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Post Reply Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Posted 12/14/07
CHAPTER SIXTEEN
THE GOBLET OF FIRE

I don't believe it!” Ron said, in a stunned voice, as the Hogwarts students filed back up the steps behind the party from Durmstrang. “Krum, Harry! Viktor Krum!”
“For heaven's sake, Ron, he's only a Quidditch player,” said Hermione.
“Only a Quidditch player?” Ron said, looking at her as though he couldn't believe his ears. “Hermione—he's one of the best Seekers in the world! I had no idea he was still at school!”
As they recrossed the entrance hall with the rest of the Hogwarts students heading for the Great Hall, Harry saw Lee Jordan jumping up and down on the soles of his feet to get a better look at the back of Krum's head. Several sixth-year girls were frantically searching their pockets as they walked—”Oh I don't believe it, I haven't got a single quill on me—”
“D'you think he'd sign my hat in lipstick?”
“Really,” Hermione said loftily as they passed the girls, now squabbling over the lipstick.
“I'm getting his autograph if I can,” said Ron. “You haven't got a quill, have you, Harry?”
“Nope, they're upstairs in my bag,” said Harry.
They walked over to the Gryffindor table and sat down. Ron took care to sit on the side facing the doorway, because Krum and his fellow Durmstrang students were still gathered around it, apparently unsure about where they should sit. The students from Beauxbatons had chosen seats at the Ravenclaw table. They were looking around the Great Hall with glum expressions on their faces. Three of them were still clutching scarves and shawls around their heads.
“It's not that cold,” said Hermione defensively. “Why didn't they bring cloaks?”
“Over here! Come and sit over here!” Ron hissed. “Over here! Hermione, budge up, make a space—”
“What?”
“Too late,” said Ron bitterly.
Viktor Krum and his fellow Durmstrang students had settled themselves at the Slytherin table. Harry could see Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle looking very smug about this. As he watched, Malfoy bent forward to speak to Krum.
“Yeah, that's right, smarm up to him, Malfoy,” said Ron scathingly. “I bet Krum can see right through him, though... bet he gets people fawning over him all the time... Where d'you reckon they're going to sleep? We could offer him a space in our dormitory, Harry... I wouldn't mind giving him my bed, I could kip on a camp bed.”
Hermione snorted.
“They look a lot happier than the Beauxbatons lot,” said Harry. The Durmstrang students were pulling off their heavy furs and looking up at the starry black ceiling with expressions of interest; a couple of them were picking up the golden plates and goblets and examining them, apparently impressed.
Up at the staff table, Filch, the caretaker, was adding chairs. He was wearing his moldy old tailcoat in honor of the occasion. Harry was surprised to see that he added four chairs, two on either side of Dumbledore's.
“But there are only two extra people,” Harry said. “Why's Filch putting out four chairs, who else is coming?”
“Eh?” said Ron vaguely. He was still staring avidly at Krum.
When all the students had entered the Hall and settled down at their House tables, the staff entered, filing up to the top table and taking their seats. Last in line were Professor Dumbledore, Professor Karkaroff, and Madame Maxime. When their headmistress appeared, the pupils from Beauxbatons leapt to their feet. A few of the Hogwarts students laughed. The Beauxbatons party appeared quite unembarrassed, however, and did not resume their seats until Madame Maxime had sat down on Dumbledore's left-hand side. Dumbledore remained standing, and a silence fell over the Great Hall.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, ghosts and—most particularly—guests,” said Dumbledore, beaming around at the foreign students. “I have great pleasure in welcoming you all to Hogwarts. I hope and trust that your stay here will be both comfortable and enjoyable.”
One of the Beauxbatons girls still clutching a muffler around her head gave what was unmistakably a derisive laugh.
“No one's making you stay!” Hermione whispered, bristling at her.
“The tournament will be officially opened at the end of the feast,” said Dumbledore. “I now invite you all to eat, drink, and make yourselves at home!”
He sat down, and Harry saw Karkaroff lean forward at once and engage him in conversation.
The plates in front of them filled with food as usual. The house-elves in the kitchen seemed to have pulled out all the stops; there was a greater variety of dishes in front of them than Harry had ever seen, including several that were definitely foreign.
“What's that?” said Ron, pointing at a large dish of some sort of shellfish stew that stood beside a large steak-and-kidney pudding.
“Bouillabaisse,” said Hermione.
“Bless you,” said Ron.
“It's French,” said Hermione, “I had it on holiday summer before last. It's very nice.”
“I'll take your word for it,” said Ron, helping himself to black pudding.
The Great Hall seemed somehow much more crowded than usual, even though there were barely twenty additional students there; perhaps it was because their differently colored uniforms stood out so clearly against the black of the Hogwarts' robes. Now that they had removed their furs, the Durmstrang students were revealed to be wearing robes of a deep bloodred.
Hagrid sidled into the Hall through a door behind the staff table twenty minutes after the start of the feast. He slid into his seat at the end and waved at Harry, Ron, and Hermione with a very heavily bandaged hand.
“Skrewts doing all right, Hagrid?” Harry called.
“Thrivin',” Hagrid called back happily.
“Yeah, I'll just bet they are,” said Ron quietly. “Looks like they've finally found a food they like, doesn't it? Hagrid's fingers.”
At that moment, a voice said, “Excuse me, are you wanting ze bouillabaisse?”
It was the girl from Beauxbatons who had laughed during Dumbledore's speech. She had finally removed her muffler. A long sheet of silvery-blonde hair fell almost to her waist. She had large, deep blue eyes, and very white, even teeth.
Ron went purple. He stared up at her, opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out except a faint gurgling noise.
“Yeah, have it,” said Harry, pushing the dish toward the girl.
“You 'ave finished wiz it?”
“Yeah,” Ron said breathlessly. “Yeah, it was excellent.”
The girl picked up the dish and carried it carefully off to the Ravenclaw table. Ron was still goggling at the girl as though he had never seen one before. Harry started to laugh. The sound seemed to jog Ron back to his senses.
“She's a veela!” he said hoarsely to Harry.
“Of course she isn't!” said Hermione tartly. “I don't see anyone else gaping at her like an idiot!”
But she wasn't entirely right about that. As the girl crossed the Hall, many boys' heads turned, and some of them seemed to have become temporarily speechless, just like Ron.
“I'm telling you, that's not a normal girl!” said Ron, leaning sideways so he could keep a clear view of her. “They don't make them like that at Hogwarts!”
“They make them okay at Hogwarts,” said Harry without thinking. Cho happened to be sitting only a few places away from the girl with the silvery hair.
“When you've both put your eyes back in,” said Hermione briskly, “you'll be able to see who's just arrived.”
She was pointing up at the staff table. The two remaining empty seats had just been filled. Ludo Bagman was now sitting on Professor Karkaroff's other side, while Mr. Crouch, Percy's boss, was next to Madame Maxime.
“What are they doing here?” said Harry in surprise.
“They organized the Triwizard Tournament, didn't they?” said Hermione. “I suppose they wanted to be here to see it start.”
When the second course arrived they noticed a number of unfamiliar desserts too. Ron examined an odd sort of pale blancmange closely, then moved it carefully a few inches to his right, so that it would be clearly visible from the Ravenclaw table. The girl who looked like a veela appeared to have eaten enough, however, and did not come over to get it.
Once the golden plates had been wiped clean, Dumbledore stood up again. A pleasant sort of tension seemed to fill the Hall now. Harry felt a slight thrill of excitement, wondering what was coming. Several seats down from them, Fred and George were leaning forward, staring at Dumbledore with great concentration.
“The moment has come,” said Dumbledore, smiling around at the sea of upturned faces. “The Triwizard Tournament is about to start. I would like to say a few words of explanation before we bring in the casket—”
“The what?” Harry muttered.
Ron shrugged.
“just to clarify the procedure that we will be following this year. But first, let me introduce, for those who do not know them, Mr. Bartemius Crouch, Head of the Department of International Magical Cooperation”—there was a smattering of polite applause—”and Mr. Ludo Bagman, Head of the Department of Magical Games and Sports.”
There was a much louder round of applause for Bagman than for Crouch, perhaps because of his fame as a Beater, or simply because he looked so much more likable. He acknowledged it with a jovial wave of his hand. Bartemius Crouch did not smile or wave when his name was announced. Remembering him in his neat suit at the Quidditch World Cup, Harry thought he looked strange in wizard's robes. His toothbrush mustache and severe parting looked very odd next to Dumbledore's long white hair and beard.
“Mr. Bagman and Mr. Crouch have worked tirelessly over the last few months on the arrangements for the Triwizard Tournament,” Dumbledore continued, “and they will be joining myself, Professor Karkaroff, and Madame Maxime on the panel that will judge the champions' efforts.”
At the mention of the word “champions,” the attentiveness of the listening students seemed to sharpen. Perhaps Dumbledore had noticed their sudden stillness, for he smiled as he said, “The casket, then, if you please, Mr. Filch.”
Filch, who had been lurking unnoticed in a far corner of the Hall, now approached Dumbledore carrying a great wooden chest encrusted with jewels. It looked extremely old. A murmur of excited interest rose from the watching students; Dennis Creevey actually stood on his chair to see it properly, but, being so tiny, his head hardly rose above anyone else's.
“The instructions for the tasks the champions will face this year have already been examined by Mr. Crouch and Mr. Bagman,” said Dumbledore as Filch placed the chest carefully on the table before him, “and they have made the necessary arrangements for each challenge. There will be three tasks, spaced throughout the school year, and they will test the champions in many different ways.. their magical prowess—their daring—their powers of deduction—and, of course, their ability to cope with danger.”
At this last word, the Hall was filled with a silence so absolute that nobody seemed to be breathing.
“As you know, three champions compete in the tournament,” Dumbledore went on calmly, “one from each of the participating schools. They will be marked on how well they perform each of the Tournament tasks and the champion with the highest total after task three will win the Triwizard Cup. The champions will be chosen by an impartial selector: the Goblet of Fire.”
Dumbledore now took out his wand and tapped three times upon the top of the casket. The lid creaked slowly open. Dumbledore reached inside it and pulled out a large, roughly hewn wooden cup. It would have been entirely unremarkable had it not been full to the brim with dancing blue-white flames.
Dumbledore closed the casket and placed the goblet carefully on top of it, where it would be clearly visible to everyone in the Hall.
“Anybody wishing to submit themselves as champion must write their name and school clearly upon a slip of parchment and drop it into the goblet,” said Dumbledore. “Aspiring champions have twenty-four hours in which to put their names forward. Tomorrow night, Halloween, the goblet will return the names of the three it has judged most worthy to represent their schools. The goblet will be placed in the entrance hall tonight, where it will be freely accessible to all those wishing to compete.
“To ensure that no underage student yields to temptation,” said Dumbledore, “I will be drawing an Age Line around the Goblet of Fire once it has been placed in the entrance hall. Nobody under the age of seventeen will be able to cross this line.
“Finally, I wish to impress upon any of you wishing to compete that this tournament is not to be entered into lightly. Once a champion has been selected by the Goblet of Fire, he or she is obliged to see the tournament through to the end. The placing of your name in the goblet constitutes a binding, magical contract. There can be no change of heart once you have become a champion. Please be very sure, therefore, that you are wholeheartedly prepared to play before you drop your name into the goblet. Now, I think it is time for bed. Good night to you all.”
“An Age Line!” Fred Weasley said, his eyes glinting, as they all made their way across the Hall to the doors into the entrance hall. “Well, that should be fooled by an Aging Potion, shouldn't it? And once your name's in that goblet, you're laughing—it can't tell whether you're seventeen or not!”
“But I don't think anyone under seventeen will stand a chance,” said Hermione, “we just haven't learned enough...”
“Speak for yourself,” said George shortly. “You'll try and get in, won't you, Harry?”
Harry thought briefly of Dumbledore's insistence that nobody under seventeen should submit their name, but then the wonderful picture of himself winning the Triwizard Tournament filled his mind again... He wondered how angry Dumbledore would be if someone younger than seventeen did find a way to get over the Age Line.
“Where is he?” said Ron, who wasn't listening to a word of this conversation, but looking through the crowd to see what had become of Krum. “Dumbledore didn't say where the Durmstrang people are sleeping, did he?”
But this query was answered almost instantly; they were level with the Slytherin table now, and Karkaroff had just bustled up to his students.
“Back to the ship, then,” he was saying. “Viktor, how are you feeling? Did you eat enough? Should I send for some mulled wine from the kitchens?”
Harry saw Krum shake his head as he pulled his furs back on. “Professor, Ivood like some vine,” said one of the other Durmstrang boys hopefully.
“I wasn't offering it to you, Poliakoff,” snapped Karkaroff, his warmly paternal air vanishing in an instant. “I notice you have dribbled food all down the front of your robes again, disgusting boy—”
Karkaroff turned and led his students toward the doors, reaching them at exactly the same moment as Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Harry stopped to let him walk through first.
“Thank you,” said Karkaroff carelessly, glancing at him. And then Karkaroff froze. He turned his head back to Harry and stared at him as though he couldn't believe his eyes. Behind their headmaster, the students from Durmstrang came to a halt too. Karkaroff's eyes moved slowly up Harry's face and fixed upon his scar. The Durmstrang students were staring curiously at Harry too. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw comprehension dawn on a few of their faces. The boy with food all down his front nudged the girl next to him and pointed openly at Harry's forehead.
“Yeah, that's Harry Potter,” said a growling voice from behind them.
Professor Karkaroff spun around. Mad-Eye Moody was standing there, leaning heavily on his staff, his magical eye glaring unblinkingly at the Durmstrang headmaster.
The color drained from Karkaroff's face as Harry watched. A terrible look of mingled fury and fear came over him.
“You!” he said, staring at Moody as though unsure he was really seeing him.
“Me,” said Moody grimly. “And unless you've got anything to say to Potter, Karkaroff, you might want to move. You're blocking the doorway.”
It was true; half the students in the Hall were now waiting behind them, looking over one another's shoulders to see what was causing the holdup.
Without another word, Professor Karkaroff swept his students away with him. Moody watched him until he was out of sight, his magical eye fixed upon his back, a look of intense dislike upon his mutilated face.

As the next day was Saturday, most students would normally have breakfasted late. Harry, Ron, and Hermione, however, were not alone in rising much earlier than they usually did on weekends. When they went down into the entrance hall, they saw about twenty people milling around it, some of them eating toast, all examining the Goblet of Fire. It had been placed in the center of the hall on the stool that normally bore the Sorting Hat. A thin golden line had been traced on the floor, forming a circle ten feet around it in every direction.
“Anyone put their name in yet?” Ron asked a third-year girl eagerly.
“All the Durmstrang lot,” she replied. “But I haven't seen anyone from Hogwarts yet.”
“Bet some of them put it in last night after we'd all gone to bed,” said Harry. “I would've if it had been me... wouldn't have wanted everyone watching. What if the goblet just gobbed you right back out again?”
Someone laughed behind Harry. Turning, he saw Fred, George, and Lee Jordan hurrying down the staircase, all three of them looking extremely excited.
“Done it,” Fred said in a triumphant whisper to Harry, Ron, and Hermione. “Just taken it.”
“What?” said Ron.
“The Aging Potion, dung brains,” said Fred.
“One drop each,” said George, rubbing his hands together with glee. “We only need to be a few months older.”
“We're going to split the thousand Galleons between the three of us if one of us wins,” said Lee, grinning broadly.
“I'm not sure this is going to work, you know,” said Hermione warningly. “I'm sure Dumbledore will have thought of this.”
Fred, George, and Lee ignored her.
“Ready?” Fred said to the other two, quivering with excitement. “C'mon, then—I'll go first—”
Harry watched, fascinated, as Fred pulled a slip of parchment out of his pocket bearing the words Fred Weasley—Hogwarts. Fred walked right up to the edge of the line and stood there, rocking on his toes like a diver preparing for a fifty-foot drop. Then, with the eyes of every person in the entrance hall upon him, he took a great breath and stepped over the line.
For a split second Harry thought it had worked—George certainly thought so, for he let out a yell of triumph and leapt after Fred—but next moment, there was a loud sizzling sound, and both twins were hurled out of the golden circle as though they had been thrown by an invisible shot-putter. They landed painfully, ten feet away on the cold stone floor, and to add insult to injury, there was a loud popping noise, and both of them sprouted identical long white beards.
The entrance hall rang with laughter. Even Fred and George joined in, once they had gotten to their feet and taken a good look at each other's beards.
“I did warn you,” said a deep, amused voice, and everyone turned to see Professor Dumbledore coming out of the Great Hall. He surveyed Fred and George, his eyes twinkling. “I suggest you both go up to Madam Pomfrey. She is already tending to Miss Fawcett, of Ravenclaw, and Mr. Summers, of Hufflepuff, both of whom decided to age themselves up a little too. Though I must say, neither of their beards is anything like as fine as yours.”
Fred and George set off for the hospital wing, accompanied by Lee, who was howling with laughter, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione, also chortling, went in to breakfast.
The decorations in the Great Hall had changed this morning. As it was Halloween, a cloud of live bats was fluttering around the enchanted ceiling, while hundreds of carved pumpkins leered from every corner. Harry led the way over to Dean and Seamus, who were discussing those Hogwarts students of seventeen or over who might be entering.
“There's a rumor going around that Warrington got up early and put his name in,” Dean told Harry. “That big bloke from Slytherin who looks like a sloth.”
Harry, who had played Quidditch against Warrington, shook his head in disgust.
“We can't have a Slytherin champion!”
“And all the Hufflepuffs are talking about Diggory,” said Seamus contemptuously. “But I wouldn't have thought he'd have wanted to risk his good looks.”
“Listen!” said Hermione suddenly.
People were cheering out in the entrance hall. They all swiveled around in their seats and saw Angelina Johnson coming into the Hall, grinning in an embarrassed sort of way. A tall black girl who played Chaser on the Gryffindor Quidditch team, Angelina came over to them, sat down, and said, “Well, I've done it! Just put my name in!”
“You're kidding!” said Ron, looking impressed.
“Are you seventeen, then?” asked Harry.
“Course she is, can't see a beard, can you?” said Ron.
“I had my birthday last week,” said Angelina.
“Well, I'm glad someone from Gryffindor's entering,” said Hermione. “I really hope you get it, Angelina!”
“Thanks, Hermione,” said Angelina, smiling at her.
Yeah, better you than Pretty-Boy Diggory, said Seamus, causing several Hufflepuffs passing their table to scowl heavily at him.
“What're we going to do today, then?” Ron asked Harry and Hermione when they had finished breakfast and were leaving the Great Hall.
“We haven't been down to visit Hagrid yet,” said Harry.
“Okay,” said Ron, “just as long as he doesn't ask us to donate a few fingers to the skrewts.”
A look of great excitement suddenly dawned on Hermione's face.
“I've just realized—I haven't asked Hagrid to join S. P. E. W. yet!” she said brightly. “Wait for me, will you, while I nip upstairs and get the badges?”
“What is it with her?” said Ron, exasperated, as Hermione ran away up the marble staircase.
“Hey, Ron,” said Harry suddenly. “It's your friend...”
The students from Beauxbatons were coming through the front doors from the grounds, among them, the veela-girl. Those gathered around the Goblet of Fire stood back to let them pass, watching eagerly.
Madame Maxime entered the hall behind her students and organized them into a line. One by one, the Beauxbatons students stepped across the Age Line and dropped their slips of parchment into the blue-white flames. As each name entered the fire, it turned briefly red and emitted sparks.
“What d'you reckon'll happen to the ones who aren't chosen?” Ron muttered to Harry as the veela-girl dropped her parchment into the Goblet of Fire. “Reckon they'll go back to school, or hang around to watch the tournament?”
“Dunno,” said Harry. “Hang around, I suppose... Madame Maxime's staying to judge, isn't she?”
When all the Beauxbatons students had submitted their names, Madame Maxime led them back out of the hall and out onto the grounds again.
“Where are they sleeping, then?” said Ron, moving toward the front doors and staring after them.
A loud rattling noise behind them announced Hermione's reappearance with the box of S. P. E. W. badges.
“Oh good, hurry up,” said Ron, and he jumped down the stone steps, keeping his eyes on the back of the veela-girl, who was now halfway across the lawn with Madame Maxime.
As they neared Hagrid's cabin on the edge of the Forbidden Forest, the mystery of the Beauxbatons' sleeping quarters was solved. The gigantic powder-blue carriage in which they had arrived had been parked two hundred yards from Hagrid's front door, and the students were climbing back inside it. The elephantine flying horses that had pulled the carriage were now grazing in a makeshift paddock alongside it.
Harry knocked on Hagrid's door, and Fang's booming barks answered instantly.
“Bout time!” said Hagrid, when he'd flung open the door. “Thought you lot'd forgotten where I live!”
“We've been really busy, Hag—” Hermione started to say, but then she stopped dead, looking up at Hagrid, apparently lost for words.
Hagrid was wearing his best (and very horrible) hairy brown suit, plus a checked yellow-and-orange tie. This wasn't the worst of it, though; he had evidently tried to tame his hair, using large quantities of what appeared to be axle grease. It was now slicked down into two bunches—perhaps he had tried a ponytail like Bill's, but found he had too much hair. The look didn't really suit Hagrid at all. For a moment, Hermione goggled at him, then, obviously deciding not to comment, she said, “Erm—where are the skrewts.”
“Out by the pumpkin patch,” said Hagrid happily. “They're get-tin' massive, mus' be nearly three foot long now. On'y trouble is, they've started killin' each other.”
“Oh no, really?” said Hermione, shooting a repressive look at Ron, who, staring at Hagrid's odd hairstyle, had just opened his mouth to say something about it.
“Yeah,” said Hagrid sadly. “S' okay, though, I've got 'em in separate boxes now. Still got abou' twenty.”
“Well, that's lucky,” said Ron. Hagrid missed the sarcasm.
Hagrid's cabin comprised a single room, in one corner of which was a gigantic bed covered in a patchwork quilt. A similarly enormous wooden table and chairs stood in front of the fire beneath the quantity of cured hams and dead birds hanging from the ceiling. They sat down at the table while Hagrid started to make tea, and were soon immersed in yet more discussion of the Triwizard Tournament. Hagrid seemed quite as excited about it as they were.
“You wait,” he said, grinning. “You jus' wait. Yer going ter see some stuff yeh've never seen before. Firs' task... ah, but I'm not supposed ter say.”
“Go on, Hagrid!” Harry, Ron, and Hermione urged him, but he just shook his head, grinning.
“I don' want ter spoil it fer yeh,” said Hagrid. “But it's gonna be spectacular, I'll tell yeh that. Them champions're going ter have their work cut out. Never thought I'd live ter see the Triwizard Tournament played again!”
They ended up having lunch with Hagrid, though they didn't eat much—Hagrid had made what he said was a beef casserole, but after Hermione unearthed a large talon in hers, she, Harry, and Ron rather lost their appetites. However, they enjoyed themselves trying to make Hagrid tell them what the tasks in the tournament were going to be, speculating which of the entrants were likely to be selected as champions, and wondering whether Fred and George were beardless yet.
A light rain had started to fall by midafternoon; it was very cozy sitting by the fire, listening to the gentle patter of the drops on the window, watching Hagrid darning his socks and arguing with Hermione about house-elves—for he flatly refused to join S. P. E. W. when she showed him her badges.
“It'd be doin' 'em an unkindness, Hermione,” he said gravely, threading a massive bone needle with thick yellow yarn. “It's in their nature ter look after humans, that's what they like, see? Yeh'd be makin' 'em unhappy ter take away their work, an' insutin' 'em if yeh tried ter pay 'em.”
“But Harry set Dobby free, and he was over the moon about it!” said Hermione. “And we heard he's asking for wages now!”
“Yeah, well, yeh get weirdos in every breed. I'm not sayin' there isn't the odd elf who'd take freedom, but yeh'll never persuade most of 'em ter do it—no, nothin' doin', Hermione.”
Hermione looked very cross indeed and stuffed her box of badges back into her cloak pocket.
By half past five it was growing dark, and Ron, Harry, and Hermione decided it was time to get back up to the castle for the Halloween feast—and, more important, the announcement of the school champions.
“I'll come with yeh,” said Hagrid, putting away his darning. “Jus' give us a sec.”
Hagrid got up, went across to the chest of drawers beside his bed, and began searching for something inside it. They didn't pay too much attention until a truly horrible smell reached their nostrils. Coughing, Ron said, “Hagrid, what's that?”
“Eh?” said Hagrid, turning around with a large bottle in his hand. “Don' yeh like it?”
“Is that aftershave?” said Hermione in a slightly choked voice.
“Er—eau de cologne,” Hagrid muttered. He was blushing.
“Maybe it's a bit much,” he said gruffly. “I'll go take it off, hang on...”
He stumped out of the cabin, and they saw him washing himself vigorously in the water barrel outside the window.
“Eau de cologne?” said Hermione in amazement. “Hagrid?”
“And what's with the hair and the suit?” said Harry in an undertone.
“Look!” said Ron suddenly, pointing out of the window. Hagrid had just straightened up and turned 'round. If he had been blushing before, it was nothing to what he was doing now. Getting to their feet very cautiously, so that Hagrid wouldn't spot them, Harry, Ron, and Hermione peered through the window and saw that Madame Maxime and the Beauxbatons students had just emerged from their carriage, clearly about to set off for the feast too. They couldn't hear what Hagrid was saying, but he was talking to Madame Maxime with a rapt, misty-eyed expression Harry had only ever seen him wear once before—when he had been looking at the baby dragon, Norbert.
“He's going up to the castle with her!” said Hermione indignantly. “I thought he was waiting for us!”
Without so much as a backward glance at his cabin, Hagrid was trudging off up the grounds with Madame Maxime, the Beaux-batons students following in their wake, jogging to keep up with their enormous strides.
“He fancies her!” said Ron incredulously. “Well, if they end up having children, they'll be setting a world record—bet any baby of theirs would weigh about a ton.”
They let themselves out of the cabin and shut the door behind them. It was surprisingly dark outside. Drawing their cloaks more closely around themselves, they set off up the sloping lawns.
“Ooh it's them, look!” Hermione whispered.
The Durmstrang party was walking up toward the castle from the lake. Viktor Krum was walking side by side with Karkaroff, and the other Durmstrang students were straggling along behind them. Ron watched Krum excitedly, but Krum did not look around as he reached the front doors a little ahead of Hermione, Ron, and Harry and proceeded through them.
When they entered the candlelit Great Hall it was almost full. The Goblet of Fire had been moved; it was now standing in front of Dumbledore's empty chair at the teachers' table. Fred and George—clean-shaven again—seemed to have taken their disappointment fairly well.
“Hope it's Angelina,” said Fred as Harry, Ron, and Hermione sat down.
“So do I!” said Hermione breathlessly. “Well, we'll soon know!”
The Halloween feast seemed to take much longer than usual. Perhaps because it was their second feast in two days, Harry didn't seem to fancy the extravagantly prepared food as much as he would have normally. Like everyone else in the Hall, judging by the constantly craning necks, the impatient expressions on every face, the fidgeting, and the standing up to see whether Dumbledore had finished eating yet, Harry simply wanted the plates to clear, and to hear who had been selected as champions.
At long last, the golden plates returned to their original spotless state; there was a sharp upswing in the level of noise within the Hall, which died away almost instantly as Dumbledore got to his feet. On either side of him, Professor Karkaroff and Madame Maxime looked as tense and expectant as anyone. Ludo Bagman was beaming and winking at various students. Mr. Crouch, however, looked quite uninterested, almost bored.
“Well, the goblet is almost ready to make its decision,” said Dumbledore. “I estimate that it requires one more minute. Now, when the champions' names are called, I would ask them please to come up to the top of the Hall, walk along the staff table, and go through into the next chamber”—he indicated the door behind the staff table—”where they will be receiving their first instructions.”
He took out his wand and gave a great sweeping wave with it; at once, all the candles except those inside the carved pumpkins were extinguished, plunging them into a state of semidarkness. The Goblet of Fire now shone more brightly than anything in the whole Hall, the sparkling bright, bluey-whiteness of the flames almost painful on the eyes. Everyone watched, waiting... A few people kept checking their watches...
“Any second,” Lee Jordan whispered, two seats away from Harry.
The flames inside the goblet turned suddenly red again. Sparks began to fly from it. Next moment, a tongue of flame shot into the air, a charred piece of parchment fluttered out of it—the whole room gasped.
Dumbledore caught the piece of parchment and held it at arm's length, so that he could read it by the light of the flames, which had turned back to blue-white.
“The champion for Durmstrang,” he read, in a strong, clear voice, “will be Viktor Krum.”
“No surprises there!” yelled Ron as a storm of applause and cheering swept the Hall. Harry saw Viktor Krum rise from the Slytherin table and slouch up toward Dumbledore; he turned right, walked along the staff table, and disappeared through the door into the next chamber.
“Bravo, Viktor!” boomed Karkaroff, so loudly that everyone could hear him, even over all the applause. “Knew you had it in you!”
The clapping and chatting died down. Now everyone's attention was focused again on the goblet, which, seconds later, turned red once more. A second piece of parchment shot out of it, propelled by the flames.
“The champion for Beauxbatons,” said Dumbledore, “is Fleur Delacour!”
“It's her, Ron!” Harry shouted as the girl who so resembled a veela got gracefully to her feet, shook back her sheet of silvery blonde hair, and swept up between the Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff tables.
“Oh look, they're all disappointed,” Hermione said over the noise, nodding toward the remainder of the Beauxbatons party. “Disappointed” was a bit of an understatement, Harry thought. Two of the girls who had not been selected had dissolved into tears and were sobbing with their heads on their arms.
When Fleur Delacour too had vanished into the side chamber, silence fell again, but this time it was a silence so stiff with excitement you could almost taste it. The Hogwarts champion next...
And the Goblet of Fire turned red once more; sparks showered out of it; the tongue of flame shot high into the air, and from its tip Dumbledore pulled the third piece of parchment.
“The Hogwarts champion,” he called, “is Cedric Diggory!”
“No! “ said Ron loudly, but nobody heard him except Harry; the uproar from the next table was too great. Every single Hufflepuff had jumped to his or her feet, screaming and stamping, as Cedric made his way past them, grinning broadly, and headed off toward the chamber behind the teachers' table. Indeed, the applause for Cedric went on so long that it was some time before Dumbledore could make himself heard again.
“Excellent!” Dumbledore called happily as at last the tumult died down. “Well, we now have our three champions. I am sure I can count upon all of you, including the remaining students from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang, to give your champions every ounce of support you can muster. By cheering your champion on, you will contribute in a very real—”
But Dumbledore suddenly stopped speaking, and it was apparent to everybody what had distracted him.
The fire in the goblet had just turned red again. Sparks were flying out of it. A long flame shot suddenly into the air, and borne upon it was another piece of parchment.
Automatically, it seemed, Dumbledore reached out a long hand and seized the
parchment. He held it out and stared at the name written upon it. There was a long pause, during which Dumbledore stared at the slip in his hands, and everyone in the room stared at Dumbledore. And then Dumbledore cleared his throat and read out—”Harry Potter.”

