugh. But then the music stopped and he turned to face the front again.

A little tufty-haired man in plain black robes had got to his feet and stood now in front of Dumbledore’s body. Harry could not hear what he was saying. Odd words floated back to them over the hundreds of beads.

‘Nobility of spirit’ … ‘intel­lectual contribution’ … ‘greatness of heart’ … it did not mean very much. It had little to do with Dumbledore as Harry had known him. He suddenly remembered Dumbledore’s idea of a few words: ‘nitwit’, ‘oddment’, ‘blubber’ and ‘tweak 1, and again, had to suppress a grin … what was the matter with him?

There was a soft splashing noise to his left and he saw that the merpeople had broken the surface to listen, too. He remembered Dumbledore crouching at the water’s edge two years ago, very close to where Harry now sat, and conversing in Mermish with the Merchieftainess. Harry wondered where Dumbledore had learned Mermish. There was so much he had never asked him, so much he should have said …

And then, without warning, it swept over him, the dreadful truth, more completely and undeniably than it had until now. Dumbledore was dead, gone … he clutched the cold locket in his hand so tightly that it hurt, but he could not prevent hot tears spilling from his eyes: he looked away from Ginny and the others and stared out over the lake, towards the Forest, as the little man in black droned on … there was movement among the trees. The centaurs had come to pay their respects, too. They did not move into the open but Harry saw them standing quite still, half-hidden in shadow, watching the wiz­ards, their bows hanging at their sides.

And Harry remem­bered his first nightmarish trip into the Forest, the first time he had ever encountered the thing that was then Voldemort, and how he had faced him, and how he and Dumbledore had discussed fighting a losing battle not long thereafter. It was important, Dumbledore said, to fight, and fight again, and keep fighting, for only then could evil be kept at bay, though never quite eradicated …

And Harry saw very clearly as be sal there under the hot sun bow people who cared about him had stood in front of him one by one, his mother, his father, his godfather, and finally Dumbledore, all determined to protect him; but now that was over.

He could not let anybody else stand between him and Voldemort; he must abandon for ever the illusion he ought to have lost at the age of one: that the shelter of a parent’s arms meant that nothing could hurt him. There was no waking from his nightmare, no comforting whisper in the dark that he was safe really, that it was all in his imagination; the last and greatest of his proteclors had died and he was more alone than he had ever been before.

The little man in black had stopped speaking at last and resumed his seat. Harry waited for somebody else to get to their feet; he expected speeches, probably from the Minister, but nobody moved.

Then several people screamed. Bright, white flames had erupted around Dumbledore’s body and the table upon which it lay: higher and higher they rose, obscuring the body. White smoke spiralled into the air and made strange shapes: Harry thought, for one heart-stopping moment, that he saw a phoenix fly joyfully into the blue, but next second the fire had vanished. In its place was a white marble tomb, encasing Dumbledore’s body and the table on which he had rested.

There were a few more cries of shock as a shower of arrows soared through the air, but they fell far short of the crowd. It was, Harry knew, the centaurs’ tribute: he saw them turn tail and disappear back into the cool trees. Likewise the mer-people sank slowly back into the green water and were lost from view.

Harry looked at Ginny, Ron and Hermione: Ron’s face was screwed up as though the sunlight was blinding him. Hermione’s face was glazed with tears, but Ginny was no longer crying. She met Harry’s gaze with the same hard, blazing look that he had seen when she had hugged him after winning the Quidditch Cup in his absence, and he knew that at that moment they understood each other perfectly, and that when he told her what he was going to do now, she would not say ‘Be careful’, or ‘Don’t do it’, but accept his decision, because she would not have expected anything less of him.

And so he steeled himself to say what he had known he must say ever since Dumbledore had died.

‘Ginny, listen …’ he said very quietly, as the buzz of con­versation grew louder around them and people began to get to their feet. ‘I can’t be involved with you anymore. We’ve got to stop seeing each other. We can’t be together.’

She said, with an oddly twisted smile, ‘It’s for some stupid, noble reason, isn’t it?’

‘It’s been like … like something out of someone else’s life, these last few weeks with you,’ said Harry. ‘But 1 can’t … we can’t … I’ve got things to do alone now.’

