/ Language: / Genre:child_adv, / Series: Harry Potter

Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix

J. Rowling


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

To Neil, Jessica and David,

who make my world magical

1. DUDLEY DEMENTED

The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive. Cars that were usually gleaming stood dusty in their drives and lawns that were once emerald green lay parched and yellowing—for the use of hosepipes had been banned due to drought. Deprived of their usual car-washing and lawn-mowing pursuits, the inhabitants of Privet Drive had retreated into the shade of their cool houses, windows thrown wide in the hope of tempting in a nonexistent breeze. The only person left outdoors was a teenage boy who was lying flat on his back in a flowerbed outside number four.

He was a skinny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who had the pinched, slightly unhealthy look of someone who has grown a lot in a short space of time. His jeans were torn and dirty, his T-shirt baggy and faded, and the soles of his trainers were peeling away from the uppers. Harry Potter’s appearance did not endear him to the neighbours, who were the sort of people who thought scruffiness ought to be punishable by law, but as he had hidden himself behind a large hydrangea bush this evening he was quite invisible to passers-by. In fact, the only way he would be spotted was if his Uncle Vernon or Aunt Petunia stuck their heads out of the living-room window and looked straight down into the flowerbed below.

On the whole, Harry thought he was to be congratulated on his idea of hiding here. He was not, perhaps, very comfortable lying on the hot, hard earth but, on the other hand, nobody was glaring at him, grinding their teeth so loudly that he could not hear the news, or shooting nasty questions at him, as had happened every time he had tried sitting down in the living room to watch television with his aunt and uncle.

Almost as though this thought had fluttered through the open window, Vernon Dursley, Harry’s uncle, suddenly spoke.

“Glad to see the boy’s stopped trying to butt in. Where is he, anyway?”

“I don’t know,” said Aunt Petunia, unconcerned. “Not in the house.”

Uncle Vernon grunted.

“Watching the news…” he said scathingly. “I’d like to know what he’s really up to. As if a normal boy cares what’s on the news—Dudley hasn’t got a clue what’s going on; doubt he knows who the Prime Minister is! Anyway, it’s not as if there’d be anything about his lot on our news—”

“Vernon, shh!” said Aunt Petunia. “The window’s open!”

“Oh—yes—sorry, dear.”

The Dursleys fell silent. Harry listened to a jingle about Fruit’n’Bran breakfast cereal while he watched Mrs. Figg, a batty cat-loving old lady from nearby Wisteria Walk, amble slowly past. She was frowning and muttering to herself. Harry was very pleased he was concealed behind the bush, as Mrs. Figg had recently taken to asking him round for tea whenever she met him in the street. She had rounded the corner and vanished from view before Uncle Vernon’s voice floated out of the window again.

“Dudders out for tea?”

“At the Polkisses’,” said Aunt Petunia fondly. “He’s got so many little friends, he’s so popular—”

Harry suppressed a snort with difficulty. The Dursleys really were astonishingly stupid about their son, Dudley. They had swallowed all his dim-witted lies about having tea with a different member of his gang every night of the summer holidays. Harry knew perfectly well that Dudley had not been to tea anywhere; he and his gang spent every evening vandalising the play park, smoking on street corners and throwing stones at passing cars and children. Harry had seen them at it during his evening walks around Little Whinging; he had spent most of the holidays wandering the streets, scavenging newspapers from bins along the way.

The opening notes of the music that heralded the seven o’clock news reached Harry’s ears and his stomach turned over. Perhaps tonight—after a month of waiting—would be the night.

“Record numbers of stranded holiday makers fill airports as the Spanish baggage-handlers’ strike reaches its second week—”

“Give ’em a lifelong siesta, I would,” snarled Uncle Vernon over the end of the newsreader’s sentence, but no matter: outside in the flowerbed, Harry’s stomach seemed to unclench. If anything had happened, it would surely have been the first item on the news; death and destruction were more important than stranded holidaymakers.

He let out a long, slow breath and stared up at the brilliant blue sky. Every day this summer had been the same: the tension, the expectation, the temporary relief, and then mounting tension again… and always, growing more insistent all the time, the question of why nothing had happened yet.

He kept listening, just in case there was some small clue, not recognised for what it really was by the Muggles—an unexplained disappearance, perhaps, or some strange accident… but the baggage-handlers’ strike was followed by news about the drought in the Southeast (“I hope he’s listening next door!” bellowed Uncle Vernon. “Him with his sprinklers on at three in the morning!”), then a helicopter that had almost crashed in a field in Surrey, then a famous actress’s divorce from her famous husband (“As if we’re interested in their sordid affairs,” sniffed Aunt Petunia, who had followed the case obsessively in every magazine she could lay her bony hands on).

Harry closed his eyes against the now blazing evening sky as the newsreader said, “—and finally, Bungy the budgie has found a novel way of keeping cool this summer. Bungy, who lives at the Five Feathers in Barnsley, has learned to water ski! Mary Dorkins went to find out more.”

Harry opened his eyes. If they had reached water-skiing budgerigars, there would be nothing else worth hearing. He rolled cautiously on to his front and raised himself on to his knees and elbows, preparing to crawl out from under the window.

He had moved about two inches when several things happened in very quick succession.

A loud, echoing crack broke the sleepy silence like a gunshot; a cat streaked out from under a parked car and flew out of sight; a shriek, a bellowed oath and the sound of breaking china came from the Dursleys’ living room, and as though this was the signal Harry had been waiting for he jumped to his feet, at the same time pulling from the waistband of his jeans a thin wooden wand as if he were unsheathing a sword—but before he could draw himself up to full height, the top of his head collided with the Dursleys’ open window. The resultant crash made Aunt Petunia scream even louder.

Harry felt as though his head had been split in two. Eyes streaming, he swayed, trying to focus on the street to spot the source of the noise, but he had barely staggered upright when two large purple hands reached through the open window and closed tightly around his throat.

“Put—it—away!” Uncle Vernon snarled into Harry’s ear. “Now! Before—anyone—sees!”

“Get—off—me!” Harry gasped. For a few seconds they struggled, Harry pulling at his uncles sausage-like fingers with his left hand, his right maintaining a firm grip on his raised wand; then, as the pain in the top of Harry’s head gave a particularly nasty throb, Uncle Vernon yelped and released Harry as though he had received an electric shock. Some invisible force seemed to have surged through his nephew, making him impossible to hold.

Panting, Harry fell forwards over the hydrangea bush, straightened up and stared around. There was no sign of what had caused the loud cracking noise, but there were several faces peering through various nearby windows. Harry stuffed his wand hastily back into his jeans and tried to look innocent.

“Lovely evening!” shouted Uncle Vernon, waving at Mrs. Number Seven opposite, who was glaring from behind her net curtains. “Did you hear that car backfire just now? Gave Petunia and me quite a turn!”

He continued to grin in a horrible, manic way until all the curious neighbours had disappeared from their various windows, then the grin became a grimace of rage as he beckoned Harry back towards him.

Harry moved a few steps closer, taking care to stop just short of the point at which Uncle Vernon’s outstretched hands could resume their strangling.

“What the devil do you mean by it, boy?” asked Uncle Vernon in a croaky voice that trembled with fury.

“What do I mean by what?” said Harry coldly. He kept looking left and right up the street, still hoping to see the person who had made the cracking noise.

“Making a racket like a starting pistol right outside our—”

“I didn’t make that noise,” said Harry firmly.

Aunt Petunia’s thin, horsy face now appeared beside Uncle Vernon’s wide, purple one. She looked livid.

“Why were you lurking under our window?”

“Yes—yes, good point, Petunia! What were you doing under our window, boy?”

“Listening to the news,” said Harry in a resigned voice.

His aunt and uncle exchanged looks of outrage.

“Listening to the news! Again?”

“Well, it changes every day, you see,” said Harry.

“Don’t you be clever with me, boy! I want to know what you’re really up to—and don’t give me any more of this listening to the news tosh! You know perfectly well that your lot—”

“Careful, Vernon!” breathed Aunt Petunia, and Uncle Vernon lowered his voice so that Harry could barely hear him, “—that your lot don’t get on our news!”

“That’s all you know,” said Harry.

The Dursleys goggled at him for a few seconds, then Aunt Petunia said, “You’re a nasty little liar. What are all those—” she, too, lowered her voice so that Harry had to lip-read the next word, “—owls doing if they’re not bringing you news?”

“Aha!” said Uncle Vernon in a triumphant whisper. “Get out of that one, boy! As if we didn’t know you get all your news from those pestilential birds!”

Harry hesitated for a moment. It cost him something to tell the truth this time, even though his aunt and uncle could not possibly know how bad he felt at admitting it.

“The owls… aren’t bringing me news,” he said tonelessly.

“I don’t believe it,” said Aunt Petunia at once.

“No more do I,” said Uncle Vernon forcefully.

“We know you’re up to something funny,” said Aunt Petunia.

“We’re not stupid, you know,” said Uncle Vernon.

“Well, that’s news to me,” said Harry, his temper rising, and before the Dursleys could call him back, he had wheeled about, crossed the front lawn, stepped over the low garden wall and was striding off up the street.

He was in trouble now and he knew it. He would have to face his aunt and uncle later and pay the price for his rudeness, but he did not care very much just at the moment; he had much more pressing matters on his mind.

Harry was sure the cracking noise had been made by someone Apparating or Disapparating. It was exactly the sound Dobby the house-elf made when he vanished into thin air. Was it possible that Dobby was here in Privet Drive? Could Dobby be following him right at this very moment? As this thought occurred he wheeled around and stared back down Privet Drive, but it appeared to be completely deserted and Harry was sure that Dobby did not know how to become invisible.

He walked on, hardly aware of the route he was taking, for he had pounded these streets so often lately that his feet carried him to his favourite haunts automatically. Every few steps he glanced back over his shoulder. Someone magical had been near him as he lay among Aunt Petunia’s dying begonias, he was sure of it. Why hadn’t they spoken to him, why hadn’t they made contact, why were they hiding now?

And then, as his feeling of frustration peaked, his certainty leaked away.

Perhaps it hadn’t been a magical sound after all. Perhaps he was so desperate for the tiniest sign of contact from the world to which he belonged that he was simply overreacting to perfectly ordinary noises. Could he be sure it hadn’t been the sound of something breaking inside a neighbour’s house?

Harry felt a dull, sinking sensation in his stomach and before he knew it the feeling of hopelessness that had plagued him all summer rolled over him once again.

Tomorrow morning he would be woken by the alarm at five o’clock so he could pay the owl that delivered the Daily Prophet—but was there any point continuing to take it? Harry merely glanced at the front page before throwing it aside these days; when the idiots who ran the paper finally realised that Voldemort was back it would be headline news, and that was the only kind Harry cared about.

If he was lucky, there would also be owls carrying letters from his best friends Ron and Hermione, though any expectation he’d had that their letters would bring him news had long since been dashed.

We can’t say much about you-know-what, obviously… We’ve been told not to say anything important in case our letters go astray… We’re quite busy but I can’t give you details here… There’s a fair amount going on, we’ll tell you everything when we see you…

But when were they going to see him? Nobody seemed too bothered with a precise date. Hermione had scribbled I expect we’ll be seeing you quite soon inside his birthday card, but how soon was soon? As far as Harry could tell from the vague hints in their letters, Hermione and Ron were in the same place, presumably at Ron’s parents’ house. He could hardly bear to think of the pair of them having fun at The Burrow when he was stuck in Privet Drive. In fact, he was so angry with them he had thrown away, unopened, the two boxes of Honeydukes chocolates they’d sent him for his birthday. He’d regretted it later, after the wilted salad Aunt Petunia had provided for dinner that night.

And what were Ron and Hermione busy with? Why wasn’t he, Harry, busy? Hadn’t he proved himself capable of handling much more than them? Had they all forgotten what he had done? Hadn’t it been he who had entered that graveyard and watched Cedric being murdered, and been tied to that tombstone and nearly killed?

Don’t think about that, Harry told himself sternly for the hundredth lime that summer. It was bad enough that he kept revisiting the graveyard in his nightmares, without dwelling on it in his waking moments too.

He turned a corner into Magnolia Crescent; halfway along he passed the narrow alleyway down the side of a garage where he had first clapped eyes on his godfather. Sirius, at least, seemed to understand how Harry was feeling. Admittedly, his letters were just as empty of proper news as Ron and Hermione’s, but at least they contained words of caution and consolation instead of tantalising hints: I know this must be frustrating for you… Keep your nose clean and everything will be OK… Be careful and don’t do anything rash…

Well, thought Harry, as he crossed Magnolia Crescent, turned into Magnolia Road and headed towards the darkening play park, he had (by and large) done as Sirius advised. He had at least resisted the temptation to tie his trunk to his broomstick and set off for The Burrow by himself. In fact, Harry thought his behaviour had been very good considering how frustrated and angry he felt at being stuck in Privet Drive so long, reduced to hiding in flowerbeds in the hope of hearing something that might point to what Lord Voldemort was doing. Nevertheless, it was quite galling to be told not to be rash by a man who had served twelve years in the wizard prison, Azkaban, escaped, attempted to commit the murder he had been convicted for in the first place, then gone on the run with a stolen Hippogriff.

Harry vaulted over the locked park gate and set off across the parched grass. The park was as empty as the surrounding streets. When he reached the swings he sank on to the only one that Dudley and his friends had not yet managed to break, coiled one arm around the chain and stared moodily at the ground. He would not be able to hide in the Dursleys’ flowerbed again. Tomorrow, he would have to think of some fresh way of listening to the news. In the meantime, he had nothing to look forward to but another restless, disturbed night, because even when he escaped the nightmares about Cedric he had unsettling dreams about long dark corridors, all finishing in dead ends and locked doors, which he supposed had something to do with the trapped feeling he had when he was awake. Often the old scar on his forehead prickled uncomfortably, but he did not fool himself that Ron or Hermione or Sirius would find that very interesting any more. In the past, his scar hurting had warned that Voldemort was getting stronger again, but now that Voldemort was back they would probably remind him that its regular irritation was only to be expected… nothing to worry about… old news…

The injustice of it all welled up inside him so that he wanted to yell with fury. If it hadn’t been for him, nobody would even have known Voldemort was back! And his reward was to be stuck in Little Whinging for four solid weeks, completely cut off from the magical world, reduced to squatting among dying begonias so that he could hear about water-skiing budgerigars! How could Dumbledore have forgotten him so easily? Why had Ron and Hermione got together without inviting him along, too? How much longer was he supposed to endure Sirius telling him to sit tight and be a good boy; or resist the temptation to write to the stupid Daily Prophet and point out that Voldemort had returned? These furious thoughts whirled around in Harry’s head, and his insides writhed with anger as a sultry, velvety night fell around him, the air full of the smell of warm, dry grass, and the only sound that of the low grumble of traffic on the road beyond the park railings.

He did not know how long he had sat on the swing before the sound of voices interrupted his musings and he looked up. The streetlamps from the surrounding roads were casting a misty glow strong enough to silhouette a group of people making their way across the park. One of them was singing a loud, crude song. The others were laughing. A soft ticking noise came from several expensive racing bikes that they were wheeling along.

Harry knew who those people were. The figure in front was unmistakeably his cousin, Dudley Dursley, wending his way home, accompanied by his faithful gang.

Dudley was as vast as ever, but a year’s hard dieting and the discovery of a new talent had wrought quite a change in his physique. As Uncle Vernon delightedly told anyone who would listen, Dudley had recently become the Junior Heavyweight Inter-School Boxing Champion of the Southeast. The noble sport, as Uncle Vernon called it, had made Dudley even more formidable than he had seemed to Harry in their primary school days when he had served as Dudley’s first punchball. Harry was not remotely afraid of his cousin any more but he still didn’t think that Dudley learning to punch harder and more accurately was cause for celebration. Neighbourhood children all around were terrified of him—even more terrified than they were of ‘that Potter boy’ who, they had been warned, was a hardened hooligan and attended St. Brutus’s Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys.

Harry watched the dark figures crossing the grass and wondered who they had been beating up tonight. Look round, Harry found himself thinking as he watched them. Come on… look round… I’m sitting here all alone… come and have a go…

If Dudley’s friends saw him sitting here, they would be sure to make a beeline for him, and what would Dudley do then? He wouldn’t want to lose face in front of the gang, but he’d be terrified of provoking Harry… it would be really fun to watch Dudley’s dilemma, to taunt him, watch him, with him powerless to respond… and if any of the others tried hitting Harry, he was ready—he had his wand. Let them try… he’d love to vent some of his frustration on the boys who had once made his life hell.

But they didn’t turn around, they didn’t see him, they were almost at the railings. Harry mastered the impulse to call after them… seeking a fight was not a smart move… he must not use magic… he would be risking expulsion again.

The voices of Dudley’s gang died away; they were out of sight, heading along Magnolia Road.

There you go, Sirius, Harry thought dully. Nothing rash. Kept my nose clean. Exactly the opposite of what you’d have done.

He got to his feet and stretched. Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon seemed to feel that whenever Dudley turned up was the right time to be home, and any time after that was much too late. Uncle Vernon had threatened to lock Harry in the shed if he came home after Dudley ever again, so, stifling a yawn, and still scowling, Harry set off towards the park gate.

Magnolia Road, like Privet Drive, was full of large, square houses with perfectly manicured lawns, all owned by large, square owners who drove very clean cars similar to Uncle Vernon’s. Harry preferred Little Whinging by night, when the curtained windows made patches of jewel-bright colour in the darkness and he ran no danger of hearing disapproving mutters about his “delinquent” appearance when he passed the householders. He walked quickly, so that halfway along Magnolia Road Dudley’s gang came into view again; they were saying their farewells at the entrance to Magnolia Crescent. Harry stepped into the shadow of a large lilac tree and waited.

“…squealed like a pig, didn’t he?” Malcolm was saying, to guffaws from the others.

“Nice right hook, Big D,” said Piers.

“Same time tomorrow?” said Dudley.

“Round at my place, my parents will be out,” said Gordon.

“See you then,” said Dudley.

“Bye, Dud!”

“See ya, Big D!”

Harry waited for the rest of the gang to move on before setting off again. When their voices had faded once more he headed around the corner into Magnolia Crescent and by walking very quickly he soon came within hailing distance of Dudley, who was strolling along at his ease, humming tunelessly.

“Hey, Big D!”

Dudley turned.

“Oh,” he grunted. “It’s you.”

“How long have you been ‘Big D’ then?” said Harry.

“Shut it,” snarled Dudley, turning away.

“Cool name,” said Harry, grinning and falling into step beside his cousin. “But you’ll always be ‘Ickle Diddykins’ to me.”

“I said, SHUT IT!” said Dudley, whose ham-like hands had curled into fists.

“Don’t the boys know that’s what your mum calls you?”

“Shut your face.”

“You don’t tell her to shut her face. What about “Popkin” and “Dinky Diddydums”, can I use them then?”

Dudley said nothing. The effort of keeping himself from hitting Harry seemed to demand all his self-control.

“So who’ve you been beating up tonight?” Harry asked, his grin fading. “Another ten-year-old? I know you did Mark Evans two nights ago—”

“He was asking for it,” snarled Dudley.

“Oh yeah?”

“He cheeked me.”

“Yeah? Did he say you look like a pig that’s been taught to walk on its hind legs? ’Cause that’s not cheek, Dud, that’s true.”

A muscle was twitching in Dudley’s jaw. It gave Harry enormous satisfaction to know how furious he was making Dudley; he felt as though he was siphoning off his own frustration into his cousin, the only outlet he had.

They turned right down the narrow alleyway where Harry had first seen Sirius and which formed a short cut between Magnolia Crescent and Wisteria Walk. It was empty and much darker than the streets it linked because there were no streetlamps. Their footsteps were muffled between garage walls on one side and a high fence on the other.

“Think you’re a big man carrying that thing, don’t you?” Dudley said after a few seconds.

“What thing?”

“That—that thing you are hiding.”

Harry grinned again.

“Not as stupid as you look, are you, Dud? But I’s’pose, if you were, you wouldn’t be able to walk and talk at the same time.”

Harry pulled out his wand. He saw Dudley look sideways at it.

“You’re not allowed,” Dudley said at once. “I know you’re not. You’d get expelled from that freak school you go to.”

“How d’you know they haven’t changed the rules, Big D?”

“They haven’t,” said Dudley, though he didn’t sound completely convinced.

Harry laughed softly.

“You haven’t got the guts to take me on without that thing, have you?” Dudley snarled.

“Whereas you just need four mates behind you before you can beat up a ten year old. You know that boxing title you keep banging on about? How old was your opponent? Seven? Eight?”

“He was sixteen, for your information,” snarled Dudley, “and he was out cold for twenty minutes after I’d finished with him and he was twice as heavy as you. You just wait till I tell Dad you had that thing out—”

“Running to Daddy now, are you? Is his ickle boxing champ frightened of nasty Harry’s wand?”

“Not this brave at night, are you?” sneered Dudley.

“This is night, Diddykins. That’s what we call it when it goes all dark like this.”

“I mean when you’re in bed!” Dudley snarled.

He had stopped walking. Harry stopped too, staring at his cousin.

From the little he could see of Dudley’s large face, he was wearing a strangely triumphant look.

“What d’you mean, I’m not brave when I’m in bed?” said Harry, completely nonplussed. “What am I supposed to be frightened of, pillows or something?”

“I heard you last night,” said Dudley breathlessly. “Talking in your sleep. Moaning.”

“What d’you mean?” Harry said again, but there was a cold, plunging sensation in his stomach. He had revisited the graveyard last night in his dreams.

Dudley gave a harsh bark of laughter, then adopted a high-pitched whimpering voice.

“‘Don’t kill Cedric! Don’t kill Cedric!’ Who’s Cedric—your boyfriend?”

“I—you’re lying,” said Harry automatically. But his mouth had gone dry. He knew Dudley wasn’t lying—how else would he know about Cedric?

“‘Dad! Help me, Dad! He’s going to kill me, Dad!’ Boo hoo!”

“Shut up,” said Harry quietly. “Shut up, Dudley, I’m warning you!”

“‘Come and help me, Dad! Mum, come and help me! He’s killed Cedric! Dad, help me! He’s going to—’ Don’t you point that thing at me!”

Dudley backed into the alley wall. Harry was pointing the wand directly at Dudley’s heart. Harry could feel fourteen years’ hatred of Dudley pounding in his veins—what wouldn’t he give to strike now, to jinx Dudley so thoroughly he’d have to crawl home like an insect, struck dumb, sprouting feelers…

“Don’t ever talk about that again,” Harry snarled. “D’you understand me?”

“Point that thing somewhere else!”

“I said, do you understand me?”

“Point it somewhere else!”

“DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?”

“GET THAT THING AWAY FROM—”

Dudley gave an odd, shuddering gasp, as though he had been doused in icy water.

Something had happened to the night. The star-strewn indigo sky was suddenly pitch black and lightless—the stars, the moon, the misty streetlamps at either end of the alley had vanished. The distant rumble of cars and the whisper of trees had gone. The balmy evening was suddenly piercingly, bitingly cold. They were surrounded by total, impenetrable, silent darkness, as though some giant hand had dropped a thick, icy mantle over the entire alleyway, blinding them.

For a split second Harry thought he had done magic without meaning to, despite the fact that he’d been resisting as hard as he could—then his reason caught up with his senses—he didn’t have the power to turn off the stars. He turned his head this way and that, trying to see something, but the darkness pressed on his eyes like a weightless veil.

Dudley’s terrified voice broke in Harry’s ear.

“W-what are you d-doing? St-stop it!”

“I’m not doing anything! Shut up and don’t move!”

“I c-can’t see! I’ve g-gone blind! I—”

“I said shut up!”

Harry stood stock still, turning his sightless eyes left and right. The cold was so intense he was shivering all over; goose bumps had erupted up his arms and the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up—he opened his eyes to their fullest extent, staring blankly around, unseeing.

It was impossible… they couldn’t be here… not in Little Whinging… he strained his ears… he would hear them before he saw them…

“I’ll’t-tell Dad!” Dudley whimpered. “W-where are you? What are you d-do—?”

“Will you shut up?” Harry hissed, “I’m trying to lis—”

But he fell silent. He had heard just the thing he had been dreading.

There was something in the alleyway apart from themselves, something that was drawing long, hoarse, rattling breaths. Harry felt a horrible jolt of dread as he stood trembling in the freezing air.

“C-cut it out! Stop doing it! I’ll h-hit you, I swear I will!”

“Dudley, shut—”

WHAM.

A fist made contact with the side of Harry’s head, lifting him off his feet. Small white lights popped in front of his eyes. For the second time in an hour Harry felt as though his head had been cleaved in two; next moment, he had landed hard on the ground and his wand had flown out of his hand.

“You moron, Dudley!” Harry yelled, his eyes watering with pain as he scrambled to his hands and knees, feeling around frantically in the blackness. He heard Dudley blundering away, hitting the alley fence, stumbling.

“DUDLEY, COME BACK! YOU’RE RUNNING RIGHT AT IT!”

There was a horrible squealing yell and Dudley’s footsteps stopped. At the same moment, Harry felt a creeping chill behind him that could mean only one thing. There was more than one.

“DUDLEY, KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT! WHATEVER YOU DO, KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT! Wand!” Harry muttered frantically, his hands flying over the ground like spiders. “Where’s—wand—come on—lumos!”

He said the spell automatically, desperate for light to help him in his search—and to his disbelieving relief, light flared inches from his right hand—the wand tip had ignited. Harry snatched it up, scrambled to his feet and turned around.

His stomach turned over.

A towering, hooded figure was gliding smoothly towards him, hovering over the ground, no feet or face visible beneath its robes, sucking on the night as it came.

Stumbling backwards, Harry raised his wand.

“Expecto patronum!”

A silvery wisp of vapour shot from the tip of the wand and the Dementor slowed, but the spell hadn’t worked properly; tripping over his own feet, Harry retreated further as the Dementor bore down upon him, panic fogging his brain—concentrate

A pair of grey, slimy, scabbed hands slid from inside the Dementor’s robes, reaching for him. A rushing noise filled Harry’s ears.

“Expecto patronum!”

His voice sounded dim and distant. Another wisp of silver smoke, feebler than the last, drifted from the wand—he couldn’t do it any more, he couldn’t work the spell.

There was laughter inside his own head, shrill, high-pitched laughter… he could smell the Dementor’s putrid, death-cold breath filling his own lungs, drowning him—think… something happy…

But there was no happiness in him… the Dementor’s icy fingers were closing on his throat—the high-pitched laughter was growing louder and louder, and a voice spoke inside his head: “Bow to death, Harry… it might even be painless… I would not know… I have never died…”

He was never going to see Ron and Hermione again—

And their faces burst clearly into his mind as he fought for breath.

“EXPECTO PATRONUM!”

An enormous silver stag erupted from the tip of Harry’s wand; its antlers caught the Dementor in the place where the heart should have been; it was thrown backwards, weightless as darkness, and as the stag charged, the Dementor swooped away, bat-like and defeated.

“THIS WAY!” Harry shouted at the stag. Wheeling around, he sprinted down the alleyway, holding the lit wand aloft. “DUDLEY? DUDLEY!”

He had run barely a dozen steps when he reached them: Dudley was curled up on the ground, his arms clamped over his face. A second Dementor was crouching low over him, gripping his wrists in its slimy hands, prising them slowly almost lovingly apart, lowering its hooded head towards Dudley’s face as though about to kiss him.

“GET IT!” Harry bellowed, and with a rushing, roaring sound, the silver stag he had conjured came galloping past him. The Dementor’s eyeless face was barely an inch from Dudley’s when the silver antlers caught it; the thing was thrown up into the air and, like its fellow, it soared away and was absorbed into the darkness; the stag cantered to the end of the alleyway and dissolved into silver mist.

Moon, stars and streetlamps burst back into life. A warm breeze swept the alleyway. Trees rustled in neighbouring gardens and the mundane rumble of cars in Magnolia Crescent filled the air again.

Harry stood quite still, all his senses vibrating, taking in the abrupt return to normality. After a moment, he became aware that his T-shirt was sticking to him; he was drenched in sweat.

He could not believe what had just happened. Dementors here, in Little Whinging.

Dudley lay curled up on the ground, whimpering and shaking. Harry bent down to see whether he was in a fit state to stand up, but then he heard loud, running footsteps behind him. Instinctively raising his wand again, he span on his heel to face the newcomer.

Mrs. Figg, their batty old neighbour, came panting into sight. Her grizzled grey hair was escaping from its hairnet, a clanking string shopping bag was swinging from her wrist and her feet were halfway out of her tartan carpet slippers. Harry made to stow his wand hurriedly out of sight, but—

“Don’t put it away, idiot boy!” she shrieked. “What if there are more of them around? Oh, I’m going to kill Mundungus Fletcher!”

2. A PECK OF OWLS

“What?” said Harry blankly.

“He left!” said Mrs. Figg, wringing her hands. “Left to see someone about a batch of cauldrons that fell off the back of a broom! I told him I’d flay him alive if he went, and now look! Dementors! It’s just lucky I put Mr. Tibbies on the case! But we haven’t got time to stand around! Hurry, now, we’ve got to get you back! Oh, the trouble this is going to cause! I will kill him!”

“But—” The revelation that his batty old cat-obsessed neighbour knew what Dementors were was almost as big a shock to Harry as meeting two of them down the alleyway. “You’re—you’re a witch?”

“I’m a Squib, as Mundungus knows full well, so how on earth was I supposed to help you fight off Dementors? He left you completely without cover when I’d warned him—”

“This Mundungus has been following me? Hang on—it was him! He Disapparated from the front of my house!”

“Yes, yes, yes, but luckily I’d stationed Mr. Tibbies under a car just in case, and Mr. Tibbies came and warned me, but by the time I got to your house you’d gone—and now—oh, what’s Dumbledore going to say? You!” she shrieked at Dudley, still supine on the alley floor. “Get your fat bottom off the ground, quick!”

“You know Dumbledore?” said Harry, staring at her.

“Of course I know Dumbledore, who doesn’t know Dumbledore? But come on—I’ll be no help if they come back, I’ve never so much as Transfigured a teabag.”

She stooped down, seized one of Dudley’s massive arms in her wizened hands and tugged.

“Get up, you useless lump, get up!”

But Dudley either could not or would not move. He remained on the ground, trembling and ashen-faced, his mouth shut very tight.

“I’ll do it.” Harry took hold of Dudley’s arm and heaved. With an enormous effort he managed to hoist him to his feet. Dudley seemed to be on the point of fainting. His small eyes were rolling in their sockets and sweat was beading his face; the moment Harry let go of him he swayed dangerously.

“Hurry up!” said Mrs. Figg hysterically.

Harry pulled one of Dudley’s massive arms around his own shoulders and dragged him towards the road, sagging slightly under the weight. Mrs. Figg tottered along in front of them, peering anxiously around the corner.

“Keep your wand out,” she told Harry, as they entered Wisteria Walk. “Never mind the Statute of Secrecy now, there’s going to be hell to pay anyway, we might as well be hanged for a dragon as an egg. Talk about the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery… this was exactly what Dumbledore was afraid of—What’s that at the end of the street? Oh, it’s just Mr. Prentice… don’t put your wand away, boy, don’t I keep telling you I’m no use?”

It was not easy to hold a wand steady and haul Dudley along at the same time. Harry gave his cousin an impatient dig in the ribs, but Dudley seemed to have lost all desire for independent movement. He was slumped on Harry’s shoulder, his large feet dragging along the ground.

“Why didn’t you tell me you’re a Squib, Mrs. Figg?” asked Harry, panting with the effort to keep walking. “All those times I came round your house—why didn’t you say anything?”

“Dumbledore’s orders. I was to keep an eye on you but not say anything, you were too young. I’m sorry I gave you such a miserable time, Harry, but the Dursleys would never have let you come if they’d thought you enjoyed it. It wasn’t easy, you know… but oh my word,” she said tragically, wringing her hands once more, “when Dumbledore hears about this—how could Mundungus have left, he was supposed to be on duty until midnight—where is he? How am I going to tell Dumbledore what’s happened? I can’t Apparate.”

“I’ve got an owl, you can borrow her,” Harry groaned, wondering whether his spine was going to snap under Dudley’s weight.

“Harry, you don’t understand! Dumbledore will need to act as quickly as possible, the Ministry have their own ways of detecting underage magic, they’ll know already, you mark my words.”

“But I was getting rid of Dementors, I had to use magic—they’re going to be more worried about what Dementors were doing floating around Wisteria Walk, surely?”

“Oh, my dear, I wish it were so, but I’m afraid—MUNDUNGUS FLETCHER, I AM GOING TO KILL YOU!”

There was a loud crack and a strong smell of drink mingled with stale tobacco filled the air as a squat, unshaven man in a tattered overcoat materialised right in front of them. He had short, bandy legs, long straggly ginger hair and bloodshot, baggy eyes that gave him the doleful look of a basset hound. He was also clutching a silvery bundle that Harry recognised at once as an Invisibility Cloak.

“S’up, Figgy?” he said, staring from Mrs. Figg to Harry and Dudley. “What ’appened to staying undercover?”

“I’ll give you undercover!” cried Mrs. Figg. “Dementors, you useless, skiving sneak thief!”

“Dementors?” repeated Mundungus, aghast. “Dementors, ’ere?”

“Yes, here, you worthless pile of bat droppings, here!” shrieked Mrs. Figg. “Dementors attacking the boy on your watch!”

“Blimey,” said Mundungus weakly, looking from Mrs. Figg to Harry, and back again. “Blimey, I—”

“And you off buying stolen cauldrons! Didn’t I tell you not to go? Didn’t I—”

“I—well, I—” Mundungus looked deeply uncomfortable. “It—it was a very good business opportunity, see—”

Mrs. Figg raised the arm from which her string bag dangled and whacked Mundungus around the face and neck with it; judging by the clanking noise it made it was full of cat food.

“Ouch—gerroff—gerroff, you mad old bat! Someone’s gotta tell Dumbledore!”

“Yes—they—have!” yelled Mrs. Figg, swinging the bag of cat food at every bit of Mundungus she could reach. “And—it—had—better—be—you—and—you—can—tell—him—why—you—weren’t—there—to—help!”

“Keep your ’airnet on!” said Mundungus, his arms over his head, cowering. “I’m going, I’m going!”

And with another loud crack, he vanished.

“I hope Dumbledore murders him!” said Mrs. Figg furiously. “Now come on, Harry, what are you waiting for?”

Harry decided not to waste his remaining breath on pointing out that he could barely walk under Dudley’s bulk. He gave the semi-conscious Dudley a heave and staggered onwards.

“I’ll take you to the door,” said Mrs. Figg, as they turned into Privet Drive. “Just in case there are more of them around… oh my word, what a catastrophe… and you had to fight them off yourself… and Dumbledore said we were to keep you from doing magic at all costs… well, it’s no good crying over spilt potion, I suppose… but the cat’s among the pixies now.”

“So,” Harry panted, “Dumbledore’s… been having… me followed?”

“Of course he has,” said Mrs. Figg impatiently. “Did you expect him to let you wander around on your own after what happened in June? Good Lord, boy, they told me you were intelligent… right… get inside and stay there,” she said, as they reached number four. “I expect someone will be in touch with you soon enough.”

“What are you going to do?” asked Harry quickly.

“I’m going straight home,” said Mrs. Figg, staring around the dark street and shuddering. “I’ll need to wait for more instructions. Just stay in the house. Goodnight.”

“Hang on, don’t go yet! I want to know—”

But Mrs. Figg had already set off at a trot, carpet slippers flopping, string bag clanking.

“Wait!” Harry shouted after her. He had a million questions to ask anyone who was in contact with Dumbledore; but within seconds Mrs. Figg was swallowed by the darkness. Scowling, Harry readjusted Dudley on his shoulder and made his slow, painful way up number four’s garden path.

The hall light was on. Harry stuck his wand back inside the waistband of his jeans, rang the bell and watched Aunt Petunia’s outline grow larger and larger, oddly distorted by the rippling glass in the front door.

“Diddy! About time too, I was getting quite—quite—Diddy, what’s the matter?”

Harry looked sideways at Dudley and ducked out from under his arm just in time. Dudley swayed on the spot for a moment, his face pale green… then he opened his mouth and vomited all over the doormat.

“DIDDY! Diddy, what’s the matter with you? Vernon? VERNON!”

Harry’s uncle came galumphing out of the living room, walrus moustache blowing hither and thither as it always did when he was agitated. He hurried forwards to help Aunt Petunia negotiate a weak-kneed Dudley over the threshold while avoiding stepping in the pool of sick.

“He’s ill, Vernon!”

“What is it, son? What’s happened? Did Mrs. Polkiss give you something foreign for tea?”

“Why are you all covered in dirt, darling? Have you been lying on the ground?”

“Hang on—you haven’t been mugged, have you, son?”

Aunt Petunia screamed.

“Phone the police, Vernon! Phone the police! Diddy, darling, speak to Mummy! What did they do to you?”

In all the kerfuffle nobody seemed to have noticed Harry, which suited him perfectly. He managed to slip inside just before Uncle Vernon slammed the door and, while the Dursleys made their noisy progress down the hall towards the kitchen, Harry moved carefully and quietly towards the stairs.

“Who did it, son? Give us names. We’ll get them, don’t worry.”

“Shh! He’s trying to say something, Vernon! What is it, Diddy? Tell Mummy!”

Harry’s foot was on the bottom-most stair when Dudley found his voice.

“Him.”

Harry froze, foot on the stair, face screwed up, braced for the explosion.

“BOY! COME HERE!”

With a feeling of mingled dread and anger, Harry removed his foot slowly from the stair and turned to follow the Dursleys.

The scrupulously clean kitchen had an oddly unreal glitter after the darkness outside. Aunt Petunia was ushering Dudley into a chair; he was still very green and clammy-looking. Uncle Vernon standing in front of the draining board, glaring at Harry through tiny, narrowed eyes.

“What have you done to my son?” he said in a menacing growl.

“Nothing,” said Harry, knowing perfectly well that Uncle Vernon wouldn’t believe him.

“What did he do to you, Diddy?” Aunt Petunia said in a quavering voice, now sponging sick from the front of Dudley’s leather jacket. “Was it—was it you-know-what, darling? Did he use—his thing?”

Slowly, tremulously, Dudley nodded.

“I didn’t!” Harry said sharply, as Aunt Petunia let out a wail and Uncle Vernon raised his fists. “I didn’t do anything to him, it wasn’t me, it was—”

But at that precise moment a screech owl swooped in through the kitchen window. Narrowly missing the top of Uncle Vernon’s head, it soared across the kitchen, dropped the large parchment envelope it was carrying in its beak at Harry’s feet, turned gracefully, the tips of its wings just brushing the top of the fridge, then zoomed outside again and off across the garden.

“OWLS!” bellowed Uncle Vernon, the well-worn vein in his temple pulsing angrily as he slammed the kitchen window shut. “OWLS AGAIN! I WILL NOT HAVE ANY MORE OWLS IN MY HOUSE!”

But Harry was already ripping open the envelope and pulling out the letter inside, his heart pounding somewhere in the region of his Adam’s apple.

Dear Mr. Potter,

We have received intelligence that you performed the Patronus Charm at twenty-three minutes past nine this evening in a Muggle-inhabited area and in the presence of a Muggle.

The severity of this breach of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery has resulted in your expulsion from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Ministry representatives will be calling at your place of residence shortly to destroy your wand.

As you have already received an official warning for a previous offence under Section 13 of the International Confederation of Warlocks’ Statute of Secrecy, we regret to inform you that your presence is required at a disciplinary hearing at the Ministry of Magic at 9 a.m. on the twelfth of August.

Hoping you are well,

Yours sincerely,

Mafalda Hopkirk

Improper Use of Magic Office

Ministry of Magic

Harry read the letter through twice. He was only vaguely aware of Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia talking. Inside his head, all was icy and numb. One fact had penetrated his consciousness like a paralysing dart. He was expelled from Hogwarts. It was all over. He was never going back.

He looked up at the Dursleys. Uncle Vernon was purple-faced, shouting, his fists still raised; Aunt Petunia had her arms around Dudley, who was retching again.

Harry’s temporarily stupefied brain seemed to reawaken. Ministry representatives will be calling at your place of residence shortly to destroy your wand. There was only one thing for it. He would have to run—now. Where he was going to go, Harry didn’t know, but he was certain of one thing: at Hogwarts or outside it, he needed his wand. In an almost dreamlike state, he pulled his wand out and turned to leave the kitchen.

“Where d’you think you’re going?” yelled Uncle Vernon. When Harry didn’t reply, he pounded across the kitchen to block the doorway into the hall. “I haven’t finished with you, boy!”

“Get out of the way,” said Harry quietly.

“You’re going to stay here and explain how my son—”

“If you don’t get out of the way I’m going to jinx you,” said Harry, raising the wand.

“You can’t pull that one on me!” snarled Uncle Vernon. “I know you’re not allowed to use it outside that madhouse you call a school!”

“The madhouse has chucked me out,” said Harry. “So I can do whatever I like. You’ve got three seconds. One—two—”

A resounding CRACK filled the kitchen. Aunt Petunia screamed, Uncle Vernon yelled and ducked, but for the third time that night Harry was searching for the source of a disturbance he had not made. He spotted it at once: a dazed and ruffled-looking barn owl was sitting outside on the kitchen sill, having just collided with the closed window.

Ignoring Uncle Vernon’s anguished yell of “OWLS!” Harry crossed the room at a run and wrenched the window open. The owl stuck out its leg, to which a small roll of parchment was tied, shook its leathers, and took off the moment Harry had taken the letter. Hands shaking, Harry unfurled the second message, which was written very hastily and blotchily in black ink.

Harry—

Dumbledore’s just arrived at the Ministry and he’s trying to sort it all out. DO NOT LEAVE YOUR AUNT AND UNCLE’S HOUSE. DO NOT DO ANY MORE MAGIC. DO NOT SURRENDER YOUR WAND.

Arthur Weasley

Dumbledore was trying to sort it all out… what did that mean? How much power did Dumbledore have to override the Ministry of Magic? Was there a chance that he might be allowed back to Hogwarts, then? A small shoot of hope burgeoned in Harry’s chest, almost immediately strangled by panic—how was he supposed to refuse to surrender his wand without doing magic? He’d have to duel with the Ministry representatives, and if he did that, he’d be lucky to escape Azkaban, let alone expulsion.

His mind was racing… he could run for it and risk being captured by the Ministry, or stay put and wait for them to find him here. He was much more tempted by the former course, but he knew Mr. Weasley had his best interests at heart… and after all, Dumbledore had sorted out much worse than this before.

“Right,” Harry said, “I’ve changed my mind, I’m staying.”

He flung himself down at the kitchen table and faced Dudley and Aunt Petunia. The Dursleys appeared taken aback at his abrupt change of mind. Aunt Petunia glanced despairingly at Uncle Vernon. The vein in his purple temple was throbbing worse than ever.

“Who are all these ruddy owls from?” he growled.

“The first one was from the Ministry of Magic, expelling me,” said Harry calmly. He was straining his ears to catch any noises outside, in case the Ministry representatives were approaching, and it was easier and quieter to answer Uncle Vernon’s questions than to have him start raging and bellowing. “The second one was from my friend Ron’s dad, who works at the Ministry.”

“Ministry of Magic?” bellowed Uncle Vernon. “People like you in government! Oh, this explains everything, everything, no wonder the country’s going to the dogs.”

When Harry did not respond, Uncle Vernon glared at him, then spat out, “And why have you been expelled?”

“Because I did magic.”

“AHA!” roared Uncle Vernon, slamming his fist down on top of the fridge, which sprang open; several of Dudley’s low-fat snacks toppled out and burst on the floor. “So you admit it! What did you do to Dudley?”

“Nothing,” said Harry, slightly less calmly. “That wasn’t me—”

“Was,” muttered Dudley unexpectedly, and Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia instantly made flapping gestures at Harry to quieten him while they both bent low over Dudley.

“Go on, son,” said Uncle Vernon, “what did he do?”

“Tell us, darling,” whispered Aunt Petunia.

“Pointed his wand at me,” Dudley mumbled.

“Yeah, I did, but I didn’t use—” Harry began angrily, but—

“SHUT UP!” roared Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia in unison.

“Go on, son,” repeated Uncle Vernon, moustache blowing about furiously.

“All went dark,” Dudley said hoarsely, shuddering. “Everything dark. And then I h-heard… things. Inside m-my head.”

Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia exchanged looks of utter horror. If their least favourite thing in the world was magic—closely followed by neighbours who cheated more than they did on the hosepipe ban—people who heard voices were definitely in the bottom ten. They obviously thought Dudley was losing his mind.

“What sort of things did you hear, Popkin?” breathed Aunt Petunia, very white-faced and with tears in her eyes.

But Dudley seemed incapable of saying. He shuddered again and shook his large blond head, and despite the sense of numb dread that had settled on Harry since the arrival of the first owl, he felt a certain curiosity. Dementors caused a person to relive the worst moments of their life. What would spoiled, pampered, bullying Dudley have been forced to hear?

“How come you fell over, son?” said Uncle Vernon, in an unnaturally quiet voice, the kind of voice he might adopt at the bedside of a very ill person.

“T-tripped,” said Dudley shakily. “And then—”

He gestured at his massive chest. Harry understood. Dudley was remembering the clammy cold that filled the lungs as hope and happiness were sucked out of you.

“Horrible,” croaked Dudley. “Cold. Really cold.”

“OK,” said Uncle Vernon, in a voice of forced calm, while Aunt Petunia laid an anxious hand on Dudley’s forehead to feel his temperature. “What happened then, Dudders?”

“Felt… felt… felt… as if… as if…”

“As if you’d never be happy again,” Harry supplied dully.

“Yes,” Dudley whispered, still trembling.

“So!” said Uncle Vernon, voice restored to full and considerable volume as he straightened up. “You put some crackpot spell on my son so he’d hear voices and believe he was—was doomed to misery, or something, did you?”

“How many times do I have to tell you?” said Harry, temper and voice both rising. “It wasn’t me! It was a couple of Dementors!”

“A couple of—what’s this codswallop?”

“De—men—tors,” said Harry slowly and clearly. “Two of them.”

“And what the ruddy hell are Dementors?”

“They guard the wizard prison, Azkaban,” said Aunt Petunia.

Two seconds of ringing silence followed these words before Aunt Petunia clapped her hand over her mouth as though she had let slip a disgusting swear word. Uncle Vernon was goggling at her. Harry’s brain reeled. Mrs. Figg was one thing—but Aunt Petunia?

“How d’you know that?” he asked her, astonished.

Aunt Petunia looked quite appalled with herself. She glanced at Uncle Vernon in fearful apology, then lowered her hand slightly to reveal her horsy teeth.

“I heard—that awful boy—telling her about them—years ago,” she said jerkily.

“If you mean my mum and dad, why don’t you use their names?” said Harry loudly, but Aunt Petunia ignored him. She seemed horribly flustered.

Harry was stunned. Except for one outburst years ago, in the course of which Aunt Petunia had screamed that Harry’s mother had been a freak, he had never heard her mention her sister. He was astounded that she had remembered this scrap of information about the magical world for so long, when she usually put all her energies into pretending it didn’t exist.

Uncle Vernon opened his mouth, closed it again, opened it once more, shut it, then, apparently struggling to remember how to talk, opened it for a third time and croaked, “So—so—they—er—they—er—they actually exist, do they—er—Dementy-whatsits?”

Aunt Petunia nodded.

Uncle Vernon looked from Aunt Petunia to Dudley to Harry as if hoping somebody was going to shout “April Fool!” When nobody did, he opened his mouth yet again, but was spared the struggle to find more words by the arrival of the third owl of the evening. It zoomed through the still-open window like a feathery cannon-ball and landed with a clatter on the kitchen table, causing all three of the Dursleys to jump with fright. Harry tore a second official-looking envelope from the owls beak and ripped it open as the owl swooped back out into the night.

“Enough—effing—owls,” muttered Uncle Vernon distractedly, stomping over to the window and slamming it shut again.

Dear Mr. Potter,

Further to our letter of approximately twenty-two minutes ago, the Ministry of Magic has revised its decision to destroy your wand forthwith. You may retain your wand until your disciplinary hearing on the twelfth of August, at which time an official decision will be taken.

Following discussions with the Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the Ministry has agreed that the question of your expulsion will also be decided at that time. You should therefore consider yourself suspended from school pending further enquiries.

With best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Mafalda Hopkirk

Improper Use of Magic Office

Ministry of Magic

Harry read this letter through three times in quick succession. The miserable knot in his chest loosened slightly with the relief of knowing he was not yet definitely expelled, though his fears were by no means banished. Everything seemed to hang on this hearing on the twelfth of August.

“Well?” said Uncle Vernon, recalling Harry to his surroundings. “What now? Have they sentenced you to anything? Do your lot have the death penalty?” he added as a hopeful afterthought.

“I’ve got to go to a hearing,” said Harry.

“And they’ll sentence you there?”

“I suppose so.”

“I won’t give up hope, then,” said Uncle Vernon nastily.

“Well, if that’s all,” said Harry, getting to his feet. He was desperate to be alone, to think, perhaps to send a letter to Ron, Hermione or Sirius.

“NO, IT RUDDY WELL IS NOT ALL!” bellowed Uncle Vernon. “SIT BACK DOWN!”

“What now?” said Harry impatiently.

“DUDLEY!” roared Uncle Vernon. “I want to know exactly what happened to my son!”

“FINE!” yelled Harry, and in his temper, red and gold sparks shot out of the end of his wand, still clutched in his hand. All three Dursleys flinched, looking terrified.

“Dudley and I were in the alleyway between Magnolia Crescent and Wisteria Walk,” said Harry, speaking fast, fighting to control his temper. “Dudley thought he’d be smart with me, I pulled out my wand but didn’t use it. Then two Dementors turned up—”

“But what ARE Dementoids?” asked Uncle Vernon furiously. “What do they DO?”

“I told you—they suck all the happiness out of you,” said Harry, “and if they get the chance, they kiss you—”

“Kiss you?” said Uncle Vernon, his eyes popping slightly. “Kiss you?”

“It’s what they call it when they suck the soul out of your mouth.”

Aunt Petunia uttered a soft scream.

“His soul? They didn’t take—he’s still got his—”

She seized Dudley by the shoulders and shook him, as though testing to see whether she could hear his soul rattling around inside him.

“Of course they didn’t get his soul, you’d know if they had,” said Harry, exasperated.

“Fought ’em off, did you, son?” said Uncle Vernon loudly, with the appearance of a man struggling to bring the conversation back on to a plane he understood. “Gave ’em the old one-two, did you?”

“You can’t give a Dementor the old one-two,” said Harry through clenched teeth.

“Why’s he all right, then?” blustered Uncle Vernon. “Why isn’t he all empty, then?”

“Because I used the Patronus—”

WHOOSH. With a clattering, a whirring of wings and a soft fall of dust, a fourth owl came shooting out of the kitchen fireplace.

“FOR GOD’S SAKE!” roared Uncle Vernon, pulling great clumps of hair out of his moustache, something he hadn’t been driven to do in a long time. “I WILL NOT HAVE OWLS HERE, I WILL NOT TOLERATE THIS, I TELL YOU!”

But Harry was already pulling a roll of parchment from the owl’s leg. He was so convinced that this letter had to be from Dumbledore, explaining everything—the Dementors, Mrs. Figg, what the Ministry was up to, how he, Dumbledore, intended to sort everything out—that for the first time in his life he was disappointed to see Sirius’s handwriting. Ignoring Uncle Vernon’s ongoing rant about owls, and narrowing his eyes against a second cloud of dust as the most recent owl look off back up the chimney, Harry read Sirius’s message.

Arthur has just told us what’s happened. Don’t leave the house again, whatever you do.

Harry found this such an inadequate response to everything that had happened tonight that he turned the piece of parchment over, looking for the rest of the letter, but there was nothing else.

And now his temper was rising again. Wasn’t anybody going to say “well done” for fighting off two Dementors single-handed? Both Mr. Weasley and Sirius were acting as though he’d misbehaved, and were saving their tellings-off until they could ascertain how much damage had been done.

“…a peck, I mean, pack of owls shooting in and out of my house. I won’t have it, boy, I won’t—”

“I can’t stop the owls coming,” Harry snapped, crushing Sirius’s letter in his fist.

“I want the truth about what happened tonight!” barked Uncle Vernon. “If it was Demenders who hurt Dudley, how come you’ve been expelled? You did you-know-what, you’ve admitted it!”

Harry took a deep, steadying breath. His head was beginning to ache again. He wanted more than anything to get out of the kitchen, and away from the Dursleys.

“I did the Patronus Charm to get rid of the Dementors,” he said, forcing himself to remain calm. “It’s the only thing that works against them.”

“But what were Dementoids doing in Little Whinging?” said Uncle Vernon in an outraged tone.

“Couldn’t tell you,” said Harry wearily. “No idea.”

His head was pounding in the glare of the strip-lighting now. His anger was ebbing away. He felt drained, exhausted. The Dursleys were all staring at him.

“It’s you,” said Uncle Vernon forcefully. “It’s got something to do with you, boy, I know it. Why else would they turn up here? Why else would they be down that alleyway? You’ve got to be the only—the only—” Evidently, he couldn’t bring himself to say the word “wizard.” “The only you-know-what for miles.”

“I don’t know why they were here.”

But at Uncle Vernon’s words, Harry’s exhausted brain had ground back into action. Why had the Dementors come to Little Whinging? How could it be coincidence that they had arrived in the alleyway where Harry was? Had they been sent? Had the Ministry of Magic lost control of the Dementors? Had they deserted Azkaban and joined Voldemort, as Dumbledore had predicted they would?

“These Demembers guard some weirdo prison?” asked Uncle Vernon, lumbering along in the wake of Harry’s train of thought.

“Yes,” said Harry.

If only his head would stop hurting, if only he could just leave the kitchen and get to his dark bedroom and think…

“Oho! They were coming to arrest you!” said Uncle Vernon, with the triumphant air of a man reaching an unassailable conclusion. “That’s it, isn’t it, boy? You’re on the run from the law!”

“Of course I’m not,” said Harry, shaking his head as though to scare off a fly, his mind racing now.

“Then why—?”

“He must have sent them,” said Harry quietly, more to himself than to Uncle Vernon.

“What’s that? Who must have sent them?”

“Lord Voldemort,” said Harry.

He registered dimly how strange it was that the Dursleys, who flinched, winced and squawked if they heard words like “wizard”, “magic” or “wand”, could hear the name of the most evil wizard of all time without the slightest tremor.

“Lord—hang on,” said Uncle Vernon, his face screwed up, a look of dawning comprehension coming into his piggy eyes. “I’ve heard that name… that was the one who—”

“Murdered my parents, yes,” Harry said dully.

“But he’s gone,” said Uncle Vernon impatiently, without the slightest sign that the murder of Harry’s parents might be a painful topic. “That giant bloke said so. He’s gone.”

“He’s back,” said Harry heavily.