(hpvn.net)
Posted 12/14/07
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
THE FOUR CHAMPIONS

Harry sat there, aware that every head in the Great Hall had turned to look at him. He was stunned. He felt numb. He was surely dreaming. He had not heard correctly.
There was no applause. A buzzing, as though of angry bees, was starting to fill the Hall; some students were standing up to get a better look at Harry as he sat, frozen, in his seat.
Up at the top table, Professor McGonagall had got to her feet and swept past Ludo Bagman and Professor Karkaroff to whisper urgently to Professor Dumbledore, who bent his ear toward her, frowning slightly.
Harry turned to Ron and Hermione; beyond them, he saw the long Gryffindor table all watching him, openmouthed.
“I didn't put my name in,” Harry said blankly. “You know I didn't.”
Both of them stared just as blankly back.
At the top table, Professor Dumbledore had straightened up, nodding to Professor McGonagall.
“Harry Potter!” he called again. “Harry! Up here, if you please!”
“Go on,” Hermione whispered, giving Harry a slight push.
Harry got to his feet, trod on the hem of his robes, and stumbled slightly. He set off up the gap between the Gryffindor and Hufflepuff tables. It felt like an immensely long walk; the top table didn't seem to be getting any nearer at all, and he could feel hundreds and hundreds of eyes upon him, as though each were a searchlight. The buzzing grew louder and louder. After what seemed like an hour, he was right in front of Dumbledore, feeling the stares of all the teachers upon him.
“Well... through the door, Harry,” said Dumbledore. He wasn't smiling.
Harry moved off along the teachers' table. Hagrid was seated right at the end. He did not wink at Harry, or wave, or give any of his usual signs of greeting. He looked completely astonished and stared at Harry as he passed like everyone else. Harry went through the door out of the Great Hall and found himself in a smaller room, lined with paintings of witches and wizards. A handsome fire was roaring in the fireplace opposite him.
The faces in the portraits turned to look at him as he entered. He saw a wizened witch flit out of the frame of her picture and into the one next to it, which contained a wizard with a walrus mustache. The wizened witch started whispering in his ear.
Viktor Krum, Cedric Diggory, and Fleur Delacour were grouped around the fire. They looked strangely impressive, silhouetted against the flames. Krum, hunched-up and brooding, was leaning against the mantelpiece, slightly apart from the other two. Cedric was standing with his hands behind his back, staring into the fire. Fleur Delacour looked around when Harry walked in and threw back her sheet of long, silvery hair.
“What is it?” she said. “Do zey want us back in ze Hall?”
She thought he had come to deliver a message. Harry didn't know how to explain what had just happened. He just stood there, looking at the three champions. It struck him how very tall all of them were.
There was a sound of scurrying feet behind him, and Ludo Bagman entered the room. He took Harry by the arm and led him forward.
“Extraordinary!” he muttered, squeezing Harry's arm. “Absolutely extraordinary! Gentlemen... lady,” he added, approaching the fireside and addressing the other three. “May I introduce—incredible though it may seem—the fourth Triwizard champion?”
Viktor Krum straightened up. His surly face darkened as he surveyed Harry. Cedric looked nonplussed. He looked from Bagman to Harry and back again as though sure he must have misheard what Bagman had said. Fleur Delacour, however, tossed her hair, smiling, and said, “Oh, vairy funny joke, Meester Bagman.”
“Joke?” Bagman repeated, bewildered. “No, no, not at all! Harry's name just came out of the Goblet of Fire!”
Krum's thick eyebrows contracted slightly. Cedric was still looking politely bewildered. Fleur frowned.
“But evidently zair 'as been a mistake,” she said contemptuously to Bagman. “E cannot compete. 'E is too young.”
“Well... it is amazing,” said Bagman, rubbing his smooth chin and smiling down at Harry. “But, as you know, the age restriction was only imposed this year as an extra safety measure. And as his name's come out of the goblet... I mean, I don't think there can be any ducking out at this stage... It's down in the rules, you're obliged... Harry will just have to do the best he—”
The door behind them opened again, and a large group of people came in: Professor Dumbledore, followed closely by Mr. Crouch, Professor Karkaroff, Madame Maxime, Professor McGonagall, and Professor Snape. Harry heard the buzzing of the hundreds of students on the other side of the wall, before Professor McGonagall closed the door.
“Madame Maxime!” said Fleur at once, striding over to her headmistress. “Zey are saying zat zis little boy is to compete also!”
Somewhere under Harry's numb disbelief he felt a ripple of anger. Little boy?
Madame Maxime had drawn herself up to her full, and considerable, height. The top of her handsome head brushed the candle-filled chandelier, and her gigantic black-satin bosom swelled.
“What is ze meaning of zis, Dumbly-dorr?” she said imperiously. “I'd rather like to know that myself, Dumbledore,” said Professor Karkaroff. He was wearing a steely smile, and his blue eyes were like chips of ice. “Two Hogwarts champions? I don't remember anyone telling me the host school is allowed two champions—or have I not read the rules carefully enough?”
He gave a short and nasty laugh.
“C'est impossible,” said Madame Maxime, whose enormous hand with its many superb opals was resting upon Fleur's shoulder. “Ogwarts cannot 'ave two champions. It is most injust.”
“We were under the impression that your Age Line would keep out younger contestants, Dumbledore,” said Karkaroff, his steely smile still in place, though his eyes were colder than ever. “Otherwise, we would, of course, have brought along a wider selection of candidates from our own schools.”
“It's no one's fault but Potter's, Karkaroff,” said Snape softly. His black eyes were alight with malice. “Don't go blaming Dumbledore for Potter's determination to break rules. He has been crossing lines ever since he arrived here—”
“Thank you, Severus,” said Dumbledore firmly, and Snape went quiet, though his eyes still glinted malevolently through his curtain of greasy black hair.
Professor Dumbledore was now looking down at Harry, who looked right back at him, trying to discern the expression of the eyes behind the half-moon spectacles.
“Did you put your name into the Goblet of Fire, Harry?” he asked calmly.
“No,” said Harry. He was very aware of everybody watching him closely. Snape made a soft noise of impatient disbelief in the shadows.
“Did you ask an older student to put it into the Goblet of Fire for you?” said Professor Dumbledore, ignoring Snape.
“No,” said Harry vehemently.
“Ah, but of course 'e is lying!” cried Madame Maxime. Snape was now shaking his head, his lip curling.
“He could not have crossed the Age Line,” said Professor McGonagall sharply. “I am sure we are all agreed on that—”
“Dumbly-dorr must 'ave made a mistake wiz ze line,” said Madame Maxime, shrugging.
“It is possible, of course,” said Dumbledore politely.
“Dumbledore, you know perfectly well you did not make a mistake!” said Professor McGonagall angrily. “Really, what nonsense! Harry could not have crossed the line himself, and as Professor Dumbledore believes that he did not persuade an older student to do it for him, I'm sure that should be good enough for everybody else!”
She shot a very angry look at Professor Snape.
“Mr. Crouch... Mr. Bagman,” said Karkaroff, his voice unctuous once more, “you are our—er—objective judges. Surely you will agree that this is most irregular?”
Bagman wiped his round, boyish face with his handkerchief and looked at Mr. Crouch, who was standing outside the circle of the firelight, his face half hidden in shadow. He looked slightly eerie, the half darkness making him look much older, giving him an almost skull-like appearance. When he spoke, however, it was in his usual curt voice.
“We must follow the rules, and the rules state clearly that those people whose names come out of the Goblet of Fire are bound to compete in the tournament.”
“Well, Barty knows the rule book back to front,” said Bagman, beaming and turning back to Karkaroff and Madame Maxime, as though the matter was now closed.
“I insist upon resubmitting the names of the rest of my students,” said Karkaroff. He had dropped his unctuous tone and his smile now. His face wore a very ugly look indeed. “You will set up the Goblet of Fire once more, and we will continue adding names until each school has two champions. It's only fair, Dumbledore.”
“But Karkaroff, it doesn't work like that,” said Bagman. “The Goblet of Fire's just gone out—it won't reignite until the start of the next tournament—”
“in which Durmstrang will most certainly not be competing!” exploded Karkaroff. “After all our meetings and negotiations and compromises, I little expected something of this nature to occur! I have half a mind to leave now!”
“Empty threat, Karkaroff,” growled a voice from near the door. “You can't leave your champion now. He's got to compete. They've all got to compete. Binding magical contract, like Dumbledore said. Convenient, eh?”
Moody had just entered the room. He limped toward the fire, and with every right step he took, there was a loud clunk.
“Convenient?” said Karkaroff. “I'm afraid I don't understand you, Moody.”
Harry could tell he was trying to sound disdainful, as though what Moody was saying was barely worth his notice, but his hands gave him away; they had balled themselves into fists.
“Don't you?” said Moody quietly. “It's very simple, Karkaroff. Someone put Potter's name in that goblet knowing he'd have to compete if it came out.”
“Evidently, someone 'oo wished to give 'Ogwarts two bites at ze apple!” said Madame Maxime.
“I quite agree, Madame Maxime,” said Karkaroff, bowing to her. “I shall be lodging complaints with the Ministry of Magic and the International Confederation of Wizards—”
“If anyone's got reason to complain, it's Potter,” growled Moody, “but... funny thing... I don't hear him saying a word...
“Why should 'e complain?” burst out Fleur Delacour, stamping her foot. “E 'as ze chance to compete, 'asn't 'e? We 'ave all been 'oping to be chosen for weeks and weeks! Ze honor for our schools! A thousand Galleons in prize money—zis is a chance many would die for!”
“Maybe someone's hoping Potter is going to die for it,” said Moody, with the merest trace of a growl.
An extremely tense silence followed these words. Ludo Bagman, who was looking very anxious indeed, bounced nervously up and down on his feet and said, “Moody, old man... what a thing to say!”
“We all know Professor Moody considers the morning wasted if he hasn't discovered six plots to murder him before lunchtime,” said Karkaroff loudly. “Apparently he is now teaching his students to fear assassination too. An odd quality in a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dumbledore, but no doubt you had your reasons.
“Imagining things, am I?” growled Moody. “Seeing things, eh? It was a skilled witch or wizard who put the boy's name in that goblet...
“Ah, what evidence is zere of zat?” said Madame Maxime, throwing up her huge hands.
“Because they hoodwinked a very powerful magical object!” said Moody. “It would have needed an exceptionally strong Confundus Charm to bamboozle that goblet into forgetting that only three schools compete in the tournament... I'm guessing they submitted Potter's name under a fourth school, to make sure he was the only one in his category...”
“You seem to have given this a great deal of thought, Moody,” said Karkaroff coldly, “and a very ingenious theory it is—though of course, I heard you recently got it into your head that one of your birthday presents contained a cunningly disguised basilisk egg, and smashed it to pieces before realizing it was a carriage clock. So you'll understand if we don't take you entirely seriously...”
“There are those who'll turn innocent occasions to their advantage,” Moody retorted in a menacing voice. “It's my job to think the way Dark wizards do, Karkaroff—as you ought to remember...
“Alastor!” said Dumbledore warningly. Harry wondered for a moment whom he was speaking to, but then realized “Mad-Eye” could hardly be Moody's real first name. Moody fell silent, though still surveying Karkaroff with satisfaction—Karkaroff's face was burning.
“How this situation arose, we do not know,” said Dumbledore, speaking to everyone gathered in the room. “It seems to me, however, that we have no choice but to accept it. Both Cedric and Harry have been chosen to compete in the Tournament. This, therefore, they will do...
“Ah, but Dumbly-dorr—”
“My dear Madame Maxime, if you have an alternative, I would be delighted to hear it.”
Dumbledore waited, but Madame Maxime did not speak, she merely glared. She wasn't the only one either. Snape looked furious; Karkaroff livid; Bagman, however, looked rather excited.
“Well, shall we crack on, then?” he said, rubbing his hands together and smiling around the room. “Got to give our champions their instructions, haven't we? Barty, want to do the honors?”
Mr. Crouch seemed to come out of a deep reverie.
“Yes,” he said, “instructions. Yes... the first task...”
He moved forward into the firelight. Close up, Harry thought he looked ill. There were dark shadows beneath his eyes and a thin, papery look about his wrinkled skin that had not been there at the Quidditch World Cup.
“The first task is designed to test your daring,” he told Harry, Cedric, Fleur, and Viktor, “so we are not going to be telling you what it is. Courage in the face of the unknown is an important quality in a wizard... very important.
“The first task will take place on November the twenty-fourth, in front of the other students and the panel of judges.
“The champions are not permitted to ask for or accept help of any kind from their teachers to complete the tasks in the tournament. The champions will face the first challenge armed only with their wands. They will receive information about the second task when the first is over. Owing to the demanding and time-consuming nature of the tournament, the champions are exempted from end-of-year tests.”
Mr. Crouch turned to look at Dumbledore.
“I think that's all, is it, Albus?”
“I think so,” said Dumbledore, who was looking at Mr. Crouch with mild concern. “Are you sure you wouldn't like to stay at Hogwarts tonight, Barty?”
“No, Dumbledore, I must get back to the Ministry,” said Mr. Crouch. “It is a very busy, very difficult time at the moment... I've left young Weatherby in charge... Very enthusiastic... a little overenthusiastic, if truth be told...
“You'll come and have a drink before you go, at least?” said Dumbledore.
“Come on, Barry, I'm staying!” said Bagman brightly. “It's all happening at Hogwarts now, you know, much more exciting here than at the office!”
“I think not, Ludo,” said Crouch with a touch of his old impatience.
“Professor Karkaroff—Madame Maxime—a nightcap?” said Dumbledore.
But Madame Maxime had already put her arm around Fleur's shoulders and was leading her swiftly out of the room. Harry could hear them both talking very fast in French as they went off into the Great Hall. Karkaroff beckoned to Krum, and they, too, exited, though in silence.
“Harry, Cedric, I suggest you go up to bed,” said Dumbledore, smiling at both of them. “I am sure Gryffindor and Hufflepuff are waiting to celebrate with you, and it would be a shame to deprive them of this excellent excuse to make a great deal of mess and noise.”
Harry glanced at Cedric, who nodded, and they left together.
The Great Hall was deserted now; the candles had burned low, giving the jagged smiles of the pumpkins an eerie, flickering quality.
“So,” said Cedric, with a slight smile. “We're playing against each other again!”
“I s'pose,” said Harry. He really couldn't think of anything to say. The inside of his head seemed to be in complete disarray, as though his brain had been ransacked.
“So... tell me...” said Cedric as they reached the entrance hall, which was now lit only by torches in the absence of the Goblet of Fire. “How did you get your name in?”
“I didn't,” said Harry, staring up at him. “I didn't put it in. I was telling the truth.”
“Ah... okay,” said Cedric. Harry could tell Cedric didn't believe him. “Well... see you, then.”
Instead of going up the marble staircase, Cedric headed for a door to its right. Harry stood listening to him going down the stone steps beyond it, then, slowly, he started to climb the marble ones.
Was anyone except Ron and Hermione going to believe him, or would they all think he'd put himself in for the tournament? Yet how could anyone think that, when he was facing competitors who'd had three years' more magical education than he had—when he was now facing tasks that not only sounded very dangerous, but which were to be performed in front of hundreds of people? Yes, he'd thought about it... he'd fantasized about it... but it had been a joke, really, an idle sort of dream... he'd never really, seriously considered entering..
But someone else had considered it... someone else had wanted him in the tournament, and had made sure he was entered. Why? To give him a treat? He didn't think so, somehow...
To see him make a fool of himself? Well, they were likely to get their wish..
But to get him killed?
Was Moody just being his usual paranoid self? Couldn't someone have put Harry's name in the goblet as a trick, a practical joke? Did anyone really want him dead?
Harry was able to answer that at once. Yes, someone wanted him dead, someone had wanted him dead ever since he had been a year old... Lord Voldemort. But how could Voldemort have ensured that Harry's name got into the Goblet of Fire? Voldemort was supposed to be far away, in some distant country, in hiding, alone... feeble and powerless...
Yet in that dream he had had, just before he had awoken with his scar hurting, Voldemort had not been alone... he had been talking to Wormtail... plotting Harry's murder.
Harry got a shock to find himself facing the Fat Lady already. He had barely noticed where his feet were carrying him. It was also a surprise to see that she was not alone in her frame. The wizened witch who had flitted into her neighbor's painting when he had joined the champions downstairs was now sitting smugly beside the Fat Lady. She must have dashed through every picture lining seven staircases to reach here before him. Both she and the Fat Lady were looking down at him with the keenest interest.
“Well, well, well,” said the Fat Lady, “Violet's just told me everything. Who's just been chosen as school champion, then?”
“Balderdash,” said Harry dully.
“It most certainly isn't!” said the pale witch indignantly.
“No, no, Vi, it's the password,” said the Fat Lady soothingly, and she swung forward on her hinges to let Harry into the common room.
The blast of noise that met Harry's ears when the portrait opened almost knocked him backward. Next thing he knew, he was being wrenched inside the common room by about a dozen pairs of hands, and was facing the whole of Gryffindor House, all of whom were screaming, applauding, and whistling.
“You should've told us you'd entered!” bellowed Fred; he looked half annoyed, half deeply impressed.
“How did you do it without getting a beard? Brilliant!” roared George.
“I didn't,” Harry said. “I don't know how—”
But Angelina had now swooped down upon him; “Oh if it couldn't be me, at least it's a Gryffindor—”
“You'll be able to pay back Diggory for that last Quidditch match, Harry!” shrieked Katie Bell, another of the Gryffindor Chasers.
“We've got food, Harry, come and have some—”
“I'm not hungry, I had enough at the feast—”
But nobody wanted to hear that he wasn't hungry; nobody wanted to hear that he hadn't put his name in the goblet; not one single person seemed to have noticed that he wasn't at all in the mood to celebrate... Lee Jordan had unearthed a Gryffindor banner from somewhere, and he insisted on draping it around Harry like a cloak. Harry couldn't get away; whenever he tried to sidle over to the staircase up to the dormitories, the crowd around him closed ranks, forcing another butterbeer on him, stuffing crisps and peanuts into his hands... Everyone wanted to know how he had done it, how he had tricked Dumbledore's Age Line and managed to get his name into the goblet...
“I didn't,” he said, over and over again, “I don't know how it happened.”
But for all the notice anyone took, he might just as well not have answered at all.
“I'm tired!” he bellowed finally, after nearly half an hour. “No, seriously, George—I'm going to bed—”
He wanted more than anything to find Ron and Hermione, to find a bit of sanity, but neither of them seemed to be in the common room. Insisting that he needed to sleep, and almost flattening the little Creevey brothers as they attempted to waylay him at the foot of the stairs, Harry managed to shake everyone off and climb up to the dormitory as fast as he could.
To his great relief, he found Ron was lying on his bed in the otherwise empty dormitory, still fully dressed. He looked up when Harry slammed the door behind him.
“Where've you been?” Harry said.
“Oh hello,” said Ron.
He was grinning, but it was a very odd, strained sort of grin. Harry suddenly became aware that he was still wearing the scarlet Gryffindor banner that Lee had tied around him. He hastened to take it off, but it was knotted very tightly. Ron lay on the bed without moving, watching Harry struggle to remove it.
“So,” he said, when Harry had finally removed the banner and thrown it into a corner. “Congratulations.”
“What d'you mean, congratulations?” said Harry, staring at Ron. There was definitely something wrong with the way Ron was smiling: It was more like a grimace.
“Well... no one else got across the Age Line,” said Ron. “Not even Fred and George. What did you use—the Invisibility Cloak?”
“The Invisibility Cloak wouldn't have got me over that line,” said Harry slowly.
“Oh right,” said Ron. “I thought you might've told me if it was the cloak... because it would've covered both of us, wouldn't it? But you found another way, did you?”
“Listen,” said Harry, “I didn't put my name in that goblet. Someone else must've done it.”
Ron raised his eyebrows.
“What would they do that for?”
“I dunno,” said Harry. He felt it would sound very melodramatic to say, “To kill me.”
Ron's eyebrows rose so high that they were in danger of disappearing into his hair.
“It's okay, you know, you can tell me the truth,” he said. “If you don't want everyone else to know, fine, but I don't know why you're bothering to lie, you didn't get into trouble for it, did you? That friend of the Fat Lady's, that Violet, she's already told us all Dumbledore's letting you enter. A thousand Galleons prize money, eh? And you don't have to do end-of-year tests either...”
“I didn't put my name in that goblet!” said Harry, starting to feel angry.
“Yeah, okay,” said Ron, in exactly the same sceptical tone as Cedric. “Only you said this morning you'd have done it last night, and no one would've seen you... I'm not stupid, you know.”
“You're doing a really good impression of it,” Harry snapped.
“Yeah?” said Ron, and there was no trace of a grin, forced or otherwise, on his face now. “You want to get to bed, Harry. I expect you'll need to be up early tomorrow for a photo-call or something.”
He wrenched the hangings shut around his four-poster, leaving Harry standing there by the door, staring at the dark red velvet curtains, now hiding one of the few people he had been sure would believe him.

(hpvn.net)
Posted 12/14/07
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
THE WEIGHING OF THE WANDS

When Harry woke up on Sunday morning, it took him a moment to remember why he felt so miserable and worried. Then the memory of the previous night rolled over him. He sat up and ripped back the curtains of his own four-poster, intending to talk to Ron, to force Ron to believe him—only to find that Ron's bed was empty; he had obviously gone down to breakfast.
Harry dressed and went down the spiral staircase into the common room. The moment he appeared, the people who had already finished breakfast broke into applause again. The prospect of going down into the Great Hall and facing the rest of the Gryffindors, all treating him like some sort of hero, was not inviting; it was that, however, or stay here and allow himself to be cornered by the Creevey brothers, who were both beckoning frantically to him to join them. He walked resolutely over to the portrait hole, pushed it open, climbed out of it, and found himself face-to-face with Hermione.
“Hello,” she said, holding up a stack of toast, which she was carrying in a napkin. “I brought you this... Want to go for a walk?”
“Good idea,” said Harry gratefully.
They went downstairs, crossed the entrance hall quickly without looking in at the Great Hall, and were soon striding across the lawn toward the lake, where the Durmstrang ship was moored, reflected blackly in the water. It was a chilly morning, and they kept moving, munching their toast, as Harry told Hermione exactly what had happened after he had left the Gryffindor table the night before. To his immense relief, Hermione accepted his story without question.
“Well, of course I knew you hadn't entered yourself,” she said when he'd finished telling her about the scene in the chamber off the Hall. “The look on your face when Dumbledore read out your name! But the question is, who did put it in? Because Moody's right, Harry... I don't think any student could have done it... they'd never be able to fool the Goblet, or get over Dumbledore's—”
“Have you seen Ron?” Harry interrupted.
Hermione hesitated.
“Erm... yes... he was at breakfast,” she said.
“Does he still think I entered myself?”
“Well... no, I don't think so... not really,” said Hermione awkwardly.
“What's that supposed to mean, 'not really'?”
“Oh Harry, isn't it obvious?” Hermione said despairingly. “He's jealous!”
“Jealous?” Harry said incredulously. “Jealous of what? He wants to make a prat of himself in front of the whole school, does he?”
“Look,” said Hermione patiently, “it's always you who gets all the attention, you know it is. I know it's not your fault,” she added quickly, seeing Harry open his mouth furiously. “I know you don't ask for it... but—well—you know, Ron's got all those brothers to compete against at home, and you're his best friend, and you're really famous—he's always shunted to one side whenever people see you, and he puts up with it, and he never mentions it, but I suppose this is just one time too many...
“Great,” said Harry bitterly. “Really great. Tell him from me I'll swap any time he wants. Tell him from me he's welcome to it... People gawping at my forehead everywhere I go...”
“I'm not teiling him anything,” Hermione said shortly. “Tell him yourself. It's the only way to sort this out.”
“I'm not running around after him trying to make him grow up!” Harry said, so loudly that several owls in a nearby tree took flight in alarm. “Maybe he'll believe I'm not enjoying myself once I've got my neck broken or—”
“That's not funny,” said Hermione quietly. “That's not funny at all.” She looked extremely anxious. “Harry, I've been thinking—you know what we've got to do, don't you? Straight away, the moment we get back to the castle?”
“Yeah, give Ron a good kick up the—”
“Write to Sirius. You've got to tell him what's happened. He asked you to keep him posted on everything that's going on at Hogwarts... It's almost as if he expected something like this to happen. I brought some parchment and a quill out with me—”
“Come off it,” said Harry, looking around to check that they couldn't be overheard, but the grounds were quite deserted. “He came back to the country just because my scar twinged. He'll probably come bursting right into the castle if I tell him someone's entered me in the Triwizard Tournament—”
“He'd want you to tell him,” said Hermione sternly. “He's going to find out anyway.”
“How?”
“Harry, this isn't going to be kept quiet,” said Hermione, very seriously. “This tournament's famous, and you're famous. I'll be really surprised if there isn't anything in the Daily Prophet about you competing... You're already in half the books about You-Know-Who, you know... and Sirius would rather hear it from you, I know he would.”
“Okay, okay, I'll write to him,” said Harry, throwing his last piece of toast into the lake. They both stood and watched it floating there for a moment, before a large tentacle rose out of the water and scooped it beneath the surface. Then they returned to the castle.
“Whose owl am I going to use?” Harry said as they climbed the stairs. “He told me not to use Hedwig again.”
“Ask Ron if you can borrow—”
“I'm not asking Ron for anything,” Harry said flatly.
“Well, borrow one of the school owls, then, anyone can use them,” said Hermione.
They went up to the Owlery. Hermione gave Harry a piece of parchment, a quill, and a bottle of ink, then strolled around the long lines of perches, looking at all the different owls, while Harry sat down against a wall and wrote his letter.

Dear Sirius,
You told me to keep you posted on what's happening at Hogwarts, so here goes—I don't know if you've heard, but the Triwizard Tournament's happening this year and on Saturday night I got picked as a fourth champion. I don't who put my name in the Goblet of Fire, because I didn't. The other Hogwarts champion is Cedric Diggory, from Hufflepuff

He paused at this point, thinking. He had an urge to say something about the large weight of anxiety that seemed to have settled inside his chest since last night, but he couldn't think how to translate this into words, so he simply dipped his quill back into the ink bottle and wrote,
Hope you're okay, and Buckbeak—Harry

“Finished,” he told Hermione, getting to his feet and brushing straw off his robes. At this, Hedwig fluttered down onto his shoulder and held out her leg.
“I can't use you,” Harry told her, looking around for the school owls. “I've got to use one of these.”
Hedwig gave a very loud hoot and took off so suddenly that her talons cut into his shoulder. She kept her back to Harry all the time he was tying his letter to the leg of a large barn owl. When the barn owl had flown off, Harry reached out to stroke Hedwig, but she clicked her beak furiously and soared up into the rafters out of reach.
“First Ron, then you,” Harry said angrily. “This isn't my fault.”
If Harry had thought that matters would improve once everyone got used to the idea of him being champion, the following day showed him how mistaken he was. He could no longer avoid the rest of the school once he was back at lessons—and it was clear that the rest of the school, just like the Gryffindors, thought Harry had entered himself for the tournament. Unlike the Gryffindors, however, they did not seem impressed.
The Hufflepuffs, who were usually on excellent terms with the Gryffindors, had turned remarkably cold toward the whole lot of them. One Herbology lesson was enough to demonstrate this. It was plain that the Hufflepuffs felt that Harry had stolen their champion's glory; a feeling exacerbated, perhaps, by the fact that Hufflepuff House very rarely got any glory, and that Cedric was one of the few who had ever given them any, having beaten Gryffindor once at Quidditch. Ernie Macmillan and Justin FinchFletchley, with whom Harry normally got on very well, did not talk to him even though they were repotting Bouncing Bulbs at the same tray—though they did laugh rather unpleasantly when one of the Bouncing Bulbs wriggled free from Harry's grip and smacked him hard in the face. Ron wasn't talking to Harry either. Hermione sat between them, making very forced conversation, but though both answered her normally, they avoided making eye contact with each other. Harry thought even Professor Sprout seemed distant with him—but then, she was Head of Hufflepuff House.
He would have been looking forward to seeing Hagrid under normal circumstances, but Care of Magical Creatures meant seeing the Slytherins too—the first time he would come face-to-face with them since becoming champion.
Predictably, Malfoy arrived at Hagrid's cabin with his familiar sneer firmly in place.
“Ah, look, boys, it's the champion,” he said to Crabbe and Goyle the moment he got within earshot of Harry. “Got your autograph books? Better get a signature now, because I doubt he's going to be around much longer... Half the Triwizard champions have died... how long d'you reckon you're going to last, Potter? Ten minutes into the first task's my bet.”
Crabbe and Goyle guffawed sycophantically, but Malfoy had to stop there, because Hagrid emerged from the back of his cabin balancing a teetering tower of crates, each containing a very large Blast-Ended Skrewt. To the class's horror, Hagrid proceeded to explain that the reason the skrewts had been killing one another was an excess of pent-up energy, and that the solution would be for each student to fix a leash on a skrewt and take it for a short walk. The only good thing about this plan was that it distracted Malfoy completely.
“Take this thing for a walk?” he repeated in disgust, staring into one of the boxes. “And where exactly are we supposed to fix the leash? Around the sting, the blasting end, or the sucker?”
“Roun' the middle,” said Hagrid, demonstrating. “Er—yeh might want ter put on yer dragon-hide gloves, jus' as an extra precaution, like. Harry—you come here an' help me with this big one...
Hagrid's real intention, however, was totalk to Harry away from the rest of the class. He waited until everyone else had set off with their skrewts, then turned to Harry and said, very seriously, “So—yer competin', Harry. In the tournament. School champion.”
“One of the champions,” Harry corrected him.
Hagrid's beetle-black eyes looked very anxious under his wild eyebrows.
“No idea who put yeh in fer it, Harry?”
“You believe I didn't do it, then?” said Harry, concealing with difficulty the rush of gratitude he felt at Hagrid's words.
“Course I do,” Hagrid grunted. “Yeh say it wasn' you, an' I believe yeh—an' Dumbledore believes yer, an' all.”
“Wish I knew who did do it,” said Harry bitterly.
The pair of them looked out over the lawn; the class was widely scattered now, and all in great difficulty. The skrewts were now over three feet long, and extremely powerful. No longer shell-less and colorless, they had developed a kind of thick, grayish, shiny armor. They looked like a cross between giant scorpions and elongated crabs—but still without recognizable heads or eyes. They had become immensely strong and very hard to control.
“Look like they're havin' fun, don' they?” Hagrid said happily. Harry assumed he was talking about the skrewts, because his classmates certainly weren't; every now and then, with an alarming bang, one of the skrewts' ends would explode, causing it to shoot forward several yards, and more than one person was being dragged along on their stomach, trying desperately to get back on their feet.
“Ah, I don' know, Harry,” Hagrid sighed suddenly, looking back down at him with a worried expression on his face. “School champion... everythin' seems ter happen ter you, doesn' it?”
Harry didn't answer. Yes, everything did seem to happen to him... that was more or less what Hermione had said as they had walked around the lake, and that was the reason, according to her, that Ron was no longer talking to him.

