Getting hold of Neville meant that a full explanation of the Marauders had to wait until after lunch and Harry and Hermione’s Defence Against the Dark Arts class. All four of the friends had the rest of the afternoon free after that, so they sat under a tree down by the shore of the lake. First Neville reported that Ron would be all right. He was going to be kept over in the hospital wing until the next morning just in case, but by the time he was released he’d have no more than a few red spots on his face and hands where the boils caused by the potion boilover used to be. Then they all listened eagerly while Harry explained about the Marauders. Although they all got a good laugh out of his stories of some of the more imaginative pranks the original Marauders had played, the whole thing was almost derailed when Hermione said she wasn’t really in favour of pranking.
"Random pranks are one thing, and they’re bad enough, but singling out someone and humiliating him because you don’t like him is something else. Some of the other students in my primary school did that to me, and it wasn’t something I’d wish on anyone else. No matter who he is."
"Well, I don’t like that either," said Harry. "It’s never happened to me, but I saw it happen to some boys I knew at home, and I stopped being friends with the boys who did it. But I’m not talking about pranking Malfoy just because he exists, but because of something specific he’s done. We could be more like, like avenging angels or something. We’ll start with Malfoy, but we won’t limit ourselves to him. If somebody does something bad and gets away with it, we prank them. They do it again, we prank them again. Eventually they get the idea and behave themselves."
"This is Malfoy you’re talking about here," said Tracey. "Our families have been doing business together for ages — or should I say the Malfoys have condescended to favour us with their business — so I’ve known him for a couple of years now. He won’t learn. He’ll just strike back."
"That’s why we use the Marauders name. Nobody will be able to prove it’s us."
"But if your father was one of the original Marauders, and everybody knows that …"
"That’s just the thing, nothing was ever proved. They didn’t really start until second year, and then after they left school, they kept sneaking back in and doing pranks to make people think the Marauders were still in school. So a lot of people thought they were in the class after my father’s. I’m pretty sure Snape knows, or can guess, but he won’t be able to prove it. And if our first prank involves something like, oh, access to the Slytherin Common Room, where he knows I don’t have access, then it can’t be me, now can it?"
"But that will make it obvious it’s me because I study with you!" said Tracey.
"Okay, so we’ll make it, um, somewhere you won’t go either. The boys’ showers, maybe. Didn’t you say you had an older brother?"
Tracey began to grin. "Yes, he’s sixth-year. Nobody would connect him with a prank on a firstie. And he doesn’t like the Malfoys either. He’d probably be willing to help."
"Okay, so we have our location and our target."
"What exactly could we do?" asked Neville. "None of us knows any really good spells yet. And Tracey’s brother probably wouldn’t be willing to put a charm on him; they could probably tell who cast it."
"Not without checking everybody’s wands in the school," said Harry. "I know some good spells, but you’re right, it should be a potion. Since he started this by messing with Weasley’s potion, it’s appropriate. I don’t want to do anything that will hurt him either, just humiliate him."
"The Weasley twins pulled something on us our first day," said Neville. "They put something on our bed sheets that made us all blue when we woke up. They said it was traditional for firsties to go to breakfast on the first morning wearing woad, like true Gryffindor heroes. I think Ron and Dean were going to buy it, but when Percy Weasley, who’s one of the Prefects, saw it, he realised who did it and made them give us the potion to wash it off."
"How many Weasleys are there, anyway?" asked Hermione.
"Just the four of them at the moment, I think. I gather the twins are notorious for pranking. They’ll take shots at anybody. Gryffindors take most of it because they live right in our tower."
"Woad gives me an idea, though," said Harry. "It’s all natural and won’t show up if somebody checks for potions, right?"
Hermione nodded. "You want to turn Malfoy blue?"
"No, that would throw suspicion on the Weasleys. Although a fair number of people will think it’s them anyway, getting revenge for their little brother."
"Ron says they prank him worse than anyone. They might not want to get revenge for him."
"They might want to defend their own favourite target. But we still shouldn’t use woad. How about another Muggle colouring agent?"
"Like a hair dye?" said Hermione.
"Yeah, that would be perfect. We could slip it in his shampoo. Give him, say, Weasley red hair. He’d hate that!"
"Would he be using a magical shampoo? I don’t fancy mixing a Muggle dye with something magical. There would be no way to tell how things would interact. Most of the Muggle chemicals aren’t in the Correspondences."
"So we ask Tracey’s brother to do a scouting mission. Find out what kind of shampoo Malfoy’s using. Then we find something that won’t react badly with it and brew it. Tracey’s brother slips it into the shampoo."
"And I take pictures of it when he realises!" said Tracey gleefully.
"If you can do it without being obvious," said Harry. "Remember, we don’t want him knowing you have anything to do with it."
"I have a little Muggle camera. They make them really tiny, much smaller than wizarding ones, but of course the pictures don’t move. I can send the film out by owl to be developed."
"And then we sign the picture something like, To Ron From the Marauders, and Neville puts it on his pillow! Perfect!"
Three days later, they met in one of the practice rooms before dinner. Tracey had the information about Malfoy’s shampoo, plus the welcome news that he kept it in a shower-room cubby with only the weakest of protection spells. Tracey’s brother could break them easily, and then put them back so he’d never notice. Hermione borrowed Harry’s copy of the Correspondences for the evening and set to finding an additive that would do what they wanted.
"It looks like we could use henna," she reported the next day. "That would give us a reddish-brown colour. Not Weasley red, but close. Our other options would be golden onion skins, but that would give us more of a yellow colour, or red cabbage, which makes robin’s egg blue. Most of the other natural dyes need a mordant, and most of those would conflict with the shampoo ingredients. Our dye doesn’t need to be very strong, and soak time should be practically eliminated, because Malfoy’s shampoo has a colour intensifier in it."
"But his hair is practically white!" said Tracey.
"Maybe it would look sort of dingy without the intensifier," said Hermione, shrugging her shoulders. "It works out well for us, anyway. Now the question is, where do we get some henna? It’s not in the standard potions kit."
"Um, I have some," said Harry. "There was some in my Mum’s potions supply rack, and I just brought a little of everything. No idea why she had it."
"But that’s perfect! If we could get onion skins that would be great, too. Make it a little more orangey."
"I’ve got an idea on that, too," said Harry. Meet me here tomorrow? It won’t take long to brew, and then Tracey can give it to her brother."
Friday morning, everyone in the Great Hall was treated to the sight of Draco Malfoy reluctantly coming to breakfast with flaming orange hair. The palms of his hands and the back of his neck were orange, as well. The Slytherins made him sit at one end of the table all by himself, as if his strange colouration were contagious. The Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws whispered and pointed, but the Gryffindors were less polite and laughed uproariously. The Weasley twins received slaps on the back in congratulations, but those who knew them well would have said they looked as startled as anyone else.
Just before dinner, Tracey met them in the practice room and handed Neville a Muggle photograph of Malfoy in the Slytherin Common Room, looking at his hands in stark horror. His bright orange hair was damp and uncombed.
"Now that is a very good shot," said Harry, looking over Neville’s shoulder. "Malfoy’s never looked better, I think. How did you get that picture back so fast?"
"I sent the film by express owl to Mum this morning. She went to one of those one-hour photo places and sent the pictures back this afternoon. I had to run all the way up to the owlery to get them."
"Now let’s just sign it, and then Neville can plant it after dinner," said Harry. "Er, should we use code names or just â€˜The Marauders’?"
"We haven’t really thought about code names. We don’t want ones people could use to figure out it’s us."
"Okay, here goes then." Harry signed the back of the picture â€˜To Ron From The Marauders’, and then used a charm Peter had taught him to obscure his handwriting. Neville took the picture and promised that he would be able to sneak it into Ron’s bed without anyone knowing.
On Saturday, gossip spread throughout the school that someone claiming the mantle of the Marauders, infamous pranksters from a generation ago, had claimed responsibility for Malfoy’s hair, which was even more flaming the second day. He had switched to a new bottle of shampoo in an attempt to wash the red out, but the intensifier in it just made the colour even stronger.
By Sunday, he looked like the most ardent Chudley Cannons fan in existence.
A school like Hogwarts necessarily had many more classrooms than it actually had classes. Professor Snape needed to have one classroom for the large lower year classes and another smaller but better equipped one for the NEWT-level classes. Professor Sinistra used a classroom for her Astronomy classes during the day but took the students to the top of the Astronomy Tower at night for actual observations. And Professor Kettleburn normally taught the Care of Magical Creatures classes outdoors at a set of paddocks near the hut belonging to Hagrid, who acted as his assistant, but he also had a regular classroom for occasions when he was teaching about smaller creatures or the weather was too inclement to go out. All the rest of the teachers had one classroom each.
The library and the Great Hall were open at all times except mealtimes for students to do their homework, but no spell casting was allowed in these rooms. It was recognized, however, that the students needed to practice somewhere. Accordingly, there were a number of classrooms which were used primarily as practice rooms. Potions was the only class which required constant supervision, so appointments had to be made to use the practice lab, with a NEWT student earning house points for keeping an eye on things. For all the rest of the classes, any room which wasn’t being used at the time would do, and over the years most of the rooms had acquired collections of random things to be used for Transfiguration or Charms practice.