It felt very strange to be standing here in Aunt Petunia’s surgically clean kitchen, beside the top-of-the-range fridge and the wide-screen television, talking calmly of Lord Voldemort to Uncle Vernon. The arrival of the Dementors in Little Whinging seemed to have breached the great, invisible wall that divided the relentlessly non-magical world of Privet Drive and the world beyond, Harry’s two lives had somehow become fused and everything had been turned upside-down; the Dursleys were asking for details about the magical world, and Mrs. Figg knew Albus Dumbledore; Dementors were soaring around Little Whinging, and he might never return to Hogwarts. Harry’s head throbbed more painfully.

“Back?” whispered Aunt Petunia.

She was looking at Harry as she had never looked at him before. And all of a sudden, for the very first time in his life, Harry fully appreciated that Aunt Petunia was his mother’s sister. He could not have said why this hit him so very powerfully at this moment. All he knew was that he was not the only person in the room who had an inkling of what Lord Voldemort being back might mean. Aunt Petunia had never in her life looked at him like that before. Her large, pale eyes (so unlike her sister’s) were not narrowed in dislike or anger, they were wide and fearful. The furious pretence that Aunt Petunia had maintained all Harry’s life—that there was no magic and no world other than the world she inhabited with Uncle Vernon—seemed to have fallen away.

“Yes,” Harry said, talking directly to Aunt Petunia now. “He came back a month ago. I saw him.”

Her hands found Dudley’s massive leather-clad shoulders and clutched them.

“Hang on,” said Uncle Vernon, looking from his wife to Harry and back again, apparently dazed and confused by the unprece-dented understanding that seemed to have sprung up between them. “Hang on. This Lord Voldything’s back, you say.”

“Yes.”

“The one who murdered your parents.”

“Yes.”

“And now he’s sending Dismembers after you?”

“Looks like it,” said Harry.

“I see,” said Uncle Vernon, looking from his white-faced wife to Harry and hitching up his trousers. He seemed to be swelling, his great purple face stretching before Harry’s eyes. “Well, that settles it,” he said, his shirt front straining as he inflated himself, “you can get out of this house, boy!”

“What?” said Harry.

“You heard me—OUT!” Uncle Vernon bellowed, and even Aunt Petunia and Dudley jumped. “OUT! OUT! I should’ve done this years ago! Owls treating the place like a rest home, puddings exploding, half the lounge destroyed, Dudley’s tail, Marge bobbing around on the ceiling and that flying Ford Anglia—OUT! OUT! You’ve had it! You’re history! You’re not staying here if some loony’s after you, you’re not endangering my wife and son, you’re not bringing trouble down on us. If you’re going the same way as your useless parents, I’ve had it! OUT!”

Harry stood rooted to the spot. The letters from the Ministry, Mr. Weasley and Sirius were all crushed in his left hand. Don’t leave the house again, whatever you do. DO NOT LEAVE YOUR AUNT AND UNCLE’S HOUSE.

“You heard me!” said Uncle Vernon, bending forwards now, his massive purple face coming so close to Harry’s, he actually felt flecks of spit hit his face. “Get going! You were all keen to leave half an hour ago! I’m right behind you! Get out and never darken our doorstep again! Why we ever kept you in the first place, I don’t know, Marge was right, it should have been the orphanage. We were too damn soft for our own good, thought we could squash it out of you, thought we could turn you normal, but you’ve been rotten from the beginning and I’ve had enough—owls!”

The fifth owl zoomed down the chimney so fast it actually hit the floor before zooming into the air again with a loud screech. Harry raised his hand to seize the letter, which was in a scarlet envelope, but it soared straight over his head, flying directly at Aunt Petunia, who let out a scream and ducked, her arms over her face. The owl dropped the red envelope on her head, turned, and flew straight back up the chimney.

Harry darted forwards to pick up the letter, but Aunt Petunia beat him to it.

“You can open it if you like,” said Harry, “but I’ll hear what it says anyway. That’s a Howler.”

“Let go of it, Petunia!” roared Uncle Vernon. “Don’t touch it, it could be dangerous!”

“It’s addressed to me,” said Aunt Petunia in a shaking voice. “It’s addressed to me, Vernon, look! Mrs. Petunia Dursley, The Kitchen, Number Four, Privet Drive—

She caught her breath, horrified. The red envelope had begun to smoke.

“Open it!” Harry urged her. “Get it over with! It’ll happen anyway.”

“No.”

Aunt Petunia’s hand was trembling. She looked wildly around the kitchen as though looking for an escape route, but too late—the envelope burst into flames. Aunt Petunia screamed and dropped it.

An awful voice filled the kitchen, echoing in the confined space, issuing from the burning letter on the table.

“Remember my last, Petunia.”

Aunt Petunia looked as though she might faint. She sank into the chair beside Dudley, her face in her hands. The remains of the envelope smouldered into ash in the silence.

“What is this?” Uncle Vernon said hoarsely. “What—I don’t—Petunia?”

Aunt Petunia said nothing. Dudley was staring stupidly at his mother, his mouth hanging open. The silence spiralled horribly. Harry was watching his aunt, utterly bewildered, his head throbbing fit to burst.

“Petunia, dear?” said Uncle Vernon timidly. “P-Petunia?”

She raised her head. She was still trembling. She swallowed.

“The boy—the boy will have to stay, Vernon,” she said weakly.

“W-what?”

“He stays,” she said. She was not looking at Harry. She got to her feet again.

“He… but Petunia…”

“If we throw him out, the neighbours will talk,” she said. She was rapidly regaining her usual brisk, snappish manner, though she was still very pale. “They’ll ask awkward questions, they’ll want to know where he’s gone. We’ll have to keep him.”

Uncle Vernon was deflating like an old tyre.

“But Petunia, dear—”

Aunt Petunia ignored him. She turned to Harry.

“You’re to stay in your room,” she said. “You’re not to leave the house. Now get to bed.”

Harry didn’t move.

“Who was that Howler from?”

“Don’t ask questions,” Aunt Petunia snapped.

“Are you in touch with wizards?”

“I told you to get to bed!”

“What did it mean? Remember the last what?”

“Go to bed!”

“How come—?”

“YOU HEARD YOUR AUNT, NOW GO UP TO BED!”

3. THE ADVANCE GUARD

I’ve just been attacked by Dementors and I might be expelled from Hogwarts. I want to know what’s going on and when I’m going to get out of here.

Harry copied these words on to three separate pieces of parchment the moment he reached the desk in his dark bedroom. He addressed the first to Sirius, the second to Ron and the third to Hermione. His owl, Hedwig, was off hunting; her cage stood empty on the desk. Harry paced the bedroom waiting for her to come back, his head pounding, his brain too busy for sleep even though his eyes stung and itched with tiredness. His back ached from hauling Dudley home, and the two lumps on his head where the window and Dudley had hit him were throbbing painfully.

Up and down he paced, consumed with anger and frustration, grinding his teeth and clenching his fists, casting angry looks out at the empty, star-strewn sky every time he passed the window. Dementors sent to get him, Mrs. Figg and Mundungus Fletcher tailing him in secret, then suspension from Hogwarts and a hearing at the Ministry of Magic—and still no one was telling him what was going on.

And what, what had that Howler been about? Whose voice had echoed so horribly, so menacingly, through the kitchen?

Why was he still trapped here without information? Why was everyone treating him like some naughty kid? Don’t do any more magic, stay in the house…

He kicked his school trunk as he passed it, but far from relieving his anger he felt worse, as he now had a sharp pain in his toe to deal with in addition to the pain in the rest of his body.

Just as he limped past the window, Hedwig soared through it with a soft rustle of wings like a small ghost.

“About time!” Harry snarled, as she landed lightly on top of her cage. “You can put that down, I’ve got work for you!”

Hedwig’s large, round, amber eyes gazed at him reproachfully over the dead frog clamped in her beak.

“Come here,” said Harry, picking up the three small rolls of parchment and a leather thong and tying the scrolls to her scaly leg. “Take these straight to Sirius, Ron and Hermione and don’t come back here without good long replies. Keep pecking them till they’ve written decent-length answers if you’ve got to. Understand?”

Hedwig gave a muffled hooting noise, her beak still full of frog.

“Get going, then,” said Harry.

She took off immediately. The moment she’d gone, Harry threw himself down on his bed without undressing and stared at the dark ceiling. In addition to every other miserable feeling, he now felt guilty that he’d been irritable with Hedwig; she was the only friend he had at number four, Privet Drive. But he’d make it up to her when she came back with the answers from Sirius, Ron and Hermione.

They were bound to write back quickly; they couldn’t possibly ignore a Dementor attack. He’d probably wake up tomorrow to three fat letters full of sympathy and plans for his immediate removal to The Burrow. And with that comforting idea, sleep rolled over him, stifling all further thought.

* * *

But Hedwig didn’t return next morning. Harry spent the day in his bedroom, leaving it only to go to the bathroom. Three times that day Aunt Petunia shoved food into his room through the cat-flap Uncle Vernon had installed three summers ago. Every time Harry heard her approaching he tried to question her about the Howler, but he might as well have interrogated the doorknob for all the answers he got. Otherwise, the Dursleys kept well clear of his bedroom. Harry couldn’t see the point of forcing his company on them; another row would achieve nothing except perhaps make him so angry he’d perform more illegal magic.

So it went on for three whole days. Harry was alternately filled with restless energy that made him unable to settle to anything, during which time he paced his bedroom, furious at the whole lot of them for leaving him to stew in this mess; and with a lethargy so complete that he could lie on his bed for an hour at a time, staring dazedly into space, aching with dread at the thought of the Ministry hearing.

What if they ruled against him? What if he was expelled and his wand was snapped in half? What would he do, where would he go? He could not return to living full-time with the Dursleys, not now he knew the other world, the one to which he really belonged. Might he be able to move into Sirius’s house, as Sirius had suggested a year ago, before he had been forced to flee from the Ministry? Would Harry be allowed to live there alone, given that he was still underage? Or would the matter of where he went next be decided for him? Had his breach of the International Statute of Secrecy been severe enough to land him in a cell in Azkaban? Whenever this thought occurred, Harry invariably slid off his bed and began pacing again.

On the fourth night after Hedwig’s departure Harry was lying in one of his apathetic phases, staring at the ceiling, his exhausted mind quite blank, when his uncle entered his bedroom. Harry looked slowly around at him. Uncle Vernon was wearing his best suit and an expression of enormous smugness.

“We’re going out,” he said.

“Sorry?”

“We—that is to say, your aunt, Dudley and I—are going out.”

“Fine,” said Harry dully, looking back at the ceiling.

“You are not to leave your bedroom while we are away.”

“OK.”

“You are not to touch the television, the stereo, or any of our possessions.”

“Right.”

“You are not to steal food from the fridge.”

“OK.”

“I am going to lock your door.”

“You do that.”

Uncle Vernon glared at Harry, clearly suspicious of this lack of argument, then stomped out of the room and closed the door behind him. Harry heard the key turn in the lock and Uncle Vernon’s footsteps walking heavily down the stairs. A few minutes later he heard the slamming of car doors, the rumble of an engine, and the unmistakeable sound of the car sweeping out of the drive.

Harry had no particular feeling about the Dursleys leaving. It made no difference to him whether they were in the house or not. He could not even summon the energy to get up and turn on his bedroom light. The room grew steadily darker around him as he lay listening to the night sounds through the window he kept open all the time, waiting for the blessed moment when Hedwig returned. The empty house creaked around him. The pipes gurgled. Harry lay there in a kind of stupor, thinking of nothing, suspended in misery.

Then, quite distinctly, he heard a crash in the kitchen below. He sat bolt upright, listening intently. The Dursleys couldn’t be back, it was much too soon, and in any case he hadn’t heard their car.

There was silence for a few seconds, then voices.

Burglars, he thought, sliding off the bed on to his feet—but a split second later it occurred to him that burglars would keep their voices down, and whoever was moving around in the kitchen was certainly not troubling to do so.

He snatched up his wand from the bedside table and stood facing his bedroom door, listening with all his might. Next moment, he jumped as the lock gave a loud click and his door swung open. Harry stood motionless, staring through the open doorway at the dark upstairs landing, straining his ears for further sounds, but none came. He hesitated for a moment, then moved swiftly and silently out of his room to the head of the stairs.

His heart shot upwards into his throat. There were people standing in the shadowy hall below, silhouetted against the streetlight glowing through the glass door; eight or nine of them, all, as far as he could see, looking up at him.

“Lower your wand, boy, before you take someone’s eye out,” said a low, growling voice.

Harry’s heart was thumping uncontrollably. He knew that voice, but he did not lower his wand.

“Professor Moody?” he said uncertainly.

“I don’t know so much about ‘Professor,’” growled the voice, “never got round to much teaching, did I? Get down here, we want to see you properly.”

Harry lowered his wand slightly but did not relax his grip on it, nor did he move. He had very good reason to be suspicious. He had recently spent nine months in what he had thought was Mad-Eye Moody’s company only to find out that it wasn’t Moody at all, but an impostor; an impostor, moreover, who had tried to kill Harry before being unmasked. But before he could make a decision about what to do next, a second, slightly hoarse voice floated upstairs.

“It’s all right, Harry. We’ve come to take you away.”

Harry’s heart leapt. He knew that voice, too, though he hadn’t heard it for over a year.

“P-Professor Lupin?” he said disbelievingly. “Is that you?”

“Why are we all standing in the dark?” said a third voice, this one completely unfamiliar, a woman’s. “Lumos.”

A wand-tip flared, illuminating the hall with magical light. Harry blinked. The people below were crowded around the foot of the stairs, gazing up at him intently, some craning their heads for a better look.

Remus Lupin stood nearest to him. Though still quite young, Lupin looked tired and rather ill; he had more grey hairs than when Harry had last said goodbye to him and his robes were more patched and shabbier than ever. Nevertheless, he was smiling broadly at Harry, who tried to smile back despite his state of shock.

“Oooh, he looks just like I thought he would,” said the witch who was holding her lit wand aloft. She looked the youngest there; she had a pale heart-shaped face, dark twinkling eyes, and short spiky hair that was a violent shade of violet. “Wotcher, Harry!”

“Yeah, I see what you mean, Remus,” said a bald black wizard standing furthest back—he had a deep, slow voice and wore a single gold hoop in his ear—“he looks exactly like James.”

“Except the eyes,” said a wheezy-voiced, silver-haired wizard at the back. “Lily’s eyes.”

Mad-Eye Moody, who had long grizzled grey hair and a large chunk missing from his nose, was squinting suspiciously at Harry through his mismatched eyes. One eye was small, dark and beady, the other large, round and electric blue—the magical eye that could see through walls, doors and the back of Moody’s own head.

“Are you quite sure it’s him, Lupin?” he growled. “It’d be a nice lookout if we bring back some Death Eater impersonating him. We ought to ask him something only the real Potter would know. Unless anyone brought any Veritaserum?”

“Harry, what form does your Patronus take?” Lupin asked.

“A stag,” said Harry nervously.

“That’s him, Mad-Eye,” said Lupin.

Very conscious of everybody still staring at him, Harry descended the stairs, stowing his wand in the back pocket of his jeans as he came.

“Don’t put your wand there, boy!” roared Moody. “What if it ignited? Better wizards than you have lost buttocks, you know!”

“Who d’You-Know-Who’s lost a buttock?” the violet-haired woman asked Mad-Eye interestedly.

“Never you mind, you just keep your wand out of your back pocket!” growled Mad-Eye. “Elementary wand-safety, nobody bothers about it any more.” He stumped off towards the kitchen. “And I saw that,” he added irritably, as the woman rolled her eyes towards the ceiling.

Lupin held out his hand and shook Harry’s. “How are you?” he asked, looking closely at Harry.

“F-fine…”

Harry could hardly believe this was real. Four weeks with nothing, not the tiniest hint of a plan to remove him from Privet Drive, and suddenly a whole bunch of wizards was standing matter-of-factly in the house as though this was a long-standing arrangement. He glanced at the people surrounding Lupin; they were still gazing avidly at him. He felt very conscious of the fact that he had not combed his hair for four days.

“I’m—you’re really lucky the Dursleys are out…” he mumbled.

“Lucky, ha!” said the violet-haired woman. “It was me who lured them out of the way. Sent a letter by Muggle post telling them they’d been short-listed for the All-England Best Kept Suburban Lawn Competition. They’re heading off to the prize-giving right now… or they think they are.”

Harry had a fleeting vision of Uncle Vernon’s face when he realised there was no All-England Best Kept Suburban Lawn Competition.

“We are leaving, aren’t we?” he asked. “Soon?”

“Almost at once,” said Lupin, “we’re just waiting for the all-clear.”

“Where are we going? The Burrow?” Harry asked hopefully.

“Not The Burrow, no,” said Lupin, motioning Harry towards the kitchen; the little knot of wizards followed, all still eyeing Harry curiously. “Too risky. We’ve set up Headquarters somewhere undetectable. It’s taken a while…”

Mad-Eye Moody was now sitting at the kitchen table swigging from a hip flask, his magical eye spinning in all directions, taking in the Dursleys’ many labour-saving appliances.

“This is Alastor Moody, Harry,” Lupin continued, pointing towards Moody.

“Yeah, I know,” said Harry uncomfortably. It felt odd to be intro-duced to somebody he’d thought he’d known for a year.

“And this is Nymphadora—”

“Don’t call me Nymphadora, Remus,” said the young witch with a shudder, “it’s Tonks.”

“Nymphadora Tonks, who prefers to be known by her surname only,” finished Lupin.

“So would you if your fool of a mother had called you Nymphadora,” muttered Tonks.

“And this is Kingsley Shacklebolt.” He indicated the tall black wizard, who bowed. “Elphias Doge.” The wheezy-voiced wizard nodded. “Dedalus Diggle—”

“We’ve met before,” squeaked the excitable Diggle, dropping his violet-coloured top hat.

“Emmeline Vance.” A stately-looking witch in an emerald green shawl inclined her head. “Sturgis Podmore.” A square-jawed wizard with thick straw-coloured hair winked. “And Hestia Jones.” A pink-cheeked, black-haired witch waved from next to the toaster.

Harry inclined his head awkwardly at each of them as they were introduced. He wished they would look at something other than him; it was as though he had suddenly been ushered on-stage. He also wondered why so many of them were there.

“A surprising number of people volunteered to come and get you,” said Lupin, as though he had read Harry’s mind; the corners of his mouth twitched slightly.

“Yeah, well, the more the better,” said Moody darkly. “We’re your guard, Potter.”

“We’re just waiting for the signal to tell us it’s safe to set off,” said Lupin, glancing out of the kitchen window. “We’ve got about fifteen minutes.”

“Very clean, aren’t they, these Muggles?” said the witch called Tonks, who was looking around the kitchen with great interest. “My dad’s Muggle-born and he’s a right old slob. I suppose it varies, just as it does with wizards?”

“Er—yeah,” said Harry. “Look—” he turned back to Lupin, “what’s going on, I haven’t heard anything from anyone, what’s Vol—?”

Several of the witches and wizards made odd hissing noises; Dedalus Diggle dropped his hat again and Moody growled, “Shut up!”

“What?” said Harry.

“We’re not discussing anything here, it’s too risky,” said Moody, turning his normal eye on Harry. His magical eye remained focused on the ceiling. “Damn it,” he added angrily, putting a hand up to the magical eye, “it keeps getting stuck—ever since that scum wore it.”

And with a nasty squelching sound much like a plunger being pulled from a sink, he popped out his eye.

“Mad-Eye, you do know that’s disgusting, don’t you?” said Tonks conversationally.

“Get me a glass of water, would you, Harry,” requested Moody.

Harry crossed to the dishwasher, took out a clean glass and filled it with water at the sink, still watched eagerly by the band of wizards. Their relentless staring was starting to annoy him.

“Cheers,” said Moody, when Harry handed him the glass. He dropped the magical eyeball into the water and prodded it up and down; the eye whizzed around, staring at them all in turn. “I want three hundred and sixty degrees visibility on the return journey.”

“How’re we getting—wherever we’re going?” Harry asked.

“Brooms,” said Lupin. “Only way. You’re too young to Apparate, they’ll be watching the Floo Network and it’s more than our life’s worth to set up an unauthorised Portkey.”

“Remus says you’re a good flier,” said Kingsley Shacklebolt in his deep voice.

“He’s excellent,” said Lupin, who was checking his watch. “Anyway, you’d better go and get packed, Harry, we want to be ready to go when the signal comes.”

“I’ll come and help you,” said Tonks brightly.

She followed Harry back into the hall and up the stairs, looking around with much curiosity and interest.

“Funny place,” she said. “It’s a bit too clean, d’you know what I mean? Bit unnatural. Oh, this is better,” she added, as they entered Harry’s bedroom and he turned on the light.

His room was certainly much messier than the rest of the house. Confined to it for four days in a very bad mood, Harry had not bothered tidying up after himself. Most of the books he owned were strewn over the floor where he’d tried to distract himself with each in turn and thrown it aside; Hedwig’s cage needed cleaning out and was starting to smell; and his trunk lay open, revealing a jumbled mixture of Muggle clothes and wizards’ robes that had spilled on to the floor around it.

Harry started picking up books and throwing them hastily into his trunk. Tonks paused at his open wardrobe to look critically at her reflection in the mirror on the inside of the door.

“You know, I don’t think violet’s really my colour,” she said pensively, tugging at a lock of spiky hair. “D’you think it makes me look a bit peaky?”

“Er—” said Harry, looking up at her over the top of Quidditch Teams of Britain and Ireland.

“Yeah, it does,” said Tonks decisively. She screwed up her eyes in a strained expression as though she was struggling to remember something. A second later, her hair had turned bubble-gum pink.

“How did you do that?” said Harry, gaping at her as she opened her eyes again.

“I’m a Metamorphmagus,” she said, looking back at her reflection and turning her head so that she could see her hair from all directions. “It means I can change my appearance at will,” she added, spotting Harry’s puzzled expression in the mirror behind her. “I was born one. I got top marks in Concealment and Disguise during Auror training without any study at all, it was great.”

“You’re an Auror?” said Harry, impressed. Being a Dark-wizard-catcher was the only career he’d ever considered after Hogwarts.

“Yeah,” said Tonks, looking proud. “Kingsley is as well, he’s a bit higher up than me, though. I only qualified a year ago. Nearly failed on Stealth and Tracking. I’m dead clumsy, did you hear me break that plate when we arrived downstairs?”

“Can you learn how to be a Metamorphmagus?” Harry asked her, straightening up, completely forgetting about packing.

Tonks chuckled.

“Bet you wouldn’t mind hiding that scar sometimes, eh?”

Her eyes found the lightning-shaped scar on Harry’s forehead.

“No, I wouldn’t mind,” Harry mumbled, turning away. He did not like people staring at his scar.

“Well, you’ll have to learn the hard way, I’m afraid,” said Tonks. “Metamorphmagi are really rare, they’re born, not made. Most wizards need to use a wand, or potions, to change their appearance. But we’ve got to get going, Harry, we’re supposed to be packing,” she added guiltily, looking around at all the mess on the floor.

“Oh—yeah,” said Harry, grabbing a few more books.

“Don’t be stupid, it’ll be much quicker if I—pack!” cried Tonks, waving her wand in a long, sweeping movement over the floor.

Books, clothes, telescope and scales all soared into the air and flew pell-mell into the trunk.

“It’s not very neat,” said Tonks, walking over to the trunk and looking down at the jumble inside. “My mums got this knack of getting stuff to fit itself in neatly—she even gets the socks to fold themselves—but I’ve never mastered how she does it—it’s a kind of flick—” She flicked her wand hopefully.

One of Harry’s socks gave a feeble sort of wiggle and flopped back on top of the mess in the trunk.

“Ah, well,” said Tonks, slamming the trunk’s lid shut, “at least it’s all in. That could do with a bit of cleaning, too.” She pointed her wand at Hedwig’s cage. “Scourgify.” A few feathers and droppings vanished. “Well, that’s a bit better—I’ve never quite got the hang of these householdy sort of spells. Right—got everything? Cauldron? Broom? Wow!—A Firebolt?”

Her eyes widened as they fell on the broomstick in Harry’s right hand It was his pride and joy, a gift from Sirius, an international-standard broomstick.

“And I’m still riding a Comet Two Sixty,” said Tonks enviously. “Ah well… wand still in your jeans? Both buttocks still on? OK, let’s go. Locomotor trunk.”

Harry’s trunk rose a few inches into the air. Holding her wand like a conductor’s baton, Tonks made the trunk hover across the room and out of the door ahead of them, Hedwig’s cage in her left hand. Harry followed her down the stairs carrying his broomstick.

Back in the kitchen Moody had replaced his eye, which was spinning so fast after its cleaning it made Harry feel sick to look at it. Kingsley Shacklebolt and Sturgis Podmore were examining the microwave and Hestia Jones was laughing at a potato peeler she had come across while rummaging in the drawers. Lupin was sealing a letter addressed to the Dursleys.

“Excellent,” said Lupin, looking up as Tonks and Harry entered. “We’ve got about a minute, I think. We should probably get out into the garden so we’re ready. Harry, I’ve left a letter telling your aunt and uncle not to worry—”

“They won’t,” said Harry.

“—that you’re safe—”

“That’ll just depress them.”

“—and you’ll see them next summer.”

“Do I have to?”

Lupin smiled but made no answer.

“Come here, boy,” said Moody gruffly, beckoning Harry towards him with his wand. “I need to Disillusion you.”

“You need to what?” said Harry nervously.

“Disillusionment Charm,” said Moody, raising his wand. “Lupin says you’ve got an Invisibility Cloak, but it won’t stay on while we’re flying; this’ll disguise you better. Here you go—”

He rapped him hard on the top of the head and Harry felt a curious sensation as though Moody had just smashed an egg there; cold trickles seemed to be running down his body from the point the wand had struck.

“Nice one, Mad-Eye,” said Tonks appreciatively, staring at Harry’s midriff.

Harry looked down at his body, or rather, what had been his body, for it didn’t look anything like his any more. It was not invisible; it had simply taken on the exact colour and texture of the kitchen unit behind him. He seemed to have become a human chameleon.

“Come on,” said Moody, unlocking the back door with his wand.

They all stepped outside on to Uncle Vernon’s beautifully kept lawn.

“Clear night,” grunted Moody, his magical eye scanning the heavens. “Could’ve done with a bit more cloud cover. Right, you,” he barked at Harry, “we’re going to be flying in close formation. Tonks’ll be right in front of you, keep close on her tail. Lupin’ll be covering you from below I’m going to be behind you. The rest’ll be circling us. We don’t break ranks for anything, got me? If one of us is killed—”

“Is that likely?” Harry asked apprehensively, but Moody ignored him.

“—the others keep flying, don’t stop, don’t break ranks. If they take out all of us and you survive, Harry, the rear guard are standing by to take over; keep flying east and they’ll join you.”

“Stop being so cheerful, Mad-Eye, he’ll think we’re not taking this seriously,” said Tonks, as she strapped Harry’s trunk and Hedwig’s cage into a harness hanging from her broom.

“I’m just telling the boy the plan,” growled Moody. “Our jobs to deliver him safely to Headquarters and if we die in the attempt—”

“No one’s going to die,” said Kingsley Shacklebolt in his deep, calming voice.

“Mount your brooms, that’s the first signal!” said Lupin sharply pointing into the sky.

Far, far above them, a shower of bright red sparks had flared among the stars, Harry recognised them at once as wand sparks. He swung his right leg over his Firebolt, gripped its handle tightly and felt it vibrating very slightly, as though it was as keen as he was to be up in the air once more.

“Second signal, let’s go!” said Lupin loudly as more sparks, green this time, exploded high above them.

Harry kicked off hard from the ground. The cool night air rushed through his hair as the neat square gardens of Privet Drive fell away, shrinking rapidly into a patchwork of dark greens and blacks, and every thought of the Ministry hearing was swept from his mind as though the rush of air had blown it out of his head. He felt as though his heart was going to explode with pleasure; he was flying again, flying away from Privet Drive as he’d been fantasising about all summer, he was going home… for a few glorious moments, all his problems seemed to recede to nothing, insignificant in the vast, starry sky.

“Hard left, hard left, there’s a Muggle looking up!” shouted Moody from behind him. Tonks swerved and Harry followed her, watching his trunk swinging wildly beneath her broom. “We need more height… give it another quarter of a mile!”

Harry’s eyes watered in the chill as they soared upwards; he could see nothing below now but tiny pinpricks of light that were car headlights and streetlamps. Two of those tiny lights might belong to Uncle Vernon’s car… the Dursleys would be heading back to their empty house right now, full of rage about the non-existent Lawn Competition… and Harry laughed aloud at the thought, though his voice was drowned by the flapping robes of the others, the creaking of the harness holding his trunk and the cage, and the whoosh of the wind in their ears as they sped through the air. He had not felt this alive in a month, or this happy.

“Bearing south!” shouted Mad-Eye. “Town ahead!”

They soared right to avoid passing directly over the glittering spider’s web of lights below.

“Bear southeast and keep climbing, there’s some low cloud ahead we can lose ourselves in!” called Moody.

“We’re not going through clouds!” shouted Tonks angrily, “we’ll get soaked, Mad-Eye!”

Harry was relieved to hear her say this; his hands were growing numb on the Firebolt’s handle. He wished he had thought to put on a coat; he was starting to shiver.

They altered their course every now and then according to Mad-Eyes instructions. Harry’s eyes were screwed up against the rush of icy wind that was starting to make his ears ache; he could remember being this cold on a broom only once before, during the Quidditch match against Hufflepuff in his third year, which had taken place in a storm. The guard around him was circling continuously like giant birds of prey. Harry lost track of time. He wondered how long they had been flying, it felt like an hour at least.

“Turning southwest!” yelled Moody. “We want to avoid the motorway!”

Harry was now so chilled he thought longingly of the snug, dry interiors of the cars streaming along below, then, even more longingly, of travelling by Floo powder; it might be uncomfortable to spin around in fireplaces but it was at least warm in the flames… Kingsley Shacklebolt swooped around him, bald pate and earring gleaming slightly in the moonlight… now Emmeline Vance was on his right, her wand out, her head turning left and right… then she, too, swooped over him, to be replaced by Sturgis Podmore…

“We ought to double back for a bit, just to make sure we’re not being followed!” Moody shouted.

“ARE YOU MAD, MAD-EYE?” Tonks screamed from the front. “We’re all frozen to our brooms! If we keep going off-course we’re not going to get there until next week! Besides, we’re nearly there now!”

“Time to start the descent!” came Lupin’s voice. “Follow Tonks, Harry!”

Harry followed Tonks into a dive. They were heading for the largest collection of lights he had yet seen, a huge, sprawling crisscrossing mass, glittering in lines and grids, interspersed with patches of deepest black. Lower and lower they flew, until Harry could see individual headlights and streetlamps, chimneys and television aerials. He wanted to reach the ground very much, though he felt sure someone would have to unfreeze him from his broom.

“Here we go!” called Tonks, and a few seconds later she had landed.

Harry touched down right behind her and dismounted on a patch of unkempt grass in the middle of a small square. Tonks was already unbuckling Harry’s trunk. Shivering, Harry looked around. The grimy fronts of the surrounding houses were not welcoming; some of them had broken windows, glimmering dully in the light fro the streetlamps, paint was peeling from many of the doors and heaps of rubbish lay outside several sets of front steps.

“Where are we?” Harry asked, but Lupin said quietly, “In a minute.”

Moody was rummaging in his cloak, his gnarled hands clumsy with cold.

“Got it,” he muttered, raising what looked like a silver cigarette lighter into the air and clicking it.

The nearest streetlamp went out with a pop. He clicked the unlighter again; the next lamp went out; he kept clicking until every lamp in the square was extinguished and the only remaining light came from curtained windows and the sickle moon overhead.

“Borrowed it from Dumbledore,” growled Moody, pocketing the Put-Outer. “That’ll take care of any Muggles looking out of the window, see? Now come on, quick.”

He took Harry by the arm and led him from the patch of grass, across the road and on to the pavement; Lupin and Tonks followed, carrying Harry’s trunk between them, the rest of the guard, all with their wands out, flanking them.

The muffled pounding of a stereo was coming from an upper window in the nearest house. A pungent smell of rotting rubbish came from the pile of bulging bin-bags just inside the broken gate.

“Here,” Moody muttered, thrusting a piece of parchment towards Harry’s Disillusioned hand and holding his lit wand close to it, so as to illuminate the writing. “Read quickly and memorise.”

Harry looked down at the piece of paper. The narrow handwriting was vaguely familiar. It said:

The Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix may be found at number twelve, Grimmauld Place, London.

4. NUMBER TWELVE, GRIMMAULD PLACE

“What’s the Order of the—?” Harry began.

“Not here, boy!” snarled Moody. “Wait till we’re inside!”

He pulled the piece of parchment out of Harry’s hand and set fire to it with his wand-tip. As the message curled into flames and floated to the ground, Harry looked around at the houses again. They were standing outside number eleven; he looked to the left and saw number ten; to the right, however, was number thirteen.

“But where’s—?”

“Think about what you’ve just memorised,” said Lupin quietly.

Harry thought, and no sooner had he reached the part about number twelve, Grimmauld Place, than a battered door emerged out of nowhere between numbers eleven and thirteen, followed swiftly by dirty walls and grimy windows. It was as though an extra house had inflated, pushing those on either side out of its way. Harry gaped at it. The stereo in number eleven thudded on. Apparently the Muggles inside hadn’t felt anything.

“Come on, hurry,” growled Moody, prodding Harry in the back.

Harry walked up the worn stone steps, staring at the newly materialised door. Its black paint was shabby and scratched. The silver doorknocker was in the form of a twisted serpent. There was no keyhole or letterbox.

Lupin pulled out his wand and tapped the door once. Harry heard many loud, metallic clicks and what sounded like the clatter of a chain. The door creaked open.

“Get in quick, Harry,” Lupin whispered, “but don’t go far inside and don’t touch anything.”

Harry stepped over the threshold into the almost total darkness of the hall. He could smell damp, dust and a sweetish, rotting smell; the place had the feeling of a derelict building. He looked over his shoulder and saw the others filing in behind him, Lupin and Tonks carrying his trunk and Hedwig’s cage. Moody was standing on the top step releasing the balls of light the Put-Outer had stolen from the streetlamps; they flew back to their bulbs and the square glowed momentarily with orange light before Moody limped inside and closed the front door, so that the darkness in the hall became complete.

“Here—”

He rapped Harry hard over the head with his wand; Harry felt as though something hot was trickling down his back this time and knew that the Disillusionment Charm must have lifted.

“Now stay still, everyone, while I give us a bit of light in here,” Moody whispered.

The others’ hushed voices were giving Harry an odd feeling of foreboding; it was as though they had just entered the house of a dying person. He heard a soft hissing noise and then old-fashioned gas lamps sputtered into life all along the walls, casting a flickering insubstantial light over the peeling wallpaper and threadbare carpet of a long, gloomy hallway, where a cobwebby chandelier glimmered overhead and age-blackened portraits hung crooked on the walls. Harry heard something scuttling behind the skirting board. Both the chandelier and the candelabra on a rickety table nearby were shaped like serpents.

There were hurried footsteps and Ron’s mother, Mrs. Weasley, emerged from a door at the far end of the hall. She was beaming in welcome as she hurried towards them, though Harry noticed that she was rather thinner and paler than she had been last time he had seen her.

“Oh, Harry, it’s lovely to see you!” she whispered, pulling him into a rib-cracking hug before holding him at arm’s length and examining him critically. “You’re looking peaky; you need feeding up, but you’ll have to wait a bit for dinner, I’m afraid.”

She turned to the gang of wizards behind him and whispered urgently, “He’s just arrived, the meeting’s started.”

The wizards behind Harry all made noises of interest and excitement and began filing past him towards the door through which Mrs. Weasley had just come. Harry made to follow Lupin, but Mrs. Weasley held him back.

“No, Harry, the meetings only for members of the Order. Ron and Hermione are upstairs, you can wait with them until the meetings over, then we’ll have dinner. And keep your voice down in the hall,” she added in an urgent whisper.

“Why?”

“I don’t want anything to wake up.”

“What d’you—?”

“I’ll explain later, I’ve got to hurry, I’m supposed to be at the meeting—I’ll just show you where you’re sleeping.”

Pressing her finger to her lips, she led him on tiptoe past a pair of long, moth-eaten curtains, behind which Harry supposed there must be another door, and after skirting a large umbrella stand that looked as though it had been made from a severed troll’s leg they started up the dark staircase, passing a row of shrunken heads mounted on plaques on the wall. A closer look showed Harry that the heads belonged to house-elves. All of them had the same rather snout-like nose.

Harry’s bewilderment deepened with every step he took. What on earth were they doing in a house that looked as though it belonged to the darkest of wizards?

“Mrs. Weasley, why—?”

“Ron and Hermione will explain everything, dear, I’ve really got to dash,” Mrs. Weasley whispered distractedly. “There—they had reached the second landing,—you’re the door on the right. I’ll call you when it’s over.”

And she hurried off downstairs again.

Harry crossed the dingy landing, turned the bedroom doorknob, which was shaped like a serpents head, and opened the door.

He caught a brief glimpse of a gloomy high-ceilinged, twin-bedded room; then there was a loud twittering noise, followed by an even louder shriek, and his vision was completely obscured by a large quantity of very bushy hair. Hermione had thrown herself on to him in a hug that nearly knocked him flat, while Ron’s tiny owl, Pigwidgeon, zoomed excitedly round and round their heads.

“HARRY! Ron, he’s here, Harry’s here! We didn’t hear you arrive! Oh, how are you? Are you all right? Have you been furious with us? I bet you have, I know our letters were useless—but we couldn’t tell you anything, Dumbledore made us swear we wouldn’t, oh, we’ve got so much to tell you, and you’ve got things to tell us—the Dementors! When we heard—and that Ministry hearing—it’s just outrageous, I’ve looked it all up, they can’t expel you, they just can’t, there’s provision in the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery for the use of magic in life-threatening situations—”

“Let him breathe, Hermione,” said Ron, grinning as he closed the door behind Harry. He seemed to have grown several more inches during their month apart, making him taller and more gangly looking than ever, though the long nose, bright red hair and freckles were the same.

Still beaming, Hermione let go of Harry, but before she could say another word there was a soft whooshing sound and something white soared from the top of a dark wardrobe and landed gently on Harry’s shoulder.

“Hedwig!”

The snowy owl clicked her beak and nibbled his ear affectionately as Harry stroked her feathers.

“She’s been in a right state,” said Ron. “Pecked us half to death when she brought your last letters, look at this—”

He showed Harry the index finger ol his right hand, which sported a half-healed but clearly deep cut.

“Oh, yeah,” Harry said. “Sorry about that, but I wanted answers, you know—”

“We wanted to give them to you, mate,” said Ron. “Hermione was going spare, she kept saying you’d do something stupid if you were stuck all on your own without news, but Dumbledore made us—”

“—swear not to tell me,” said Harry. “Yeah, Hermione’s already said. ”

The warm glow that had flared inside him at the sight of his two best friends was extinguished as something icy flooded the pit of his stomach. All of a sudden—after yearning to see them for a solid month—he felt he would rather Ron and Hermione left him alone.

There was a strained silence in which Harry stroked Hedwig automatically, not looking at either of the others.

“He seemed to think it was best,” said Hermione rather breathlessly. “Dumbledore, I mean.”

“Right,” said Harry. He noticed that her hands, too, bore the marks of Hedwig’s beak and found that he was not at all sorry.

“I think he thought you were safest with the Muggles—” Ron began.

“Yeah?” said Harry, raising his eyebrows. “Have either of you been attacked by Dementors this summer?”

“Well, no—but that’s why he’s had people from the Order of the Phoenix tailing you all the time—”

Harry felt a great jolt in his guts as though he had just missed a step going downstairs. So everyone had known he was being followed, except him.

“Didn’t work that well, though, did it?” said Harry, doing his utmost to keep his voice even. “Had to look after myself after all, didn’t I?”

“He was so angry,” said Hermione, in an almost awestruck voice. “Dumbledore. We saw him. When he found out Mundungus had left before his shift had ended. He was scary.”

“Well, I’m glad he left,” Harry said coldly. “If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have done magic and Dumbledore would probably have left me at Privet Drive all summer.”

“Aren’t you… aren’t you worried about the Ministry of Magic hearing?” said Hermione quietly.

“No,” Harry lied defiantly. He walked away from them, looking around, with Hedwig nestled contentedly on his shoulder, but this room was not likely to raise his spirits. It was dank and dark. A blank stretch of canvas in an ornate picture frame was all that relieved the bareness of the peeling walls, and as Harry passed it he thought he heard someone, who was lurking out of sight, snigger.

“So why’s Dumbledore been so keen to keep me in the dark?” Harry asked, still trying hard to keep his voice casual. “Did you—er—bother to ask him at all?”

He glanced up just in time to see them exchanging a look that told him he was behaving just as they had feared he would. It did nothing to improve his temper.

“We told Dumbledore we wanted to tell you what was going on,” said Ron. “We did, mate. But he’s really busy now, we’ve only seen him twice since we came here and he didn’t have much time, he just made us swear not to tell you important stuff when we wrote, he said the owls might be intercepted.”

“He could still’ve kept me informed if he’d wanted to,” Harry said shortly. “You’re not telling me he doesn’t know ways to send messages without owls.”

Hermione glanced at Ron and then said, “I thought that, too. But he didn’t want you to know anything.”

“Maybe he thinks I can’t be trusted,” said Harry, watching their expressions.

“Don’t be thick,” said Ron, looking highly disconcerted.

“Or that I can’t take care of myself.”

“Of course he doesn’t think that!” said Hermione anxiously.

“So how come I have to stay at the Dursleys’ while you two get to join in everything that’s going on here?” said Harry, the words tumbling over one another in a rush, his voice growing louder with every word. “How come you two are allowed to know everything that’s going on?”

“We’re not!” Ron interrupted. “Mum won’t let us near the meetings, she says we’re too young—”

But before he knew it, Harry was shouting.

“SO YOU HAVEN’T BEEN IN THE MEETINGS, BIG DEAL! YOU’VE STILL BEEN HERE, HAVEN’T YOU? YOU’VE STILL BEEN TOGETHER! ME, I’VE BEEN STUCK AT THE DURSLEYS’ FOR A MONTH! AND I’VE HANDLED MORE THAN YOU TWO’VE EVER MANAGED AND DUMBLEDORE KNOWS IT—WHO SAVED THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE? WHO GOT RID OF RIDDLE? WHO SAVED BOTH YOUR SKINS FROM THE DEMENTORS?”

Every bitter and resentful thought Harry had had in the past month was pouring out of him: his frustration at the lack of news, the hurt that they had all been together without him, his fury at being followed and not told about it—all the feelings he was half-ashamed of finally burst their boundaries. Hedwig took fright at the noise and soared off to the top of the wardrobe again; Pigwidgeon twittered in alarm and zoomed even taster around their heads.

“WHO HAD TO GET PAST DRAGONS AND SPHINXES AND EVERY OTHER FOUL THING LAST YEAR? WHO SAW HIM COME BACK? WHO HAD TO ESCAPE FROM HIM? ME!”

Ron was standing there with his mouth half-open, clearly stunned and at a loss for anything to say, whilst Hermione looked on the verge of tears.

“BUT WHY SHOULD I KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON? WHY SHOULD ANYONE BOTHER TO TELL ME WHAT’S BEEN HAPPENING?”

“Harry, we wanted to tell you, we really did—” Hermione began.

“CAN’T’VE WANTED TO THAT MUCH, CAN YOU, OR YOU’D HAVE SENT ME AN OWL, BUT DUMBLEDORE MADE YOU SWEAR—”

“Well, he did—”

“FOUR WEEKS I’VE BEEN STUCK IN PRIVET DRIVE, NICKING PAPERS OUT OF BINS TO TRY AND FIND OUT WHAT’S BEEN GOING ON—”

“We wanted to—”

“I SUPPOSE YOU’VE BEEN HAVING A REAL LAUGH, HAVEN’T YOU, ALL HOLED UP HERE TOGETHER—”

“No, honest—”

“Harry we’re really sorry!” said Hermione desperately, her eyes now sparkling with tears. “You’re absolutely right, Harry—I’d be furious if it was me!”

Harry glared at her, still breathing deeply, then turned away from them again, pacing up and down. Hedwig hooted glumly from the top of the wardrobe. There was a long pause, broken only by the mournful creak of the floorboards below Harry’s feet.

“What is this place, anyway?” he shot at Ron and Hermione.

“Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix,” said Ron at once.

“Is anyone going to bother telling me what the Order of the Phoenix—?”

“It’s a secret society,” said Hermione quickly. “Dumbledore’s in charge, he founded it. It’s the people who fought against You-Know-Who last time.”

“Who’s in it?” said Harry, coming to a halt with his hands in his pockets.

“Quite a few people—”

“We’ve met about twenty of them,” said Ron, “but we think there are more.”

Harry glared at them.

“Well?” he demanded, looking from one to the other.

“Er,” said Ron. “Well what?”

“Voldemort!” said Harry furiously, and both Ron and Hermione winced. “What’s happening? What’s he up to? Where is he? What are we doing to stop him?”

“We’ve told you, the Order don’t let us in on their meetings,” said Hermione nervously. “So we don’t know the details—but we’ve got a general idea,” she added hastily, seeing the look on Harry’s face.

“Fred and George have invented Extendable Ears, see,” said Ron. “They’re really useful.”

“Extendable—?”

“Ears, yeah. Only we’ve had to stop using them lately because Mum found out and went berserk. Fred and George had to hide them all to stop Mum binning them. But we got a good bit of use out of them before Mum realised what was going on. We know some of the Order are following known Death Eaters, keeping tabs on them, you know—”

“Some of them are working on recruiting more people to the Order—” said Hermione.

“And some of them are standing guard over something,” said Ron. “They’re always talking about guard duty.”

“Couldn’t have been me, could it?” said Harry sarcastically.

“Oh, yeah,” said Ron, with a look of dawning comprehension.

Harry snorted. He walked around the room again, looking anywhere but at Ron and Hermione. “So, what have you two been doing, if you’re not allowed in meetings?” he demanded. “You said you’d been busy.”

“We have,” said Hermione quickly. “We’ve been decontaminating this house, it’s been empty for ages and stuff’s been breeding in here. We’ve managed to clean out the kitchen, most of the bedrooms and I think we’re doing the drawing room tomo—”

With two loud cracks, Fred and George, Ron’s elder twin brothers, had materialised out of thin air in the middle of the room. Pigwidgeon twittered more wildly than ever and zoomed off to join Hedwig on top of the wardrobe.

“Stop doing that!” Hermione said weakly to the twins, who were as vividly red-haired as Ron, though stockier and slightly shorter.

“Hello, Harry,” said George, beaming at him. “We thought we heard your dulcet tones.”

“You don’t want to bottle up your anger like that, Harry, let it all out,” said Fred, also beaming. “There might be a couple of people fifty miles away who didn’t hear you.”

“You two passed your Apparation tests, then?” asked Harry grumpily.

“With distinction,” said Fred, who was holding what looked like a piece of very long, flesh-coloured string.

“It would have taken you about thirty seconds longer to walk down the stairs,” said Ron.

“Time is Galleons, little brother,” said Fred. “Anyway, Harry, you’re interfering with reception. Extendable Ears,” he added in response to Harry’s raised eyebrows, and held up the string which Harry now saw was trailing out on to the landing. “We’re trying to hear what’s going on downstairs.”

“You want to be careful,” said Ron, staring at the Ear, “if Mum sees one of them again…”

“It’s worth the risk, that’s a major meeting they’re having,” said Fred.

The door opened and a long mane of red hair appeared.

“Oh, hello, Harry!” said Ron’s younger sister, Ginny, brightly. “I thought I heard your voice.”

Turning to Fred and George, she said, “It’s no-go with the Extendable Ears, she’s gone and put an Imperturbable Charm on the kitchen door.”

“How d’you know?” said George, looking crestfallen.

“Tonks told me how to find out,” said Ginny. “You just chuck stuff at the door and if it can’t make contact the door’s been Imperturbed. I’ve been flicking Dungbombs at it from the top of the stairs and they just soar away from it, so there’s no way the Extendable Ears will be able to get under the gap.”

Fred heaved a deep sigh.

“Shame. I really fancied finding out what old Snape’s been up to.”

“Snape!” said Harry quickly. “Is he here?”

“Yeah,” said George, carefully closing the door and sitting down on one of the beds; Fred and Ginny followed. “Giving a report. Top secret.”

“Git,” said Fred idly.

“He’s on our side now,” said Hermione reprovingly.

Ron snorted. “Doesn’t stop him being a git. The way he looks at us when he sees us.”

“Bill doesn’t like him, either,” said Ginny, as though that settled the matter.

Harry was not sure his anger had abated yet; but his thirst for information was now overcoming his urge to keep shouting. He sank on to the bed opposite the others.

“Is Bill here?” he asked. “I thought he was working in Egypt?”

“He applied for a desk job so he could come home and work for the Order,” said Fred. “He says he misses the tombs, but,” he smirked, “there are compensations.”

“What d’you mean?”

“Remember old Fleur Delacour?” said George. “She’s got a job at Gringotts to eempwve ’er Eeenglish—”

“And Bill’s been giving her a lot of private lessons,” sniggered Fred.

“Charlie’s in the Order, too,” said George, “but he’s still in Romania. Dumbledore wants as many foreign wizards brought in as possible, so Charlie’s trying to make contacts on his days off.”

“Couldn’t Percy do that?” Harry asked. The last he had heard, the third Weasley brother was working in the Department of International Magical Co-operation at the Ministry of Magic.

At Harry’s words, all the Weasleys and Hermione exchanged darkly significant looks.

“Whatever you do, don’t mention Percy in front of Mum and Dad,” Ron told Harry in a tense voice.

“Why not?”

“Because every time Percy’s name’s mentioned, Dad breaks whatever he’s holding and Mum starts crying,” Fred said.

“It’s been awful,” said Ginny sadly.

“I think we’re well shot of him,” said George, with an uncharacteristically ugly look on his face.

“What’s happened?” Harry said.

“Percy and Dad had a row,” said Fred. “I’ve never seen Dad row with anyone like that. It’s normally Mum who shouts.”

“It was the first week back after term ended,” said Ron. “We were about to come and join the Order. Percy came home and told us he’d been promoted.”

“You’re kidding?” said Harry.

Though he knew perfectly well that Percy was highly ambitious, Harry’s impression was that Percy had not made a great success of his first job at the Ministry of Magic. Percy had committed the fairly large oversight of failing to notice that his boss was being controlled by Lord Voldemort (not that the Ministry had believed it—they all thought Mr. Crouch had gone mad).

“Yeah, we were all surprised,” said George, “because Percy got into a load of trouble about Crouch, there was an inquiry and everything. They said Percy ought to have realised Crouch was off his rocker and informed a superior. But you know Percy, Crouch left him in charge, he wasn’t going to complain.”

“So how come they promoted him?”

“That’s exactly what we wondered,” said Ron, who seemed very keen to keep normal conversation going now that Harry had stopped yelling. “He came home really pleased with himself—even more pleased than usual, if you can imagine that—and told Dad he’d been offered a position in Fudge’s own office. A really good one for someone only a year out of Hogwarts: Junior Assistant to the Minister. He expected Dad to be all impressed, I think.”

“Only Dad wasn’t,” said Fred grimly.

“Why not?” said Harry.

“Well, apparently Fudge has been storming round the Ministry checking that nobody’s having any contact with Dumbledore,” said George.

“Dumbledore’s name is mud with the Ministry these days, see,” said Fred. “They all think he’s just making trouble saying You-Know-Who’s back.”

“Dad says Fudge has made it clear that anyone who’s in league with Dumbledore can clear out their desks,” said George.

“Trouble is, Fudge suspects Dad, he knows he’s friendly with Dumbledore, and he’s always thought Dad’s a bit of a weirdo because of his Muggle obsession.”

“But what’s that got to do with Percy?” asked Harry, contused.

“I’m coming to that. Dad reckons Fudge only wants Percy in his office because he wants to use him to spy on the family—and Dumbledore.”

Harry let out a low whistle.

“Bet Percy loved that.”

Ron laughed in a hollow sort of way.

“He went completely berserk. He said—well, he said loads of terrible stuff. He said he’s been having to struggle against Dad’s lousy reputation ever since he joined the Ministry and that Dad’s got no ambition and that’s why we’ve always been—you know—not had a lot of money, I mean—”

“What?” said Harry in disbelief, as Ginny made a noise like an angry cat.

“I know,” said Ron in a low voice. “And it got worse. He said Dad was an idiot to run around with Dumbledore, that Dumbledore was heading for big trouble and Dad was going to go down with him, and that he—Percy—knew where his loyalty lay and it was with the Ministry. And if Mum and Dad were going to become traitors to the Ministry he was going to make sure everyone knew he didn’t belong to our family any more. And he packed his bags the same night and left. He’s living here in London now.”

Harry swore under his breath. He had always liked Percy least of Ron’s brothers, but he had never imagined he would say such things to Mr. Weasley.

“Mum’s been in a right state,” said Ron dully. “You know—crying and stuff. She came up to London to try and talk to Percy but he slammed the door in her face. I dunno what he does if he meets Dad at work—ignores him, I’s’pose.”

“But Percy must know Voldemort’s back,” said Harry slowly. “He’s not stupid, he must know your mum and dad wouldn’t risk everything without proof.”

“Yeah, well, your name got dragged into the row,” said Ron, shooting Harry a furtive look. “Percy said the only evidence was your word and… I dunno… he didn’t think it was good enough.”

“Percy takes the Daily Prophet seriously,” said Hermione tartly, and the others all nodded.

“What are you talking about?” Harry asked, looking around at them all. They were all regarding him warily.

“Haven’t—haven’t you been getting the Daily Prophet!” Hermione asked nervously.

“Yeah, I have!” said Harry.

“Have you—er—been reading it thoroughly?” Hermione asked, still more anxiously.

“Not cover to cover,” said Harry defensively. “If they were going to report anything about Voldemort it would be headline news, wouldn’t it?”

The others flinched at the sound of the name. Hermione hurried on, “Well, you’d need to read it cover to cover to pick it up, but they—um—they mention you a couple of times a week.”

“But I’d have seen—”

“Not if you’ve only been reading the front page, you wouldn’t,” said Hermione, shaking her head. “I’m not talking about big articles. They just slip you in, like you’re a standing joke.”

“What d’you—?”

“It’s quite nasty, actually,” said Hermione in a voice of forced calm. “They’re just building on Rita’s stuff.”

“But she’s not writing for them any more, is she?”

“Oh, no, she’s kept her promise—not that she’s got any choice,” Hermione added with satisfaction. “But she laid the foundation for what they’re trying to do now.”

“Which is what?” said Harry impatiently.

“OK, you know she wrote that you were collapsing all over the place and saying your scar was hurting and all that?”

“Yeah,” said Harry, who was not likely to forget Rita Skeeter’s stories about him in a hurry.