The next few days were some of Harry's worst at Hogwarts. The closest he had ever come to feeling like this had been during those months, in his second year, when a large part of the school had suspected him of attacking his fellow students. But Ron had been on his side then. He thought he could have coped with the rest of the school's behavior if he could just have had Ron back as a friend, but he wasn't going to try and persuade Ron to talk to him if Ron didn't want to. Nevertheless, it was lonely with dislike pouring in on him from all sides.
He could understand the Hufflepuffs' attitude, even if he didn't like it; they had their own champion to support. He expected nothing less than vicious insults from the Slytherins—he was highly unpopular there and always had been, because he had helped Gryffindor beat them so often, both at Quidditch and in the Inter-House Championship. But he had hoped the Ravenclaws might have found it in their hearts to support him as much as Cedric. He was wrong, however. Most Ravenclaws seemed to think that he had been desperate to earn himself a bit more fame by tricking the goblet into accepting his name.
Then there was the fact that Cedric looked the part of a champion so much more than he did. Exceptionally handsome, with his straight nose, dark hair, and gray eyes, it was hard to say who was receiving more admiration these days, Cedric or Viktor Krum. Harry actually saw the same sixth-year girls who had been so keen to get Krum's autograph begging Cedric to sign their school bags one lunchtime.
Meanwhile there was no reply from Sirius, Hedwig was refusing to come anywhere near him, Professor Trelawney was predicting his death with even more certainty than usual, and he did so badly at Summoning Charms in Professor Flitwick's class that he was given extra homework—the only person to get any, apart from Neville.
“It's really not that difficult, Harry,” Hermione tried to reassure him as they left Flitwick's class—she had been making objects zoom across the room to her all lesson, as though she were some sort of weird magnet for board dusters, wastepaper baskets, and lunascopes. “You just weren't concentrating properly—”
“Wonder why that was,” said Harry darkly as Cedric Diggory walked past, surrounded by a large group of simpering girls, all of whom looked at Harry as though he were a particularly large Blast-Ended Skrewt. “Still—never mind, eh? Double Potions to look forward to this afternoon...”
Double Potions was always a horrible experience, but these days it was nothing short of torture. Being shut in a dungeon for an hour and a half with Snape and the Slytherins, all of whom seemed determined to punish Harry as much as possible for daring to become school champion, was about the most unpleasant thing Harry could imagine. He had already struggled through one Friday's worth, with Hermione sitting next to him intoning “ignore them, ignore them, ignore them” under her breath, and he couldn't see why today should be any better.
When he and Hermione arrived at Snape's dungeon after lunch, they found the Slytherins waiting outside, each and every one of them wearing a large badge on the front of his or her robes. For one wild moment Harry thought they were S. P. E. W. badges—then he saw that they all bore the same message, in luminous red letters that burnt brightly in the dimly lit underground passage:

SUPPORT CEDRIC DIGGORY—
THE REAL HOGWARTS CHAMPION!

“Like them, Potter?” said Malfoy loudly as Harry approached. “And this isn't all they do—look!”
He pressed his badge into his chest, and the message upon it vanished, to be replaced by another one, which glowed green:

POTTER STINKS!

The Slytherins howled with laughter. Each of them pressed their badges too, until the message POTTER STINKS was shining brightly all around Harry. He felt the heat rise in his face and neck.
“Oh very funny,” Hermione said sarcastically to Pansy Parkinson and her gang of Slytherin girls, who were laughing harder than anyone, “really witty.”
Ron was standing against the wall with Dean and Seamus. He wasn't laughing, but he wasn't sticking up for Harry either.
“Want one, Granger?” said Malfoy, holding out a badge to Hermione. “I've got loads. But don't touch my hand, now. I've just washed it, you see; don't want a Mudblood sliming it up.”
Some of the anger Harry had been feeling for days and days seemed to burst through a dam in his chest. He had reached for his wand before he'd thought what he was doing. People all around them scrambled out of the way, backing down the corridor.
“Harry!” Hermione said warningly.
“Go on, then, Potter,” Malfoy said quietly, drawing out his own wand. “Moody's not here to look after you now—do it, if you've got the guts—”
For a split second, they looked into each other's eyes, then, at exactly the same time, both acted.
“Funnunculus!” Harry yelled.
“Densaugeo!” screamed Malfoy.
Jets of light shot from both wands, hit each other in midair, and ricocheted off at angles—Harry's hit Goyle in the face, and Malfoy's hit Hermione. Goyle bellowed and put his hands to his nose, where great ugly boils were springing up—Hermione, whimpering in panic, was clutching her mouth.
“Hermione!”
Ron had hurried forward to see what was wrong with her; Harry turned and saw Ron dragging Hermione's hand away from her face. It wasn't a pretty sight. Hermione's front teeth—already larger than average—were now growing at an alarming rate; she was looking more and more like a beaver as her teeth elongated, past her bottom lip, toward her chin—panic-stricken, she felt them and let out a terrified cry.
“And what is all this noise about?” said a soft, deadly voice.
Snape had arrived. The Slytherins clamored to give their explanations; Snape pointed a long yellow finger at Malfoy and said, “Explain.”
“Potter attacked me, sir—”
“We attacked each other at the same time!” Harry shouted.
“and he hit Goyle—look—”
Snape examined Goyle, whose face now resembled something that would have been at home in a book on poisonous fungi.
“Hospital wing, Goyle,” Snape said calmly.
“Malfoy got Hermione!” Ron said. “Look!”
He forced Hermione to show Snape her teeth—she was doing her best to hide them with her hands, though this was difficult as they had now grown down past her collar. Pansy Parkinson and the other Slytherin girls were doubled up with silent giggles, pointing at Hermione from behind Snape's back.
Snape looked coldly at Hermione, then said, “I see no difference.”.
Hermione let out a whimper; her eyes filled with tears, she turned on her heel and ran, ran all the way up the corridor and out of sight.
It was lucky, perhaps, that both Harry and Ron started shouting at Snape at the same time; lucky their voices echoed so much in the stone corridor, for in the confused din, it was impossible for him to hear exactly what they were calling him. He got the gist, however.
“Let's see,” he said, in his silkiest voice. “Fifty points from Gryffindor and a detention each for Potter and Weasley. Now get inside, or it'll be a week's worth of detentions.”
Harry's ears were ringing. The injustice of it made him want to curse Snape into a thousand slimy pieces. He passed Snape, walked with Ron to the back of the dungeon, and slammed his bag down onto the table. Ron was shaking with anger too—for a moment, it felt as though everything was back to normal between them, but then Ron turned and sat down with Dean and Seamus instead, leaving Harry alone at his table. On the other side of the dungeon, Malfoy turned his back on Snape and pressed his badge, smirking. POTTER STINKS flashed once more across the room.
Harry sat there staring at Snape as the lesson began, picturing horrific things happening to him... If only he knew how to do the Cruciatus Curse... he'd have Snape flat on his back like that spider, jerking and twitching.
“Antidotes!” said Snape, looking around at them all, his cold black eyes glittering unpleasantly. “You should all have prepared your recipes now. I want you to brew them carefully, and then, we will be selecting someone on whom to test one...”
Snape's eyes met Harry's, and Harry knew what was coming. Snape was going to poison him. Harry imagined picking up his cauldron, and sprinting to the front of the class, and bringing it down on Snape's greasy head—And then a knock on the dungeon door burst in on Harry's thoughts.
It was Colin Creevey; he edged into the room, beaming at Harry, and walked up to Snape's desk at the front of the room.
“Yes?” said Snape curtly.
“Please, sir, I'm supposed to take Harry Potter upstairs.” Snape stared down his hooked nose at Colin, whose smile faded from his eager face.
“Potter has another hour of Potions to complete,” said Snape coldly. “He will come upstairs when this class is finished.”
Colin went pink.
“Sir—sir, Mr. Bagman wants him,” he said nervously. “All the champions have got to go, I think they want to take photographs...”
Harry would have given anything he owned to have stopped Colin saying those last few words. He chanced half a glance at Ron, but Ron was staring determinedly at the ceiling.
“Very well, very well,” Snape snapped. “Potter, leave your things here, I want you back down here later to test your antidote.”
“Please, sir—he's got to take his things with him,” squeaked Cohn. “All the champions...”
“Very well!” said Snape. “Potter—take your bag and get out of my sight!”
Harry swung his bag over his shoulder, got up, and headed for the door. As he walked through the Slytherin desks, POTTER STINKS flashed at him from every direction.
“It's amazing, isn't it, Harry?” said Colin, starting to speak the moment Harry had closed the dungeon door behind him. “Isn't it, though? You being champion?”
“Yeah, really amazing,” said Harry heavily as they set off toward the steps into the entrance hall. “What do they want photos for, Colin?”
“The Daily Prophet, I think!”
“Great,” said Harry dully. “Exactly what I need. More publicity.”
“Good luck!” said Colin when they had reached the right room. Harry knocked on the door and entered.
He was in a fairly small classroom; most of the desks had been pushed away to the back of the room, leaving a large space in the middle; three of them, however, had been placed end-to-end in front of the blackboard and covered with a long length of velvet. Five chairs had been set behind the velvet-covered desks, and Ludo Bagman was sitting in one of them, talking to a witch Harry had never seen before, who was wearing magenta robes.
Viktor Krum was standing moodily in a corner as usual and not talking to anybody. Cedric and Fheur were in conversation. Fheur looked a good deal happier than Harry had seen her so far; she kept throwing back her head so that her long silvery hair caught the light. A paunchy man, holding a large black camera that was smoking slightly, was watching Fleur out of the corner of his eye.
Bagman suddenly spotted Harry, got up quickly, and bounded forward.
“Ah, here he is! Champion number four! In you come, Harry, in you come... nothing to worry about, it's just the wand weighing ceremony, the rest of the judges will be here in a moment—”
“Wand weighing?” Harry repeated nervously.
“We have to check that your wands are fully functional, no problems, you know, as they're your most important tools in the tasks ahead,” said Bagman. “The expert's upstairs now with Dumbledore. And then there's going to be a little photo shoot. This is Rita Skeeter,” he added, gesturing toward the witch in magenta robes. “She's doing a small piece on the tournament for the Daily Prophet...”
“Maybe not that small, Ludo,” said Rita Skeeter, her eyes on Harry.
Her hair was set in elaborate and curiously rigid curls that contrasted oddly with her heavy-jawed face. She wore jeweled spectacles. The thick fingers clutching her crocodile-skin handbag ended in two-inch nails, painted crimson.
“I wonder if I could have a little word with Harry before we start?” she said to Bagman, but still gazing fixedly at Harry. “The youngest champion, you know... to add a bit of color?”
“Certainly!” cried Bagman. “That is—if Harry has no objection?”
“Er—” said Harry.
“Lovely,” said Rita Skeeter, and in a second, her scarlet-taloned fingers had Harry's upper arm in a surprisingly strong grip, and she was steering him out of the room again and opening a nearby door.
“We don't want to be in there with all that noise,” she said. “Let's see... ah, yes, this is nice and cozy.”
It was a broom cupboard. Harry stared at her.
“Come along, dear—that's right—lovely,” said Rita Skeeter again, perching herself precariously upon an upturned bucket, pushing Harry down onto a cardboard box, and closing the door, throwing them into darkness. “Let's see now..”
She unsnapped her crocodile-skin handbag and pulled out a handful of candles, which she lit with a wave of her wand and magicked into midair, so that they could see what they were doing.
“You won't mind, Harry, if I use a Quick-Quotes Quill? It leaves me free to talk to you normally...”
“A what?” said Harry.
Rita Skeeter's smile widened. Harry counted three gold teeth. She reached again into her crocodile bag and drew out a long acid-green quill and a roll of parchment, which she stretched out between them on a crate of Mrs. Skower's All-Purpose Magical Mess Remover. She put the tip of the green quill into her mouth, sucked it for a moment with apparent relish, then placed it upright on the parchment, where it stood balanced on its point, quivering slightly.
“Testing... my name is Rita Skeeter, Daily Prophet reporter.”
Harry hooked down quickly at the quill. The moment Rita Skeeter had spoken, the green quill had started to scribble, skidding across the parchment:

Attractive blonde Rita Skeeter, forty-three, who's savage quill has punctured many inflated reputations—

“Lovely,” said Rita Skeeter, yet again, and she ripped the top piece of parchment off, crumpled it up, and stuffed it into her handbag. Now she leaned toward Harry and said, “So, Harry... what made you decide to enter the Triwizard Tournament?”
“Er—” said Harry again, but he was distracted by the quill. Even though he wasn't speaking, it was dashing across the parchment, and in its wake he could make out a fresh sentence:

An ugly scar, souvenier of a tragic past, disfigures the otherwise charming face of Harry Potter, whose eyes—

“Ignore the quill, Harry,” said Rita Skeeter firmly. Reluctantly Harry looked up at her instead. “Now—why did you decide to enter the tournament, Harry?”
“I didn't,” said Harry. “I don't know how my name got into the Goblet of Fire. I didn't put it in there.”
Rita Skeeter raised one heavily penciled eyebrow.
“Come now, Harry, there's no need to be scared of getting into trouble. We all know you shouldn't really have entered at all. But don't worry about that. Our readers hove a rebel.”
“But I didn't enter,” Harry repeated. “I don't know who—”
“How do you feel about the tasks ahead?” said Rita Skeeter. “Excited? Nervous?”
“I haven't really thought... yeah, nervous, I suppose,” said Harry. His insides squirmed uncomfortably as he spoke.
“Champions have died in the past, haven't they?” said Rita Skeeter briskly. “Have you thought about that at all?”
“Well... they say it's going to be a lot safer this year,” said Harry.
The quill whizzed across the parchment between them, back and forward as though it were skating.
“Of course, you've looked death in the face before, haven't you?” said Rita Skeeter, watching him closely. “How would you say that's affected you?”
“Er,” said Harry, yet again.
“Do you think that the trauma in your past might have made you keen to prove yourself? To live up to your name? Do you think that perhaps you were tempted to enter the Triwizard Tournament because—”
“I didn't enter,” said Harry, starting to feel irritated.
“Can you remember your parents at all?” said Rita Skeeter, talking over him.
“No,” said Harry.
“How do you think they'd feel if they knew you were competing in the Triwizard Tournament? Proud? Worried? Angry?”
Harry was feeling really annoyed now. How on earth was he to know how his parents would feel if they were alive? He could feel Rita Skeeter watching him very intently. Frowning, he avoided her gaze and hooked down at words the quill had just written:

Tears fill those startlingly green eyes as our conversation turns to the parents he can barely remember.

“I have NOT got tears in my eyes!” said Harry loudly.
Before Rita Skeeter could say a word, the door of the broom cupboard was pulled open. Harry looked around, blinking in the bright light. Albus Dumbledore stood there, looking down at both of them, squashed into the cupboard.
“Dumbledore!” cried Rita Skeeter, with every appearance of delight—but Harry noticed that her quill and the parchment had suddenly vanished from the box of Magical Mess Remover, and Rita's clawed fingers were hastily snapping shut the clasp of her crocodile-skin bag. “How are you?” she said, standing up and holding out one of her large, mannish hands to Dumbledore. “I hope you saw my piece over the summer about the International Confederation of Wizards' Conference?”
“Enchantingly nasty,” said Dumbledore, his eyes twinkling. “I particularly enjoyed your description of me as an obsolete dingbat.”
Rita Skeeter didn't look remotely abashed.
“I was just making the point that some of your ideas are a little old-fashioned, Dumbhedore, and that many wizards in the street—”
“I will be delighted to hear the reasoning behind the rudeness, Rita,” said Dumbledore, with a courteous bow and a smile, “but I'm afraid we will have to discuss the matter later. The Weighing of the Wands is about to start, and it cannot take place if one of our champions is hidden in a broom cupboard.”
Very glad to get away from Rita Skeeter, Harry hurried back into the room. The other champions were now sitting in chairs near the door, and he sat down quickly next to Cedric, hooking up at the velvet-covered table, where four of the five judges were now sitting—Professor Karkaroff, Madame Maxime, Mr. Crouch, and Ludo Bagman. Rita Skeeter settled herself down in a corner; Harry saw her slip the parchment out of her bag again, spread it on her knee, suck the end of the Quick-Quotes Quill, and place it once more on the parchment.
“May I introduce Mr. Ollivander?” said Dumbledore, taking his place at the judges' table and talking to the champions. “He will be checking your wands to ensure that they are in good condition before the tournament.”
Harry hooked around, and with a jolt of surprise saw an old wizard with large, pale eyes standing quietly by the window. Harry had met Mr. Ollivander before—he was the wand-maker from whom Harry had bought his own wand over three years ago in Diagon Alley.
“Mademoiselle Delacour, could we have you first, please?” said Mr. Ollivander, stepping into the empty space in the middle of the room.
Fleur Delacour swept over to Mr. Olhivander and handed him her wand.
“Hmm...” he said.
He twirled the wand between his long fingers like a baton and it emitted a number of pink and gold sparks. Then he held it chose to his eyes and examined it carefully.
“Yes,” he said quietly, “nine and a half inches... inflexible.. rosewood... and containing... dear me...”
“An 'air from ze 'ead of a veela,” said Fleur. “One of my grandmuzzer's.”
So Fleur was part veela, thought Harry, making a mental note to tell Ron... then he remembered that Ron wasn't speaking to him.
“Yes,” said Mr. Ollivander, “yes, I've never used veela hair myself, of course. I find it makes for rather temperamental wands... however, to each his own, and if this suits you..”
Mr. Ollivander ran his fingers along the wand, apparently checking for scratches or bumps; then he muttered, “Orchideous!” and a bunch of flowers burst from the wand tip.
“Very well, very well, it's in fine working order,” said Mr. Ollivander, scooping up the flowers and handing them to Fleur with her wand. “Mr. Diggory, you next.”
Fleur glided back to her seat, smiling at Cedric as he passed her.
“Ah, now, this is one of mine, isn't it?” said Mr. Ollivander, with much more enthusiasm, as Cedric handed over his wand. “Yes, I remember it well. Containing a single hair from the tail of a particularly fine male unicorn... must have been seventeen hands; nearly gored me with his horn after I plucked his tail. Twelve and a quarter inches... ash... pleasantly springy. It's in fine condition... You treat it regularly?”
“Polished it last night,” said Cedric, grinning.
Harry hooked down at his own wand. He could see finger marks all over it. He gathered a fistful of robe from his knee and tried to rub it clean surreptitiously. Several gold sparks shot out of the end of it. Fleur Delacour gave him a very patronizing look, and he desisted.
Mr. Ollivander sent a stream of silver smoke rings across the room from the tip of Cedric's wand, pronounced himself satisfied, and then said, “Mr. Krum, if you please.”
Viktor Krum got up and slouched, round-shouldered and duck-footed, toward Mr. Ollivander. He thrust out his wand and stood scowling, with his hands in the pockets of his robes.
“Hmm,” said Mr. Olhivander, “this is a Gregorovitch creation, unless I'm much mistaken? A fine wand-maker, though the styling is never quite what I... however..”
He lifted the wand and examined it minutely, turning it over and over before his eyes.
“Yes... hornbeam and dragon heartstring?” he shot at Krum, who nodded. “Rather thicker than one usually sees... quite rigid... ten and a quarter inches... Avis!”
The hornbeam wand let off a blast hike a gun, and a number of small, twittering birds flew out of the end and through the open window into the watery sunlight.
“Good,” said Mr. Ollivander, handing Krum back his wand. “Which leaves... Mr. Potter.”
Harry got to his feet and walked past Krum to Mr. Ollivander. He handed over his wand.
“Aaaah, yes,” said Mr. Ohlivander, his pale eyes suddenly gleaming. “Yes, yes, yes. How well I remember.”
Harry could remember too. He could remember it as though it had happened yesterday...
Four summers ago, on his eleventh birthday, he had entered Mr. Ollivander's shop with Hagrid to buy a wand. Mr. Ollivander had taken his measurements and then started handing him wands to try. Harry had waved what felt like every wand in the shop, until at last he had found the one that suited him—this one, which was made of holly, eleven inches long, and contained a single feather from the tail of a phoenix. Mr. Ollivander had been very surprised that Harry had been so compatible with this wand. “Curious,” he had said, “curious,” and not until Harry asked what was curious had Mr. Olhivander explained that the phoenix feather in Harry's wand had come from the same bird that had supplied the core of Lord Voldemort's.
Harry had never shared this piece of information with anybody. He was very fond of his wand, and as far as he was concerned its relation to Voldemort's wand was something it couldn't help—rather as he couldn't help being related to Aunt Petunia. However, he really hoped that Mr. Ollivander wasn't about to tell the room about it. He had a funny feeling Rita Skeeter's Quick-Quotes Quill might just explode with excitement if he did.
Mr. Ollivander spent much longer examining Harry's wand than anyone else's. Eventually, however, he made a fountain of wine shoot out of it, and handed it back to Harry, announcing that it was still in perfect condition.
“Thank you all,” said Dumbledore, standing up at the judges' table. “You may go back to your lessons now—or perhaps it would be quicker just to go down to dinner, as they are about to end—”
Feeling that at last something had gone right today, Harry got up to leave, but the man with the black camera jumped up and cleared his throat.
“Photos, Dumbledore, photos!” cried Bagman excitedly. “All the judges and champions, what do you think, Rita?”
“Er—yes, let's do those first,” said Rita Skeeter, whose eyes were upon Harry again. “And then perhaps some individual shots.”
The photographs took a long time. Madame Maxime cast everyone else into shadow wherever she stood, and the photographer couldn't stand far enough back to get her into the frame; eventually she had to sit while everyone else stood around her. Karkaroff kept twirling his goatee around his finger to give it an extra curl; Krum, whom Harry would have thought would have been used to this sort of thing, skulked, half-hidden, at the back of the group. The photographer seemed keenest to get Fleur at the front, but Rita Skeeter kept hurrying forward and dragging Harry into greater prominence. Then she insisted on separate shots of all the champions. At last, they were free to go.
Harry went down to dinner. Hermione wasn't there—he supposed she was still in the hospital wing having her teeth fixed. He ate alone at the end of the table, then returned to Gryffindor Tower, thinking of all the extra work on Summoning Charms that he had to do. Up in the dormitory, he came across Ron.
“You've had an owl,” said Ron brusquely the moment he walked in. He was pointing at Harry's pillow. The school barn owl was waiting for him there.
“Oh—right,” said Harry.
“And we've got to do our detentions tomorrow night, Snape's dungeon,” said Ron.
He then walked straight out of the room, not looking at Harry. For a moment, Harry considered going after him—he wasn't sure whether he wanted to talk to him or hit him, both seemed quite appealing—but the lure of Sirius's answer was too strong. Harry strode over to the barn owl, took the letter off its leg, and unrolled it.
Harry—
I can't say everything I would like to in a letter, it's too risky
in case the owl is intercepted—we need to talk face-to-face. Can you ensure that you are alone by the fire in Gryffindor Tower at one o'clock in the morning on the 22nd ofNovember?
I know better than anyone that you can look after yourself and while you're around Dumbledore and Moody I don't think anyone will be able to hurt you. However, someone seems to be having a good try. Entering you in that tournament would have been very risky, especially right under Dumbkdore's nose.
Be on the watch, Harry. I still want to hear about anything unusual. Let me know about the 22nd ofNovember as quickly as you can.
Sirius

(hpvn.net)
Posted 12/14/07
CHAPTER NINETEEN
THE HUNGARIAN HORNTAIL

The prospect of talking face-to-face with Sirius was all that sustained Harry over the next fortnight, the only bright spot on a horizon that had never looked darker. The shock of finding himself school champion had worn off slightly now, and the fear of what was facing him had started to sink in. The first task was drawing steadily nearer; he felt as though it were crouching ahead of him hike some horrific monster, barring his path. He had never suffered nerves like these; they were way beyond anything he had experienced before a Quidditch match, not even his last one against Slytherin, which had decided who would win the Quidditch Cup. Harry was finding it hard to think about the future at all; he felt as though his whole life had been heading up to, and would finish with, the first task.
Admittedly, he didn't see how Sirius was going to make him feel any better about having to perform an unknown piece of difficult and dangerous magic in front of hundreds of people, but the mere sight of a friendly face would be something at the moment. Harry wrote back to Sirius saying that he would be beside the common room fire at the time Sirius had suggested; and he and Hermione spent a long time going over plans for forcing any stragglers out of the common room on the night in question. If the worst came to the worst, they were going to drop a bag of Dungbombs, but they hoped they wouldn't have to resort to that—Filch would skin them alive.
In the meantime, life became even worse for Harry within the confines of the castle, for Rita Skeeter had published her piece about the Triwizard Tournament, and it had turned out to be not so much a report on the tournament as a highly colored life story of Harry. Much of the front page had been given over to a picture of Harry; the article (continuing on pages two, six, and seven) had been all about Harry, the names of the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang champions (misspelled) had been squashed into the last line of the article, and Cedric hadn't been mentioned at all.
The article had appeared ten days ago, and Harry still got a sick, burning feeling of shame in his stomach every time he thought about it. Rita Skeeter had reported him saying an awful lot of things that he couldn't remember ever saying in his life, let alone in that broom cupboard.

I suppose I get my strength from my parents. I know they'd be very proud of me if they could see me now... Yes, sometimes at night I still cry about them, I'm not ashamed to admit it... I know nothing will hurt me during the tournament, because they're watching over me...

But Rita Skeeter had gone even further than transforming his “er's” into long, sickly sentences: She had interviewed other people about him too.

Harry has at last found love at Hogwarts. His close friend, Colin Creevey, says that Harry is rarely seen out of the company of one Hermione Granger, a stunningly pretty Muggle-born girl who, like Harry, is one of the top students in the school.

From the moment the article had appeared, Harry had had to endure people—Slytherins, mainly—quoting it at him as he passed and making sneering comments.
“Want a hanky, Potter, in case you start crying in Transfiguration?”
“Since when have you been one of the top students in the school, Potter? Or is this a school you and Longbottom have set up together?”
“Hey—Harry!”
“Yeah, that's right!” Harry found himself shouting as he wheeled around in the corridor, having had just about enough. “I've just been crying my eyes out over my dead mum, and I'm just off to do a bit more...
“No—it was just—you dropped your quill.”
It was Cho. Harry felt the color rising in his face.
“Oh—right—sorry,” he muttered, taking the quill back.
“Er... good luck on Tuesday,” she said. “I really hope you do well.”
Which left Harry feeling extremely stupid.
Hermione had come in for her fair share of unpleasantness too, but she hadn't yet started yelling at innocent bystanders; in fact, Harry was full of admiration for the way she was handling the situation.
“Stunningly pretty? Her?” Pansy Parkinson had shrieked the first time she had come face-to-face with Hermione after Rita's article had appeared. “What was she judging against—a chipmunk?”
“Ignore it,” Hermione said in a dignified voice, holding her head in the air and stalking past the sniggering Slytherin girls as though she couldn't hear them. “Just ignore it, Harry.”
But Harry couldn't ignore it. Ron hadn't spoken to him at all since he had told him about Snape's detentions. Harry had half hoped they would make things up during the two hours they were forced to pickle rats' brains in Snape's dungeon, but that had been the day Rita's article had appeared, which seemed to have confirmed Ron's belief that Harry was really enjoying all the attention.
Hermione was furious with the pair of them; she went from one to the other, trying to force them to talk to each other, but Harry was adamant: He would talk to Ron again only if Ron admitted that Harry hadn't put his name in the Goblet of Fire and apologized for calling him a liar.
“I didn't start this,” Harry said stubbornly. “It's his problem.”
“You miss him!” Hermione said impatiently. “And I know he misses you—”
“Miss him?” said Harry. “I don't miss him...
But this was a downright lie. Harry liked Hermione very much, but she just wasn't the same as Ron. There was much hess laughter and a lot more hanging around in the library when Hermione was your best friend. Harry still hadn't mastered Summoning Charms, he seemed to have developed something of a block about them, and Hermione insisted that learning the theory would help. They consequently spent a lot of time poring over books during their lunchtimes.
Viktor Krum was in the library an awful lot too, and Harry wondered what he was up to. Was he studying, or was he looking for things to help him through the first task? Hermione often complained about Krum being there—not that he ever bothered them—but because groups of giggling girls often turned up to spy on him from behind bookshelves, and Hermione found the noise distracting.
“He's not even good-looking!” she muttered angrily, glaring at Krum's sharp profile. “They only like him because he's famous! They wouldn't look twice at him if he couldn't do that WonkyFaint thing—”
“Wronski Feint,” said Harry, through gritted teeth. Quite apart from liking to get Quidditch terms correct, it caused him another pang to imagine Ron's expression if he could have heard Hermione talking about Wonky-Faints.