The best rooms, of course, were usually taken by groups of older students, but Hermione had found a small room in the Arithmancy corridor that apparently didn’t see much use, judging from the amount of dust in it. The four friends promptly moved their practice supplies in and did a cursory clean-up. The next time they visited, they found that the dust was gone and the windows cleaned, so apparently their occupation of the room had been noted by the house elves.
On Sunday night before curfew, Neville found Harry in the practice room with a large book open on one of the desks, casting charm after charm at a handkerchief, which was flickering through an astonishing range of colours as he did so.
"There you are, I’ve been looking all over for you. What are you doing up here now? I thought you said your homework was all done."
"It is, mostly. But Snape gave me an extra project, and then I discovered how to turn it into a possible prank. So I’m practising."
"He gave you extra work already? He must really not like you."
"I think he likes me too much," said Harry. "We did that cleaning potion that’s supposed to turn lavender at the end, you know?" Neville nodded; his class had done the same potion. "Well, mine came out lilac. And Snape took a point for it."
"Really? Mine wound up bright purple, and he didn’t say anything about it. Of course, Goyle’s was green, so he was angrier about that. But he didn’t take points even for that."
"Of course he wouldn’t, it’s his own house. Anyway, I said it wasn’t fair because I didn’t even know what the difference between lavender and lilac was. So he said that sometimes subtle colour differences were important to how well a potion works, or even the difference between healing and poisoning someone, and if I could find a way to check myself, he’d give me my point back, and give me an extra one besides."
"So what’d you do?"
"I found a solution by accident, really. I was sitting in my common room this afternoon thinking about it, and I saw some girls changing the colours of their robes."
"Why were they doing that?"
"They said to find out what colours looked best on them. Really, they all looked fine to me, and I told them so. But they had this book, see, and they let me borrow it. I have to get myself a copy of it, it’s brilliant." He marked his place and closed the book so Neville could see the title.
"Martha Merrymaid’s 1001 Household Charms? Harry, that’s a girl’s book."
"Well, yeah, most of the spells in it are for housewives. But if you think about it, most of them can be used for pranking, too. Like here’s one for changing the flavour of foods. It’s supposed to make bland stuff taste better, but you could also use it to make somebody’s pudding taste like liver. Things like that. And most of the spells are things even first years can do. There’s a couple of hard ones in the back, but I can work up to those. Anyway, there’s a simple temporary colour change spell with a whole list of colours, so I got some parchment scraps and made samples, and labelled them on the back. So now I can compare something to make sure I got it right, and with practice I’ll learn to tell them without the samples." He showed Neville a large batch of parchment strips in various colours. "And while I was doing that, I had an epi … efip … I made a discovery." He carefully spread the handkerchief, which was a brilliant yellow, out on the desk. "I charmed this to be yellow, right? Now what happens if I put a green charm on top of it?"
"It turns green," said Neville, as if it were obvious, which, in fact, it was.
Harry cast the charm and the cloth turned forest green. "Now, what happened to the charm for yellow?"
"It was broken?"
"Nope, because I didn’t stop it before I cast the green one. It’s still there. So, if I terminate the green one…"
"The cloth is yellow again."
"Right. Finite!" The handkerchief reverted to its previous colour, and then he cast another charm to make it white. "Now, can you tell any difference between that handkerchief and this one?" he asked, pulling another one out of his bag.
Neville compared them closely, holding them next to each other to check shades of white and even feeling to see if the texture was different. "No, they look exactly the same. Except this one’s frayed on the hem a little."
"Well, that one’s got about sixty layers of colours on it. I was trying to see just how many I could get on there before it caught fire or something." Neville put the cloth down hastily.
"Now, imagine this is someone’s robe." He changed it to match the black of their student robes. "And I see them in the hall, and I just flick my wand and go, Finite under my breath, and see…" The cloth was white again. "Finite!" Yellow. "Finite!" Red. "Finite!" Fuchsia. "Finite!" Malfoy hair orange. "If you were going down the corridor and your robe changed colour suddenly, what would you think? What would you do?"
"I’d think someone cast a charm on it, and I’d … I’d use Finite to change it back," said Neville, a smile breaking out on his face as he realised how Harry’s idea worked. "But with this, it would just change to another colour, right?"
"Right. And then you’d keep changing it until you got back to black, right? And then you’d stop. But if black was just another colour I’d added, the next time I saw you, I could use Finite again and you’d be right back to magenta or whatever."
"And you can use the Finite in the halls because it isn’t really casting a spell. It’s just turning one off."
"Mmhm. So the next time the Weasley twins turn you blue or whatever, we just get Ron to, er, borrow their robes while they’re out at Quidditch practice or something, and start casting. This one’s easy enough to cast until the cows come home, and then we can colour the cows. There’s another spell for patterns, too. Polka dots and plaids and paisleys and such. If we get the girls in on it, I think we can make some combinations that would make the Headmaster’s robes seem tame."
"That would be wonderful. You’re an artist at this, aren’t you?"
"I’ve had some good coaching," said Harry. "I think we can get you up to speed in the fine art of mayhem, too, and then the Weasleys had better watch out."
"Speaking of Weasleys, I almost forgot why I was looking for you," said Neville. "Malfoy’s decided that Ron is responsible for his new hair colour. Caught up with him after dinner and challenged him to a duel. And the git accepted."
"What!" gasped Harry. "But it wasn’t his fault!"
"Ron’s got a temper and pride, and he didn’t want to look like a coward in front of everybody in the Great Hall. Best I could do was get myself named as his second."
"We have to stop this. Somebody could get hurt."
"Too right. I bet Malfoy knows all sorts of dangerous spells, and he’s really angry about his hair. Ron can barely pull off a Jelly-Legs Jinx."
"Where are they now?"
"Ron’s in our Common Room, boasting about how he’s going to mop up the floor with Malfoy. Bet he’s down in the Dungeon doing the same thing."
"Wonderful. So we’re not going to get either of them to back down as long as there are other people to egg them on. When and where is the duel?"
"In the Trophy Room, at midnight."
"Okay, I’ll meet you there. You can tell them, that, um, that you asked me to referee since I’m in a neutral house. Then I’ll try to talk them out of it. In the meantime, it’s almost curfew, and I," he said, patting the spell book, "have some preparation to do."
About 11:30, Harry crept out of the safety of his curtained bed and tiptoed out of his room. His roommates were sleeping soundly enough that he really needn’t have bothered, he thought, but there was no point in taking chances. The Common Room was empty, lit only by the red glow from the coals in the fireplace, and the portrait of Helga Hufflepuff snoozed in her frame. He pushed open the portrait and slipped out into the hall, being careful not to stub his toes on the stone threshold. As he quietly swung the portrait back into place, he realized that the Scribe was awake. The Italian garden had gone dark, but the scholar was still working by the light of a single candle on the desk.
"Here, who’s that?" the Scribe said.
"It’s just me, sir. Harry Potter."
"And what are you doing out and about at this time of night?"
"Er, well, I’m trying to stop someone getting in trouble."
"By getting in trouble yourself? I should tell someone you’re out, you know."
"Please don’t, sir," Harry pleaded. "They’re going to have a duel and I have to stop it. Someone could get hurt."
"Sounds like there’s a story behind this," said the Scribe. "Very well, then. Off with you. But you have to promise to tell me the whole story when you have time."
"Are you going to tell anyone?" asked Harry anxiously. Even if he managed to talk Ron Weasley and Draco Malfoy out of fighting, it would do none of them any good if the Scribe told the Headmaster and got them all expelled.
"I should, but I won’t. I’ll stay here until you come back. Run along, and beware of the second floor corridor on the north side. Some of the other portraits are having a party there tonight, and will still be up."
"Thank you, sir!" Harry said, and dashed off.
When he reached the Entry Hall, he paused. The room was dark and cavernous, with only a few bars of moonlight falling across the floor from the high windows. "Lumos!" he whispered, and pale light shone from the tip of the wand held tight in his fist. It wasn’t enough to fill the whole Hall, but it made the marble banisters of the main staircase gleam in the light, and Harry slipped across the flagstone floor and up the stairs. He had soon gained the third floor and padded quietly through the Armour Gallery leading to the Trophy Room. The suits of armour cast weird shadows in the light, making the place seem even spookier.
He had almost reached the Trophy Room when he heard the distinct sound of someone entering the Gallery behind him. He extinguished his wand and ducked between two suits of armour. Peering out carefully, he saw Neville and Ron Weasley making their way hesitantly through the Gallery.
Both boys jumped.
"Don’t worry, it’s just me," he said, stepping out where they could see him by the light of Neville’s wand.
"What’s he doing here?" the red-headed boy asked Neville peevishly.
"I asked him to be the referee for your duel," said Neville reasonably. "It was my duty as your second. Hufflepuffs make the best referees because they’re always fair."
"Oh. Well, I guess that’s okay, then. You didn’t tell anyone else, did you?"