“Well, they’re writing about you as though you’re this deluded, attention-seeking person who thinks he’s a great tragic hero or something,” said Hermione, very fast, as though it would be less unpleasant for Harry to hear these facts quickly. “They keep slipping in snide comments about you. If some far-fetched story appears, they say something like, ‘A tale worthy of Harry Potter’, and if anyone has a funny accident or anything it’s, ‘Let’s hope he hasn’t got a scar on his forehead or we’ll be asked to worship him next’—”

“I don’t want anyone to worship—” Harry began hotly.

“I know you don’t,” said Hermione quickly, looking frightened. “I know, Harry. But you see what they’re doing? They want to turn you into someone nobody will believe. Fudge is behind it, I’ll bet anything. They want wizards on the street to think you’re just some stupid boy who’s a bit of a joke, who tells ridiculous tall stories because he loves being famous and wants to keep it going.”

“I didn’t ask—I didn’t want—Voldemort killed my parents!” Harry spluttered. “I got famous because he murdered my family but couldn’t kill me! Who wants to be famous for that? Don’t they think I’d rather it’d never—”

“We know, Harry,” said Ginny earnestly.

“And of course, they didn’t report a word about the Dementors attacking you,” said Hermione. “Someone’s told them to keep that quiet. That should’ve been a really big story, out-of-control Dementors. They haven’t even reported that you broke the International Statute of Secrecy. We thought they would, it would tie in so well with this image of you as some stupid show-off. We think they’re biding their time until you’re expelled, then they’re really going to go to town—I mean, if you’re expelled, obviously,” she went on hastily. “You really shouldn’t be, not if they abide by their own laws, there’s no case against you.”

They were back on the hearing and Harry did not want to think about that. He cast around for another change of subject, but was saved the necessity of finding one by the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs.

“Uh oh.”

Fred gave the Extendable Ear a hearty tug; there was another loud crack and he and George vanished. Seconds later, Mrs. Weasley appeared in the bedroom doorway.

“The meeting’s over, you can come down and have dinner now. Everyone’s dying to see you, Harry. And who’s left all those Dungbombs outside the kitchen door?”

“Crookshanks,” said Ginny unblusingly. “He loves playing with them.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Weasley, “I thought it might have been Kreacher, he keeps doing odd things like that. Now don’t forget to keep your voices down in the hall. Ginny, your hands are filthy, what have you been doing? Go and wash them before dinner, please.”

Ginny grimaced at the others and followed her mother out of the room, leaving Harry alone with Ron and Hermione. Both of them were watching him apprehensively, as though they feared he would start shouting again now that everyone else had gone. The sight of them looking so nervous made him feel slightly ashamed.

“Look…” he muttered, but Ron shook his head, and Hermione said quietly, “We knew you’d be angry, Harry, we really don’t blame you, but you’ve got to understand, we did try to persuade Dumbledore—”

“Yeah, I know,” said Harry shortly.

He cast around for a topic that didn’t involve his headmaster, because the very thought of Dumbledore made Harry’s insides burn with anger again.

“Who’s Kreacher?” he asked.

“The house-elf who lives here,” said Ron. “Nutter. Never met one like him.”

Hermione frowned at Ron.

“He’s not anutter, Ron.”

“His life’s ambition is to have his head cut off and stuck up on a plaque just like his mother,” said Ron irritably. “Is that normal, Hermione?”

“Well—well, if he is a bit strange, it’s not his fault.”

Ron rolled his eyes at Harry.

“Hermione still hasn’t given up on SPEW—”

“It’s not SPEW!” said Hermione heatedly. “It’s the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare. And it’s not just me, Dumbledore says we should be kind to Kreacher too.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Ron. “C’mon, I’m starving.”

He led the way out of the door and on to the landing, but before they could descend the stairs—

“Hold it!” Ron breathed, flinging out an arm to stop Harry and Hermione walking any further. “They’re still in the hall, we might be able to hear something.”

The three of them looked cautiously over the banisters. The gloomy hallway below was packed with witches and wizards, including all of Harry’s guard. They were whispering excitedly together. In the very centre of the group Harry saw the dark, greasy-haired head and prominent nose of his least favourite teacher at Hogwarts, Professor Snape. Harry leant further over the banisters. He was very interested in what Snape was doing for the Order of the Phoenix…

A thin piece of flesh-coloured string descended in front of Harry’s eyes. Looking up, he saw Ered and George on the landing above, cautiously lowering the Extendable Ear towards the dark knot of people below. A moment later, however, they all began to move towards the front door and out of sight.

“Dammit,” Harry heard Fred whisper, as he hoisted the Extendable Ear back up again.

They heard the front door open, then close.

“Snape never eats here,” Ron told Harry quietly. “Thank God. C’mon.”

“And don’t forget to keep your voice down in the hall, Harry,” Hermione whispered.

As they passed the row of house-elf heads on the wall, they saw Lupin, Mrs. Weasley and Tonks at the front door, magically sealing its many locks and bolts behind those who had just left.

“We’re eating down in the kitchen,” Mrs. Weasley whispered, meeting them at the bottom of the stairs. “Harry, dear, if you’ll just tiptoe across the hall, it’s through this door here—”

CRASH.

“Tonks!” cried Mrs. Weasley in exasperation, turning to look behind her.

“I’m sorry!” wailed Tonks, who was lying flat on the floor. “It’s that stupid umbrella stand, that’s the second time I’ve tripped over—”

But the rest of her words were drowned by a horrible, ear-splitting, blood-curdling screech.

The moth-eaten velvet curtains Harry had passed earlier had flown apart, but there was no door behind them. For a split second, Harry thought he was looking through a window, a window behind which an old woman in a black cap was screaming and screaming as though she were being tortured—then he realised it was simply a life-size portrait, but the most realistic, and the most unpleasant, he had ever seen in his life.

The old woman was drooling, her eyes were rolling, the yellowing skin of her face stretched taut as she screamed; and all along the hall behind them, the other portraits awoke and began to yell, too, so that Harry actually screwed up his eyes at the noise and clapped his hands over his ears.

Lupin and Mrs. Weasley darted forward and tried to tug the curtains shut over the old woman, but they would not close and she screeched louder than ever, brandishing clawed hands as though trying to tear at their faces.

“Filth! Scum! By-products of dirt and vileness! Half-breeds, mutants, freaks, begone from this place! How dare you befoul the house of my fathers—”

Tonks apologized over and over again, dragging the huge, heavy troll’s leg back off the floor; Mrs. Weasley abandoned the attempt to close the curtains and hurried up and down the hall, stunning all the other portraits with her wand; and a man with long black hair came charging out of a door facing Harry.

“Shut up, you horrible old hag, shut UP!” he roared, seizing the curtain Mrs. Weasley had abandoned.

The old woman’s face blanched.

“Yoooou!” she howled, her eyes popping at the sight of the man. “Blood traitor, abomination, shame of my flesh!”

“I said—shut—UP!” roared the man, and with a stupendous effort he and Lupin managed to force the curtains closed again.

The old woman’s screeches died and an echoing silence fell. Panting slightly and sweeping his long dark hair out of his eyes, Harry’s godfather Sirius turned to face him.

“Hello, Harry,” he said grimly, “I see you’ve met my mother.”

5. THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX

“Your—?”

“My dear old mum, yeah,” said Sirius. “We’ve been trying to get her down for a month but we think she put a Permanent Sticking Charm on the back of the canvas. Let’s get downstairs, quick, before they all wake up again.”

“But what’s a portrait of your mother doing here?” Harry asked, bewildered, as they went through the door from the hall and led the way down a flight of narrow stone steps, the others just behind them.

“Hasn’t anyone told you? This was my parents’ house,” said Sirius. “But I’m the last Black left, so it’s mine now. I offered it to Dumbledore for Headquarters—about the only useful thing I’ve been able to do.”

Harry, who had expected a better welcome, noted how hard and bitter Sirius’s voice sounded. He followed his godfather to the bottom of the steps and through a door leading into the basement kitchen.

It was scarcely less gloomy than the hall above, a cavernous room with rough stone walls. Most of the light was coming from a large fire at the far end of the room. A haze of pipe smoke hung in the air like battle fumes, through which loomed the menacing shapes of heavy iron pots and pans hanging from the dark ceiling. Many chairs had been crammed into the room for the meeting and a long wooden table stood in the middle of them, littered with rolls of parchment, goblets, empty wine bottles, and a heap of what appeared to be rags. Mr. Weasley and his eldest son Bill were talking quietly with their heads together at the end of the table.

Mrs. Weasley cleared her throat. Her husband, a thin, balding, red-haired man who wore horn-rimmed glasses, looked around and jumped to his feet.

“Harry!” Mr. Weasley said, hurrying forward to greet him, and shaking his hand vigorously. “Good to see you!”

Over his shoulder Harry saw Bill, who still wore his long hair in a ponytail, hastily rolling up the lengths of parchment left on the table.

“Journey all right, Harry?” Bill called, trying to gather up twelve scrolls at once. “Mad-Eye didn’t make you come via Greenland, then?”

“He tried,” said Tonks, striding over to help Bill and immediately toppling a candle on to the last piece of parchment. “Oh no—sorry—”

“Here, dear,” said Mrs. Weasley, sounding exasperated, and she repaired the parchment with a wave of her wand. In the flash of light caused by Mrs. Weasley’s charm Harry caught a glimpse of what looked like the plan of a building.

Mrs. Weasley had seen him looking. She snatched the plan off the table and stuffed it into Bill’s already overladen arms.

“This sort of thing ought to be cleared away promptly at the end of meetings,” she snapped, before sweeping off towards an ancient dresser from which she started unloading dinner plates.

Bill took out his wand, muttered, “Evanesco!” and the scrolls vanished.

“Sit down, Harry,” said Sirius. “You’ve met Mundungus, haven’t you?”

The thing Harry had taken to be a pile of rags gave a prolonged, grunting snore, then jerked awake.

“Some’n say m’name?” Mundungus mumbled sleepily. “I ’gree with Sirius…” He raised a very grubby hand in the air as though voting, his droopy, bloodshot eyes unfocused.

Ginny giggled.

“The meeting’s over, Dung,” said Sirius, as they all sat down around him at the table. “Harry’s arrived.”

“Eh?” said Mundungus, peering balefully at Harry through his matted ginger hair. “Blimey, so ’e ’as. Yeah… you all right, ’Arry?”

“Yeah,” said Harry.

Mundungus fumbled nervously in his pockets, still staring at Harry, and pulled out a grimy black pipe. He stuck it in his mouth, ignited the end of it with his wand and took a deep pull on it. Great billowing clouds of greenish smoke obscured him within seconds.

“Owe you a ’pology,” grunted a voice from the middle of the smelly cloud.

“For the last time, Mundungus,” called Mrs. Weasley, “will you please not smoke that thing in the kitchen, especially not when we’re about to eat!”

“Ah,” said Mundungus. “Right. Sorry, Molly.”

The cloud of smoke vanished as Mundungus stowed his pipe back in his pocket, but an acrid smell of burning socks lingered.

“And if you want dinner before midnight I’ll need a hand,” Mrs. Weasley said to the room at large. “No, you can stay where you are, Harry dear, you’ve had a long journey.”

“What can I do, Molly?” said Tonks enthusiastically, bounding forwards.

Mrs. Weasley hesitated, looking apprehensive.

“Er—no, it’s all right, Tonks, you have a rest too, you’ve done enough today.”

“No, no, I want to help!” said Tonks brightly, knocking over a chair as she hurried towards the dresser, from which Ginny was collecting cutlery.

Soon, a series of heavy knives were chopping meat and vegetables of their own accord, supervised by Mr. Weasley, while Mrs. Weasley stirred a cauldron dangling over the fire and the others took out plates, more goblets and food from the pantry. Harry was left at the table with Sirius and Mundungus, who was still blinking at him mournfully.

“Seen old Figgy since?” he asked.

“No,” said Harry, “I haven’t seen anyone.”

“See, I wouldn’t ’ave left,” said Mundungus, leaning forward, a pleading note in his voice, “but I ’ad a business opportunity—”

Harry felt something brush against his knees and started, but it was only Crookshanks, Hermione’s bandy-legged ginger cat, who wound himself once around Harry’s legs, purring, then jumped on to Sirius’s lap and curled up. Sirius scratched him absent-mindedly behind the ears as he turned, still grim-faced, to Harry.

“Had a good summer so far?”

“No, it’s been lousy,” said Harry.

For the first time, something like a grin flitted across Sirius’s face.

“Don’t know what you’re complaining about, myself.”

“What?” said Harry incredulously.

“Personally, I’d have welcomed a Dementor attack. A deadly struggle for my soul would have broken the monotony nicely. You think you’ve had it bad, at least you’ve been able to get out and about, stretch your legs, get into a few fights… I’ve been stuck inside for a month.”

“How come?” asked Harry, frowning.

“Because the Ministry of Magic’s still after me, and Voldemort will know all about me being an Animagus by now, Wormtail will have told him, so my big disguise is useless. There’s not much I can do for the Order of the Phoenix… or so Dumbledore feels.”

There was something about the slightly flattened tone of voice in which Sirius uttered Dumbledore’s name that told Harry that Sirius, too, was not very happy with the Headmaster. Harry felt a sudden upsurge of affection for his godfather.

“At least you’ve known what’s been going on,” he said bracingly.

“Oh yeah,” said Sirius sarcastically. “Listening to Snape’s reports, having to take all his snide hints that he’s out there risking his life while I’m sat on my backside here having a nice comfortable time… asking me how the cleanings going—”

“What cleaning?” asked Harry.

“Trying to make this place fit for human habitation,” said Sirius, waving a hand around the dismal kitchen. “No one’s lived here for ten years, not since my dear mother died, unless you count her old house-elf, and he’s gone round the twist—hasn’t cleaned anything in ages.”

“Sirius,” said Mundungus, who did not appear to have paid any attention to the conversation, but had been closely examining an empty goblet. “This solid silver, mate?”

“Yes,” said Sirius, surveying it with distaste. “Finest fifteenth-century goblin-wrought silver, embossed with the Black family crest.”

“That’d come orf, though,” muttered Mundungus, polishing it with his cuff.

“Fred—George—NO, JUST CARRY THEM!” Mrs. Weasley shrieked.

Harry, Sirius and Mundungus looked round and, within a split second, they had dived away from the table. Fred and George had bewitched a large cauldron of stew, an iron flagon of Butterbeer and a heavy wooden breadboard, complete with knife, to hurtle through the air towards them. The stew skidded the length of the table and came to a halt just before the end, leaving a long black burn on the wooden surface; the flagon of Butterbeer fell with a crash, spilling its contents everywhere; the bread knife slipped off the board and landed, point down and quivering ominously, exactly where Sirius’s right hand had been seconds before.

“FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE!” screamed Mrs. Weasley. “THERE WAS NO NEED—I’VE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS—JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE ALLOWED TO USE MAGIC NOW, YOU DON’T HAVE TO WHIP YOUR WANDS OUT FOR EVERY TINY LITTLE THING!”

“We were just trying to save a bit of time!” said Fred, hurrying forward to wrench the bread knife out of the table. “Sorry, Sirius, mate—didn’t mean to—”

Harry and Sirius were both laughing; Mundungus, who had toppled backwards off his chair, was swearing as he got to his feet; Crookshanks had given an angry hiss and shot off under the dresser, from where his large yellow eyes glowed in the darkness.

“Boys,” Mr. Weasley said, lifting the stew back into the middle of the table, “your mother’s right, you’re supposed to show a sense of responsibility now you’ve come of age—”

“None of your brothers caused this sort of trouble!” Mrs. Weasley raged at the twins as she slammed a fresh flagon of Butterbeer on to the table, and spilling almost as much again. “Bill didn’t feel the need to Apparate every few feet! Charlie didn’t charm everything he met! Percy—”

She stopped dead, catching her breath with a frightened look at her husband, whose expression was suddenly wooden.

“Let’s eat,” said Bill quickly.

“It looks wonderful, Molly,” said Lupin, ladling stew on to a plate for her and handing it across the table.

For a few minutes there was silence but for the chink of plates and cutlery and the scraping of chairs as everyone settled down to their food. Then Mrs. Weasley turned to Sirius.

“I’ve been meaning to tell you, Sirius, there’s something trapped in that writing desk in the drawing room, it keeps rattling and shaking. Of course, it could just be a Boggart, but I thought we ought to ask Alastor to have a look at it before we let it out.”

“Whatever you like,” said Sirius indifferently.

“The curtains in there are full of Doxys, too,” Mrs. Weasley went on. “I thought we might try and tackle them tomorrow.”

“I look forward to it,” said Sirius. Harry heard the sarcasm in his voice, but he was not sure that anyone else did.

Opposite Harry, Tonks was entertaining Hermione and Ginny by transforming her nose between mouthfuls. Screwing up her eyes each time with the same pained expression she had worn back in Harry’s bedroom, her nose swelled to a beak-like protuberance that resembled Snape’s, shrank to the size of a button mushroom and then sprouted a great deal of hair from each nostril. Apparently this was a regular mealtime entertainment, because Hermione and Ginny were soon requesting their favourite noses.

“Do that one like a pig snout, Tonks.”

Tonks obliged, and Harry, looking up, had the fleeting impression that a female Dudley was grinning at him from across the table.

Mr. Weasley, Bill and Lupin were having an intense discussion about goblins.

“They’re not giving anything away yet,” said Bill. “I still can’t work out whether or not they believe he’s back. Course, they might prefer not to take sides at all. Keep out of it.”

“I’m sure they’d never go over to You-Know-Who,” said Mr. Weasley, shaking his head. “They’ve suffered losses too; remember that goblin family he murdered last time, somewhere near Nottingham?”

“I think it depends what they’re offered,” said Lupin. “And I’m not talking about gold. If they’re offered the freedoms we’ve been denying them for centuries they’re going to be tempted. Have you still not had any luck with Ragnok, Bill?”

“He’s feeling pretty anti-wizard at the moment,” said Bill, “he hasn’t stopped raging about the Bagman business, he reckons the Ministry did a cover-up, those goblins never got their gold from him, you know—”

A gale of laughter from the middle of the table drowned the rest of Bill’s words. Fred, George, Ron and Mundungus were rolling around in their seats.

“…and then,” choked Mundungus, tears running down his face, “and then, if you’ll believe it, ’e says to me, ’e says, ‘’Ere, Dung, where didja get all them toads from? ’Cos some son of a Bludger’s gone and nicked all mine!’ And I says, ‘Nicked all your toads, Will, what next? So you’ll be wanting some more, then?” And if you’ll believe me, lads, the gormless gargoyle buys all ’is own toads back orf me for a lot more’n what ’e paid in the first place—”

“I don’t think we need to hear any more of your business dealings, thank you very much, Mundungus,” said Mrs. Weasley sharply, as Ron slumped forwards on to the table, howling with laughter.

“Beg pardon, Molly,” said Mundungus at once, wiping his eyes and winking at Harry. “But, you know, Will nicked ’em orf Warty Harris in the first place so I wasn’t really doing nothing wrong.”

“I don’t know where you learned about right and wrong, Mundungus, but you seem to have missed a few crucial lessons,” said Mrs. Weasley coldly.

Fred and George buried their faces in their goblets of Butterbeer; George was hiccoughing. For some reason, Mrs. Weasley threw a very nasty look at Sirius before getting to her feet and going to fetch a large rhubarb crumble for pudding. Harry looked round at his godfather.

“Molly doesn’t approve of Mundungus,” said Sirius in an undertone.

“How come he’s in the Order?” Harry said, very quietly.

“He’s useful,” Sirius muttered. “Knows all the crooks—well, he would, seeing as he’s one himself. But he’s also very loyal to Dumbledore, who helped him out of a tight spot once. It pays to have someone like Dung around, he hears things we don’t. But Molly thinks inviting him to stay for dinner is going too far. She hasn’t forgiven him for slipping off duty when he was supposed to be tailing you.”

Three helpings of rhubarb crumble and custard later and the waistband on Harry’s jeans was feeling uncomfortably tight (which was saying something as the jeans had once been Dudley’s). As he laid down his spoon there was a lull in the general conversation: Mr. Weasley was leaning back in his chair, looking replete and relaxed; Tonks was yawning widely, her nose now back to normal; and Ginny who had lured Crookshanks out from under the dresser, was sitting cross-legged on the floor, rolling Butterbeer corks for him to chase.

“Nearly time for bed, I think,” said Mrs. Weasley with a yawn.

“Not just yet, Molly,” said Sirius, pushing away his empty plate and turning to look at Harry. “You know, I’m surprised at you. I thought the first thing you’d do when you got here would be to start asking questions about Voldemort.”

The atmosphere in the room changed with the rapidity Harry associated with the arrival of Dementors. Where seconds before it had been sleepily relaxed, it was now alert, even tense. A frisson had gone around the table at the mention of Voldemort’s name. Lupin, who had been about to take a sip of wine, lowered his goblet slowly, looking wary.

“I did!” said Harry indignantly. “I asked Ron and Hermione but they said we’re not allowed in the Order, so—”

“And they’re quite right,” said Mrs. Weasley. “You’re too young.”

She was sitting bolt upright in her chair, her fists clenched on its arms, every trace of drowsiness gone.

“Since when did someone have to be in the Order of the Phoenix to ask questions?” asked Sirius. “Harry’s been trapped in that Muggle house for a month. He’s got the right to know what’s been happen—”

“Hang on!” interrupted George loudly.

“How come Harry gets his questions answered?” said Fred angrily.

“We’ve been trying to get stuff out of you for a month and you haven’t told us a single stinking thing!” said George.

“‘You’re too young, you’re not in the Order,’” said Fred, in a high-pitched voice that sounded uncannily like his mother’s. “Harry’s not even of age!”

“It’s not my fault you haven’t been told what the Order’s doing,” said Sirius calmly, “that’s your parents’ decision. Harry, on the other hand—”

“It’s not down to you to decide what’s good for Harry!” said Mrs. Weasley sharply. The expression on her normally kind face looked dangerous. “You haven’t forgotten what Dumbledore said, I suppose?”

“Which bit?” Sirius asked politely, but with the air of a man readying himself for a fight.

“The bit about not telling Harry more than he needs to know,” said Mrs. Weasley, placing a heavy emphasis on the last three words.

Ron, Hermione, Fred and George’s heads swivelled from Sirius to Mrs. Weasley as though they were following a tennis rally. Ginny was kneeling amid a pile of abandoned Butterbeer corks, watching the conversation with her mouth slightly open. Lupin’s eyes were fixed on Sirius.

“I don’t intend to tell him more than he needs to know, Molly,” said Sirius. “But as he was the one who saw Voldemort come back” (again, there was a collective shudder around the table at the name) “he has more right than most to—”

“He’s not a member of the Order of the Phoenix!” said Mrs. Weasley. “He’s only fifteen and—”

“And he’s dealt with as much as most in the Order,” said Sirius, “and more than some.”

“No one’s denying what he’s done!” said Mrs. Weasley, her voice rising, her fists trembling on the arms of her chair. “But he’s still—”

“He’s not a child!” said Sirius impatiently.

“He’s not an adult either!” said Mrs. Weasley, the colour rising in her cheeks. “He’s not James, Sirius!”

“I’m perfectly clear who he is, thanks, Molly,” said Sirius coldly.

“I’m not sure you are!” said Mrs. Weasley. “Sometimes, the way you talk about him, it’s as though you think you’ve got your best friend back!”

“What’s wrong with that?” said Harry.

“What’s wrong, Harry, is that you are not your father, however much you might look like him!” said Mrs. Weasley, her eyes still boring into Sirius. “You are still at school and adults responsible for you should not forget it!”

“Meaning I’m an irresponsible godfather?” demanded Sirius, his voice rising.

“Meaning you have been known to act rashly, Sirius, which is why Dumbledore keeps reminding you to stay at home and—”

“We’ll leave my instructions from Dumbledore out of this, if you please!” said Sirius loudly.

“Arthur!” said Mrs. Weasley, rounding on her husband. “Arthur, back me up!”

Mr. Weasley did not speak at once. He took off his glasses and cleaned them slowly on his robes, not looking at his wife. Only when he had replaced them carefully on his nose did he reply.

“Dumbledore knows the position has changed, Molly. He accepts that Harry will have to be filled in, to a certain extent, now that he is staying at Headquarters.”

“Yes, but there’s a difference between that and inviting him to ask whatever he likes!”

“Personally,” said Lupin quietly, looking away from Sirius at last, as Mrs. Weasley turned quickly to him, hopeful that finally she was about to get an ally, “I think it better that Harry gets the facts—not all the facts, Molly, but the general picture—from us, rather than a garbled version from… others.”

His expression was mild, but Harry felt sure Lupin, at least, knew that some Extendable Ears had survived Mrs. Weasley’s purge.

“Well,” said Mrs. Weasley, breathing deeply and looking around the table for support that did not come, “well… I can see I’m going to be overruled. I’ll just say this: Dumbledore must have had his reasons for not wanting Harry to know too much, and speaking as someone who has Harry’s best interests at heart—”

“He’s not your son,” said Sirius quietly.

“He’s as good as,” said Mrs. Weasley fiercely. “Who else has he got?”

“He’s got me!”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Weasley, her lip curling, “the thing is, it’s been rather difficult for you to look after him while you’ve been locked up in Azkaban, hasn’t it?”

Sirius started to rise from his chair.

“Molly, you’re not the only person at this table who cares about Harry,” said Lupin sharply. “Sirius, sit down.”

Mrs. Weasley’s lower lip was trembling. Sirius sank slowly back into his chair, his face white.

“I think Harry ought to be allowed a say in this,” Lupin continued, “he’s old enough to decide for himself.”

“I want to know what’s been going on,” Harry said at once.

He did not look at Mrs. Weasley. He had been touched by what she had said about his being as good as a son, but he was also impatient with her mollycoddling. Sirius was right, he was not a child.

“Very well,” said Mrs. Weasley, her voice cracking. “Ginny—Ron—Hermione—Fred—George—I want you out of this kitchen, now.”

There was instant uproar.

“We’re of age!” Fred and George bellowed together.

“If Harry’s allowed, why can’t I?” shouted Ron.

“Mum, I want to hear!” wailed Ginny.

“NO!” shouted Mrs. Weasley, standing up, her eyes overbright. “I absolutely forbid—”

“Molly, you can’t stop Fred and George,” said Mr. Weasley wearily. They are of age.”

“They’re still at school.”

“But they’re legally adults now,” said Mr. Weasley, in the same tired voice.

Mrs. Weasley was now scarlet in the face.

“I—oh, all right then, Fred and George can stay, but Ron—”

“Harry’ll tell me and Hermione everything you say anyway!” said Ron hotly. “Won’t—won’t you?” he added uncertainly, meeting Harry’s eyes.

For a split second, Harry considered telling Ron that he wouldn’t tell him a single word, that he could try a taste of being kept in the dark and see how he liked it. But the nasty impulse vanished as they looked at each other.

“’Course I will,” Harry said.

Ron and Hermione beamed.

“Fine!” shouted Mrs. Weasley. “Fine! Ginny—BED!”

Ginny did not go quietly. They could hear her raging and storming at her mother all the way up the stairs, and when she reached the hall Mrs. Black’s ear-splitting shrieks were added to the din. Lupin hurried off to the portrait to restore calm. It was only after he had returned, closing the kitchen door behind him and taking his seat at the table again, that Sirius spoke.

“OK, Harry… what do you want to know?”

Harry took a deep breath and asked the question that had obsessed him for the last month.

“Where’s Voldemort?” he said, ignoring the renewed shudders and winces at the name. “What’s he doing? I’ve been trying to watch the Muggle news, and there hasn’t been anything that looks like him yet, no funny deaths or anything.”

“That’s because there haven’t been any funny deaths yet,” said Sirius, “not as far as we know, anyway… and we know quite a lot.”

“More than he thinks we do, anyway,” said Lupin.

“How come he’s stopped killing people?” Harry asked. He knew Voldemort had murdered more than once in the last year alone.

“Because he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself,” said Sirius. “It would be dangerous for him. His comeback didn’t come off quite the way he wanted it to, you see. He messed it up.”

“Or rather, you messed it tip for him,” said Lupin, with a satisfied smile.

“How?” Harry asked, perplexed.

“You weren’t supposed to survive!” said Sirius. “Nobody apart from his Death Eaters was supposed to know he’d come back. But you survived to bear witness.”

“And the very last person he wanted alerted to his return the moment he got back was Dumbledore,” said Lupin. “And you made sure Dumbledore knew at once.”

“How has that helped?” Harry asked.

“Are you kidding?” said Bill incredulously. “Dumbledore was the only one You-Know-Who was ever scared of!”

“Thanks to you, Dumbledore was able to recall the Order of the Phoenix about an hour after Voldemort returned,” said Sirius.

“So, what’s the Order been doing?” said Harry, looking around at them all.

“Working as hard as we can to make sure Voldemort can’t carry out his plans,” said Sirius.

“How d’you know what his plans are?” Harry asked quickly.

“Dumbledore’s got a shrewd idea,” said Lupin, “and Dumbledore’s shrewd ideas normally turn out to be accurate.”

“So what does Dumbledore reckon he’s planning?”

“Well, firstly, he wants to build up his army again,” said Sirius. “In the old days he had huge numbers at his command: witches and wizards he’d bullied or bewitched into following him, his faithful Death Eaters, a great variety of Dark creatures. You heard him planning to recruit the giants; well, they’ll be just one of the groups he’s after. He’s certainly not going to try and take on the Ministry of Magic with only a dozen Death Eaters.”

“So you’re trying to stop him getting more followers?”

“We’re doing our best,” said Lupin.

“How?”

“Well, the main thing is to try and convince as many people as possible that You-Know-Who really has returned, to put them on their guard,” said Bill. “It’s proving tricky, though.”

“Why?”

“Because of the Ministry’s attitude,” said Tonks. “You saw Cornelius Fudge after You-Know-Who came back, Harry. Well, he hasn’t shifted his position at all. He’s absolutely refusing to believe it’s happened.”

“But why?” said Harry desperately. “Why’s he being so stupid? If Dumbledore—”

“Ah, well, you’ve put your finger on the problem,” said Mr. Weasley with a wry smile. “Dumbledore.”

“Fudge is frightened of him, you see,” said Tonks sadly.

“Frightened of Dumbledore?” said Harry incredulously.

“Frightened of what he’s up to,” said Mr. Weasley. “Fudge thinks Dumbledore’s plotting to overthrow him. He thinks Dumbledore wants to be Minister for Magic.”

“But Dumbledore doesn’t want—”

“Of course he doesn’t,” said Mr. Weasley. “He’s never wanted the Minister’s job, even though a lot of people wanted him to take it when Millicent Bagnold retired. Fudge came to power instead, but—he’s never quite forgotten how much popular support Dumbledore had, even though Dumbledore never applied for the job.”

“Deep down, Fudge knows Dumbledore’s much cleverer than he is, a much more powerful wizard, and in the early days of his Ministry he was forever asking Dumbledore for help and advice,” said Lupin. “But it seems he’s become fond of power, and much more confident. He loves being Minister for Magic and he’s managed to convince himself that he’s the clever one and Dumbledore’s simply stirring up trouble for the sake of it.”

“How can he think that?” said Harry angrily. “How can he think Dumbledore would just make it all up—that I’d make it all up?”

“Because accepting that Voldemort’s back would mean trouble like the Ministry hasn’t had to cope with for nearly fourteen years,” said Sirius bitterly. “Fudge just can’t bring himself to face it. It’s so much more comfortable to convince himself Dumbledore’s lying to destabilise him.”

“You see the problem,” said Lupin. “While the Ministry insists there is nothing to fear from Voldemort it’s hard to convince people he’s back, especially as they really don’t want to believe it in the first place. What’s more, the Ministry’s leaning heavily on the Daily Prophet not to report any of what they’re calling Dumbledore’s rumour-mongering, so most of the wizarding community are completely unaware any things happened, and that makes them easy targets for the Death Eaters if they’re using the Imperius Curse.”

“But you’re telling people, aren’t you?” said Harry, looking around at Mr. Weasley, Sirius, Bill, Mundungus, Lupin and Tonks. “You’re letting people know he’s back?”

They all smiled humourlessly.

“Well, as everyone thinks I’m a mad mass-murderer and the Ministry’s put a ten thousand Galleon price on my head, I can hardly stroll up the street and start handing out leaflets, can I?” said Sirius restlessly.

“And I’m not a very popular dinner guest with most of the community,” said Lupin. “It’s an occupational hazard of being a werewolf.”

“Tonks and Arthur would lose their jobs at the Ministry if they started shooting their mouths off,” said Sirius, “and it’s very important for us to have spies inside the Ministry, because you can bet Voldemort will have them.”

“We’ve managed to convince a couple of people, though,” said Mr. Weasley. “Tonks here, for one—she’s too young to have been in the Order of the Phoenix last time, and having Aurors on our side is a huge advantage—Kingsley Shacklebolt’s been a real asset, too; he’s in charge of the hunt for Sirius, so he’s been feeding the Ministry information that Sirius is in Tibet.”

“But if none of you are putting the news out that Voldemort’s back—” Harry began.

“Who said none of us are putting the news out?” said Sirius. “Why d’you think Dumbledore’s in such trouble?”

“What d’you mean?” Harry asked.

“They’re trying to discredit him,” said Lupin. “Didn’t you see the Daily Prophet last week? They reported that he’d been voted out of the Chairmanship of the International Confederation of Wizards because he’s getting old and losing his grip, but it’s not true; he was voted out by Ministry wizards after he made a speech announcing Voldemort’s return. They’ve demoted him from Chief Warlock on the Wizengamot—that’s the Wizard High Court—and they’re talking about taking away his Order of Merlin, First Class, too.”

“But Dumbledore says he doesn’t care what they do as long as they don’t take him off the Chocolate Frog Cards,” said Bill, grinning.

“It’s no laughing matter,” said Mr. Weasley sharply. “If he carries on defying the Ministry like this he could end up in Azkaban, and the last thing we want is to have Dumbledore locked up. While You-Know-Who knows Dumbledore’s out there and wise to what he’s up to he’s going to go cautiously. If Dumbledore’s out ol the way—well, You-Know-Who will have a clear field.”

“But if Voldemort’s trying to recruit more Death Eaters it’s bound to get out that he’s come back, isn’t it?” asked Harry desperately.

“Voldemort doesn’t march up to people’s houses and bang on their front doors, Harry,” said Sirius. “He tricks, jinxes and blackmails them. He’s well-practised at operating in secret. In any case, gathering followers is only one thing he’s interested in. He’s got other plans too, plans he can put into operation very quietly indeed, and he’s concentrating on those for the moment.”

“What’s he after apart from followers?” Harry asked swiftly. He thought he saw Sirius and Lupin exchange the most fleeting of looks before Sirius answered.

“Stuff he can only get by stealth.”

When Harry continued to look puzzled, Sirius said, “Like a weapon. Something he didn’t have last time.”

“When he was powerful before?”

“Yes.”

“Like what kind of weapon?” said Harry. “Something worse than the Avada Kedavra—?”

“That’s enough!”

Mrs. Weasley spoke from the shadows beside the door. Harry hadn’t noticed her return from taking Ginny upstairs. Her arms were crossed and she looked furious.

“I want you in bed, now. All of you,” she added, looking around at Fred, George, Ron and Hermione.

“You can’t boss us—” Fred began.

“Watch me,” snarled Mrs. Weasley. She was trembling slightly as she looked at Sirius. “You’ve given Harry plenty of information. Any more and you might just as well induct him into the Order straightaway.”

“Why not?” said Harry quickly. “I’ll join, I want to join, I want to fight.”

“No.”

It was not Mrs. Weasley who spoke this time, but Lupin.

“The Order is comprised only of overage wizards,” he said. “Wizards who have left school,” he added, as Fred and George opened their mouths. “There are dangers involved of which you can have no idea, any of you… I think Molly’s right, Sirius. We’ve said enough.”

Sirius half-shrugged but did not argue. Mrs. Weasley beckoned imperiously to her sons and Hermione. One by one they stood up and Harry, recognising defeat, followed suit.

6. THE NOBLE AND MOST ANCIENT HOUSE OF BLACK

Mrs. Weasley followed them upstairs looking grim.

“I want you all to go straight to bed, no talking,” she said as they reached the first landing, “we’ve got a busy day tomorrow. I expect Ginny’s asleep,” she added to Hermione, “so try not to wake her up.”

“Asleep, yeah, right,” said Fred in an undertone, after Hermione bade them goodnight and they were climbing to the next floor. “If Ginny’s not lying awake waiting for Hermione to tell her everything they said downstairs then I’m a Flobberworm…”

“All right, Ron, Harry,” said Mrs. Weasley on the second landing, pointing them into their bedroom. “Off to bed with you.”

“Night,” Harry and Ron said to the twins.

“Sleep tight,” said Fred, winking.

Mrs. Weasley closed the door behind Harry with a sharp snap. The bedroom looked, if anything, even danker and gloomier than it had on first sight. The blank picture on the wall was now breathing very slowly and deeply, as though its invisible occupant was asleep. Harry put on his pyjamas, took off his glasses and climbed into his chilly bed while Ron threw Owl Treats up on top of the wardrobe to pacify Hedwig and Pigwidgeon, who were clattering around and rustling their wings restlessly.

“We can’t let them out to hunt every night,” Ron explained as he pulled on his maroon pyjamas. “Dumbledore doesn’t want too many owls swooping around the square, thinks it’ll look suspicious. Oh yeah… I forgot…”

He crossed to the door and bolted it.

“What’re you doing that for?”

“Kreacher,” said Ron as he turned off the light. “First night I was here he came wandering in at three in the morning. Trust me, you don’t want to wake up and find him prowling around your room. Anyway…” he got into his bed, settled down under the covers then turned to look at Harry in the darkness; Harry could see his outline by the moonlight filtering in through the grimy window, “what d’you reckon?”

Harry didn’t need to ask what Ron meant.

“Well, they didn’t tell us much we couldn’t have guessed, did they?” he said, thinking of all that had been said downstairs. “I mean, all they’ve really said is that the Order’s trying to stop people joining Vol—”

There was a sharp intake of breath from Ron.

“—demort,” said Harry firmly. “When are you going to start using his name? Sirius and Lupin do.”

Ron ignored this last comment.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said, “we already knew nearly everything they told us, from using the Extendable Ears. The only new bit was—”

Crack.

“OUCH!”

“Keep your voice down, Ron, or Mum’ll be back up here.”

“You two just Apparated on my knees!”

“Yeah, well, it’s harder in the dark.”

Harry saw the blurred outlines of Fred and George leaping down from Ron’s bed. There was a groan of bedsprings and Harry’s mattress descended a few inches as George sat down near his feet.

“So, got there yet?” said George eagerly.

“The weapon Sirius mentioned?” said Harry.

“Let slip, more like,” said Fred with relish, now sitting next to Ron. “We didn’t hear about that on the old Extendables, did we?”

“What d’you reckon it is?” said Harry.

“Could be anything,” said Fred.

“But there can’t be anything worse than the Avada Kedavra Curse, can there?” said Ron. “What’s worse than death?”

“Maybe it’s something that can kill loads of people at once,” suggested George.

“Maybe it’s some particularly painful way of killing people,” said Ron fearfully.

“He’s got the Cruciatus Curse for causing pain,” said Harry, “he doesn’t need anything more efficient than that.”

There was a pause and Harry knew that the others, like him, were wondering what horrors this weapon could perpetrate.

“So who d’you think’s got it now?” asked George.

“I hope it’s our side,” said Ron, sounding slightly nervous.

“If it is, Dumbledore’s probably keeping it,” said Fred.

“Where?” said Ron quickly. “Hogwarts?”

“Bet it is!” said George. “That’s where he hid the Philosopher’s Stone.”

“A weapons going to be a lot bigger than the Stone, though!” said Ron.

“Not necessarily,” said Fred.

“Yeah, size is no guarantee of power,” said George. “Look at Ginny.”

“What d’you mean?” said Harry.

“You’ve never been on the receiving end of one of her Bat-Bogey Hexes, have you?”

“Shhh!” said Fred, half-rising irom the bed. “Listen!”

They fell silent. Footsteps were coming up the stairs.

“Mum,” said George and without further ado there was a loud crack and Harry felt the weight vanish from the end of his bed. A few seconds later, they heard the floorboard creak outside their door; Mrs. Weasley was plainly listening to check whether or not they were talking.

Hedwig and Pigwidgeon hooted dolefully. The floorboard creaked again and they heard her heading upstairs to check on Fred and George.

“She doesn’t trust us at all, you know,” said Ron regretfully.

Harry was sure he would not be able to fall asleep; the evening had been so packed with things to think about that he fully expected to lie awake for hours mulling it all over. He wanted to continue talking to Ron, but Mrs. Weasley was now creaking back downstairs again, and once she had gone he distinctly heard others making their way upstairs… in fact, many-legged creatures were cantering softly up and down outside the bedroom door, and Hagrid the Care of Magical Creatures teacher was saying, “Beauties, arm they, eh, Harry? We’ll be studyin’ weapons this term…” and Harry saw that the creatures had cannons for heads and were wheeling to face him… he ducked…

The next thing he knew, he was curled into a warm ball under his bedclothes and George’s loud voice was filling the room.

“Mum says get up, your breakfast is in the kitchen and then she needs you in the drawing room, there are loads more Doxys than she thought and she’s found a nest of dead Puffskeins under the sofa.”

Half an hour later Harry and Ron, who had dressed and breakfasted quickly, entered the drawing room, a long, high-ceilinged room on the first floor with olive green walls covered in dirty tapestries. The carpet exhaled little clouds of dust every time someone put their foot on it and the long, moss green velvet curtains were buzzing as though swarming with invisible bees. It was around these that Mrs. Weasley, Hermione, Ginny, Fred and George were grouped, all looking rather peculiar as they had each tied a cloth over their nose and mouth. Each of them was also holding a large bottle of black liquid with a nozzle at the end.

“Cover your faces and take a spray,” Mrs. Weasley said to Harry and Ron the moment she saw them, pointing to two more bottles of black liquid standing on a spindle-legged table. “It’s Doxycide. I’ve never seen an infestation this bad—what that house-elf’s been doing for the last ten years—”

Hermione’s face was half concealed by a tea towel but Harry distinctly saw her throw a reproachful look at Mrs. Weasley.

“Kreacher’s really old, he probably couldn’t manage—”

“You’d be surprised what Kreacher can manage when he wants to, Hermione,” said Sirius, who had just entered the room carrying a bloodstained bag of what appeared to be dead rats. “I’ve just been feeding Buckbeak,” he added, in reply to Harry’s enquiring look. “I keep him upstairs in my mothers bedroom. Anyway… this writing desk…”

He dropped the bag of rals into an armchair, then bent over to examine the locked cabinet which, Harry now noticed for the first time, was shaking slightly.

“Well, Molly, I’m pretty sure this is a Boggart,” said Sirius, peering through the keyhole, “but perhaps we ought to let Mad-Eye have a shifty at it before we let it out—knowing my mother, it could be something much worse.”

“Right you are, Sirius,” said Mrs. Weasley.

They were both speaking in carefully light, polite voices that told Harry quite plainly that neither had forgotten their disagreement of the night before.

A loud, clanging bell sounded from downstairs, followed at once by the cacophony of screams and wails that had been triggered the previous night by Tonks knocking over the umbrella stand.

“I keep telling them not to ring the doorbell!” said Sirius exasperatedly, hurrying out of the room. They heard him thundering down the stairs as Mrs. Black’s screeches echoed up through the house once more:

“Stains of dishonour, filthy half-breeds, blood traitors, children of filth—”

“Close the door, please, Harry,” said Mrs. Weasley.

Harry took as much time as he dared to close the drawing-room door; he wanted to listen to what was going on downstairs. Sirius had obviously managed to shut the curtains over his mother’s portrait because she had stopped screaming. He heard Sirius walking down the hall, then the clattering of the chain on the front door, and then a deep voice he recognised as Kingsley Shacklebolt’s saying, “Hestia’s just relieved me, so she’s got Moody’s Cloak now, thought I’d leave a report for Dumbledore…”

Feeling Mrs. Weasley’s eyes on the back of his head, Harry regretfully closed the drawing-room door and rejoined the Doxy party.

Mrs. Weasley was bending over to check the page on Doxys in Gilderoy Lockhart’s Guide to Household Pests, which was lying open on the sofa.

“Right, you lot, you need to be careful, because Doxys bite and their teeth are poisonous. I’ve got a bottle of antidote here, but I’d rather nobody needed it.”

She straightened up, positioned herself squarely in front of the curtains and beckoned them all forward.

“When I say the word, start spraying immediately,” she said. “They’ll come flying out at us, I expect, but it says on the sprays one good squirt will paralyse them. When they’re immobilised, just throw them in this bucket.”

She stepped carefully out of their line of fire, and raised her own spray.

“All right—squirt!”

Harry had been spraying only a few seconds when a fully-grown Doxy came soaring out of a fold in the material, shiny beetle-like wings whirring, tiny needle-sharp teeth bared, its fairy-like body covered with thick black hair and its four tiny lists clenched with fury. Harry caught it full in the face with a blast of Doxycide. It froze in midair and fell, with a surprisingly loud thunk, on to the worn carpet below. Harry picked it up and threw it in the bucket.

“Fred, what are you doing?” said Mrs. Weasley sharply. “Spray that at once and throw it away!”

Harry looked round. Fred was holding a struggling Doxy between his forefinger and thumb.

“Right-o,” Fred said brightly, spraying the Doxy quickly in the face so that it fainted, but the moment Mrs. Weasley’s back was turned he pocketed it with a wink.

“We want to experiment with Doxy venom for our Skiving Snackboxes,” George told Harry under his breath.

Deftly spraying two Doxys at once as they soared straight for his nose, Harry moved closer to George and muttered out of the corner of his mouth, “What are Skiving Snackboxes?”

“Range of sweets to make you ill,” George whispered, keeping a wary eye on Mrs. Weasley’s back. “Not seriously ill, mind, just ill enough to get you out of a class when you feel like it. Fred and I have been developing them this summer. They’re double-ended, colour-coded chews. If you eat the orange half of the Puking Pastilles, you throw up. Moment you’ve been rushed out of the lesson for the hospital wing, you swallow the purple half—”

“‘—which restores you to full fitness, enabling you to pursue the leisure activity of your own choice during an hour that would otherwise have been devoted to unprofitable boredom.’ That’s what we’re putting in the adverts, anyway,” whispered Fred, who had edged over out of Mrs. Weasley’s line of vision and was now sweeping a few stray Doxys from the floor and adding them to his pocket. “But they still need a bit of work. At the moment our testers are having a bit of trouble stopping themselves puking long enough to swallow the purple end.”

“Testers?”

“Us,” said Fred. “We take it in turns. George did the Fainting Fancies—we both tried the Nosebleed Nougat—”

“Mum thought we’d been duelling,” said George.

“Joke shop still on, then?” Harry muttered, pretending to be adjusting the nozzle on his spray.

“Well, we haven’t had a chance to get premises yet,” said Fred, dropping his voice even lower as Mrs. Weasley mopped her brow with her scarf before returning to the attack, “so we’re running it as a mail-order service at the moment. We put advertisements in the Daily Prophet last week.”

“All thanks to you, mate,” said George. “But don’t worry… Mum hasn’t got a clue. She won’t read the Daily Prophet any more, ’cause of it telling lies about you and Dumbledore.”

Harry grinned. He had forced the Weasley twins to take the thousand Galleons prize money he had won in the Triwizard Tournament to help them realize their ambition to open a joke shop, but he was still glad to know that his part in furthering their plans was unknown to Mrs. Weasley. She did not think running a joke shop was a suitable career for two of her sons.

The de-Doxying of the curtains took most of the morning. It was past midday when Mrs. Weasley finally removed her protective scarf, sank into a sagging armchair and sprang up again with a cry of disgust, having sat on the bag of dead rats. The curtains were no longer buzzing; they hung limp and damp from the intensive spraying. At the foot of them unconscious Doxys lay crammed in the bucket beside a bowl of their black eggs, at which Crookshanks was now sniffing and Fred and George were shooting covetous looks.

“I think we’ll tackle those after lunch.” Mrs. Weasley pointed at the dusty glass-fronted cabinets standing on either side of the mantelpiece. They were crammed with an odd assortment of objects: a selection of rusty daggers, claws, a coiled snakeskin, a number of tarnished silver boxes inscribed with languages Harry could not understand and, least pleasant of all, an ornate crystal bottle with a large opal set into the stopper, full of what Harry was quite sure was blood.

The clanging doorbell rang again. Everyone looked at Mrs. Weasley.

“Stay here,” she said firmly, snatching up the bag of rats as Mrs. Black’s screeches started up again from down below. “I’ll bring up some sandwiches.”

She left the room, closing the door carefully behind her. At once, everyone dashed over to the window to look down on the doorstep. They could see the top of an unkempt gingery head and a stack of precariously balanced cauldrons.

“Mundungus!” said Hermione. “What’s he brought all those cauldrons for?”

“Probably looking for a safe place to keep them,” said Harry. “Isn’t that what he was doing the night he was supposed to be tailing me? Picking up dodgy cauldrons?”

“Yeah, you’re right!” said Fred, as the front door opened; Mundungus heaved his cauldrons through it and disappeared from view. “Blimey, Mum won’t like that…”

He and George crossed to the door and stood beside it, listening closely. Mrs. Black’s screaming had stopped.

“Mundungus is talking to Sirius and Kingsley,” Fred muttered, frowning with concentration. “Can’t hear properly… d’you reckon we can risk the Extendable Ears?”

“Might be worth it,” said George. “I could sneak upstairs and get a pair—”

But at that precise moment there was an explosion of sound from downstairs that rendered Extendable Ears quite unnecessary. All of them could hear exactly what Mrs. Weasley was shouting at the top of her voice.

“WE ARE NOT RUNNING A HIDEOUT FOR STOLEN GOODS!”

“I love hearing Mum shouting at someone else,” said Fred, with a satisfied smile on his face as he opened the door an inch or so to allow Mrs. Weasley’s voice to permeate the room better, “it makes such a nice change.”

“—COMPLETELY IRRESPONSIBLE, AS IF WE HAVEN’T GOT ENOUGH TO WORRY ABOUT WITHOUT YOU DRAGGING STOLEN CAULDRONS INTO THE HOUSE—”

“The idiots are letting her get into her stride,” said George, shaking his head. “You’ve got to head her off early otherwise she builds up a head of steam and goes on for hours. And she’s been dying to have a go at Mundungus ever since he sneaked off when he was supposed to be following you, Harry—and there goes Sirius’s mum again.”

Mrs. Weasley’s voice was lost amid fresh shrieks and screams from the portraits in the hall.

George made to shut the door to drown the noise, but before he could do so, a house-elf edged into the room.

Except for the filthy rag tied like a loincloth around its middle, it was completely naked. It looked very old. Its skin seemed to be several times too big for it and, though it was bald like all house-elves, there was a quantity of white hair growing out of its large, batlike ears. Its eyes were a bloodshot and watery grey and its fleshy nose was large and rather snoutlike.

The elf took absolutely no notice of Harry and the rest. Acting as though it could not see them, it shuffled hunchbacked, slowly and doggedly, towards the far end of the room, all the while muttering under its breath in a hoarse, deep voice like a bullfrogs.

“…smells like a drain and a criminal to boot, but she’s no better, nasty old blood traitor with her brats messing up my mistress’s house, oh, my poor mistress, if she knew, if she knew the scum they’ve let into her house, what would she say to old Kreacher, oh, the shame of it, Mudbloods and werewolves and traitors and thieves, poor old Kreacher, what can he do…”

“Hello, Kreacher,” said Fred very loudly, closing the door with a snap.

The house-elf froze in his tracks, stopped muttering, and gave a very pronounced and very unconvincing start of surprise.

“Kreacher did not see young master,” he said, turning around and bowing to Fred. Still facing the carpet, he added, perfectly audibly, “Nasty little brat of a blood traitor it is.”

“Sorry?” said George. “Didn’t catch that last bit.”

“Kreacher said nothing,” said the elf, with a second bow to George, adding in a clear undertone, “and there’s its twin, unnatural little beasts they are.”

Harry didn’t know whether to laugh or not. The elf straightened up, eyeing them all malevolently, and apparently convinced that they could not hear him as he continued to mutter.

“…and there’s the Mudblood, standing there bold as brass, oh, if my mistress knew, oh, how she’d cry, and there’s a new boy, Kreacher doesn’t know his name. What is he doing here? Kreacher doesn’t know…”

“This is Harry, Kreacher,” said Herrmone tentatively. “Harry Potter.”

Kreacher’s pale eyes widened and he muttered faster and more furiously than ever.

“The Mudblood is talking to Kreacher as though she is my friend, if Kreacher’s mistress saw him in such company, oh, what would she say—”

“Don’t call her a Mudblood!” said Ron and Ginny together, very angrily.

“It doesn’t matter,” Hermione whispered, “he’s not in his right mind, he doesn’t know what he’s—”

“Don’t kid yourself, Hermione, he knows exactly what he’s saying,” said Fred, eyeing Kreacher with great dislike.

Kreacher was still muttering, his eyes on Harry.

“Is it true? Is it Harry Potter? Kreacher can see the scar, it must be true, that’s the boy who stopped the Dark Lord, Kreacher wonders how he did it—”

“Don’t we all, Kreacher,” said Fred.

“What do you want, anyway?” George asked.

Kreacher’s huge eyes darted towards George.

“Kreacher is cleaning,” he said evasively.

“A likely story,” said a voice behind Harry.

Sirius had come back; he was glowering at the elf from the doorway. The noise in the hall had abated; perhaps Mrs. Weasley and Mundungus had moved their argument down into the kitchen.

At the sight of Sirius, Kreacher flung himself into a ridiculously low bow that flattened his snoutltke nose on the floor.

“Stand up straight,” said Sirius impatiently. “Now, what are you up to?”

“Kreacher is cleaning,” the elf repeated. “Kreacher lives to serve the Noble House of Black—”

“And it’s getting blacker every day, it’s filthy,” said Sirius.

“Master always liked his little joke,” said Kreacher, bowing again, and continuing in an undertone, “Master was a nasty ungrateful swine who broke his mother’s heart—”

“My mother didn’t have a heart, Kreacher,” snapped Sirius. “She kept herself alive out of pure spite.”

Kreacher bowed again as he spoke.

“Whatever Master says,” he muttered furiously. “Master is not fit to wipe slime from his mother’s boots, oh, my poor mistress, what would she say if she saw Kreacher serving him, how she hated him, what a disappointment he was—”

“I asked you what you were up to,” said Sirius coldly. “Every time you show up pretending to be cleaning, you sneak something off to your room so we can’t throw it out.”

“Kreacher would never move anything from its proper place in Master’s house,” said the elf, then muttered very fast, “Mistress would never forgive Kreacher if the tapestry was thrown out, seven centuries it’s been in the family, Kreacher must save it, Kreacher will not let Master and the blood traitors and the brats destroy it—”

“I thought it might be that,” said Sirius, casting a disdainful look at the opposite wall. “She’ll have put another Permanent Sticking Charm on the back of it, I don’t doubt, but if I can get rid of it I certainly will. Now go away, Kreacher.”