It is a strange thing, but when you are dreading something, and would give anything to slow down time, it has a disobliging habit of speeding up. The days until the first task seemed to slip by as though someone had fixed the clocks to work at double speed. Harry's feeling of barely controlled panic was with him wherever he went, as everpresent as the snide comments about the Daily Prophet article.
On the Saturday before the first task, all students in the third year and above were permitted to visit the village of Hogsmeade. Hermione told Harry that it would do him good to get away from the castle for a bit, and Harry didn't need much persuasion.
“What about Ron, though?” he said. “Don't you want to go with him?”
“Oh... well...” Hermione went slightly pink. “I thought we might meet up with him in the Three Broomsticks...”
“No,” said Harry flatly.
“Oh Harry, this is so stupid—”
“I'll come, but I'm not meeting Ron, and I'm wearing my Invisibility Cloak.”
“Oh all right then...” Hermione snapped, “but I hate talking to you in that cloak, I never know if I'm looking at you or not.”
So Harry put on his Invisibility Cloak in the dormitory, went back downstairs, and together he and Hermione set off for Hogsmeade.
Harry felt wonderfully free under the cloak; he watched other students walking past them as they entered the village, most of them sporting Support Cedric Diggory! badges, but no horrible remarks came his way for a change, and nobody was quoting that stupid article.
“People keep looking at me now,” said Hermione grumpily as they came out of Honeydukes Sweetshop later, eating large cream-filled chocolates. “They think I'm talking to myself.”
“Don't move your lips so much then.”
“Come on, please just take off your cloak for a bit, no one's going to bother you here.”
“Oh yeah?” said Harry. “Look behind you.”
Rita Skeeter and her photographer friend had just emerged from the Three Broomsticks pub. Talking in low voices, they passed right by Hermione without hooking at her. Harry backed into the wall of Honeydukes to stop Rita Skeeter from hitting him with her crocodile-skin handbag. When they were gone, Harry said, “She's staying in the village. I bet she's coming to watch the first task.”
As he said it, his stomach flooded with a wave of molten panic. He didn't mention this; he and Hermione hadn't discussed what was coming in the first task much; he had the feeling she didn't want to think about it.
“She's gone,” said Hermione, looking right through Harry toward the end of the street. “Why don't we go and have a butterbeer in the Three Broomsticks, it's a bit cold, isn't it? You don't have to talk to Ron!” she added irritably, correctly interpreting his silence.
The Three Broomsticks was packed, mainly with Hogwarts students enjoying their free afternoon, but also with a variety of magical people Harry rarely saw anywhere else. Harry supposed that as Hogsmeade was the only all-wizard village in Britain, it was a bit of a haven for creatures like hags, who were not as adept as wizards at disguising themselves.
It was very hard to move through crowds in the Invisibility Cloak, in case you accidentally trod on someone, which tended to lead to awkward questions. Harry edged slowly toward a spare table in the corner while Hermione went to buy drinks. On his way through the pub, Harry spotted Ron, who was sitting with Fred, George, and Lee Jordan. Resisting the urge to give Ron a good hard poke in the back of the head, he finally reached the table and sat down at it.
Hermione joined him a moment later and slipped him a butterbeer under his cloak.
“I look like such an idiot, sitting here on my own,” she muttered. “Lucky I brought something to do.”
And she pulled out a notebook in which she had been keeping a record of S. P. E. W. members. Harry saw his and Ron's names at the top of the very short list. It seemed a long time ago that they had sat making up those predictions together, and Hermione had turned up and appointed them secretary and treasurer.
“You know, maybe I should try and get some of the villagers involved in S. P. E. W.,” Hermione said thoughtfully, looking around the pub.
“Yeah, right,” said Harry. He took a swig of butterbeer under his cloak. “Hermione, when are you going to give up on this spew stuff?”
“When house-elves have decent wages and working conditions!” she hissed back. “You know, I'm starting to think it's time for more direct action. I wonder how you get into the school kitchens?”
“No idea, ask Fred and George,” said Harry.
Hermione lapsed into thoughtful silence, while Harry drank his butterbeer, watching the people in the pub. All of them looked cheerful and relaxed. Ernie Macmillan and Hannah Abbot were swapping Chocolate Frog cards at a nearby table; both of them sporting Support Cedric Diggory! badges on their cloaks. Right over by the door he saw Cho and a large group of her Ravenclaw friends. She wasn't wearing a Cedric badge though... This cheered up Harry very slightly.
What wouldn't he have given to be one of these peophe, sitting around laughing and talking, with nothing to worry about but homework? He imagined how it would have felt to be here if his name hadn't come out of the Goblet of Fire. He wouldn't be wearing the Invisibility Cloak, for one thing. Ron would be sitting with him. The three of them would probably be happily imagining what deadly dangerous task the school champions would be facing on Tuesday. He'd have been really hooking forward to it, watching them do whatever it was... cheering on Cedric with everyone else, safe in a seat at the back of the stands...
He wondered how the other champions were feeling. Every time he had seen Cedric lately, he had been surrounded by admirers and looking nervous but excited. Harry glimpsed Fleur Delacour from time to time in the corridors; she looked exactly as she always did, haughty and unruffled. And Krum just sat in the library, poring over books.
Harry thought of Sirius, and the tight, tense knot in his chest seemed to ease slightly. He would be speaking to him in just over twelve hours, for tonight was the night they were meeting at the common room fire—assuming nothing went wrong, as everything else had done lately...
“Look, it's Hagrid!” said Hermione.
The back of Hagrid's enormous shaggy head—he had mercifully abandoned his bunches—emerged over the crowd. Harry wondered why he hadn't spotted him at once, as Hagrid was so large, but standing up carefully, he saw that Hagrid had been leaning low, talking to Professor Moody. Hagrid had his usual enormous tankard in front of him, but Moody was drinking from his hip flask. Madam Rosmerta, the pretty landlady, didn't seem to think much of this; she was looking askance at Moody as she collected glasses from tables around them. Perhaps she thought it was an insult to her mulled mead, but Harry knew better. Moody had told them all during their last Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson that he preferred to prepare his own food and drink at all times, as it was so easy for Dark wizards to poison an unattended cup.
As Harry watched, he saw Hagrid and Moody get up to leave. He waved, then remembered that Hagrid couldn't see him. Moody, however, paused, his magical eye on the corner where Harry was standing. He tapped Hagrid in the small of the back (being unable to reach his shoulder), muttered something to him, and then the pair of them made their way back across the pub toward Harry and Hermione's table.
“All right, Hermione?” said Hagrid loudly.
“Hello,” said Hermione, smiling back.
Moody limped around the table and bent down; Harry thought he was reading the S. P. E. W. notebook, until he muttered, “Nice cloak, Potter.”
Harry stared at him in amazement. The large chunk missing from Moody's nose was particularly obvious at a few inches' distance. Moody grinned.
“Can your eye—I mean, can you—?”
“Yeah, it can see through Invisibility Cloaks,” Moody said quietly. “And it's come in useful at times, I can tell you.”
Hagrid was beaming down at Harry too. Harry knew Hagrid couldn't see him, but Moody had obviously told Hagrid he was there. Hagrid now bent down on the pretext of reading the S. P. E. W. notebook as well, and said in a whisper so low that only Harry could hear it, “Harry, meet me tonight at midnight at me cabin. Wear that cloak.”
Straightening up, Hagrid said loudly, “Nice ter see yeh, Hermione,” winked, and departed. Moody followed him.
“Why does Hagrid want me to meet him at midnight?” Harry said, very surprised.
“Does he?” said Hermione, looking startled. “I wonder what he's up to? I don't know whether you should go, Harry...” She looked nervously around and hissed, “It might make you late for Sirius.”
It was true that going down to Hagrid's at midnight would mean cutting his meeting with Sirius very fine indeed; Hermione suggested sending Hedwig down to Hagrid's to tell him he couldn't go—always assuming she would consent to take the note, of course—Harry, however, thought it better just to be quick at whatever Hagrid wanted him for. He was very curious to know what this might be; Hagrid had never asked Harry to visit him so late at night.
At half past eleven that evening, Harry, who had pretended to go up to bed early, pulled the Invisibility Cloak back over himself and crept back downstairs through the common room. Quite a few people were still in there. The Creevey brothers had managed to get hold of a stack of Support Cedric Diggory! badges and were trying to bewitch them to make them say Support Harry Potter! instead. So far, however, all they had managed to do was get the badges stuck on POTTER STINKS. Harry crept past them to the portrait hole and waited for a minute or so, keeping an eye on his watch. Then Hermione opened the Fat Lady for him from outside as they had planned. He slipped past her with a whispered “Thanks!” and set off through the castle.
The grounds were very dark. Harry walked down the lawn toward the lights shining in Hagrid's cabin. The inside of the enormous Beauxbatons carriage was also lit up; Harry could hear Madame Maxime talking inside it as he knocked on Hagrid's front door.
“You there, Harry?” Hagrid whispered, opening the door and looking around.
“Yeah,” said Harry, slipping inside the cabin and pulling the cloak down off his head. “What's up?”
“Got summat ter show yeh,” said Hagrid.
There was an air of enormous excitement about Hagrid. He was wearing a flower that resembled an oversized artichoke in his buttonhole. It looked as though he had abandoned the use of axle grease, but he had certainly attempted to comb his hair—Harry could see the comb's broken teeth tangled in it.
“What're you showing me?” Harry said warily, wondering if the skrewts had laid eggs, or Hagrid had managed to buy another giant three-headed dog off a stranger in a pub.
“Come with me, keep quiet, an' keep yerself covered with that cloak,” said Hagrid. “We won' take Fang, he won' like it...
“Listen, Hagrid, I can't stay long... I've got to be back up at the castle by one o'clock—”
But Hagrid wasn't listening; he was opening the cabin door and striding off into the night. Harry hurried to follow and found, to his great surprise, that Hagrid was leading him to the Beauxbatons carriage.
“Hagrid, what—?”
“Shhh!” said Hagrid, and he knocked three times on the door bearing the crossed golden wands.
Madame Maxime opened it. She was wearing a silk shawl wrapped around her massive shoulders. She smiled when she saw Hagrid.
“Ah, 'Agrid... it is time?”
“Bong-sewer,” said Hagrid, beaming at her, and holding out a hand to help her down the golden steps.
Madame Maxime closed the door behind her, Hagrid offered her his arm, and they set off around the edge of the paddock containing Madame Maxime's giant winged horses, with Harry, totally bewildered, running to keep up with them. Had Hagrid wanted to show him Madame Maxime? He could see her any old time he wanted... she wasn't exactly hard to miss...
But it seemed that Madame Maxime was in for the same treat as Harry, because after a while she said playfully, “Wair is it you are taking me, 'Agrid?”
“Yeh'll enjoy this,” said Hagrid gruffly, “worth seein', trust me. On'y—don' go tellin' anyone I showed yeh, right? Yeh're not s'posed ter know.”
“Of course not,” said Madame Maxime, fluttering her long black eyelashes.
And still they walked, Harry getting more and more irritated as he jogged along in their wake, checking his watch every now and then. Hagrid had some harebrained scheme in hand, which might make him miss Sirius. If they didn't get there soon, he was going to turn around, go straight back to the castle, and leave Hagrid to enjoy his moonlit stroll with Madame Maxime.
But then—when they had walked so far around the perimeter of the forest that the castle and the lake were out of sight—Harry heard something. Men were shouting up ahead... then came a deafening, earsplitting roar...
Hagrid led Madame Maxime around a clump of trees and came to a halt. Harry hurried up alongside them—for a split second, he thought he was seeing bonfires, and men darting around them—and then his mouth fell open.
Dragons.
Four fully grown, enormous, vicious-looking dragons were rearing onto their hind legs inside an enclosure fenced with thick planks of wood, roaring and snorting—torrents of fire were shooting into the dark sky from their open, fanged mouths, fifty feet above the ground on their outstretched necks. There was a silvery-blue one with long, pointed horns, snapping and snarling at the wizards on the ground; a smooth-scaled green one, which was writhing and stamping with all its might; a red one with an odd fringe of fine gold spikes around its face, which was shooting mushroom-shaped fire clouds into the air; and a gigantic black one, more lizard-hike than the others, which was nearest to them.
At least thirty wizards, seven or eight to each dragon, were attempting to control them, pulling on the chains connected to heavy leather straps around their necks and legs. Mesmerized, Harry looked up, high above him, and saw the eyes of the black dragon, with vertical pupils like a cat's, bulging with either fear or rage, he couldn't tell which... It was making a horrible noise, a yowling, screeching scream.
“Keep back there, Hagrid!” yelled a wizard near the fence, straining on the chain he was holding. “They can shoot fire at a range of twenty feet, you know! I've seen this Horntail do forty!”
“Is'n' it beautiful?” said Hagrid softly.
“It's no good!” yelled another wizard. “Stunning Spells, on the count of three!”
Harry saw each of the dragon keepers pull out his wand.
“Stupefy!” they shouted in unison, and the Stunning Spells shot into the darkness like fiery rockets, bursting in showers of stars on the dragons' scaly hides—
Harry watched the dragon nearest to them teeter dangerously on its back legs; its jaws stretched wide in a silent howl; its nostrils were suddenly devoid of flame, though still smoking—then, very slowly, it fell. Several tons of sinewy, scaly-black dragon hit the ground with a thud that Harry could have sworn made the trees behind him quake.
The dragon keepers lowered their wands and walked forward to their fallen charges, each of which was the size of a small hill. They hurried to tighten the chains and fasten them securely to iron pegs, which they forced deep into the ground with their wands.
“Wan' a closer look?” Hagrid asked Madame Maxime excitedly. The pair of them moved right up to the fence, and Harry followed. The wizard who had warned Hagrid not to come any closer turned, and Harry realized who it was: Charlie Weasley.
“All right, Hagrid?” he panted, coming over to talk. “They should be okay now—we put them out with a Sleeping Draft on the way here, thought it might be better for them to wake up in the dark and the quiet—but, like you saw, they weren't happy, not happy at all—”
“What breeds you got here, Charlie?” said Hagrid, gazing at the closest dragon, the black one, with something chose to reverence. Its eyes were still just open. Harry could see a strip of gleaming yellow beneath its wrinkled black eyelid.
“This is a Hungarian Horntail,” said Charlie. “There's a Common Welsh Green over there, the smaller one—a Swedish Short-Snout, that blue-gray—and a Chinese Fireball, that's the red.”
Charlie looked around; Madame Maxime was strolling away around the edge of the enclosure, gazing at the stunned dragons.
“I didn't know you were bringing her, Hagrid,” Charlie said, frowning. “The champions aren't supposed to know what's coming—she's bound to tell her student, isn't she?”
“Jus' thought she'd like ter see 'em,” shrugged Hagrid, still gazing, enraptured, at the dragons.
“Really romantic date, Hagrid,” said Charlie, shaking his head.
“Four...” said Hagrid, “so it's one fer each o' the champions, is it? What've they gotta do—fight 'em?”
“Just get past them, I think,” said Charlie. “We'll be on hand if it gets nasty, Extinguishing Spells at the ready. They wanted nesting mothers, I don't know why... but I tell you this, I don't envy the one who gets the Horntail. Vicious thing. Its back end's as dangerous as its front, look.”
Charlie pointed toward the Horntail's tail, and Harry saw long, bronze-colored spikes protruding along it every few inches.
Five of Charlie's fellow keepers staggered up to the Horntail at that moment, carrying a clutch of huge granite-gray eggs between them in a blanket. They placed them carefully at the Horntail's side. Hagrid let out a moan of longing.
“I've got them counted, Hagrid,” said Charlie sternly. Then he said, “How's Harry?”
“Fine,” said Hagrid. He was still gazing at the eggs.
“Just hope he's still fine after he's faced this lot,” said Charlie grimly, looking out over the dragons' enclosure. “I didn't dare tell Mum what he's got to do for the first task; she's already having kittens about him...” Charlie imitated his mother's anxious voice. “How could they let him enter that tournament, he's much too young! I thought they were all safe, I thought there was going to be an age limit!' She was in floods after that Daily Prophet article about him. 'He still cries about his parents! Oh bless him, I never knew!”
Harry had had enough. Trusting to the fact that Hagrid wouldn't miss him, with the attractions of four dragons and Madame Maxime to occupy him, he turned silently and began to walk away, back to the castle.
He didn't know whether he was glad he'd seen what was coming or not. Perhaps this way was better. The first shock was over now. Maybe if he'd seen the dragons for the first time on Tuesday, he would have passed out cold in front of the whole school... but maybe he would anyway... He was going to be armed with his wand—which, just now, felt like nothing more than a narrow strip of wood—against a fifty-foot-high, scaly, spike-ridden, fire-breathing dragon. And he had to get past it. With everyone watching. How?
Harry sped up, skirting the edge of the forest; he had just under fifteen minutes to get back to the fireside and talk to Sirius, and he couldn't remember, ever, wanting to talk to someone more than he did right now—when, without warning, he ran into something very solid.
Harry fell backward, his glasses askew, clutching the cloak around him. A voice nearby said, “Ouch! Who's there?”
Harry hastily checked that the cloak was covering him and hay very still, staring up at the dark outline of the wizard he had hit. He recognized the goatee... it was Karkaroff.
“Who's there?” said Karkaroff again, very suspiciously, looking around in the darkness. Harry remained still and silent. After a minute or so, Karkaroff seemed to decide that he had hit some sort of animal; he was looking around at waist height, as though expecting to see a dog. Then he crept back under the cover of the trees and started to edge forward toward the place where the dragons were.
Very slowly and very carefully, Harry got to his feet and set off again as fast as he could without making too much noise, hurrying through the darkness back toward Hogwarts.
He had no doubt whatsoever what Karkaroff was up to. He had sneaked off his ship to try and find out what the first task was going to be. He might even have spotted Hagrid and Madame Maxime heading off around the forest together—they were hardly difficult to spot at a distance... and now all Karkaroff had to do was follow the sound of voices, and he, like Madame Maxime, would know what was in store for the champions.
By the looks of it, the only champion who would be facing the unknown on Tuesday was Cedric.
Harry reached the castle, slipped in through the front doors, and began to climb the marble stairs; he was very out of breath, but he didn't dare slow down... He had less than five minutes to get up to the fire.
“Balderdash!” he gasped at the Fat Lady, who was snoozing in her frame in front of the portrait hole.
“If you say so,” she muttered sleepily, without opening her eyes, and the picture swung forward to admit him. Harry climbed inside. The common room was deserted, and, judging by the fact that it smelled quite normal, Hermione had not needed to set off any Dungbombs to ensure that he and Sirius got privacy.
Harry pulled off the Invisibility Cloak and threw himself into an armchair in front of the fire. The room was in semidarkness; the flames were the only source of light. Nearby, on a table, the Support Cedric Diggory! badges the Creeveys had been trying to improve were glinting in the firelight. They now read POTTER REALLY STINKS. Harry looked back into the flames, and jumped.
Sirius's head was sitting in the fire. If Harry hadn't seen Mr. Diggory do exactly this back in the Weasleys' kitchen, it would have scared him out of his wits. Instead, his face breaking into the first smile he had worn for days, he scrambled out of his chair, crouched down by the hearth, and said, “Sirius—how're you doing?”
Sirius looked different from Harry's memory of him. When they had said good-bye, Sirius's face had been gaunt and sunken, surrounded by a quantity of long, black, matted hair—but the hair was short and clean now, Sirius's face was fuller, and he looked younger, much more like the only photograph Harry had of him, which had been taken at the Potters' wedding.
“Never mind me, how are you?” said Sirius seriously.
“I'm—” For a second, Harry tried to say “fine”—but he couldn't do it. Before he could stop himself, he was talking more than he'd talked in days—about how no one believed he hadn't entered the tournament of his own free will, how Rita Skeeter had lied about him in the Daily Prophet, how he couldn't walk down a corridor without being sneered at—and about Ron, Ron not believing him, Ron's jealousy...
“... and now Hagrid's just shown me what's coming in the first task, and it's dragons, Sirius, and I'm a goner,” he finished desperately.
Sirius looked at him, eyes full of concern, eyes that had not yet lost the look that Azkaban had given them—that deadened, haunted look He had let Harry talk himself into silence without interruption, but now he said, “Dragons we can deal with, Harry, but we'll get to that in a minute—I haven't got long here... I've broken into a wizarding house to use the fire, but they could be back at any time. There are things I need to warn you about.”
“What?” said Harry, feeling his spirits slip a further few notches... Surely there could be nothing worse than dragons coming?
“Karkaroff,” said Sirius. “Harry, he was a Death Eater. You know what Death Eaters are, don't you?”
“Yes—he—what?”
“He was caught, he was in Azkaban with me, but he got released. I'd bet everything that's why Dumbledore wanted an Auror at Hogwarts this year—to keep an eye on him. Moody caught Karkaroff. Put him into Azkaban in the first place.”
“Karkaroff got released?” Harry said slowly—his brain seemed to be struggling to absorb yet another piece of shocking information. “Why did they release him?”
“He did a deal with the Ministry of Magic,” said Sirius bitterly. “He said he'd seen the error of his ways, and then he named names... he put a load of other people into Azkaban in his place... He's not very popular in there, I can tell you. And since he got out, from what I can tell, he's been teaching the Dark Arts to every student who passes through that school of his. So watch out for the Durmstrang champion as well.”
“Okay,” said Harry slowly. “But... are you saying Karkaroff put my name in the goblet? Because if he did, he's a really good actor. He seemed furious about it. He wanted to stop me from competing.”
“We know he's a good actor,” said Sirius, “because he convinced the Ministry of Magic to set him free, didn't he? Now, I've been keeping an eye on the Daily Prophet, Harry..”
“you and the rest of the world,” said Harry bitterly.
“and reading between the lines of that Skeeter woman's article last month, Moody was attacked the night before he started at Hogwarts. Yes, I know she says it was another false alarm,” Sirius said hastily, seeing Harry about to speak, “but I don't think so, somehow. I think someone tried to stop him from getting to Hogwarts. I think someone knew their job would be a lot more difficult with him around. And no one's going to look into it too closely; Mad-Eye's heard intruders a bit too often. But that doesn't mean he can't still spot the real thing. Moody was the best Auror the Ministry ever had.”
“So... what are you saying?” said Harry slowly. “Karkaroff's trying to kill me? But—why?”
Sirius hesitated.
“I've been nearing some very strange things,” he said slowly. “The Death Eaters seem to be a bit more active than usual lately. They showed themselves at the Quidditch World Cup, didn't they? Someone set off the Dark Mark... and then—did you hear about that Ministry of Magic witch who's gone missing?”
“Bertha Jorkins?” said Harry.
“Exactly... she disappeared in Albania, and that's definitely where Voldemort was rumored to be last... and she would have known the Triwizard Tournament was coming up, wouldn't she?”
“Yeah, but... it's not very likely she'd have walked straight into Voldemort, is it?” said Harry.
“Listen, I knew Bertha Jorkins,” said Sirius grimly. “She was at Hogwarts when I was, a few years above your dad and me. And she was an idiot. Very nosy, but no brains, none at all. It's not a good combination, Harry. I'd say she'd be very easy to lure into a trap.”
“So... so Voldemort could have found out about the tournament?” said Harry. “Is that what you mean? You think Karkaroff might be here on his orders?”
“I don't know,” said Sirius slowly, “I just don't know... Karkaroff doesn't strike me as the type who'd go back to Voldemort unless he knew Voldemort was powerful enough to protect him. But whoever put your name in that goblet did it for a reason, and I can't help thinking the tournament would be a very good way to attack you and make it hook like an accident.”
“Looks hike a really good plan from where I'm standing,” said Harry grinning bleaky. “They'll just have to stand back and let the dragons do their stuff.”
“Right—these dragons,” said Sirius, speaking very quickly now. “There's a way, Harry. Don't be tempted to try a Stunning Spell—dragons are strong and too powerfully magical to be knocked out by a single Stunner, you need about half a dozen wizards at a time to overcome a dragon—”
“Yeah, I know, I just saw,” said Harry.
“But you can do it alone,” said Sirius. “There is away, and a simple spell's all you need. Just—”
But Harry held up a hand to silence him, his heart suddenly pounding as though it would burst. He could hear footsteps coming down the spiral staircase behind him.
“Go!” he hissed at Sirius. “ Go! There's someone coming!”
Harry scrambled to his feet, hiding the fire—if someone saw Sirius's face within the walls of Hogwarts, they would raise an almighty uproar—the Ministry would get dragged in—he, Harry, would be questioned about Sirius's whereabouts—
Harry heard a tiny pop! in the fire behind him and knew Sirius had gone. He watched the bottom of the spiral staircase. Who had decided to go for a stroll at one o'clock in the morning, and stopped Sirius from telling him how to get past a dragon?
It was Ron. Dressed in his maroon paisley pajamas, Ron stopped dead facing Harry across the room, and looked around.
“Who were you talking to?” he said.
“What's that got to do with you?” Harry snarled. “What are you doing down here at this time of night?”
“I just wondered where you—” Ron broke off, shrugging. “Nothing. I'm going back to bed.”
“Just thought you'd come nosing around, did you?” Harry shouted. He knew that Ron had no idea what he'd walked in on, knew he hadn't done it on purpose, but he didn't care—at this moment he hated everything about Ron, right down to the several inches of bare ankle showing beneath his pajama trousers.
“Sorry about that,” said Ron, his face reddening with anger. “Should've realized you didn't want to be disturbed. I'll let you get on with practicing for your next interview in peace.”
Harry seized one of the POTTER REALLY STINKS badges off the table and chucked it, as hard as he could, across the room. It hit Ron on the forehead and bounced off.
“There you go,” Harry said. “Something for you to wear on Tuesday. You might even have a scar now, if yon're lucky... That's what you want, isn't it?”
He strode across the room toward the stairs; he half expected Ron to stop him, he would even have liked Ron to throw a punch at him, but Ron just stood there in his too-small pajamas, and Harry, having stormed upstairs, lay awake in bed fuming for a long time afterward and didn't hear him come up to bed.

(hpvn.net)
Posted 12/14/07
CHAPTER TWENTY
THE FIRST TASK

Harry got up on Sunday morning and dressed so inattentively that it was a while before he realized he was trying to pull his hat onto his foot instead of his sock. When he'd finally got all his clothes on the right parts of his body, he hurried off to find Hermione, locating her at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall, where she was eating breakfast with Ginny. Feeling too queasy to eat, Harry waited until Hermione had swallowed her last spoonful of porridge, then dragged her out onto the grounds. There, he told her all about the dragons, and about everything Sirius had said, while they took another long walk around the lake.
Alarmed as she was by Sirius's warnings about Karkaroff, Hermione still thought that the dragons were the more pressing problem.
“Let's just try and keep you alive until Tuesday evening,” she said desperately, “and then we can worry about Karkaroff.”
They walked three times around the lake, trying all the way to think of a simple spell that would subdue a dragon. Nothing whatsoever occurred to them, so they retired to the library instead. Here, Harry pulled down every book he could find on dragons, and both of them set to work searching through the large pile.
“Talon-clipping by charms... treating scale-rot... ' This is no good, this is for nutters like Hagrid who want to keep them healthy...
“Dragons are extremely difficult to slay, owing to the ancient magic that imbues their thick hides, which none but the most powerful spells can penetrate... ' But Sirius said a simple one would do it...
“Let's try some simple spellbooks, then,” said Harry, throwing aside Men Who Love Dragons Too Much.
He returned to the table with a pile of spellbooks, set them down, and began to flick through each in turn, Hermione whispering nonstop at his elbow.
“Well, there are Switching Spells... but what's the point of Switching it? Unless you swapped its fangs for wine-gums or something that would make it less dangerous... The trouble is, like that book said, not much is going to get through a dragon's hide... I'd say Transfigure it, but something that big, you really haven't got a hope, I doubt even Professor McGonagall... unless you're supposed to put the spell on yourself? Maybe to give yourself extra powers? But they're not simple spells, I mean, we haven't done any of those in class, I only know about them because I've been doing O. W. L. practice papers...”
“Hermione,” Harry said, through gritted teeth, “will you shut up for a bit, please? I m trying to concentrate.”
But all that happened, when Hermione fell silent, was that Harry's brain filled with a sort of blank buzzing, which didn't seem to allow room for concentration. He stared hopelessly down the index of Basic Hexes for the Busy and Vexed. Instant scalping... but dragons had no hair... pepper breath... that would probably increase a dragon's firepower... horn tongue... just what he needed, to give it an extra weapon...
“Oh no, he's back again, why can't he read on his stupid ship?” said Hermione irritably as Viktor Krum slouched in, cast a surly look over at the pair of them, and settled himself in a distant corner with a pile of books. “Come on, Harry, we'll go back to the common room... his fan club'll be here in a moment, twittering away...”
And sure enough, as they left the library, a gang of girls tiptoed past them, one of them wearing a Bulgaria scarf tied around her waist.