"No, just him. Harry, this is Ron Weasley. Ron, Harry Potter."
"Harry Po … Potter?" stammered Ron, his eyes opening wide in surprise.
"Pleased to meet you," said Harry, ignoring the other boy’s reaction. "Let’s get this over with, shall we?"
Cautiously, so as to avoid the hinges squeaking, Neville swung open the door leading to the Trophy Room, and candle light spilled out.
"It’s about time you got here," Malfoy hissed, stepping out of the shadows between two of the trophy cases. His hair gleamed bright orange even in the inadequate light provided by the candles in their wall sconces. Another boy, somewhat weedy looking, followed him. "I was beginning to think you’d turned coward on us."
"Gryffindors don’t turn coward!" Ron spat.
"No, you just sneak into people’s bathrooms and defile their hair care products!"
"Do not!" said Ron, displaying his total lack of eloquence.
"Calm down," said Harry. "Let’s work through this like reasonable people, shall we?"
Malfoy started as if noticing Harry for the first time. "What in Merlin’s name are you doing here, Potter?"
"As Ron’s second, Neville asked me to step in as a neutral party referee," said Harry.
"I would have worked it out with your second, but you stomped off without telling us who that was," put in Neville helpfully.
"Malfoys do not stomp. We make dramatic exits. We do not stomp."
"Pardon me for not knowing the difference," said Neville. "But the fact is, you didn’t tell me your second’s name. I still don’t know who this is."
"Theodore Nott," said the other boy, speaking for the first time. "Pleased to meet you."
"Neville Longbottom," said Neville in reply.
"You are not pleased to meet them, Ted," growled Malfoy, who seemed rather annoyed at losing control of the conversation.
"Just being polite," said Nott.
"This a duel, not a tea party!"
"Right," said Harry. "And since it’s a duel, I assume both of you have agreed to observe the provisions of the Wizard’s Code Duello of 1327?"
"Erm. The Code Duello?" asked Ron.
"Yes. I presume as both of you are from pureblooded families, you must both be familiar with it. I mean, I’m only a half-blood, and even I know all about it."
"Of course we’re following the Code," sneered Malfoy.
"Good, then you know as referee it’s my responsibility to try to settle the disagreement between you before you get on with the fight to the death."
"To the death?" said both Ron and Malfoy.
"Oh, of course. If you can’t settle it, I step out of it except to clean up the blood and body parts left over from the disembowelling and make sure the loser’s wand is returned to his family and such. Longbottom and Nott here are to prop up anybody that falls down so he’ll be a better target, and to finish off anybody that’s mortally wounded but still flopping around. Clear?"
"Disembowelling?" croaked Ron.
"Still flopping around?" Malfoy squeaked. Both boys had gone pale.
"How else will honour be satisfied?" asked Harry. "Do you want to do the settlement discussions or go right on to the bloodshed?"
"I suppose we could give settlement a go," said Malfoy, summoning up the tatters of his dignity. "I’d hate to get Weasley blood all over my robes."
"Settlement’s okay," said Ron, although with less aplomb than Malfoy had managed.
"Okay, then. Malfoy, you’re the challenger. What’s your problem with Weasley?"
"What’s my problem?! Haven’t you seen my hair?!"
"I think everybody in the school has seen your hair. What’s that got to do with Weasley?"
"He did it! He turned my hair this colour!"
"I did not!" retorted Ron while Neville shushed him.
"Why would he do that?"
"Well, because he, um, he…" Malfoy seemed to suddenly realize that if he told how he had sabotaged Ron’s potion, thereby causing revenge to be taken, he would be in danger of challenge, and subsequent disembowelment, himself. He decided to go with a safe claim. "Our families have always hated each other. Look what colour he turned my hair! It obviously has to have been him!"
"I’d actually say it was more likely to have been his older brothers. Ron’s more likely to just punch you in the nose," said Neville, and Ron nodded in enthusiastic agreement.
"So why didn’t you challenge the twins instead? It does seem to be more their style of prank."
"Probably because there’s two of them. And they’re two years older than us. And know even more dirty tricks than he does," said Ron.
"That’s understandable, then," said Harry. "Spending one’s entire school career transfigured into a cabbage or something would definitely be a Bad Thing. Ron, I’m going to ask you to swear on your honour and your magic — did you in fact have anything to do with turning Malfoy’s hair orange?" Harry felt safe in asking Ron for the oath since he knew the other boy hadn’t been involved.
"On my honour and my magic, I did not."
"To the best of your knowledge, did your older brothers do it?"
"No. They were just as surprised as anybody else. Thought it was a great joke, though."
"There. That’s settled. He didn’t have anything to do with it, so you should withdraw your challenge."
"Withdrawn," said Malfoy between gritted teeth. "But what about my hair?"
"It is kind of bright," said Harry. "Is that a charm, a transfiguration, or a potion?"
"Potion," said Malfoy shortly. "Somebody put something in my shampoo."
"Good. I do know a spell that might be able to get the orange out, then. It would just leave it kind of white, but that’s not too far from your natural colour. Would that be okay?"
"It’s better than orange."
"All right, I’ll try it if you want, and if you promise not to go challenging me if it’s not exactly right. And you’ll owe me a favour."
"What kind of favour?"
"I don’t know. I’ll think of something. Nothing bad, though. Okay?"
"All right, I promise not to challenge you. And I owe you a favour," said Malfoy, although he clearly would rather not.
"Good." Malfoy flinched slightly as Harry raised his wand. "Crinis albeo!" said Harry, and the four watched anxiously as the bright orange colour gradually faded from Malfoy’s hair, leaving it a shining white.
"Is it done? What does it look like? Ted?"
"Looks good," said Nott. "Not quite like before, but close. Take a look." He steered his friend over to one of the crystal display cases, where there was a silver plate that was highly polished enough to be a decent mirror.
Malfoy looked eagerly, and ran his fingers through his now white locks, sighing with relief.
"Is everything settled now?" asked Harry. "Good, then shake hands and let’s all get back to our beds. We’re going to attract attention from someone if we stay here too long."
Ron and Malfoy grudgingly shook hands, although both of them made a show of wiping their hands on their robes afterwards. Neville stepped out into the Armour Gallery.
"Mrreowww," the other boys heard.
Neville jumped back into the Trophy Room and eased the door closed without slamming it. "It’s Mrs. Norris," he whispered. "She saw me! That means Filch is on his way!"
Through the door, the boys could hear the sounds of Mrs. Norris’ loud caterwauling, and the caretaker’s nasal voice.
"All right, I’m coming, my sweet! Show me what you’ve found!"
"We’re doomed," Ron moaned.
"Look, there’s another door out," said Nott. Indeed, there was another, smaller door almost hidden between two display cases. "I don’t know where it goes, though."
"Wherever it goes, it’s got to be better than here," said Harry. Nott yanked on the handle and he and Malfoy plunged through into a dark corridor. Neville and Ron were right behind them, and Harry brought up the rear, closing the door as quietly as possible. In the dark, he fumbled to fasten the door.
"Great. There’s no latch!" he complained.
"Run, then," said Neville.
All three boys turned and dashed down the hall, which ended at a wide balcony. A gap in the balcony railing showed where the landing for one of the moving staircases was, but the stairs were moving, swinging away, with Malfoy and Nott clinging to the railing at the top. "So long, it was nice knowing you!" Malfoy called, and the two of them started to move carefully down the stairs.
On the balcony, Harry heard the door opening, and looked around to see if there was a hiding place. One end of the balcony had a tapestry covering the wall. Maybe if they ducked behind it … "That way!" he said, pointing.
The tapestry proved to cover a niche with another door in it, and all three of the boys crowded into the niche. "We’ll never fit … he’ll see us … can you open the door?" said Neville.
Ron rattled the handle. "It’s locked!"
"Budge over," said Harry. He firmly tapped the lock with the tip of his wand. "Alohomora!" There was a faint click and the door swung open. All three boys tumbled into the room as Filch’s steps approached the balcony.
Ron and Harry closed the door and then pressed their ears against it, straining to hear through the layers of wood and fabric.
"I see you now, you little hooligans!" Filch shouted. "You’ll not get away just because those stairs moved! I’ll catch up with you yet!"
"Good, he saw Nott and Malfoy on the stairs … I think he’s gone to try to catch them. We’ll be okay in a minute. What is it, Neville?" Harry said, responding at last to Neville’s frantic tugs on his sleeve. Then he turned around and saw, quite clearly, what it was.
They stood in a large, circular room, a tower room. A room in the forbidden east tower. And he suddenly realized just why it was forbidden.
Crouched in the centre of the room was a monstrous creature. It had a head like a lion, but its body was slim and covered with black hair and it had legs and hooves like a goat. Its tail was a serpent’s body, with the serpent’s head at the end of it. The snake part seemed to be awake and aware, but the lion had apparently been asleep when they charged into the room. It was only half awake, which was probably the only reason they hadn’t been eaten yet, Harry thought in a moment of horrified clarity.
"Wake up! Wake up!" the snake was saying to the lion. "There are intruders here! Bite them! Eat them!"