It seemed that Kreacher did not dare disobey a direct order; nevertheless, the look he gave Sirius as he shuffled out past him was full of deepest loathing and he muttered all the way out of the room.

“—comes back from Azkaban ordering Kreacher around, oh, my poor mistress, what would she say if she saw the house now, scum living in it, her treasures thrown out, she swore he was no son of hers and he’s back, they say he’s a murderer too—”

“Keep muttering and I will be a murderer!” said Sirius irritably as he slammed the door shut on the elf.

“Sirius, he’s not right in the head,” Hermione pleaded, “I don’t think he realises we can hear him.”

“He’s been alone too long,” said Sirius, “taking mad orders from my mother’s portrait and talking to himself, but he was always a foul little—”

“If you could just set him free,” said Hermione hopefully, “maybe—”

“We can’t set him free, he knows too much about the Order,” said Sirius curtly. “And anyway, the shock would kill him. You suggest to him that he leaves this house, see how he takes it.”

Sirius walked across the room to where the tapestry Kreacher had been trying to protect hung the length of the wall. Harry and the others followed.

The tapestry looked immensely old; it was faded and looked as though Doxys had gnawed it in places. Nevertheless, the golden thread with which it was embroidered still glinted brightly enough to show them a sprawling family tree dating back (as far as Harry could tell) to the Middle Ages. Large words at the very top of the tapestry read:

The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black

Toujours Pur

“You’re not on here!” said Harry, after scanning the bottom of the tree closely.

“I used to be there,” said Sirius, pointing at a small, round, charred hole in the tapestry, rather like a cigarette burn. “My sweet old mother blasted me off after I ran away from home—Kreacher’s quite fond of muttering the story under his breath.”

“You ran away from home?”

“When I was about sixteen,” said Sirius. “I’d had enough.”

“Where did you go?” asked Harry, staring at him.

“Your dad’s place,” said Sirius. “Your grandparents were really good about it; they sort of adopted me as a second son. Yeah, I camped out at your dad’s in the school holidays, and when I was seventeen I got a place of my own. My Uncle Alphard had left me a decent bit of gold—he’s been wiped off here, too, that’s probably why—anyway, after that I looked after myself. I was always welcome at Mr. and Mrs. Potter’s for Sunday lunch, though.”

“But… why did you…?”

“Leave?” Sirius smiled bitterly and ran his fingers through his long, unkempt hair. “Because I hated the whole lot of them: my parents, with their pure-blood mania, convinced that to be a Black made you practically royal… my idiot brother, soft enough to believe them… that’s him.”

Sirius jabbed a finger at the very bottom of the tree, at the name “Regulus Black.” A date of death (some fifteen years previously) followed the date of birth.

“He was younger than me,” said Sirius, “and a much better son, as I was constantly reminded.”

“But he died,” said Harry.

“Yeah,” said Sirius. “Stupid idiot… he joined the Death Eaters.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Come on, Harry, haven’t you seen enough of this house to tell what kind of wizards my family were?” said Sirius testily.

“Were—were your parents Death Eaters as well?”

“No, no, but believe me, they thought Voldemort had the right idea, they were all for the purification of the wizarding race, getting rid of Muggle-borns and having pure-bloods in charge. They weren’t alone, either, there were quite a few people, before Voldemort showed his true colours, who thought he had the right idea about things… they got cold feet when they saw what he was prepared to do to get power, though. But I bet my parents thought Regulus was a right little hero for joining up at first.”

“Was he killed by an Auror?” Harry asked tentatively.

“Oh, no,” said Sirius. “No, he was murdered by Voldemort. Or on Voldemort’s orders, more likely; I doubt Regulus was ever important enough to be killed by Voldemort in person. From what I found out after he died, he got in so far, then panicked about what he was being asked to do and tried to back out. Well, you don’t just hand in your resignation to Voldemort. It’s a lifetime of service or death.”

“Lunch,” said Mrs. Weasley’s voice.

She was holding her wand high in front of her, balancing a huge tray loaded with sandwiches and cake on its tip. She was very red in the face and still looked angry. The others moved over to her, eager for some food, but Harry remained with Sirius, who had bent closer to the tapestry.

“I haven’t looked at this for years. There’s Phineas Nigellus… my great-great-grandfather, see?… least popular Headmaster Hogwarts ever had… and Araminta Mehflua… cousin of my mothers… tried to force through a Ministry Bill to make Muggle-hunting legal… and dear Aunt Elladora… she started the family tradition of beheading house-elves when they got too old to carry tea trays… of course, any time the family produced someone halfway decent they were disowned. I see Tonks isn’t on here. Maybe that’s why Kreacher won’t take orders from her—he’s supposed to do whatever anyone in the family asks him—”

“You and Tonks are related?” Harry asked, surprised.

“Oh, yeah, her mother Andromeda was my favourite cousin,” said Sirius, examining the tapestry closely. “No, Andromeda’s not on here either, look—”

He pointed to another small round burn mark between two names, Bellatrix and Narcissa.

“Andromeda’s sisters are still here because they made lovely, respectable pure-blood marriages, but Andromeda married a Muggle-born, Ted Tonks, so—”

Sirius mimed blasting the tapestry with a wand and laughed sourly. Harry, however, did not laugh; he was too busy staring at the names to the right of Andromeda’s burn mark. A double line of gold embroidery linked Narcissa Black with Lucius Malfoy and a single vertical gold line from their names led to the name Draco.

“You’re related to the Malfoys!”

“The pure-blood families are all interrelated,” said Sirius. “If you’re only going to let your sons and daughters marry pure-bloods your choice is very limited; there are hardly any of us left. Molly and I are cousins by marriage and Arthur’s something like my second cousin once removed. But there’s no point looking for them on here—if ever a family was a bunch of blood traitors it’s the Weasleys.”

But Harry was now looking at the name to the left of Andromeda’s burn: Bellatrix Black, which was connected by a double line to Rodolphus Lestrange.

“Lestrange…” Harry said aloud. The name had stirred something in his memory; he knew it from somewhere, but for a moment he couldn’t think where, though it gave him an odd, creeping sensation in the pit of his stomach.

“They’re in Azkaban,” said Sirius shortly.

Harry looked at him curiously.

“Bellatrix and her husband Rodolphus came in with Barty Crouch junior,” said Sirius, in the same brusque voice. “Rodolphuss brother Rabastan was with them, too.”

Then Harry remembered. He had seen Bellatrix Lestrange inside Dumbledore’s Pensieve, the strange device in which thoughts and memories could be stored: a tall dark woman with heavy-lidded eyes, who had stood at her trial and proclaimed her continuing allegiance to Lord Voldemort, her pride that she had tried to find him after his downfall and her conviction that she would one day be rewarded for her loyalty.

“You never said she was your—”

“Does it matter if she’s my cousin?” snapped Sirius. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re not my family. She’s certainly not my family. I haven’t seen her since I was your age, unless you count a glimpse of her coming into Azkaban. D’you think I’m proud of having a relative like her?”

“Sorry,” said Harry quickly, “I didn’t mean—I was just surprised, that’s all—”

“It doesn’t matter, don’t apologise,” Sirius mumbled. He turned away from the tapestry, his hands deep in his pockets. “I don’t like being back here,” he said, staring across the drawing room. “I never thought I’d be stuck in this house again.”

Harry understood completely. He knew how he would feel, when he was grown up and thought he was free of the place for ever, to return and live at number four, Privet Drive.

“It’s ideal for Headquarters, of course,” Sirius said. “My father put every security measure known to wizardkind on it when he lived here. It’s unplottable, so Muggles could never come and call—as if they’d ever have wanted to—and now Dumbledore’s added his protection, you’d be hard put to find a safer house anywhere. Dumbledore is Secret Keeper for the Order, you know—nobody can find Headquarters unless he tells them personally where it is—that note Moody showed you last night, that was from Dumbledore…” Sirius gave a short, bark-like laugh. “If my parents could see the use their house was being put to now… well, my mother’s portrait should give you some idea—”

He scowled for a moment, then sighed.

“I wouldn’t mind if I could just get out occasionally and do something useful. I’ve asked Dumbledore whether I can escort you to your hearing—as Snuffles, obviously—so I can give you a bit of moral support, what d’you think?”

Harry felt as though his stomach had sunk through the dusty carpet. He had not thought about the hearing once since dinner the previous evening; in the excitement of being back with the people he liked best, and hearing everything that was going on, it had completely flown his mind. At Sirius’s words, however, the crushing sense of dread returned to him. He stared at Hermione and the Weasleys, all tucking into their sandwiches, and thought how he would feel if they went back to Hogwarts without him.

“Don’t worry,” Sirius said. Harry looked up and realised that Sirius had been watching him. “I’m sure they’ll clear you, there’s definitely something in the International Statute of Secrecy about being allowed to use magic to save your own life.”

“But if they do expel me,” said Harry quietly, “can I come back here and live with you?”

Sirius smiled sadly.

“We’ll see.”

“I’d feel a lot better about the hearing if I knew I didn’t have to go back to the Dursleys’,” Harry pressed him.

“They must be bad if you prefer this place,” said Sirius gloomily.

“Hurry up, you two, or there won’t be any food left,” Mrs. Weasley called.

Sirius heaved another great sigh, cast a dark look at the tapestry, then he and Harry went to join the others.

Harry tried his best not to think about the hearing while they emptied the glass-fronted cabinets that afternoon. Fortunately for him, it was a job that required a lot of concentration, as many of the objects in there seemed very reluctant to leave their dusty shelves. Sirius sustained a bad bite from a silver snuffbox; within seconds his bitten hand had developed an unpleasant crusty covering like a tough brown glove.

“Its OK,” he said, examining the hand with interest before tapping it lightly with his wand and restoring its skin to normal, “must be Wartcap powder in there.”

He threw the box aside into the sack where they were depositing the debris from the cabinets; Harry saw George wrap his own hand carefully in a cloth moments later and sneak the box into his already Doxy-filled pocket.

They found an unpleasant-looking silver instrument, something like a many-legged pair of tweezers, which scuttled up Harry’s arm like a spider when he picked it up, and attempted to puncture his skin. Sirius seized it and smashed it with a heavy book entitled Nature’s Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy. There was a musical box that emitted a faintly sinister, tinkling tune when wound, and they all found themselves becoming curiously weak and sleepy, until Ginny had the sense to slam the lid shut; a heavy locket that none of them could open; a number of ancient seals; and, in a dusty box, an Order of Merlin, First Class, that had been awarded to Sirius’s grandfather for “services to the Ministry.”

“It means he gave them a load of gold,” said Sirius contemptuously, throwing the medal into the rubbish sack.

Several times Kreacher sidled into the room and attempted to smuggle things away under his loincloth, muttering horrible curses every time they caught him at it. When Sirius wrested a large golden ring bearing the Black crest from his grip, Kreacher actually burst into furious tears and left the room sobbing under his breath and calling Sirius names Harry had never heard before.

“It was my father’s,” said Sirius, throwing the ring into the sack. “Kreacher wasn’t quite as devoted to him as to my mother, but I still caught him snogging a pair of my father’s old trousers last week.”

* * *

Weasley kept them all working very hard over the next few days. The drawing room took three days to decontaminate. Finally, the only undesirable things left in it were the tapestry of the Black family tree, which resisted all their attempts to remove it from the wall, and the rattling writing desk. Moody had not dropped by Headquarters yet, so they could not be sure what was inside it.

They moved from the drawing room to a dining room on the ground floor where they found spiders as large as saucers lurking in the dresser (Ron left the room hurriedly to make a cup of tea and did not return for an hour and a half). The china, which bore the Black crest and motto, was all thrown unceremoniously into a sack by Sirius, and the same fate met a set of old photographs in tarnished silver frames, all of whose occupants squealed shrilly as the glass covering them smashed.

Snape might refer to their work as “cleaning,” but in Harry’s opinion they were really waging war on the house, which was putting up a very good fight, aided and abetted by Kreacher. The house-elf kept appearing wherever they were congregated, his muttering becoming more and more offensive as he attempted to remove anything he could from the rubbish sacks. Sirius went as far as to threaten him with clothes, but Kreacher fixed him with a watery stare and said, “Master must do as Master wishes,” before turning away and muttering very loudly, “but Master will not turn Kreacher away, no, because Kreacher knows what they are up to, oh yes, he is plotting against the Dark Lord, yes, with these Mudbloods and traitors and scum…”

At which Sirius, ignoring Hermione’s protests, seized Kreacher by the back of his loincloth and threw him bodily from the room.

The doorbell rang several times a day, which was the cue for Sirius’s mother to start shrieking again, and for Harry and the others to attempt to eavesdrop on the visitor, though they gleaned very little from the brief glimpses and snatches of conversation they were able to sneak before Mrs. Weasley recalled them to their tasks. Snape flitted in and out of the house several times more, though to Harry’s relief they never came face to face; Harry also caught sight of his Transfiguration teacher Professor McGonagall, looking very odd in a Muggle dress and coat, and she also seemed too busy to linger. Sometimes, however, the visitors stayed to help. Tonks joined them for a memorable afternoon in which they found a murderous old ghoul lurking in an upstairs toilet, and Lupin, who was staying in the house with Sirius but who left it for long periods to do mysterious work for the Order, helped them repair a grandfather clock that had developed the unpleasant habit of shooting heavy bolts at passers-by. Mundungus redeemed himself slightly in Mrs. Weasley’s eyes by rescuing Ron from an ancient set of purple robes that had tried to strangle him when he removed them from their wardrobe.

Despite the fact that he was still sleeping badly, still having dreams about corridors and locked doors that made his scar prickle, Harry was managing to have fun for the first time all summer. As long as he was busy he was happy; when the action abated, however, whenever he dropped his guard, or lay exhausted in bed watching blurred shadows move across the ceiling, the thought of the looming Ministry hearing returned to him. Fear jabbed at his insides like needles as he wondered what was going to happen to him if he was expelled. The idea was so terrible that he did not dare voice it aloud, not even to Ron and Hermione, who, though he often saw them whispering together and casting anxious looks in his direction, followed his lead in not mentioning it. Sometimes, he could not prevent his imagination showing him a faceless Ministry official who was snapping his wand in two and ordering him back to the Dursleys’… but he would not go. He was determined on that. He would come back here to Grimmauld Place and live with Sirius.

He felt as though a brick had dropped into his stomach when Mrs. Weasley turned to him during dinner on Wednesday evening and said quietly, “I’ve ironed your best clothes for tomorrow morning, Harry, and I want you to wash your hair tonight, too. A good first impression can work wonders.”

Ron, Hermione, Fred, George and Ginny all stopped talking and looked over at him. Harry nodded and tried to keep eating his chop, but his mouth had become so dry he could not chew.

“How am I getting there?” he asked Mrs. Weasley, trying to sound unconcerned.

“Arthurs taking you to work with him,” said Mrs. Weasley gently.

Mr. Weasley smiled encouragingly at Harry across the table.

“You can wait in my office until it’s time for the hearing,” he said.

Harry looked over at Sirius, but before he could ask the question, Mrs. Weasley had answered it.

“Professor Dumbledore doesn’t think it’s a good idea for Sirius to go with you, and I must say I—”

“—think he’s quite right,” said Sirius through clenched teeth.

Mrs. Weasley pursed her lips.

“When did Dumbledore tell you that?” Harry said, staring at Sirius.

“He came last night, when you were in bed,” said Mr. Weasley.

Sirius stabbed moodily at a potato with his fork. Harry lowered his own eyes to his plate. The thought that Dumbledore had been in the house on the eve of his hearing and not asked to see him made him feel, if it were possible, even worse.

7. THE MINISTRY OF MAGIC

Harry awoke at half past five the next morning as abruptly and completely as if somebody had yelled in his ear. For a few moments he lay immobile as the prospect of the disciplinary hearing filled every tiny particle of his brain, then, unable to bear it, he leapt out of bed and put on his glasses. Mrs. Weasley had laid out his freshly laundered jeans and T-shirt at the foot of his bed. Harry scrambled into them. The blank picture on the wall sniggered.

Ron was lying sprawled on his back with his mouth wide open, fast asleep. He did not stir as Harry crossed the room, stepped out on to the landing and closed the door softly behind him. Trying not to think of the next time he would see Ron, when they might no longer be fellow students at Hogwarts, Harry walked quietly down the stairs, past the heads of Kreacher’s ancestors, and down into the kitchen.

He had expected it to be empty, but when he reached the door he heard the soft rumble of voices on the other side. He pushed it open and saw Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Sirius, Lupin and Tonks sitting there almost as though they were waiting for him. All were fully dressed except Mrs. Weasley, who was wearing a quilted purple dressing gown. She leapt to her feet the moment Harry entered.

“Breakfast,” she said as she pulled out her wand and hurried over to the fire.

“M—m—morning, Harry,” yawned Tonks. Her hair was blonde and curly this morning. “Sleep all right?”

“Yeah,” said Harry.

“I’ve b—b—been up all night,” she said, with another shuddering yawn. “Come and sit down…”

She drew out a chair, knocking over the one beside it in the process.

“What do you want, Harry?” Mrs. Weasley called. “Porridge? Muffins? Kippers? Bacon and eggs? Toast?”

“Just—just toast, thanks,” said Harry.

Lupin glanced at Harry, then said to Tonks, “What were you saying about Scrimgeour?”

“Oh… yeah… well, we need to be a bit more careful, he’s been asking Kingsley and me funny questions…”

Harry felt vaguely grateful that he was not required to join in the conversation. His insides were squirming. Mrs. Weasley placed a couple of pieces of toast and marmalade in front of him; he tried to eat, but it was like chewing carpet. Mrs. Weasley sat down on his other side and started fussing with his T-shirt, tucking in the label and smoothing out the creases across his shoulders. He wished she wouldn’t.

“…and I’ll have to tell Dumbledore I can’t do night duty tomorrow, I’m just too tired,” Tonks finished, yawning hugely again.

“I’ll cover for you,” said Mr. Weasley. “I’m OK, I’ve got a report to finish anyway.”

Mr. Weasley was not wearing wizards’ robes but a pair of pinstriped trousers and an old bomber jacket. He turned from Tonks to Harry.

“How are you feeling?”

Harry shrugged.

“It’ll all be over soon,” Mr. Weasley said bracingly. “In a few hours’ time you’ll be cleared.”

Harry said nothing.

“The hearing’s on my floor, in Amelia Bones’s office. She’s Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and the one who’ll be questioning you.”

“Amelia Bones is OK, Harry,” said Tonks earnestly. “She’s fair, she’ll hear you out.”

Harry nodded, still unable to think of anything to say.

“Don’t lose your temper,” said Sirius abruptly. “Be polite and stick to the facts.”

Harry nodded again.

“The law’s on your side,” said Lupin quietly. “Even underage wizards are allowed to use magic in life-threatening situations.”

Something very cold trickled down the back of Harry’s neck; for a moment he thought someone was putting a Disillusionment Charm on him, then he realised that Mrs. Weasley was attacking his hair with a wet comb. She pressed hard on the top of his head.

“Doesn’t it ever lie flat?” she said desperately.

Harry shook his head.

Mr. Weasley checked his watch and looked up at Harry.

“I think we’ll go now,” he said. “We’re a bit early but I think you’ll be better off at the Ministry than hanging around here.”

“OK,” said Harry automatically, dropping his toast and getting to his feet.

“You’ll be all right, Harry,” said Tonks, patting him on the arm.

“Good luck,” said Lupin. “I’m sure it will be fine.”

“And if it’s not,” said Sirius grimly “I’ll see to Amelia Bones for you…”

Harry smiled weakly. Mrs. Weasley hugged him.

“We’ve all got our fingers crossed,” she said.

“Right,” said Harry. “Well… see you later then.”

He followed Mr. Weasley upstairs and along the hall. He could hear Sirius’s mother grunting in her sleep behind her curtains. Mr. Weasley unbolted the door and they stepped out into the cold, grey dawn.

“You don’t normally walk to work, do you?” Harry asked him, as they set off briskly around the square.

“No, I usually Apparate,” said Mr. Weasley, “but obviously you can’t, and I think it’s best we arrive in a thoroughly non-magical fashion… makes a better impression, given what you’re being disciplined for…”

Mr. Weasley kept his hand inside his jacket as they walked. Harry knew it was clenched around his wand. The run-down streets were almost deserted, but when they arrived at the miserable little underground station they found it already full of early-morning commuters. As ever when he found himself in close proximity to Muggles going about their daily business, Mr. Weasley was hard put to contain his enthusiasm.

“Simply fabulous,” he whispered, indicating the automatic ticket machines. “Wonderfully ingenious.”

“They’re out of order,” said Harry, pointing at the sign.

“Yes, but even so…” said Mr. Weasley, beaming at them fondly.

They bought their tickets instead from a sleepy-looking guard (Harry handled the transaction, as Mr. Weasley was not very good with Muggle money) and five minutes later they were boarding an underground train that rattled them off towards the centre of London. Mr. Weasley kept anxiously checking and re-checking the Underground Map above the windows.

“Four more stops, Harry… Three stops left now… Two stops to go, Harry…”

They got off at a station in the very heart of London, and were swept from the train in a tide of besuited men and women carrying briefcases. Up the escalator they went, through the ticket barrier (Mr. Weasley delighted with the way the stile swallowed his ticket), and emerged on to a broad street lined with imposing-looking buildings and already full of traffic.

“Where are we?” said Mr. Weasley blankly, and for one heart-stopping moment Harry thought they had got off at the wrong station despite Mr. Weasley’s continual references to the map; but a second later he said, “Ah yes… this way, Harry,” and led him down a side road.

“Sorry,” he said, “but I never come by train and it all looks rather different from a Muggle perspective. As a matter of fact, I’ve never even used the visitors’ entrance before.”

The further they walked, the smaller and less imposing the buildings became, until finally they reached a street that contained several rather shabby-looking offices, a pub and an overflowing skip. Harry had expected a rather more impressive location for the Ministry of Magic.

“Here we are,” said Mr. Weasley brightly, pointing at an old red telephone box, which was missing several panes of glass and stood before a heavily graffitied wall. “After you, Harry.”

He opened the telephone-box door.

Harry stepped inside, wondering what on earth this was about. Mr. Weasley folded himself in beside Harry and closed the door. It was a tight fit; Harry was jammed against the telephone apparatus, which was hanging crookedly from the wall as though a vandal had tried to rip it off. Mr. Weasley reached past Harry for the receiver.

“Mr. Weasley, I think this might be out of order, too,” Harry said.

“No, no, I’m sure it’s fine,” said Mr. Weasley, holding the receiver above his head and peering at the dial. “Let’s see… six…” he dialled the number, “two… four… and another four… and another two…”

As the dial whirred smoothly back into place, a cool female voice sounded inside the telephone box, not from the receiver in Mr. Weasley’s hand, but as loudly and plainly as though an invisible woman were standing right beside them.

“Welcome to the Ministry of Magic. Please state your name and business.”

“Er…” said Mr. Weasley, clearly uncertain whether or not he should talk into the receiver. He compromised by holding the mouthpiece to his ear, “Arthur Weasley, Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office, here to escort Harry Potter, who has been asked to attend a disciplinary hearing…”

“Thank you,” said the cool female voice. “Visitor, please take the badge and attach it to the front of your robes.”

There was a click and a rattle, and Harry saw something slide out of the metal chute where returned coins usually appeared. He picked it up: it was a square silver badge with Harry Potter, Disciplinary Hearing on it. He pinned it to the front of his T-shirt as the female voice spoke again.

“Visitor to the Ministry, you are required to submit to a search and present your wand for registration at the security desk, which is located at the far end of the Atrium.”

The floor of the telephone box shuddered. They were sinking slowly into the ground. Harry watched apprehensively as the pavement seemed to rise up past the glass windows of the telephone box until darkness closed over their heads. Then he could see nothing at all; he could hear only a dull grinding noise as the telephone box made its way down through the earth. After about a minute, though it felt much longer to Harry, a chink of golden light illuminated his feet and, widening, rose up his body, until it hit him in the face and he had to blink to stop his eyes watering.

“The Ministry of Magic wishes you a pleasant day,” said the woman’s voice.

The door of the telephone box sprang open and Mr. Weasley stepped out of it, followed by Harry, whose mouth had fallen open.

They were standing at one end of a very long and splendid hall with a highly polished, dark wood floor. The peacock blue ceiling was inlaid with gleaming golden symbols that kept moving and changing like some enormous heavenly noticeboard. The walls on each side were panelled in shiny dark wood and had many gilded fireplaces set into them. Every few seconds a witch or wizard would emerge from one of the left-hand fireplaces with a soft whoosh. On the right-hand side, short queues were forming before each fireplace, waiting to depart.

Halfway down the hall was a fountain. A group of golden statues, larger than life-size, stood in the middle of a circular pool. Tallest of them all was a noble-looking wizard with his wand pointing straight up in the air. Grouped around him were a beautiful witch, a centaur, a goblin and a house-elf. The last three were all looking adoringly up at the witch and wizard. Glittering jets of water were flying from the ends of their wands, the point of the centaur’s arrow, the tip of the goblins hat and each of the house-elf’s ears, so that the tinkling hiss of falling water was added to the pops and cracks of the Apparators and the clatter of footsteps as hundreds of witches and wizards, most of whom were wearing glum, early-morning looks, strode towards a set of golden gates at the far end of the hall.

“This way,” said Mr. Weasley.

They joined the throng, wending their way between the Ministry workers, some of whom were carrying tottering piles of parchment, others battered briefcases; still others were reading the Daily Prophet while they walked. As they passed the fountain Harry saw silver Sickles and bronze Knuts glinting up at him from the bottom of the pool. A small smudged sign beside it read:

ALL PROCEEDS FROM THE FOUNTAIN OF MAGICAL BRETHREN WILL BE GIVEN TO ST MUNGO’S HOSPITAL FOR MAGICAL MALADIES AND INJURIES.

If I’m not expelled from Hogwarts, I’ll put in ten Galleons, Harry found himself thinking desperately.

“Over here, Harry,” said Mr. Weasley, and they stepped out of the stream of Ministry employees heading for the golden gates. Seated at a desk to the left, beneath a sign saying Security, a badly-shaven wizard in peacock blue robes looked up as they approached and put down his Daily Prophet.

“I’m escorting a visitor,” said Mr. Weasley, gesturing towards Harry.

“Step over here,” said the wizard in a bored voice.

Harry walked closer to him and the wizard held up a long golden rod, thin and flexible as a car aerial, and passed it up and down Harry’s front and back.

“Wand,” grunted the security wizard at Harry, putting down the golden instrument and holding out his hand.

Harry produced his wand. The wizard dropped it on to a strange brass instrument, which looked something like a set of scales with only one dish. It began to vibrate. A narrow strip of parchment came speeding out of a slit in the base. The wizard tore this off and read the writing on it.

“Eleven inches, phoenix-feather core, been in use four years. That correct?”

“Yes,” said Harry nervously.

“I keep this,” said the wizard, impaling the slip of parchment on a small brass spike. “You get this back,” he added, thrusting the wand at Harry.

“Thank you.”

“Hang on…” said the wizard slowly.

His eyes had darted from the silver visitors badge on Harry’s chest to his forehead.

“Thank you, Eric,” said Mr. Weasley firmly, and grasping Harry by the shoulder he steered him away from the desk and back into the stream of wizards and witches walking through the golden gates.

Jostled slightly by the crowd, Harry followed Mr. Weasley through the gates into the smaller hall beyond, where at least twenty lifts stood behind wrought golden grilles. Harry and Mr. Weasley joined the crowd around one of them. Nearby, stood a big bearded wizard holding a large cardboard box which was emitting rasping noises.

“All right, Arthur?” said the wizard, nodding at Mr. Weasley.

“What’ve you got there, Bob?” asked Mr. Weasley, looking at the box.

“We’re not sure,” said the wizard seriously. “We thought it was a bog-standard chicken until it started breathing fire. Looks like a serious breach of the Ban on Experimental Breeding to me.”

With a great jangling and clattering a lift descended in front of them; the golden grille slid back and Harry and Mr. Weasley stepped into the lift with the rest of the crowd and Harry found himself jammed against the back wall. Several witches and wizards were looking at him curiously; he stared at his feet to avoid catching anyone’s eye, flattening his fringe as he did so. The grilles slid shut with a crash and the lift ascended slowly, chains rattling, while the same cool female voice Harry had heard in the telephone box rang out again.

“Level Seven, Department of Magical Games and Sports, incorporating the British and Irish Quidditch League Headquarters, Official Gobstones Club and Ludicrous Patents Office.”

The lift doors opened. Harry glimpsed an untidy-looking corridor, with various posters of Quidditch teams tacked lopsidedly on the walls. One of the wizards in the lift, who was carrying an armful of broomsticks, extricated himself with difficulty and disappeared down the corridor. The doors closed, the lift juddered upwards again and the woman’s voice announced:

“Level Six, Department of Magical Transportation, incorporating the Floo Network Authority, Broom Regulatory Control, Portkey Office and Apparation Test Centre.”

Once again the lift doors opened and four or five witches and wizards got out; at the same time, several paper aeroplanes swooped into the lift. Harry stared up at them as they flapped idly around above his head; they were a pale violet colour and he could see Ministry of Magic stamped along the edge of their wings.

“Just inter-departmental memos,” Mr. Weasley muttered to him. “We used to use owls, but the mess was unbelievable… droppings all over the desks…”

As they clattered upwards again the memos flapped around ihe lamp swaying from the lift’s ceiling.

“Level Five, Department of International Magical Co-operation, incorporating the International Magical Trading Standards Body, the International Magical Office of Law and the International Confederation of Wizards, British Seats.”

When the doors opened, two of the memos zoomed out with a few more of the witches and wizards, but several more memos zoomed in, so that the light from the lamp flickered and flashed overhead as they darted around it.

“Level Four, Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, incorporating Beast, Being and Spirit Divisions, Goblin Liaison Office and Pest Advisory Bureau.”

“S’cuse,” said the wizard carrying the fire-breathing chicken and he left the lift pursued by a little flock of memos. The doors clanged shut yet again.

“Level Three, Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes, including the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad, Obliviator Headquarters and Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee.”

Everybody left the lift on this floor except Mr. Weasley, Harry and a witch who was reading an extremely long piece of parchment that was trailing on the floor. The remaining memos continued to soar around the lamp as the lift juddered upwards again, then the doors opened and the voice made its announcement.

“Level Two, Department of Magical Law Enforcement, including the Improper Use of Magic Office, Auror Headquarters and Wizengamot Administration Services.”

“This is us, Harry,” said Mr. Weasley, and they followed the witch out of the lift into a corridor lined with doors. “My office is on the other side of the floor.”

“Mr. Weasley,” said Harry, as they passed a window through which sunlight was streaming, “aren’t we still underground?”

“Yes, we are,” said Mr. Weasley. “Those are enchanted windows. Magical Maintenance decide what weather we’ll get every day. We had two months of hurricanes last time they were angling for a pay rise… Just round here, Harry.”

They turned a corner, walked through a pair of heavy oak doors and emerged in a cluttered open area divided into cubicles, which was buzzing with talk and laughter. Memos were zooming in and out of cubicles like miniature rockets. A lopsided sign on the nearest cubicle read: Auror Headquarters.

Harry looked surreptitiously through the doorways as they passed. The Aurors had covered their cubicle walls with everything from pictures of wanted wizards and photographs of their families, to posters of their favourite Quidditch teams and articles from the Daily Prophet. A scarlet-robed man with a ponytail longer than Bill’s was sitting with his boots up on his desk, dictating a report to his quill. A little further along, a witch with a patch over one eye was talking over the top of her cubicle wall to Kingsley Shacklebolt.

“Morning, Weasley,” said Kingsley carelessly, as they drew nearer. “I’ve been wanting a word with you, have you got a second?”

“Yes, if it really is a second,” said Mr. Weasley, “I’m in rather a hurry.”

They were talking as though they hardly knew each other and when Harry opened his mouth to say hello to Kingsley, Mr. Weasley stood on his foot. They followed Kingsley along the row and into the very last cubicle.

Harry received a slight shock; blinking down at him from every direction was Sirius’s face. Newspaper cuttings and old photographs—even the one of Sirius being best man at the Potters’ wedding—papered the walls. The only Sirius-free space was a map of the world in which little red pins were glowing like jewels.

“Here,” said Kingsley brusquely to Mr. Weasley, shoving a sheaf of parchment into his hand. “I need as much information as possible on flying Muggle vehicles sighted in the last twelve months. We’ve received information that Black might still be using his old motorcycle.”

Kingsley tipped Harry an enormous wink and added, in a whisper, “Give him the magazine, he might find it interesting.” Then he said in normal tones, “And don’t take too long, Weasley, the delay on that firelegs report held our investigation up for a month.”

“If you had read my report you would know that the term is firearms,” said Mr. Weasley coolly. “And I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for information on motorcycles; we’re extremely busy at the moment.” He dropped his voice and said, “If you can get away before seven, Molly’s making meatballs.”

He beckoned to Harry and led him out of Kingsley’s cubicle, through a second set of oak doors, into another passage, turned left, marched along another corridor, turned right into a dimly lit and distinctly shabby corridor, and finally reached a dead end, where a door on the left stood ajar, revealing a broom cupboard, and a door on the right bore a tarnished brass plaque reading: Misuse of Muggle Artefacts.

Mr. Weasley’s dingy office seemed to be slightly smaller than the broom cupboard. Two desks had been crammed inside it and there was barely space to move around them because of all the overflowing filing cabinets lining the walls, on top of which were tottering piles of files. The little wall space available bore witness to Mr. Weasley’s obsessions: several posters of cars, including one of a dismantled engine; two illustrations of postboxes he seemed to have cut out of Muggle children’s books; and a diagram showing how to wire a plug.

Sitting on top of Mr. Weasley’s overflowing in-tray was an old toaster that was hiccoughing in a disconsolate way and a pair of empty leather gloves that were twiddling their thumbs. A photograph of the Weasley family stood beside the in-tray. Harry noticed that Percy appeared to have walked out of it.

“We haven’t got a window,” said Mr. Weasley apologetically, taking off his bomber jacket and placing it on the back of his chair. “We’ve asked, but they don’t seem to think we need one. Have a seat, Harry, doesn’t look as if Perkins is in yet.”

Harry squeezed himself into the chair behind Perkins’s desk while Mr. Weasley riffled through the sheaf of parchment Kingsley Shacklebolt had given him.

“Ah,” he said, grinning, as he extracted a copy of a magazine entitled The Quibbler from its midst, “yes…” He flicked through it. “Yes, he’s right, I’m sure Sirus will find that very amusing—oh dear, what’s this now?”

A memo had just zoomed in through the open door and fluttered to rest on top of the hiccoughing toaster. Mr. Weasley unfolded it and read it aloud.

“‘Third regurgitating public toilet reported in Bethnal Green, kindly investigate immediately.’ This is getting ridiculous…”

“A regurgitating toilet?”

“Anti-Muggle pranksters,” said Mr. Weasley, frowning. “We had two last week, one in Wimbledon, one in Elephant and Castle. Muggles are pulling the flush and instead of everything disappearing—well, you can imagine. The poor things keep calling in those—pumbles, I think they’re called—you know, the ones who mend pipes and things.”

“Plumbers?”

“Exactly, yes, but of course they’re flummoxed. I only hope we can catch whoever’s doing it.”

“Will it be Aurors who catch them?”

“Oh no, this is too trivial for Aurors, it’ll be the ordinary Magical Law Enforcement Patrol—ah, Harry, this is Perkins.”

A stooped, timid-looking old wizard with fluffy white hair had just entered the room, panting.

“Oh, Arthur!” he said desperately, without looking at Harry. “Thank goodness, I didn’t know what to do for the best, whether to wait here for you or not. I’ve just sent an owl to your home but you’ve obviously missed it—an urgent message came ten minutes ago—”

“I know about the regurgitating toilet,” said Mr. Weasley.

“No, no, it’s not the toilet, it’s the Potter boy’s hearing—they’ve changed the time and venue—it starts at eight o’clock now and it’s down in old Courtroom Ten—”

“Down in old—but they told me—Merlin’s beard!”

Mr. Weasley looked at his watch, let out a yelp and leapt from his chair.

“Quick, Harry, we should have been there five minutes ago!”

Perkins flattened himself against the filing cabinets as Mr. Weasley left the office at a run, Harry close on his heels.

“Why have they changed the time?” Harry said breathlessly, as they hurtled past the Auror cubicles; people poked out their heads and stared as they streaked past. Harry felt as though he’d left all his insides back at Perkins’s desk.

“I’ve no idea, but thank goodness we got here so early, if you’d missed it, it would have been catastrophic!”

Mr. Weasley skidded to a halt beside the lifts and jabbed impatiently at the “down” button.

“Come ON!”

The lift clattered into view and they hurried inside. Every time it stopped Mr. Weasley cursed furiously and pummelled the number nine button.

“Those courtrooms haven’t been used in years,” said Mr. Weasley angrily. “I can’t think why they’re doing it down there—unless—but no—”

A plump witch carrying a smoking goblet entered the lift at that moment, and Mr. Weasley did not elaborate.

“The Atrium,” said the cool female voice and the golden grilles slid open, showing Harry a distant glimpse of the golden statues in the fountain. The plump witch got out and a sallow-skinned wizard with a very mournful face got in.

“Morning, Arthur,” he said in a sepulchral voice as the lift began to descend. “Don’t often see you down here.”

“Urgent business, Bode,” said Mr. Weasley, who was bouncing on the balls of his feet and throwing anxious looks over at Harry.

“Ah, yes,” said Bode, surveying Harry unblinkingly. “Of course.”

Harry barely had emotion to spare for Bode, but his unfaltering gaze did not make him feel any more comfortable.

“Department of Mysteries,” said the cool female voice, and left it at that.

“Quick, Harry,” said Mr. Weasley as the lift doors rattled open, and they sped up a corridor that was quite different from those above. The walls were bare; there were no windows and no doors apart from a plain black one set at the very end of the corridor. Harry expected them to go through it, but instead Mr. Weasley seized him by the arm and dragged him to the left, where there was an opening leading to a flight of steps.

“Down here, down here,” panted Mr. Weasley, taking two steps at a time. “The lift doesn’t even come down this far… why they’re doing it down there…”

They reached the bottom of the steps and ran along yet another corridor, which bore a great resemblance to the one that led to Snape’s dungeon at Hogwarts, with rough stone walls and torches in brackets. The doors they passed here were heavy wooden ones with iron bolts and keyholes.

“Courtroom… Ten… I think… we’re nearly… yes.”

Mr. Weasley stumbled to a halt outside a grimy dark door with an immense iron lock and slumped against the wall, clutching at a stitch in his chest.

“Go on,” he panted, pointing his thumb at the door. “Get in there.”

“Aren’t—aren’t you coming with—?”

“No, no, I’m not allowed. Good luck!”

Harry’s heart was beating a violent tattoo against his Adam’s apple. He swallowed hard, turned the heavy iron door handle and stepped inside the courtroom.

8. THE HEARING

Harry gasped; he could not help himself. The large dungeon he had entered was horribly familiar. He had not only seen it before, he had been here before. This was the place he had visited inside Dumbledore’s Pensieve, the place where he had watched the Lestranges sentenced to life imprisonment in Azkaban.

The walls were made of dark stone, dimly lit by torches. Empty benches rose on either side of him, but ahead, in the highest benches of all, were many shadowy figures. They had been talking in low voices, but as the heavy door swung closed behind Harry an ominous silence fell.

A cold male voice rang across the courtroom.

“You’re late.”

“Sorry,” said Harry nervously. “I—I didn’t know the time had been changed.”

“That is not the Wizengamot’s fault,” said the voice. “An owl was sent to you this morning. Take your seat.”

Harry dropped his gaze to the chair in the centre of the room, the arms of which were covered in chains. He had seen those chains spring to life and bind whoever sat between them. His footsteps echoed loudly as he walked across the stone floor. When he sat gingerly on the edge of the chair the chains clinked threateningly, but did not bind him. Feeling rather sick, he looked up at the people seated at the bench above.

There were about fifty of them, all, as far as he could see, wearing plum-coloured robes with an elaborately worked silver “W” on the left-hand side of the chest and all staring down their noses at him, some with very austere expressions, others looks of frank curiosity.

In the very middle of the front row sat Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic. Fudge was a portly man who often sported a lime-green bowler hat, though today he had dispensed with it; he had dispensed, too, with the indulgent smile he had once worn when he spoke to Harry. A broad, square-jawed witch with very short grey hair sat on Fudge’s left; she wore a monocle and looked forbidding. On Fudge’s right was another witch, but she was sitting so far back on the bench that her face was in shadow.

“Very well,” said Fudge. “The accused being present—finally—let us begin. Are you ready?” he called down the row.

“Yes, sir,” said an eager voice Harry knew. Ron’s brother Percy was sitting at the very end of the front bench. Harry looked at Percy, expecting some sign of recognition from him, but none came. Percy’s eyes, behind his horn-rimmed glasses, were fixed on his parchment, a quill poised in his hand.

“Disciplinary hearing of the twelfth of August,” said Fudge in a ringing voice, and Percy began taking notes at once, “into offences committed under the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery and the International Statute of Secrecy by Harry James Potter, resident at number four, Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey.

“Interrogators: Cornelius Oswald Fudge, Minister for Magic; Amelia Susan Bones, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement; Dolores Jane Umbridge, Senior Undersecretary to the Minister. Court Scribe, Percy Ignatius Weasley—”

“Witness for the defence, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore,” said a quiet voice from behind Harry, who turned his head so fast he cricked his neck.

Dumbledore was striding serenely across the room wearing long midnight-blue robes and a perfectly calm expression. His long silver beard and hair gleamed in the torchlight as he drew level with Harry and looked up at Fudge through the half-moon spectacles that rested halfway down his very crooked nose.

The members of the Wizengamot were muttering. All eyes were now on Dumbledore. Some looked annoyed, others slightly frightened; two elderly witches in the back row, however, raised their hands and waved in welcome.

A powerful emotion had risen in Harry’s chest at the sight of Dumbledore, a fortified, hopeful feeling rather like that which phoenix song gave him. He wanted to catch Dumbledore’s eye, but Dumbledore was not looking his way; he was continuing to look up at the obviously flustered Fudge.

“Ah,” said Fudge, who looked thoroughly disconcerted. “Dumbledore. Yes. You—er—got our—er—message that the time and—er—place of the hearing had been changed, then?”

“I must have missed it,” said Dumbledore cheerfully. “However, due to a lucky mistake I arrived at the Ministry three hours early, so no harm done.”

“Yes—well—I suppose we’ll need another chair—I—Weasley, could you—?”

“Not to worry, not to worry,” said Dumbledore pleasantly; he took out his wand, gave it a little flick, and a squashy chintz armchair appeared out of nowhere next to Harry. Dumbledore sat down, put the tips of his long fingers together and surveyed Fudge over them with an expression of polite interest. The Wizengamot was still muttering and fidgeting restlessly; only when Fudge spoke again did they settle down.

“Yes,” said Fudge again, shuffling his notes. “Well, then. So. The charges. Yes.”

He extricated a piece of parchment from the pile before him, took a deep breath, and read out, The charges against the accused are as follows:

That he did knowingly, deliberately and in full awareness of the illegality of his actions, having received a previous written warning from the Ministry of Magic on a similar charge, produce a Patronus Charm in a Muggle-inhabited area, in the presence of a Muggle, on the second of August at twenty-three minutes past nine, which constitutes an offence under Paragraph C of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery, 1875, and also under Section 13 of the International Confederation of Warlocks’ Statute of Secrecy.

“You are Harry James Potter, of number four, Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey?” Fudge said, glaring at Harry over the top of his parchment.

“Yes,” Harry said.

“You received an official warning from the Ministry for using illegal magic three years ago, did you not?”

“Yes, but—”

“And yet you conjured a Patronus on the night of the second of August?” said Fudge.

“Yes,” said Harry, “but—”

“Knowing that you are not permitted to use magic outside school while you are under the age of seventeen?”

“Yes, but—”

“Knowing that you were in an area full of Muggles?”

“Yes, but—”

“Fully aware that you were in close proximity to a Muggle at the time?”

“Yes,” said Harry angrily, “but I only used it because we were—”

The witch with the monocle cut across him in a booming voice.

“You produced a fully-fledged Patronus?”

“Yes,” said Harry, “because—”

“A corporeal Patronus?”

“A—what?” said Harry.

“Your Patronus had a clearly defined form? I mean to say, it was more than vapour or smoke?”

“Yes,” said Harry, feeling both impatient and slightly desperate, “it’s a stag, it’s always a stag.”

“Always?” boomed Madam Bones. “You have produced a Patronus before now?”

“Yes,” said Harry, “I’ve been doing it for over a year.”

“And you are fifteen years old?”

“Yes, and—”

“You learned this at school?”

“Yes, Professor Lupin taught me in my third year, because of the—”

“Impressive,” said Madam Bones, staring down at him, “a true Patronus at his age… very impressive indeed.”

Some of the wizards and witches around her were muttering again; a few nodded, but others were frowning and shaking their heads.

“It’s not a question of how impressive the magic was,” said Fudge in a testy voice, “in fact, the more impressive the worse it is, I would have thought, given that the boy did it in plain view of a Muggle!”

Those who had been frowning now murmured in agreement, but it was the sight of Percy’s sanctimonious little nod that goaded Harry into speech.

“I did it because of the Dementors!” he said loudly, before anyone could interrupt him again.

He had expected more muttering, but the silence that fell seemed to be somehow denser than before.

“Dementors?” said Madam Bones after a moment, her thick eyebrows rising until her monocle looked in danger of falling out. “What do you mean, boy?”

“I mean there were two Dementors down that alleyway and they went for me and my cousin!”

“Ah,” said Fudge again, smirking unpleasantly as he looked around at the Wizengamot, as though inviting them to share the joke. “Yes. Yes, I thought we’d be hearing something like this.”

“Dementors in Little Whinging?” Madam Bones said, in a tone of great surprise. “I don’t understand—”

“Don’t you, Amelia?” said Fudge, still smirking. “Let me explain. He’s been thinking it through and decided Dementors would make a very nice little cover story, very nice indeed. Muggles can’t see Dementors, can they, boy? Highly convenient, highly convenient… so it’s just your word and no witnesses…”

“I’m not lying!” said Harry loudly, over another outbreak of muttering from the court. “There were two of them, coming from opposite ends of the alley, everything went dark and cold and my cousin felt them and ran for it—”

“Enough, enough!” said Fudge, with a very supercilious look on his face. “I’m sorry to interrupt what I’m sure would have been a very well-rehearsed story—”

Dumbledore cleared his throat. The Wizengamot fell silent again.

“We do, in fact, have a witness to the presence of Dementors in that alleyway,” he said, “other than Dudley Dursley, I mean.”

Fudge’s plump face seemed to slacken, as though somebody had let air out of it. He stared down at Dumbledore for a moment or two, then, with the appearance of a man pulling himself back together, said, “We haven’t got time to listen to more tarradiddles, I’m afraid, Dumbledore. I want this dealt with quickly—”

“I may be wrong,” said Dumbledore pleasantly, “but I am sure that under the Wizengamot Charter of Rights, the accused has the right to present witnesses for his or her case? Isn’t that the policy of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Madam Bones?” he continued, addressing the witch in the monocle.

“True,” said Madam Bones. “Perfectly true.”

“Oh, very well, very well,” snapped Fudge. “Where is this person?”

“I brought her with me,” said Dumbledore. “She’s just outside the door. Should I—?”

“No—Weasley, you go,” Fudge barked at Percy, who got up at once, ran down the stone steps from the judge’s balcony and hurried past Dumbledore and Harry without glancing at them.

A moment later, Percy returned, followed by Mrs. Figg. She looked scared and more batty than ever. Harry wished she had thought to change out of her carpet slippers.

Dumbledore stood up and gave Mrs. Figg his chair, conjuring a second one for himself.

“Full name?” said Fudge loudly, when Mrs. Figg had perched herself nervously on the very edge of her seal.

“Arabella Doreen Figg,” said Mrs. Figg in her quavery voice.

“And who exactly are you?” said Fudge, in a bored and lofty voice.

“I’m a resident of Little Whinging, close to where Harry Potter lives,” said Mrs. Figg.

“We have no record of any witch or wizard living in Little Whinging, other than Harry Potter,” said Madam Bones at once. “That situation has always been closely monitored, given… given past events.”

“I’m a Squib,” said Mrs. Figg. “So you wouldn’t have me registered, would you?”

“A Squib, eh?” said Fudge, eyeing her closely. “We’ll be checking that. You’ll leave details of your parentage with my assistant Weasley. Incidentally, can Squibs see Dementors?” he added, looking left and right along the bench.

“Yes, we can!” said Mrs. Figg indignantly.

Fudge looked back down at her, his eyebrows raised. “Very well,” he said aloofly. “What is your story?”

“I had gone out to buy cat food from the corner shop at the end of Wisteria Walk, around about nine o’clock, on the evening of the second of August,” gabbled Mrs. Figg at once, as though she had learned what she was saying by heart, “when I heard a disturbance down the alleyway between Magnolia Crescent and Wisteria Walk. On approaching the mouth of the alleyway I saw Dementors running—”

“Running?” said Madam Bones sharply. “Dementors don’t run, they glide.”

“That’s what I meant to say,” said Mrs. Figg quickly, patches of pink appearing in her withered cheeks. “Gliding along the alley towards what looked like two boys.”

“What did they look like?” said Madam Bones, narrowing her eyes so that the edge of the monocle disappeared into her flesh.

“Well, one was very large and the other one rather skinny—”

“No, no,” said Madam Bones impatiently. “The Dementors… describe them.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Figg, the pink flush creeping up her neck now. “They were big. Big and wearing cloaks.”

Harry felt a horrible sinking in the pit of his stomach. Whatever Mrs. Figg might say, it sounded to him as though the most she had ever seen was a picture of a Dementor, and a picture could never convey the truth of what these beings were like: the eerie way they moved, hovering inches over the ground; or the rotting smell of them; or that terrible rattling noise they made as they sucked on the surrounding air…

In the second row, a dumpy wizard with a large black moustache leaned close to whisper in the ear of his neighbour, a frizzy-haired witch. She smirked and nodded.

“Big and wearing cloaks,” repeated Madam Bones coolly, while Fudge snorted derisively. “I see. Anything else?”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Figg. “I felt them. Everything went cold, and this was a very warm summer’s night, mark you. And I felt… as though all happiness had gone from the world… and I remembered… dreadful things…”

Her voice shook and died.

Madam Bones’s eyes widened slightly. Harry could see red marks under her eyebrow where the monocle had dug into it.

“What did the Dementors do?” she asked, and Harry felt a rush of hope.

“They went for the boys,” said Mrs. Figg, her voice stronger and more confident now, the pink flush ebbing away from her face. “One of them had fallen. The other was backing away, trying to repel the Dementor. That was Harry. He tried twice and produced only silver vapour. On the third attempt, he produced a Patronus, which charged down the first Dementor and then, with his encouragement, chased the second one away from his cousin. And that that is what happened,” Mrs. Figg finished, somewhat lamely.

Madam Bones looked down at Mrs. Figg in silence. Fudge was not looking at her at all, but fidgeting with his papers. Finally, he raised his eyes and said, rather aggressively, “That’s what you saw, is it?”

“That is what happened,” Mrs. Figg repeated.

“Very well,” said Fudge. “You may go.”

Mrs. Figg cast a frightened look from Fudge to Dumbledore, then got up and shuffled otf towards the door. Harry heard it thud shut behind her.

“Not a very convincing witness,” said Fudge loftily.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Madam Bones, in her booming voice. “She certainly described the effects of a Dementor attack very accurately. And I can’t imagine why she would say they were there if they weren’t.”

“But Dementors wandering into a Muggle suburb and just happening to come across a wizard?” snorted Fudge. “The odds on that must be very, very long. Even Bagman wouldn’t have bet—”

“Oh, I don’t think any of us believe the Dementors were there by coincidence,” said Dumbledore lightly.

The witch sitting to the right of Fudge, with her face in shadow, moved slightly but everyone else was quite still and silent.

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Fudge asked icily.

“It means that I think they were ordered there,” said Dumbledore.

“I think we might have a record of it if someone had ordered a pair of Dementors to go strolling through Little Whinging!” barked Fudge.

“Not if the Dementors are taking orders from someone other than the Ministry of Magic these days,” said Dumbledore calmly. “I have already given you my views on this matter, Cornelius.”

“Yes, you have,” said Fudge forcefully, “and I have no reason to believe that your views are anything other than bilge, Dumbledore. The Dementors remain in place in Azkaban and are doing everything we ask them to.”

“Then,” said Dumbledore, quietly but clearly, “we must ask ourselves why somebody within the Ministry ordered a pair of Dementors into that alleyway on the second of August.”

In the complete silence that greeted these words, the witch to the right of Fudge leaned forwards so that Harry saw her for the first time.

He thought she looked just like a large, pale toad. She was rather squat with a broad, flabby face, as little neck as Uncle Vernon and a very wide, slack mouth. Her eyes were large, round and slightly bulging. Even the little black velvet bow perched on top of her short curly hair put him in mind of a large fly she was about to catch on a long sticky tongue.

“The Chair recognises Dolores Jane Umbridge, Senior Undersecretary to the Minister,” said Fudge.

The witch spoke in a fluttery, girlish, high-pitched voice that took Harry aback; he had been expecting a croak.

“I’m sure I must have misunderstood you, Professor Dumbledore,” she said, with a simper that left her big, round eyes as cold as ever. “So silly of me. But it sounded for a teensy moment as though you were suggesting that the Ministry of Magic had ordered an attack on this boy!”

She gave a silvery laugh that made the hairs on the back of Harry’s neck stand up. A few other members of the Wizengamot laughed with her. It could not have been plainer that not one of them was really amused.

“If it is true that the Dementors are taking orders only from the Ministry of Magic, and it is also true that two Dementors attacked Harry and his cousin a week ago, then it follows logically that somebody at the Ministry might have ordered the attacks,” said Dumbledore politely. “Of course, these particular Dementors may have been outside Ministry control—”

“There are no Dementors outside Ministry control!” snapped Fudge, who had turned brick red.

Dumbledore inclined his head in a little bow.

“Then undoubtedly the Ministry will be making a full inquiry into why two Dementors were so very far from Azkaban and why they attacked without authorisation.”

“It is not for you to decide what the Ministry of Magic does or does not do, Dumbledore!” snapped Fudge, now a shade of magenta of which Uncle Vernon would have been proud.

“Of course it isn’t,” said Dumbledore mildly. “I was merely expressing my confidence that this matter will not go uninvestigated.”

He glanced at Madam Bones, who readjusted her monocle and stared back at him, frowning slightly.

“I would remind everybody that the behaviour of these Dementors, if indeed they are not figments of this boy’s imagination, is not the subject of this hearing!” said Fudge. “We are here to examine Harry Potter’s offences under the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery!”

“Of course we are,” said Dumbledore, “but the presence of Dementors in that alleyway is highly relevant. Clause Seven of the Decree states that magic may be used before Muggles in exceptional circumstances, and as those exceptional circumstances include situations which threaten the life of the wizard or witch him—or herself, or any witches, wizards or Muggles present at the time of the—”

“We are familiar with Clause Seven, thank you very much!” snarled Fudge.