Harry barely slept that night. When he awoke on Monday morning, he seriously considered for the first time ever just running away from Hogwarts. But as he looked around the Great Hall at breakfast time, and thought about what leaving the castle would mean, he knew he couldn't do it. It was the only place he had ever been happy... well, he supposed he must have been happy with his parents too, but he couldn't remember that.
Somehow, the knowledge that he would rather be here and facing a dragon than back on Privet Drive with Dudley was good to know; it made him feel slightly calmer. He finished his bacon with difficulty (his throat wasn't working too well), and as he and Hermione got up, he saw Cedric Diggory leaving the Hufflepuff table.
Cedric still didn't know about the dragons... the only champion who didn't, if Harry was right in thinking that Maxime and Karkaroff would have told Fleur and Krum...
“Hermione, I'll see you in the greenhouses,” Harry said, coming to his decision as he watched Cedric leaving the Hall. “Go on, I'll catch you up.”
“Harry, you'll be late, the bell's about to ring—”
“I'll catch you up, okay?”
By the time Harry reached the bottom of the marble staircase, Cedric was at the top. He was with a load of sixth-year friends. Harry didn't want to talk to Cedric in front of them; they were among those who had been quoting Rita Skeeter's article at him every time he went near them. He followed Cedric at a distance and saw that he was heading toward the Charms corridor. This gave Harry an idea. Pausing at a distance from them, he pulled out his wand, and took careful aim.
“Diffindo!”
Cedric's bag split. Parchment, quills, and books spilled out of it onto the floor. Several bottles of ink smashed.
“Don't bother,” said Cedric in an exasperated voice as his friends bent down to help him. “Tell Flitwick I'm coming, go on...
This was exactly what Harry had been hoping for. He slipped his wand back into his robes, waited until Cedric's friends had disappeared into their classroom, and hurried up the corridor, which was now empty of everyone but himself and Cedric.
“Hi,” said Cedric, picking up a copy of A Guide to Advanced Transfiguration that was now splattered with ink. “My bag just split... brand-new and all...”
“Cedric,” said Harry, “the first task is dragons.”
“What?” said Cedric, looking up.
“Dragons,” said Harry, speaking quickly, in case Professor Flitwick came out to see where Cedric had got to. “They've got four, one for each of us, and we've got to get past them.”
Cedric stared at him. Harry saw some of the panic he'd been feeling since Saturday night flickering in Cedric's gray eyes.
“Are you sure?” Cedric said in a hushed voice.
“Dead sure,” said Harry. “I've seen them.”
“But how did you find out? We're not supposed to know...”
“Never mind,” said Harry quickly—he knew Hagrid would be in trouble if he told the truth. “But I'm not the only one who knows. Fleur and Krum will know by now—Maxime and Karkaroff both saw the dragons too.”
Cedric straightened up, his arms full of inky quills, parchment, and books, his ripped bag dangling off one shoulder. He stared at Harry, and there was a puzzled, almost suspicious look in his eyes.
“Why are you telling me?” he asked.
Harry looked at him in disbelief. He was sure Cedric wouldn't have asked that if he had seen the dragons himself. Harry wouldn't have let his worst enemy face those monsters unprepared—well, perhaps Malfoy or Snape...
“It's just... fair, isn't it?” he said to Cedric. “We all know now... we're on an even footing, aren't we?”
Cedric was still hooking at him in a slightly suspicious way when Harry heard a familiar clunking noise behind him. He turned around and saw Mad-Eye Moody emerging from a nearby classroom.
“Come with me, Potter,” he growled. “Diggory, off you go.”
Harry stared apprehensively at Moody. Had he overheard them?
“Er—Professor, I'm supposed to be in Herbology—”
“Never mind that, Potter. In my office, please...
Harry followed him, wondering what was going to happen to him now. What if Moody wanted to know how he'd found out about the dragons? Would Moody go to Dumbledore and tell on Hagrid, or just turn Harry into a ferret? Well, it might be easier to get past a dragon if he were a ferret, Harry thought dully, he'd be smaller, much less easy to see from a height of fifty feet..
He followed Moody into his office. Moody closed the door behind them and turned to look at Harry, his magical eye fixed upon him as well as the normal one.
“That was a very decent thing you just did, Potter,” Moody said quietly.
Harry didn't know what to say; this wasn't the reaction he had expected at all.
“Sit down,” said Moody, and Harry sat, looking around.
He had visited this office under two of its previous occupants. In Professor Lockhart's day, the walls had been plastered with beaming, winking pictures of Professor Lockhart himself. When Lupin had lived here, you were more likely to come across a specimen of some fascinating new Dark creature he had procured for them to study in class. Now, however, the office was full of a number of exceptionally odd objects that Harry supposed Moody had used in the days when he had been an Auror.
On his desk stood what looked hike a large, cracked, glass spinning top; Harry recognized it at once as a Sneakoscope, because he owned one himself, though it was much smaller than Moody's. In the corner on a small table stood an object that looked something like an extra-squiggly, golden television aerial. It was humming slightly. What appeared to be a mirror hung opposite Harry on the wall, but it was not reflecting the room. Shadowy figures were moving around inside it, none of them clearly in focus.
“Like my Dark Detectors, do you?” s aid Moody, who was watching Harry closely.
“What's that?” Harry asked, pointing at the squiggly golden aerial.
“Secrecy Sensor. Vibrates when it detects concealment and lies... no use here, of course, too much interference—students in every direction lying about why they haven't done their homework Been humming ever since I got here. I had to disable my Sneakoscope because it wouldn't stop whistling. It's extra-sensitive, picks up stuff about a mile around. Of course, it could be picking up more than kid stuff,” he added in a growl.
“And what's the mirror for?”
“Oh that's my Foe-Glass. See them out there, skulking around? I'm not really in trouble until I see the whites of their eyes. That's when I open my trunk.”
He let out a short, harsh laugh, and pointed to the large trunk under the window. It had seven keyholes in a row. Harry wondered what was in there, until Moody's next question brought him sharply back to earth.
“So... found out about the dragons, have you?”
Harry hesitated. He'd been afraid of this—but he hadn't told Cedric, and he certainly wasn't going to tell Moody, that Hagrid had broken the rules.
“It's all right,” said Moody, sitting down and stretching out his wooden leg with a groan. “Cheating's a traditional part of the Triwizard Tournament and always has been.”
“I didn't cheat,” said Harry sharply. “It was—a sort of accident that I found out.”
Moody grinned. “I wasn't accusing you, laddie. I've been telling Dumbledore from the start, he can be as high-minded as he likes, but you can bet old Karkaroff and Maxime won't be. They'll have told their champions everything they can. They want to win. They want to beat Dumbledore. They'd like to prove he's only human.”
Moody gave another harsh laugh, and his magical eye swiveled around so fast it made Harry feel queasy to watch it.
“So... got any ideas how you're going to get past your dragon yet?” said Moody.
“No,” said Harry.
“Well, I'm not going to tell you,” said Moody gruffly. “I don't show favoritism, me. I'm just going to give you some good, general advice. And the first bit is—play to your strengths.”
“I haven't got any,” said Harry, before he could stop himself. “Excuse me,” growled Moody, “you've got strengths if I say you've got them. Think now. What are you best at?”
Harry tried to concentrate. What was he best at? Well, that was easy, really—
“Quidditch,” he said dully, “and a fat lot of help—”
“That's right,” said Moody, staring at him very hard, his magical eye barely moving at all. “You're a damn good flier from what I've heard.”
“Yeah, but...” Harry stared at him. “I'm not allowed a broom, I've only got my wand...”
“My second piece of general advice,” said Moody loudly, interrupting him, “is to use a nice, simple spell that will enable you to get what you need.”
Harry looked at him blankly. What did he need?
“Come on, boy...” whispered Moody. “Put them together... it's not that difficult...”
And it clicked. He was best at flying. He needed to pass the dragon in the air. For that, he needed his Firebolt. And for his Fire-bolt, he needed—

“Hermione,” Harry whispered, when he had sped into greenhouse three minutes later, uttering a hurried apology to Professor Sprout as he passed her. “Hermione—I need you to help me.”
“What d'you think I've been trying to do, Harry?” she whispered back, her eyes round with anxiety over the top of the quivering Flutterby Bush she was pruning.
“Hermione, I need to learn how to do a Summoning Charm properly by tomorrow afternoon.”

And so they practiced. They didn't have lunch, but headed for a free classroom, where Harry tried with all his might to make various objects fly across the room toward him. He was still having problems. The books and quills kept losing heart halfway across the room and dropping hike stones to the floor.
“Concentrate, Harry, concentrate...”
“What d'you think I'm trying to do?” said Harry angrily. “A great big dragon keeps popping up in my head for some reason... Okay, try again...”
He wanted to skip Divination to keep practicing, but Hermione refused point-blank to skive off Arithmancy, and there was no point in staying without her. He therefore had to endure over an hour of Professor Trelawney, who spent half the lesson telling everyone that the position of Mars with relation to Saturn at that moment meant that people born in July were in great danger of sudden, violent deaths.
“Well, that's good,” said Harry loudly, his temper getting the better of him, “just as long as it's not drawn-out. I don't want to suffer.”
Ron looked for a moment as though he was going to laugh; he certainly caught Harry's eye for the first time in days, but Harry was still feeling too resentful toward Ron to care. He spent the rest of the lesson trying to attract small objects toward him under the table with his wand. He managed to make a fly zoom straight into his hand, though he wasn't entirely sure that was his prowess at Summoning Charms—perhaps the fly was just stupid.
He forced down some dinner after Divination, then returned to the empty classroom with Hermione, using the Invisibility Cloak to avoid the teachers. They kept practicing until past midnight. They would have stayed longer, but Peeves turned up and, pretending to think that Harry wanted things thrown at him, started chucking chairs across the room. Harry and Hermione left in a hurry before the noise attracted Filch, and went back to the Gryffindor common room, which was now mercifully empty.
At two o'clock in the morning, Harry stood near the fireplace, surrounded by heaps of objects: books, quills, several upturned chairs, an old set of Gobstones, and Neville's toad, Trevor. Only in the last hour had Harry really got the hang of the Summoning Charm.
“That's better, Harry, that's loads better,” Hermione said, looking exhausted but very pleased.
“Well, now we know what to do next time I can't manage a spell,” Harry said, throwing a rune dictionary back to Hermione, so he could try again, “threaten me with a dragon. Right...” He raised his wand once more. “Accio Dictionary!”
The heavy book soared out of Hermione's hand, flew across the room, and Harry caught it.
“Harry, I really think you've got it!” said Hermione delightedly.
“Just as long as it works tomorrow,” Harry said. “The Firebolt's going to be much farther away than the stuff in here, it's going to be in the castle, and I'm going to be out there on the grounds...”
“That doesn't matter,” said Hermione firmly.” Just as long as you're concentrating really, really hard on it, it'll come. Harry, we'd better get some sleep... you're going to need it.”

Harry had been focusing so hard on learning the Summoning Charm that evening that some of his blind panic had heft him. It returned in full measure, however, on the following morning. The atmosphere in the school was one of great tension and excitement. Lessons were to stop at midday, giving all the students time to get down to the dragons' enclosure—though of course, they didn't yet know what they would find there.
Harry felt oddly separate from everyone around him, whether they were wishing him good luck or hissing “We'll have a box of tissues ready, Potter” as he passed. It was a state of nervousness so advanced that he wondered whether he mightn't just lose his head when they tried to lead him out to his dragon, and start trying to curse everyone in sight. Time was behaving in a more peculiar fashion than ever, rushing past in great dollops, so that one moment he seemed to be sitting down in his first lesson, History of Magic, and the next, walking into lunch... and then (where had the morning gone? the last of the dragon-free hours?), Professor McGonagall was hurrying over to him in the Great Hall. Lots of people were watching.
“Potter, the champions have to come down onto the grounds now... You have to get ready for your first task.”
“Okay,” said Harry, standing up, his fork falling onto his plate with a clatter.
“Good luck, Harry,” Hermione whispered. “You'll be fine!”
“Yeah,” said Harry in a voice that was most unlike his own.
He heft the Great Hall with Professor McGonagall. She didn't seem herself either; in fact, she looked nearly as anxious as Hermione. As she walked him down the stone steps and out into the cold November afternoon, she put her hand on his shoulder.
“Now, don't panic,” she said, “just keep a cool head... We've got wizards standing by to control the situation if it gets out of hand... The main thing is just to do your best, and nobody will think any the worse of you... Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Harry heard himself say. “Yes, I'm fine.”
She was leading him toward the place where the dragons were, around the edge of the forest, but when they approached the clump of trees behind which the enclosure would be clearly visible, Harry saw that a tent had been erected, its entrance facing them, screening the dragons from view.
“You're to go in here with the other champions,” said Professor McGonagall, in a rather shaky sort of voice, “and wait for your turn, Potter. Mr. Bagman is in there... he'll be telling you the—the procedure... Good luck.”
“Thanks,” said Harry, in a flat, distant voice. She left him at the entrance of the tent. Harry went inside.
Fleur Delacour was sitting in a corner on a how wooden stool. She didn't look nearly as composed as usual, but rather pale and clammy. Viktor Krum looked even surlier than usual, which Harry supposed was his way of showing nerves. Cedric was pacing up and down. When Harry entered, Cedric gave him a small smile, which Harry returned, feeling the muscles in his face working rather hard, as though they had forgotten how to do it.
“Harry! Good-o!” said Bagman happily, looking around at him. “Come in, come in, make yourself at home!”
Bagman looked somehow like a slightly overblown cartoon figure, standing amid all the pale-faced champions. He was wearing his old Wasp robes again.
“Well, now we're all here—time to fill you in!” said Bagman brightly. “When the audience has assembled, I'm going to be offering each of you this bag”—he held up a small sack of purple silk and shook it at them—”from which you will each select a small model of the thing you are about to face! There are different—er—varieties, you see. And I have to tell you something else too... ah, yes... your task is to collect the golden egg!”
Harry glanced around. Cedric had nodded once, to show that he understood Bagman's words, and then started pacing around the tent again; he looked slightly green. Fleur Delacour and Krum hadn't reacted at all. Perhaps they thought they might be sick if they opened their mouths; that was certainly how Harry felt. But they, at least, had volunteered for this..
And in no time at all, hundreds upon hundreds of pairs of feet could be heard passing the tent, their owners talking excitedly, laughing, joking... Harry felt as separate from the crowd as though they were a different species. And then—it seemed like about a second later to Harry—Bagman was opening the neck of the purple silk sack.
“Ladies first,” he said, offering it to Fleur Delacour.
She put a shaking hand inside the bag and drew out a tiny, perfect model of a dragon—a Welsh Green. It had the number two around its neck And Harry knew, by the fact that Fleur showed no sign of surprise, but rather a determined resignation, that he had been right: Madame Maxime had told her what was coming.
The same held true for Krum. He pulled out the scarlet Chinese Fireball. It had a number three around its neck. He didn't even blink, just sat back down and stared at the ground.
Cedric put his hand into the bag, and out came the blueish-gray Swedish Short-Snout, the number one tied around its neck. Knowing what was left, Harry put his hand into the silk bag and pulled out the Hungarian Horntail, and the number four. It stretched its wings as he looked down at it, and bared its minuscule fangs.
“Well, there you are!” said Bagman. “You have each pulled out the dragon you will face, and the numbers refer to the order in which you are to take on the dragons, do you see? Now, I'm going to have to leave you in a moment, because I'm commentating. Mr. Diggory, you're first, just go out into the enclosure when you hear a whistle, all right? Now... Harry... could I have a quick word? Outside?”
“Er... yes,” said Harry blankly, and he got up and went out of the tent with Bagman, who walked him a short distance away, into the trees, and then turned to him with a fatherly expression on his face.
“Feeling all right, Harry? Anything I can get you?”
“What?” said Harry. “I—no, nothing.”
“Got a plan?” said Bagman, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “Because I don't mind sharing a few pointers, if you'd like them, you know. I mean,” Bagman continued, lowering his voice still further, “you're the underdog here, Harry... Anything I can do to help...”
“No,” said Harry so quickly he knew he had sounded rude, “no—I—I know what I'm going to do, thanks.”
“Nobody would know, Harry,” said Bagman, winking at him.
“No, I'm fine,” said Harry, wondering why he kept telling people this, and wondering whether he had ever been less fine. “I've got a plan worked out, I—”
A whistle had blown somewhere.
“Good lord, I've got to run!” said Bagman in alarm, and he hurried off.
Harry walked back to the tent and saw Cedric emerging from it, greener than ever. Harry tried to wish him luck as he walked past, but all that came out of his mouth was a sort of hoarse grunt.
Harry went back inside to Fleur and Krum. Seconds hater, they heard the roar of the crowd, which meant Cedric had entered the enclosure and was now face-to-face with the living counterpart of his model.
It was worse than Harry could ever have imagined, sitting there and listening. The crowd screamed... yelled... gasped like a single many-headed entity, as Cedric did whatever he was doing to get past the Swedish Short-Snout. Krum was still staring at the ground. Fleur had now taken to retracing Cedric's steps, around and around the tent. And Bagman's commentary made everything much, much worse... Horrible pictures formed in Harry's mind as he heard: “Oooh, narrow miss there, very narrow”... “He's taking risks, this one!”... “Clever move—pity it didn't work!”
And then, after about fifteen minutes, Harry heard the deafening roar that could mean only one thing: Cedric had gotten past his dragon and captured the golden egg.
“Very good indeed!” Bagman was shouting. “And now the marks from the judges!”
But he didn't shout out the marks; Harry supposed the judges were holding them up and showing them to the crowd.
“One down, three to go!” Bagman yelled as the whistle blew again. “Miss Delacour, if you please!”
Fleur was trembling from head to foot; Harry felt more warmly toward her than he had done so far as she heft the tent with her head held high and her hand clutching her wand. He and Krum were left alone, at opposite sides of the tent, avoiding each other's gaze.
The same process started again... "Oh I'm not sure that was wise!” they could hear Bagman shouting gleefully. “Oh... nearly! Careful now... good lord, I thought she'd had it then!”
Ten minutes later, Harry heard the crowd erupt into applause once more... Fleur must have been successful too. A pause, while Fleur's marks were being shown... more clapping... then, for the third time, the whistle.
“And here comes Mr. Krum!” cried Bagman, and Krum slouched out, leaving Harry quite alone.
He felt much more aware of his body than usual; very aware of the way his heart was pumping fast, and his fingers tingling with fear... yet at the same time, he seemed to be outside himself, seeing the walls of the tent, and hearing the crowd, as though from far away.
“Very daring!” Bagman was yelling, and Harry heard the Chinese Fireball emit a horrible, roaring shriek, while the crowd drew its collective breath. “That's some nerve he's showing—and—yes, he's got the egg!”
Applause shattered the wintery air like breaking glass; Krum had finished—it would be Harry's turn any moment.
He stood up, noticing dimly that his legs seemed to be made of marshmallow. He waited. And then he heard the whistle blow. He walked out through the entrance of the tent, the panic rising into a crescendo inside him. And now he was walking past the trees, through a gap in the enclosure fence.
He saw everything in front of him as though it was a very highly colored dream. There were hundreds and hundreds of faces staring down at him from stands that had been magicked there since he'd last stood on this spot. And there was the Horntail, at the other end of the enclosure, crouched low over her clutch of eggs, her wings half-furled, her evil, yellow eyes upon him, a monstrous, scaly, black lizard, thrashing her spiked tail, heaving yard-long gouge marks in the hard ground. The crowd was making a great deal of noise, but whether friendly or not, Harry didn't know or care. It was time to do what he had to do... to focus his mind, entirely and absolutely, upon the thing that was his only chance.
He raised his wand.
“Accio Firebolt!” he shouted.
Harry waited, every fiber of him hoping, praying... If it hadn't worked... if it wasn't coming... He seemed to be looking at everything around him through some sort of shimmering, transparent barrier, like a heat haze, which made the enclosure and the hundreds of faces around him swim strangely...
And then he heard it, speeding through the air behind him; he turned and saw his Firebolt hurtling toward him around the edge of the woods, soaring into the enclosure, and stopping dead in midair beside him, waiting for him to mount. The crowd was making even more noise... Bagman was shouting something... but Harry's ears were not working properly anymore... listening wasn't important...
He swung his leg over the broom and kicked off from the ground. And a second later, something miraculous happened...
As he soared upward, as the wind rushed through his hair, as the crowd's faces became mere flesh-colored pinpnicks below, and the Horntail shrank to the size of a dog, he realized that he had heft not only the ground behind, but also his fear... He was back where he belonged...
This was just another Quidditch match, that was all... just another Quidditch match, and that Horntail was just another ugly opposing team.
He looked down at the clutch of eggs and spotted the gold one, gleaming against its cement-colored fellows, residing safely between the dragon's front legs. “Okay,” Harry told himself, “diversionary tactics... let's go...”
He dived. The Horntail's head followed him; he knew what it was going to do and pulled out of the dive just in time; a jet of fire had been released exactly where he would have been had he not swerved away... but Harry didn't care... that was no more than dodging a Bludger.
“Great Scott, he can fly!” yelled Bagman as the crowd shrieked and gasped. “Are you watching this, Mr. Krum?”
Harry soared higher in a circle; the Horntail was still following his progress; its head revolving on its long neck—if he kept this up, it would be nicely dizzy—but better not push it too long, or it would be breathing fire again—
Harry plummeted just as the Horntail opened its mouth, but this time he was less lucky—he missed the flames, but the tail came whipping up to meet him instead, and as he swerved to the left, one of the long spikes grazed his shoulder, ripping his robes—
He could feel it stinging, he could hear screaming and groans from the crowd, but the cut didn't seem to be deep... Now he zoomed around the back of the Horntail, and a possibility occurred to him...
The Horntail didn't seem to want to take off, she was too protective of her eggs. Though she writhed and twisted, furling and unfurling her wings and keeping those fearsome yellow eyes on Harry, she was afraid to move too far from them... but he had to persuade her to do it, or he'd never get near them... The trick was to do it carefully, gradually...
He began to fly, first this way, then the other, not near enough to make her breathe fire to stave him off, but still posing a sufficient threat to ensure she kept her eyes on him. Her head swayed this way and that, watching him out of those vertical pupils, her fangs bared...
He flew higher. The Horntail's head rose with him, her neck now stretched to its fullest extent, still swaying, hike a snake before its charmer...
Harry rose a few more feet, and she let out a roar of exasperation. He was like a fly to her, a fly she was longing to swat; her tail thrashed again, but he was too high to reach now... She shot fire into the air, which he dodged... Her jaws opened wide...
“Come on,” Harry hissed, swerving tantalizingly above her, “come on, come and get me... up you get now..”
And then she reared, spreading her great, black, leathery wings at last, as wide as those of a small airplane—and Harry dived. Before the dragon knew what he had done, or where he had disappeared to, he was speeding toward the ground as fast as he could go, toward the eggs now unprotected by her clawed front legs—he had taken his hands off his Firebolt—he had seized the golden egg—
And with a huge spurt of speed, he was off, he was soaring out over the stands, the heavy egg safely under his uninjured arm, and it was as though somebody had just turned the volume back up—for the first time, he became properly aware of the noise of the crowd, which was screaming and applauding as loudly as the Irish supporters at the World Cup—
“Look at that!” Bagman was yelling. “Will you look at that! Our youngest champion is quickest to get his egg! Well, this is going to shorten the odds on Mr. Potter!”
Harry saw the dragon keepers rushing forward to subdue the Horntail, and, over at the entrance to the enclosure, Professor McGonagalh, Professor Moody, and Hagrid hurrying to meet him, all of them waving him toward them, their smiles evident even from this distance. He flew back over the stands, the noise of the crowd pounding his eardrums, and came in smoothly to land, his heart lighter than it had been in weeks... He had got through the first task, he had survived.
“That was excellent, Potter!” cried Professor McGonagall as he got off the Firebolt—which from her was extravagant praise. He noticed that her hand shook as she pointed at his shoulder. “You'll need to see Madam Pomfrey before the judges give out your score... Over there, she's had to mop up Diggory already...”
“Yeh did it, Harry!” said Hagrid hoarsely. “Yeh did it! An' agains' the Horntail an' all, an' yeh know Charlie said that was the wors'—”
“Thanks, Hagrid,” said Harry loudly, so that Hagrid wouldn't blunder on and reveal that he had shown Harry the dragons beforehand.
Professor Moody looked very pleased too; his magical eye was dancing in its socket.
“Nice and easy does the trick, Potter,” he growled.
“Right then, Potter, the first aid tent, please...” said Professor McGonagall.
Harry walked out of the enclosure, still panting, and saw Madam Pomfrey standing at the mouth of a second tent, looking worried.
“Dragons!” she said, in a disgusted tone, pulling Harry inside. The tent was divided into cubicles; he could make out Cedric's shadow through the canvas, but Cedric didn't seem to be badly injured; he was sitting up, at least. Madam Pomfrey examined Harry's shoulder, talking furiously all the while. “Last year dementors, this year dragons, what are they going to bring into this school next? You're very lucky... this is quite shallow... it'll need cleaning before I heal it up, though...”
She cleaned the cut with a dab of some purple liquid that smoked and stung, but then poked his shoulder with her wand, and he felt it heal instantly.
“Now, just sit quietly for a minute—sit! And then you can go and get your score.”
She bustled out of the tent and he heard her go next door and say, “How does it feel now, Diggory?”
Harry didn't want to sit still: He was too full of adrenaline. He got to his feet, wanting to see what was going on outside, but before he'd reached the mouth of the tent, two people had come darting inside—Hermione, followed closely by Ron.
“Harry, you were brilliant!” Hermione said squeakily. There were fingernail marks on her face where she had been clutching it in fear. “You were amazing! You really were!”
But Harry was looking at Ron, who was very white and staring at Harry as though he were a ghost.
“Harry,” he said, very seriously, “whoever put your name in that goblet—I—I reckon they're trying to do you in!”
It was as though the last few weeks had never happened—as though Harry were meeting Ron for the first time, right after he'd been made champion.
“Caught on, have you?” said Harry coldly. “Took you long enough.”
Hermione stood nervously between them, looking from one to the other. Ron opened his mouth uncertainly. Harry knew Ron was about to apologize and suddenly he found he didn't need to hear it.
“It's okay,” he said, before Ron could get the words out. “Forget it.”
“No,” said Ron, “I shouldn't've—”
“Forget it, “Harry said.
Ron grinned nervously at him, and Harry grinned back
Hermione burst into tears.
“There's nothing to cry about!” Harry told her, bewildered.
“You two are so stupid!” she shouted, stamping her foot on the ground, tears splashing down her front. Then, before either of them could stop her, she had given both of them a hug and dashed away, now positively howling.
“Barking mad,” said Ron, shaking his head. “Harry, c'mon, they'll be putting up your scores...”
Picking up the golden egg and his Firebolt, feeling more elated than he would have believed possible an hour ago, Harry ducked out of the tent, Ron by his side, talking fast.
“You were the best, you know, no competition. Cedric did this weird thing where he Transfigured a rock on the ground... turned it into a dog... he was trying to make the dragon go for the dog instead of him. Well, it was a pretty cool bit of Transfiguration, and it sort of worked, because he did get the egg, but he got burned as well—the dragon changed its mind halfway through and decided it would rather have him than the Labrador; he only just got away. And that Fleur girl tried this sort of charm, I think she was trying to put it into a trance—well, that kind of worked too, it went all sleepy, but then it snored, and this great jet of flame shot out, and her skirt caught fire—she put it out with a bit of water out of her wand. And Krum—you won't believe this, but he didn't even think of flying! He was probably the best after you, though. Hit it with some sort of spell right in the eye. Only thing is, it went trampling around in agony and squashed half the real eggs—they took marks off for that, he wasn't supposed to do any damage to them.”
Ron drew breath as he and Harry reached the edge of the enclosure. Now that the Horntail had been taken away, Harry could see where the five judges were sitting—right at the other end, in raised seats draped in gold.
“It's marks out of ten from each one,” Ron said, and Harry squinting up the field, saw the first judge—Madame Maxime—raise her wand in the air. What hooked like a long silver ribbon shot out of it, which twisted itself into a large figure eight.
“Not bad!” said Ron as the crowd applauded. “I suppose she took marks off for your shoulder...
Mr. Crouch came next. He shot a number nine into the air.
“Looking good!” Ron yelled, thumping Harry on the back.
Next, Dumbledore. He too put up a nine. The crowd was cheering harder than ever.
Ludo Bagman—ten.
“Ten?” said Harry in disbelief. “But... I got hurt... What's he playing at?”
“Harry, don't complain!” Ron yelled excitedly.
And now Karkaroff raised his wand. He paused for a moment, and then a number shot out of his wand too—four.
“What?” Ron bellowed furiously. “Four? You lousy, biased scum-bag, you gave Krum ten!”
But Harry didn't care, he wouldn't have cared if Karkaroff had given him zero; Ron's indignation on his behalf was worth about a hundred points to him. He didn't tell Ron this, of course, but his heart felt lighter than air as he turned to leave the enclosure. And it wasn't just Ron... those weren't only Gryffindors cheering in the crowd. When it had come to it, when they had seen what he was facing, most of the school had been on his side as well as Cedric's... He didn't care about the Slytherins, he could stand whatever they threw at him now.
“You're tied in first place, Harry! You and Krum!” said Charlie Weasley, hurrying to meet them as they set off back toward the school. “Listen, I've got to run, I've got to go and send Mum an owl, I swore I'd tell her what happened—but that was unbelievable! Oh yeah—and they told me to tell you you've got to hang around for a few more minutes... Bagman wants a word, back in the champions' tent.”
Ron said he would wait, so Harry reentered the tent, which somehow looked quite different now: friendly and welcoming. He thought back to how he'd felt while dodging the Horntail, and compared it to the long wait before he'd walked out to face it... There was no comparison; the wait had been immeasurably worse.
Fleur, Cedric, and Krum all came in together. One side of Cedric's face was covered in a thick orange paste, which was presumably mending his burn. He grinned at Harry when he saw him.
“Good one, Harry.”
“And you,” said Harry, grinning back.
“Well done, all of you!” said Ludo Bagman, bouncing into the tent and looking as pleased as though he personally had just got past a dragon. “Now, just a quick few words. You've got a nice long break before the second task, which will take place at half past nine on the morning of February the twenty-fourth—but we're giving you something to think about in the meantime! If you look down at those golden eggs you're all holding, you will see that they open... see the hinges there? You need to solve the clue inside the egg—because it will tell you what the second task is, and enable you to prepare for it! All clear? Sure? Well, off you go, then!”
Harry left the tent, rejoined Ron, and they started to walk back around the edge of the forest, talking hard; Harry wanted to hear what the other champions had done in more detail. Then, as they rounded the clump of trees behind which Harry had first heard the dragons roar, a witch leapt out from behind them.
It was Rita Skeeter. She was wearing acid-green robes today; the Quick-Quotes Quill in her hand blended perfectly against them.
“Congratulations, Harry!” she said, beaming at him. “I wonder if you could give me a quick word? How you felt facing that dragon? How you feel now, about the fairness of the scoring?”
“Yeah, you can have a word,” said Harry savagely. “Good-bye.”
And he set off back to the castle with Ron.