The creature lurched to its feet and growled threateningly. Its eyes shone green in the dimness of the room, and Harry thought he could smell smoke. "Out! Out!" he said urgently.
Ron didn’t need to be told twice, jerking the door open as the lion roared and leapt at them. Harry flinched, expecting to feel the beast’s teeth closing on him any second, but it was brought up short by a chain that ran from the opposite wall to a collar around its neck. Its gigantic muzzle was only inches from Neville’s face, where he stood frozen with fear.
"Burn them!" hissed the snake, and the lion took in a deep breath. Harry yanked Neville around and shoved him bodily through the open door, following on his heels. He slammed the door behind them just as the lion breathed a gout of flame at them. Only a few tiny licks of fire escaped as the door swung shut.
Ron and Harry dragged Neville to his feet, and the three boys ran for it. The stairs hadn’t come back yet, so they had no choice but to head back through the Trophy Room. Fortunately Filch was gone, presumably trying to catch Malfoy and Nott. They pelted through the Armour Gallery and kept running, not stopping until they reached the top of the stairs leading down to the Entry Hall.
"I hope … that door … was fireproof," Harry gasped, trying to catch his breath.
"Better have been," said Neville. "That thing could burn the whole school down."
"What do they think they’re doing, keeping a thing like that locked up in a school?" asked Ron.
"It’s protecting something," said Harry. "Didn’t you see? There was a flight of stairs on the other side of the room. Right near where its chain was."
"Well, whatever it’s protecting, it can keep it," said Ron feelingly. "I’m off to bed. Coming, Neville?"
"Coming. You going to be okay, Harry?"
"Yeah, I can get to the Sett with no problem from here," Harry assured him, and as they headed upwards to Gryffindor Tower, he headed down to the safety of the Hufflepuff dormitory.
As Harry climbed back into bed, he remembered the small package Hagrid had retrieved from the vault in Gringott’s, the same day that, according to Neville’s father, someone had tried to break into that same vault. Whatever Hagrid had picked up for Professor Dumbledore, Harry would bet that it was now at the top of the East Tower.
The next morning, Harry and Neville were relieved to find that neither Ron nor Malfoy was blabbing about their midnight adventure, although Malfoy did seem a little put out to find that the other boys had not been caught and punished. He couldn’t very well tattle on them without getting himself and Nott caught, though. He did take great pleasure in telling anyone who cared to listen, and a great many who didn’t, about the very complex spell he had cast to restore his hair to its proper colour.
When the Marauders got together during free study time, Hermione and Tracey were both less than pleased to find out that Harry and Neville had been running around the castle at night, Hermione because it was a dangerous infraction of the rules and Tracey because they hadn’t invited her. Tracey, of course, was particularly interested in the routing of Malfoy and made Harry go over it in great detail.
"So how do you know so much about the Code Duello?" asked Tracey. "I’ve never even heard of it."
"That might be because I made the whole thing up," said Harry. "I was betting that Malfoy would be too full of himself to admit that he’d never heard of it either. And I was pretty sure Ron would fall for it. I was just hoping that Neville and Ted wouldn’t spill the beans."
"You had me," said Neville, "and Nott really didn’t want to be there. I think he’d have agreed to anything to be allowed to go back to bed. Wonder what Malfoy had on him to make him go along with him?"
"Oh, that’s just beautiful! Malfoy out-Pureblooded by somebody who’s making it up! And the wonder of it is, even if he bothers to look up the Code and finds it doesn’t exist, he’ll never be able to admit to it! Too bad you had to turn his hair back, though."
"I wish you had time to do one of those colour stacking things on him. It would have been great to change his hair colour every time we saw him!" said Neville, and then Harry had to explain his colour charms and show his new favourite book to the girls. Hermione scoffed at it at first because the charms in it weren’t powerful, or obscure, or elaborate.
"Sometimes simple is best," Harry said. "Everything in here is fast and I can do it now instead of taking five years to figure it out. That door unlocking charm saved our arses last night!"
"Language," said Hermione absently.
"Well, it did!" said Neville.
"If you hadn’t been able to unlock the door, you wouldn’t have been almost eaten!" she replied. "Far better to be serving detention than being roasted by that … that … what was that, anyway?"
"Dunno. We haven’t taken Care of Magical Creatures yet. But anything that has two heads and breathes fire is not something I want to be too close to," said Neville.
"Sort of makes you wonder what they’ve got up in that tower if that’s the sort of thing they have guarding it," said Harry.
"Don’t tell me you’re going to try to find out how to get past it! That could be incredibly dangerous!" said Hermione.
"Okay, then I won’t tell you," said Harry with a smirk. "Seriously, I was just wondering, that’s all. I’m no fonder of the idea of being a lion’s breakfast — either raw or toasted — than anyone else is. Now, has anybody got the hang of that butterfly-to-silk-flower transfiguration yet?" he asked, closing the subject.
Two weeks later, they began flying lessons. Tryouts for the Hufflepuff house Quidditch team had been held in the interim, and all the first years had flocked to watch, even though they couldn’t try out themselves. Unlike the other houses, where people who had a spot on the team kept it and tryouts were only held for vacancies, Hufflepuff tried out all positions every year. Usually it meant that someone who had a position one year would keep it the next, but sometimes there were surprises, as when Cedric Diggory, their star Seeker, had unseated a sixth-year student for the position when he was only in second. The first-years watched eagerly, with the students from wizarding families explaining the game to the Muggleborns, and all of them swearing they were going to try out next year. They became even more excited when a notice was posted in the Hufflepuff common room stating that evaluations for flying lessons would be carried out on Wednesday. They would be sharing the session with the Ravenclaws.
As the day approached, Hermione became incredibly nervous. As a Muggleborn witch, she had never flown on a broomstick in her life — the closest she’d ever been was riding a stick horse when she was a little girl. It didn’t help that flying was one of those subjects that absolutely could not be learned from a book. Not that she didn’t try. She checked books on flying out of the library and read out loud about tips and tricks of broom handling until the rest of the Marauders were sick of it and Harry was wondering if he could go on the sick list that day and take the class the next day with Neville and Tracey.
Harry was none too complacent himself. He’d ridden on a broom before, of course, but not very high or very fast, given the size of the Dower Estate and the age of the brooms in the shed. They were in good repair, but still, a fifteen-year-old broom was a fifteen-year-old broom.
He was relieved when the classes reported to the wide grassy lawn and he got a chance to look at the two lines of school brooms. There wasn’t one of them newer than the ones at home, and all of them had been battered, dinged and generally abused by years of students before him. While they were all standing around inspecting the brooms, their teacher, Madam Hooch, arrived. She had short, grey hair and yellow eyes like a hawk, and carried a much newer, better cared for broom over her shoulder.
"One guess what her animagus form would be," said Ernie MacMillan, who was standing next to Harry.
"Let’s see… a wombat!" said Harry with a grin. Ernie snorted in reply.
Madam Hooch placed her broom on the ground at the head of the two lines of student brooms. "Welcome to the basic flying skills evaluation," she said briskly. "Today we’re going to find out who needs lessons, and at what level — separating the pigeons from the swallows, as it were. If you’ve never been on a broom before, odds are you’ll be needing a fair amount of training before you’re comfortable in the air — and even if you don’t like flying" — her tone said she really couldn’t imagine not liking flying — "I guarantee you’ll at least be competent on a broom before you leave Hogwarts. If you’ve had some experience, you may be moved into intermediate or advanced classes, and you’ll be moved up in levels as your skills increase. For your information, nobody is allowed on the Quidditch or broom racing teams until I say your skills are up to it. For now, we’re just going to practice getting our brooms in the air and landing again. We’ll make a few touch-and-goes, and then a leisurely flight around the castle at low altitude. Well, what are you all waiting for?" she Hooch barked. "Everyone stand by a broomstick. Come on, hurry up."
The students hurriedly arranged themselves, and there was some jockeying for the best brooms. It wasn’t surprising that the pureblooded students, who knew what to look for, got the better brooms. Harry glanced down at his broom. It was old and some of the twigs stuck out at odd angles, but at least both stirrups were firmly attached. Hermione’s was worse than his, with scratch marks all down the handle.
"Stick out your right hand over your broom," called Madam Hooch at the front, "and say â€˜Up!’"
"UP!" everyone shouted.
Harry’s broom jumped into his hand at once, but it was one of the few that did. Hermione’s simply rolled over on the ground, and Hannah Abbott’s didn’t move at all. Perhaps brooms, like horses, could tell when you were afraid, thought Harry; Hannah looked like she would rather be anywhere else than here.
After several tries, they all had their brooms up and in hand. Madam Hooch then showed them how to mount their brooms without sliding off the end, and walked up and down the rows correcting their grips. "Now, when I blow my whistle, you kick off from the ground, hard," said the flying instructor. "Keep your brooms steady, rise a few feet, and then come straight back down by leaning forward slightly. Don’t worry about getting your feet in the stirrups on this try. On my whistle -- three -- two -- "
Suddenly Hannah’s broom launched itself, and the blonde girl shrieked as her feet left the ground. Her broom rose rapidly and zoomed away, heading off toward the Quidditch pitch. "Oh for Merlin’s sake!" said Madam Hooch, and she reached for her broom, which leapt unhesitatingly into her hand without even being commanded. "Everyone stay put!" she snapped, and leapt effortlessly into the air in pursuit of the escaping broom.