“Of course you are,” said Dumbledore courteously. “Then we are in agreement that Harry’s use of the Patronus Charm in these circumstances falls precisely into the category of exceptional circumstances the clause describes?”

“If there were Dementors, which I doubt.”

“You have heard it from an eyewitness,” Dumbledore interrupted.

“If you still doubt her truthfulness, call her back, question her again. I am sure she would not object.”

“I—that—not—” blustered Fudge, fiddling with the papers before him. “It’s—I want this over with today, Dumbledore!”

“But naturally, you would not care how many times you heard from a witness, if the alternative was a serious miscarriage of justice,” said Dumbledore.

“Serious miscarriage, my hat!” said Fudge at the top of his voice. “Have you ever bothered to tot up the number of cock-and-bull stories this boy has come out with, Dumbledore, while trying to cover up his flagrant misuse of magic out of school? I suppose you’ve forgotten the Hover Charm he used three years ago—”

“That wasn’t me, it was a house-elf!” said Harry.

“YOU SEE?” roared Fudge, gesturing flamboyantly in Harry’s direction. “A house-elf! In a Muggle house! I ask you.”

“The house-elf in question is currently in the employ of Hogwarts School,” said Dumbledore. “I can summon him here in an instant to give evidence if you wish.”

“I—not—I haven’t got time to listen to house-elves! Anyway, that’s not the only—he blew up his aunt, for God’s sake!” Fudge shouted, banging his fist on the judge’s bench and upsetting a bottle of ink.

“And you very kindly did not press charges on that occasion, accepting, I presume, that even the best wizards cannot always control their emotions,” said Dumbledore calmly, as Fudge attempted to scrub the ink off his notes.

“And I haven’t even started on what he gets up to at school.”

“But, as the Ministry has no authority to punish Hogwarts students for misdemeanours at school, Harry’s behaviour there is not relevant to this hearing,” said Dumbledore, as politely as ever, but now with a suggestion of coolness behind his words.

“Oho!” said Fudge. “Not our business what he does at school, eh? You think so?”

“The Ministry does not have the power to expel Hogwarts students, Cornelius, as I reminded you on the night of the second of August,” said Dumbledore. “Nor does it have the right to confiscate wands until charges have been successfully proven; again, as I reminded you on the night of the second of August. In your admirable haste to ensure that the law is upheld, you appear, inadvertently I am sure, to have overlooked a few laws yourself.”

“Laws can be changed,” said Fudge savagely.

“Of course they can,” said Dumbledore, inclining his head. “And vou certainly seem to be making many changes, Cornelius. Why, in the few short weeks since I was asked to leave the Wizengamot, it has already become the practice to hold a full criminal trial to deal with a simple matter of underage magic!”

A few of the wizards above them shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Fudge turned a slightly deeper shade of puce. The toadlike witch on his right, however, merely gazed at Dumbledore, her face quite expressionless.

“As far as I am aware,” Dumbledore continued, “there is no law yet in place that says this court’s job is to punish Harry for every bit of magic he has ever performed. He has been charged with a specific offence and he has presented his defence. All he and I can do now is to await your verdict.”

Dumbledore put his fingertips together again and said no more. Fudge glared at him, evidently incensed. Harry glanced sideways at Dumbledore, seeking reassurance; he was not at all sure that Dumbledore was right in telling the Wizengamot, in effect, that it was about time they made a decision. Again, however, Dumbledore seemed oblivious to Harry’s attempt to catch his eye. He continued to look up at the benches where the entire Wizengamot had fallen into urgent, whispered conversations.

Harry looked at his feet. His heart, which seemed to have swollen to an unnatural size, was thumping loudly under his ribs. He had expected the hearing to last longer than this. He was not at all sure that he had made a good impression. He had not really said very much. He ought to have explained more fully about the Dementors, about how he had fallen over, about how both he and Dudley had nearly been kissed…

Twice he looked up at Fudge and opened his mouth to speak, but his swollen heart was now constricting his air passages and both times he merely took a deep breath and looked back down at his shoes.

Then the whispering stopped. Harry wanted to look up at the judges, but found that it was really much, much easier to keep examining his laces.

“Those in favour of clearing the witness of all charges?” said Madam Boness booming voice.

Harry’s head jerked upwards. There were hands in the air, many of them… more than half! Breathing very fast, he tried to count, but before he could finish, Madam Bones had said, “And those in favour of conviction?”

Fudge raised his hand; so did half a dozen others, including the witch on his right and the heavily-moustached wizard and the frizzy-haired witch in the second row.

Fudge glanced around at them all, looking as though there was something large stuck in his throat, then lowered his own hand. He took two deep breaths and said, in a voice distorted by suppressed rage, “Very well, very well… cleared of all charges.”

“Excellent,” said Dumbledore briskly, springing to his feet, pulling out his wand and causing the two chintz armchairs to vanish. “Well, I must be getting along. Good-day to you all.”

And without looking once at Harry, he swept from the dungeon.

9. THE WOES OF MRS. WEASLEY

Dumbledore’s abrupt departure took Harry completely by surprise. He remained sitting where he was in the chained chair, struggling with his feelings of shock and relief. The Wizengamot were all getting to their feet, talking, gathering up their papers and packing them away. Harry stood up. Nobody seemed to be paying him the slightest bit of attention, except the toadlike witch on Fudge’s right, who was now gazing down at him instead of at Dumbledore. Ignoring her, he tried to catch Fudge’s eye, or Madam Bones’s, wanting to ask whether he was free to go, but Fudge seemed quite determined not to notice Harry, and Madam Bones was busy with her briefcase, so he took a few tentative steps towards the exit and, when nobody called him back, broke into a very fast walk.

He took the last few steps at a run, wrenched open the door and almost collided with Mr. Weasley, who was standing right outside, looking pale and apprehensive.

“Dumbledore didn’t say—”

“Cleared,” Harry said, pulling the door closed behind him, “of all charges!”

Beaming, Mr. Weasley seized Harry by the shoulders.

“Harry, that’s wonderful! Well, of course, they couldn’t have found you guilty, not on the evidence, but even so, I can’t pretend I wasn’t—”

But Mr. Weasley broke off, because the courtroom door had just opened again. The Wizengamot were filing out.

“Merlin’s beard!” exclaimed Mr. Weasley wonderingly, pulling Harry aside to let them all pass. “You were tried by the full court?”

“I think so,” said Harry quietly.

One or two of the wizards nodded to Harry as they passed and a few, including Madam Bones, said, “Morning, Arthur,” to Mr. Weasley, but most averted their eyes. Cornelius Fudge and the toadlike witch were almost the last to leave the dungeon. Fudge acted as though Mr. Weasley and Harry were part of the wall, but again, the witch looked almost appraisingly at Harry as she passed. Last of all to pass was Percy. Like Fudge, he completely ignored his father and Harry; he marched past clutching a large roll of parchment and a handful of spare quills, his back rigid and his nose in the air. The lines around Mr. Weasley’s mouth tightened slightly, but other than this he gave no sign that he had seen his third son.

“I’m going to take you straight back so you can tell the others the good news,” he said, beckoning Harry forwards as Percy’s heels disappeared up the steps to Level Nine. “I’ll drop you off on the way to that toilet in Bethnal Green. Come on…”

“So, what will you have to do about the toilet?” Harry asked, grinning. Everything suddenly seemed five times funnier than usual. It was starting to sink in: he was cleared, he was going back to Hogwarts.

“Oh, it’s a simple enough anti-jinx,” said Mr. Weasley as they mounted the stairs, “but it’s not so much having to repair the damage, it’s more the attitude behind the vandalism, Harry. Muggle-baiting might strike some wizards as funny, but it’s an expression of something much deeper and nastier, and I for one—”

Mr. Weasley broke off in mid-sentence. They had just reached the ninth-level corridor and Cornelius Fudge was standing a few feet away from them, talking quietly to a tall man with sleek blond hair and a pointed, pale face.

The second man turned at the sound of their footsteps. He, too, broke off in mid-conversation, his cold grey eyes narrowed and fixed upon Harry’s face.

“Well, well, well… Patronus Potter,” said Lucius Malfoy coolly.

Harry felt winded, as though he had just walked into something solid. He had last seen those cold grey eyes through slits in a Death Eaters hood, and last heard that man’s voice jeering in a dark graveyard while Lord Voldemort tortured him. Harry could not believe that Lucius Malfoy dared look him in the face; he could not believe that he was here, in the Ministry of Magic, or that Cornelius Fudge was talking to him, when Harry had told Fudge mere weeks ago that Malfoy was a Death Eater.

“The Minister was just telling me about your lucky escape, Potter,” drawled Mr. Malfoy. “Quite astonishing, the way you continue to wriggle out of very tight holes… snakelike, in fact.”

Mr. Weasley gripped Harry’s shoulder in warning.

“Yeah,” said Harry, “yeah, I’m good at escaping.”

Lucius Malfoy raised his eyes to Mr. Weasley’s face.

“And Arthur Weasley too! What are you doing here, Arthur?”

“I work here,” said Mr. Weasley curtly.

“Not here, surely?” said Mr. Malfoy, raising his eyebrows and glancing towards the door over Mr. Weasley’s shoulder. “I thought you were up on the second floor… don’t you do something that involves sneaking Muggle artefacts home and bewitching them?”

“No,” Mr. Weasley snapped, his fingers now biting into Harry’s shoulder.

“What are you doing here, anyway?” Harry asked Lucius Malfoy.

“I don’t think private matters between myself and the Minister are any concern of yours, Potter,” said Malfoy, smoothing the front of his robes. Harry distinctly heard the gentle clinking of what sounded like a full pocket of gold. “Really, just because you are Dumbledore’s favourite boy, you must not expect the same indulgence from the rest of us… shall we go up to your office, then, Minister?”

“Certainly,” said Fudge, turning his back on Harry and Mr. Weasley. “This way, Lucius.”

They strode off together, talking in low voices. Mr. Weasley did not let go of Harry’s shoulder until they had disappeared into the lift.

“Why wasn’t he waiting outside Fudge’s office if they’ve got business to do together?” Harry burst out furiously. “What was he doing down here?”

“Trying to sneak down to the courtroom, if you ask me,” said Mr. Weasley, looking extremely agitated and glancing over his shoulder as though making sure they could not be overheard. “Trying to find out whether you’d been expelled or not. I’ll leave a note for Dumbledore when I drop you off, he ought to know Malfoy’s been talking to Fudge again.”

“What private business have they got together, anyway?”

“Gold, I expect,” said Mr. Weasley angrily. “Malfoy’s been giving generously to all sorts of things for years… gets him in with the right people… then he can ask favours… delay laws he doesn’t want passed… oh, he’s very well-connected, Lucius Malfoy.”

The lift arrived; it was empty except for a flock of memos that flapped around Mr. Weasley’s head as he pressed the button for the Atrium and the doors clanged shut. He waved them away irritably.

“Mr. Weasley,” said Harry slowly, “if Fudge is meeting Death Eaters like Malfoy, if he’s seeing them alone, how do we know they haven’t put the Imperius Curse on him?”

“Don’t think it hasn’t occurred to us, Harry” said Mr. Weasley quietly. “But Dumbledore thinks Fudge is acting of his own accord at the moment—which, as Dumbledore says, is not a lot of comfort. Best not talk about it any more just now, Harry.”

The doors slid open and they stepped out into the now almost-deserted Atrium. Eric the watchwizard was hidden behind his Daily Prophet again. They had walked straight past the golden fountain before Harry remembered.

“Wait…” he told Mr. Weasley, and, pulling his moneybag Irom his pocket, he turned back to the fountain.

He looked up into the handsome wizard’s face, but close-to Harry thought he looked rather weak and foolish. The witch was wearing a vapid smile like a beauty contestant, and from what Harry knew of goblins and centaurs, they were most unlikely to be caught staring so soppily at humans of any description. Only the house-elf’s attitude of creeping servility looked convincing. With a grin at the thought of what Hermione would say if she could see the statue of the elf, Harry turned his moneybag upside-down and emptied not just ten Galleons, but the whole contents into the pool.

* * *

“I knew it!” yelled Ron, punching the air. “You always get away with stuff!”

“They were bound to clear you,” said Hermione, who had looked positively faint with anxiety when Harry had entered the kitchen and was now holding a shaking hand over her eyes, “there was no case against you, none at all.”

“Everyone seems quite relieved, though, considering you all knew I’d get off,” said Harry, smiling.

Mrs. Weasley was wiping her face on her apron, and Fred, George and Ginny were doing a kind of war dance to a chant that went: “He got off, he got off, he got off…”

“That’s enough! Settle down!” shouted Mr. Weasley, though he too was smiling. “Listen, Sirius, Lucius Malfoy was at the Ministry—”

“What?” said Sirius sharply.

“He got off, he got off, he got off…”

“Be quiet, you three! Yes, we saw him talking to Fudge on Level Nine, then they went up to Fudge’s office together. Dumbledore ought to know.”

“Absolutely,” said Sirius. “We’ll tell him, don’t worry.”

“Well, I’d better get going, there’s a vomiting toilet waiting for me in Bethnal Green. Molly, I’ll be late, I’m covering for Tonks, but Kingsley might be dropping in for dinner—”

“He got off, he got off, he got off…”

“That’s enough—Fred—George—Ginny!” said Mrs. Weasley, as Mr. Weasley left the kitchen. “Harry, dear, come and sit down, have some lunch, you hardly ate breakfast.”

Ron and Hermione sat themselves down opposite him, looking happier than they had done since he had first arrived at Grimmauld Place, and Harry’s feeling of giddy relief, which had been somewhat dented by his encounter with Lucius Malfoy, swelled again. The gloomy house seemed warmer and more welcoming all of a sudden; even Kreacher looked less ugly as he poked his snoutlike nose into the kitchen to investigate the source of all the noise.

“Course, once Dumbledore turned up on your side, there was no way they were going to convict you,” said Ron happily, now dishing great mounds of mashed potato on to everyone’s plates.

“Yeah, he swung it for me,” said Harry. He felt it would sound highly ungrateful, not to mention childish, to say, “I wish he’d talked to me, though. Or even looked at me.”

And as he thought this, the scar on his forehead burned so badly that he clapped his hand to it.

“What’s up?” said Hermione, looking alarmed.

“Scar,” Harry mumbled. “But it’s nothing… it happens all the time now…”

None of the others had noticed a thing; all of them were now helping themselves to food while gloating over Harry’s narrow escape; Fred, George and Ginny were still singing. Hermione looked rather anxious, but before she could say anything, Ron had said happily, “I bet Dumbledore turns up this evening, to celebrate with us, you know.”

“I don’t think he’ll be able to, Ron,” said Mrs. Weasley, setting a huge plate of roast chicken down in front of Harry. “He’s really very busy at the moment.”

“HE GOT OFF, HE GOT OFF, HE GOT OFF—”

“SHUT UP!” roared Mrs. Weasley.

* * *

Over the next few days Harry could not help noticing that there was one person within number twelve, Grimmauld Place, who did not seem wholly overjoyed that he would be returning to Hogwarts. Sirius had put up a very good show of happiness on first hearing the news, wringing Harry’s hand and beaming just like the rest of them. Soon, however, he was moodier and surlier than before, talking less to everybody, even Harry, and spending increasing amounts of time shut up in his mother’s room with Buckbeak.

“Don’t you go feeling guilty!” said Hermione sternly, after Harry had confided some of his feelings to her and Ron while they scrubbed out a mouldy cupboard on the third floor a few days later. “You belong at Hogwarts and Sirius knows it. Personally, I think he’s being selfish.”

“That’s a bit harsh, Hermione,” said Ron, frowning as he attempted to prise off a bit of mould that had attached itself firmly to his finger, “you wouldn’t want to be stuck inside this house without any company.”

“He’ll have company!” said Hermione. “It’s Headquarters to the Order of the Phoenix, isn’t it? He just got his hopes up that Harry would be coming to live here with him.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” said Harry, wringing out his cloth. “He wouldn’t give me a straight answer when I asked him if I could.”

“He just didn’t want to get his own hopes up even more,” said Hermione wisely. “And he probably felt a bit guilty himself, because I think a part of him was really hoping you’d be expelled. Then you’d both be outcasts together.”

“Come off it!” said Harry and Ron together, but Hermione merely shrugged.

“Suit yourselves. But I sometimes think Ron’s mum’s right and Sirius gets confused about whether you’re you or your father, Harry.”

“So you think he’s touched in the head?” said Harry heatedly.

“No, I just think he’s been very lonely for a long time,” said Hermione simply.

At this point, Mrs. Weasley entered the bedroom behind them.

“Still not finished?” she said, poking her head into the cupboard.

“I thought you might be here to tell us to have a break!” said Ron bitterly. “D’you know how much mould we’ve got rid of since we arrived here?”

“You were so keen to help the Order,” said Mrs. Weasley, “you can do your bit by making Headquarters fit to live in.”

“I feel like a house-elf,” grumbled Ron.

“Well, now you understand what dreadful lives they lead, perhaps you’ll be a bit more active in S.P.E.W.!” said Hermione hopefully, as Mrs. Weasley left them to it. “You know, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to show people exactly how horrible it is to clean all the time—we could do a sponsored scrub ol Gryffindor common room, all proceeds to S.P.E.W., it would raise awareness as well as funds.”

“I’ll sponsor you to shut up about S.P.E.W.,” Ron muttered irritably, but only so Harry could hear him.

* * *

Harry found himself daydreaming about Hogwarts more and more as the end of the holidays approached; he could not wait to see Hagrid again, to play Quidditch, even to stroll across the vegetable patches to the Herbology greenhouses; it would be a treat just to leave this dusty, musty house, where half of the cupboards were still bolted shut and Kreacher wheezed insults out of the shadows as you passed, though Harry was careful not to say any of this within earshot of Sirius.

The fact was that living at the Headquarters of the anti-Voldemort movement was not nearly as interesting or exciting as Harry would have expected before he’d experienced it. Though members of the Order of the Phoenix came and went regularly, sometimes staying for meals, sometimes only for a few minutes of whispered conversation, Mrs. Weasley made sure that Harry and the others were kept well out of earshot (whether Extendable or normal) and nobody, not even Sirius, seemed to feel that Harry needed to know anything more than he had heard on the night of his arrival.

On the very last day of the holidays Harry was sweeping up Hedwig’s owl droppings from the top of the wardrobe when Ron entered their bedroom carrying a couple of envelopes.

“Booklists have arrived,” he said, throwing one of the envelopes up to Harry, who was standing on a chair. “About time, I thought they’d forgotten, they usually come much earlier than this…”

Harry swept the last of the droppings into a rubbish bag and threw the bag over Ron’s head into the wastepaper basket in the corner, which swallowed it and belched loudly. He then opened his letter. It contained two pieces of parchment: one the usual reminder that term started on the first of September; the other telling him which books he would need for the coming year.

“Only two new ones,” he said, reading the list, The Standard Book of Spells, Grade 5, by Miranda Goshawk, and Defensive Magical Theory, by Wilbert Slinkhard.”

Crack.

Fred and George Apparated right beside Harry. He was so used to them doing this by now that he didn’t even fall off his chair.

“We were just wondering who set the Slinkhard book,” said Fred conversationally.

“Because it means Dumbledore’s found a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher,” said George.

“And about time too,” said Fred.

“What d’you mean?” Harry asked, jumping down beside them.

“Well, we overheard Mum and Dad talking on the Extendable Ears a few weeks back,” Fred told Harry, “and from what they were saying, Dumbledore was having real trouble finding anyone to do the job this year.”

“Not surprising, is it, when you look at what’s happened to the last four?” said George.

“One sacked, one dead, one’s memory removed and one locked in a trunk for nine months,” said Harry, counting them off on his fingers. “Yeah, I see what you mean.”

“What’s up with you, Ron?” asked Fred.

Ron did not answer. Harry looked round. Ron was standing very still with his mouth slightly open, gaping at his letter from Hogwarts.

“What’s the matter?” said Fred impatiently, moving around Ron to look over his shoulder at the parchment.

Fred’s mouth fell open, too.

“Prefect?” he said, staring incredulously at the letter. “Prefect?”

George leapt forwards, seized the envelope in Ron’s other hand and turned it upside-down. Harry saw something scarlet and gold fall into George’s palm.

“No way,” said George in a hushed voice.

“There’s been a mistake,” said Fred, snatching the letter out of Ron’s grasp and holding it up to the light as though checking for a watermark. “No one in their right mind would make Ron a prefect.”

The twins’ heads turned in unison and both of them stared at Harry.

“We thought you were a cert!” said Fred, in a tone that suggested Harry had tricked them in some way.

“We thought Dumbledore was bound to pick you!” said George indignantly.

“Winning the Triwizard and everything!” said Fred.

“I suppose all the mad stuff must’ve counted against him,” said George to Fred.

“Yeah,” said Fred slowly. “Yeah, you’ve caused too much trouble, mate. Well, at least one of you’s got their priorities right.”

He strode over to Harry and clapped him on the back while giving Ron a scathing look.

“Prefect… ickle Ronnie the Prefect.”

“Ohh, Mum’s going to be revolting,” groaned George, thrusting the prefect badge back at Ron as though it might contaminate him.

Ron, who still had not said a word, took the badge, stared at it for a moment, then held it out to Harry as though asking mutely for confirmation that it was genuine. Harry took it. A large P was superimposed on the Gryffindor lion. He had seen a badge just like this on Percy’s chest on his very first day at Hogwarts.

The door banged open. Hermione came tearing into the room, her cheeks flushed and her hair flying. There was an envelope in her hand.

“Did you—did you get—?”

She spotted the badge in Harry’s hand and let out a shriek.

“I knew it!” she said excitedly, brandishing her letter. “Me too, Harry, me too!”

“No,” said Harry quickly, pushing the badge back into Ron’s hand. “It’s Ron, not me.”

“It—what? I—”

“Ron’s prefect, not me,” Harry said.

“Ron?” said Hermione, her jaw dropping. “But… are you sure? I mean—”

She turned red as Ron looked round at her with a defiant expression on his face.

“It’s my name on the letter,” he said.

“I…” said Hermione, looking thoroughly bewildered. “I… well… wow! Well done, Ron! That’s really—”

“Unexpected,” said George, nodding.

“No,” said Hermione, blushing harder than ever, “no it’s not… Ron’s done loads of… he’s really…”

The door behind her opened a little wider and Mrs. Weasley backed into the room carrying a pile of freshly laundered robes.

“Ginny said the booklists had come at last,” she said, glancing around at all the envelopes as she made her way over to the bed and started sorting the robes into two piles. “If you give them to me I’ll take them over to Diagon Alley this afternoon and get your books while you’re packing. Ron, I’ll have to get you more pyjamas, these are at least six inches too short, I can’t believe how fast you’re growing… what colour would you like?”

“Get him red and gold to match his badge,” said George, smirking.

“Match his what?” said Mrs. Weasley absently, rolling up a pair of maroon socks and placing them on Ron’s pile.

“His badge,” said Fred, with the air of getting the worst over quickly. “His lovely shiny new prefect’s badge.”

Fred’s words took a moment to penetrate Mrs. Weasley’s preoccupation with pyjamas.

“His… but… Ron, you’re not…?”

Ron held up his badge.

Mrs. Weasley let out a shriek just like Hermione’s.

“I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! Oh, Ron, how wonderful! A prefect! That’s everyone in the family!”

“What are Fred and I, next-door neighbours?” said George indignantly, as his mother pushed him aside and flung her arms around her youngest son.

“Wait until your father hears! Ron, I’m so proud of you, what wonderful news, you could end up Head Boy just like Bill and Percy, it’s the first step! Oh, what a thing to happen in the middle of all this worry, I’m just thrilled, oh, Ronnie—”

Fred and George were both making loud retching noises behind her back but Mrs. Weasley did not notice; arms tight around Ron’s neck, she was kissing him all over his face, which had turned a brighter scarlet than his badge.

“Mum… don’t… Mum, get a grip…” he muttered, trying to push her away.

She let go of him and said breathlessly, “Well, what will it be? We gave Percy an owl, but you’ve already got one, of course.”

“W-what do you mean?” said Ron, looking as though he did not dare believe his ears.

“You’ve got to have a reward for this!” said Mrs. Weasley fondly. “How about a nice new set of dress robes?”

“We’ve already bought him some,” said Fred sourly, who looked as though he sincerely regretted this generosity.

“Or a new cauldron, Charlie’s old one’s rusting through, or a new rat, you always liked Scabbers—”

“Mum,” said Ron hopefully, “can I have a new broom?”

Mrs. Weasley’s face fell slightly; broomsticks were expensive.

“Not a really good one!” Ron hastened to add. “Just—just a new one for a change…”

Mrs. Weasley hesitated, then smiled.

“Of course you can… well, I’d better get going if I’ve got a broom to buy too. I’ll see you all later… little Ronnie, a prefect! And don’t forget to pack your trunks… a prefect… oh, I’m all of a dither!”

She gave Ron yet another kiss on the cheek, sniffed loudly, and bustled from the room.

Fred and George exchanged looks.

“You don’t mind if we don’t kiss you, do you, Ron?” said Fred in a falsely anxious voice.

“We could curtsey, if you like,” said George.

“Oh, shut up,” said Ron, scowling at them.

“Or what?” said Fred, an evil grin spreading across his face. “Going to put us in detention?”

“I’d love to see him try,” sniggered George.

“He could if you don’t watch out!” said Hermione angrily.

Fred and George burst out laughing, and Ron muttered, “Drop it, Hermione.”

“We’re going to have to watch our step, George,” said Fred, pretending to tremble, “with these two on our case…”

“Yeah, it looks like our law-breaking days are finally over,” said George, shaking his head.

And with another loud crack, the twins Disapparated.

“Those two!” said Hermione furiously, staring up at the ceiling, through which they could now hear Fred and George roaring with laughter in the room upstairs. “Don’t pay any attention to them, Ron, they’re only jealous!”

“I don’t think they are,” said Ron doubtfully, also looking up at the ceiling. “They’ve always said only prats become prefects… still,” he added on a happier note, “they’ve never had new brooms! I wish I could go with Mum and choose… she’ll never be able to afford a Nimbus, but there’s the new Cleansweep out, that’d be great… yeah, I think I’ll go and tell her I like the Cleansweep, just so she knows—”

He dashed from the room, leaving Harry and Hermione alone.

For some reason, Harry found he did not want to look at Hermione. He turned to his bed, picked up the pile of clean robes Mrs. Weasley had laid on it and crossed the room to his trunk.

“Harry?” said Hermione tentatively.

“Well done, Hermione,” said Harry, so heartily it did not sound like his voice at all, and, still not looking at her, “brilliant. Prefect. Great.”

“Thanks,” said Hermione. “Erm—Harry—could I borrow Hedwig so I can tell Mum and Dad? They’ll be really pleased—I mean prefect is something they can understand.”

“Yeah, no problem,” said Harry, still in the horrible hearty voice that did not belong to him. “Take her!”

He leaned over his trunk, laid the robes on the bottom of it and pretended to be rummaging for something while Hermione crossed to the wardrobe and called Hedwig down. A few moments passed; Harry heard the door close but remained bent double, listening; the only sounds he could hear were the blank picture on the wall sniggering again and the wastepaper basket in the corner coughing up the owl droppings.

He straightened up and looked behind him. Hermione had left and Hedwig had gone. Harry hurried across the room, closed the door, then returned slowly to his bed and sank on to it, gazing unseeingly at the foot of the wardrobe.

He had forgotten completely about prefects being chosen in the fifth year. He had been too anxious about the possibility of being expelled to spare a thought for the fact that badges must be winging their way towards certain people. But if he had remembered… if he had thought about it… what would he have expected?

Not this, said a small and truthful voice inside his head.

Harry screwed up his face and buried it in his hands. He could not lie to himself; if he had known the prefect badge was on its way, he would have expected it to come to him, not Ron. Did this make him as arrogant as Draco Malfoy? Did he think himself superior to everyone else? Did he really believe he was better than Ron?

No, said the small voice defiantly.

Was that true? Harry wondered, anxiously probing his own feelings.

I’m better at Quidditch, said the voice. But I’m not better at anything else.

That was definitely true, Harry thought; he was no better than Ron in lessons. But what about outside lessons? What about those adventures he, Ron and Hermione had had together since starting at Hogwarts, often risking much worse than expulsion?

Well, Ron and Hermione were with me most of the time, said the voice in Harry’s head.

Not all the time, though, Harry argued with himself. They didn’t fight Quirrell with me. They didn’t take on Riddle and the Basilisk. They didn’t get rid of all those Dementors the night Sirius escaped. They weren’t in that graveyard with me, the night Voldemort returned…

And the same feeling of ill-usage that had overwhelmed him on the night he had arrived rose again. I’ve definitely done more, Harry thought indignantly. I’ve done more than either of them!

But maybe, said the small voice fairly, maybe Dumbledore doesn’t choose prefects because they’ve got themselves into a load of dangerous situations… maybe he chooses them for other reasons… Ron must have something you don’t…

Harry opened his eyes and stared through his fingers at the wardrobe’s clawed feet, remembering what Fred had said: “No one in their right mind would make Ron a prefect…”

Harry gave a small snort of laughter. A second later he felt sickened with himself.

Ron had not asked Dumbledore to give him the prefect badge. This was not Ron’s fault. Was he, Harry, Ron’s best friend in the world, going to sulk because he didn’t have a badge, laugh with the twins behind Ron’s back, ruin this for Ron when, for the first time, he had beaten Harry at something?

At this point Harry heard Ron’s footsteps on the stairs again. He stood up, straightened his glasses, and hitched a grin on to his face as Ron bounded back through the door.

“Just caught her!” he said happily. “She says she’ll get the Cleansweep if she can.”

“Cool,” Harry said, and he was relieved to hear that his voice had stopped sounding hearty. “Listen—Ron—well done, mate.”

The smile faded off Ron’s face.

“I never thought it would be me!” he said, shaking his head. “I thought it would be you!”

“Nah, I’ve caused too much trouble,” Harry said, echoing Fred.

“Yeah,” said Ron, “yeah, I suppose… well, we’d better get our trunks packed, hadn’t we?”

It was odd how widely their possessions seemed to have scattered themselves since they had arrived. It took them most of the afternoon to retrieve their books and belongings from all over the house and stow them back inside their school trunks. Harry noticed that Ron kept moving his prefects badge around, first placing it on his bedside table, then putting it into his jeans pocket, then taking it out and lying it on his folded robes, as though to see the effect of the red on the black. Only when Fred and George dropped in and offered to attach it to his forehead with a Permanent Sticking Charm did he wrap it tenderly in his maroon socks and lock it in his trunk.

Mrs. Weasley returned from Diagon Alley around six o’clock, laden with books and carrying a long package wrapped in thick brown paper that Ron took from her with a moan of longing.

“Never mind unwrapping it now, people are arriving for dinner, I want you all downstairs,” she said, but the moment she was out of sight Ron ripped off the paper in a frenzy and examined every inch of his new broom, an ecstatic expression on his face.

Down in the basement Mrs. Weasley had hung a scarlet banner over the heavily laden dinner table, which read:

CONGRATULATIONS

RON AND HERMIONE

NEW PREFECTS

She looked in a better mood than Harry had seen her all holiday.

“I thought we’d have a little party, not a sit-down dinner,” she told Harry, Ron, Hermione, Fred, George and Ginny as they entered the room. “Your father and Bill are on their way, Ron. I’ve sent them both owls and they’re thrilled,” she added, beaming.

Fred rolled his eyes.

Sirius, Lupin, Tonks and Kingsley Shacklebolt were already there and Mad-Eye Moody stumped in shortly after Harry had got himself a Butterbeer.

“Oh, Alastor, I am glad you’re here,” said Mrs. Weasley brightly, as Mad-Eye shrugged off his travelling cloak. “We’ve been wanting to ask you for ages—could you have a look in the writing desk in the drawing room and tell us what’s inside it? We haven’t wanted to open it just in case it’s something really nasty.”

“No problem, Molly…”

Moody’s electric-blue eye swivelled upwards and stared fixedly through the ceiling of the kitchen.

“Drawing room…” he growled, as the pupil contracted. “Desk in the corner? Yeah, I see it… yeah, it’s a Boggart… want me to go up and get rid of it, Molly?”

“No, no, I’ll do it myself later,” beamed Mrs. Weasley, “you have your drink. We’re having a little bit of a celebration, actually…” She gestured at the scarlet banner. “Fourth prefect in the family!” she said fondly, ruffling Ron’s hair.

“Prefect, eh?” growled Moody, his normal eye on Ron and his magical eye swivelling around to gaze into the side of his head. Harry had the very uncomfortable feeling it was looking at him and moved away towards Sirius and Lupin.

“Well, congratulations,” said Moody, still glaring at Ron with his normal eye, “authority figures always attract trouble, but I suppose Dumbledore thinks you can withstand most major jinxes or he wouldn’t have appointed you…”

Ron looked rather startled at this view of the matter but was saved the trouble of responding by the arrival of his father and eldest brother. Mrs. Weasley was in such a good mood she did not even complain that they had brought Mundungus with them; he was wearing a long overcoat that seemed oddly lumpy in unlikely places and declined the offer to remove it and put it with Moody’s travelling cloak.

“Well, I think a toast is in order,” said Mr. Weasley, when everyone had a drink. He raised his goblet. “To Ron and Hermione, the new Gryffindor prefects!”

Ron and Hermione beamed as everyone drank to them, and then applauded.

“I was never a prefect myself,” said Tonks brightly from behind Harry as everybody moved towards the table to help themselves to food. Her hair was tomato red and waist-length today; she looked like Ginny’s older sister. “My Head of House said I lacked certain necessary qualities.”

“Like what?” said Ginny, who was choosing a baked potato.

“Like the ability to behave myself,” said Tonks.

Ginny laughed; Hermione looked as though she did not know whether to smile or not and compromised by taking an extra large gulp of Butterbeer and choking on it.

“What about you, Sirius?” Ginny asked, thumping Hermione on the back.

Sirius, who was right beside Harry, let out his usual bark-like laugh.

“No one would have made me a prefect, I spent too much time in detention with James. Lupin was the good boy, he got the badge.”

“I think Dumbledore might have hoped I would be able to exercise some control over my best friends,” said Lupin. “I need scarcely say that I failed dismally.”

Harry’s mood suddenly lifted. His father had not been a prefect either. All at once the party seemed much more enjoyable; he loaded up his plate, feeling doubly fond of everyone in the room.

Ron was rhapsodising about his new broom to anybody who would listen.

“…nought to seventy in ten seconds, not bad, is it? When you think the Comet Two Ninety’s only nought to sixty and that’s with a decent tailwind according to Which Broomstick?”

Hermione was talking very earnestly to Lupin about her view of elf rights.

“I mean, it’s the same kind of nonsense as werewolf segregation, isn’t it? It all stems from this horrible thing wizards have of thinking they’re superior to other creatures…”

Mrs. Weasley and Bill were having their usual argument about Bill’s hair.

“…getting really out of hand, and you’re so good-looking, it would look much better shorter, wouldn’t it, Harry?”

“Oh—I dunno—” said Harry, slightly alarmed at being asked his opinion; he slid away from them in the direction of Fred and George, who were huddled in a corner with Mundungus.

Mundungus stopped talking when he saw Harry, but Fred winked and beckoned Harry closer.

“Its OK,” he told Mundungus, “we can trust Harry, he’s our financial backer.”

“Look what Dung’s got us,” said George, holding out his hand to Harry. It was full of what looked like shrivelled black pods. A faint rattling noise was coming from them, even though they were completely stationary.

“Venomous Tentacula seeds,” said George. “We need them for the Skiving Snackboxes but they’re a Class C Non-Tradeable Substance so we’ve been having a bit of trouble getting hold of them.”

“Ten Galleons the lot, then, Dung?” said Fred.

“Wiv all the trouble I went to to get ’em?” said Mundungus, his saggy, bloodshot eyes stretching even wider. “I’m sorry, lads, but I’m not taking a Knut under twenty.”

“Dung likes his little joke,” Fred said to Harry.

“Yeah, his best one so far has been six Sickles for a bag of Knarl quills,” said George.

“Be careful,” Harry warned them quietly.

“What?” said Fred. “Mum’s busy cooing over Prefect Ron, we’re OK.”

“But Moody could have his eye on you,” Harry pointed out.

Mundungus looked nervously over his shoulder.

“Good point, that,” he grunted. “All right, lads, ten it is, if you’ll take ’em quick.”

“Cheers, Harry!” said Fred delightedly, when Mundungus had emptied his pockets into the twins’ outstretched hands and scuttled off towards the food. “We’d better get these upstairs…”

Harry watched them go, feeling slightly uneasy. It had just occurred to him that Mr. and Mrs. Weasley would want to know how Fred and George were financing their joke shop business when, as was inevitable, they finally found out about it. Giving the twins his Triwizard winnings had seemed a simple thing to do at the time, but what if it led to another family row and a Percy-like estrangement? Would Mrs. Weasley still feel that Harry was as good as her son il she lound out he had made it possible for Fred and George to start a career she thought quite unsuitable?

Standing where the twins had left him, with nothing but a guilty weight in the pit ol his stomach for company, Harry caught the sound ol his own name. Kingsley Shacklebolt’s deep voice was audible even over the surrounding chatter.

“…why Dumbledore didn’t make Potter a prefect?” said Kingsley.

“He’ll have had his reasons,” replied Lupin.

“But it would’ve shown confidence in him. It’s what I’d’ve done,” persisted Kingsley, “specially with the Daily Prophet having a go at him every few days…”

Harry did not look round; he did not want Lupin or Kingsley to know he had heard. Though not remotely hungry, he followed Mundungus back towards the table. His pleasure in the party had evaporated as quickly as it had come; he wished he were upstairs in bed.

Mad-Eye Moody was sniffing at a chicken-leg with what remained of his nose; evidently he could not detect any trace of poison, because he then tore a strip off it with his teeth.

“…the handles made of Spanish oak with anti-jinx varnish and in-built vibration control—” Ron was saying to Tonks.

Mrs. Weasley yawned widely.

“Well, I think I’ll sort out that Boggart before I turn in… Arthur, I don’t want this lot up too late, all right? Night, Harry, dear.”

She left the kitchen. Harry set down his plate and wondered whether he could follow her without attracting attention.

“You all right, Potter?” grunted Moody.

“Yeah, fine,” lied Harry.

Moody took a swig from his hipflask, his electric-blue eye staring sideways at Harry.

“Come here, I’ve got something that might interest you,” he said.

From an inner pocket of his robes Moody pulled a very tattered old wizarding photograph.

“Original Order of the Phoenix,” growled Moody. “Found it last night when I was looking for my spare Invisibility Cloak, seeing as Podmore hasn’t had the manners to return my best one… thought people might like to see it.”

Harry took the photograph. A small crowd of people, some waving at him, others lifting their glasses, looked back up at him.

“There’s me,” said Moody, unnecessarily pointing at himself. The Moody in the picture was unmistakeable, though his hair was slightly less grey and his nose was intact. “And there’s Dumbledore beside me, Dedalus Diggle on the other side… that’s Marlene McKinnon, she was killed two weeks after this was taken, they got her whole family. That’s Frank and Alice Longbottom—”

Harry’s stomach, already uncomfortable, clenched as he looked at Alice Longbottom; he knew her round, friendly face very well, even though he had never met her, because she was the image of her son, Neville.

“—poor devils,” growled Moody. “Better dead than what happened to them… and that’s Emmeline Vance, you’ve met her, and that there’s Lupin, obviously… Benjy Fenwick, he copped it too, we only ever found bits of him… shift aside there,” he added, poking the picture, and the little photographic people edged sideways, so that those who were partially obscured could move to the front.

“That’s Edgar Bones… brother of Amelia Bones, they got him and his family, too, he was a great wizard… Sturgis Podmore, blimey, he looks young… Caradoc Dearborn, vanished six months after this, we never found his body… Hagrid, of course, looks exactly the same as ever… Elphias Doge, you’ve met him, I’d forgotten he used to wear that stupid hat… Gideon Prewett, it took five Death Eaters to kill him and his brother Fabian, they fought like heroes… budge along, budge along…”

The little people in the photograph jostled among themselves and those hidden right at the back appeared at the forefront of the picture.

“That’s Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth, only time I ever met him, strange bloke… that’s Dorcas Meadowes, Voldemort killed her personally… Sirius, when he still had short hair… and… there you go, thought that would interest you!”

Harry’s heart turned over. His mother and father were beaming up at him, sitting on either side of a small, watery-eyed man whom Harry recognised at once as Wormtail, the one who had betrayed his parents’ whereabouts to Voldemort and so helped to bring about their deaths.

“Eh?” said Moody.

Harry looked up into Moody’s heavily scarred and pitted face. Evidently Moody was under the impression he had just given Harry a bit of a treat.

“Yeah,” said Harry, once again attempting to grin. “Er… listen, I’ve just remembered, I haven’t packed my…”

He was spared the trouble of inventing an object he had not packed. Sirius had just said, “What’s that you’ve got there, Mad-Eye?” and Moody had turned towards him. Harry crossed the kitchen, slipped through the door and up the stairs before anyone could call him back.

He did not know why it had been such a shock; he had seen pictures of his parents before, after all, and he had met Wormtail but to have them sprung on him like that, when he was least expecting it… no one would like that, he thought angrily…

And then, to see them surrounded by all those other happy faces… Benjy Eenwick, who had been found in bits, and Gideon Prewett, who had died like a hero, and the Longbottoms, who had been tortured into madness… all waving happily out of the photograph forever more, not knowing that they were doomed… well, Moody might find that interesting… he, Harry, found it disturbing…

Harry tiptoed up the stairs in the hall past the stuffed elf-heads, glad to be on his own again, but as he approached the first landing he heard noises. Someone was sobbing in the drawing room.

“Hello?” Harry said.

There was no answer but the sobbing continued. He climbed the remaining stairs two at a time, walked across the landing and opened the drawing-room door.

Someone was cowering against the dark wall, her wand in her hand, her whole body shaking with sobs. Sprawled on the dusty old carpet in a patch of moonlight, clearly dead, was Ron.

All the air seemed to vanish from Harry’s lungs; he felt as though he were falling through the floor; his brain turned icy cold—Ron dead, no, it couldn’t be—

But wait a moment, it couldn’t be—Ron was downstairs—

“Mrs. Weasley?” Harry croaked.

“R-r-riddikulus!” Mrs. Weasley sobbed, pointing her shaking wand at Ron’s body.

Crack.

Ron’s body turned into Bill’s, spread-eagled on his back, his eyes wide open and empty. Mrs. Weasley sobbed harder than ever.

“R-riddikulus!” she sobbed again.

Crack.

Mr. Weasley’s body replaced Bill’s, his glasses askew, a trickle of blood running down his face.

“No!” Mrs. Weasley moaned. “No… riddikulus! Riddikulus! RID-DlKULUS!”

Crack. Dead twins. Crack. Dead Percy. Crack. Dead Harry…

“Mrs. Weasley, just get out of here!” shouted Harry, staring down at his own dead body on the floor. “Let someone else—”

“What’s going on?”

Lupin had come running into the room, closely followed by Sirius, with Moody stumping along behind them. Lupin looked from Mrs. Weasley to the dead Harry on the floor and seemed to understand in an instant. Pulling out his own wand, he said, very firmly and clearly:

“Riddikulus!”

Harry’s body vanished. A silvery orb hung in the air over the spot where it had lain. Lupin waved his wand once more and the orb vanished in a puff of smoke.

“Oh—oh—oh!” gulped Mrs. Weasley, and she broke into a storm of crying, her face in her hands.

“Molly,” said Lupin bleakly, walking over to her. “Molly—don’t…”

Next second, she was sobbing her heart out on Lupin’s shoulder.

“Molly, it was just a Boggart,” he said soothingly, patting her on the head, “just a stupid Boggart…”

“I see them d-d-dead all the time!” Mrs. Weasley moaned into his shoulder. “All the t-t-time! I d-d-dream about it…”

Sirius was staring at the patch of carpet where the Boggart, pretending to be Harry’s body, had lain. Moody was looking at Harry, who avoided his gaze. He had a funny feeling Moody’s magical eye had followed him all the way out of the kitchen.

“D-d-don’t tell Arthur,” Mrs. Weasley was gulping now, mopping her eyes frantically with her cuffs. “I d-d-don’t want him to know… being silly…”

Lupin handed her a handkerchief and she blew her nose.

“Harry, I’m so sorry. What must you think of me?” she said shakily. “Not even able to get rid of a Boggart…”

“Don’t be stupid,” said Harry, trying to smile.

“I’m just s-s-so worried,” she said, tears spilling out of her eyes again. “Half the f-f-family’s in the Order, it’ll b-b-be a miracle if we all come through this… and P-P-Percy’s not talking to us… what if something d-d-dreadful happens and we’ve never m-m-made it up with him? And what’s going to happen if Arthur and I get killed, who’s g-g-going to look after Ron and Ginny?”

“Molly—that’s enough,” said Lupin firmly. “This isn’t like last time. The Order are better prepared, we’ve got a head start, we know what Voldemort’s up to—”

Mrs. Weasley gave a little squeak of fright at the sound of the name.

“Oh, Molly, come on, it’s about time you got used to hearing his name—look, I can’t promise no one’s going to get hurt, nobody can promise that, but we’re much better off than we were last time. You weren’t in the Order then, you don’t understand. Last time we were outnumbered twenty to one by the Death Eaters and they were picking us off one by one…”

Harry thought of the photograph again, of his parents’ beaming faces. He knew Moody was still watching him.

“Don’t worry about Percy,” said Sirius abruptly. “He’ll come round. It’s only a matter of time before Voldemort moves into the open; once he does, the whole Ministry’s going to be begging us to forgive them. And I’m not sure I’ll be accepting their apology,” he added bitterly.

“And as for who’s going to look after Ron and Ginny if you and Arthur died,” said Lupin, smiling slightly, “what do you think we’d do, let them starve?”

Mrs. Weasley smiled tremulously.

“Being silly,” she muttered again, mopping her eyes.

But Harry, closing his bedroom door behind him some ten minutes later, could not think Mrs. Weasley silly. He could still see his parents beaming up at him from the tattered old photograph, unaware that their lives, like so many of those around them, were drawing to a close. The image of the Boggart posing as the corpse of each member of Mrs. Weasley’s family in turn kept flashing before his eyes.

Without warning, the scar on his forehead seared with pain again and his stomach churned horribly.

“Cut it out,” he said firmly, rubbing the scar as the pain receded.

“First sigh of madness, talking to your own head,” said a sly voice from the empty picture on the wall.

Harry ignored it. He felt older than he had ever felt in his lite and it seemed extraordinary to him that barely an hour ago he had been worried about a joke shop and who had got a prefect’s badge.

10. LUNA LOVEGOOD

Harry had a troubled night’s sleep. His parents wove in and out of his dreams, never speaking; Mrs. Weasley sobbed over Kreacher’s dead body, watched by Ron and Hermione who were wearing crowns, and yet again Harry found himself walking down a corridor ending in a locked door. He awoke abruptly with his scar prickling to find Ron already dressed and talking to him.

“…better hurry up, Mum’s going ballistic, she says we’re going to miss the tram—”

There was a lot of commotion in the house. From what he heard as he dressed at top speed, Harry gathered that Fred and George had bewitched their trunks to fly downstairs to save the bother of carrying them, with the result that they had hurtled straight into Ginny and knocked her down two flights of stairs into the hall; Mrs. Black and Mrs. Weasley were both screaming at the top of their voices.

“—COULD HAVE DONE HER A SERIOUS INJURY, YOU IDIOTS—”

“—FILTHY HALF-BREEDS, BESMIRCHING THE HOUSE OF MY FATHERS—”

Hermione came hurrying into the room looking flustered, just as Harry was putting on his trainers. Hedwig was swaying on her shoulder, and she was carrying a squirming Crookshanks in her arms.

“Mum and Dad just sent Hedwig back.” The owl fluttered obligingly over and perched on top of her cage. “Are you ready yet?”

“Nearly. Is Ginny all right?” Harry asked, shoving on his glasses.

“Mrs. Weasley’s patched her up,” said Hermione. “But now Mad-Eye’s complaining that we can’t leave unless Sturgis Podmore’s here, otherwise the guard will be one short.”

“Guard?” said Harry. “We have to go to King’s Cross with a guard?”

“You have to go to King’s Cross with a guard,” Hermione corrected him.

“Why?” said Harry irritably. “I thought Voldemort was supposed to be lying low, or are you telling me he’s going to jump out from behind a dustbin to try and do me in?”

“I don’t know, it’s just what Mad-Eye says,” said Hermione distractedly, looking at her watch, “but if we don’t leave soon we’re definitely going to miss the train…”

“WILL YOU LOT GET DOWN HERE NOW, PLEASE!” Mrs. Weasley bellowed and Hermione jumped as though scalded and hurried out of the room. Harry seized Hedwig, stuffed her unceremoniously into her cage, and set off downstairs after Hermione, dragging his trunk.

Mrs. Black’s portrait was howling with rage but nobody was bothering to close the curtains over her; all the noise in the hall was bound to rouse her again, anyway.

“Harry, you’re to come with me and Tonks,” shouted Mrs. Weasley—over the repeated screeches of “MUDBLOODS! SCUM! CREATURES OF DIRT!”—“Leave your trunk and your owl, Alastor’s going to deal with the luggage… oh, for heaven’s sake, Sirius, Dumbledore said no!”

A bear-like black dog had appeared at Harry’s side as he was clambering over the various trunks cluttering the hall to get to Mrs. Weasley.

“Oh honestly…” said Mrs. Weasley despairingly. “Well, on your own head be it!”

She wrenched open the front door and stepped out into the weak September sunlight. Harry and the dog followed her. The door slammed behind them and Mrs. Black’s screeches were cut off instantly.

“Where’s Tonks?” Harry said, looking round as they went down the stone steps of number twelve, which vanished the moment they reached the pavement.

“She’s waiting for us just up here,” said Mrs. Weasley stiffly, averting her eyes from the lolloping black dog beside Harry.

An old woman greeted them on the corner. She had tightly curled grey hair and wore a purple hat shaped like a pork pie.

“Wotcher, Harry,” she said, winking. “Better hurry up, hadn’t we, Molly?” she added, checking her watch.

“I know, I know,” moaned Mrs. Weasley, lengthening her stride, “but Mad-Eye wanted to wait for Sturgis… if only Arthur could have got us cars from the Ministry again… but Fudge won’t let him borrow so much as an empty ink bottle these days… how Muggles can stand travelling without magic—”

But the great black dog gave a joyful bark and gambolled around them, snapping at pigeons and chasing its own tail. Harry couldn’t help laughing. Sirius had been trapped inside for a very long time. Mrs. Weasley pursed her lips in an almost Aunt Petunia-ish way.

It took them twenty minutes to reach King’s Cross on foot and nothing more eventful happened during that time than Sirius scaring a couple of cats for Harry’s entertainment. Once inside the station they lingered casually beside the barrier between platforms nine and ten until the coast was clear, then each of them leaned against it in turn and fell easily through on to platform nine and three-quarters, where the Hogwarts Express stood belching sooty steam over a platform packed with departing students and their families. Harry inhaled the familiar smell and felt his spirits soar… he was really going back…

“I hope the others make it in time,” said Mrs. Weasley anxiously, staring behind her at the wrought-iron arch spanning the platform, through which new arrivals would come.

“Nice dog, Harry!” called a tall boy with dreadlocks.

“Thanks, Lee,” said Harry, grinning, as Sirius wagged his tail frantically.

“Oh good,” said Mrs. Weasley, sounding relieved, “here’s Alastor with the luggage, look…”

A porter’s cap pulled low over his mismatched eyes, Moody came limping through the archway pushing a trolley loaded with their trunks.

“All OK,” he muttered to Mrs. Weasley and Tonks, “don’t think we were followed…”

Seconds later, Mr. Weasley emerged on to the platform with Ron and Hermione. They had almost unloaded Moody’s luggage trolley when Fred, George and Ginny turned up with Lupin.

“No trouble?” growled Moody.

“Nothing,” said Lupin.

“I’ll still be reporting Sturgis to Dumbledore,” said Moody, “that’s the second time he’s not turned up in a week. Getting as unreliable as Mundungus.”

“Well, look after yourselves,” said Lupin, shaking hands all round. He reached Harry last and gave him a clap on the shoulder. “You too, Harry. Be careful.”

“Yeah, keep your head down and your eyes peeled,” said Moody, shaking Harry’s hand too. “And don’t forget, all of you—careful what you put in writing. If in doubt, don’t put it in a letter at all.”

“It’s been great meeting all of you,” said Tonks, hugging Hermione and Ginny. “We’ll see you soon, I expect.”

A warning whistle sounded; the students still on the platform started hurrying on to the train.

“Quick, quick,” said Mrs. Weasley distractedly, hugging them at random and catching Harry twice. “Write… be good… if you’ve forgotten anything we’ll send it on… on to the train, now, hurry…”

For one brief moment, the great black dog reared on to its hind legs and placed its front paws on Harry’s shoulders, but Mrs. Weasley shoved Harry away towards the train door, hissing, “For heaven’s sake, act more like a dog, Sirius!”

“See you!” Harry called out of the open window as the train began to move, while Ron, Hermione and Ginny waved beside him. The figures of Tonks, Lupin, Moody and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley shrank rapidly but the black dog was bounding alongside the window, wagging its tail; blurred people on the platform were laughing to see it chasing the train, then they rounded a bend, and Sirius was gone.

“He shouldn’t have come with us,” said Hermione in a worried voice.

“Oh, lighten up,” said Ron, “he hasn’t seen daylight for months, poor bloke.”

“Well,” said Fred, clapping his hands together, “can’t stand around chatting all day, we’ve got business to discuss with Lee. See you later,” and he and George disappeared down the corridor to the right.

The train was gathering still more speed, so that the houses outside the window flashed past, and they swayed where they stood.

“Shall we go and find a compartment, then?” Harry asked.

Ron and Hermione exchanged looks.

“Er,” said Ron.

“We’re—well—Ron and I are supposed to go into the prefect carriage,” Hermione said awkwardly.

Ron wasn’t looking at Harry; he seemed to have become intensely interested in the fingernails on his left hand.

“Oh,” said Harry. “Right. Fine.”

“I don’t think we’ll have to stay there all journey,” said Hermione quickly. “Our letters said we just get instructions from the Head Boy and Girl and then patrol the corridors from time to time.”

“Fine,” said Harry again. “Well, I—I might see you later, then.”

“Yeah, definitely,” said Ron, casting a shifty, anxious look at Harry. “It’s a pain having to go down there, I’d rather—but we have to—I mean, I’m not enjoying it, I’m not Percy,” he finished defiantly.

“I know you’re not,” said Harry and he grinned. But as Hermione and Ron dragged their trunks, Crookshanks and a caged Pigwidgeon off towards the engine end of the train, Harry felt an odd sense of loss. He had never travelled on the Hogwarts Express without Ron.

“Come on,” Ginny told him, “if we get a move on we’ll be able to save them places.”