(hpvn.net)
Posted 12/14/07
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
THE HOUSE-ELF LIBERATION FRONT

Harry, Ron, and Hermione went up to the Owlery that evening to find Pigwidgeon, so that Harry could send Sirius a letter telling him that he had managed to get past his dragon unscathed. On the way, Harry filled Ron in on everything Sirius had told him about Karkaroff. Though shocked at first to hear that Karkaroff had been a Death Eater, by the time they entered the Owlery Ron was saying that they ought to have suspected it all along.
“Fits, doesn't it?” he said. “Remember what Malfoy said on the train, about his dad being friends with Karkaroff? Now we know where they knew each other. They were probably running around in masks together at the World Cup... I'll tell you one thing, though, Harry, if it was Karkaroff who put your name in the goblet, he's going to be feeling really stupid now, isn't he? Didn't work, did it? You only got a scratch! Come here—I'll do it—”
Pigwidgeon was so overexcited at the idea of a delivery he was flying around and around Harry's head, hooting incessantly. Ron snatched Pigwidgeon out of the air and held him still while Harry attached the letter to his leg.
“There's no way any of the other tasks are going to be that dangerous, how could they be?” Ron went on as he carried Pigwidgeon to the window. “You know what? I reckon you could win this tournament, Harry, I'm serious.”
Harry knew that Ron was only saying this to make up for his behavior of the last few weeks, but he appreciated it all the same. Hermione, however, leaned against the Owlery wall, folded her arms, and frowned at Ron.
“Harry's got a long way to go before he finishes this tournament,” she said seriously. “If that was the first task, I hate to think what's coming next.”
“Right little ray of sunshine, aren't you?” said Ron. “You and Professor Trelawney should get together sometime.”
He threw Pigwidgeon out of the window. Pigwidgeon plummeted twelve feet before managing to pull himself back up again; the letter attached to his leg was much longer and heavier than usual—Harry hadn't been able to resist giving Sirius a blow-by-blow account of exactly how he had swerved, circled, and dodged the Horntail. They watched Pigwidgeon disappear into the darkness, and then Ron said, “Well, we'd better get downstairs for your surprise party, Harry—Fred and George should have nicked enough food from the kitchens by now.”
Sure enough, when they entered the Gryffindor common room it exploded with cheers and yells again. There were mountains of cakes and flagons of pumpkin juice and butterbeer on every surface; Lee Jordan had let off some Filibuster's Fireworks, so that the air was thick with stars and sparks; and Dean Thomas, who was very good at drawing, had put up some impressive new banners, most of which depicted Harry zooming around the Horntail's head on his Firebolt, though a couple showed Cedric with his head on fire.
Harry helped himself to food; he had almost forgotten what it was like to feel properly hungry, and sat down with Ron and Hermione. He couldn't believe how happy he felt; he had Ron back on his side, he'd gotten through the first task, and he wouldn't have to face the second one for three months.
“Blimey, this is heavy,” said Lee Jordan, picking up the golden egg, which Harry had left on a table, and weighing it in his hands. “Open it, Harry, go on! Let's just see what's inside it!”
“He's supposed to work out the clue on his own,” Hermione said swiftly. “It's in the tournament rules...”
“I was supposed to work out how to get past the dragon on my own too,” Harry muttered, so only Hermione could hear him, and she grinned rather guiltily.
“Yeah, go on, Harry, open it!” several people echoed.
Lee passed Harry the egg, and Harry dug his fingernails into the groove that ran all the way around it and prised it open.
It was hollow and completely empty—but the moment Harry opened it, the most horrible noise, a loud and screechy wailing, filled the room. The nearest thing to it Harry had ever heard was the ghost orchestra at Nearly Headless Nick's deathday party, who had all been playing the musical saw.
“Shut it!” Fred bellowed, his hands over his ears.
“What was that?” said Seamus Finnigan, staring at the egg as Harry slammed it shut again. “Sounded like a banshee ...Maybe you've got to get past one of those next, Harry!”
“It was someone being tortured!” said Neville, who had gone very white and spilled sausage rolls all over the floor. “You're going to have to fight the Cruciatus Curse!”
“Don't be a prat, Neville, that's illegal,” said George. “They wouldn't use the Cruciatus Curse on the champions. I thought it sounded a bit like Percy singing... maybe you've got to attack him while he's in the shower. Harry.”
“Want a jam tart, Hermione?” said Fred.
Hermione looked doubtfully at the plate he was offering her. Fred grinned.
“It's all right,” he said. “I haven't done anything to them. It's the custard creams you've got to watch—”
Neville, who had just bitten into a custard cream, choked and spat it out. Fred laughed.
“Just my little joke, Neville...”
Hermione took a jam tart. Then she said, “Did you get all this from the kitchens, Fred?”
“Yep,” said Fred, grinning at her. He put on a high-pitched squeak and imitated a house-elf. “'Anything we can get you, sir, anything at all!' They're dead helpful... get me a roast ox if I said I was peckish.”
“How do you get in there?” Hermione said in an innocently casual sort of voice.
“Easy,” said Fred, “concealed door behind a painting of a bowl of fruit. Just tickle the pear, and it giggles and—” He stopped and looked suspiciously at her. “Why?”
“Nothing,” said Hermione quickly.
“Going to try and lead the house-elves out on strike now, are you?” said George. “Going to give up all the leaflet stuff and try and stir them up into rebellion?”
Several people chortled. Hermione didn't answer.
“Don't you go upsetting them and telling them they've got to take clothes and salaries!” said Fred warningly. “You'll put them off their cooking!”
Just then, Neville caused a slight diversion by turning into a large canary.
“Oh—sorry, Neville!” Fred shouted over all the laughter. “I forgot—it was the custard
creams we hexed—”
Within a minute, however, Neville had molted, and once his feathers had fallen off, he reappeared looking entirely normal. He even joined in laughing.
“Canary Creams!” Fred shouted to the excitable crowd. “George and I invented them—seven Sickles each, a bargain!”
It was nearly one in the morning when Harry finally went up to the dormitory with Ron, Neville, Seamus, and Dean. Before he pulled the curtains of his four-poster shut. Harry set his tiny model of the Hungarian Horntail on the table next to his bed, where it yawned, curled up, and closed its eyes. Really, Harry thought, as he pulled the hangings on his four-poster closed, Hagrid had a point... they were all right, really, dragons...

The start of December brought wind and sleet to Hogwarts. Drafty though the castle always was in winter. Harry was glad of its fires and thick walls every time he passed the Durmstrang ship on the lake, which was pitching in the high winds, its black sails billowing
against the dark skies. He thought the Beauxbatons caravan was likely to be pretty chilly too. Hagrid, he noticed, was keeping Madame Maxime's horses well provided with their preferred drink of single-malt whiskey; the fumes wafting from the trough in the comer of their paddock was enough to make the entire Care of Magical Creatures class light-headed. This was unhelpful, as they were still tending the horrible skrewts and needed their wits about them.
“I'm not sure whether they hibernate or not,” Hagrid told the shivering class in the windy pumpkin patch next lesson. “Thought we'd jus' try an see if they fancied a kip... we'll jus' settle 'em down in these boxes...”
There were now only ten skrewts left; apparently their desire to kill one another had not been exercised out of them. Each of them was now approaching six feet in length. Their thick gray armor; their powerful, scuttling legs; their fire-blasting ends; their stings and their suckers, combined to make the skrewts the most repulsive things Harry had ever seen. The class looked dispiritedly at the enormous boxes Hagrid had brought out, all lined with pillows and fluffy blankets.
“We'll jus' lead 'em in here,” Hagrid said, “an' put the lids on, and we'll see what happens.”
But the skrewts, it transpired, did not hibernate, and did not appreciate being forced into pillow-lined boxes and nailed in. Hagrid was soon yelling, “Don panic, now, don' panic!” while the skrewts rampaged around the pumpkin patch, now strewn with the smoldering wreckage of the boxes. Most of the class—Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle in the lead—had fled into Hagrid's cabin through the back door and barricaded themselves in; Harry, Ron, and Hermione, however, were among those who remained outside trying to help Hagrid. Together they managed to restrain and tie up nine of the skrewts, though at the cost of numerous burns and cuts; finally, only one skrewt was left.
“Don' frighten him, now!” Hagrid shouted as Ron and Harry used their wands to shoot jets of fiery sparks at the skrewt, which was advancing menacingly on them, its sting arched, quivering, over its back. “Jus' try an slip the rope 'round his sting, so he won hurt any o' the others!”
“Yeah, we wouldn't want that!” Ron shouted angrily as he and Harry backed into the wall of Hagrid's cabin, still holding the skrewt off with their sparks.
“Well, well, well... this does look like fun.”
Rita Skeeter was leaning on Hagrid's garden fence, looking in at the mayhem. She was wearing a thick magenta cloak with a furry purple collar today, and her crocodile-skin handbag was over her arm.
Hagrid launched himself forward on top of the skrewt that was cornering Harry and Ron and flattened it; a blast of fire shot out of its end, withering the pumpkin plants nearby.
“Who're you?” Hagrid asked Rita Skeeter as he slipped a loop of rope around the skrewt's sting and tightened it.
“Rita Skeeter, Daily Prophet reporter,” Rita replied, beaming at him. Her gold teeth glinted.
“Thought Dumbledore said you weren' allowed inside the school anymore,” said Hagrid, frowning slightly as he got off the slightly squashed skrewt and started tugging it over to its fellows.
Rita acted as though she hadn't heard what Hagrid had said.
“What are these fascinating creatures called?” she asked, beaming still more widely.
“Blast-Ended Skrewts,” grunted Hagrid.
“Really?” said Rita, apparently full of lively interest. “I've never heard of them before... where do they come from?”
Harry noticed a dull red flush rising up out of Hagrid's wild black beard, and his heart sank. Where had Hagrid got the skrewts from? Hermione, who seemed to be thinking along these lines, said quickly, “They're very interesting, aren't they? Aren't they. Harry?”
“What? Oh yeah... ouch... interesting,” said Harry as she stepped on his foot.
“Ah, you're here. Harry!” said Rita Skeeter as she looked around. “So you like Care of Magical Creatures, do you? One of your favorite lessons?”
“Yes,” said Harry stoutly. Hagrid beamed at him.
“Lovely,” said Rita. “Really lovely. Been teaching long?” she added to Hagrid.
Harry noticed her eyes travel over Dean (who had a nasty cut across one cheek). Lavender (whose robes were badly singed), Seamus (who was nursing several burnt fingers), and then to the cabin windows, where most of the class stood, their noses pressed against the glass waiting to see if the coast was clear.
“This is o'ny me second year,” said Hagrid.
“Lovely... I don't suppose you'd like to give an interview, would you? Share some of your experience of magical creatures? The Prophet does a zoological column every Wednesday, as I'm sure you know. We could feature these—er—Bang-Ended Scoots.”
“Blast-Ended Skrewts,” Hagrid said eagerly. “Er—yeah, why not?”
Harry had a very bad feeling about this, but there was no way of communicating it to Hagrid without Rita Skeeter seeing, so he had to stand and watch in silence as Hagrid and Rita Skeeter made arrangements to meet in the Three Broomsticks for a good long interview later that week. Then the bell rang up at the castle, signaling the end of the lesson.
“Well, good-bye, Harry!” Rita Skeeter called merrily to him as he set off with Ron and Hermione. “Until Friday night, then, Hagrid!”
“She'll twist everything he says,” Harry said under his breath.
“Just as long as he didn't import those skrewts illegally or anything,” said Hermione desperately. They looked at one another—it was exactly the sort of thing Hagrid might do.
“Hagrids been in loads of trouble before, and Dumbledores never sacked him,” said Ron consolingly. “Worst that can happen is Hagrid'll have to get rid of the skrewts. Sorry... did I say worst? I meant best.”
Harry and Hermione laughed, and, feeling slightly more cheerful, went off to lunch.
Harry thoroughly enjoyed double Divination that afternoon; they were still doing star charts and predictions, but now that he and Ron were friends once more, the whole thing seemed very funny again. Professor Trelawney, who had been so pleased with the pair of them when they had been predicting their own horrific deaths, quickly became irritated as they sniggered through her explanation of the various ways in which Pluto could disrupt everyday life.
“I would think,” she said, in a mystical whisper that did not conceal her obvious annoyance, “that some of us”—she stared very meaningfully at Harry“might be a little less frivolous had they seen what I have seen during my crystal gazing last night. As I sat here, absorbed in my needlework, the urge to consult the orb overpowered me. I arose, I settled myself before it, and I gazed into its crystalline depths... and what do you think I saw gazing back at me?”
“An ugly old bat in outsize specs?” Ron muttered under his breath.
Harry fought hard to keep his face straight.
“Death, my dears.”
Parvati and Lavender both put their hands over their mouths, looking horrified.
“Yes,” said Professor Trelawney, nodding impressively, “it comes, ever closer, it circles overhead like a vulture, ever lower... ever lower over the castle...”
She stared pointedly at Harry, who yawned very widely and obviously.
“It'd be a bit more impressive if she hadn't done it about eighty times before,” Harry said as they finally regained the fresh air of the staircase beneath Professor Trelawney's room. “But if I'd dropped dead every time she's told me I'm going to, I'd be a medical miracle.”
“You'd be a sort of extra-concentrated ghost,” said Ron, chortling, as they passed the Bloody Baron going in the opposite direction, his wide eyes staring sinisterly. “At least we didn't get homework. I hope Hermione got loads off Professor Vector, I love not working when she is...”
But Hermione wasn't at dinner, nor was she in the library when they went to look for her afterward. The only person in there was Viktor Krum. Ron hovered behind the bookshelves for a while, watching Krum, debating in whispers with Harry whether he should ask for an autograph—but then Ron realized that six or seven girls were lurking in the next row of books, debating exactly the same thing, and he lost his enthusiasm for the idea.
“Wonder where she's got to?” Ron said as he and Harry went back to Gryffindor Tower.
“Dunno... balderdash.”
But the Fat Lady had barely begun to swing forward when the sound of racing feet behind them announced Hermione's arrival.
“Harry!” she panted, skidding to a halt beside him (the Fat Lady stared down at her, eyebrows raised). “Harry, you've got to come—you've got to come, the most amazing thing's happenedplease—”
She seized Harry's arm and started to try to drag him back along the corridor.
“What's the matter?” Harry said.
“I'll show you when we get there—oh come on, quick—”
Harry looked around at Ron; he looked back at Harry, intrigued.
“Okay,” Harry said, starting off back down the corridor with Hermione, Ron hurrying to keep up.
“Oh don't mind me!” the Fat Lady called irritably after them. “Don't apologize for bothering me! I'll just hang here, wide open, until you get back, shall I?”
“Yeah, thanks!” Ron shouted over his shoulder.
“Hermione, where are we going?” Harry asked, after she had led
them down through six floors, and started down the marble staircase into the entrance hall.
“You'll see, you'll see in a minute!” said Hermione excitedly.
She turned left at the bottom of the staircase and hurried toward the door through which Cedric Diggory had gone the night after the Goblet of Fire had regurgitated his and Harry's names. Harry had never been through here before. He and Ron followed Hermione down a flight of stone steps, but instead of ending up in a gloomy underground passage like the one that led to Snape's dungeon, they found themselves in a broad stone corridor, brightly lit with torches, and decorated with cheerful paintings that were mainly of food.
“Oh hang on...” said Harry slowly, halfway down the corridor. “Wait a minute, Hermione...”
“What?” She turned around to look at him, anticipation all over her face.
“I know what this is about,” said Harry.
He nudged Ron and pointed to the painting just behind Hermione. It showed a gigantic silver fruit bowl.
“Hermione!” said Ron, cottoning on. “You're trying to rope us into that spew stuff again!”
“No, no, I'm not!” she said hastily. “And it's not spew, Ron—”
“Changed the name, have you?” said Ron, frowning at her. “What are we now, then, the House-Elf Liberation Front? I'm not barging into that kitchen and trying to make them stop work, I'm not doing it—”
“I'm not asking you to!” Hermione said impatiently. “I came down here just now, to talk to them all, and I found—oh come on, Harry, I want to show you!”
She seized his arm again, pulled him in front of the picture of the giant fruit bowl, stretched out her forefinger, and tickled the huge green pear. It began to squirm, chuckling, and suddenly turned into a large green door handle. Hermione seized it, pulled the door open, and pushed Harry hard in the back, forcing him inside.
He had one brief glimpse of an enormous, high-ceilinged room, large as the Great Hall above it, with mounds of glittering brass pots and pans heaped around the stone walls, and a great brick fireplace at the other end, when something small hurtled toward him from the middle of the room, squealing, “Harry Potter, sir! Harry Potter!”
Next second all the wind had been knocked out of him as the squealing elf hit him hard in the midriff, hugging him so tightly he thought his ribs would break.
“D-Dobby?” Harry gasped.
“It is Dobby, sir, it is!” squealed the voice from somewhere around his navel. “Dobby has been hoping and hoping to see Harry Potter, sir, and Harry Potter has come to see him, sir!”
Dobby let go and stepped back a few paces, beaming up at Harry, his enormous, green, tennis-ball-shaped eyes brimming with tears of happiness. He looked almost exactly as Harry remembered him; the pencil-shaped nose, the batlike ears, the long fingers and feet—all except the clothes, which were very different.
When Dobby had worked for the Malfoys, he had always worn the same filthy old pillowcase. Now, however, he was wearing the strangest assortment of garments Harry had ever seen; he had done an even worse job of dressing himself than the wizards at the World Cup. He was wearing a tea cozy for a hat, on which he had pinned a number of bright badges; a tie patterned with horseshoes over a bare chest, a pair of what looked like children's soccer shorts, and odd socks. One of these, Harry saw, was the black one Harry had removed from his own foot and tricked Mr. Malfoy into giving Dobby, thereby setting Dobby free. The other was covered in pink and orange stripes.
“Dobby, what're you doing here?” Harry said in amazement. “Dobby has come to work at Hogwarts, sir!” Dobby squealed excitedly. “Professor Dumbledore gave Dobby and Winky jobs, sir!
“Winky?” said Harry. “She's here too?”
“Yes, sir, yes!” said Dobby, and he seized Harry's hand and pulled him off into the kitchen between the four long wooden tables that stood there. Each of these tables, Harry noticed as he passed them, was positioned exactly beneath the four House tables above, in the Great Hall. At the moment, they were clear of food, dinner having finished, but he supposed that an hour ago they had been laden with dishes that were then sent up through the ceiling to their counterparts above.
At least a hundred little elves were standing around the kitchen, beaming, bowing, and curtsying as Dobby led Harry past them. They were all wearing the same uniform: a tea towel stamped with the Hogwarts crest, and tied, as Winky's had been, like a toga.
Dobby stopped in front of the brick fireplace and pointed.
“Winky, sir!” he said.
Winky was sitting on a stool by the fire. Unlike Dobby, she had obviously not foraged for clothes. She was wearing a neat little skirt and blouse with a matching blue hat, which had holes in it for her large ears. However, while every one of Dobby's strange collection of garments was so clean and well cared for that it looked brand-new, Winky was plainly not taking care other clothes at all. There were soup stains all down her blouse and a burn in her skirt.
“Hello, Winky,” said Harry.
Winky's lip quivered. Then she burst into tears, which spilled out of her great brown eyes and splashed down her front, just as they had done at the Quidditch World Cup.
“Oh dear,” said Hermione. She and Ron had followed Harry and Dobby to the end of the kitchen. “Winky, don't cry, please don't...”
But Winky cried harder than ever. Dobby, on the other hand, beamed up at Harry.
“Would Harry Potter like a cup of tea?” he squeaked loudly, over Winky's sobs.
“Er—yeah, okay,” said Harry.
Instantly, about six house-elves came trotting up behind him, bearing a large silver tray laden with a teapot, cups for Harry, Ron, and Hermione, a milk jug, and a large plate of biscuits.
“Good service!” Ron said, in an impressed voice. Hermione frowned at him, but the elves all looked delighted; they bowed very low and retreated.
“How long have you been here, Dobby?” Harry asked as Dobby handed around the tea.
“Only a week. Harry Potter, sir!” said Dobby happily. “Dobby came to see Professor Dumbledore, sir. You see, sir, it is very difficult for a house-elf who has been dismissed to get a new position, sir, very difficult indeed—”
At this, Winky howled even harder, her squashed-tomato of a nose dribbling all down her front, though she made no effort to stem the flow.
“Dobby has traveled the country for two whole years, sir, trying to find work!” Dobby squeaked. “But Dobby hasn't found work, sir, because Dobby wants paying now!”
The house-elves all around the kitchen, who had been listening and watching with interest, all looked away at these words, as though Dobby had said something rude and embarrassing. Hermione, however, said, “Good for you, Dobby!”
“Thank you, miss!” said Dobby, grinning toothily at her. “But most wizards doesn't want a house-elf who wants paying, miss. 'That's not the point of a house-elf,' they says, and they slammed the door in Dobby's face! Dobby likes work, but he wants to wear clothes and he wants to be paid. Harry Potter... Dobby likes being free!”
The Hogwarts house-elves had now started edging away from Dobby, as though he were carrying something contagious. Winky, however, remained where she was, though there was a definite increase in the volume other crying.
“And then, Harry Potter, Dobby goes to visit Winky, and finds out Winky has been freed too, sir!” said Dobby delightedly.
At this, Winky flung herself forward off her stool and lay face-down on the flagged stone floor, beating her tiny fists upon it and positively screaming with misery. Hermione hastily dropped down to her knees beside her and tried to comfort her, but nothing she said made the slightest difference. Dobby continued with his story, shouting shrilly over Winky's screeches.
“And then Dobby had the idea. Harry Potter, sir! 'Why doesn't Dobby and Winky find work together?' Dobby says. 'Where is there enough work for two house-elves?' says Winky. And Dobby thinks, and it comes to him, sir! Hogwarts! So Dobby and Winky came to see Professor Dumbledore, sir, and Professor Dumbledore took us on!”
Dobby beamed very brightly, and happy tears welled in his eyes again.
“And Professor Dumbledore says he will pay Dobby, sir, if Dobby wants paying! And so Dobby is a free elf, sir, and Dobby gets a Galleon a week and one day off a month!”
“That's not very much!” Hermione shouted indignantly from the floor, over Winky's continued screaming and fist-beating.
“Professor Dumbledore offered Dobby ten Galleons a week, and weekends off,” said Dobby, suddenly giving a little shiver, as though the prospect of so much leisure and riches were frightening, “but Dobby beat him down, miss... Dobby likes freedom, miss, but he isn't wanting too much, miss, he likes work better.”
“And how much is Professor Dumbledore paying you, Winky?” Hermione asked kindly.
If she had thought this would cheer up Winky, she was wildly mistaken. Winky did stop crying, but when she sat up she was glaring at Hermione through her massive brown eyes, her whole face sopping wet and suddenly furious.
“Winky is a disgraced elf, but Winky is not yet getting paid!” she squeaked. “Winky is not sunk so low as that! Winky is properly ashamed of being freed!”
“Ashamed?” said Hermione blankly. “But—Winky, come on! It's Mr. Crouch who should be ashamed, not you! You didn't do anything wrong, he was really horrible to you—”
But at these words, Winky clapped her hands over the holes in her hat, flattening her ears so that she couldn't hear a word, and screeched, “You is not insulting my master, miss! You is not insulting Mr. Crouch! Mr. Crouch is a good wizard, miss! Mr. Crouch is right to sack bad Winky!”
“Winky is having trouble adjusting, Harry Potter,” squeaked Dobby confidentially. “Winky forgets she is not bound to Mr. Crouch anymore; she is allowed to speak her mind now, but she won't do it.”
“Can't house-elves speak their minds about their masters, then?” Harry asked.
“Oh no, sir, no,” said Dobby, looking suddenly serious. “'Tis part of the house-elf's enslavement, sir. We keeps their secrets and our silence, sir. We upholds the family's honor, and we never speaks ill of them—though Professor Dumbledore told Dobby he does not insist upon this. Professor Dumbledore said we is free to—to-”
Dobby looked suddenly nervous and beckoned Harry closer. Harry bent forward. Dobby whispered, “He said we is free to call him a—a barmy old codger if we likes, sir!”
Dobby gave a frightened sort of giggle.
“But Dobby is not wanting to, Harry Potter,” he said, talking normally again, and shaking his head so that his ears flapped. “Dobby likes Professor Dumbledore very much, sir, and is proud to keep his secrets and our silence for him.”
“But you can say what you like about the Malfoys now?” Harry asked him, grinning.
A slightly fearful look came into Dobby's immense eyes.
“Dobby—Dobby could,” he said doubtfully. He squared his small shoulders. “Dobby could tell Harry Potter that his old masters were—were—bad Dark wizards'.”
Dobby stood for a moment, quivering all over, horror-struck by his own daring—then he rushed over to the nearest table and began banging his head on it very hard, squealing, “Bad Dobby! Bad Dobby!”
Harry seized Dobby by the back of his tie and pulled him away from the table.
“Thank you. Harry Potter, thank you,” said Dobby breathlessly, rubbing his head.
“You just need a bit of practice,” Harry said.
“Practice!” squealed Winky furiously. “You is ought to be ashamed of yourself, Dobby, talking that way about your masters!”
“They isn't my masters anymore, Winky!” said Dobby defiantly. “Dobby doesn't care what they think anymore!”
“Oh you is a bad elf, Dobby!” moaned Winky, tears leaking down her face once more. “My poor Mr. Crouch, what is he doing without Winky? He is needing me, he is needing my help! I is looking after the Crouches all my life, and my mother is doing it before me, and my grandmother is doing it before her ...oh what is they saying if they knew Winky was freed? Oh the shame, the shame!” She buried her face in her skirt again and bawled.
“Winky,” said Hermione firmly, “I'm quite sure Mr. Crouch is getting along perfectly well without you. We've seen him, you know—”
“You is seeing my master?” said Winky breathlessly, raising her tearstained face out of her skirt once more and goggling at Hermione. “You is seeing him here at Hogwarts?”
“Yes,” said Hermione, “he and Mr. Bagman are judges in the Triwizard Tournament.”
“Mr. Bagman comes too?” squeaked Winky, and to Harry 's great surprise (and Ron's and Hermione's too, by the looks on their faces), she looked angry again. “Mr. Bagman is a bad wizard! A very bad wizard! My master isn't liking him, oh no, not at all!”
“Bagman—bad?” said Harry.
“Oh yes,” Winky said, nodding her head furiously, “My master is telling Winky some things! But Winky is not saying... Winky—Winky keeps her master's secrets...”
She dissolved yet again in tears; they could hear her sobbing into her skirt, “Poor master, poor master, no Winky to help him no more!”
They couldn't get another sensible word out of Winky. They left her to her crying and finished their tea, while Dobby chatted happily about his life as a free elf and his plans for his wages.
“Dobby is going to buy a sweater next, Harry Potter!” he said happily, pointing at his bare chest,
“Tell you what, Dobby,” said Ron, who seemed to have taken a great liking to the elf, “I'll give you the one my mum knits me this Christmas, I always get one from her. You don't mind maroon, do you?”
Dobby was delighted.
“We might have to shrink it a bit to fit you,” Ron told him, “but it'll go well with your tea cozy.”
As they prepared to take their leave, many of the surrounding elves pressed in upon them, offering snacks to take back upstairs. Hermione refused, with a pained look at the way the elves kept bowing and curtsying, but Harry and Ron loaded their pockets with cream cakes and pies.
“Thanks a lot!” Harry said to the elves, who had all clustered around the door to say good night. “See you, Dobby!”
“Harry Potter... can Dobby come and see you sometimes, sir?” Dobby asked tentatively.
“ 'Course you can,” said Harry, and Dobby beamed.
“You know what?” said Ron, once he, Hermione, and Harry had left the kitchens behind and were climbing the steps into the entrance hall again. “All these years I've been really impressed with Fred and George, nicking food from the kitchens—well, it's not exactly difficult, is it? They can't wait to give it away!”
“I think this is the best thing that could have happened to those elves, you know,” said Hermione, leading the way back up the marble staircase. “Dobby coming to work here, I mean. The other elves will see how happy he is, being free, and slowly it'll dawn on them that they want that too!”
“Let's hope they don't look too closely at Winky,” said Harry.
“Oh she'll cheer up,” said Hermione, though she sounded a bit doubtful. “Once the shock's worn off, and she's got used to Hogwarts, she'll see how much better off she is without that Crouch man.”
“She seems to love him,” said Ron thickly (he had just started on a cream cake).
“Doesn't think much of Bagman, though, does she?” said Harry. “Wonder what Crouch says at home about him?”
“Probably says he's not a very good Head of Department,” said Hermione, “and let's face it... he's got a point, hasn't he?”
“I'd still rather work for him than old Crouch,” said Ron. “At least Bagman's got a sense of humor.”
“Don't let Percy hear you saying that,” Hermione said, smiling slightly.
“Yeah, well, Percy wouldn't want to work for anyone with a sense of humor, would he?” said Ron, now starting on a chocolate eclair. “Percy wouldn't recognize a joke if it danced naked in front of him wearing Dobby's tea cozy.”