Unfortunately brooms seemed to be herd animals, and what one did, others were likely to do. Hermione’s broom quivered in her hands and took off with her clinging desperately to it while it circled madly above the other students’ heads. Then it abruptly headed off around the castle to the south. Hermione obviously had no control of it at all, and was putting all her effort into not falling off.
It was quite obvious that Madam Hooch was never going to be able to catch both runaways, even if she’d known about Hermione’s plight.
Harry said a word he’d learned from the older boys in Godric’s Hollow and kicked off, pulling his broom around in a rapid turn and following Hermione. Even if his broom wasn’t the best, hers was worse, and he could fly straight after her, while she was veering all over the place. "Try to force it down!" he yelled, but perversely the broom corkscrewed higher.
Hermione’s broom pulled a tight curve around the southwest tower. Afraid that it was going to try to brush her off against the stonework, Harry pulled an even tighter turn inside her flight path. The south side of the castle, however, was where the Herbology greenhouses were, to take best advantage of the light, and Hermione was now right above the expanse of glass and metal, which had ornamental bits of ironwork that looked quite threatening from this point of view. It was here, of course, that the broom pulled into a tight rising spiral and then an abrupt roll. Hermione and the broom parted company at the height of the top of the castle wall, and she plummeted straight down towards the greenhouses, too frightened even to scream, while the broom made a break for it and headed south toward Hogsmeade.
Harry pushed his broom into a steep dive and managed to get under her. In a daring move, he let go of the handle and steered with the pressure of his feet against the stirrups. Hermione’s weight plummeting into his arms almost tore him away from the broom himself, but instinctively he used his legs to centre the broom under them to take some of the impact. The broom sank almost to the tops of the greenhouses, but thankfully did not crash through. Hermione grabbed hold of Harry for dear life, and he settled her side-saddle in front of him. Steering awkwardly, he got the broom away from the greenhouses and brought it down to the ground.
The greenhouse doors opened, and Professor Sprout and her sixth-year NEWT class came running out. A sharp-eyed Ravenclaw had spotted Hermione and Harry and screamed, attracting everybody else’s attention, and they had all watched the rescue breathlessly. "Mr. Potter! And Miss … good heavens, is that Miss Granger? Are you both all right?" asked Professor Sprout.
"I think so," said Harry, feeling a little breathless.
"What on earth was that all about?"
"Flying lessons. Hannah’s broom went one way, and Hermione’s broom went another. Somebody had to catch her, so …" He shrugged.
"Your flying was amazing," said one of the boys. "You must have been practically born on a broom!"
"Not really. I’ve only flown a little, and never so high or so fast," said Harry.
"Then your rescue of Miss Granger is quite extraordinary," said Professor Sprout.
"Anybody would have done it," protested Harry.
"On the contrary," said Professor Sprout, nodding at the base of the tower where half of the first year group had just run around to see what had happened. "Apparently nobody else would have done it. Ten points to Hufflepuff, Mr. Potter. Let’s get you and Miss Granger back to your class, shall we?"
Hermione was beginning to come out of her shock, and tried to slide off the broom. Harry held her to keep her on it.
"Stay on the broom, Hermione," he said gently. She looked at him with panic in her eyes. "If you get off now, you may never get on one again," he explained. "But if you ride this one back to where the class is, you’ll be able to fly again later. I’ll walk right alongside you and keep a hand on the broom, all right? But you have to steer it." She nodded hesitantly, and he slid off and then helped her shift her position on the broom to a normal flying position.
By this time, the rest of their class had reached them, and everyone wanted to hear the story, which the sixth-years were only too happy to tell them. Harry ignored them, helping Hermione steer the broom back toward the front of the castle.
The first-years, augmented by the Herbology class, got back to the flight ground at about the same time as Madame Hooch returned, with Hannah slowly flying the instructor’s broom, and the runaway carried over Madame Hooch’s shoulder. Then the story of Harry’s heroic rescue had to be told all over again, and Madame Hooch gave him another three points for getting Hermione to stay on her broom, and Hermione one for doing it. Then both girls and Harry were sent off to the hospital wing to be checked out, with one of the sixth-years to make sure they actually went.
Everyone in the Hufflepuff Sett had heard the story by the time Harry had been checked out by Madame Pomfrey and dosed with a mild healing potion to counteract the muscle strains he didn’t even know he’d acquired. He intended to clean up a little bit before dinner, and was startled to walk into a barrage of applause and whistles from virtually every member of his House. Embarrassed and blushing, he tried to make a dash for the dorms, but the older students cut him off and directed him to Professor Sprout, who was beaming happily at him.
"Harry, I had a talk with Madame Hooch after the flight class was over this afternoon. She and I agreed that you should be moved into the accelerated flying classes. You have a great deal of natural talent for flying, and it only needs a little honing. I also think you’ve talked about trying out for the Quidditch team next year?"
Harry nodded, unable to speak.
"Well, I’ve had a talk with the members of the current team, and they’ve agreed to take you on as a junior member of the team this year. You’ll attend practices with them and help the Captain out with his paperwork, help organize the equipment, and so forth. The team members will all work with you to find out what position you might be best at. When Madame Hooch says you’re ready for game play, you’ll be one of the reserve players, and you can try out for a regular position next year. Is that all right?"
Harry nodded again and grinned, and the team members surged forward to slap him on the back and shake his hand. He understood what Professor Sprout hadn’t said. He wouldn’t be just given a place on the team if he wasn’t skilled enough to handle it, but he was being given the opportunity to train for it in advance and earn it if he wanted to. He couldn’t have asked for more, and in that moment, he was supremely happy.
The rest of September and October passed rapidly, filled with classwork, homework, and Quidditch practice.
The two brooms that had run amok had been replaced by new Cleansweeps, and Harry was allowed to use one of them for team practice. He was rapidly catching on to the various manoeuvres and flying tricks used in the various positions, and hoped Madame Hooch would give him clearance to play soon. The other team members had tested him at the various positions and decided that he didn’t have enough muscle to be a Beater or the reach to be a Keeper, but he was the perfect build for a Seeker and would make an adequate Chaser as well, so he was being groomed for those two positions.
"You’re sure you don’t mind training me when I’m likely to go after your position?" he asked Cedric after an evening of Snitch chasing.
"Why should I mind? If you’re better than me, it’s best for the team that you take the position," said the fourth-year. "It’s not like I’d be bounced from the team, either. I’m a reserve Chaser as it is, and this is Aidan’s last year. So even if you took Seeker next year, I’m pretty sure I could get the open Chaser slot, and then I’d still be the reserve Seeker if something happened to you. And that’s if you can beat me. We’re about even now one-on-one, but you haven’t gone up in a full practice yet, and a real game is worse. Wait until you’ve got the Quaffle and the Bludgers zooming around, and thirteen other players to keep an eye on. It’s a lot harder then."
Halloween almost seemed to sneak up on Harry. It was hard for him to believe that he’d been at Hogwarts almost two months already. He’d been dutifully writing letters each weekend, one to Uncle Peter and the elves and one to Sirius and Remus. All three of the Marauders were extremely pleased with the result of the orange-hair prank and the colour-changing robes trick, which had been used on a sixth-year Gryffindor who was bullying the lower years around. It only took three days of wearing randomly tinted robes, and losing house points for being out of uniform, before he got the idea.
The one thing that Harry had not told the older Marauders about was the encounter with the creature in the tower, which Hermione had discovered was called a chimaera, although she insisted that a "real" chimaera had three heads, while Neville thought that any number of heads beyond one was too many. Having got away with that little adventure without losing house points, Harry didn’t want to risk one of the adults calling it to the Headmaster’s attention and having points taken retroactively.
Everybody else seemed to think Halloween was very important, and there was a major feast scheduled. Harry had never really liked it. He knew that’s when his parents had died, and he couldn’t feel happy on the anniversary of a day like that. He usually had nightmares and headaches for a few days before and after. Uncle Peter had his own problems with that day, of course, so they’d never celebrated it at home, but just sat around being quietly miserable. The cheerfulness and excitement building up toward Halloween at Hogwarts was exactly opposite to Harry’s own feelings, so he just kept quiet and let everyone else enjoy it. Professor Snape seemed to share his feelings about it, but it may just have been that the students were more likely to make careless mistakes when they were being distracted, so the Potions Master was forced to be sharp with them to keep their attention on their work.
On the morning of Halloween itself, the halls were filled with the delicious odour of fresh-baked spiced pumpkin muffins, which were piled on the tables for breakfast. Pumpkin pies were promised for the evening feast, which was sort of worth looking forward to, Harry thought grumpily. He hadn’t slept well the night before. His morning class, which was double Herbology with the Gryffindors, didn’t go very well, as he managed to get bitten twice by a Fanged Geranium, and a seedling Devil’s Snare attempted to strangle his ankle. Transfiguration was worse, as his effort to turn a muffler into a coffee mug merely resulted in a knitted teacup which wouldn’t hold a drop.