She did not cry, she simply looked at him,

‘Voldemort uses people his enemies are close to. He’s already used you as bait once, and that was just because you’re my best friend’s sister. Think how much danger you’ll be in if we keep this up. He’ll know, he’ll find out. He’ll try and get to me through you.’

‘What if I don’t care?’ said Ginny fiercely.

‘I care,’ said Harry. ‘How do you think I’d feel if this was your funeral … and it was my fault …’

She looked away from him, over the lake.

I never really gave up on you,’ she said. ‘Not really. I always hoped … Hermione told me to get on with life, maybe go out with some other people, relax a bit around you, because I never used to be able to talk if you were in the room, remember? And she thought you might take a bit more notice if I was a bit more – myself.’

‘Smart girl, that Hermione,’ said Harry, trying to smile. ‘I just wish I’d asked you sooner. We could’ve had ages … months … years maybe …’

‘But you’ve been too busy saving the wizarding world,’ said Ginny, half-laughing. ‘Well … I can’t say I’m surprised. I knew this would happen in the end. I knew you wouldn’t be happy unless you were hunting Voldemort. Maybe that’s why I like you so much.’

Harry could not bear to hear these things, nor did he think his resolution would hold if he remained sitting beside her. Ron, he saw, was now holding Hermione and stroking her hair while she sobbed into his shoulder, tears dripping from the end of his own long nose. With a miserable gesture, Harry got up, turned his back on Ginny and on Dumbledore’s tomb and walked away around the lake.

Moving felt much more bearable than sitting still: just as setting out as soon as possible to track down the Horcruxes and kill Voldemort would feel better than waiting to do it …

‘Harry!’

He turned. Rufus Scrimgeour was limping rapidly towards him around the bank, leaning on his walking stick.

‘I’ve been hoping to have a word … do you mind if I walk a little way with you?’

‘No,’ said Harry indifferently, and set off again.

‘Harry, this was a dreadful tragedy,’ said Scrimgeour quietly, ‘I cannot tell you how appalled I was to hear of it. Dumbledore was a very great wizard. We had our disagree­ments, as you know, but no one knows better than I -‘

•What do you want?’ asked Harry flatly.

Scrimgeour looked annoyed but, as before, hastily modified his expression to one of sorrowful understanding.

‘You are, of course, devastated,’ he said. ‘I know that you were very close to Dumbledore. I think you may have been his favourite ever pupil. The bond between the two of you -‘

‘What do you want?’ Harry repeated, coming to a halt.

Scrimgeour stopped too, leaned on his stick and stared at Harry, his expression shrewd now.

‘The word is that you were with him when he left the school the night that he died.’

‘Whose word?’ said Harry.

‘Somebody Stupefied a Death Eater on top of the Tower after Dumbledore died. There were also two broomsticks up there. The Ministry can add two and two, Harry.’

‘Glad to hear it,’ said Harry. ‘Well, where I went with Dumbledore and what we did is my business. He didn’t want people to know.’

‘Such loyalty is admirable, of course,’ said Scrimgeour, who seemed to be restraining his irritation with difficulty, ‘but Dumbledore is gone, Harry. He’s gone.’

‘He will only be gone from the school when none here are loyal to him,’ said Harry, smiling in spite of himself.

‘My dear boy … even Dumbledore cannot return from the-‘

‘I am not saying he can. You wouldn’t understand. But I’ve got nothing to tell you.’

Scrimgeour hesitated, then said, in what was evidently supposed to be a tone of delicacy, The Ministry can offer you all sorts of protection, you know, Harry. I would be delighted to place a couple of my Aurors at your service -‘

Harry laughed.

‘Voldemort wants to kill me himself and Aurors won’t stop him. So thanks for the offer, but no thanks.’

‘So,’ said Scrimgeour, his voice cold now, ‘the request I made of you at Christmas -‘

‘What request? Oh yeah … the one where I tell the world what a great job you’re doing in exchange for —’

‘- for raising everyone’s morale!’ snapped Scrimgeour.

Harry considered him for a moment.

‘Released Stan Shunpike yet?’

Scrimgeour turned a nasty purple colour highly remin­iscent of Uncle Vernon.