(hpvn.net)
Posted 12/14/07
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO
THE UNEXPECTED TASK

Potter! Weasley! Will you pay attention?”
Professor McGonagall's irritated voice cracked like a whip through the Transfiguration class on Thursday, and Harry and Ron both jumped and looked up.
It was the end of the lesson; they had finished their work; the guinea fowl they had been changing into guinea pigs had been shut away in a large cage on Professor McGonagall's desk (Neville's still had feathers); they had copied down their homework from the blackboard (“Describe, with examples, the ways in which Transforming Spells must be adapted when performing Cross-Species Switches"}. The bell was due to ring at any moment, and Harry and Ron, who had been having a sword fight with a couple of Fred and George's fake wands at the back of the class, looked up, Ron holding a tin parrot and Harry, a rubber haddock.
“Now that Potter and Weasley have been kind enough to act their age,” said Professor McGonagall, with an angry look at the pair of them as the head of Harry's haddock drooped and fell silently to the floor—Ron's parrot's beak had severed it moments before—”I have something to say to you all.
“The Yule Ball is approaching—a traditional part of the Triwizard Tournament and an opportunity for us to socialize with our foreign guests. Now, the ball will be open only to fourth years and above—although you may invite a younger student if you wish—”
Lavender Brown let out a shrill giggle. Parvati Patil nudged her hard in the ribs, her face working furiously as she too fought not to giggle. They both looked around at Harry, Professor McGonagall ignored them, which Harry thought was distinctly unfair, as she had just told off him and Ron.
“Dress robes will be worn,” Professor McGonagall continued, “and the ball will start at eight o'clock on Christmas Day, finishing at midnight in the Great Hall. Now then—”
Professor McGonagall stared deliberately around the class.
“The Yule Ball is of course a chance for us all to—er—let our hair down,” she said, in a disapproving voice.
Lavender giggled harder than ever, with her hand pressed hard against her mouth to stifle the sound. Harry could see what was funny this time: Professor McGonagall, with her hair in a tight bun, looked as though she had never let her hair down in any sense.
“But that does NOT mean,” Professor McGonagall went on, “that we will be relaxing the standards of behavior we expect from Hogwarts students. I will be most seriously displeased if a Gryffindor student embarrasses the school in any way.”
The bell rang, and there was the usual scuffle of activity as everyone packed their bags and swung them onto their shoulders.
Professor McGonagall called above the noise, “Potter—a word, if you please.”
Assuming this had something to do with his headless rubber haddock, Harry proceeded gloomily to the teacher's desk. Professor McGonagall waited until the rest of the class had gone, and then said, “Potter, the champions and their partners—”
“What partners?” said Harry.
Profesor McGonagall looked suspiciously at him, as though she thought he was trying to be funny.
“Your partners for the Yule Ball, Potter,” she said coldly. “Your dance partners.”
Harry's insides seemed to curl up and shrivel.
“Dance partners?” He felt himself going red. “I don't dance,” he said quickly.
“Oh yes, you do,” said Professor McGonagall irritably. “That's what I'm telling you. Traditionally, the champions and their partners open the ball.”
Harry had a sudden mental image of himself in a top hat and tails, accompanied by a girl in the sort of frilly dress Aunt Petunia always wore to Uncle Vernon's work parties.
“I'm not dancing,” he said.
“It is traditional,” said Professor McGonagall firmly. “You are a Hogwarts champion, and you will do what is expected of you as a representative of the school. So make sure you get yourself a partner, Potter.”
“But-I don't-”
“You heard me, Potter,” said Professor McGonagall in a very final sort of way.

A week ago. Harry would have said finding a partner for a dance would be a cinch compared to taking on a Hungarian Horntail. But now that he had done the latter, and was facing the prospect of asking a girl to the ball, he thought he'd rather have another round with the dragon.
Harry had never known so many people to put their names down to stay at Hogwarts for Christmas; he always did, of course, because the alternative was usually going back to Privet Drive, but he had always been very much in the minority before now. This year, however, everyone in the fourth year and above seemed to be staying, and they all seemed to Harry to be obsessed with the coming ball—or at least all the girls were, and it was amazing how many girls Hogwarts suddenly seemed to hold; he had never quite noticed that before. Girls giggling and whispering in the corridors, girls shrieking with laughter as boys passed them, girls excitedly comparing notes on what they were going to wear on Christmas night...
“Why do they have to move in packs?” Harry asked Ron as a dozen or so girls walked past them, sniggering and staring at Harry. “How're you supposed to get one on their own to ask them?”
“Lasso one?” Ron suggested. “Got any idea who you're going to try?”
Harry didn't answer. He knew perfectly well whom he'd like to ask, but working up the nerve was something else... Cho was a year older than he was; she was very pretty; she was a very good Quidditch player, and she was also very popular.
Ron seemed to know what was going on inside Harry's head.
“Listen, you're not going to have any trouble. You're a champion. You've just beaten a Hungarian Horntail. I bet they'll be queuing up to go with you.”
In tribute to their recently repaired friendship, Ron had kept the bitterness in his voice to a bare minimum. Moreover, to Harry's amazement, he turned out to be quite right.
A curly-haired third-year Hufflepuff girl to whom Harry had never spoken in his life asked him to go to the ball with her the very next day. Harry was so taken aback he said no before he'd even stopped to consider the matter. The girl walked off looking rather hurt, and Harry had to endure Dean's, Seamus's, and Ron's taunts about her all through History of Magic. The following day, two more girls asked him, a second year and (to his horror) a fifth year who looked as though she might knock him out if he refused.
“She was quite good-looking,” said Ron fairly, after he'd stopped laughing.
“She was a foot taller than me,” said Harry, still unnerved. “Imagine what I'd look like trying to dance with her.”
Hermione's words about Krum kept coming back to him. “They only like him because he's famous!” Harry doubted very much if any of the girls who had asked to be his partner so far would have wanted to go to the ball with him if he hadn't been a school champion. Then he wondered if this would bother him if Cho asked him.
On the whole. Harry had to admit that even with the embarrassing prospect of opening the ball before him, life had definitely improved since he had got through the first task. He wasn't attracting nearly as much unpleasantness in the corridors anymore, which he suspected had a lot to do with Cedric—he had an idea Cedric might have told the Hufflepuffs to leave Harry alone, in gratitude for Harry's tip-off about the dragons. There seemed to be fewer Support Cedric Diggory! badges around too. Draco Malfoy, of course, was still quoting Rita Skeeter's article to him at every possible opportunity, but he was getting fewer and fewer laughs out of it—and just to heighten Harry's feeling of well-being, no story about Hagrid had appeared in the Daily Prophet.
“She didn' seem very int'rested in magical creatures, ter tell yeh the truth,” Hagrid said, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione asked him how his interview with Rita Skeeter had gone during the last Care of Magical Creatures lesson of the term. To their very great relief, Hagrid had given up on direct contact with the skrewts now, and they were merely sheltering behind his cabin today, sitting at a trestle table and preparing a fresh selection of food with which to tempt the skrewts.
“She jus' wanted me ter talk about you, Harry,” Hagrid continued in a low voice. “Well, I told her we'd been friends since I went ter fetch yeh from the Dursleys. 'Never had to tell him off in four years?' she said. 'Never played you up in lessons, has he?' I told her no, an she didn' seem happy at all. Yeh'd think she wanted me to say yeh were horrible, Harry.”
“ 'Course she did,” said Harry, throwing lumps of dragon liver into a large metal bowl and picking up his knife to cut some more. “She can't keep writing about what a tragic little hero I am, it'll get boring.”
“She wants a new angle, Hagrid,” said Ron wisely as he shelled salamander eggs. “You were supposed to say Harry's a mad delinquent!”
“But he's not!” said Hagrid, looking genuinely shocked.
“She should've interviewed Snape,” said Harry grimly. “He'd give her the goods on me any day. 'Potter has been crossing lines ever since he first arrived at this school... '”
“Said that, did he?” said Hagrid, while Ron and Hermione laughed. “Well, yeh might've bent a few rules. Harry, bu' yeh're all righ' really, aren' you?”
“Cheers, Hagrid,” said Harry, grinning.
“You coming to this ball thing on Christmas Day, Hagrid?” said Ron.
“Though' I might look in on it, yeah,” said Hagrid gruffly. “Should be a good do, I reckon. You'll be openin the dancin', won yeh, Harry? Who're you takin'?”
“No one, yet,” said Harry, feeling himself going red again. Hagrid didn't pursue the subject.
The last week of term became increasingly boisterous as it progressed. Rumors about the Yule Ball were flying everywhere, though Harry didn't believe half of them—for instance, that Dumbledore had bought eight hundred barrels of mulled mead from Madam Rosmerta. It seemed to be fact, however, that he had booked the Weird Sisters. Exactly who or what the Weird Sisters were Harry didn't know, never having had access to a wizard's wireless, but he deduced from the wild excitement of those who had grown up listening to the WWN (Wizarding Wireless Network) that they were a very famous musical group.
Some of the teachers, like little Professor Flitwick, gave up trying to teach them much when their minds were so clearly elsewhere; he allowed them to play games in his lesson on Wednesday, and spent most of it talking to Harry about the perfect Summoning Charm
Harry had used during the first task of the Triwizard Tournament. Other teachers were not so generous. Nothing would ever deflect Professor Binns, for example, from plowing on through his notes on goblin rebellions—as Binns hadn't let his own death stand in the way of continuing to teach, they supposed a small thing like Christmas wasn't going to put him off. It was amazing how he could make even bloody and vicious goblin riots sound as boring as Percys cauldron-bottom report. Professors McGonagall and Moody kept them working until the very last second of their classes too, and Snape, of course, would no sooner let them play games in class than adopt Harry. Staring nastily around at them all, he informed them that he would be testing them on poison antidotes during the last lesson of the term.
“Evil, he is,” Ron said bitterly that night in the Gryffindor common room. “Springing a test on us on the last day. Ruining the last bit of term with a whole load of studying.”
“Mmm... you're not exactly straining yourself, though, are you?” said Hermione, looking at him over the top of her Potions notes. Ron was busy building a card castle out of his Exploding Snap pack—a much more interesting pastime than with Muggle cards, because of the chance that the whole thing would blow up at any second.
“It's Christmas, Hermione,” said Harry lazily; he was rereading Flying with the Cannons for the tenth time in an armchair near the fire.
Hermione looked severely over at him too. “I'd have thought you'd be doing something constructive, Harry, even if you don't want to learn your antidotes!”
“Like what?” Harry said as he watched Joey Jenkins of the Cannons belt a Bludger toward a Ballycastle Bats Chaser.
“That egg!” Hermione hissed.
“Come on, Hermione, I've got till February the twenty-fourth,” Harry said.
He had put the golden egg upstairs in his trunk and hadn't opened it since the celebration party after the first task. There were still two and a half months to go until he needed to know what all the screechy wailing meant, after all.
“But it might take weeks to work it out!” said Hermione. “You're going to look a real idiot if everyone else knows what the next task is and you don't!”
“Leave him alone, Hermione, he's earned a bit of a break,” said Ron, and he placed the last two cards on top of the castle and the whole lot blew up, singeing his eyebrows.
“Nice look, Ron ...go well with your dress robes, that will.”
It was Fred and George. They sat down at the table with Harry, Ron, and Hermione as Ron felt how much damage had been done.
“Ron, can we borrow Pigwidgeon?” George asked.
“No, he's off delivering a letter,” said Ron. “Why?”
“Because George wants to invite him to the ball,” said Fred sarcastically.
“Because we want to send a letter, you stupid great prat,” said George.
“Who d'you two keep writing to, eh?” said Ron.
“Nose out, Ron, or I'll burn that for you too,” said Fred, waving his wand threateningly. “So... you lot got dates for the ball yet?”
“Nope,” said Ron.
“Well, you'd better hurry up, mate, or all the good ones will be gone,” said Fred.
“Who're you going with, then?” said Ron.
“Angelina,” said Fred promptly, without a trace of embarrassment.
“What?” said Ron, taken aback. “You've already asked her?”
“Good point,” said Fred. He turned his head and called across the common room, “Oi! Angelina!”
Angelina, who had been chatting with Alicia Spinnet near the fire, looked over at him.
“What?” she called back.
“Want to come to the ball with me?”
Angelina gave Fred an appraising sort of look.
“All right, then,” she said, and she turned back to Alicia and carried on chatting with a bit of a grin on her face.
“There you go,” said Fred to Harry and Ron, “piece of cake.”
He got to his feet, yawning, and said, “We'd better use a school owl then, George, come on...”
They left. Ron stopped feeling his eyebrows and looked across the smoldering wreck of his card castle at Harry.
“We should get a move on, you know... ask someone. He's right. We don't want to end up with a pair of trolls.”
Hermione let out a sputter of indignation.
“A pair of... what, excuse me?”
“Well—you know,” said Ron, shrugging. “I'd rather go alone than with—with Eloise Midgen, say.”
“Her acne's loads better lately—and she's really nice!”
“Her nose is off-center,” said Ron.
“Oh I see,” Hermione said, bristling. “So basically, you're going to take the best-looking girl who'll have you, even if she's completely horrible?”
“Er—yeah, that sounds about right,” said Ron.
“I'm going to bed,” Hermione snapped, and she swept off toward the girls' staircase without another word.

The Hogwarts staff, demonstrating a continued desire to impress the visitors from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang, seemed determined to show the castle at its best this Christmas. When the decorations went up. Harry noticed that they were the most stunning he had yet seen inside the school. Everlasting icicles had been attached to the banisters of the marble staircase; the usual twelve Christmas trees in the Great Hall were bedecked with everything from luminous holly berries to real, hooting, golden owls, and the suits of armor had all been bewitched to sing carols whenever anyone passed them. It was quite something to hear “0 Come, All Ye Faithful” sung by an empty helmet that only knew half the words. Several times, Filch the caretaker had to extract Peeves from inside the armor, where he had taken to hiding, filling in the gaps in the songs with lyrics of his own invention, all of which were very rude.
And still. Harry hadn't asked Cho to the ball. He and Ron were getting very nervous now, though as Harry pointed out, Ron would look much less stupid than he would without a partner;
Harry was supposed to be starting the dancing with the other champions.
“I suppose there's always Moaning Myrtle,” he said gloomily, referring to the ghost who haunted the girls' toilets on the second floor.
“Harry—we've just got to grit our teeth and do it,” said Ron on Friday morning, in a tone that suggested they were planning the storming of an impregnable fortress. “When we get back to the common room tonight, we'll both have partners—agreed?”
“Er... okay,” said Harry.
But every time he glimpsed Cho that day—during break, and then lunchtime, and once on the way to History of Magic—she was surrounded by friends. Didn't she ever go anywhere alone? Could he perhaps ambush her as she was going into a bathroom? But no—she even seemed to go there with an escort of four or five girls. Yet if he didn't do it soon, she was bound to have been asked by somebody else.
He found it hard to concentrate on Snape's Potions test, and consequently forgot to add the key ingredient—a bezoar—meaning that he received bottom marks. He didn't care, though; he was too busy screwing up his courage for what he was about to do. When the bell rang, he grabbed his bag, and hurried to the dungeon door.
“I'll meet you at dinner,” he said to Ron and Hermione, and he dashed off upstairs.
He'd just have to ask Cho for a private word, that was all... He hurried off through the packed corridors looking for her, and (rather sooner than he had expected) he found her, emerging from a Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson.
“Er—Cho? Could I have a word with you?”
Giggling should be made illegal. Harry thought furiously, as all the girls around Cho started doing it. She didn't, though. She said, “Okay,” and followed him out of earshot other classmates.
Harry turned to look at her and his stomach gave a weird lurch as though he had missed a step going downstairs.
“Er,” he said.
He couldn't ask her. He couldn't. But he had to. Cho stood there looking puzzled, watching him. The words came out before Harry had quite got his tongue around them.
“Wangoballwime?”
“Sorry?” said Cho.
“D'you—d'you want to go to the ball with me?” said Harry. Why did he have to go red now? Why?
“Oh!” s aid Cho, and she went red too. “Oh Harry, I'm really sorry,” and she truly looked it. “I've already said I'll go with someone else.”
“Oh,” said Harry.
It was odd; a moment before his insides had been writhing like snakes, but suddenly he didn't seem to have any insides at all.
“Oh okay,” he said, “no problem.”
“I'm really sorry,” she said again.
“That's okay,” said Harry.
They stood there looking at each other, and then Cho said, “Well-”
“Yeah,” said Harry.
“Well, 'bye,” said Cho, still very red. She walked away.
Harry called after her, before he could stop himself.
“Who're you going with?”
“Oh—Cedric,” she said. “Cedric Diggory.”
“Oh right,” said Harry.
His insides had come back again. It felt as though they had been filled with lead in their absence.
Completely forgetting about dinner, he walked slowly back up to Gryffindor Tower, Cho's voice echoing in his ears with every step he took. “Cedric—Cedric Diggory.” He had been starting to quite like Cedric—prepared to overlook the fact that he had once beaten him at Quidditch, and was handsome, and popular, and nearly everyone's favorite champion. Now he suddenly realized that Cedric was in fact a useless pretty boy who didn't have enough brains to fill an eggcup.
“Fairy lights,” he said dully to the Fat Lady—the password had been changed the previous day.
“Yes, indeed, dear!” she trilled, straightening her new tinsel hair band as she swung forward to admit him.
Entering the common room, Harry looked around, and to his surprise he saw Ron sitting ashen-faced in a distant corner. Ginny was sitting with him, talking to him in what seemed to be a low, soothing voice.
“What's up, Ron?” said Harry, joining them.
Ron looked up at Harry, a sort of blind horror in his face.
“Why did I do it?” he said wildly. “I don't know what made me do it!
“What?” said Harry.
“He—er—just asked Fleur Delacour to go to the ball with him,” said Ginny. She looked as though she was fighting back a smile, but she kept patting Ron's arm sympathetically.
“You what?' said Harry.
“I don't know what made me do it!” Ron gasped again. “What was I playing at? There were people—all around—I've gone mad—everyone watching! I was just walking past her in the entrance hall—she was standing there talking to Diggory—and it sort of came over me—and I asked her!”
Ron moaned and put his face in his hands. He kept talking, though the words were barely distinguishable.
“She looked at me like I was a sea slug or something. Didn't even answer. And then—I dunno—I just sort of came to my senses and ran for it.”
“She's part veela,” said Harry. “You were right—her grandmother was one. It wasn't your fault, I bet you just walked past when she was turning on the old charm for Diggory and got a blast of it—but she was wasting her time. He's going with Cho Chang.”
Ron looked up.
“I asked her to go with me just now,” Harry said dully, “and she told me.”
Ginny had suddenly stopped smiling.
“This is mad,” said Ron. “We're the only ones left who haven't got anyone—well, except Neville. Hey—guess who he asked? Hermione!”
“What?” said Harry, completely distracted by this startling news.
“Yeah, I know!” said Ron, some of the color coming back into his face as he started to laugh. “He told me after Potions! Said she's always been really nice, helping him out with work and stuffbut she told him she was already going with someone. Ha! As if! She just didn't want to go with Neville ...I mean, who would?”
“Don't!” said Ginny, annoyed. “Don't laugh—”
Just then Hermione climbed in through the portrait hole.
“Why weren't you two at dinner?” she said, coming over to join them.
“Because—oh shut up laughing, you two—because they've both just been turned down by girls they asked to the ball!” said Ginny.
That shut Harry and Ron up.
“Thanks a bunch, Ginny,” said Ron sourly.
“All the good-looking ones taken, Ron?” said Hermione loftily. “Eloise Midgen starting to look quite pretty now, is she? Well, I'm sure you'll find someone somewhere who'll have you.”
But Ron was staring at Hermione as though suddenly seeing her in a whole new light.
“Hermione, Neville's right—you are a girl...”
“Oh well spotted,” she said acidly.
“Well—you can come with one of us!”
“No, I can't,” snapped Hermione.
“Oh come on,” he said impatiently, “we need partners, we're going to look really stupid if we haven't got any, everyone else has...”
“I can't come with you,” said Hermione, now blushing, “because I'm already going with someone.”
“No, you're not!” said Ron. “You just said that to get rid of Neville!”
“Oh did I?” said Hermione, and her eyes flashed dangerously. “Just because it's taken you three years to notice, Ron, doesn't mean no one else has spotted I'm a girl!”
Ron stared at her. Then he grinned again.
“Okay, okay, we know you're a girl,” he said. “That do? Will you come now?”
“I've already told you!” Hermione said very angrily. “I'm going with someone else!”
And she stormed off toward the girls' dormitories again.
“She's lying,” said Ron flatly, watching her go.
“She's not,” said Ginny quietly.
“Who is it then?” said Ron sharply.
“I'm not telling you, it's her business,” said Ginny.
“Right,” said Ron, who looked extremely put out, “this is getting stupid. Ginny, you can go with Harry, and I'll just—”
“I can't,” said Ginny, and she went scarlet too. “I'm going with—with Neville. He asked me when Hermione said no, and I thought... well... I'm not going to be able to go otherwise, I'm not in fourth year.” She looked extremely miserable. “I think I'll go and have dinner,” she said, and she got up and walked off to the portrait hole, her head bowed.
Ron goggled at Harry.
“What's got into them?” he demanded.
But Harry had just seen Parvati and Lavender come in through the portrait hole. The time had come for drastic action.
“Wait here,” he said to Ron, and he stood up, walked straight up to Parvati, and said, “Parvati? Will you go to the ball with me?”
Parvati went into a fit of giggles. Harry waited for them to subside, his fingers crossed in the pocket of his robes.
“Yes, all right then,” she said finally, blushing furiously.
“Thanks,” said Harry, in relief. “Lavender—will you go with Ron?”
“She's going with Seamus,” said Parvati, and the pair of them giggled harder than ever.
Harry sighed.
“Can't you think of anyone who'd go with Ron?” he said, lowering his voice so that Ron wouldn't hear.
“What about Hermione Granger?” said Parvati.
“She's going with someone else.”
Parvati looked astonished.
“Ooooh—who?” she said keenly.
Harry shrugged. “No idea,” he said. “So what about Ron?”
“Well...” said Parvati slowly, “I suppose my sister might... Padma, you know ...in Ravenclaw. I'll ask her if you like.”
“Yeah, that would be great,” said Harry. “Let me know, will you?”
And he went back over to Ron, feeling that this ball was a lot more trouble than it was worth, and hoping very much that Padma Patil's nose was dead center.

(hpvn.net)
Posted 12/14/07
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE
THE YULE BALL

Despite the very heavy load of homework that the fourth years had been given for the holidays. Harry was in no mood to work when term ended, and spent the week leading up to Christmas enjoying himself as fully as possible along with everyone else. Gryffindor Tower was hardly less crowded now than during term-time; it seemed to have shrunk slightly too, as its inhabitants were being so much rowdier than usual. Fred and George had had a great success with their Canary Creams, and for the first couple of days of the holidays, people kept bursting into feather all over the place. Before long, however, all the Gryffindors had learned to treat food anybody else offered them with extreme caution, in case it had a Canary Cream concealed in the center, and George confided to Harry that he and Fred were now working on developing something else. Harry made a mental note never to accept so much as a crisp from Fred and George in future. He still hadn't forgotten Dudley and the Ton-Tongue Toffee.
Snow was falling thickly upon the castle and its grounds now. The pale blue Beauxbatons carriage looked like a large, chilly, frosted pumpkin next to the iced gingerbread house that was Hagrid's cabin, while the Durmstrang ship's portholes were glazed with ice, the rigging white with frost. The house-elves down in the kitchen were outdoing themselves with a series of rich, warming stews and savory puddings, and only Fleur Delacour seemed to be able to find anything to complain about.
“It is too 'eavy, all zis 'Ogwarts food,” they heard her saying grumpily as they left the Great Hall behind her one evening (Ron skulking behind Harry, keen not to be spotted by Fleur). “I will not fit into my dress robes!”
“Oooh there's a tragedy,” Hermione snapped as Fleur went out into the entrance hall. “She really thinks a lot of herself, that one, doesn't she?”
“Hermione—who are you going to the ball with?” said Ron.
He kept springing this question on her, hoping to startle her into a response by asking it when she least expected it. However, Hermione merely frowned and said, “I'm not telling you, you'll just make fun of me.”
“You're joking, Weasley!” said Malfoy, behind them. “You're not telling me someone's asked that to the ball? Not the long-molared Mudblood?”;
Harry and Ron both whipped around, but Hermione said loudly, waving to somebody over Malfoys shoulder, “Hello, Professor Moody!”
Malfoy went pale and jumped backward, looking wildly around for Moody, but he was still up at the staff table, finishing his stew.
“Twitchy little ferret, aren't you, Malfoy?” said Hermione scathingly, and she, Harry, and Ron went up the marble staircase laughing heartily.
“Hermione,” said Ron, looking sideways at her, suddenly frowning, “your teeth ...”
“What about them?” she said.
“Well, they're different... I've just noticed...”
“Of course they are—did you expect me to keep those fangs Malfoy gave me?”
“No, I mean, they're different to how they were before he put that hex on you... They're all... straight and—and normal-sized.”
Hermione suddenly smiled very mischievously, and Harry noticed it too: It was a very different smile from the one he remembered.
“Well... when I went up to Madam Pomfrey to get them shrunk, she held up a mirror and told me to stop her when they were back to how they normally were,” she said. “And I just... let her carry on a bit.” She smiled even more widely. “Mum and Dad won't be too pleased. I've been trying to persuade them to let me shrink them for ages, but they wanted me to carry on with my braces. You know, they're dentists, they just don't think teeth and magic should—look! Pigwidgeons back!”
Ron's tiny owl was twittering madly on the top of the icicle-laden banisters, a scroll of parchment tied to his leg. People passing him were pointing and laughing, and a group of third-year girls paused and said, “Oh look at the weeny owl! Isn't he cute?”
Stupid little feathery git!” Ron hissed, hurrying up the stairs and snatching up Pigwidgeon. “You bring letters to the addressee! You don't hang around showing off!”
Pigwidgeon hooted happily, his head protruding over Ron's fist. The third-year girls all looked very shocked.
“Clear off!” Ron snapped at them, waving the fist holding Pigwidgeon, who hooted more happily than ever as he soared through the air. “Here—take it, Harry,” Ron added in an undertone as the third-year girls scuttled away looking scandalized. He pulled Sirius's reply off Pigwidgeons leg. Harry pocketed it, and they hurried back to Gryffindor Tower to read it.
Everyone in the common room was much too busy in letting off more holiday steam to observe what anyone else was up to. Ron, Harry, and Hermione sat apart from everyone else by a dark window that was gradually filling up with snow, and Harry read out:

Dear Harry,
Congratulations on getting past the Horntail. Whoever put your name in that goblet shouldn't be feeling too happy right now! I was going to suggest a Conjunctivitus Curse, as a dragon's eyes are its weakest point—”That's what Krum did!” Hermione whispered—but your way was better, I'm impressed.
Don't get complacent, though. Harry. You've only done one task; whoever put you in for the tournament's got plenty more opportunity if they're trying to hurt you. Keep your eyes open -particularly when the person we discussed is around and concentrate on keeping yourself out of trouble.
Keep in touch, I still want to hear about anything unusual.
Sirius