Hermione wasn’t doing much better. She’d been on edge for a couple of days, and in Charms class, which she shared with the Gryffindors, Ron Weasley managed to say something which sent her into the girls’ room in tears, and it took Tracey almost an hour to get her out. When they did come out, just before dinner started, neither girl would talk to Harry or Neville, but muttered, "Boys!" and went off to find some other girls to talk to.
When Harry went to the Great Hall for dinner, he gaped at the decorations that had been put up. Live bats hung from the ceiling and walls of the Hall, and swooped over the tables in small flocks. Pumpkins with grimacing faces carved in them decorated the tables, and candles inside them flickered, sending strange shadows across the food. The Hogwarts ghosts were all present, causing a distinct chill whenever they passed by, and Peeves the poltergeist was on a tear, pelting the students with wrapped sweets. Cedric and Harry practiced their Seeker skills by grabbing the tasty missiles out of the air and tossing them at other members of the Quidditch team.
Once everyone was settled, the food appeared, and even Harry had to admit it was a feast worth waiting for, even if it was a bit heavy on the pumpkin. There was pumpkin soup with nutmeg, and hot mashed pumpkin with butter, and chunks of roasted pumpkin, and fresh pumpkin juice. There were a lot of things which weren’t pumpkin as well, though, so nobody complained. Even the late arrival of Professor Snape, still clad in his black work robes instead of the dark colours he customarily favoured for dinner, didn’t distract the students from their food.
Half way through the meal, Harry began to feel very odd indeed. Everything in the Great Hall was developing a strange shimmer around it, in an assortment of colours he couldn’t put names to, even after his extensive practice for Potions. He found himself staring at things which he normally didn’t pay any attention to, but which were absolutely fascinating tonight for some reason. He was staring at the embroidered Hogwarts crest on his napkin, when Percy Weasley attracted the attention of everyone in the Hall by standing up and loudly declaiming, "Right! There will be no duck spanking on my watch!" Having said what he apparently needed to say, the Gryffindor sat down and calmly returned to his dinner. The Weasley twins, several seats down, gaped at their older brother and started laughing uproariously.
Percy’s odd statement seemed to be the trigger for others. Random students at all four tables began standing up and declaiming odd things, including Hermione, who accused the girl sitting across from her of having a mother who was a hamster and a father who smelt of elderberries. Professor Sprout stood on her chair and started singing a song about being a teapot. Percy, not to be outdone, got back into the act by standing, turning toward the Ravenclaw table, and loudly pronouncing, "No wife of mine will frequent a back-street gerbilmancer!"
In response, a dark-haired Ravenclaw girl stood and yelled, "That’s assuming you ever even have a wife!" and pelted him with a handful of mashed pumpkin, which caught him right in the face.
This started the Great Hogwarts Food Fight, and soon the air was full of flying comestibles. The Slytherins took the worst of it, of course, as all three other houses pelted their table with mashed pumpkin, mashed potatoes, fruit compote, and anything else that was messy. The Slytherins doggedly gave as good as they got. The house elves helpfully refilled the serving bowls with fresh ammunition.
Oddly enough, a number of students seemed to ignore the food fight entirely.
Perhaps twenty students were managing to doze off, despite all the shrieking and laughing, with their heads pillowed on their arms, or curling up on the floor under the tables.
Somewhere around two dozen other students were now into full-blown speech making, with the most notable examples being Percy, who seemed to believe he was running for Minister of Magic despite the fact that he was wearing a faceful of pumpkin, and three Ravenclaws, including Hermione, who were reciting a rather peculiar Muggle movie word for word. Harry himself was in the process of reciting the House Elf Rules of Tasks to Cedric, who was listening with rapt attention, when suddenly all the shadows in the room gathered themselves into one huge black blotch and leapt at him. Harry screamed and pitched over backwards, out cold before he ever hit the floor.
Severus Snape had been having a bad day. The students, of course, had been distracted all day. The only saving grace was that today he had the seventh years all day, and they were at least able to maintain some focus — if it had been the younger years, the potential for havoc would have been much increased. Professor Trelawney, or as he thought of her, That Fraud Trelawney, had asked him to make a special potion for a project her advanced Divination class was doing after the feast, and he had simply assigned that to the afternoon seventh year class. He also had to make a batch of fresh Calming Potion during the free period between his last class of the day and dinner, since Albus had never given up the idea of letting the students gorge on sweets in celebration of this holiday. At least he’d been talked out of letting them wear fancy dress. Before he could start on the Calming Potion, however, That Other Fraud Quirrell had walked into his classroom and started asking questions about potions which could be used to ward off various Dark creatures. Normally Snape would have been quite happy to indulge in such a discussion with a colleague, but Quirrell’s questions were so inane, and took so long to get out due to his stutter, that the Potions Master quite lost his patience, and stalked off to his private workroom, leaving Quirrell standing gaping in the classroom.
The delay, unfortunately, meant that he would have to go directly from his workroom to the feast without changing from his black work robes into the clean dark green robes he had intended to wear, or cleaning the protective salve from his skin and hair. He felt altogether grubby, and it showed in his mood.
Quirrell was already at the head table when Snape finally made it to the Great Hall. The Potions Master was quite prepared to hex the man into insensibility if he asked about potions again, but all he said was, "It’s a p-p-pity you m-m-m-missed the soup. It was q-q-q-quite excellent."
Snape grunted in reply and reached for his wine goblet. As was his custom, he paused to savour the bouquet, and realized there was something off about the smell of it. Probably his nose was still full of potion vapours. He put the glass down and summoned a goblet of water with which to clear his palate.
That was when Percy Weasley stood up and made such a bizarre statement that it was bound to go down in the annals of Hogwarts weirdness, which were quite extensive, given the nature of the institution. The reaction of his brothers indicated to Snape that the younger Weasleys had quite possibly orchestrated Percy’s outburst.
If that had been it, he would have let it go, chalking the prank up to the sort of adolescent letting-off of steam which normally happened at these affairs. Unfortunately, it seemed to trigger off a series of similar declarations by other students. Even Pomona Sprout was affected, with Minerva McGonagall, who sat next to her, staring at her in shock.
Then the food fight broke out. That drew most of the teachers down from the head table to try to quell it, except for Sprout, who was still dancing, and the Headmaster, who was seemingly conducting the music to which she pirouetted. McGonagall was immediately accosted by a Ravenclaw second-year, who clung to her robes and tearfully pleaded, "But Professor, I don’t want to be an avocado animagus!"
Snape was in the process of separating two fifth-year Slytherin girls who were attempting to scrub each other’s faces with mayonnaise when a shriek of terror, high and piercing, cut through the sounds of combat. He spun and watched Harry Potter, recoiling from some unseen threat, topple backwards and fall to the floor, where he lay twitching and spasming.
That set off an entirely different type of hysteria, as suddenly the great majority of the students were also screaming and trying to get out of the Great Hall.
Dumbledore, it seemed, was now entirely lost in some alternate dimension. He stood and roared something totally incomprehensible, launching a series of truly spectacular hexes at something only he could see, and then he fell forward to lie motionless, draped across the Head Table. Although his hexes had no effect other than to scatter the bats and explode a few of the floating candles, the bright bolts of colour sizzling through the air over the students’ heads increased the panic. Some of the students had escaped into the body of the castle, with Quirrell in hot pursuit, before Flitwick had the presence of mind to charm the Great Hall doors closed.
Clearly, drastic measures were called for.
Snape touched his wand to his throat, using Sonorus to make himself heard over the din. "QUIET! Nobody move! The next person to eat, drink, fling or toss any food or drink loses fifty points from their House!"
The dreadful threat resulted in the immediate cessation of hostilities, as students all over the room put down, or in some cases spat out, various treats and culinary ammunition, and the noise died down enough that he was able to proceed without further assistance from the spell. He turned to McGonagall, who was nominally in charge with Albus down, but who seemed to be somewhat out of her depth.
"Professor, this looks to me like someone put multiple potions in the food. Would you tell the house elves not to clear away any of this mess until I’ve had a chance to go through it and find out what exactly is in everything? That includes the things still in the kitchen." The stern Scotswoman nodded briskly and snapped her fingers to summon the head of the elf staff.
"Madame Pomfrey, will you-"
"I’m already doing triage," she snapped from where she was running her wand along Dumbledore’s body. "Don’t tell me how to do my job, Professor." After a moment, she had Hagrid pick up Dumbledore and Professor Kettleburn pick up Potter to take them both down to the hospital wing while she sorted out the other students.