“Right,” said Harry, picking up Hedwig’s cage in one hand and the handle of his trunk in the other. They struggled off down the corridor, peering through the glass-panelled doors into the compartments they passed, which were already full. Harry could not help noticing that a lot of people stared back at him with great interest and that several of them nudged their neighbours and pointed him out. After he had met this behaviour in five consecutive carriages he remembered that the Daily Prophet had been telling its readers all summer what a lying show-off he was. He wondered dully whether the people now staring and whispering believed the stories.

In the very last carriage they met Neville Longbottom, Harry’s fellow fifth-year Gryffindor, his round face shining with the effort of pulling his trunk along and maintaining a one-handed grip on his struggling toad, Trevor.

“Hi, Harry,” he panted. “Hi, Ginny… everywhere’s full… I can’t find a seat…”

“What are you talking about?” said Ginny, who had squeezed past Neville to peer into the compartment behind him. “There’s room in this one, there’s only Loony Lovegood in here—”

Neville mumbled something about not wanting to disturb anyone.

“Don’t be silly,” said Ginny, laughing, “she’s all right.”

She slid the door open and pulled her trunk inside. Harry and Neville followed.

“Hi, Luna,” said Ginny, “is it OK if we take these seats?”

The girl beside the window looked up. She had straggly, waist-length, dirty blonde hair, very pale eyebrows and protuberant eyes that gave her a permanently surprised look. Harry knew at once why Neville had chosen to pass this compartment by. The girl gave off an aura of distinct dottiness. Perhaps it was the fact that she had stuck her wand behind her left ear for safekeeping, or that she had chosen to wear a necklace of Butterbeer corks, or that she was reading a magazine upside-down. Her eyes ranged over Neville and came to rest on Harry. She nodded.

“Thanks,” said Ginny, smiling at her.

Harry and Neville stowed the three trunks and Hedwig’s cage in the luggage rack and sat down. Luna watched them over her upside-down magazine, which was called The Quibbler. She did not seem to need to blink as much as normal humans. She stared and stared at Harry, who had taken the seat opposite her and now wished he hadn’t.

“Had a good summer, Luna?” Ginny asked.

“Yes,” said Luna dreamily, without taking her eyes off Harry. “Yes, it was quite enjoyable, you know. You’re Harry Potter,” she added.

“I know I am,” said Harry.

Neville chuckled. Luna turned her pale eyes on him instead.

“And I don’t know who you are.”

“I’m nobody,” said Neville hurriedly.

“No you’re not,” said Ginny sharply. “Neville Longbottom—Luna Lovegood. Luna’s in my year, but in Ravenclaw.”

“Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure,” said Luna in a singsong voice.

She raised her upside-down magazine high enough to hide her face and fell silent. Harry and Neville looked at each other with their eyebrows raised. Ginny suppressed a giggle.

The train rattled onwards, speeding them out into open country. It was an odd, unsettled sort of day; one moment the carriage was full of sunlight and the next they were passing beneath ominously grey clouds.

“Guess what I got for my birthday?” said Neville.

“Another Remembrall?” said Harry, remembering the marble-like device Neville’s grandmother had sent him in an effort to improve his abysmal memory.

“No,” said Neville. “I could do with one, though, I lost the old one ages ago… no, look at this…”

He dug the hand that was not keeping a firm grip on Trevor into his schoolbag and after a little bit of rummaging pulled out what appeared to be a small grey cactus in a pot, except that it was covered with what looked like boils rather than spines.

“Mimbulus mimbletonia,” he said proudly.

Harry stared at the thing. It was pulsating slightly, giving it the rather sinister look of some diseased internal organ.

“It’s really, really rare,” said Neville, beaming. “I don’t know it there’s one in the greenhouse at Hogwarts, even. I can’t wait to show it to Professor Sprout. My Great Uncle Algie got it for me in Assyria. I’m going to see if I can breed from it.”

Harry knew that Neville’s favourite subject was Herbology but for the life of him he could not see what he would want with this stunted little plant.

“Does it—er—do anything?” he asked.

“Loads of stuff!” said Neville proudly. “It’s got an amazing defensive mechanism. Here, hold Trevor for me…”

He dumped the toad into Harry’s lap and took a quill from his schoolbag. Luna Lovegood’s popping eyes appeared over the top of her upside-down magazine again, to watch what Neville was doing. Neville held the Mimbulus mimbletonia up to his eyes, his tongue between his teeth, chose his spot, and gave the plant a sharp prod with the tip of his quill.

Liquid squirted from every boil on the plant; thick, stinking, dark green jets of it. They hit the ceiling, the windows, and spattered Luna Lovegood’s magazine; Ginny, who had flung her arms up in front of her face just in time, merely looked as though she was wearing a slimy green hat, but Harry, whose hands had been busy preventing Trevor’s escape, received a faceful. It smelled like rancid manure.

Neville, whose face and torso were also drenched, shook his head to get the worst out of his eyes.

“S-sorry,” he gasped. “I haven’t tried that before… didn’t realise it would be quite so… don’t worry, though, Stinksap’s not poisonous,” he added nervously, as Harry spat a mouthful on to the floor.

At that precise moment the door of their compartment slid open.

“Oh… hello, Harry,” said a nervous voice. “Um… bad time?”

Harry wiped the lenses of his glasses with his Trevor-free hand. A very pretty girl with long, shiny black hair was standing in the doorway smiling at him: Cho Chang, the Seeker on the Ravenclaw Quidditch team.

“Oh… hi,” said Harry blankly.

“Um…” said Cho. “Well… just thought I’d say hello… bye then.”

Rather pink in the face, she closed the door and departed. Harry slumped back in his seat and groaned. He would have liked Cho to discover him sitting with a group of very cool people laughing their heads off at a joke he had just told; he would not have chosen to be sitting with Neville and Loony Lovegood, clutching a toad and dripping in Stinksap.

“Never mind,” said Ginny bracingly. “Look, we can easily get rid of all this.” She pulled out her wand. “Scourgify!”

The Stinksap vanished.

“Sorry,” said Neville again, in a small voice.

Ron and Hermione did not turn up for nearly an hour, by which time the food trolley had already gone by. Harry, Ginny and Neville had finished their pumpkin pasties and were busy swapping Chocolate Frog Cards when the compartment door slid open and they walked in, accompanied by Crookshanks and a shrilly hooting Pigwidgeon in his cage.

“I’m starving,” said Ron, stowing Pigwidgeon next to Hedwig, grabbing a Chocolate Frog from Harry and throwing himself into the seat next to him. He ripped open the wrapper, bit off the frog’s head and leaned back with his eyes closed as though he had had a very exhausting morning.

“Well, there are two fifth-year prefects from each house,” said Hermione, looking thoroughly disgruntled as she took her seat. “Boy and girl from each.”

“And guess who’s a Slytherin prefect?” said Ron, still with his eyes closed.

“Malfoy,” replied Harry at once, certain his worst fear would be confirmed.

“Course,” said Ron bitterly, stuffing the rest of the Frog into his mouth and taking another.

“And that complete cow Pansy Parkinson,” said Hermione viciously. “How she got to be a prefect when she’s thicker than a concussed troll…”

“Who are Hufflepuff’s?” Harry asked.

“Ernie Macmillan and Hannah Abbott,” said Ron thickly.

“And Anthony Goldstein and Padma Patil for Ravenclaw,” said Hermione.

“You went to the Yule Ball with Padma Patil,” said a vague voice.

Everyone turned to look at Luna Lovegood, who was gazing unblinkingly at Ron over the top of The Quibbler. He swallowed his mouthful of Frog.

“Yeah, I know I did,” he said, looking mildly surprised.

“She didn’t enjoy it very much,” Luna informed him. “She doesn’t think you treated her very well, because you wouldn’t dance with her. I don’t think I’d have minded,” she added thoughtfully, “I don’t like dancing very much.”

She retreated behind The Quibbler again. Ron stared at the cover with his mouth hanging open for a few seconds, then looked around at Ginny for some kind of explanation, but Ginny had stuffed her knuckles in her mouth to stop herself giggling. Ron shook his head, bemused, then checked his watch.

“We’re supposed to patrol the corridors every so often,” he told Harry and Neville, “and we can give out punishments if people are misbehaving. I can’t wait to get Crabbe and Goyle for something—”

“You’re not supposed to abuse your position, Ron!” said Hermione sharply.

“Yeah, right, because Malfoy won’t abuse it at all,” said Ron sarcastically.

“So you’re going to descend to his level?”

“No, I’m just going to make sure I get his mates before he gets mine.”

“For heaven’s sake, Ron—”

“I’ll make Goyle do lines, it’ll kill him, he hates writing,” said Ron happily. He lowered his voice to Goyle’s low grunt and, screwing up his face in a look of pained concentration, mimed writing in midair. “I… must… not… look… like… a… baboon’s… backside.”

Everyone laughed, but nobody laughed harder than Luna Lovegood. She let out a scream of mirth that caused Hedwig to wake up and flap her wings indignantly and Crookshanks to leap up into the luggage rack, hissing. Luna laughed so hard her magazine slipped out of her grasp, slid down her legs and on to the floor.

“That was funny!”

Her prominent eyes swam with tears as she gasped for breath, staring at Ron. Utterly nonplussed, he looked around at the others, who were now laughing at the expression on Ron’s face and at the ludicrously prolonged laughter of Luna Lovegood, who was rocking backwards and forwards, clutching her sides.

“Are you taking the mickey?” said Ron, frowning at her.

“Baboon’s… backside!” she choked, holding her ribs.

Everyone else was watching Luna laughing, but Harry glancing at the magazine on the floor, noticed something that made him dive for it. Upside-down it had been hard to tell what the picture on the front was, but Harry now realised it was a fairly bad cartoon of Cornelius Fudge; Harry only recognised him because of the lime-green bowler hat. One of Fudge’s hands was clenched around a bag of gold; the other hand was throttling a goblin. The cartoon was captioned: How Far Will Fudge Go to Gain Gringotts?

Beneath this were listed the titles of other articles inside the magazine.

Corruption in the Quidditch League: How the Tornados are Taking Control

Secrets of the Ancient Runes Revealed

Sirius Black: Villain or Victim?

“Can I have a look at this?” Harry asked Luna eagerly.

She nodded, still gazing at Ron, breathless with laughter.

Harry opened the magazine and scanned the index. Until this moment he had completely forgotten the magazine Kingsley had handed Mr. Weasley to give to Sirius, but it must have been this edition of The Quibbler.

He found the page, and turned excitedly to the article.

This, too, was illustrated by a rather bad cartoon; in fact, Harry would not have known it was supposed to be Sirius if it hadn’t been captioned. Sirius was standing on a pile of human bones with his wand out. The headline on the article said:

SIRIUS—BLACK AS HE’S PAINTED?

Notorious mass murderer or innocent singing sensation?

Harry had to read this first sentence several times before he was convinced that he had not misunderstood it. Since when had Sirius been a singing sensation?

For fourteen years Sirius Black has been believed guilty of the mass murder of twelve innocent Muggles and one wizard. Black’s audacious escape from Azkaban two years ago has led to the widest manhunt ever conducted by the Ministry of Magic. None of us has ever questioned that he deserves to be recaptured and handed back to the Dementors.

BUT DOES HE?

Startling new evidence has recently come to light that Sirius Black may not have committed the crimes for which he was sent to Azkaban. In fact, says Doris Purkiss, of 18 Acanthia Way, Little Norton, Black may not even have been present at the killings.

“What people don’t realise is that Sirius Black is a false name,” says Mrs. Purkiss. “The man people believe to be Sirius Black is actually Stubby Boardman, lead singer of popular singing group The Hobgoblins, who retired from public life after being struck on the ear by a turnip at a concert in Little Norton Church Hall nearly fifteen years ago. I recognised him the moment I saw his picture in the paper. Now, Stubby couldn’t possibly have committed those crimes, because on the day in question he happened to be enjoying a romantic candlelit dinner with me. I have written to the Minister for Magic and am expecting him to give Stubby, alias—Sirius, a full pardon any day now.”

Harry finished reading and stared at the page in disbelief. Perhaps it was a joke, he thought, perhaps the magazine often printed spoof Hems. He flicked back a few pages and found the piece on Fudge.

Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic, denied that he had any plans to take over the running of the Wizarding Bank, Gringotts, when he was elected Minister for Magic five years ago. Fudge has always insisted that he wants nothing more than to “co-operate peacefully” with the guardians of our gold.

BUT DOES HE?

Sources close to the Minister have recently disclosed that Fudge’s dearest ambition is to seize control of the goblin gold supplies and that he will not hesitate to use force if need be.

“It wouldn’t be the first time, either,” said a Ministry insider. “Cornelius ‘Goblin-Crusher’ Fudge, that’s what his friends call him. If you could hear him when he thinks no one’s listening, oh, he’s always talking about the goblins he’s had done in; he’s had them drowned, he’s had them dropped off buildings, he’s had them poisoned, he’s had them cooked in pies…”

Harry did not read any further. Fudge might have many faults but Harry found it extremely hard to imagine him ordering goblins to be cooked in pies. He flicked through the rest of the magazine. Pausing every few pages, he read: an accusation that the Tutshill Tornados were winning the Quidditch League by a combination of blackmail, illegal broom-tampering and torture; an interview with a wizard who claimed to have flown to the moon on a Cleansweep Six and brought back a bag of moon frogs to prove it; and an article on ancient runes which at least explained why Luna had been reading The Quibbler upside-down. According to the magazine, if you turned the runes on their heads they revealed a spell to make your enemy’s ears turn into kumquats. In fact, compared to the rest of the articles in The Quibbler, the suggestion that Sirius might really be the lead singer of The Hobgoblins was quite sensible.

“Anything good in there?” asked Ron as Harry closed the magazine.

“Of course not,” said Hermione scathingly, before Harry could answer. “The Quibbler’s rubbish, everyone knows that.”

“Excuse me,” said Luna; her voice had suddenly lost its dreamy quality. “My father’s the editor.”

“I—oh,” said Hermione, looking embarrassed. “Well… it’s got some interesting… I mean, it’s quite…”

“I’ll have it back, thank you,” said Luna coldly, and leaning forwards she snatched it out of Harry’s hands. Riffling through it to page fifty-seven, she turned it resolutely upside-down again and disappeared behind it, just as the compartment door opened for the third time.

Harry looked around; he had expected this, but that did not make the sight of Draco Malfoy smirking at him from between his cronies Crabbe and Goyle any more enjoyable.

“What?” he said aggressively, before Malfoy could open his mouth.

“Manners, Potter, or I’ll have to give you a detention,” drawled Malfoy, whose sleek blond hair and pointed chin were just like his father’s. “You see, I, unlike you, have been made a prefect, which means that I, unlike you, have the power to hand out punishments.”

“Yeah,” said Harry, “but you, unlike me, are a git, so get out and leave us alone.”

Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Neville laughed. Malfoy’s lip curled.

“Tell me, how does it feel being second-best to Weasley, Potter?” he asked.

“Shut up, Malfoy,” said Hermione sharply.

“I seem to have touched a nerve,” said Malfoy, smirking. “Well, just watch yourself, Potter, because I’ll be dogging your footsteps in case you step out of line.”

“Get out!” said Hermione, standing up.

Sniggering, Malfoy gave Harry a last malicious look and departed, with Crabbe and Goyle lumbering along in his wake. Hermione slammed the compartment door behind them and turned to look at Harry, who knew at once that she, like him, had registered what Malfoy had said and been just as unnerved by it.

“Chuck us another Frog,” said Ron, who had clearly noticed nothing.

Harry could not talk freely in front of Neville and Luna. He exchanged another nervous look with Hermione, then stared out of the window.

He had thought Sirius coming with him to the station was a bit of a laugh, but suddenly it seemed reckless, if not downright dangerous… Hermione had been right… Sirius should not have come. What if Mr. Malfoy had noticed the black dog and told Draco? What if he had deduced that the Weasleys, Lupin, Tonks and Moody knew where Sirius was hiding? Or had Malfoy’s use of the word “dogging” been a coincidence?

The weather remained undecided as they travelled further and further north. Rain spattered the windows in a half-hearted way, then the sun put in a feeble appearance before clouds drifted over it once more. When darkness fell and lamps came on inside the carriages, Luna rolled up The Quibbler, put it carefully away in her bag and took to staring at everyone in the compartment instead.

Harry was sitting with his forehead pressed against the train window, trying to get a first distant glimpse of Hogwarts, but it was a moonless night and the rain-streaked window was grimy.

“We’d better change,” said Hermione at last, and all of them opened their trunks with difficulty and pulled on their school robes. She and Ron pinned their prefect badges carefully to their chests. Harry saw Ron checking his reflection in the black window.

At last, the train began to slow down and they heard the usual racket up and down it as everybody scrambled to get their luggage and pets assembled, ready to get off. As Ron and Hermione were supposed to supervise all this, they disappeared from the carriage again, leaving Harry and the others to look after Crookshanks and Pigwidgeon.

“I’ll carry that owl, if you like,” said Luna to Harry, reaching out for Pigwidgeon as Neville stowed Trevor carefully in an inside pocket.

“Oh—er—thanks,” said Harry, handing her the cage and hoisting Hedwig’s more securely into his arms.

They shuffled out of the compartment feeling the first sting of the night air on their faces as they joined the crowd in the corridor. Slowly, they moved towards the doors. Harry could smell the pine trees that lined the path down to the lake. He stepped down on to the platform and looked around, listening for the familiar call of “firs’-years over ’ere… firs’-years…”

But it did not come. Instead, a quite different voice, a brisk female one, was calling out, “First-years line up over here, please! All first-years to me!”

A lantern came swinging towards Harry and by its light he saw the prominent chin and severe haircut of Professor Grubbly-Plank, the witch who had taken over Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures lessons for a while the previous year.

“Where’s Hagrid?” he said out loud.

“I don’t know,” said Ginny, “but we’d better get out of the way, we’re blocking the door.”

“Oh, yeah…”

Harry and Ginny became separated as they moved off along the platform and out through the station. Jostled by the crowd, Harry squinted through the darkness for a glimpse of Hagrid; he had to be here, Harry had been relying on it—seeing Hagrid again was one of the things he’d been looking forward to most. But there was no sign of him.

He can’t have left, Harry told himself as he shuffled slowly through a narrow doorway on to the road outside with the rest of the crowd. He’s just got a cold or something…

He looked around for Ron or Hermione, wanting to know what they thought about the reappearance of Professor Grubbly-Plank, but neither of them was anywhere near him, so he allowed himself to be shunted forwards on to the dark rain-washed road outside Hogsmeade Station.

Here stood the hundred or so horseless stagecoaches that always took the students above first year up to the castle. Harry glanced quickly at them, turned away to keep a lookout for Ron and Hermione, then did a double-take.

The coaches were no longer horseless. There were creatures standing between the carriage shafts. If he had had to give them a name, he supposed he would have called them horses, though there was something reptilian about them, too. They were completely fleshless, their black coats clinging to their skeletons, of which every bone was visible. Their heads were dragonish, and their pupil-less eyes white and staring. Wings sprouted from each wither—vast, black leathery wings that looked as though they ought to belong to giant bats. Standing still and quiet in the gathering gloom, the creatures looked eerie and sinister. Harry could not understand why the coaches were being pulled by these horrible horses when they were quite capable of moving along by themselves.

“Where’s Pig?” said Ron’s voice, right behind Harry.

“That Luna girl was carrying him,” said Harry, turning quickly, eager to consult Ron about Hagrid. “Where d’you reckon—”

“—Hagrid is? I dunno,” said Ron, sounding worried. “He’d better be OK…”

A short distance away, Draco Malfoy, followed by a small gang of cronies including Crabbe, Goyle and Pansy Parkinson, was pushing some timid-looking second-years out of the way so that he and his friends could get a coach to themselves. Seconds later, Hermione emerged panting from the crowd.

“Malfoy was being absolutely foul to a first-year back there. I swear I’m going to report him, he’s only had his badge three minutes and he’s using it to bully people worse than ever… where’s Crookshanks?”

“Ginny’s got him,” said Harry. “There she is…”

Ginny had just emerged from the crowd, clutching a squirming Crookshanks.

“Thanks,” said Hermione, relieving Ginny of the cat. “Come on, let’s get a carriage together before they all fill up…”

“I haven’t got Pig yet!” Ron said, but Hermione was already heading off towards the nearest unoccupied coach. Harry remained behind with Ron.

“What are those things, d’you reckon?” he asked Ron, nodding at the horrible horses as the other students surged past them.

“What things?”

“Those horse—”

Luna appeared holding Pigwidgeon’s cage in her arms; the tiny owl was twittering excitedly as usual.

“Here you are,” she said. “He’s a sweet little owl, isn’t he?”

“Er… yeah… he’s all right,” said Ron gruffly. “Well, come on then, let’s get in… what were you saying, Harry?”

“I was saying, what are those horse things?” Harry said, as he, Ron and Luna made for the carriage in which Hermione and Ginny were already sitting.

“What horse things?”

“The horse things pulling the carriages!” said Harry impatiently. They were, after all, about three feet from the nearest one; it was watching them with empty white eyes. Ron, however, gave Harry a perplexed look.

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about—look!”

Harry grabbed Ron’s arm and wheeled him about so that he was face to face with the winged horse. Ron stared straight at it for a second, then looked back at Harry.

“What am I supposed to be looking at?”

“At the—there, between the shafts! Harnessed to the coach! It’s right there in front—”

But as Ron continued to look bemused, a strange thought occurred to Harry.

“Can’t… can’t you see them?”

“See what?”

“Can’t you see what’s pulling the carriages?”

Ron looked seriously alarmed now.

“Are you feeling all right, Harry?”

“I… yeah…”

Harry felt utterly bewildered. The horse was there in front of him, gleaming solidly in the dim light issuing from the station windows behind them, vapour rising from its nostrils in the chilly night air. Yet, unless Ron was faking—and it was a very feeble joke if he was—Ron could not see it at all.

“Shall we get in, then?” said Ron uncertainly, looking at Harry as though worried about him.

“Yeah,” said Harry. “Yeah, go on…”

“It’s all right,” said a dreamy voice from beside Harry as Ron vanished into the coach’s dark interior. “You’re not going mad or anything. I can see them, too.”

“Can you?” said Harry desperately, turning to Luna. He could see the bat-winged horses reflected in her wide silvery eyes.

“Oh, yes,” said Luna, “I’ve been able to see them ever since my first day here. They’ve always pulled the carriages. Don’t worry. You’re just as sane as I am.”

Smiling faintly, she climbed into the musty interior of the carriage after Ron. Not altogether reassured, Harry followed her.

11. THE SORTING HAT’S NEW SONG

Harry did not want to tell the others that he and Luna were having the same hallucination, if that was what it was, so he said nothing more about the horses as he sal down inside the carriage and slammed the door behind him. Nevertheless, he could not help watching the silhouettes of the horses moving beyond the window.

“Did everyone see that Grubbly-Plank woman?” asked Ginny. “What’s she doing back here? Hagrid can’t have left, can he?”

“I’ll be quite glad if he has,” said Luna, “he isn’t a very good teacher, is he?”

“Yes, he is!” said Harry, Ron and Ginny angrily.

Harry glared at Hermione. She cleared her throat and quickly said, “Erm… yes… he’s very good.”

“Well, we in Ravenclaw think he’s a bit of a joke,” said Luna, unlazed.

“You’ve got a rubbish sense of humour then,” Ron snapped, as the wheels below them creaked into motion.

Luna did not seem perturbed by Ron’s rudeness; on the contrary, she simply watched him for a while as though he were a mildly interesting television programme.

Rattling and swaying, the carriages moved in convoy up the road. When they passed between the tall stone pillars topped with winged boars on either side of the gates to the school grounds, Harry leaned forwards to try and see whether there were any lights on in Hagrid’s cabin by the Forbidden Forest, but the grounds were in complete darkness. Hogwarts Castle, however, loomed ever closer: a towering mass of turrets, jet black against the dark sky, here and there a window blazing fiery bright above them.

The carriages jingled to a halt near the stone steps leading up to the oak front doors and Harry got out of the carriage first. He turned again to look for lit windows down by the Forest, but there was definitely no sign of life within Hagrid’s cabin. Unwillingly, because he had half-hoped they would have vanished, he turned his eyes instead upon the strange, skeletal creatures standing quietly in the chill night air, their blank white eyes gleaming.

Harry had once before had the experience of seeing something that Ron could not, but that had been a reflection in a mirror, something much more insubstantial than a hundred very solid-looking beasts strong enough to pull a fleet of carriages. If Luna was to be believed, the beasts had always been there but invisible. Why, then, could Harry suddenly see them, and why could Ron not?

“Are you coming or what?” said Ron beside him.

“Oh… yeah,” said Harry quickly and they joined the crowd hurrying up the stone steps into the castle.

The Entrance Hall was ablaze with torches and echoing with footsteps as the students crossed the flagged stone floor for the double doors to the right, leading to the Great Hall and the start-of-term feast.

The four long house tables in the Great Hall were filling up under the starless black ceiling, which was just like the sky they could glimpse through the high windows. Candles floated in midair all along the tables, illuminating the silvery ghosts who were dotted about the Hall and the faces of the students talking eagerly, exchanging summer news, shouting greetings at friends from other houses, eyeing one another’s new haircuts and robes. Again, Harry noticed people putting their heads together to whisper as he passed; he gritted his teeth and tried to act as though he neither noticed nor cared.

Luna drifted away from them at the Ravenclaw table. The moment they reached Gryffindors, Ginny was hailed by some fellow fourth-years and left to sit with them; Harry, Ron, Hermione and Neville found seats together about halfway down the table between Nearly Headless Nick, the Gryffindor house ghost, and Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown, the last two of whom gave Harry airy, overly-friendly greetings that made him quite sure they had stopped talking about him a split second before. He had more important things to worry about, however: he was looking over the students’ heads to the staff table that ran along the top wall of the Hall.

“He’s not there.”

Ron and Hermione scanned the staff table too, though there was no real need; Hagrid’s size made him instantly obvious in any lineup.

“He can’t have left,” said Ron, sounding slightly anxious.

“Of course he hasn’t,” said Harry firmly.

“You don’t think he’s… hurt, or anything, do you?” said Hermione uneasily.

“No,” said Harry at once.

“But where is he, then?”

There was a pause, then Harry said very quietly, so that Neville, Parvati and Lavender could not hear, “Maybe he’s not back yet. You know—from his mission—the thing he was doing over the summer for Dumbledore.”

“Yeah… yeah, that’ll be it,” said Ron, sounding reassured, but Hermione bit her lip, looking up and down the staff table as though hoping for some conclusive explanation of Hagrid’s absence.

“Who’s that?” she said sharply, pointing towards the middle of the staff table.

Harry’s eyes followed hers. They lit first upon Professor Dumbledore, sitting in his high-backed golden chair at the centre of the long staff table, wearing deep-purple robes scattered with silvery stars and a matching hat. Dumbledore’s head was inclined towards the woman sitting next to him, who was talking into his ear. She looked, Harry thought, like somebody’s maiden aunt: squat, with short, curly, mouse-brown hair in which she had placed a horrible pink Alice band that matched the fluffy pink cardigan she wore over her robes. Then she turned her face slightly to take a sip from her goblet and he saw, with a shock of recognition, a pallid, toadlike face and a pair of prominent, pouchy eyes.

“It’s that Umbridge woman!”

“Who?” said Hermione.

“She was at my hearing, she works for Fudge!”

“Nice cardigan,” said Ron, smirking.

“She works for Fudge!” Hermione repeated, frowning. “What on earth’s she doing here, then?”

“Dunno…”

Hermione scanned the staff table, her eyes narrowed.

“No,” she muttered, “no, surely not…”

Harry did not understand what she was talking about but did not ask; his attention had been caught by Professor Grubbly-Plank who had just appeared behind the staff table; she worked her way along to the very end and took the seat that ought to have been Hagrid’s. That meant the first-years must have crossed the lake and reached the castle, and sure enough, a few seconds later, the doors from the Entrance Hall opened. A long line of scared-looking first-years entered, led by Professor McGonagall, who was carrying a stool on which sat an ancient wizard’s hat, heavily patched and darned with a wide rip near the frayed brim.

The buzz of talk in the Great Hall faded away. The first-years lined up in front of the staff table facing the rest of the students, and Professor McGonagall placed the stool carefully in front of them, then stood back.

The first-years’ faces glowed palely in the candlelight. A small boy right in the middle of the row looked as though he was trembling. Harry recalled, fleetingly, how terrified he had felt when he had stood there, waiting for the unknown test that would determine to which house he belonged.

The whole school waited with bated breath. Then the rip near the hat’s brim opened wide like a mouth and the Sorting Hat burst into song:

In times of old when I was new
And Hogwarts barely started
The founders of our noble school
Thought never to be parted:

United by a common goal,
They had the selfsame yearning,
To make the world’s best magic school
And pass along their learning.

“Together we will build and teach!”
The four good friends decided
And never did they dream that they
Might some day be divided,

For were there such friends anywhere
As Slytherin and Gryffindor?
Unless it was the second pair
Of Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw?

So how could it have gone so wrong?
How could such friendships fail?
Why, I was there and so can tell
The whole sad, sorry tale.

Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those
Whose ancestry is purest.”
Said Ravenclaw, “We’ll teach those whose
Intelligence is surest.”

Said Gryffindor, “We’ll teach all those
With brave deeds to their name,”
Said Hufflepuff, “I’ll teach the lot,
And treat them just the same.”

These differences caused little strife
When first they came to light,
For each of the four founders had
A house in which they might

Take only those they wanted, so,
For instance, Slytherin
Took only pure-blood wizards
Of great cunning, just like him,

And only those of sharpest mind
Were taught by Ravenclaw
While the bravest and the boldest
Went to daring Gryffindor.

Good Hufflepuff, she took the rest,
And taught them all she knew,
Thus the houses and their founders
Retained friendships firm and true.

So Hogwarts worked in harmony
For several happy years,
But then discord crept among us
Feeding on our faults and fears.

The houses that, like pillars four,
Had once held up our school,
Now turned upon each other and,
Divided, sought to rule.

And for a while it seemed the school
Must meet an early end,
What with duelling and with jighting
And the clash of friend on friend

And at last there came a morning
When old Slytherin departed
And though the fighting then died out
He left us quite downhearted.

And never since the founders four
Were whittled down to three
Have the houses been united
As they once were meant to be.

And now the Sorting Hat is here
And you all know the score:
I sort you into houses
Because that is what I’m for,

But this year I’ll go further,
Listen closely to my song:
Though condemned I am to split you
Still I worry that it’s wrong,

Though I must fulfil my duty
And must quarter everv year
Still I wonder whether Sorting
May not bring the end I fear.

Oh, know the perils, read the signs,
The warning history shows,
For our Hogwarts is in danger
From external, deadly foes

And we must unite inside her
Or we’ll crumble from within
I have told you, I have warned you…
Let the Sorting now begin.

The Hat became motionless once more; applause broke out, though it was punctured, for the first time in Harry’s memory, with muttering and whispers. All across the Great Hall students were exchanging remarks with their neighbours, and Harry, clapping along with everyone else, knew exactly what they were talking about.

“Branched out a bit this year, hasn’t it?” said Ron, his eyebrows raised.

“Too right it has,” said Harry.

The Sorting Hat usually confined itself to describing the different qualities looked for by each of the four Hogwarts houses and its own role in Sorting them. Harry could not remember it ever trying to give the school advice before.

“I wonder if it’s ever given warnings before?” said Hermione, sounding slightly anxious.

“Yes, indeed,” said Nearly Headless Nick knowledgeably, leaning across Neville towards her (Neville winced; it was very uncomfortable to have a ghost lean through you). “The Hat feels itself honour-bound to give the school due warning whenever il feels—”

But Professor McGonagall, who was waiting to read out the list of first-years’ names, was giving the whispering students the sort of look that scorches. Nearly Headless Nick placed a see-through finger to his lips and sat primly upright again as the muttering came to an abrupt end. With a last frowning look that swept the four house tables, Professor McGonagall lowered her eyes to her long piece of parchment and called out the first name.

“Abercrombie, Euan.”

The terrified-looking boy Harry had noticed earlier stumbled forwards and put the Hat on his head; it was only prevented from falling right down to his shoulders by his very prominent ears. The Hat considered for a moment, then the rip near the brim opened again and shouted:

“Gryffindor!”

Harry clapped loudly with the rest of Gryffindor house as Euan Abercrombie staggered to their table and sat down, looking as though he would like very much to sink through the floor and never be looked at again.

Slowly, the long line of first-years thinned. In the pauses between the names and the Sorting Hat’s decisions, Harry could hear Ron’s stomach rumbling loudly. Finally, “Zeller, Rose” was Sorted into Hufflepuff, and Professor McGonagall picked up the Hat and stool and marched them away as Professor Dumbledore rose to his feet.

Whatever his recent bitter feelings had been towards his Headmaster, Harry was somehow soothed to see Dumbledore standing before them all. Between the absence of Hagrid and the presence of those dragonish horses, he had felt that his return to Hogwarts, so long anticipated, was full of unexpected surprises, like jarring notes in a familiar song. But this, at least, was how it was supposed to be: their Headmaster rising to greet them all before the start-of-term feast.

“To our newcomers,” said Dumbledore in a ringing voice, his arms stretched wide and a beaming smile on his lips, “welcome! To our old hands—welcome back! There is a time for speech-making, but this is not it. Tuck in!”

There was an appreciative laugh and an outbreak of applause as Dumbledore sat down neatly and threw his long beard over his shoulder so as to keep it out of the way of his plate—for food had appeared out of nowhere, so that the five long tables were groaning under joints and pies and dishes of vegetables, bread and sauces and flagons of pumpkin juice.

“Excellent,” said Ron, with a kind of groan of longing, and he seized the nearest plate of chops and began piling them on to his plate, watched wistfully by Nearly Headless Nick.

“What were you saying before the Sorting?” Hermione asked the ghost. “About the Hat giving warnings?”

“Oh, yes,” said Nick, who seemed glad of a reason to turn away from Ron, who was now eating roast potatoes with almost indecent enthusiasm. “Yes, I have heard the Hat give several warnings before, always at times when it detects periods of great danger for the school. And always, of course, its advice is the same: stand together, be strong from within.”

“Ow kunnit nofe skusin danger ifzat?” said Ron.

His mouth was so full Harry thought it was quite an achievement for him to make any noise at all.

“I beg your pardon?” said Nearly Headless Nick politely, while Hermione looked revolted. Ron gave an enormous swallow and said, “How can it know if the school’s in danger if it’s a Hat?”

“I have no idea,” said Nearly Headless Nick. “Of course, it lives in Dumbledore’s office, so I daresay it picks things up there.”

“And it wants all the houses to be friends?” said Harry, looking over at the Slytherin table, where Draco Malfoy was holding court. “Fat chance.”

“Well, now, you shouldn’t take that attitude,” said Nick reprovingly. “Peaceful co-operation, that’s the key. We ghosts, though we belong to separate houses, maintain links of friendship. In spite of the competitiveness between Gryffindor and Slytherin, I would never dream of seeking an argument with the Bloody Baron.”

“Only because you’re terrified of him,” said Ron.

Nearly Headless Nick looked highly affronted.

“Terrified? I hope I, Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, have never been guilty of cowardice in my life! The noble blood that runs in my veins—”

“What blood?” asked Ron. “Surely you haven’t still got—?”

“Its a figure of speech!” said Nearly Headless Nick, now so annoyed his head was trembling ominously on his partially severed neck. “I assume I am still allowed to enjoy the use of whichever words I like, even if the pleasures of eating and drinking are denied me! But I am quite used to students poking fun at my death, I assure you!”

“Nick, he wasn’t really laughing at you!” said Hermione, throwing a furious look at Ron.

Unfortunately, Ron’s mouth was packed to exploding point again and all he could manage was “Node iddum eentup sechew,” which Nick did not seem to think constituted an adequate apology. Rising into the air, he straightened his feathered hat and swept away from them to the other end of the table, coming to rest between the Creevey brothers, Colin and Dennis.

“Well done, Ron,” snapped Hermione.

“What?” said Ron indignantly, having managed, finally, to swallow his tood. “I’m not allowed to ask a simple question?”

“Oh, forget it,” said Hermione irritably, and the pair of them spent the rest of the meal in huffy silence.

Harry was too used to their bickering to bother trying to reconcile them; he felt it was a better use of his time to eat his way steadily through his steak and kidney pie, then a large plateful of his favourite treacle tart.

When all the students had finished eating and the noise level in the Hall was starting to creep upwards again, Dumbledore got to his feet once more. Talking ceased immediately as all turned to face the Headmaster. Harry was feeling pleasantly drowsy now. His four-poster bed was waiting somewhere above, wonderfully warm and soft…

“Well, now that we are all digesting another magnificent feast, I beg a few moments of your attention for the usual start-of-term notices,” said Dumbledore. “First-years ought to know that the Forest in the grounds is out-of-bounds to students—and a few of our older students ought to know by now, too.” (Harry, Ron and Hermione exchanged smirks.)

“Mr. Filch, the caretaker, has asked me, for what he tells me is the four-hundred-and-sixty-second time, to remind you all that magic is not permitted in corridors between classes, nor are a number of other things, all of which can be checked on the extensive list now fastened to Mr. Filch’s office door.

“We have had two changes in staffing this year. We are very pleased to welcome back Professor Grubbly-Plank, who will be taking Care of Magical Creatures lessons; we are also delighted to introduce Professor Umbridge, our new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher.”

There was a round of polite but fairly unenthusiastic applause, during which Harry, Ron and Hermione exchanged slightly panicked looks; Dumbledore had not said for how long Grubbly-Plank would be teaching.

Dumbledore continued, “Tryouts for the house Quidditch teams will take place on the—”

He broke off, looking enquiringly at Professor Umbridge. As she was not much taller standing than sitting, there was a moment when nobody understood why Dumbledore had stopped talking, but then Professor Umbridge cleared her throat, “Hem, hem,” and it became clear that she had got to her feet and was intending to make a speech.

Dumbledore only looked taken aback for a moment, then he sat down smartly and looked alertly at Professor Umbridge as though he desired nothing better than to listen to her talk. Other members of staff were not as adept at hiding their surprise. Professor Sprout’s eyebrows had disappeared into her flyaway hair and Professor McGonagall’s mouth was as thin as Harry had ever seen it. No new teacher had ever interrupted Dumbledore before. Many of the students were smirking; this woman obviously did not know how things were done at Hogwarts.

“Thank you, Headmaster,” Professor Umbridge simpered, “for those kind words of welcome.”

Her voice was high-pitched, breathy and little-girlish and, again, Harry felt a powerful rush of dislike that he could not explain to himself; all he knew was that he loathed everything about her, from her stupid voice to her fluffy pink cardigan. She gave another little throat-clearing cough (“hem, hem”) and continued.

“Well, it is lovely to be back at Hogwarts, I must say!” She smiled, revealing very pointed teeth. “And to see such happy little faces looking up at me!”

Harry glanced around. None of the faces he could see looked happy. On the contrary, they all looked rather taken-aback at being addressed as though they were five years old.

“I am very much looking forward to getting to know you all and I’m sure we’ll be very good friends!”

Students exchanged looks at this; some of them were barely concealing grins.

“I’ll be her friend as long as I don’t have to borrow that cardigan,” Parvati whispered to Lavender, and both of them lapsed into silent giggles.

Professor Umbridge cleared her throat again (“hem, hem”), but when she continued, some of the breathiness had vanished from her voice. She sounded much more businesslike and now her words had a dull learned-by-heart sound to them.

“The Ministry of Magic has always considered the education of young witches and wizards to be of vital importance. The rare gifts with which you were born may come to nothing if not nurtured and honed by careful instruction. The ancient skills unique to the wizarding community must be passed down the generations lest we lose them for ever. The treasure trove of magical knowledge amassed by our ancestors must be guarded, replenished and polished by those who have been called to the noble profession of teaching.”

Professor Umbridge paused here and made a little bow to her fellow staff members, none of whom bowed back to her. Professor McGonagall’s dark eyebrows had contracted so that she looked positively hawklike, and Harry distinctly saw her exchange a significant glance with Professor Sprout as Umbridge gave another little “hem, hem” and went on with her speech.

“Every headmaster and headmistress of Hogwarts has brought something new to the weighty task of governing this historic school, and that is as it should be, for without progress there will be stagnation and decay. There again, progress for progress’s sake must be discouraged, for our tried and tested traditions often require no tinkering. A balance, then, between old and new, between permanence and change, between tradition and innovation…”

Harry lound his attentiveness ebbing, as though his brain was slipping in and out of tune. The quiet that always filled the Hall when Dumbledore was speaking was breaking up as students put their heads together, whispering and giggling. Over on the Ravenclaw table Cho Chang was chatting animatedly with her friends. A few seats along from Cho, Luna Lovegood had got out The Quibbler again. Meanwhile, at the Hufflepuff table Ernie Macmillan was one of the few still staring at Professor Umbridge, but he was glassy-eyed and Harry was sure he was only pretending to listen in an attempt to live up to the new prefect’s badge gleaming on his chest.

Professor Umbridge did not seem to notice the restlessness of her audience. Harry had the impression that a full-scale riot could have broken out under her nose and she would have ploughed on with her speech. The teachers, however, were still listening very attentively, and Hermione seemed to be drinking in every word Umbridge spoke, though, judging by her expression, they were not at all to her taste.

“…because some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in the fullness of time, to be recognised as errors of judgement. Meanwhile, some old habits will be retained, and rightly so, whereas others, outmoded and outworn, must be abandoned. Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited.”

She sat down. Dumbledore clapped. The staff followed his lead, though Harry noticed that several of them brought their hands together only once or twice before stopping. A few students joined in, but most had been taken unawares by the end of the speech, not having listened to more than a few words of it, and before they could start applauding properly, Dumbledore had stood up again.

“Thank you very much, Professor Umbridge, that was most illuminating,” he said, bowing to her. “Now, as I was saying, Quidditch tryouts will be held…”

“Yes, it certainly was illuminating,” said Hermione in a low voice.

“You’re not telling me you enjoyed it?” Ron said quietly, turning a glazed face towards Hermione. “That was about the dullest speech I’ve ever heard, and I grew up with Percy.”

“I said illuminating, not enjoyable,” said Hermione. “It explained a lot.”

“Did it?” said Harry in surprise. “Sounded like a load of waffle to me.”

“There was some important stuff hidden in the waffle,” said Hermione grimly.

“Was there?” said Ron blankly.

“How about: ‘progress for progress’s sake must be discouraged’? How about: ‘pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited’?”

“Well, what does that mean?” said Ron impatiently.

“I’ll tell you what it means,” said Hermione through gritted teeth. “It means the Ministry’s interfering at Hogwarts.”

There was a great clattering and banging all around them; Dumbledore had obviously just dismissed the school, because everyone was standing up ready to leave the Hall. Hermione jumped up, looking flustered.

“Ron, we’re supposed to show the first-years where to go!”

“Oh yeah,” said Ron, who had obviously forgotten. “Hey—hey, you lot! Midgets!”

“Ron!”

“Well, they are, they’re titchy…”

“I know, but you can’t call them midgets!—First-years!” Hermione called commandingly along the table. “This way, please!”

A group of new students walked shyly up the gap between the Gryffindor and Hufflepuff tables, all of them trying hard not to lead the group. They did indeed seem very small; Harry was sure he had not appeared that young when he had arrived here. He grinned at them. A blond boy next to Euan Abercrombie looked petrified; he nudged Euan and whispered something in his ear. Euan Abercrombie looked equally frightened and stole a horrified look at Harry, who felt the grin slide off his face like Stinksap.

“See you later,” he said dully to Ron and Hermione and he made his way out of the Great Hall alone, doing everything he could to ignore more whispering, staring and pointing as he passed. He kept his eyes fixed ahead as he wove his way through the crowd in the Entrance Hall, then he hurried up the marble staircase, took a couple of concealed short cuts and had soon left most of the crowds behind.

He had been stupid not to expect this, he thought angrily as he walked through the much emptier upstairs corridors. Of course everyone was staring at him; he had emerged from the Triwizard maze two months previously clutching the dead body of a fellow student and claiming to have seen Lord Voldemort return to power. There had not been time last term to explain himself before they’d all had to go home—even if he had felt up to giving the whole school a detailed account of the terrible events in that graveyard.

Harry had reached the end of the corridor to the Gryffindor common room and come to a halt in front of the portrait of the Fat Lady before he realised that he did not know the new password.

“Er…” he said glumly, staring up at the Fat Lady, who smoothed the folds of her pink satin dress and looked sternly back at him.

“No password, no entrance,” she said loftily.

“Harry, I know it!” Someone panted up behind him and he turned to see Neville jogging towards him. “Guess what it is? I’m actually going to be able to remember it for once—” He waved the stunted little cactus he had shown them on the train. “Mimbulus mimbletonia!”

“Correct,” said the Fat Lady, and her portrait swung open towards them like a door, revealing a circular hole in the wall behind, through which Harry and Neville now climbed.

The Gryffindor common room looked as welcoming as ever, a cosy circular tower room full of dilapidated squashy armchairs and rickety old tables. A fire was crackling merrily in the grate and a few people were warming their hands by it before going up to their dormitories; on the other side of the room Fred and George Weasley were pinning something up on the noticeboard. Harry waved goodnight to them and headed straight for the door to the boys’ dormitories; he was not in much of a mood for talking at the moment. Neville followed him.

Dean Thomas and Seamus Finnigan had reached the dormitory first and were in the process of covering the walls beside their beds with posters and photographs. They had been talking as Harry pushed open the door but stopped abruptly the moment they saw him. Harry wondered whether they had been talking about him, then whether he was being paranoid.

“Hi,” he said, moving across to his own trunk and opening it.

“Hey, Harry,” said Dean, who was putting on a pair of pyjamas in the West Ham colours. “Good holiday?”

“Not bad,” muttered Harry, as a true account of his holiday would have taken most of the night to relate and he could not face it. “You?”

“Yeah, it was OK,” chuckled Dean. “Better than Seamus’s, anyway, he was just telling me.”

“Why, what happened, Seamus?” Neville asked as he placed his Mimbulus mimbletonia tenderly on his bedside cabinet.

Seamus did not answer immediately; he was making rather a meal of ensuring that his poster of the Kenmare Kestrels Quidditch team was quite straight. Then he said, with his back still turned to Harry, “Me mum didn’t want me to come back.”

“What?” said Harry, pausing in the act of pulling off his robes.

“She didn’t want me to come back to Hogwarts.”

Seamus turned away from his poster and pulled his own pyjamas out of his trunk, still not looking at Harry.

“But—why?” said Harry, astonished. He knew that Seamus’s mother was a witch and could not understand, therefore, why she should have come over so Dursleyish.

Seamus did not answer until he had finished buttoning his pyjamas.

“Well,” he said in a measured voice, “I suppose… because of you.”

“What d’you mean?” said Harry quickly.

His heart was beating rather fast. He felt vaguely as though something was closing in on him.

“Well,” said Seamus again, still avoiding Harry’s eye, “she… er… well, it’s not just you, it’s Dumbledore, too…”

“She believes the Daily Prophet?” said Harry. “She thinks I’m a liar and Dumbledore’s an old fool?”

Seamus looked up at him.

“Yeah, something like that.”

Harry said nothing. He threw his wand down on to his bedside table, pulled off his robes, stuffed them angrily into his trunk and pulled on his pyjamas. He was sick of it; sick of being the person who is stared at and talked about all the time. If any of them knew, if any of them had the faintest idea what it felt like to be the one all these things had happened to… Mrs. Finnigan had no idea, the stupid woman, he thought savagely.

He got into bed and made to pull the hangings closed around him, but before he could do so, Seamus said, “Look… what did happen that night when… you know, when… with Cedric Diggory and all?”

Seamus sounded nervous and eager at the same time. Dean, who had been bending over his trunk trying to retrieve a slipper, went oddly still and Harry knew he was listening hard.

“What are you asking me for?” Harry retorted. “Just read the Daily Prophet like your mother, why don’t you? That’ll tell you all you need to know.”

“Don’t you have a go at my mother,” Seamus snapped.

“I’ll have a go at anyone who calls me a liar,” said Harry.

“Don’t talk to me like that!”

“I’ll talk to you how I want,” said Harry, his temper rising so fast he snatched his wand back from his bedside table. “If you’ve got a problem sharing a dormitory with me, go and ask McGonagall if you can be moved… stop your mummy worrying—”

“Leave my mother out of this, Potter!”

“What’s going on?”

Ron had appeared in the doorway. His wide eyes travelled from Harry, who was kneeling on his bed with his wand pointing at Seamus, to Seamus, who was standing there with his fists raised.

“He’s having a go at my mother!” Seamus yelled.

“What?” said Ron. “Harry wouldn’t do that—we met your mother, we liked her…”

“That’s before she started believing every word the stinking Daily Prophet writes about me!” said Harry at the top of his voice.

“Oh,” said Ron, comprehension dawning across his freckled face. “Oh… right.”

“You know what?” said Seamus heatedly, casting Harry a venomous look. “He’s right, I don’t want to share a dormitory with him any more, he’s mad.”

“That’s out of order, Seamus,” said Ron, whose ears were starting to glow red—always a danger sign.

“Out of order, am I?” shouted Seamus, who in contrast with Ron was going pale. “You believe all the rubbish he’s come out with about You-Know-Who, do you, you reckon he’s telling the truth?”

“Yeah, I do!” said Ron angrily.

“Then you’re mad, too,” said Seamus in disgust.

“Yeah? Well, unfortunately for you, pal, I’m also a prefect!” said Ron, jabbing himself in the chest with a finger. “So unless you want detention, watch your mouth!”

Seamus looked for a few seconds as though detention would be a reasonable price to pay to say what was going through his mind; but with a noise of contempt he turned on his heel, vaulted into bed and pulled the hangings shut with such violence that they were ripped from the bed and fell in a dusty pile to the floor. Ron glared at Seamus, then looked at Dean and Neville.

“Anyone else’s parents got a problem with Harry?” he said aggressively.

“My parents are Muggles, mate,” said Dean, shrugging. “They don’t know nothing about no deaths at Hogwarts, because I’m not stupid enough to tell them.”

“You don’t know my mother, she’d weasel anything out of anyone!” Seamus snapped at him. “Anyway your parents don’t get the Daily Prophet. They don’t know our Headmaster’s been sacked from the Wizengamot and the International Confederation of Wizards because he’s losing his marbles—”

“My gran says that’s rubbish,” piped up Neville. “She says it’s the Daily Prophet that’s going downhill, not Dumbledore. She’s cancelled our subscription. We believe Harry,” said Neville simply. He climbed into bed and pulled the covers up to his chin, looking owlishly over them at Seamus. “My gran’s always said You-Know-Who would come back one day. She says if Dumbledore says he’s back, he’s back.”

Harry felt a rush of gratitude towards Neville. Nobody else said anything. Seamus got out his wand, repaired the bed hangings and vanished behind them. Dean got into bed, rolled over and fell silent. Neville, who appeared to have nothing more to say either, was gazing fondly at his moonlit cactus.

Harry lay back on his pillows while Ron bustled around the next bed, putting his things away. He felt shaken by the argument with Seamus, whom he had always liked very much. How many more people were going to suggest that he was lying, or unhinged?

Had Dumbledore suffered like this all summer, as first the Wizengamot, then the International Confederation of Wizards had thrown him from their ranks? Was it anger at Harry, perhaps, that had stopped Dumbledore getting in touch with him for months? The two of them were in this together, after all; Dumbledore had believed Harry, announced his version of events to the whole school and then to the wider wizarding community. Anyone who thought Harry was a liar had to think that Dumbledore was, too, or else that Dumbledore had been hoodwinked…

They’ll know we’re right in the end, thought Harry miserably, as Ron got into bed and extinguished the last candle in the dormitory. But he wondered how many more attacks like Seamus’s he would have to endure before that time came.

12. PROFESSOR UMBRIDGE

Seamus dressed at top speed next morning and left the dormitory before Harry had even put on his socks.

“Does he think he’ll turn into a nutter if he stays in a room with me too long?” asked Harry loudly, as the hem of Seamus’s robes whipped out of sight.

“Don’t worry about it, Harry,” Dean muttered, hoisting his schoolbag on to his shoulder, “he’s just…”

But apparently he was unable to say exactly what Seamus was, and after a slightly awkward pause followed him out of the room.

Neville and Ron both gave Harry an it’s-his-problem-not-yours look, but Harry was not much consoled. How much more of this would he have to take?

“What’s the matter?” asked Hermione five minutes later, catching up with Harry and Ron halfway across the common room as they all headed towards breakfast. “You look absolutely—Oh for heaven’s sake.”

She was staring at the common-room noticeboard, where a large new sign had been put up.

GALLONS OF GALLEONS.

Pocket money failing to keep pace with your outgoings?

Like to earn a little extra gold? Contact Fred and George Weasley, Gryffindor common room, for simple, part-time, virtually painless jobs. (We regret that all work is undertaken at applicant’s own risk.)

“They are the limit,” said Hermione grimly, taking down the sign, which Fred and George had pinned up over a poster giving the date of the first Hogsmeade weekend, which was to be in October. “We’ll have to talk to them, Ron.”

Ron looked positively alarmed.

“Why?”

“Because we’re prefects!” said Hermione, as they climbed out through the portrait hole. “It’s up to us to stop this kind of thing!”

Ron said nothing; Harry could tell from his glum expression that the prospect of stopping Fred and George doing exactly what they liked was not one he found inviting.

“Anyway, what’s up, Harry?” Hermione continued, as they walked down a flight of stairs lined with portraits of old witches and wizards, all of whom ignored them, being engrossed in their own conversation. “You look really angry about something.”

“Seamus reckons Harry’s lying about You-Know-Who,” said Ron succinctly, when Harry did not respond.

Hermione, who Harry had expected to react angrily on his behalf, sighed.

“Yes, Lavender thinks so too,” she said gloomily.

“Been having a nice little chat with her about whether or not I’m a lying, attention-seeking prat, have you?” Harry said loudly.

“No,” said Hermione calmly. “I told her to keep her big fat mouth shut about you, actually. And it would be quite nice if you stopped jumping down our throats, Harry, because in case you haven’t noticed, Ron and I are on your side.”

There was a short pause.

“Sorry,” said Harry in a low voice.

“That’s quite all right,” said Hermione with dignity. Then she shook her head. “Don’t you remember what Dumbledore said at the last end-of-term feast?”

Harry and Ron both looked at her blankly and Hermione sighed again.

“About You-Know-Who. He said his gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust—”

“How do you remember stuff like that?” asked Ron, looking at her in admiration.

“I listen, Ron,” said Hermione, with a touch of asperity.

“So do I, but I still couldn’t tell you exactly what—”

“The point,” Hermione pressed on loudly, “is that this sort of thing is exactly what Dumbledore was talking about. You-Know-Who’s only been back two months and we’ve already started fighting among ourselves. And the Sorting Hat’s warning was the same: stand together, be united—”

“And Harry got it right last night,” retorted Ron. “If that means we’re supposed to get matey with the Slytherins—fat chance.”