‘I see you are -‘

‘Dumbledore’s man through and through,’ said Harry. ‘That’s right.’

Scrimgeour glared at him for another moment, then turned and limped away without another word. Harry could see Percy and the rest of the Ministry delegation waiting for him, casting nervous glances at the sobbing Hagrid and Grawp, who were still in their seats. Ron and Hermione were hurry­ing towards Harry, passing Scrimgeour going in the opposite direction; Harry turned and walked slowly on, waiting for them to catch up, which they finally did in the shade of a beech tree under which they had sat in happier times.

“What did Scrimgeour want?’ Hermione whispered.

‘Same as he wanted at Christmas,’ shrugged Harry. ‘Wanted me to give him inside information on Dumbledore and be the Ministry’s new poster boy.’

Ron seemed to struggle with himself for a moment, then he said loudly to Hermione, ‘Look, let me go back and hit Percy!’

‘No,’ she said firmly, grabbing his arm.

‘It’ll make me feel better!’

Harry laughed. Even Hermione grinned a little, though her smile faded as she looked up at the castle.

‘I can’t bear the idea that we might never come back.’ she said softly. ‘How can Hogwarts close?’

‘Maybe it won’t,’ said Ron. ‘We’re not in any more danger here than we are at home, are we? Everywhere’s the same now. I’d even say Hogwarts is safer, there are more wizards inside to defend the place. What d’you reckon, Harry?’

‘I’m not coming back even if it does reopen,’ said Harry.

Ron gaped at him, but Hermione said sadly, ‘I knew you were going to say that. But then what will you do? 1

‘I’m going back to the Dursleys’ once more, because Dumbledore wanted me to,’ said Harry. ‘But it’ll be a short visit, and then I’ll be gone for good.’

‘But where will you go if you don’t come back to school?’

‘I thought I might go back to Godric’s Hollow,’ Harry mut­tered. He had had the idea in his head ever since the night of Dumbledore’s death. ‘For me, it started there, all of it. I’ve just got a feeling I need to go there. And I can visit my parents’ graves, I’d like that.’

‘And then what?’ said Ron.

Then I’ve got to track down the rest of the Horcruxes, haven’t I?’ said Harry, his eyes upon Dumbledore’s white tomb, reflected in the water on the other side of the lake. That’s what he wanted me to do, that’s why he told me all about them.

If Dumbledore was right – and I’m sure he was -there are still four of them out there. I’ve got to find them and destroy them and then I’ve got to go after the seventh bit of Voldemort’s soul, the bit that’s still in his body, and I’m the one who’s going to kill him. And if I meet Severus Snape

along the way,’ he added, ‘so much trie better tor me, so mucn the worse for him.’

There was a long silence. The crowd had almost dispersed now, the stragglers giving the monumental figure of Grawp a wide berth as he cuddled Hagrid, whose howls of grief were still echoing across the water.

‘We’ll be there, Harry,’ said Ron.

‘What?’

At your aunt and uncle’s house,’ said Ron. ‘And then we’ll go with you, wherever you’re going.’

‘No -‘ said Harry quickly; he had not counted on this, he had meant them to understand that he was undertaking this most dangerous journey alone.

‘You said to us once before,’ said Hermione quietly, ‘that there was time to turn back if we wanted to. We’ve had time, haven’t we?’

‘We’re with you whatever happens,’ said Ron. ‘But, mate, you’re going to have to come round my mum and dad’s house before we do anything else, even Godric’s Hollow.’

‘Why?’

‘Bill and Fleur’s wedding, remember?’

Harry looked at him, startled; the idea that anything as normal as a wedding could still exist seemed incredible and yet wonderful.

‘Yeah, we shouldn’t miss that,’ he said finally.

His hand closed automatically around the fake Horcrux, but in spite of everything, in spite of the dark and twisting path he saw stretching ahead for himself, in spite of the final meeting with Voldemort he knew must come, whether in a month, in a year, or in ten, he felt his heart lift at the thought that there was still one last golden day of peace left to enjoy with Ron and Hermione.

Telah Terbit on Desember 12, 2008 at 7:19 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. Here’s an interesting take:
    http://evidentlyeverywhere.wordpress.com/2008/12/11/does-talent-really-exist/


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