"This batch has been dosed with Babble-on Broth," she said after a rapid diagnostic on several of the students who were still happily prattling on and completely ignoring the rest of the world. "Probably in the gravy. It’s a standard prank item at Zonko’s and will wear off harmlessly in about half an hour. The worst that will happen is that they might be embarrassed about some of the things that they said. These others," she said, pointing at the nearest sleeping child, "have been dosed with some kind of sleep aid. It’s probably best to make them comfortable and let them sleep it off. They should wake naturally in a few hours. If they don’t, we’ll worry about it then. The rest of them," she said, pointing out a few students who were acting very oddly indeed, "got some kind of hallucinogen. Some of the ones who got out of the Hall probably got that as well, so they may be a challenge to find. They’ll need to be herded down to the hospital wing where they can be watched until we find an antidote. Right now, I’m going to go see about Albus and the Potter boy." She turned on her heel and strode out of the Hall.
McGonagall and the remaining teachers began to sort out the affected students, grouping the babbling students together so they could babble at each other and transfiguring benches into sleeping bags for the sleeping children.
"Weasley twins, front and centre!" Snape roared. The twin menaces trotted to the front of the room.
"We didn’t do it!" they said, in perfect unison.
"Do you honestly expect me to believe that you let the chance to prank a holiday feast go by untaken? This has all the earmarks of something you two would do!"
"Well, we did put—"
"-some Giggle Goo in the Treacle Tart-"
"-but that hasn’t even been served yet-"
"-so this definitely isn’t us."
The two faces staring up at him had more than a little panic on them, and he was inclined to believe them. So the next suspects were —
"Marauders! Whoever you are, I want you up here right now!"
One small figure disengaged from the mob and hesitantly came up to Snape, who frowned down at him. "Longbottom? You’re a-?"
"Marauder, yes sir," said Neville Longbottom in a small voice.
"What about the others? You can’t be the only one."
"Well, one of us is over there," said Longbottom, waving a hand in the general direction of the babblers. "And I think one of us ran away. And the last one just got-"
"Taken down to the hospital wing," said Snape with a sigh. "It would have to be Potter. Did any of you have anything to do with this?"
"Oh, no, sir," said Neville earnestly. "We don’t do random pranks. And we wouldn’t get caught by our own pranks anyway."
"Not unless you wanted to make someone think you hadn’t done it," said Snape. Judging from Longbottom’s wide-eyed look, that little nuance hadn’t occurred to him, and Snape kicked himself for suggesting it.
The non-affected students, including Longbottom and the Weasleys, were led out by the available Prefects to go to their Common Rooms, with orders to clean up and not to let any of the food remaining on their clothes â€˜somehow’ get into their mouths. McGonagall and Sinistra remained in the Great Hall to keep an eye on the sleepers and babblers, while the rest of the staff started to herd the hallucinators down to the hospital wing. It took a while, since they had a tendency to wander off. Once the affected were delivered, most of the staff went off to look for those who had run away and might be hiding somewhere.
Snape was snarling in frustration by the time they reached the hospital wing, but got himself under control when he saw Madame Pomfrey leaning over Albus Dumbledore, who lay twitching on one of the hospital beds. "Poppy! What’s going on with Albus and Potter?"
"Both of them were dosed with multiple potions, which are interacting badly. I don’t dare give either of them anything else until I know exactly what they were dosed with. Until then, I’m using spells to keep them restrained. Marcus said Potter was thrashing about quite a bit when he brought him down, and I was afraid he’d hurt himself otherwise. They’re both dreaming actively, judging from their eye movements. I have no idea what’s going on in their heads." She stood up and sighed, looking down at her patient. "I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that they were the only two who took combinations."
"Only those two …" mused Snape. "No, I don’t think it was luck. I don’t think it was luck at all." Snape spun on his heel and headed for the door.
"Where are you going?"
"To get samples of the food and analyse the potions, what else?" snapped Snape. "I trust that you can keep everything under control until I get back."
It was going to be a long, long night.
Harry had no idea where he was. Perhaps it was the Forbidden Forest, and if so, he never wanted to be there again. He could see nothing but black tree trunks and thorny, leafless undergrowth. Water dripped from the branches and reflected the light of the waning moon. Harry was barefoot, and wore only a thin silk robe which barely sufficed for modesty and did absolutely nothing for warmth.
Harry had read that if lost, one should stay where one was in order to increase the chances of being found, so he huddled at the base of a large tree and tried to stay warm and relatively dry, calling out from time to time to attract attention if someone was looking for him. After a while, he began to wonder if anyone was even aware he was missing. There were no sounds of anyone else in the forest, but he did hear something scratching about in the brush near him, and he was less than pleased with that. Finally, his teeth chattering with cold, he realized that he would have to start moving if he was to avoid freezing, and he staggered off in hopes of finding some kind of path or any sign of civilisation. The ground was mud mixed with stones which cut Harry’s feet, while the mud squished greasily between his bare toes and weighed down the hem of his robe. The thorny vines snagged the fabric, and before long there were long rents in the sleeves and skirt of the robe.
A flash of colour caught his eye, and he diverted his path towards it. To his surprise and joy, he saw Professor Quirrell standing in the centre of a clearing, looking about curiously. It was the purple of his turban that Harry had seen. Oddly, the Professor didn’t seem to be actively searching for anything, or terribly concerned at being in the forest in the middle of the night.
"Professor!" Harry called, running into the clearing. "Here I am! Were you looking for me?"
Quirrell whirled to face him, surprise on his pale features. "B-boy! Wh- what are you d-d-d-?"
He was interrupted when his purple turban started unwinding itself, coming down in loops and swirling around the teacher’s thin frame. It moved like a serpent, sinuous and supple, and somehow it managed to slither across the mud toward Harry without dirtying itself. It even talked like a serpent. "Come, boy, put me on! I’ll keep you warm and safe. I’ll give you everything you need." One end of the fabric reached Harry’s foot and began to wrap around his leg.
"No, no!" shouted Quirrell, grabbing the other end of the fabric and yanking it taut. "You’re mine, not his! You promised!" With another yank, he pulled Harry’s foot out from under him, spilling him backwards into the mud.
"The boy is mine!" hissed the cloth, struggling to get out of Quirrell’s hands even as Quirrell gathered it up. When the Defence teacher refused to let go of it, it turned on him and started swirling around him, wrapping itself tightly around his throat.
Harry decided that this interval while man and hat were both otherwise occupied would be a good time to be leaving. He didn’t even bother standing, but crawled rapidly back into the trees, leaving behind the sounds of a choking man and ripping fabric.
Once safely away from the clearing, Harry regained his feet, and once again started off. As before, he had no idea which direction he was travelling in, but at least now he had someplace he was actively trying to get away from.
When another clearing opened up, Harry was more cautious about looking into it. Here he saw two people, both men, but neither of them seemed to be moving. They stood locked in combat, with their hands around each other’s throats, absolutely motionless. Harry tiptoed into the clearing, but neither gave any sign of life, although their robes moved gently in a random breeze. Consumed by curiosity, Harry approached them, until he could see their faces. One of them was a blond man unknown to Harry, his lips twisted in a rictus of hatred. The other … was Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black.
"Sirius?" Harry whispered. "Sirius, what are you doing? Come on, let’s get going. You can help me get back to Hogwarts." He tugged at Sirius’ robes and patted at his face, but there was no change. It was as if Sirius were carved from stone. "Sirius?"
"He can’t help you, boy," hissed a voice from the tangled vines at the edge of the clearing. "No one can help you. It’s just you … and me." There was a scratching sound like something with claws scrambling towards him.
Harry ran. He didn’t know what it was that was following him, and he didn’t particularly want to know. The mud sucked at his feet, slowing him down, and he was panting from the exertion as he burst into another clearing with no warning.
This clearing was filled with clear moonlight, from the huge full moon hanging in the night sky. A body lay face down in the mud, and Harry recognized him immediately. It was Professor Snape, his rich burgundy robes bedraggled and filthy, a trail of blood snaking down from somewhere under his hair across his face. Over the fallen Professor stood a beast, a gigantic wolf. Its fur was rough and brindled, brown and grey, and its amber eyes shone eerily. It whirled to face Harry, baring its sharp white fangs. With a shriek he turned and fled the clearing as it attacked. He made the shelter of the trees barely ahead of the beast, feeling its hot breath on his legs and a tug on his robe as its teeth snapped only inches behind him. For whatever reason, it did not follow, but returned to its position over the fallen man. It turned its muzzle up to the moon and howled, filling the woods with a sound that was at once terrifying and mournful.
The sound died away, and Harry slowed his headlong flight, mainly because he’d stumbled into a patch of thorns that tore at his legs, and he had to pick his way out carefully. All the while, he expected to hear the wolf coming after him, or possibly the turban, but there was no sound except for his own harsh breathing.
After he was disentangled from the thorns, he wrapped his legs with strips of his robe to protect them if that happened again, and set out once more. There just had to be a way out of this forest. There had to be.
Another clearing opened up in front of him, and this time it was lit with firelight. Trembling, he crept up to its edge and peered around the bole of a tree, trying not to be seen. Torches were mounted in brackets on tree trunks circling the clearing, and in the centre was a flat, rectangular stone. A huge serpent lay coiled upon it. As if sensing him, it reared up and hissed at him.
"Run! Run, little one! But you shall not escape in the end!"