“Well, I think it’s a pity we’re not trying for a bit of inter-house unity,” said Hermione crossly.

They had reached the foot of the marble staircase. A line of fourth-year Ravenclaws was crossing the Entrance Hall; they caught sight of Harry and hurried to form a tighter group, as though frightened he might attack stragglers.

“Yeah, we really ought to be trying to make friends with people like that,” said Harry sarcastically.

They followed the Ravenclaws into the Great Hall, all looking instinctively at the staff table as they entered. Professor Grubbly-Plank was chatting to Professor Sinistra, the Astronomy teacher, and Hagrid was once again conspicuous only by his absence. The enchanted ceiling above them echoed Harry’s mood; it was a miserable rain-cloud grey.

“Dumbledore didn’t even mention how long that Grubbly-Plank woman’s staying,” he said, as they made their way across to the Gryffindor table.

“Maybe…” said Hermione thoughtfully.

“What?” said both Harry and Ron together.

“Well… maybe he didn’t want to draw attention to Hagrid not being here.”

“What d’you mean, draw attention to it?” said Ron, half-laughing. “How could we not notice?”

Before Hermione could answer, a tall black girl with long braided hair had marched up to Harry.

“Hi, Angelina.”

“Hi,” she said briskly, “good summer?” And without waiting for an answer, “Listen, I’ve been made Gryffindor Quidditch Captain.”

“Nice one,” said Harry, grinning at her; he suspected Angelina’s pep talks might not be as long-winded as Oliver Wood’s had been, which could only be an improvement.

“Yeah, well, we need a new Keeper now Oliver’s left. Tryouts are on Friday at five o’clock and I want the whole team there, all right? Then we can see how the new person’ll fit in.”

“OK,” said Harry.

Angelina smiled at him and departed.

“I’d forgotten Wood had left,” said Hermione vaguely as she sat down beside Ron and pulled a plate of toast towards her. “I suppose that will make quite a difference to the team?”

“I’s’pose,” said Harry, taking the bench opposite. “He was a good Keeper…”

“Still, it won’t hurt to have some new blood, will it?” said Ron.

With a whoosh and a clatter, hundreds of owls came soaring in through the upper windows. They descended all over the Hall, bringing letters and packages to their owners and showering the breakfasters with droplets of water; it was clearly raining hard outside. Hedwig was nowhere to be seen, but Harry was hardly surprised; his only correspondent was Sirius, and he doubted Sirius would have anything new to tell him after only twenty-four hours apart. Hermione, however, had to move her orange juice aside quickly to make way for a large damp barn owl bearing a sodden Daily Prophet in its beak.

“What are you still getting that for?” said Harry irritably, thinking of Seamus as Hermione placed a Knut in the leather pouch on the owl’s leg and it took off again. “I’m not bothering… load of rubbish.”

“It’s best to know what the enemy is saying,” said Hermione darkly, and she unfurled the newspaper and disappeared behind it, not emerging until Harry and Ron had finished eating.

“Nothing,” she said simply, rolling up the newspaper and laying it down by her plate. “Nothing about you or Dumbledore or anything.”

Professor McGonagall was now moving along the table handing out timetables.

“Look at today!” groaned Ron. “History of Magic, double Potions, Divination and double Defence Against the Dark Arts… Binns, Snape, Trelawney and that Umbridge woman all in one day! I wish Fred and George’d hurry up and get those Skiving Snackboxes sorted…”

“Do mine ears deceive me?” said Fred, arriving with George and squeezing on to the bench beside Harry. “Hogwarts prefects surely don’t wish to skive off lessons?”

“Look what we’ve got today,” said Ron grumpily, shoving his timetable under Fred’s nose. “That’s the worst Monday I’ve ever seen.”

“Fair point, little bro,” said Fred, scanning the column. “You can have a bit of Nosebleed Nougat cheap if you like.”

“Why’s it cheap?” said Ron suspiciously.

“Because you’ll keep bleeding till you shrivel up, we haven’t got an antidote yet,” said George, helping himself to a kipper.

“Cheers,” said Ron moodily, pocketing his timetable, “but I think I’ll take the lessons.”

“And speaking of your Skiving Snackboxes,” said Hermione, eyeing Fred and George beadily, “you can’t advertise for testers on the Gryffindor noticeboard.”

“Says who?” said George, looking astonished.

“Says me,” said Hermione. “And Ron.”

“Leave me out of it,” said Ron hastily.

Hermione glared at him. Fred and George sniggered.

“You’ll be singing a different tune soon enough, Hermione,” said Fred, thickly buttering a crumpet. “You’re starting your fifth year, you’ll be begging us for a Snackbox before long.”

“And why would starting fifth year mean I want a Skiving Snackbox?” asked Hermione.

“Fifth year’s O.W.L. year,” said George.

“So?”

“So you’ve got your exams coming up, haven’t you? They’ll be keeping your noses so hard to that grindstone they’ll be rubbed raw,” said Fred with satisfaction.

“Half our year had minor breakdowns coming up to O.W.L.s,” said George happily. Tears and tantrums… Patricia Stimpson kept coming over faint…”

“Kenneth Towler came out in boils, d’you remember?” said Fred reminiscently.

“That’s ’cause you put Bulbadox powder in his pyjamas,” said George.

“Oh yeah,” said Fred, grinning. “I’d forgotten… hard to keep track sometimes, isn’t it?”

“Anyway, it’s a nightmare of a year, the fifth,” said George. “If you care about exam results, anyway. Fred and I managed to keep our peckers up somehow.”

“Yeah… you got, what was it, three O.W.L.s each?” said Ron.

“Yep,” said Fred unconcernedly. “But we feel our futures lie outside the world of academic achievement.”

“We seriously debated whether we were going to bother coming back for our seventh year,” said George brightly, “now that we’ve got—”

He broke off at a warning look from Harry, who knew George had been about to mention the Triwizard winnings he had given them.

“—now that we’ve got our O.W.L.s,” George said hastily. “I mean, do we really need N.E.W.T.s? But we didn’t think Mum could take us leaving school early, not on top of Percy turning out to be the world’s biggest prat.”

“We’re not going to waste our last year here, though,” said Fred, looking afiectionately around at the Great Hall. “We’re going to use it to do a bit of market research, find out exactly what the average Hogwarts student requires from a joke shop, carefully evaluate the results of our research, then produce products to fit the demand.”

“But where are you going to get the gold to start a joke shop?” Hermione asked sceptically. “You’re going to need all the ingredients and materials—and premises too, I suppose…”

Harry did not look at the twins. His face felt hot; he deliberately dropped his fork and dived down to retrieve it. He heard Fred say overhead, “Ask us no questions and we’ll tell you no lies, Hermione. C’mon, George, if we get there early we might be able to sell a few Extendable Ears before Herbology.”

Harry emerged from under the table to see Fred and George walking away, each carrying a stack of toast.

“What did that mean?” said Hermione, looking from Harry to Ron. “‘Ask us no questions…’ Does that mean they’ve already got some gold to start a joke shop?”

“You know, I’ve been wondering about that,” said Ron, his brow furrowed. “They bought me a new set of dress robes this summer and I couldn’t understand where they got the Galleons…”

Harry decided it was time to steer the conversation out of these dangerous waters.

“D’you reckon it’s true this year’s going to be really tough? Because of the exams?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Ron. “Bound to be, isn’t it? O.W.L.s are really important, affect the jobs you can apply for and everything. We get career advice, too, later this year, Bill told me. So you can choose what N.E.W.T.s you want to do next year.”

“D’you know what you want to do after Hogwarts?” Harry asked the other two, as they left the Great Hall shortly afterwards and set off towards their History of Magic classroom.

“Not really,” said Ron slowly. “Except… well…”

He looked slightly sheepish.

“What?” Harry urged him.

“Well, it’d be cool to be an Auror,” said Ron in an off-hand voice.

“Yeah, it would,” said Harry fervently.

“But they’re, like, the elite,” said Ron. “You’ve got to be really good. What about you, Hermione?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think I’d like to do something really worthwhile.”

“An Auror’s worthwhile!” said Harry.

“Yes, it is, but it’s not the only worthwhile thing,” said Hermione thoughtfully, “I mean, if I could take S.P.E.W. further…”

Harry and Ron carefully avoided looking at each other.

History of Magic was by common consent the most boring subject ever devised by wizardkind. Professor Binns, their ghost teacher, had a wheezy, droning voice that was almost guaranteed to cause severe drowsiness within ten minutes, five in warm weather. He never varied the form of their lessons, but lectured them without pausing while they took notes, or rather, gazed sleepily into space. Harry and Ron had so far managed to scrape passes in this subject only by copying Hermione’s notes before exams; she alone seemed able to resist the soporific power of Binns’s voice.

Today, they suffered an hour and a half’s droning on the subject of giant wars. Harry heard just enough within the first ten minutes to appreciate dimly that in another teacher’s hands this subject might have been mildly interesting, but then his brain disengaged, and he spent the remaining hour and twenty minutes playing hangman on a corner of his parchment with Ron, while Hermione shot them filthy looks out of the corner of her eye.

“How would it be,” she asked them coldly, as they left the classroom for break (Binns drifting away through the blackboard), “if I refused to lend you my notes this year?”

“We’d fail our O.W.L.,” said Ron. “If you want that on your conscience, Hermione…”

“Well, you’d deserve it,” she snapped. “You don’t even try to listen to him, do you?”

“We do try,” said Ron. “We just haven’t got your brains or your memory or your concentration—you’re just cleverer than we are—is it nice to rub it in?”

“Oh, don’t give me that rubbish,” said Hermione, but she looked slightly mollified as she led the way out into the damp courtyard.

A fine misty drizzle was falling, so that the people standing in huddles around the edges of the yard looked blurred at the edges. Harry, Ron and Hermione chose a secluded corner under a heavily dripping balcony, turning up the collars of their robes against the chilly September air and talking about what Snape was likely to set them in the first lesson of the year. They had got as far as agreeing that it was likely to be something extremely difficult, just to catch them off guard after a two-month holiday, when someone walked around the corner towards them.

“Hello, Harry!”

It was Cho Chang and, what was more, she was on her own again. This was most unusual: Cho was almost always surrounded by a gang of giggling girls; Harry remembered the agony of trying to get her by herself to ask her to the Yule Ball.

“Hi,” said Harry, feeling his face grow hot. At least you’re not covered in Stinksap this time, he told himself. Cho seemed to be thinking along the same lines.

“You got that stuff off, then?”

“Yeah,” said Harry, trying to grin as though the memory of their last meeting was funny as opposed to mortifying. “So, did you… er… have a good summer?”

The moment he had said this he wished he hadn’t—Cedric had been Cho’s boyfriend and the memory of his death must have affected her holiday almost as badly as it had affected Harry’s. Something seemed to tauten in her face, but she said, “Oh, it was all right, you know…”

“Is that a Tornados badge?” Ron demanded suddenly, pointing to the front of Cho’s robes, where a sky-blue badge emblazoned with a double gold “T” was pinned. “You don’t support them, do you?”

“Yeah, I do,” said Cho.

“Have you always supported them, or just since they started winning the league?” said Ron, in what Harry considered an unnecessarily accusatory tone of voice.

“I’ve supported them since I was six,” said Cho coolly. “Anyway… see you, Harry.”

She walked away. Hermione waited until Cho was halfway across the courtyard before rounding on Ron.

“You are so tactless!”

“What? I only asked her if—”

“Couldn’t you tell she wanted to talk to Harry on her own?”

“So? She could’ve done, I wasn’t stopping—”

“Why on earth were you attacking her about her Quidditch team?”

“Attacking? I wasn’t attacking her, I was only—”

“Who cares if she supports the Tornados?”

“Oh, come on, half the people you see wearing those badges only bought them last season—”

“But what does it matter!”

“It means they’re not real fans, they’re just jumping on the bandwagon—”

“That’s the bell,” said Harry dully, because Ron and Hermione were bickering too loudly to hear it. They did not stop arguing all the way down to Snape’s dungeon, which gave Harry plenty of time to reflect that between Neville and Ron he would be lucky ever to have two minutes of conversation with Cho that he could look back on without wanting to leave the country.

And yet, he thought, as they joined the queue lining up outside Snape’s classroom door, she had chosen to come and talk to him, hadn’t she? She had been Cedric’s girlfriend; she could easily have hated Harry for coming out of the Triwizard maze alive when Cedric had died, yet she was talking to him in a perfectly friendly way, not as though she thought him mad, or a liar, or in some horrible way responsible for Cedric’s death… yes, she had definitely chosen to come and talk to him, and that made the second time in two days… and at this thought, Harry’s spirits rose. Even the ominous sound of Snape’s dungeon door creaking open did not puncture the small, hopeful bubble that seemed to have swelled in his chest. He filed into the classroom behind Ron and Hermione and followed them to their usual table at the back, where he sat down between Ron and Hermione and ignored the huffy, irritable noises now issuing from both of them.

“Settle down,” said Snape coldly, shutting the door behind him.

There was no real need for the call to order; the moment the class had heard the door close, quiet had fallen and all fidgeting stopped. Snape’s mere presence was usually enough to ensure a class’s silence.

“Before we begin today’s lesson,” said Snape, sweeping over to his desk and staring around at them all, “I think it appropriate to remind you that next June you will be sitting an important examination, during which you will prove how much you have learned about the composition and use of magical potions. Moronic though some of this class undoubtedly are, I expect you to scrape an ‘Acceptable’ in your O.W.L., or suffer my… displeasure.”

His gaze lingered this time on Neville, who gulped.

“After this year, of course, many of you will cease studying with me,” Snape went on. “I take only the very best into my N.E.W.T. Potions class, which means that some of us will certainly be saying goodbye.”

His eyes rested on Harry and his lip curled. Harry glared back, feeling a grim pleasure at the idea that he would be able to give up Potions after fifth year.

“But we have another year to go before that happy moment of farewell,” said Snape softly, “so, whether or not you are intending to attempt N.E.W.T., I advise all of you to concentrate your efforts upon maintaining the high pass level I have come to expect from my O.W.L. students.

“Today we will be mixing a potion that often comes up at Ordinary Wizarding Level: the Draught of Peace, a potion to calm anxiety and soothe agitation. Be warned: if you are too heavy-handed with the ingredients you will put the drinker into a heavy and sometimes irreversible sleep, so you will need to pay close attention to what you are doing.” On Harry’s left, Hermione sat up a little straighter, her expression one of utmost attention. “The ingredients and method—” Snape flicked his wand “—are on the blackboard—” (they appeared there) “—you will find everything you need—” he flicked his wand again “—in the store cupboard—” (the door of the said cupboard sprang open) “—you have an hour and a half… start.”

Just as Harry, Ron and Hermione had predicted, Snape could hardly have set them a more difficult, fiddly potion. The ingredients had to be added to the cauldron in precisely the right order and quantities; the mixture had to be stirred exactly the right number of times, firstly in clockwise, then in anti-clockwise directions; the heat of the flames on which it was simmering had to be lowered to exactly the right level for a specific number of minutes before the final ingredient was added.

“A light silver vapour should now be rising from your potion,” called Snape, with ten minutes left to go.

Harry, who was sweating profusely, looked desperately around the dungeon. His own cauldron was issuing copious amounts of dark grey steam; Ron’s was spitting green sparks. Seamus was feverishly prodding the flames at the base of his cauldron with the tip of his wand, as they seemed to be going out. The surface of Hermione’s potion, however, was a shimmering mist of silver vapour, and as Snape swept by he looked down his hooked nose at it without comment, which meant he could find nothing to criticise.

At Harry’s cauldron, however, Snape stopped, and looked down at it with a horrible smirk on his face.

“Potter, what is this supposed to be?”

The Slytherins at the front of the class all looked up eagerly; they loved hearing Snape taunt Harry.

“The Draught of Peace,” said Harry tensely.

“Tell me, Potter,” said Snape softly, “can you read?”

Draco Malfoy laughed.

“Yes, I can,” said Harry, his fingers clenched tightly around his wand.

“Read the third line of the instructions for me, Potter.”

Harry squinted at the blackboard; it was not easy to make out the instructions through the haze of multi-coloured steam now filling the dungeon.

“‘Add powdered moonstone, stir three times counter-clockwise, allow to simmer for seven minutes then add two drops of syrup of hellebore.’”

His heart sank. He had not added syrup of hellebore, but had proceeded straight to the fourth line of the instructions after allowing his potion to simmer for seven minutes.

“Did you do everything on the third line, Potter?”

“No,” said Harry very quietly.

“I beg your pardon?”

“No,” said Harry, more loudly. “I forgot the hellebore.”

“I know you did, Potter, which means that this mess is utterly worthless. Evanesce.”

The contents of Harry’s potion vanished; he was left standing foolishly beside an empty cauldron.

“Those of you who have managed to read the instructions, fill one flagon with a sample of your potion, label it clearly with your name and bring it up to my desk for testing,” said Snape. “Homework: twelve inches of parchment on the properties of moonstone and its uses in potion-making, to be handed in on Thursday.”

While everyone around him filled their flagons, Harry cleared away his things, seething. His potion had been no worse than Ron’s, which was now giving off a foul odour of bad eggs; or Neville’s, which had achieved the consistency of just-mixed cement and which Neville was now having to gouge out of his cauldron; yet it was he, Harry, who would be receiving zero marks for the day’s work. He stuffed his wand back into his bag and slumped down on to his seat, watching everyone else march up to Snape’s desk with filled and corked flagons. When at long last the bell rang, Harry was first out of the dungeon and had already started his lunch by the time Ron and Hermione joined him in the Great Hall. The ceiling had turned an even murkier grey during the morning. Rain was lashing the high windows.

“That was really unfair,” said Hermione consolingly, sitting down next to Harry and helping herself to shepherd’s pie. “Your potion wasn’t nearly as bad as Goyle’s; when he put it in his flagon the whole thing shattered and set his robes on fire.”

“Yeah, well,” said Harry, glowering at his plate, “since when has Snape ever been fair to me?”

Neither of the others answered; all three of them knew that Snape and Harry’s mutual enmity had been absolute from the moment Harry had set foot in Hogwarts.

“I did think he might be a bit better this year,” said Hermione in a disappointed voice. “I mean… you know…” she looked around carefully; there were half a dozen empty seats on either side of them and nobody was passing the table “…now he’s in the Order and everything.”

“Poisonous toadstools don’t change their spots,” said Ron sagely. “Anyway I’ve always thought Dumbledore was cracked to trust Snape. Where’s the evidence he ever really stopped working for You-Know-Who?”

“I think Dumbledore’s probably got plenty of evidence, even if he doesn’t share it with you, Ron,” snapped Hermione.

“Oh, shut up, the pair of you,” said Harry heavily, as Ron opened his mouth to argue back. Hermione and Ron both froze, looking angry and offended. “Can’t you give it a rest?” said Harry. “You’re always having a go at each other, it’s driving me mad.” And abandoning his shepherd’s pie, he swung his schoolbag back over his shoulder and left them sitting there.

He walked up the marble staircase two steps at a time, past the many students hurrying towards lunch. The anger that had just flared so unexpectedly still blazed inside him, and the vision of Ron and Hermione’s shocked faces afforded him a sense of deep satisfaction. Serve them right, he thought, why can’t they give it a rest… bickering all the time… it’s enough to drive anyone up the wall…

He passed the large picture of Sir Cadogan the knight on a landing; Sir Cadogan drew his sword and brandished it fiercely at Harry, who ignored him.

“Come back, you scurvy dog! Stand fast and fight!” yelled Sir Cadogan in a muffled voice from behind his visor, but Harry merely walked on and when Sir Cadogan attempted to follow him by running into a neighbouring picture, he was rebuffed by its inhabitant, a large and angry-looking wolfhound.

Harry spent the rest of the lunch hour sitting alone underneath the trapdoor at the top of North Tower. Consequently, he was the first to ascend the silver ladder that led to Sybill Trelawney’s classroom when the bell rang.

After Potions, Divination was Harry’s least favourite class, which was due mainly to Professor Trelawney’s habit of predicting his premature death every few lessons. A thin woman, heavily draped in shawls and glittering with strings of beads, she always reminded Harry of some kind of insect, with her glasses hugely magnifying her eyes. She was busy putting copies of battered leather-bound books on each of the spindly little tables with which her room was littered when Harry entered the room, but the light cast by the lamps covered by scarves and the low-burning, sickly-scented fire was so dim she appeared not to notice him as he took a seat in the shadows. The rest of the class arrived over the next five minutes. Ron emerged from the trapdoor, looked around carefully, spotted Harry and made directly for him, or as directly as he could while having to wend his way between tables, chairs and overstuffed pouffes.

“Hermione and me have stopped arguing,” he said, sitting down beside Harry.

“Good,” grunted Harry.

“But Hermione says she thinks it would be nice if you stopped taking out your temper on us,” said Ron.

“I’m not—”

“I’m just passing on the message,” said Ron, talking over him. “But I reckon she’s right. It’s not our fault how Seamus and Snape treat you.”

“I never said it—”

“Good-day,” said Professor Trelawney in her usual misty, dreamy voice, and Harry broke off, again feeling both annoyed and slightly ashamed of himself. “And welcome back to Divination. I have, of course, been following your fortunes most carefully over the holidays, and am delighted to see that you have all returned to Hogwarts safely—as, of course, I knew you would.

“You will find on the tables before you copies of The Dream Oracle, by Inigo Imago. Dream interpretation is a most important means of divining the future and one that may very probably be tested in your O.W.L. Not, of course, that I believe examination passes or failures are of the remotest importance when it comes to the sacred art of divination. If you have the Seeing Eye, certificates and grades matter very little. However, the Headmaster likes you to sit the examination, so…”

Her voice trailed away delicately, leaving them all in no doubt that Professor Trelawney considered her subject above such sordid matters as examinations.

“Turn, please, to the introduction and read what Imago has to say on the matter of dream interpretation. Then, divide into pairs. Use The Dream Oracle to interpret each others most recent dreams. Carry on.”

The one good thing to be said for this lesson was that it was not a double period. By the time they had all finished reading the introduction of the book, they had barely ten minutes left for dream interpretation. At the table next to Harry and Ron, Dean had paired up with Neville, who immediately embarked on a long-winded explanation of a nightmare involving a pair of giant scissors wearing his grandmother’s best hat; Harry and Ron merely looked at each other glumly.

“I never remember my dreams,” said Ron, “you say one.”

“You must remember one of them,” said Harry impatiently.

He was not going to share his dreams with anyone. He knew perfectly well what his regular nightmare about a graveyard meant, he did not need Ron or Professor Trelawney or the stupid Dream Oracle to tell him.

“Well, I dreamed I was playing Quidditch the other night,” said Ron, screwing up his face in an effort to remember. “What d’you reckon that means?”

“Probably that you’re going to be eaten by a giant marshmallow or something,” said Harry, turning the pages of The Dream Oracle without interest. It was very dull work looking up bits of dreams in the Oracle and Harry was not cheered up when Professor Trelawney set them the task of keeping a dream diary for a month as homework. When the bell went, he and Ron led the way back down the ladder, Ron grumbling loudly.

“D’you realise how much homework we’ve got already? Binns set us a foot-and-a-half-long essay on giant wars, Snape wants a foot on the use of moonstones, and now we’ve got a month’s dream diary from Trelawney! Fred and George weren’t wrong about O.W.L. year, were they? That Umbridge woman had better not give us any…”

When they entered the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom they found Professor Umbridge already seated at the teacher’s desk, wearing the fluffy pink cardigan of the night before and the black velvet bow on top of her head. Harry was again reminded forcibly of a large fly perched unwisely on top of an even larger toad.

The class was quiet as it entered the room; Professor Umbridge was, as yet, an unknown quantity and nobody knew how strict a disciplinarian she was likely to be.

“Well, good afternoon!” she said, when finally the whole class had sat down.

A few people mumbled “good afternoon” in reply.

“Tut, tut,” said Professor Umbridge. “That won’t do, now, will it? I should like you, please, to reply ‘Good afternoon, Professor Umbridge.’ One more time, please. Good afternoon, class!”

“Good afternoon, Professor Umbridge,” they chanted back at her.

“There, now,” said Professor Umbridge sweetly. “That wasn’t too difficult, was it? Wands away and quills out, please.”

Many of the class exchanged gloomy looks; the order “wands away” had never yet been followed by a lesson they had found interesting. Harry shoved his wand back inside his bag and pulled out quill, ink and parchment. Professor Umbridge opened her handbag, extracted her own wand, which was an unusually short one, and tapped the blackboard sharply with it; words appeared on the board at once:

Defence Against the Dark Arts

A Return to Basic Principles

“Well now, your teaching in this subject has been rather disrupted and fragmented, hasn’t it?” stated Professor Umbridge, turning to face the class with her hands clasped neatly in front of her. “The constant changing of teachers, many of whom do not seem to have followed any Ministry-approved curriculum, has unfortunately resulted in your being far below the standard we would expect to see in your O.W.L. year.

“You will be pleased to know, however, that these problems are now to be rectified. We will be following a carefully structured, theory-centred, Ministry-approved course of defensive magic this year. Copy down the following, please.”

She rapped the blackboard again; the first message vanished and was replaced by the “Course Aims.”

- Understanding the principles underlying defensive magic.

- Learning to recognise situations in which defensive magic can legally be used.

- Placing the use of defensive magic in a context for practical use.

For a couple of minutes the room was full of the sound of scratching quills on parchment. When everyone had copied down Professor Umbridge’s three course aims she asked, “Has everybody got a copy of Defensive Magical Theory by Wilbert Slinkhard?”

There was a dull murmur of assent throughout the class.

“I think we’ll try that again,” said Professor Umbridge. “When I ask you a question, I should like you to reply, ‘Yes, Professor Umbridge,’ or ‘No, Professor Umbridge.’ So: has everyone got a copy of Defensive Magical Theory by Wilbert Slinkhard?”

“Yes, Professor Umbridge,” rang through the room.

“Good,” said Professor Umbridge. “I should like you to turn to page five and read ‘Chapter One, Basics for Beginners.’ There will be no need to talk.”

Professor Umbridge left the blackboard and settled herself in the chair behind the teacher’s desk, observing them all closely with those pouchy toad’s eyes. Harry turned to page five of his copy of Defensive Magical Theory and started to read.

It was desperately dull, quite as bad as listening to Professor Binns. He felt his concentration sliding away from him; he had soon read the same line half a dozen times without taking in more than the first few words. Several silent minutes passed. Next to him, Ron was absent-mindedly turning his quill over and over in his fingers, staring at the same spot on the page. Harry looked right and received a surprise to shake him out of his torpor. Hermione had not even opened her copy of Defensive Magical Theory. She was staring fixedly at Professor Umbridge with her hand in the air.

Harry could not remember Hermione ever neglecting to read when instructed to, or indeed resisting the temptation to open any book that came under her nose. He looked at her enquiringly, but she merely shook her head slightly to indicate that she was not about to answer questions, and continued to stare at Professor Umbridge, who was looking just as resolutely in another direction.

After several more minutes had passed, however, Harry was not the only one watching Hermione. The chapter they had been instructed to read was so tedious that more and more people were choosing to watch Hermione’s mute attempt to catch Professor Umbridge’s eye rather than struggle on with ‘Basics for Beginners.’

When more than half the class were staring at Hermione rather than at their books, Professor Umbridge seemed to decide that she could ignore the situation no longer.

“Did you want to ask something about the chapter, dear?” she asked Hermione, as though she had only just noticed her.

“Not about the chapter, no,” said Hermione.

“Well, we’re reading just now,” said Professor Umbridge, showing her small pointed teeth. “If you have other queries we can deal with them at the end of class.”

“I’ve got a query about your course aims,” said Hermione.

Professor Umbridge raised her eyebrows.

“And your name is?”

“Hermione Granger,” said Hermione.

“Well, Miss Granger, I think the course aims are perfectly clear if you read them through carefully,” said Professor Umbridge in a voice of determined sweetness.

“Well, I don’t,” said Hermione bluntly. “There’s nothing written up there about using defensive spells.”

There was a short silence in which many members of the class turned their heads to frown at the three course aims still written on the blackboard.

“Using defensive spells?” Professor Umbridge repeated with a little laugh. “Why, I can’t imagine any situation arising in my classroom that would require you to use a defensive spell, Miss Granger. You surely aren’t expecting to be attacked during class?”

“We’re not going to use magic?” Ron exclaimed loudly.

“Students raise their hands when they wish to speak in my class, Mr.—?”

“Weasley,” said Ron, thrusting his hand into the air.

Professor Umbridge, smiling still more widely, turned her back on him. Harry and Hermione immediately raised their hands too. Professor Umbridge’s pouchy eyes lingered on Harry for a moment before she addressed Hermione.

“Yes, Miss Granger? You wanted to ask something else?”

“Yes,” said Hermione. “Surely the whole point of Defence Against the Dark Arts is to practise defensive spells?”

“Are you a Ministry-trained educational expert, Miss Granger?” asked Professor Umbridge, in her falsely sweet voice.

“No, but—”

“Well then, I’m afraid you are not qualified to decide what the ‘whole point’ of any class is. Wizards much older and cleverer than you have devised our new programme of study. You will be learning about defensive spells in a secure, risk-free way—”

“What use is that?” said Harry loudly. “If we’re going to be attacked, it won’t be in a—”

“Hand, Mr. Potter!” sang Professor Umbridge.

Harry thrust his fist in the air. Again, Professor Umbridge promptly turned away from him, but now several other people had their hands up, too.

“And your name is?” Professor Umbridge said to Dean.

“Dean Thomas.”

“Well, Mr. Thomas?”

“Well, it’s like Harry said, isn’t it?” said Dean. “If we’re going to be attacked, it won’t be risk free.”

“I repeat,” said Professor Umbridge, smiling in a very irritating fashion at Dean, “do you expect to be attacked during my classes?”

“No, but—”

Professor Umbridge talked over him. “I do not wish to criticise the way things have been run in this school,” she said, an unconvincing smile stretching her wide mouth, “but you have been exposed to some very irresponsible wizards in this class, very irresponsible indeed—not to mention,” she gave a nasty little laugh, “extremely dangerous half-breeds.”

“If you mean Professor Lupin,” piped up Dean angrily, “he was the best we ever—”

“Hand, Mr. Thomas! As I was saying—you have been introduced to spells that have been complex, inappropriate to your age group and potentially lethal. You have been frightened into believing that you are likely to meet Dark attacks every other day—”

“No we haven’t,” Hermione said, “we just—”

“Your hand is not up, Miss Granger!”

Hermione put up her hand. Professor Umbridge turned away from her.

“It is my understanding that my predecessor not only performed illegal curses in front of you, he actually performed them on you.”

“Well, he turned out to be a maniac, didn’t he?” said Dean hotly. “Mind you, we still learned loads.”

“Your hand is not up, Mr. Thomas!” trilled Professor Umbridge. “Now, it is the view of the Ministry that a theoretical knowledge will be more than sufficient to get you through your examination, which, after all, is what school is all about. And your name is?” she added, staring at Parvati, whose hand had just shot up.

“Parvati Patil, and isn’t there a practical bit in our Defence Against the Dark Arts O.W.L.? Aren’t we supposed to show that we can actually do the counter-curses and things?”

“As long as you have studied the theory hard enough, there is no reason why you should not be able to perform the spells under carefully controlled examination conditions,” said Professor Umbridge dismissively.

“Without ever practising them beforehand?” said Parvati incredulously. “Are you telling us that the first time we’ll get to do the spells will be during our exam?”

“I repeat, as long as you have studied the theory hard enough—”

“And what good’s theory going to be in the real world?” said Harry loudly, his fist in the air again.

Professor Umbridge looked up.

“This is school, Mr. Potter, not the real world,” she said softly.

“So we’re not supposed to be prepared for what’s waiting for us out there?”

“There is nothing waiting out there, Mr. Potter.”

“Oh, yeah?” said Harry. His temper, which seemed to have been bubbling just beneath the surface all day, was reaching boiling point.

“Who do you imagine wants to attack children like yourselves?” enquired Professor Umbridge in a horribly honeyed voice.

“Hmm, let’s think…” said Harry in a mock thoughtful voice. “Maybe… Lord Voldemort?”

Ron gasped; Lavender Brown uttered a little scream; Neville slipped sideways off his stool. Professor Umbridge, however, did not flinch. She was staring at Harry with a grimly satisfied expression on her face.

“Ten points from Gryffindor, Mr. Potter.”

The classroom was silent and still. Everyone was staring at either Umbridge or Harry.

“Now, let me make a few things quite plain.”

Professor Umbridge stood up and leaned towards them, her stubby-fingered hands splayed on her desk.

“You have been told that a certain Dark wizard has returned from the dead—”

“He wasn’t dead,” said Harry angrily, “but yeah, he’s returned!”

“Mr—Potter—you—have—already—lost—your—house—ten—points—do—not—make—matters—worse—for—yourself,” said Professor Umbridge in one breath without looking at him. “As I was saying, you have been informed that a certain Dark wizard is at large once again. This is a lie.”

“It is NOT a lie!” said Harry. “I saw him, I fought him!”

“Detention, Mr. Potter!” said Professor Umbridge triumphantly. “Tomorrow evening. Five o’clock. My office. I repeat, this is a lie. The Ministry of Magic guarantees that you are not in danger from any Dark wizard. If you are still worried, by all means come and see me outside class hours. If someone is alarming you with fibs about reborn Dark wizards, I would like to hear about it. I am here to help. I am your friend. And now, you will kindly continue your reading. Page five, ‘Basics for Beginners.’”

Professor Umbridge sat down behind her desk. Harry, however, stood up. Everyone was staring at him; Seamus looked half-scared, half-fascinated.

“Harry, no!” Hermione whispered in a warning voice, tugging at his sleeve, but Harry jerked his arm out of her reach.

“So, according to you, Cedric Diggory dropped dead of his own accord, did he?” Harry asked, his voice shaking.

There was a collective intake of breath from the class, for none of them, apart from Ron and Hermione, had ever heard Harry talk about what had happened on the night Cedric had died. They stared avidly from Harry to Professor Umbridge, who had raised her eyes and was staring at him without a trace of a fake smile on her face.

“Cedric Diggory’s death was a tragic accident,” she said coldly.

“It was murder,” said Harry. He could feel himself shaking. He had hardly spoken to anyone about this, least of all thirty eagerly listening classmates. “Voldemort killed him and you know it.”

Professor Umbridge’s face was quite blank. For a moment, Harry thought she was going to scream at him. Then she said, in her softest, most sweetly girlish voice, “Come here, Mr. Potter, dear.”

He kicked his chair aside, strode around Ron and Hermione and up to the teacher’s desk. He could feel the rest of the class holding its breath. He felt so angry he did not care what happened next.

Professor Umbridge pulled a small roll of pink parchment out of her handbag, stretched it out on the desk, dipped her quill into a bottle of ink and started scribbling, hunched over so that Harry could not see what she was writing. Nobody spoke. After a minute or so she rolled up the parchment and tapped it with her wand; it sealed itself seamlessly so that he could not open it.

“Take this to Professor McGonagall, dear,” said Professor Umbridge, holding out the note to him.

He took it from her without saying a word, turned on his heel and left the room, not even looking back at Ron and Hermione, slamming the classroom door shut behind him. He walked very fast along the corridor, the note to McGonagall clutched tight in his hand, and turning a corner walked slap into Peeves the poltergeist, a wide-mouthed little man floating on his back in midair, juggling several inkwells.

“Why it’s Potty Wee Potter!” cackled Peeves, allowing two of the inkwells to fall to the ground where they smashed and spattered the walls with ink; Harry jumped backwards out of the way with a snarl.

“Get out of it, Peeves.”

“Oooh, Crackpot’s feeling cranky,” said Peeves, pursuing Harry along the corridor, leering as he zoomed along above him. “What is it this time, my fine Potty friend? Hearing voices? Seeing visions? Speaking in—” Peeves blew a gigantic raspberry “—tongues?”

“I said, leave me ALONE!” Harry shouted, running down the nearest flight of stairs, but Peeves merely slid down the banister on his back beside him.

“Oh, most think he’s barking, the potty wee lad,

But some are more kindly and think he’s just sad,

But Peevesy knows better and says that he’s mad—”

“SHUT UP!”

A door to his left flew open and Professor McGonagall emerged from her office looking grim and slightly harassed.

“What on earth are you shouting about, Potter?” she snapped, as Peeves cackled gleefully and zoomed out of sight. “Why aren’t you in class?”

“I’ve been sent to see you,” said Harry stiffly.

“Sent? What do you mean, sent?”

He held out the note from Professor Umbridge. Professor McGonagall took it from him, frowning, slit it open with a tap of her wand, stretched it out and began to read. Her eyes zoomed from side to side behind their square spectacles as she read what Umbridge had written, and with each line they became narrower.

“Come in here, Potter.”

He followed her inside her study. The door closed automatically behind him.

“Well?” said Professor McGonagall, rounding on him. “Is this true?”

“Is what true?” Harry asked, rather more aggressively than he had intended. “Professor?” he added, in an attempt to sound more polite.

“Is it true that you shouted at Professor Umbridge?”

“Yes,” said Harry.

“You called her a liar?”

“Yes.”

“You told her He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is back?”

“Yes.”

Professor McGonagall sat down behind her desk, watching Harry closely. Then she said, “Have a biscuit, Potter.”

“Have—what?”

“Have a biscuit,” she repeated impatiently, indicating a tartan tin lying on top of one of the piles of papers on her desk. “And sit down.”

There had been a previous occasion when Harry, expecting to be caned by Professor McGonagall, had instead been appointed by her to the Gryffindor Quidditch team. He sank into a chair opposite her and helped himself to a Ginger Newt, feeling just as confused and wrong-footed as he had done on that occasion.

Professor McGonagall set down Professor Umbridge’s note and looked very seriously at Harry.

“Potter, you need to be careful.”

Harry swallowed his mouthful of Ginger Newt and stared at her. Her tone of voice was not at all what he was used to; it was not brisk, crisp and stern; it was low and anxious and somehow much more human than usual.

“Misbehaviour in Dolores Umbridge’s class could cost you much more than house points and a detention.”

“What do you—?”

“Potter, use your common sense,” snapped Professor McGonagall, with an abrupt return to her usual manner. “You know where she comes from, you must know to whom she is reporting.”

The bell rang for the end of the lesson. Overhead and all around came the elephantine sounds of hundreds of students on the move.

“It says here she’s given you detention every evening this week, starting tomorrow,” Professor McGonagall said, looking down at Umbridge’s note again.

“Every evening this week!” Harry repeated, horrified. “But, Professor, couldn’t you—?”

“No, I couldn’t,” said Professor McGonagall flatly.

“But—”

“She is your teacher and has every right to give you detention. You will go to her room at five o’clock tomorrow for the first one. Just remember: tread carefully around Dolores Umbridge.”

“But I was telling the truth!” said Harry, outraged. “Voldemort is back, you know he is; Professor Dumbledore knows he is—”

“For heaven’s sake, Potter!” said Professor McGonagall, straightening her glasses angrily (she had winced horribly when he had used Voldemort’s name). “Do you really think this is about truth or lies? It’s about keeping your head down and your temper under control!”

She stood up, nostrils wide and mouth very thin, and Harry stood up, too.

“Have another biscuit,” she said irritably, thrusting the tin at him.

“No, thanks,” said Harry coldly.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snapped.

He took one.

“Thanks,” he said grudgingly.

“Didn’t you listen to Dolores Umbridge’s speech at the start-of-term feast, Potter?”

“Yeah,” said Harry. “Yeah… she said… progress will be prohibited or… well, it meant that… that the Ministry of Magic is trying to interfere at Hogwarts.”

Professor McGonagall eyed him closely for a moment, then sniffed, walked around her desk and held open the door for him.

“Well, I’m glad you listen to Hermione Granger at any rate,” she said, pointing him out of her office.

13. DETENTION WITH DOLORES

Dinner in the Great Hall that night was not a pleasant experience for Harry. The news about his shouting match with Umbridge had travelled exceptionally fast even by Hogwarts’ standards. He heard whispers all around him as he sat eating between Ron and Hermione. The funny thing was that none of the whisperers seemed to mind him overhearing what they were saying about him. On the contrary, it was as though they were hoping he would get angry and start shouting again, so that they could hear his story first-hand.

“He says he saw Cedric Diggory murdered…”

“He reckons he duelled with You-Know-Who…”

“Come off it…”

“Who does he think he’s kidding?”

“Pur-lease…”

“What I don’t get,” said Harry through clenched teeth, laying down his knife and fork (his hands were shaking too much to hold them steady), “is why they all believed the story two months ago when Dumbledore told them…”

“The thing is, Harry, I’m not sure they did,” said Hermione grimly. “Oh, let’s get out of here.”

She slammed down her own knife and fork; Ron looked longingly at his half-finished apple pie but followed suit. People stared at them all the way out of the Hall.

“What d’you mean, you’re not sure they believed Dumbledore?” Harry asked Hermione when they reached the first-floor landing.

“Look, you don’t understand what it was like after it happened,” said Hermione quietly. “You arrived back in the middle of the lawn clutching Cedric’s dead body… none of us saw what happened in the maze… we just had Dumbledore’s word for it that You-Know-Who had come back and killed Cedric and fought you.”

“Which is the truth!” said Harry loudly.

“I know it is, Harry, so will you please stop biting my head off?” said Hermione wearily. “It’s just that before the truth could sink in, everyone went home for the summer, where they spent two months reading about how you’re a nutcase and Dumbledore’s going senile!”

Rain pounded on the windowpanes as they strode along the empty corridors back to Gryffindor Tower. Harry felt as though his first day had lasted a week, but he still had a mountain of homework to do before bed. A dull pounding pain was developing over his right eye. He glanced out of a rain-washed window at the dark grounds as they turned into the Fat Lady’s corridor. There was still no light in Hagrid’s cabin.

“Mimbulus mimbletonia,” said Hermione, before the Fat Lady could ask. The portrait swung open to reveal the hole behind it and the three of them scrambled through it.

The common room was almost empty; nearly everyone was still down at dinner. Crookshanks uncoiled himself from an armchair and trotted to meet them, purring loudly, and when Harry, Ron and Hermione took their three favourite chairs at the fireside he leapt lightly on to Hermione’s lap and curled up there like a furry ginger cushion. Harry gazed into the flames, feeling drained and exhausted.

“How can Dumbledore have let this happen?” Hermione cried suddenly, making Harry and Ron jump; Crookshanks leapt off her, looking affronted. She pounded the arms of her chair in fury, so that bits of stuffing leaked out of the holes. “How can he let that terrible woman teach us? And in our O.W.L. year, too!”

“Well, we’ve never had great Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers, have we?” said Harry. “You know what it’s like, Hagrid told us, nobody wants the job; they say it’s jinxed.”

“Yes, but to employ someone who’s actually refusing to let us do magic! What’s Dumbledore playing at?”

“And she’s trying to get people to spy for her,” said Ron darkly.

“Remember when she said she wanted us to come and tell her if we hear anyone saying You-Know-Who’s back?”

“Of course she’s here to spy on us all, that’s obvious, why else would Fudge have wanted her to come?” snapped Hermione.

“Don’t start arguing again,” said Harry wearily, as Ron opened his mouth to retaliate. “Can’t we just… let’s just do that homework, get it out of the way…”

They collected their schoolbags from a corner and returned to the chairs by the fire. People were coming back from dinner now. Harry kept his face averted from the portrait hole, but could still sense the stares he was attracting.

“Shall we do Snape’s stuff first?” said Ron, dipping his quill into his ink. “‘The properties… of moonstone… and it’s uses… in potion-making…’” he muttered, writing the words across the top of his parchment as he spoke them. There.” He underlined the title, then looked up expectantly at Hermione.

“So, what are the properties of moonstone and its uses in potion-making?”

But Hermione was not listening; she was squinting over into the far corner of the room, where Fred, George and Lee Jordan were now sitting at the centre of a knot of innocent-looking first-years, all of whom were chewing something that seemed to have come out of a large paper bag that Fred was holding.

“No, I’m sorry, they’ve gone too far,” she said, standing up and looking positively furious. “Come on, Ron.”

“I—what?” said Ron, plainly playing for time. “No—come on, Hermione—we can’t tell them off for giving out sweets.”

“You know perfectly well that those are bits of Nosebleed Nougat or—or Puking Pastilles or—”

“Fainting Fancies?” Harry suggested quietly.

One by one, as though hit over the head with an invisible mallet, the first-years were slumping unconscious in their seats; some slid right on to the floor, others merely hung over the arms of their chairs, their tongues lolling out. Most of the people watching were laughing; Hermione, however, squared her shoulders and marched directly over to where Fred and George now stood with clipboards, closely observing the unconscious first-years. Ron rose halfway out of his chair, hovered uncertainly for a moment or two, then muttered to Harry, “She’s got it under control,” before sinking as low in his chair as his lanky frame permitted.

“That’s enough!” Hermione said forcefully to Fred and George, both of whom looked up in mild surprise.

“Yeah, you’re right,” said George, nodding, “this dosage looks strong enough, doesn’t it?”

“I told you this morning, you can’t test your rubbish on students!”

“We’re paying them!” said Fred indignantly.

“I don’t care, it could be dangerous!”

“Rubbish,” said Fred.

“Calm down, Hermione, they’re fine!” said Lee reassuringly as he walked from first-year to first-year, inserting purple sweets into their open mouths.

“Yeah, look, they’re coming round now,” said George.

A few of the first-years were indeed stirring. Several looked so shocked to find themselves lying on the floor, or dangling off their chairs, that Harry was sure Fred and George had not warned them what the sweets were going to do.

“Feel all right?” said George kindly to a small dark-haired girl lying at his feet.

“I—I think so,” she said shakily.

“Excellent,” said Fred happily, but the next second Hermione had snatched both his clipboard and the paper bag of Fainting Fancies from his hands.

“It is NOT excellent!”

“Course it is, they’re alive, aren’t they?” said Fred angrily.

“You can’t do this, what if you made one of them really ill?”

“We’re not going to make them ill, we’ve already tested them all on ourselves, this is just to see if everyone reacts the same—”

“If you don’t stop doing it, I’m going to—”

“Put us in detention?” said Fred, in an I’d-like-to-see-you-try-it voice.

“Make us write lines?” said George, smirking.

Onlookers all over the room were laughing. Hermione drew herself up to her full height; her eyes were narrowed and her bushy hair seemed to crackle with electricity.

“No,” she said, her voice quivering with anger, “but I will write to your mother.”

“You wouldn’t,” said George, horrified, taking a step back from her.

“Oh, yes, I would,” said Hermione grimly. “I can’t stop you eating the stupid things yourselves, but you’re not to give them to the first-years.”

Fred and George looked thunderstruck. It was clear that as far as they were concerned, Hermione’s threat was way below the belt. With a last threatening look at them, she thrust Fred’s clipboard and the bag of Fancies back into his arms, and stalked back to her chair by the fire.

Ron was now so low in his seat that his nose was roughly level with his knees.

“Thank you for your support, Ron,” Hermione said acidly.

“You handled it fine by yourself,” Ron mumbled.

Hermione stared down at her blank piece of parchment for a few seconds, then said edgily, “Oh, it’s no good, I can’t concentrate now. I’m going to bed.”

She wrenched her bag open; Harry thought she was about to put her books away, but instead she pulled out two misshapen woolly objects, placed them carefully on a table by the fireplace, covered them with a few screwed-up bits of parchment and a broken quill and stood back to admire the effect.

“What in the name of Merlin are you doing?” said Ron, watching her as though fearful for her sanity.

“They’re hats for house-elves,” she said briskly, now stuffing her books back into her bag. “I did them over the summer. I’m a really slow knitter without magic but now I’m back at school I should be able to make lots more.”

“You’re leaving out hats for the house-elves?” said Ron slowly. “And you’re covering them up with rubbish first?”

“Yes,” said Hermione defiantly, swinging her bag on to her back.

“That’s not on,” said Ron angrily. “You’re trying to trick them into picking up the hats. You’re setting them free when they might not want to be free.”

“Of course they want to be free!” said Hermione at once, though I her face was turning pink. “Don’t you dare touch those hats, Ron!”

She turned on her heel and left. Ron waited until she had disappeared through the door to the girls’ dormitories, then cleared the rubbish off the woolly hats.

“They should at least see what they’re picking up,” he said firmly. “Anyway…” he rolled up the parchment on which he had written the title of Snape’s essay, “there’s no point trying to finish this now, I can’t do it without Hermione, I haven’t got a clue what you’re supposed to do with moonstones, have you?”

Harry shook his head, noticing as he did so that the ache in his right temple was getting worse. He thought of the long essay on giant wars and the pain stabbed at him sharply. Knowing perfectly well that when the morning came, he would regret not finishing his homework that night, he piled his books back into his bag.

“I’m going to bed too.”

He passed Seamus on the way to the door leading to the dormitories, but did not look at him. Harry had a fleeting impression that Seamus had opened his mouth to speak, but he sped up and reached the soothing peace of the stone spiral staircase without having to endure any more provocation.

* * *

The following day dawned just as leaden and rainy as the previous one. Hagrid was still absent from the staff table at breakfast.

“But on the plus side, no Snape today,” said Ron bracingly.

Hermione yawned widely and poured herself some coffee. She looked mildly pleased about something, and when Ron asked her what she had to be so happy about, she simply said, “The hats have gone. Seems the house-elves do want freedom after all.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Ron told her cuttingly. “They might not count as clothes. They didn’t look anything like hats to me, more like woolly bladders.”

Hermione did not speak to him all morning.

Double Charms was succeeded by double Transfiguration. Professor Flitwick and Professor McGonagall both spent the first fifteen minutes of their lessons lecturing the class on the importance of O.W.L.s.

“What you must remember,” said little Professor Flitwick squeakily perched as ever on a pile of books so that he could see over the top of his desk, “is that these examinations may influence your futures for many years to come! If you have not already given serious thought to your careers, now is the time to do so. And in the meantime, I’m afraid, we shall be working harder than ever to ensure that you all do yourselves justice!”

They then spent over an hour revising Summoning Charms, which according to Professor Flitwick were bound to come up in their O.W.L., and he rounded off the lesson by setting them their largest ever amount of Charms homework.

It was the same, if not worse, in Transfiguration.

“You cannot pass an O.W.L.,” said Professor McGonagall grimly, “without serious application, practice and study. I see no reason why everybody in this class should not achieve an O.W.L. in Transfiguration as long as they put in the work.” Neville made a sad little disbelieving noise. “Yes, you too, Longbottom,” said Professor McGonagall. “There’s nothing wrong with your work except lack of confidence. So… today we are starting Vanishing Spells. These are easier than Conjuring Spells, which you would not usually attempt until N.E.W.T. level, but they are still among the most difficult magic you will be tested on in your O.W.L.”

She was quite right; Harry found the Vanishing Spells horribly difficult. By the end of a double period neither he nor Ron had managed to vanish the snails on which they were practising, though Ron said hopefully he thought his looked a bit paler. Hermione, on the other hand, successfully vanished her snail on the third attempt, earning her a ten-point bonus for Gryffindor from Professor McGonagall. She was the only person not given homework; everybody else was told to practise the spell overnight, ready for a fresh attempt on their snails the following afternoon.

Now panicking slightly about the amount of homework they had to do, Harry and Ron spent their lunch hour in the library looking up the uses of moonstones in potion-making. Still angry about Ron’s slur on her woolly hats, Hermione did not join them. By the time they reached Care of Magical Creatures in the afternoon, Harry’s head was aching again.

The day had become cool and breezy, and as they walked down the sloping lawn towards Hagrid’s cabin on the edge of the Forbidden Forest, they felt the occasional drop of rain on their faces. Professor Grubbly-Plank stood waiting for the class some ten yards from Hagrid’s front door, a long trestle table in front of her laden with twigs. As Harry and Ron reached her, a loud shout of laughter sounded behind them; turning, they saw Draco Malfoy striding towards them, surrounded by his usual gang of Slytherin cronies. He had clearly just said something highly amusing, because Crabbe, Goyle, Pansy Parkinson and the rest continued to snigger heartily as they gathered around the trestle table and, judging by the way they all kept looking over at Harry, he was able to guess the subject of the joke without too much difficulty.

“Everyone here?” barked Professor Grubbly-Plank, once all the Slytherins and Gryffindors had arrived. “Let’s crack on then. Who can tell me what these things are called?”

She indicated the heap of twigs in front of her. Hermione’s hand shot into the air. Behind her back, Malfoy did a buck-toothed imitation of her jumping up and down in eagerness to answer a question. Pansy Parkinson gave a shriek of laughter that turned almost at once into a scream, as the twigs on the table leapt into the air and revealed themselves to be what looked like tiny pixie-ish creatures made of wood, each with knobbly brown arms and legs, two twiglike fingers at the end of each hand and a funny flat, barklike face in which a pair of beetle-brown eyes glittered.

“Oooooh!” said Parvati and Lavender, thoroughly irritating Harry. Anyone would have thought Hagrid had never shown them impressive creatures; admittedly, the Flobberworms had been a bit dull, but the Salamanders and Hippogriffs had been interesting enough, and the Blast-Ended Skrewts perhaps too much so.

“Kindly keep your voices down, girls!” said Professor Grubbly-Plank sharply, scattering a handful of what looked like brown rice among the stick-creatures, who immediately fell upon the food. “So—anyone know the names of these creatures? Miss Granger?”

“Bowtruckles,” said Hermione. “They’re tree-guardians, usually live in wand-trees.”

“Five points for Gryffindor,” said Professor Grubbly-Plank. “Yes, these are Bowtruckles, and as Miss Granger rightly says, they generally live in trees whose wood is of wand quality. Anybody know what they eat?”

“Woodlice,” said Hermione promptly which explained why what Harry had taken to be grains of brown rice were moving. “But fairy eggs if they can get them.”

“Good girl, take another five points. So, whenever you need leaves or wood from a tree in which a Bowtruckle lodges, it is wise to have a gift of woodlice ready to distract or placate it. They may not look dangerous, but if angered they will try to gouge at human eyes with their fingers, which, as you can see, are very sharp and not at all desirable near the eyeballs. So if you’d like to gather closer, take a few woodlice and a Bowtruckle—I have enough here for one between three—you can study them more closely. I want a sketch from each of you with all body-parts labelled by the end of the lesson.”

The class surged forwards around the trestle table. Harry deliberately circled around the back so that he ended up right next to Professor Grubbly-Plank.

“Where’s Hagrid?” he asked her, while everyone else was choosing Bowtruckles.

“Never you mind,” said Professor Grubbly-Plank repressively, which had been her attitude last time Hagrid had failed to turn up for a class, too. Smirking all over his pointed face, Draco Malfoy leaned across Harry and seized the largest Bowtruckle.

“Maybe,” said Malfoy in an undertone, so that only Harry could hear him, “the stupid great oaf’s got himself badly injured.”

“Maybe you will if you don’t shut up,” said Harry out of the side of his mouth.

“Maybe he’s been messing with stuff that’s too big for him, if you get my drift.”