Harry ran. He didn’t bother stopping to see what was in the next clearing, getting only a brief glimpse of a chair twined with golden chains, or the next, where he ran past a dark lake with human-like shapes rising out of it.
Exhausted, he finally stumbled and fell in a clearing that contained only a large, roughly carved stone goblet, mounted on a pedestal. Blue-white flames flickered along its edge, dimly lighting the clearing and casting shadows among the trees.
"And so here we are, boy. In the end as in the beginning. All your running, all your search for help, useless. It’s only you … and me."
Harry had long since figured out that he was dreaming. There was no other explanation for what was happening. But why wasn’t he waking up?
The shadows gathered, took substance, shrank and took solid form, becoming a homunculus, no less terrifying for its small size. It was wrapped in shreds of black silk that looked like they were torn from Harry’s own robe, and sharp teeth and red eyes gleamed in the light as it approached. It pulled a wand out of its robes, incongruously large in its clawed hand.
"AVADA KEDAVRA!" The malevolent words rang out, and a beam of green light illuminated the clearing. Harry did the only thing he could, and rolled frantically out of the way. The beam seared past his ear and struck the goblet full on. The stone split, forming a wide crack, and blue fire poured out like water, streaming across the ground. Harry scrambled around until the pedestal was between him and the monster, but it just kept coming, laughing a high-pitched, evil laugh. Desperate, Harry pushed at the stone goblet, tilting it. With a groaning noise, it fell over, spreading a sheet of flame between Harry and his tormentor. Fortunately, the nasty little creature seemed reluctant to cross the flames, but it was only a matter of time before it occurred to it to go around them.
From somewhere nearby, Harry heard voices.
"Harry, Harry can you hear us? Are you getting any response, Severus?"
"Try it again."
"I don’t want to risk damaging his-"
"Try it again!"
"LEGILIMENS!" shouted Snape at the same moment Harry yelled "Professor!" The trees rushed away, and there was a frustrated shriek from the homunculus as the bright fire surged and filled Harry’s vision with brilliance that burned and filled his head with pain.
When the light cleared, Harry was lying on a bed with crisp white linen sheets, and Professor Snape was staring deeply into his eyes.
"I don’t believe it! You punched Snape in the nose?!" exclaimed Neville, when Harry was allowed to have visitors the next day. Morning classes had been cancelled because there were still so many students (and teachers) in the infirmary, but most of them would be released by lunch, so afternoon classes would proceed normally.
"I think I broke it. There was blood and everything," said Harry, with a certain amount of relish for the gore.
"What did he do?" asked Hermione in horror. "He must have taken every house point ever! Are they going to expel you for attacking a professor?"
"Nope, no house points taken, and I’m not expelled. After Madame Pomfrey put his nose to rights, I apologized. I’d just been through the most awful dream, and that spell he was doing on me hurt, and then I woke up and his nose was right there in front of me …" Harry shuddered with the memory. "Anyway, he said I got that one for free, but if I ever even thought about hitting him again, he’d render me down for potions ingredients. I think he would, too."
"What happened after?" asked Tracey.
"Well, they didn’t want to let me go back to sleep in case I started dreaming again, so Madame Pomfrey dosed me with Pepper-Up Potion and the Headmaster gave me a journal and told me to write down everything that happened in my dreams, â€˜cause there was a lot of weird stuff, you know? And I have to keep doing that for a while, in case I have more strange dreams." He showed them the leather-bound journal resting on his night table. "By then Professor Snape had figured out what was in the stuff people ate and drank, so they were just giving out the antidotes and putting people to bed. I think the last one they brought in was Malfoy. Professor Quirrell found him hiding in Greenhouse Four. Apparently he thought he was a hedgehog. Quirrell got him out from under the potting tables, but he got scorched by Professor Sprout’s Flame Flowers and his turban was all singed, and Malfoy got sick from eating some bugs he found on the floor, so they both stayed the night." Harry gestured at two beds with curtained partitions around them at the other end of the infirmary. "Madame Pomfrey wanted the Headmaster to stay the night too, so we just stayed up and talked about stuff all night."
"You talked to the Headmaster? Oh that must have been so exciting! You could learn so much from him!" said Hermione.
"You’d think that, but he mostly wanted to talk to me. He said it was important to him to know what the students thought about classes and their lives and things. So I told him things about classes, and what I learned when I was little, and playing in the village with the Muggle boys and things like that. It was really weird, though, because I kept forgetting details when I was talking to him. About all I found out about him was that he likes the really sour kind of sweet, and he had a bad experience once with some Every Flavour Beans so he doesn’t eat them now. Oh, and he has a phoenix named Fawkes, and we swapped stories about owning birds for a while. It was better than the last conversation I had with him, at any rate. Finally Madame Pomfrey told us we could both go to sleep, but about then Professor Kettleburn came in and he was all upset about something, so the Headmaster left with him." Harry leaned forward conspiratorially. "It was about the you-know-what in the East Tower. Professor Kettleburn said it bit itself and it was dying, and then the Headmaster put up a silencing spell so I couldn’t hear any more."
"You didn’t — you didn’t tell the Headmaster about us, did you? The Marauders, I mean?" Tracey whispered.
"Of course not. What do you take me for?"
"It doesn’t matter," said Neville miserably. "Snape knows. I had to tell him when everything got strange last night. He thought we might have done it. Well, first he thought it was the Weasleys, then he thought it was us."
Harry groaned. "We’re in for it now, then! He’s going to be all over us!"
"Maybe not. He knows about me and you, but I didn’t tell him Hermione and Tracey’s names. I just sort of waved at the groups you were in, so he maybe doesn’t know who you are for sure."
"He’ll be able to figure it out easily enough. All he has to do is ask Pomfrey who visited me today," said Harry. "If we keep our noses clean for a while, maybe it won’t be too bad. What happened to the rest of you after I fainted, anyway?"
"I wound up reciting the entire first half of Monty Python and the Holy Grail," said Hermione. "Then that horrid babbling stuff wore off, and we were sent back to our common rooms and I went to bed."
"I thought something was chasing me, and I panicked and ran and hid in the practice room," confessed Tracey. "One of the prefects found me and brought me here and they gave me a potion and sent me to bed when I wasn’t feeling quite so jumpy."
"You guys were lucky you didn’t get all of the potions the way I did," said Harry. "That business with the dreams was really nasty. I heard Professor Snape say that someone stole some of the Dream potion he’d made for the Divination class and put it in some of the pitchers of pumpkin juice. Then there was the babbling stuff in the gravy, and who knows what the hallucinating stuff was in. My bad luck to get all three."
"I don’t know about that," said Hermione. "There were only two people who got all three potions, you and the Headmaster. And after the babble stuff wore off, but before they sent us up to the Tower, I saw Professor Snape come in to check the food, and he spent a long time on the wine glass at his own place. So maybe somebody tried to slip him multiple potions, too?"
"Didn’t he come in to dinner late?" asked Harry.
"Yeah, he did," said Tracey. "So he didn’t have time to eat or drink before everything started happening!"
"So maybe … maybe someone was trying to hurt the three of you. And they put other potions in people’s food at random to cover it up. But who would do something like that?"
"I can think of somebody," said Neville grimly. "Death Eaters."
"But didn’t they round them all up when You-Know-Who died? Harry killed him!" said Tracey.
"There’s some say he isn’t dead. No offence, Harry, but my dad doesn’t believe it. He’s still looking for him. Not all of the Death Eaters were caught, either."
"But how can there be a Death Eater in the school? Surely the Headmaster or Professor Snape would know!"
"Apparently not. They’ll be looking out for one now, though, because I’m sure if we can figure it out, so can they. They won’t tell anybody about it, though, â€˜cos they won’t want to frighten us."
"Maybe it wasn’t just the three of us they were after," said Harry. "Maybe they were trying to get whatever it is that’s in the East Tower. Professor Quirrell did come back all burned. Maybe that lion-thingy got him!"
"It’s a chimaera," said Hermione. "And if the snake part bit the lion part … ooh, that’s ugly!"
"But if it was him, he didn’t get all the way past it, otherwise he’d be gone with whatever it is he’s looking for. I’m sure they’ll replace the chimaera with something else to protect it. But what?"
"Probably another of Kettleburn’s creatures. We don’t have an in with Kettleburn, but didn’t you say Hagrid invited you to come visit him some time, Harry? Maybe he knows what’s going on."
Their conclave was interrupted by Madame Pomfrey and Harry’s lunch tray. She shooed all the rest of the students out to tend to their own luncheons, and informed Harry that he was to try to take a nap after eating. If he slept through the afternoon without problems, he would be released to return to his common room before dinner.
He dreamed of Quidditch, and catching the Snitch. When he woke, he wondered for a bit whether he should bother writing it down because it seemed so normal, but he did so anyway, dutifully recording the date and time. Dinner was spent telling everyone a carefully edited version of what had happened to him, and hearing everybody else’s stories about the odd things that happened the previous night. After dinner, instead of settling down with homework, he pulled out some parchment and a quill and started to work on his weekly letter.
"Dear Uncle Sirius and Remus, You are not going to believe what happened to me this week …"