Malfoy walked away, smirking over his shoulder at Harry, who felt suddenly sick. Did Malfoy know something? His father was a Death Eater after all; what if he had information about Hagrid’s fate that had not yet reached the ears of the Order? He hurried back around the table to Ron and Hermione who were squatting on the grass some distance away and attempting to persuade a Bowtruckle to remain still long enough for them to draw it. Harry pulled out parchment and quill, crouched down beside the others and related in a whisper what Malfoy had just said.

“Dumbledore would know if some thing had happened to Hagrid,” said Hermione at once. “It’s just playing into Malfoy’s hands to look worried; it tells him we don’t know exactly what’s going on. We’ve got to ignore him, Harry. Here, hold the Bowtruckle for a moment, just so I can draw its face…”

“Yes,” came Malfoy’s clear drawl from the group nearest them, “Father was talking to the Minister just a couple of days ago, you know, and it sounds as though the Ministry’s really determined to crack down on sub-standard teaching in this place. So even if that overgrown moron does show up again, he’ll probably be sent packing straightaway.”

“OUCH!”

Harry had gripped the Bowtruckle so hard that it had almost snapped, and it had just taken a great retaliatory swipe at his hand with its sharp fingers, leaving two long deep cuts there. Harry dropped it. Crabbe and Goyle, who had already been guffawing at the idea of Hagrid being sacked, laughed still harder as the Bowtruckle set off at full tilt towards the Forest, a little moving stick-man soon swallowed up among the tree roots. When the bell echoed distantly over the grounds, Harry rolled up his blood-stained Bowtruckle picture and marched off to Herbology with his hand wrapped in Hermione’s handkerchief, and Malfoy’s derisive laughter still ringing in his ears.

“If he calls Hagrid a moron one more time…” said Harry through gritted teeth.

“Harry, don’t go picking a row with Malfoy, don’t forget, he’s a prefect now, he could make life difficult for you…”

“Wow, I wonder what it’d be like to have a difficult life?” said Harry sarcastically. Ron laughed, but Hermione frowned. Together, they traipsed across the vegetable patch. The sky still appeared unable to make up its mind whether it wanted to rain or not.

“I just wish Hagrid would hurry up and get back, that’s all,” said Harry in a low voice, as they reached the greenhouses. “And don’t say that Grubbly-Plank woman’s a better teacher!” he added threateningly.

“I wasn’t going to,” said Hermione calmly.

“Because she’ll never be as good as Hagrid,” said Harry firmly, fully aware that he had just experienced an exemplary Care of Magical Creatures lesson and was thoroughly annoyed about it.

The door of the nearest greenhouse opened and some fourth-years spilled out of it, including Ginny.

“Hi,” she said brightly as she passed. A few seconds later, Luna Lovegood emerged, trailing behind the rest of the class, a smudge of earth on her nose, and her hair tied in a knot on the top of her head. When she saw Harry, her prominent eyes seemed to bulge excitedly and she made a beeline straight for him. Many of his classmates turned curiously to watch. Luna took a great breath and then said, without so much as a preliminary hello, “I believe He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is back and I believe you fought him and escaped from him.”

“Er—right,” said Harry awkwardly. Luna was wearing what looked like a pair of orange radishes for earrings, a fact that Parvati and Lavender seemed to have noticed, as they were both giggling and pointing at her earlobes.

“You can laugh,” Luna said, her voice rising, apparently under the impression that Parvati and Lavender were laughing at what she had said rather than what she was wearing, “but people used to believe there were no such things as the Blibbering Humdinger or the Crumple-Horned Snorkack!”

“Well, they were right, weren’t they?” said Hermione impatiently. “There weren’t any such things as the Blibbering Humdinger or the Crumple-Horned Snorkack.”

Luna gave her a withering look and flounced away, radishes swinging madly Parvati and Lavender were not the only ones hooting with laughter now.

“D’you mind not offending the only people who believe me?” Harry asked Hermione as they made their way into class.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Harry, you can do better than her,” said Hermione. “Ginny’s told me all about her; apparently, she’ll only believe in things as long as there’s no proof at all. Well, I wouldn’t expect anything else from someone whose father runs The Quibbler.”

Harry thought of the sinister winged horses he had seen on the night he had arrived and how Luna had said she could see them too. His spirits sank slightly. Had she been lying? But before he could devote much more thought to the matter, Ernie Macmillan had stepped up to him.

“I want you to know, Potter,” he said in a loud, carrying voice, “that it’s not only weirdos who support you. I personally believe you one hundred per cent. My family have always stood firm behind Dumbledore, and so do I.”

“Er—thanks very much, Ernie,” said Harry, taken aback but pleased. Ernie might be pompous on occasions like this, but Harry was in a mood to deeply appreciate a vote of confidence from somebody who did not have radishes dangling from their ears. Ernie’s words had certainly wiped the smile from Lavender Brown’s face and as he turned to talk to Ron and Hermione, Harry caught Seamus’s expression, which looked both confused and defiant.

To nobody’s surprise, Professor Sprout started their lesson by lecturing them about the importance of O.W.L.s. Harry wished all the teachers would stop doing this; he was starting to get an anxious, twisted feeling in his stomach every time he remembered how much homework he had to do, a feeling that worsened dramatically when Professor Sprout gave them yet another essay at the. end of class. Tired and smelling strongly of dragon dung, Professor Sprout’s preferred type of fertiliser, the Gryffindors trooped back up to the castle an hour and a half later, none of them talking very much; it had been another long day.

As Harry was starving, and he had his first detention with Umbridge at five o’clock, he headed straight for dinner without dropping off his bag in Gryffindor Tower so that he could bolt something down before facing whatever she had in store for him. He had barely reached the entrance of the Great Hall, however, when a loud and angry voice yelled, “Oi, Potter!”

“What now?” he muttered wearily, turning to face Angelina Johnson, who looked as though she was in a towering temper.

“I’ll tell you what now,” she said, marching straight up to him and poking him hard in the chest with her finger. “How come you’ve landed yourself in detention for five o’clock on Friday?”

“What?” said Harry. “Why… oh yeah, Keeper tryouts!”

“Now he remembers!” snarled Angelina. “Didn’t I tell you I wanted to do a tryout with the whole team, and find someone who fitted in with everyone! Didn’t I tell you I’d booked the Quidditch pitch specially? And now you’ve decided you’re not going to be there!”

“I didn’t decide not to be there!” said Harry, stung by the injustice of these words. “I got detention from that Umbridge woman, just because I told her the truth about You-Know-Who.”

“Well, you can just go straight to her and ask her to let you off on Friday,” said Angelina fiercely, “and I don’t care how you do it. Tell her You-Know-Who’s a figment of your imagination if you like, just make sure you’re there!”

She turned on her heel and stormed away.

“You know what?” Harry said to Ron and Hermione as they entered the Great Hall. “I think we’d better check with Puddlemere United whether Oliver Wood’s been killed during a training session, because Angelina seems to be channelling his spirit.”

“What d’you reckon are the odds of Umbridge letting you off on Friday?” said Ron sceptically, as they sat down at the Gryffindor table.

“Less than zero,” said Harry glumly, tipping lamb chops on to his plate and starting to eat. “Better try, though, hadn’t I? I’ll offer to do two more detentions or something, I dunno…” He swallowed a mouthful of potato and added, “I hope she doesn’t keep me too long this evening. You realise we’ve got to write three essays, practise Vanishing Spells for McGonagall, work out a counter-charm for Flitwick, finish the Bowtruckle drawing and start that stupid dream diary for Trelawney?”

Ron moaned and for some reason glanced up at the ceiling.

“And it looks like it’s going to rain.”

“What’s that got to do with our homework?” said Hermione, her eyebrows raised.

“Nothing,” said Ron at once, his ears reddening.

At five to five Harry bade the other two goodbye and set off for Umbridge’s office on the third floor. When he knocked on the door she called, “Come in,” in a sugary voice. He entered cautiously, looking around.

He had known this office under three of its previous occupants.

In the days when Gilderoy Lockhart had lived here it had been plastered in beaming portraits of himself. When Lupin had occupied it, it was likely you would meet some fascinating Dark creature in a cage or tank if you came to call. In the impostor Moody’s days it had been packed with various instruments and artefacts for the detection of wrongdoing and concealment.

Now, however, it looked totally unrecognisable. The surfaces had all been draped in lacy covers and cloths. There were several vases full of dried flowers, each one residing on its own doily, and on one of the walls was a collection of ornamental plates, each decorated with a large technicolour kitten wearing a different bow around its neck. These were so foul that Harry stared at them, transfixed, until Professor Umbridge spoke again.

“Good evening, Mr. Potter.”

Harry started and looked around. He had not noticed her at first because she was wearing a luridly flowered set of robes that blended only too well with the tablecloth on the desk behind her.

“Evening, Professor Umbridge,” Harry said stiffly.

“Well, sit down,” she said, pointing towards a small table draped in lace beside which she had drawn up a straight-backed chair. A piece of blank parchment lay on the table, apparently waiting for him.

“Er,” said Harry, without moving. “Professor Umbridge. Er—before we start, I—I wanted to ask you a… a favour.”

Her bulging eyes narrowed.

“Oh, yes?”

“Well, I’m… I’m in the Gryffindor Quidditch team. And I was supposed to be at the tryouts for the new Keeper at five o’clock on Friday and I was—was wondering whether I could skip detention that night and do it—do it another night… instead…”

He knew long before he reached the end of his sentence that it was no good.

“Oh, no,” said Umbridge, smiling so widely that she looked as though she had just swallowed a particularly juicy fly. “Oh, no, no, no. This is your punishment for spreading evil, nasty, attention-seeking stories, Mr. Potter, and punishments certainly cannot be adjusted to suit the guilty one’s convenience. No, you will come here at five o’clock tomorrow, and the next day, and on Friday too, and you will do your detentions as planned. I think it rather a good thing that you are missing something you really want to do. It ought to reinforce the lesson I am trying to teach you.”

Harry felt the blood surge to his head and heard a thumping noise in his ears. So he told “evil, nasty, attention-seeking stories,” did he?

She was watching him with her head slightly to one side, still smiling widely, as though she knew exactly what he was thinking and was waiting to see whether he would start shouting again. With a massive effort, Harry looked away from her, dropped his schoolbag beside the straight-backed chair and sat down.

“There,” said Umbridge sweetly, “we’re getting better at controlling our temper already, aren’t we? Now, you are going to be doing some lines for me, Mr. Potter. No, not with your quill,” she added, as Harry bent down to open his bag. “You’re going to be using a rather special one of mine. Here you are.”

She handed him a long, thin black quill with an unusually sharp point.

“I want you to write, I must not tell lies,” she told him softly.

“How many times?” Harry asked, with a creditable imitation of politeness.

“Oh, as long as it takes for the message to sink in,” said Umbridge sweetly. “Off you go.”

She moved over to her desk, sat down and bent over a stack of parchment that looked like essays for marking. Harry raised the sharp black quill, then realised what was missing.

“You haven’t given me any ink,” he said.

“Oh, you won’t need ink,” said Professor Umbridge, with the merest suggestion of a laugh in her voice.

Harry placed the point of the quill on the paper and wrote: I must not tell lies.

He let out a gasp of pain. The words had appeared on the parchment in what appeared to be shining red ink. At the same time, the words had appeared on the back of Harry’s right hand, cut into his skin as though traced there by a scalpel—yet even as he stared at the shining cut, the skin healed over again, leaving the place where it had been slightly redder than before but quite smooth.

Harry looked round at Umbridge. She was watching him, her wide, toadlike mouth stretched in a smile.

“Yes?”

“Nothing,” said Harry quietly.

He looked back at the parchment, placed the quill on it once more, wrote I must not tell lies, and felt the searing pain on the back of his hand for a second time; once again, the words had been cut into his skin; once again, they healed over seconds later.

And on it went. Again and again Harry wrote the words on the parchment in what he soon came to realise was not ink, but his own blood. And, again and again, the words were cut into the back of his hand, healed, and reappeared the next time he set quill to parchment.

Darkness fell outside Umbridge’s window. Harry did not ask when he would be allowed to stop. He did not even check his watch. He knew she was watching him for signs of weakness and he was not going to show any, not even if he had to sit there all night, cutting open his own hand with this quill…

“Come here,” she said, after what seemed hours.

He stood up. His hand was stinging painfully. When he looked down at it he saw that the cut had healed, but that the skin there was red raw.

“Hand,” she said.

He extended it. She took it in her own. Harry repressed a shudder as she touched him with her thick, stubby fingers on which she wore a number of ugly old rings.

“Tut, tut, I don’t seem to have made much of an impression yet,” she said, smiling. “Well, we’ll just have to try again tomorrow evening, won’t we? You may go.”

Harry left her office without a word. The school was quite deserted; it was surely past midnight. He walked slowly up the corridor, then, when he had turned the corner and was sure she would not hear him, broke into a run.

* * *

He had not had time to practise Vanishing Spells, had not written a single dream in his dream diary and had not finished the drawing of the Bowtruckle, nor had he written his essays. He skipped breakfast next morning to scribble down a couple of made-up dreams for Divination, their first lesson, and was surprised to find a dishevelled Ron keeping him company.

“How come you didn’t do it last night?” Harry asked, as Ron stared wildly around the common room for inspiration. Ron, who had been fast asleep when Harry got back to the dormitory, muttered something about “doing other stuff,” bent low over his parchment and scrawled a few words.

“That’ll have to do,” he said, slamming the diary shut. “I’ve said I dreamed I was buying a new pair of shoes, she can’t make anything weird out of that, can she?”

They hurried off to North Tower together.

“How was detention with Umbridge, anyway? What did she make you do?”

Harry hesitated for a fraction of a second, then said, “Lines.”

“That’s not too bad, then, eh?” said Ron.

“Nope,” said Harry.

“Hey—I forgot—did she let you off for Friday?”

“No,” said Harry.

Ron groaned sympathetically.

It was another bad day for Harry; he was one of the worst in Transfiguration, not having practised Vanishing Spells at all. He had to give up his lunch hour to complete the picture of the Bowtruckle and, meanwhile, Professors McGonagall, Grubbly-Plank and Sinistra gave them yet more homework, which he had no prospect of finishing that evening because of his second detention with Umbridge. To cap it all, Angelina Johnson tracked him down at dinner again and, on learning that he would not be able to attend Friday’s Keeper tryouts, told him she was not at all impressed by his attitude and that she expected players who wished to remain on the team to put training before their other commitments.

“I’m in detention!” Harry yelled after her as she stalked away. “D’you think I’d rather be stuck in a room with that old toad or playing Quidditch?”

“At least it’s only lines,” said Hermione consolingly, as Harry sank back on to his bench and looked down at his steak and kidney pie, which he no longer fancied very much. “It’s not as if it’s a dreadful punishment, really…”

Harry opened his mouth, closed it again and nodded. He was not really sure why he was not telling Ron and Hermione exactly what was happening in Umbridge’s room: he only knew that he did not want to see their looks of horror; that would make the whole thing seem worse and therefore more difficult to face. He also felt dimly that this was between himself and Umbridge, a private battle of wills, and he was not going to give her the satisfaction of hearing that he had complained about it.

“I can’t believe how much homework we’ve got,” said Ron miserably.

“Well, why didn’t you do any last night?” Hermione asked him. “Where were you, anyway?”

“I was… I fancied a walk,” said Ron shiftily.

Harry had the distinct impression that he was not alone in concealing things at the moment.

* * *

The second detention was just as bad as the previous one. The skin on the back of Harry’s hand became irritated more quickly now and was soon red and inflamed. Harry thought it unlikely that it would keep healing as effectively for long. Soon the cut would remain etched into his hand and Umbridge would, perhaps, be satisfied. He let no gasp of pain escape him, however, and from the moment of entering the room to the moment of his dismissal, again past midnight, he said nothing but “good evening” and “goodnight.”

His homework situation, however, was now desperate, and when he returned to the Gryffindor common room he did not, though exhausted, go to bed, but opened his books and began Snape’s moonstone essay. It was half past two by the time he had finished it. He knew he had done a poor job, but there was no help for it; unless he had something to give in he would be in detention with Snape next. He then dashed off answers to the questions Professor McGonagall had set them, cobbled together something on the proper handling of Bowtruckles for Professor Grubbly-Plank, and staggered up to bed, where he fell fully clothed on top of the covers and fell asleep immediately.

* * *

Thursday passed in a haze of tiredness. Ron seemed very sleepy too, though Harry could not see why he should be. Harry’s third detention passed in the same way as the previous two, except that after two hours the words “I must not tell lies” did not fade from the back of Harry’s hand, but remained scratched there, oozing droplets of blood. The pause in the pointed quill’s scratching made Professor Umbridge look up.

“Ah,” she said softly, moving around her desk to examine his hand herself. “Good. That ought to serve as a reminder to you, oughtn’t it? You may leave for tonight.”

“Do I still have to come back tomorrow?” said Harry picking up his schoolbag with his left hand rather than his smarting right one.

“Oh yes,” said Professor Umbridge, smiling as widely as before. “Yes, I think we can etch the message a little deeper with another evening’s work.”

Harry had never before considered the possibility that there might be another teacher in the world he hated more than Snape, but as he walked back towards Gryffindor Tower he had to admit he had found a strong contender. She’s evil, he thought, as he climbed a staircase to the seventh floor, she’s an evil, twisted, mad old—

“Ron?”

He had reached the top of the stairs, turned right and almost walked into Ron, who was lurking behind a statue of Lachlan the Lanky, clutching his broomstick. He gave a great leap of surprise when he saw Harry and attempted to hide his new Cleansweep Eleven behind his back.

“What are you doing?”

“Er—nothing. What are you doing?”

Harry frowned at him.

“Come on, you can tell me! What are you hiding here for?”

“I’m—I’m hiding from Fred and George, if you must know,” said Ron. “They just went past with a bunch of first-years, I bet they’re testing stuff on them again. I mean, they can’t do it in the common room now, can they, not with Hermione there.”

He was talking in a very fast, feverish way.

“But what have you got your broom for, you haven’t been flying, have you?” Harry asked.

“I—well—well, OK, I’ll tell you, but don’t laugh, all right?” Ron said defensively, turning redder with every second. “I—I thought I’d try out for Gryffindor Keeper now I’ve got a decent broom. There. Go on. Laugh.”

“I’m not laughing,” said Harry. Ron blinked. “It’s a brilliant idea! It’d be really cool if you got on the team! I’ve never seen you play Keeper, are you good?”

“I’m not bad,” said Ron, who looked immensely relieved at Harry’s reaction. “Charlie, Fred and George always made me Keep for them when they were training during the holidays.”

“So you’ve been practising tonight?”

“Every evening since Tuesday… just on my own, though. I’ve been trying to bewitch Quaffles to fly at me, but it hasn’t been easy and I don’t know how much use it’ll be.” Ron looked nervous and anxious. “Fred and George are going to laugh themselves stupid when I turn up for the tryouts. They haven’t stopped taking the mickey out of me since I got made a prefect.”

“I wish I was going to be there,” said Harry bitterly, as they set off together towards the common room.

“Yeah, so do—Harry, what’s that on the back of your hand?”

Harry, who had just scratched his nose with his free right hand, tried to hide it, but had as much success as Ron with his Cleansweep.

“It’s just a cut—it’s nothing—it’s—”

But Ron had grabbed Harry’s forearm and pulled the back of Harry’s hand up level with his eyes. There was a pause, during which he stared at the words carved into the skin, then, looking sick, he released Harry.

“I thought you said she was just giving you lines?”

Harry hesitated, but after all, Ron had been honest with him, so he told Ron the truth about the hours he had been spending in Umbridge’s office.

“The old hag!” Ron said in a revolted whisper as they came to a halt in front of the Fat Lady, who was dozing peacefully with her head against her frame. “She’s sick! Go to McGonagall, say something!”

“No,” said Harry at once. “I’m not giving her the satisfaction of knowing she’s got to me.”

“Got to you? You can’t let her get away with this!”

“I don’t know how much power McGonagall’s got over her,” said Harry.

“Dumbledore, then, tell Dumbledore!”

“No,” said Harry flatly.

“Why not?”

“He’s got enough on his mind,” said Harry, but that was not the true reason. He was not going to go to Dumbledore for help when Dumbledore had not spoken to him once since June.

“Well, I reckon you should—” Ron began, but he was interrupted by the Fat Lady, who had been watching them sleepily and now burst out, “Are you going to give me the password or will I have to stay awake all night waiting for you to finish your conversation?”

* * *

Friday dawned sullen and sodden as the rest of the week. Though Harry automatically glanced towards the staff table when he entered the Great Hall, it was without any real hope of seeing Hagrid, and he turned his mind immediately to his more pressing problems, such as the mountainous pile of homework he had to do and the prospect of yet another detention with Umbridge.

Two things sustained Harry that day. One was the thought that it was almost the weekend; the other was that, dreadful though his final detention with Umbridge was sure to be, he had a distant view of the Quidditch pitch from her window and might, with luck, be able to see something of Ron’s tryout. These were rather feeble rays of light, it was true, but Harry was grateful for anything that might lighten his present darkness; he had never had a worse first week of term at Hogwarts.

At five o’clock that evening he knocked on Professor Umbridge’s office door for what he sincerely hoped would be the final time, and was told to enter. The blank parchment lay ready for him on the lace-covered table, the pointed black quill beside it.

“You know what to do, Mr. Potter,” said Umbridge, smiling sweetly at him.

Harry picked up the quill and glanced through the window. If he just shifted his chair an inch or so to the right… on the pretext of shifting himself closer to the table, he managed it. He now had a distant view of the Gryffindor Quidditch team soaring up and down the pitch, while half a dozen black figures stood at the foot of the three high goalposts, apparently awaiting their turn to Keep. It was impossible to tell which one was Ron at this distance.

I must not tell lies, Harry wrote. The cut in the back of his right hand opened and began to bleed atresh.

I must not tell lies. The cut dug deeper, stinging and smarting.

I must not tell lies. Blood trickled down his wrist.

He chanced another glance out of the window. Whoever was defending the goalposts now was doing a very poor job indeed. Katie Bell scored twice in the few seconds Harry dared to watch. Hoping very much that the Keeper wasn’t Ron, he dropped his eyes back to the parchment shining with blood.

I must not tell lies.

I must not tell lies.

He looked up whenever he thought he could risk it; when he could hear the scratching of Umbridge’s quill or the opening of a desk drawer. The third person to try out was pretty good, the fourth was terrible, the fifth dodged a Bludger exceptionally well but then fumbled an easy save. The sky was darkening, and Harry doubted he would be able to see the sixth and seventh people at all.

I must not tell lies.

I must not tell lies.

The parchment was now dotted with drops of blood from the back of his hand, which was searing with pain. When he next looked up, night had fallen and the Quidditch pitch was no longer visible.

“Let’s see if you’ve got the message yet, shall we?” said Umbridges soft voice half an hour later.

She moved towards him, stretching out her short ringed fingers for his arm. And then, as she took hold of him to examine the words now cut into his skin, pain seared, not across the back of his hand, but across the scar on his forehead. At the same time, he had a most peculiar sensation somewhere around his midriff.

He wrenched his arm out of her grip and leapt to his feet, staring at her. She looked back at him, a smile stretching her wide, slack mouth.

“Yes, it hurts, doesn’t it?” she said softly.

He did not answer. His heart was thumping very hard and fast. Was she talking about his hand or did she know what he had just felt in his forehead?

“Well, I think I’ve made my point, Mr. Potter. You may go.”

He caught up his schoolbag and left the room as quickly as he could.

Stay calm, he told himself, as he sprinted up the stairs. Stay calm, it doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means…

“Mimbulus mimbletonia!” he gasped at the Fat Lady, who swung forwards once more.

A roar of sound greeted him. Ron came running towards him, beaming all over his face and slopping Butterbeer down his front from the goblet he was clutching.

“Harry, I did it, I’m in, I’m Keeper!”

“What? Oh—brilliant!” said Harry, trying to smile naturally, while his heart continued to race and his hand throbbed and bled.

“Have a Butterbeer.” Ron pressed a bottle on him. “I can’t believe it—where’s Hermione gone?”

“She’s there,” said Fred, who was also swigging Butterbeer, and pointed to an armchair by the fire. Hermione was dozing in it, her drink tipping precariously in her hand.

“Well, she said she was pleased when I told her,” said Ron, looking slightly put out.

“Let her sleep,” said George hastily. It was a few moments before Harry noticed that several of the first-years gathered around them bore unmistakeable signs of recent nosebleeds.

“Come here, Ron, and see if Oliver’s old robes fit you,” called Katie Bell, “we can take off his name and put yours on instead…”

As Ron moved away, Angelina came striding up to Harry.

“Sorry I was a bit short with you earlier, Potter,” she said abruptly. “It’s stressful this managing lark, you know, I’m starting to think I was a bit hard on Wood sometimes.” She was watching Ron over the rim of her goblet with a slight frown on her face.

“Look, I know he’s your best mate, but he’s not fabulous,” she said bluntly. “I think with a bit of training he’ll be all right, though. He comes from a family of good Quidditch players. I’m banking on him turning out to have a bit more talent than he showed today, to be honest. Vicky Frobisher and Geoffrey Hooper both flew better this evening, but Hooper’s a real whiner, he’s always moaning about something or other, and Vicky’s involved in all sorts of societies. She admitted herself that if training clashed with her Charms Club she’d put Charms first. Anyway, we’re having a practice session at two o’clock tomorrow, so just make sure you’re there this time. And do me a favour and help Ron as much as you can, OK?”

He nodded, and Angelina strolled back to Alicia Spinnet. Harry moved over to sit next to Hermione, who awoke with a jerk as he put down his bag.

“Oh, Harry, it’s you… good about Ron, isn’t it?” she said blearily. “I’m just so—so—so tired,” she yawned. “I was up until one o’clock making more hats. They’re disappearing like mad!”

And sure enough, now that he looked, Harry saw that there were woolly hats concealed all around the room where unwary elves might accidentally pick them up.

“Great,” said Harry distractedly; if he did not tell somebody soon, he would burst. “Listen, Hermione, I was just up in Umbridge’s office and she touched my arm—”

Hermione listened closely. When Harry had finished, she said slowly “You’re worried You-Know-Who’s controlling her like he controlled Quirrell?”

“Well,” said Harry, dropping his voice, “it’s a possibility, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so,” said Hermione, though she sounded unconvinced. “But I don’t think he can be possessing her the way he possessed Quirrell, I mean, he’s properly alive again now, isn’t he, he’s got his own body, he wouldn’t need to share someone else’s. He could have her under the Imperius Curse, I suppose…”

Harry watched Fred, George and Lee Jordan juggling empty Butterbeer bottles for a moment. Then Hermione said, “But last year your scar hurt when nobody was touching you, and didn’t Dumbledore say it had to do with what You-Know-Who was feeling at the time? I mean, maybe this hasn’t got anything to do with Umbridge at all, maybe it’s just coincidence it happened while you were with her?”

“She’s evil,” said Harry flatly. “Twisted.”

“She’s horrible, yes, but… Harry, I think you ought to tell Dumbledore your scar hurt.”

It was the second time in two days he had been advised to go to Dumbledore and his answer to Hermione was just the same as his answer to Ron.

“I’m not bothering him with this. Like you just said, its not a big deal. It’s been hurting on and off all summer—it was just a bit worse tonight, that’s all—”

“Harry, I’m sure Dumbledore would want to be bothered by this—”

“Yeah,” said Harry, before he could stop himself, “that’s the only bit of me Dumbledore cares about, isn’t it, my scar?”

“Don’t say that, it’s not true!”

“I think I’ll write and tell Sirius about it, see what he thinks—”

“Harry, you can’t put something like that in a letter!” said Hermione, looking alarmed. “Don’t you remember, Moody told us to be careful what we put in writing! We just can’t guarantee owls aren’t being intercepted any more!”

“All right, all right, I won’t tell him, then!” said Harry irritably. He got to his feet. “I’m going to bed. Tell Ron for me, will you?”

“Oh no,” said Hermione, looking relieved, “if you’re going that means I can go too, without being rude. I’m absolutely exhausted and I want to make some more hats tomorrow. Listen, you can help me if you like, it’s quite fun, I’m getting better, I can do patterns and bobbles and all sorts of things now.”

Harry looked into her face, which was shining with glee, and tried to look as though he was vaguely tempted by this offer.

“Er… no, I don’t think I will, thanks,” he said. “Er—not tomorrow. I’ve got loads of homework to do…”

And he traipsed off to the boys’ stairs, leaving her looking slightly disappointed.

14. PERCY AND PADFOOT

Harry was first to wake up in his dormitory next morning. He lay for a moment watching dust swirl in the ray of sunlight coming through the gap in his four-poster’s hangings, and savoured the thought that it was Saturday. The first week of term seemed to have dragged on for ever, like one gigantic History of Magic lesson.

Judging by the sleepy silence and the freshly minted look of that beam of sunlight, it was just after daybreak. He pulled open the curtains around his bed, got up and started to dress. The only sound apart from the distant twittering of birds was the slow, deep breathing of his fellow Gryffindors. He opened his schoolbag carefully, pulled out parchment and quill and headed out of the dormitory for the common room.

Making straight for his favourite squashy old armchair beside the now extinct fire, Harry settled himself down comfortably and unrolled his parchment while looking around the room. The detritus of crumpled-up bits of parchment, old Gobstones, empty ingredient jars and sweet wrappers that usually covered the common room at the end of each day was gone, as were all Hermione’s elf hats. Wondering vaguely how many elves had now been set free whether they wanted to be or not, Harry uncorked his ink bottle, dipped his quill into it, then held it suspended an inch above the smooth yellowish surface of his parchment, thinking hard… but after a minute or so he found himself staring into the empty grate, at a complete loss for what to say.

He could now appreciate how hard it had been for Ron and Hermione to write him letters over the summer. How was he supposed to tell Sirius everything that had happened over the past week and pose all the questions he was burning to ask without giving potential letter-thieves a lot of information he did not want them to have?

He sat quite motionless for a while, gazing into the fireplace, then, finally coming to a decision, he dipped his quill into the ink bottle once more and set it resolutely on the parchment.

Dear Snuffles,

Hope you’re OK, the first week back here’s been terrible, I’m really glad it’s the weekend.

We’ve got a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Umbridge. She’s nearly as nice as your mum. I’m writing because that thing I wrote to you about last summer happened again last night when I was doing a detention with Umbridge.

We’re all missing our biggest friend, we hope he’ll be back soon.

Please write back quickly.

Best,

Harry

Harry reread the letter several times, trying to see it from the point of view of an outsider. He could not see how they would know what he was talking about—or who he was talking to—just from reading this letter. He did hope Sirius would pick up the hint about Hagrid and tell them when he might be back. Harry did not want to ask directly in case it drew too much attention to what Hagrid might be up to while he was not at Hogwarts.

Considering it was a very short letter, it had taken a long time to write; sunlight had crept halfway across the room while he had been working on it and he could now hear distant sounds of movement from the dormitories above. Sealing the parchment carefully, he climbed through the portrait hole and headed off for the Owlery.

“I would not go that way if I were you,” said Nearly Headless Nick, drifting disconcertingly through a wall just ahead of Harry as he walked down the passage. “Peeves is planning an amusing joke on the next person to pass the bust of Paracelsus halfway down the corridor.”

“Does it involve Paracelsus falling on top of the persons head?” asked Harry.

“Funnily enough, it does,” said Nearly Headless Nick in a bored voice. “Subtlety has never been Peeves’s strong point. I’m off to try and find the Bloody Baron… he might be able to put a stop to it… see you, Harry—”

“Yeah, bye,” said Harry and instead of turning right, he turned left, taking a longer but safer route up to the Owlery. His spirits rose as he walked past window after window showing brilliantly blue sky; he had training later, he would be back on the Quidditch pitch at last.

Something brushed his ankles. He looked down and saw the caretaker’s skeletal grey cat, Mrs. Norris, slinking past him. She turned lamplike yellow eyes on him for a moment before disappearing behind a statue of Wilfred the Wistful.

“I’m not doing anything wrong,” Harry called after her. She had the unmistakeable air of a cat that was off to report to her boss, yet Harry could not see why; he was perfectly entitled to walk up to the Owlery on a Saturday morning.

The sun was high in the sky now and when Harry entered the Owlery the glassless windows dazzled his eyes; thick silvery beams of sunlight crisscrossed the circular room in which hundreds of owls nestled on rafters, a little restless in the early-morning light, some clearly just returned from hunting. The straw-covered floor crunched a little as he stepped across tiny animal bones, craning his neck for a sight of Hedwig.

“There you are,” he said, spotting her somewhere near the very top of the vaulted ceiling. “Get down here, I’ve got a letter for you.”

With a low hoot she stretched her great white wings and soared down on to his shoulder.

“Right, I know this says Snuffles on the outside,” he told her, giving her the letter to clasp in her beak and, without knowing exactly why, whispering, “but it’s for Sirius, OK?”

She blinked her amber eyes once and he took that to mean that she understood.

“Safe flight, then,” said Harry and he carried her to one of the windows; with a moment’s pressure on his arm, Hedwig took off into the blindingly bright sky. He watched her until she became a tiny black speck and vanished, then switched his gaze to Hagrid’s hut, clearly visible from this window, and just as clearly uninhabited, the chimney smokeless, the curtains drawn.

The treetops of the Forbidden Forest swayed in a light breeze. Harry watched them, savouring the fresh air on his face, thinking about Quidditch later… then he saw it. A great, reptilian winged horse, just like the ones pulling the Hogwarts carriages, with leathery black wings spread wide like a pterodactyl’s, rose up out of the trees like a grotesque, giant bird. It soared in a great circle, then plunged back into the trees. The whole thing had happened so quickly, Harry could hardly believe what he had seen, except that his heart was hammering madly.

The Owlery door opened behind him. He leapt in shock and, turning quickly, saw Cho Chang holding a letter and a parcel in her hands.

“Hi,” said Harry automatically.

“Oh… hi,” she said breathlessly. “I didn’t think anyone would be up here this early… I only remembered five minutes ago, it’s my mum’s birthday.”

She held up the parcel.

“Right,” said Harry. His brain seemed to have jammed. He wanted to say something funny and interesting, but the memory of that terrible winged horse was fresh in his mind.

“Nice day,” he said, gesturing to the windows. His insides seemed to shrivel with embarrassment. The weather. He was talking about the weather…

“Yeah,” said Cho, looking around for a suitable owl. “Good Quidditch conditions. I haven’t been out all week, have you?”

“No,” said Harry.

Cho had selected one of the school barn owls. She coaxed it down on to her arm where it held out an obliging leg so that she could attach the parcel.

“Hey, has Gryffindor got a new Keeper yet?” she asked.

“Yeah,” said Harry. “It’s my friend Ron Weasley, d’you know him?”

“The Tornados-hater?” said Cho rather coolly. “Is he any good?”

“Yeah,” said Harry, “I think so. I didn’t see his tryout, though, I was in detention.”

Cho looked up, the parcel only half-attached to the owl’s legs.

“That Umbridge woman’s foul,” she said in a low voice. “Putting you in detention just because you told the truth about how—how—how he died. Everyone heard about it, it was all over the school. You were really brave standing up to her like that.”

Harry’s insides re-inflated so rapidly he felt as though he might actually float a few inches off the dropping-strewn floor. Who cared about a stupid flying horse; Cho thought he had been really brave. For a moment, he considered accidentally-on-purpose showing her his cut hand as he helped her tie her parcel on to her owl… but the very instant this thrilling thought occurred, the Owlery door opened again.

Filch the caretaker came wheezing into the room. There were purple patches on his sunken, veined cheeks, his jowls were aquiver and his thin grey hair dishevelled; he had obviously run here. Mrs. Norris came trotting at his heels, gazing up at the owls overhead and mewing hungrily. There was a restless shifting of wings from above and a large brown owl snapped his beak in a menacing fashion.

“Aha!” said Filch, taking a flat-footed step towards Harry, his pouchy cheeks trembling with anger. “I’ve had a tip-off that you are intending to place a massive order for Dungbombs—”

Harry folded his arms and stared at the caretaker.

“Who told you I was ordering Dungbombs?”

Cho was looking from Harry to Filch, also frowning; the barn owl on her arm, tired of standing on one leg, gave an admonitory hoot but she ignored it.

“I have my sources,” said Filch in a self-satisfied hiss. “Now hand over whatever it is you’re sending.”

Feeling immensely thankful that he had not dawdled in posting off the letter, Harry said, “I can’t, it’s gone.”

“Gone?” said Filch, his face contorting with rage.

“Gone,” said Harry calmly.

Filch opened his mouth furiously, mouthed for a few seconds, then raked Harry’s robes with his eyes.

“How do I know you haven’t got it in your pocket?”

“Because—”

“I saw him send it,” said Cho angrily.

Filch rounded on her.

“You saw him—?”

“That’s right, I saw him,” she said fiercely.

There was a moment’s pause in which Filch glared at Cho and Cho glared right back, then the caretaker turned on his heel and shuffled back towards the door. He stopped with his hand on the handle and looked back at Harry.

“If I get so much as a whiff of a Dungbomb—”

He stumped off down the stairs. Mrs. Norris cast a last longing look at the owls and followed him.

Harry and Cho looked at each other.

“Thanks,” Harry said.

“No problem,” said Cho, finally fixing the parcel to the barn owl’s other leg, her face slightly pink. “You weren’t ordering Dungbombs, were you?”

“No,” said Harry.

“I wonder why he thought you were, then?” she said as she carried the owl to the window.

Harry shrugged. He was quite as mystified by that as she was, though oddly it was not bothering him very much at the moment.

They left the Owlery together. At the entrance of a corridor that led towards the west wing of the castle, Cho said, “I’m going this way. Well, I’ll… I’ll see you around, Harry.”

“Yeah… see you.”

She smiled at him and departed. Harry walked on, feeling quietly elated. He had managed to have an entire conversation with her and not embarrassed himself once… you were really brave standing up to her like that… Cho had called him brave… she did not hate him for being alive…

Of course, she had preferred Cedric, he knew that… though if he’d only asked her to the Ball before Cedric had, things might have turned out differently… she had seemed sincerely sorry that she’d had to refuse when Harry asked her…

“Morning,” Harry said brightly to Ron and Hermione as he joined them at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall.

“What are you looking so pleased about?” said Ron, eyeing Harry in surprise.

“Erm… Quidditch later,” said Harry happily, pulling a large platter of bacon and eggs towards him.

“Oh… yeah…” said Ron. He put down the piece of toast he was eating and took a large swig of pumpkin juice. Then he said, “Listen… you don’t fancy going out a bit earlier with me, do you? Just to—er—give me some practice before training? So I can, you know, get my eye in a bit.”

“Yeah, OK,” said Harry.

“Look, I don’t think you should,” said Hermione seriously. “You’re both really behind on homework as it—”

But she broke off; the morning post was arriving and, as usual, the Daily Prophet was soaring towards her in the beak of a screech owl, which landed perilously close to the sugar bowl and held out a leg. Hermione pushed a Knut into its leather pouch, took the newspaper, and scanned the front page critically as the owl took off.

“Anything interesting?” said Ron. Harry grinned, knowing Ron was keen to keep her off the subject of homework.

“No,” she sighed, “just some guff about the bass player in the Weird Sisters getting married.”

Hermione opened the paper and disappeared behind it. Harry devoted himself to another helping of eggs and bacon. Ron was staring up at the high windows, looking slightly preoccupied.

“Wait a moment,” said Hermione suddenly. “Oh no… Sirius!”

“What’s happened?” said Harry, snatching at the paper so violently it ripped down the middle, with him and Hermione each holding one half.

“‘The Ministry of Magic has received a tip-off from a reliable source that Sirius Black, notorious mass murderer… blah blah blah… is currently hiding in London!’” Hermione read from her half in an anguished whisper.

“Lucius Malfoy, I’ll bet anything,” said Harry in a low, furious voice. “He did recognise Sirius on the platform…”

“What?” said Ron, looking alarmed. “You didn’t say—”

“Shh!” said the other two.

“‘…Ministry warns wizarding community that Black is very dangerous… killed thirteen people… broke out of Azkaban…’ the usual rubbish,” Hermione concluded, laying down her half of the paper and looking fearfully at Harry and Ron. “Well, he just won’t be able to leave the house again, that’s all,” she whispered. “Dumbledore did warn him not to.”

Harry looked down glumly at the bit ol the Prophet he had torn off. Most of the page was devoted to an advertisement for Madam Malkins Robes for All Occasions, which was apparently having a sale.

“Hey!” he said, flattening it down so Hermione and Ron could see it. “Look at this!”

“I’ve got all the robes I want,” said Ron.

“No,” said Harry. “Look… this little piece here…”

Ron and Hermione bent closer to read it; the item was barely an inch long and placed right at the bottom of a column. It was headlined:

TRESPASS AT MINISTRY

Sturgis Podmore, 38, of number two, Laburnum Gardens, Clapham, has appeared in front of the Wizengamot charged with trespass and attempted robbery at the Ministry of Magic on 31st August. Podmore was arrested by Ministry of Magic watchwizard Eric Munch, who found him attempting to force his way through a top-security door at one o’clock in the morning. Podmore, who refused to speak in his own defence, was convicted on both charges and sentenced to six months in Azkaban.

“Sturgis Podmore?” said Ron slowly. “He’s that bloke who looks like his head’s been thatched, isn’t he? He’s one of the Ord—”

“Ron, shh!” said Hermione, casting a terrified look around them.

“Six months in Azkaban!” whispered Harry, shocked. “Just for trying to get through a door!”

“Don’t be silly, it wasn’t just for trying to get through a door. What on earth was he doing at the Ministry of Magic at one o’clock in the morning?” breathed Hermione.

“D’you reckon he was doing something for the Order?” Ron muttered.

“Wait a moment…” said Harry slowly. “Sturgis was supposed to come and see us off, remember?”

The other two looked at him.

“Yeah, he was supposed to be part of our guard going to King’s Cross, remember? And Moody was all annoyed because he didn’t turn up; so he couldn’t have been on a job for them, could he?”

“Well, maybe they didn’t expect him to get caught,” said Hermione.

“It could be a frame-up!” Ron exclaimed excitedly. “No—listen!” he went on, dropping his voice dramatically at the threatening look on Hermione’s face. “The Ministry suspects he’s one of Dumbledore’s lot so—I dunno—they lured him to the Ministry, and he wasn’t trying to get through a door at all! Maybe they’ve just made something up to get him!”

There was a pause while Harry and Hermione considered this. Harry thought it seemed far-fetched. Hermione, on the other hand, looked rather impressed.

“Do you know, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that were true.”

She folded up her half of the newspaper thoughtfully. As Harry laid down his knife and fork, she seemed to come out of a reverie.

“Right, well, I think we should tackle that essay for Sprout on self-fertilising shrubs first and if we’re lucky we’ll be able to start McGonagall’s Inanimatus Conjurus Spell before lunch…”

Harry felt a small twinge of guilt at the thought of the pile of homework awaiting him upstairs, but the sky was a clear, exhilarating blue, and he had not been on his Firebolt for a week…

“I mean, we can do it tonight,” said Ron, as he and Harry walked down the sloping lawns towards the Quidditch pitch, their broomsticks over their shoulders, and with Hermione’s dire warnings that they would fail all their O.W.L.s still ringing in their ears. “And we’ve got tomorrow. She gets too worked up about work, that’s her trouble…” There was a pause and he added, in a slightly more anxious tone, “D’you think she meant it when she said we weren’t copying from her?”

“Yeah, I do,” said Harry. “Still, this is important, too, we’ve got to practise if we want to stay on the Quidditch team…”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Ron, in a heartened tone. “And we have got plenty of time to do it all…”

As they approached the Quidditch pitch, Harry glanced over to his right to where the trees of the Forbidden Forest were swaying darkly. Nothing flew out of them; the sky was empty but for a few distant owls fluttering around the Owlery tower. He had enough to worry about; the flying horse wasn’t doing him any harm; he pushed it out of his mind.

They collected balls from the cupboard in the changing room and set to work, Ron guarding the three tall goalposts, Harry playing Chaser and trying to get the Quaffle past Ron. Harry thought Ron was pretty good; he blocked three-quarters of the goals Harry attempted to put past him and played better the longer they practised. After a couple of hours they returned to the castle for lunch—during which Hermione made it quite clear she thought they were irresponsible—then returned to the Quidditch pitch for the real training session. All their teammates but Angelina were already in the changing room when they entered.

“All right, Ron?” said George, winking at him.

“Yeah,” said Ron, who had become quieter and quieter all the way down to the pitch.

“Ready to show us all up, Ickle Prefect?” said Fred, emerging tousle-haired from the neck of his Quidditch robes, a slightly malicious grin on his face.

“Shut up,” said Ron, stony-faced, pulling on his own team robes for the first time. They fitted him well considering they had been Oliver Wood’s, who was rather broader in the shoulder.

“OK, everyone,” said Angelina, entering from the Captain’s office, already changed. “Let’s get to it; Alicia and Fred, if you can just bring out the ball crate for us. Oh, and there are a couple of people out there watching but I want you to just ignore them, all right?”

Something in her would-be casual voice made Harry think he might know who the uninvited spectators were, and sure enough, when they left the changing room for the bright sunlight of the pitch it was to a storm of catcalls and jeers from the Slytherin Quidditch team and assorted hangers-on, who were grouped halfway up the empty stands and whose voices echoed loudly around the stadium.

“What’s that Weasley’s riding?” Malfoy called in his sneering drawl. “Why would anyone put a flying charm on a mouldy old log like that?”

Crabbe, Goyle and Pansy Parkinson guffawed and shrieked with laughter. Ron mounted his broom and kicked off from the ground and Harry followed him, watching his ears turn red from behind.

“Ignore them,” he said, accelerating to catch up with Ron, “we’ll see who’s laughing after we play them…”

“Exactly the attitude I want, Harry,” said Angelina approvingly, soaring around them with the Quaffle under her arm and slowing to hover on the spot in front of her airborne team. “OK, everyone, we’re going to start with some passes just to warm up, the whole team please—”

“Hey, Johnson, what’s with that hairstyle, anyway?” shrieked Pansy Parkinson from below. “Why would anyone want to look like they’ve got worms coming out of their head?”

Angelina swept her long braided hair out of her face and continued calmly, “Spread out, then, and let’s see what we can do…”

Harry reversed away from the others to the far side of the pitch. Ron fell back towards the opposite goal. Angelina raised the Quaffle with one hand and threw it hard to Fred, who passed to George, who passed to Harry, who passed to Ron, who dropped it.

The Slytherins, led by Malfoy, roared and screamed with laughter. Ron, who had pelted towards the ground to catch the Quaffle before it landed, pulled out of the dive untidily, so that he slipped sideways on his broom, and returned to playing height, blushing. Harry saw Fred and George exchange looks, but uncharacteristically neither of them said anything, for which he was grateful.

“Pass it on, Ron,” called Angelina, as though nothing had happened.

Ron threw the Quaffle to Alicia, who passed back to Harry, who passed to George…

“Hey, Potter, how’s your scar feeling?” called Malfoy. “Sure you don’t need a lie down? It must be, what, a whole week since you were in the hospital wing, that’s a record for you, isn’t it?”

George passed to Angelina; she reverse-passed to Harry, who had not been expecting it, but caught it in the very tips of his fingers and passed it quickly to Ron, who lunged for it and missed by inches.

“Come on now, Ron,” said Angelina crossly, as he dived for the ground again, chasing the Quaffle. “Pay attention.”

It would have been hard to say whether Ron’s face or the Quaffle was a deeper scarlet when he again returned to playing height. Malfoy and the rest of the Slytherin team were howling with laughter.

On his third attempt, Ron caught the Quaffle; perhaps out of relief he passed it on so enthusiastically that it soared straight through Katie’s outstretched hands and hit her hard in the face.

“Sorry!” Ron groaned, zooming forwards to see whether he had done any damage.

“Get back in position, she’s fine!” barked Angelina. “But as you’re passing to a teammate, do try not to knock her off her broom, won’t you? We’ve got Bludgers for that!”

Katie’s nose was bleeding. Down below, the Slytherins were stamping their feet and jeering. Fred and George converged on Katie.

“Here, take this,” Fred told her, handing her something small and purple from out of his pocket, “it’ll clear it up in no time.”

“All right,” called Angelina, “Fred, George, go and get your bats and a Bludger. Ron, get up to the goalposts. Harry, release the Snitch when I say so. We’re going to aim for Ron’s goal, obviously.”

Harry zoomed off after the twins to fetch the Snitch.

“Ron’s making a right pig’s ear of things, isn’t he?” muttered George, as the three of them landed at the crate containing the balls and opened it to extract one of the Bludgers and the Snitch.

“He’s just nervous,” said Harry, “he was fine when I was practising with him this morning.”

“Yeah, well, I hope he hasn’t peaked too soon,” said Fred gloomily.

They returned to the air. When Angelina blew her whistle, Harry released the Snitch and Fred and George let fly the Bludger. From that moment on, Harry was barely aware of what the others were doing. It was his job to recapture the tiny fluttering golden ball that was worth a hundred and fifty points to the Seeker’s team and doing so required enormous speed and skill. He accelerated, rolling and swerving in and out of the Chasers, the warm autumn air whipping his face, and the distant yells of the Slytherins so much meaningless roaring in his ears… but too soon, the whistle brought him to a halt again.

“Stop—stop—STOP!” screamed Angelina. “Ron—you’re not covering your middle post!”

Harry looked round at Ron, who was hovering in front of the left-hand hoop, leaving the other two completely unprotected.

“Oh… sorry…”

“You keep shifting around while you’re watching the Chasers!” said Angelina. “Either stay in centre position until you have to move to defend a hoop, or else circle the hoops, but don’t drift vaguely off to one side, that’s how you let in the last three goals!”

“Sorry…” Ron repeated, his red face shining like a beacon against the bright blue sky.

“And Katie, can’t you do something about that nosebleed?”

“It’s just getting worse!” said Katie thickly, attempting to stem the flow with her sleeve.

Harry glanced round at Fred, who was looking anxious and checking his pockets. He saw Fred pull out something purple, examine it for a second and then look round at Katie, evidently horror-struck.

“Well, let’s try again,” said Angelina. She was ignoring the Slytherins, who had now set up a chant of “Gryffindor are losers, Gryffindor are losers,” but there was a certain rigidity about her seat on the broom nevertheless.

This time they had been flying for barely three minutes when Angelina’s whistle sounded. Harry, who had just sighted the Snitch circling the opposite goalpost, pulled up feeling distinctly aggrieved.

“What now?” he said impatiently to Alicia, who was nearest.

“Katie,” she said shortly.

Harry turned and saw Angelina, Fred and George all flying as fast as they could towards Katie. Harry and Alicia sped towards her, too. It was plain that Angelina had stopped training just in time; Katie was now chalk white and covered in blood.

“She needs the hospital wing,” said Angelina.

“We’ll take her,” said Fred. “She—er—might have swallowed a Blood Blisterpod by mistake—”

“Well, there’s no point continuing with no Beaters and a Chaser gone,” said Angelina glumly as Fred and George zoomed off towards the castle supporting Katie between them. “Come on, let’s go and get changed.”

The Slytherins continued to chant as they trailed back into the changing rooms.

“How was practice?” asked Hermione rather coolly half an hour later, as Harry and Ron climbed through the portrait hole into the Gryffindor common room.

“It was—” Harry began.

“Completely lousy,” said Ron in a hollow voice, sinking into a chair beside Hermione. She looked up at Ron and her frostiness seemed to melt.

“Well, it was only your first one,” she said consolingly, “it’s bound to take time to—”

“Who said it was me who made it lousy?” snapped Ron.

“No one,” said Hermione, looking taken aback, “I thought—”

“You thought I was bound to be rubbish?”

“No, of course I didn’t! Look, you said it was lousy so I just—”

“I’m going to get started on some homework,” said Ron angrily and stomped off to the staircase to the boys’ dormitories and vanished from sight. Hermione turned to Harry.

“Was he lousy?”

“No,” said Harry loyally.

Hermione raised her eyebrows.

“Well, I suppose he could’ve played better,” Harry muttered, “but it was only the first training session, like you said…”

Neither Harry nor Ron seemed to make much headway with their homework that night. Harry knew Ron was too preoccupied with how badly he had performed at Quidditch practice and he himself was having difficulty in getting the “Gryffindor are losers” chant out of his head.

They spent the whole of Sunday in the common room, buried in their books while the room around them filled up, then emptied. It was another clear, fine day and most of their fellow Gryffindors spent the day out in the grounds, enjoying what might well be some of the last sunshine that year. By the evening, Harry felt as though somebody had been beating his brain against the inside of his skull.

“You know, we probably should try and get more homework done during the week,” Harry muttered to Ron, as they finally laid aside Professor McGonagall’s long essay on the Inanimatus Conjurus Spell and turned miserably to Professor Sinistra’s equally long and difficult essay about Jupiter’s many moons.

“Yeah,” said Ron, rubbing slightly bloodshot eyes and throwing his fifth spoiled bit of parchment into the fire beside them. “Listen… shall we just ask Hermione if we can have a look at what she’s done?”

Harry glanced over at her; she was sitting with Crookshanks on her lap and chatting merrily to Ginny as a pair of knitting needles flashed in midair in front of her, now knitting a pair of shapeless elf socks.

“No,” he said heavily, “you know she won’t let us.”

And so they worked on while the sky outside the windows became steadily darker. Slowly, the crowd in the common room began to thin again. At half past eleven, Hermione wandered over to them, yawning.

“Nearly done?”

“No,” said Ron shortly.

“Jupiter’s biggest moon is Ganymede, not Callisto,” she said, pointing over Ron’s shoulder at a line in his Astronomy essay, “and it’s Io that’s got the volcanoes.”

“Thanks,” snarled Ron, scratching out the offending sentences.

“Sorry, I only—”

“Yeah, well, if you’ve just come over here to criticize—”

“Ron—”

“I haven’t got time to listen to a sermon, all right, Hermione, I’m up to my neck in it here—”

“No—look!”

Hermione was pointing to the nearest window. Harry and Ron both looked over. A handsome screech owl was standing on the windowsill, gazing into the room at Ron.

“Isn’t that Hermes?” said Hermione, sounding amazed.

“Blimey, it is!” said Ron quietly, throwing down his quill and getting to his feet. “What’s Percy writing to me for?”

He crossed to the window and opened it; Hermes flew inside, landed on Ron’s essay and held out a leg to which a letter was attached. Ron took the letter off it and the owl departed at once, leaving inky footprints across Ron’s drawing of the moon Io.

“That’s definitely Percy’s handwriting,” said Ron, sinking back into his chair and staring at the words on the outside of the scroll: Ronald Weasley, Gryffindor House, Hogwarts. He looked up at the other two. “What d’you reckon?”

“Open it!” said Hermione eagerly, and Harry nodded.

Ron unrolled the scroll and began to read. The further down the parchment his eyes travelled, the more pronounced became his scowl. When he had finished reading, he looked disgusted. He thrust the letter at Harry and Hermione, who leaned towards each other to read it together:

Dear Ron,

I have only just heard (from no less a person than the Minister for Magic himself, who has it from your new teacher, Professor Umbridge) that you have become a Hogwarts prefect.