“He sounds exactly like Moody,” said Harry quietly, tucking the letter away again inside his robes. “'Constant vigilance!' You'd think I walk around with my eyes shut, banging off the walls...”
“But he's right, Harry,” said Hermione, “you have still got two tasks to do. You really ought to have a look at that egg, you know, and start working out what it means...”
“Hermione, he's got ages!” snapped Ron. “Want a game of chess, Harry?”
“Yeah, okay,” said Harry. Then, spotting the look on Hermione's face, he said, “Come on, how'm I supposed to concentrate with all this noise going on? I won't even be able to hear the egg over this lot.”
“Oh I suppose not,” she sighed, and she sat down to watch their chess match, which culminated in an exciting checkmate of Ron's, involving a couple of recklessly brave pawns and a very violent bishop.
Harry awoke very suddenly on Christmas Day. Wondering what had caused his abrupt return to consciousness, he opened his eyes, and saw something with very large, round, green eyes staring back at him in the darkness, so close they were almost nose to nose.
“Dobby!” Harry yelled, scrambling away from the elf so fast he almost fell out of bed. “Don't do that!”
“Dobby is sorry, sir!” squeaked Dobby anxiously, jumping backward with his long fingers over his mouth. “Dobby is only wanting to wish Harry Potter 'Merry Christmas' and bring him a present, Sir! Harry Potter did say Dobby could come and see him sometimes, sir!”
It's okay,” said Harry, still breathing rather faster than usual, while his heart rate returned to normal. “Just—just prod me or something in future, all right, don't bend over me like that...”
Harry pulled back the curtains around his four-poster, took his glasses from his bedside table, and put them on. His yell had awoken Ron, Seamus, Dean, and Neville. All of them were peering through the gaps in their own hangings, heavy-eyed and tousle-haired.
“Someone attacking you, Harry?” Seamus asked sleepily.
“No, it's just Dobby,” Harry muttered. “Go back to sleep.”
“Nah... presents!” said Seamus, spotting the large pile at the foot of his bed. Ron, Dean, and Neville decided that now they were awake they might as well get down to some present-opening too. Harry turned back to Dobby, who was now standing nervously next to Harrys bed, still looking worried that he had upset Harry. There was a Christmas bauble tied to the loop on top of his tea cozy.
“Can Dobby give Harry Potter his present?” he squeaked tentatively.
“'Course you can,” said Harry. “Er... I've got something for you too.”
It was a lie; he hadn't bought anything for Dobby at all, but he quickly opened his trunk and pulled out a particularly knobbly rolled-up pair of socks. They were his oldest and foulest, mustard yellow, and had once belonged to Uncle Vernon. The reason they were extra-knobbly was that Harry had been using them to cushion his Sneakoscope for over a year now. He pulled out the Sneako-scope and handed the socks to Dobby, saying, “Sorry, I forgot to wrap them...”
But Dobby was utterly delighted.
“Socks are Dobby's favorite, favorite clothes, sir!” he said, ripping off his odd ones and pulling on Uncle Vernon's. “I has seven now, sir... But sir ...” he said, his eyes widening, having pulled both socks up to their highest extent, so that they reached to the bottom of his shorts, “they has made a mistake in the shop, Harry Potter, they is giving you two the same!”
“Ah, no, Harry, how come you didn't spot that?” said Ron, grinning over from his own bed, which was now strewn with wrapping paper. “Tell you what, Dobby—here you go—take these two, and you can mix them up properly. And here's your sweater.”
He threw Dobby a pair of violet socks he had just unwrapped, and the hand-knitted sweater Mrs. Weasley had sent, Dobby looked quite overwhelmed.
“Sir is very kind!” he squeaked, his eyes brimming with tears again, bowing deeply to Ron. “Dobby knew sir must be a great wizard, for he is Harry Potter's greatest friend, but Dobby did not know that he was also as generous of spirit, as noble, as selfless—”
“They're only socks,” said Ron, who had gone slightly pink around the ears, though he looked rather pleased all the same. “Wow, Harry—” He had just opened Harry's present, a Chudley Cannon hat. “Cool!” He jammed it onto his head, where it clashed horribly with his hair.
Dobby now handed Harry a small package, which turned out to be—socks.
“Dobby is making them himself, sir!” the elf said happily. “He is buying the wool out of his wages, sir!”
The left sock was bright red and had a pattern of broomsticks upon it; the right sock was green with a pattern of Snitches.
“They're... they're really... well, thanks, Dobby,” said Harry, and he pulled them on, causing Dobby's eyes to leak with happiness again.
“Dobby must go now, sir, we is already making Christmas dinner in the kitchens!” said Dobby, and he hurried out of the dormitory, waving good-bye to Ron and the others as he passed.
Harry's other presents were much more satisfactory than Dobby's odd socks—with the obvious exception of the Dursleys', which consisted of a single tissue, an all-time low—Harry supposed they too were remember ing the Ton-Tongue Toffee. Hermione had given Harry a book called Quidditch Teams of Britain and Ireland; Ron, a bulging bag of Dungbombs; Sirius, a handy penknife with attachments to unlock any lock and undo any knot; and Hagrid, a vast box of sweets including all Harrys favorites: Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, Chocolate Frogs, Drooble's Best Blowing Gum, and Fizzing Whizbees. There was also, of course, Mrs. Weasley's usual package, including a new sweater (green, with a picture of a dragon on it—Harry supposed Charlie had told her all about the Horntail), and a large quantity of homemade mince pies.
Harry and Ron met up with Hermione in the common room, and they went down to breakfast together. They spent most of the morning in Gryffindor Tower, where everyone was enjoying their presents, then returned to the Great Hall for a magnificent lunch, which included at least a hundred turkeys and Christmas puddings, and large piles of Cribbage's Wizarding Crackers.
They went out onto the grounds in the afternoon; the snow was untouched except for the deep channels made by the Durmstrang and Beauxbatons students on their way up to the castle. Hermione chose to watch Harry and the Weasleys' snowball fight rather than join in, and at five o'clock said she was going back upstairs to get ready for the ball.
“What, you need three hours?” said Ron, looking at her incredulously and paying for his lapse in concentration when a large snowball, thrown by George, hit him hard on the side of the head. “Who're you going with?” he yelled after Hermione, but she just waved and disappeared up the stone steps into the castle.
There was no Christmas tea today, as the ball included a feast, so at seven o'clock, when it had become hard to aim properly, the others abandoned their snowball fight and trooped back to the common room. The Fat Lady was sitting in her frame with her friend Violet from downstairs, both of them extremely tipsy, empty boxes of chocolate liqueurs littering the bottom other picture.
“Lairy fights, that's the one!” she giggled when they gave the password, and she swung forward to let them inside.
Harry, Ron, Seamus, Dean, and Neville changed into their dress robes up in their dormitory, all of them looking very self-conscious, but none as much as Ron, who surveyed himself in the long mirror in the corner with an appalled look on his face. There was just no getting around the fact that his robes looked more like a dress than anything else. In a desperate attempt to make them look more manly, he used a Severing Charm on the ruff and cuffs. It worked fairly well; at least he was now lace-free, although he hadn't done a very neat job, and the edges still looked depressingly frayed as the boys set off downstairs.
“I still can't work out how you two got the best-looking girls in the year,” muttered Dean.
“Animal magnetism,” said Ron gloomily, pulling stray threads out of his cuffs.
The common room looked strange, full of people wearing different colors instead of the usual mass of black. Parvati was waiting for Harry at the foot of the stairs. She looked very pretty indeed, in robes of shocking pink, with her long dark plait braided with gold, and gold bracelets glimmering at her wrists. Harry was relieved to see that she wasn't giggling.
“You—er—look nice,” he said awkwardly.
“Thanks,” she said. “Padma's going to meet you in the entrance hall,” she added to Ron.
“Right,” said Ron, looking around. “Where's Hermione?”
Parvati shrugged. “Shall we go down then, Harry?”
“Okay,” said Harry, wishing he could just stay in the common room. Fred winked at Harry as he passed him on the way out of the portrait hole.
The entrance hall was packed with students too, all milling around waiting for eight o'clock, when the doors to the Great Hall would be thrown open. Those people who were meeting partners from different Houses were edging through the crowd trying to find one another. Parvati found her sister, Padma, and led her over to Harry and Ron.
“Hi,” said Padma, who was looking just as pretty as Parvati in robes of bright turquoise. She didn't look too enthusiastic about having Ron as a partner, though; her dark eyes lingered on the frayed neck and sleeves of his dress robes as she looked him up and down.
“Hi,” said Ron, not looking at her, but staring around at the crowd. “Oh no ...”
He bent his knees slightly to hide behind Harry, because Fleur Delacour was passing, looking stunning in robes of silver-gray satin, and accompanied by the Ravenclaw Quidditch captain, Roger Davies. When they had disappeared, Ron stood straight again and stared over the heads of the crowd.
“Where is Hermione?” he said again.
A group of Slytherins came up the steps from their dungeon common room. Malfoy was in front; he was wearing dress robes of black velvet with a high collar, which in Harry's opinion made him look like a vicar. Pansy Parkinson in very frilly robes of pale pink was clutching Malfoy's arm. Crabbe and Goyle were both wearing green; they resembled moss-colored boulders, and neither of them, Harry was pleased to see, had managed to find a partner.
The oak front doors opened, and everyone turned to look as the Durmstrang students entered with Professor Karkaroff. Krum was at the front of the party, accompanied by a pretty girl in blue robes Harry didn't know. Over their heads he saw that an area of lawn right in front of the castle had been transformed into a sort of grotto full of fairy lights—meaning hundreds of actual living fairies were sitting in the rosebushes that had been conjured there, and fluttering over the statues of what seemed to be Father Christmas and his reindeer.
Then Professor McGonagall's voice called, “Champions over here, please!”
Parvati readjusted her bangles, beaming; she and Harry said, “See you in a minute” to Ron and Padma and walked forward, the chattering crowd parting to let them through. Professor McGonagall, who was wearing dress robes of red tartan and had arranged a rather ugly wreath of thistles around the brim other hat, told them to wait on one side of the doors while everyone else went inside; they were to enter the Great Hall in procession when the rest of the students had sat down. Fleur Delacour and Roger Davies stationed themselves nearest the doors; Davies looked so stunned by his good fortune in having Fleur for a partner that he could hardly take his eyes off her. Cedric and Cho were close to Harry too; he looked away from them so he wouldn't have to talk to them. His eyes fell instead on the girl next to Krum. His jaw dropped.
It was Hermione.
But she didn't look like Hermione at all. She had done something with her hair; it was no longer bushy but sleek and shiny, and twisted up into an elegant knot at the back of her head. She was wearing robes made of a floaty, periwinkle-blue material, and she was holding herself differently, somehow—or maybe it was merely the absence of the twenty or so books she usually had slung over her back. She was also smiling—rather nervously, it was true—but the reduction in the size of her front teeth was more noticeable than ever; Harry couldn't understand how he hadn't spotted it before.
“Hi, Harry!” she said. “Hi, Parvati!”
Parvati was gazing at Hermione in unflattering disbelief. She wasn't the only one either; when the doors to the Great Hall opened, Krum's fan club from the library stalked past, throwing Hermione looks of deepest loathing. Pansy Parkinson gaped at her as she walked by with Malfoy, and even he didn't seem to be able to find an insult to throw at her. Ron, however, walked right past Hermione without looking at her.
Once everyone else was settled in the Hall, Professor McGonagall told the champions and their partners to get in line in pairs and to follow her. They did so, and everyone in the Great Hall applauded as they entered and started walking up toward a large round table at the top of the Hall, where the judges were sitting.
The walls of the Hall had all been covered in sparkling silver frost, with hundreds of garlands of mistletoe and ivy crossing the starry black ceiling. The House tables had vanished; instead, there were about a hundred smaller, lantern-lit ones, each seating about a dozen people.
Harry concentrated on not tripping over his feet. Parvati seemed to be enjoying herself; she was beaming around at everybody, steering Harry so forcefully that he felt as though he were a show dog she was putting through its paces. He caught sight of Ron and Padma as he neared the top table. Ron was watching Hermione pass with narrowed eyes. Padma was looking sulky.
Dumbledore smiled happily as the champions approached the top table, but Karkaroff wore an expression remarkably like Ron's as he watched Krum and Hermione draw nearer. Ludo Bagman, tonight in robes of bright purple with large yellow stars, was clapping as enthusiastically as any of the students; and Madame Maxime, who had changed her usual uniform of black satin for a flowing gown of lavender silk, was applauding them politely. But Mr. Crouch, Harry suddenly realized, was not there. The fifth seat at the table was occupied by Percy Weasley.
When the champions and their partners reached the table, Percy drew out the empty chair beside him, staring pointedly at Harry. Harry took the hint and sat down next to Percy, who was wearing brand-new, navy-blue dress robes and an expression of such smugness that Harry thought it ought to be fined.
“I've been promoted,” Percy said before Harry could even ask, and from his tone, he might have been announcing his election as supreme ruler of the universe. “I'm now Mr. Crouch's personal assistant, and I'm here representing him.”
“Why didn't he come?” Harry asked. He wasn't looking forward to being lectured on cauldron bottoms all through dinner.
“I'm afraid to say Mr. Crouch isn't well, not well at all. Hasn't been right since the World Cup. Hardly surprising—overwork. He's not as young as he was—though still quite brilliant, of course, the mind remains as great as it ever was. But the World Cup was a fiasco for the whole Ministry, and then, Mr. Crouch suffered a huge personal shock with the misbehavior of that house-elf of his, Blinky, or whatever she was called. Naturally, he dismissed her immediately afterward, but—well, as I say, he's getting on, he needs looking after, and I think he's found a definite drop in his home comforts since she left. And then we had the tournament to arrange, and the aftermath of the Cup to deal with—that revolting Skeeter woman buzzing around—no, poor man, he's having a well earned, quiet Christmas. I'm just glad he knew he had someone he could rely upon to take his place.”
Harry wanted very much to ask whether Mr. Crouch had stopped calling Percy “Weatherby” yet, but resisted the temptation.
There was no food as yet on the glittering golden plates, but small menus were lying in front of each of them. Harry picked his up uncertainly and looked around—there were no waiters. Dumbledore, however, looked carefully down at his own menu, then said very clearly to his plate, “Pork chops!”
And pork chops appeared. Getting the idea, the rest of the table placed their orders with their plates too. Harry glanced up at Hermione to see how she felt about this new and more complicated method of dining—surely it meant plenty of extra work for the house-elves?—but for once, Hermione didn't seem to be thinking about S. P. E. W. She was deep in talk with Viktor Krum and hardly seemed to notice what she was eating.
It now occurred to Harry that he had never actually heard Krum speak before, but he was certainly talking now, and very enthusiastically at that.
“Veil, ve have a castle also, not as big as this, nor as comfortable, I am thinking,” he was telling Hermione. “Ve have just four floors, and the fires are lit only for magical purposes. But ve have grounds larger even than these—though in vinter, ve have very little daylight, so ve are not enjoying them. But in summer ve are flying every day, over the lakes and the mountains—”
“Now, now, Viktor!” said Karkaroff with a laugh that didn't reach his cold eyes, “don't go giving away anything else, now, or your charming friend will know exactly where to find us!”
Dumbledore smiled, his eyes twinkling. “Igor, all this secrecy ., . one would almost think you didn't want visitors.”
“Well, Dumbledore,” said Karkaroff, displaying his yellowing teeth to their fullest extent, “we are all protective of our private domains, are we not? Do we not jealously guard the halls of learning that have been entrusted to us? Are we not right to be proud that we alone know our school's secrets, and right to protect them?”
“Oh I would never dream of assuming I know all Hogwarts' secrets, Igor,” said Dumbledore amicably. “Only this morning, for instance, I took a wrong turning on the way to the bathroom and found myself in a beautifully proportioned room I have never seen before, containing a really rather magnificent collection of chamber pots. When I went back to investigate more closely, I discovered that the room had vanished. But I must keep an eye out for it. Possibly it is only accessible at five-thirty in the morning. Or it may only appear at the quarter moon—or when the seeker has an exceptionally full bladder.”
Harry snorted into his plate of goulash. Percy frowned, but Harry could have sworn Dumbledore had given him a very small wink.
Meanwhile Fleur Delacour was criticizing the Hogwarts decorations to Roger Davies.
“Zis is nothing,” she said dismissively, looking around at the sparkling walls of the Great Hall. “At ze Palace of Beauxbatons, we 'ave ice sculptures all around ze dining chamber at Chreestmas. Zey do not melt, of course... zey are like 'uge statues of diamond, glittering around ze place. And ze food is seemply superb. And we 'ave choirs of wood nymphs, 'oo serenade us as we eat. We 'ave none of zis ugly armor in ze 'alls, and eef a poltergeist ever entaired into Beauxbatons, 'e would be expelled like zat.” She slapped her hand onto the table impatiently.
Roger Davies was watching her talk with a very dazed look on his face, and he kept missing his mouth with his fork. Harry had the impression that Davies was too busy staring at Fleur to take in a word she was saying.
“Absolutely right,” he said quickly, slapping his own hand down on the table in imitation of Fleur. “Like that. Yeah.”
Harry looked around the Hall. Hagrid was sitting at one of the other staff tables; he was back in his horrible hairy brown suit and gazing up at the top table. Harry saw him give a small wave, and looking around, saw Madame Maxime return it, her opals glittering in the candlelight.
Hermione was now teaching Krum to say her name properly; he kept calling her “Hermy-own.”
“Her-my-oh-nee,” she said slowly and clearly.
“Herm-own-ninny.”
“Close enough,” she said, catching Harry's eye and grinning.
When all the food had been consumed, Dumbledore stood up and asked the students to do the same. Then, with a wave of his wand, all the tables zoomed back along the walls leaving the floor clear, and then he conjured a raised platform into existence along the right wall. A set of drums, several guitars, a lute, a cello, and some bagpipes were set upon it.
The “Weird Sisters now trooped up onto the stage to wildly enthusiastic applause; they were all extremely hairy and dressed in black robes that had been artfully ripped and torn. They picked up their instruments, and Harry, who had been so interested in watching them that he had almost forgotten what was coming, suddenly realized that the lanterns on all the other tables had gone out, and that the other champions and their partners were standing up.
“Come on!” Parvati hissed. “We're supposed to dance!”
Harry tripped over his dress robes as he stood up. The Weird Sisters struck up a slow, mournful tune; Harry walked onto the brightly lit dance floor, carefully avoiding catching anyone's eye (he could see Seamus and Dean waving at him and sniggering), and next moment, Parvati had seized his hands, placed one around her waist, and was holding the other tightly in hers.
It wasn't as bad as it could have been. Harry thought, revolving slowly on the spot (Parvati was steering). He kept his eyes fixed over the heads of the watching people, and very soon many of them too had come onto the dance floor, so that the champions were no longer the center of attention. Neville and Ginny were dancing nearby—he could see Ginny wincing frequently as Neville trod on her feet—and Dumbledore was waltzing with Madame Maxime. He was so dwarfed by her that the top of his pointed hat barely tickled her chin; however, she moved very gracefully for a woman so large. Mad-Eye Moody was doing an extremely ungainly two-step with Professor Sinistra, who was nervously avoiding his wooden leg.
“Nice socks. Potter,” Moody growled as he passed, his magical eye staring through Harry's robes.
“Oh—yeah, Dobby the house-elf knitted them for me,” said Harry, grinning.
“He is so creepy!” Parvati whispered as Moody clunked away. “I don't think that eye should be allowed.”
Harry heard the final, quavering note from the bagpipe with relief. The Weird Sisters stopped playing, applause filled the hall once more, and Harry let go of Parvati at once.
“Let's sit down, shall we?”
“Oh—but—this is a really good one!” Parvati said as the Weird Sisters struck up a new song, which was much faster.
“No, I don't like it,” Harry lied, and he led her away from the dance floor, past Fred and Angelina, who were dancing so exhuberantly that people around them were backing away in fear of injury, and over to the table where Ron and Padma were sitting.
“How's it going?” Harry asked Ron, sitting down and opening a bottle of butterbeer.
Ron didn't answer. He was glaring at Hermione and Krum, who were dancing nearby. Padma was sitting with her arms and legs crossed, one foot jiggling in time to the music. Every now and then she threw a disgruntled look at Ron, who was completely ignoring her. Parvati sat down on Harry's other side, crossed her arms and legs too, and within minutes was asked to dance by a boy from Beauxbatons.
“You don't mind, do you, Harry?” Parvati said.
“What?” said Harry, who was now watching Cho and Cedric.
“Oh never mind,” snapped Parvati, and she went off with the boy from Beauxbatons. When the song ended, she did not return.
Hermione came over and sat down in Parvati's empty chair. She was a bit pink in the face from dancing.
“Hi,” said Harry. Ron didn't say anything.
“It's hot, isn't it?” said Hermione, fanning herself with her hand. “Viktors just gone to get some drinks.”
Ron gave her a withering look. “Viktor?” he said. “Hasn't he asked you to call him Vicky yet?”
Hermione looked at him in surprise. “What's up with you?” she said.
“If you don't know,” said Ron scathingly, “I'm not going to tell you.”
Hermione stared at him, then at Harry, who shrugged.
“Ron, what—?”
“He's from Durmstrang!” spat Ron. “He's competing against Harry! Against Hogwarts! You—you're—” Ron was obviously casting around for words strong enough to describe Hermione's crime, “fraternizing with the enemy, that's what you're doing!”
Hermione's mouth fell open.
“Don't be so stupid!” she said after a moment. “The enemy! Honestly—who was the one who was all excited when they saw him arrive? Who was the one who wanted his autograph? Who's got a model of him up in their dormitory?”
Ron chose to ignore this. “I s'pose he asked you to come with him while you were both in the library?”
“Yes, he did,” said Hermione, the pink patches on her cheeks glowing more brightly. “So what?”
“What happened—trying to get him to join spew, were you?”
“No, I wasn't! If you really want to know, he—he said he'd been coming up to the library every day to try and talk to me, but he hadn't been able to pluck up the courage!”
Hermione said this very quickly, and blushed so deeply that she was the same color as Parvati's robes.
“Yeah, well—that's his story,” said Ron nastily.
“And what's that supposed to mean?”
“Obvious, isn't it? He's Karkaroff's student, isn't he? He knows who you hang around with... He's just trying to get closer to Harry—get inside information on him—or get near enough to jinx him—”
Hermione looked as though Ron had slapped her. When she spoke, her voice quivered.
“For your information, he hasn't asked me one single thing about Harry, not one—”
Ron changed tack at the speed of light.
“Then he's hoping you'll help him find out what his egg means! I suppose you've been putting your heads together during those cozy little library sessions—”
“I'd never help him work out that egg!” said Hermione, looking outraged. “Never. How could you say something like that—I want Harry to win the tournament. Harry knows that, don't you, Harry?”
“You've got a funny way of showing it,” sneered Ron.
“This whole tournament's supposed to be about getting to know foreign wizards and making friends with them!” said Hermione hotly.
“No it isn't!” shouted Ron. “It's about winning!”
People were starting to stare at them.
“Ron,” said Harry quietly, “I haven't got a problem with Hermione coming with Krum—”
But Ron ignored Harry too.
“Why don't you go and find Vicky, he'll be wondering where you are,” said Ron.
“Don't call him Vicky!”
Hermione jumped to her feet and stormed off across the dance floor, disappearing into the crowd. Ron watched her go with a mixture of anger and satisfaction on his face.
“Are you going to ask me to dance at all?” Padma asked him.
“No,” said Ron, still glaring after Hermione.
“Fine,” snapped Padma, and she got up and went to join Parvati and the Beauxbatons boy, who conjured up one of his friends to join them so fast that Harry could have sworn he had zoomed him there by a Summoning Charm.
“Vare is Herm-own-ninny?” said a voice.
Krum had just arrived at their table clutching two butterbeers.
“No idea,” said Ron mulishly, looking up at him. “Lost her, have you?”
Krum was looking surly again.
“Veil, if you see her, tell her I haff drinks,” he said, and he slouched off.
“Made friends with Viktor Krum, have you, Ron?”
Percy had bustled over, rubbing his hands together and looking extremely pompous. “Excellent! That's the whole point, you know—international magical cooperation!”
To Harry's displeasure, Percy now took Padma's vacated seat. The top table was now empty; Professor Dumbledore was dancing with Professor Sprout, Ludo Bagman with Professor McGonagall; Madame Maxime and Hagrid were cutting a wide path around the dance floor as they waltzed through the students, and Karkaroff was nowhere to be seen. When the next song ended, everybody applauded once more, and Harry saw Ludo Bagman kiss Professor McGonagall's hand and make his way back through the crowds, at which point Fred and George accosted him.
“What do they think they're doing, annoying senior Ministry members?” Percy hissed, watching Fred and George suspiciously. “No respect...”
Ludo Bagman shook off Fred and George fairly quickly, however, and, spotting Harry, waved and came over to their table.
“I hope my brothers weren't bothering you, Mr. Bagman?” said Percy at once.
“What? Oh not at all, not at all!” said Bagman. “No, they were just telling me a bit more about those fake wands of theirs. Wondering if I could advise them on the marketing. I've promised to put them in touch with a couple of contacts of mine at Zonko's Joke Shop...”
Percy didn't look happy about this at all, and Harry was prepared to bet he would be rushing to tell Mrs. Weasley about this the moment he got home. Apparently Fred and George's plans had grown even more ambitious lately, if they were hoping to sell to the public. Bagman opened his mouth to ask Harry something, but Percy diverted him.
“How do you feel the tournament's going, Mr. Bagman? Our department's quite satisfied—the hitch with the Goblet of Fire”—he glanced at Harry—”was a little unfortunate, of course, but it seems to have gone very smoothly since, don't you think?”
“Oh yes,” Bagman said cheerfully, “it's all been enormous fun. How's old Barty doing? Shame he couldn't come.”
“Oh I'm sure Mr. Crouch will be up and about in no time,” said Percy importantly, “but in the meantime, I'm more than willing to take up the slack. Of course, it's not all attending balls”—he laughed airily—”oh no, I've had to deal with all sorts of things that have cropped up in his absence—you heard Ali Bashir was caught smuggling a consignment of flying carpets into the country? And then we've been trying to persuade the Transylvanians to sign the International Ban on Dueling. I've got a meeting with their Head of Magical Cooperation in the new year—”
“Let's go for a walk,” Ron muttered to Harry, “get away from Percy...”
Pretending they wanted more drinks. Harry and Ron left the table, edged around the dance floor, and slipped out into the entrance hall. The front doors stood open, and the fluttering fairy lights in the rose garden winked and twinkled as they went down the front steps, where they found themselves surrounded by bushes; winding, ornamental paths; and large stone statues. Harry could hear splashing water, which sounded like a fountain. Here and there, people were sitting on carved benches. He and Ron set off along one of the winding paths through the rosebushes, but they had gone only a short way when they heard an unpleasantly familiar voice.
“...don't see what there is to fuss about, Igor.”
“Severus, you cannot pretend this isn't happening!” Karkaroffs voice sounded anxious and hushed, as though keen not to be overheard. “It's been getting clearer and clearer for months. I am becoming seriously concerned, I can't deny it ”
“Then flee,” said Snapes voice curtly. “Flee—I will make your excuses. I, however, am remaining at Hogwarts.”
Snape and Karkaroff came around the corner. Snape had his wand out and was blasting rosebushes apart, his expression most ill-natured. Squeals issued from many of the bushes, and dark shapes emerged from them.
“Ten points from Ravenclaw, Fawcett!” Snape snarled as a girl ran past him. “And ten points from Hufflepuff too, Stebbins!” as a boy went rushing after her. “And what are you two doing?” he added, catching sight of Harry and Ron on the path ahead. Karkaroff, Harry saw, looked slightly discomposed to see them standing there. His hand went nervously to his goatee, and he began winding it around his finger.
“We re walking,” Ron told Snape shortly. “Not against the law, is it?”
“Keep walking, then!” Snape snarled, and he brushed past them, his long black cloak billowing out behind him. Karkaroff hurried away after Snape. Harry and Ron continued down the path.
“What's got Karkaroff all worried?” Ron muttered.
“And since when have he and Snape been on first-name terms?"said Harry slowly.
They had reached a large stone reindeer now, over which they could see the sparkling jets of a tall fountain. The shadowy outlines of two enormous people were visible on a stone bench, watching the water in the moonlight. And then Harry heard Hagrid speak.
“Momen' I saw yeh, I knew,” he was saying, in an oddly husky voice.
Harry and Ron froze. This didn't sound like the sort of scene they ought to walk in on, somehow... Harry looked around, back up the path, and saw Fleur Delacour and Roger Davies standing half-concealed in a rosebush nearby. He tapped Ron on the shoulder and jerked his head toward them, meaning that they could easily sneak off that way without being noticed (Fleur and Davies looked very busy to Harry), but Ron, eyes widening in horror at the sight of Fleur, shook his head vigorously, and pulled Harry deeper into the shadows behind the reindeer.
“What did you know, 'Agrid?” said Madame Maxime, a purr in her low voice.
Harry definitely didn't want to listen to this; he knew Hagrid would hate to be overheard in a situation like this (he certainly would have)—if it had been possible he would have put his fingers in his ears and hummed loudly, but that wasn't really an option. Instead he tried to interest himself in a beetle crawling along the stone reindeer's back, but the beetle just wasn't interesting enough to block out Hagrid's next words.
“I jus' knew... knew you were like me... Was it yer mother or yer father?”
“I—I don't know what you mean, 'Agrid...”
“It was my mother,” said Hagrid quietly. “She was one o' the las' ones in Britain. 'Course, I can' remember her too well... she left, see. When I was abou' three. She wasn' really the maternal sort. Well... it's not in their natures, is it? Dunno what happened to her... might be dead fer all I know...”
Madame Maxime didn't say anything. And Harry, in spite of himself, took his eyes off the beetle and looked over the top of the reindeer's antlers, listening... He had never heard Hagrid talk about his childhood before.
“Me dad was broken-hearted when she wen'. Tiny little bloke, my dad was. By the time I was six I could lift him up an' put him on top o' the dresser if he annoyed me. Used ter make him laugh...” Hagrid's deep voice broke. Madame Maxime was listening, motionless, apparently staring at the silvery fountain. “Dad raised me... but he died, o' course, jus' after I started school. Sorta had ter make me own way after that. Dumbledore was a real help, mind. Very kind ter me, he was...”
Hagrid pulled out a large spotted silk handkerchief and blew his nose heavily.
“So ...anyway... enough abou' me. What about you? Which side you got it on?”
But Madame Maxime had suddenly got to her feet.
“It is chilly,” she said—but whatever the weather was doing, it was nowhere near as cold as her voice. “I think I will go in now.”
“Eh?” said Hagrid blankly. “No, don go! I've—I've never met another one before!”
“Anuzzer what, precisely?” said Madame Maxime, her tone icy.
Harry could have told Hagrid it was best not to answer; he stood there in the shadows gritting his teeth, hoping against hope he wouldn't—but it was no good. “Another half-giant, o' course!” said Hagrid.
“'Ow dare you!” shrieked Madame Maxime. Her voice exploded through the peaceful night air like a foghorn; behind him. Harry heard Fleur and Roger fall out of their rosebush. “I 'ave nevair been more insulted in my life! 'Alf-giant? Moi? I 'ave—I 'ave big bones!”
She stormed away; great multicolored swarms of fairies rose into the air as she passed, angrily pushing aside bushes. Hagrid was still sitting on the bench, staring after her. It was much too dark to make out his expression. Then, after about a minute, he stood up and strode away, not back to the castle, but off out into the dark grounds in the direction of his cabin.
“C'mon,” Harry said, very quietly to Ron. “Let's go...”
But Ron didn't move.
“What's up?” said Harry, looking at him.
Ron looked around at Harry, his expression very serious indeed.
“Did you know?” he whispered. “About Hagrid being half-giant?”
“No,” Harry said, shrugging. “So what?”
He knew immediately, from the look Ron was giving him, that he was once again revealing his ignorance of the wizarding world. Brought up by the Dursleys, there were many things that wizards took for granted that were revelations to Harry, but these surprises had become fewer with each successive year. Now, however, he could tell that most wizards would not have said “So what?” upon finding out that one of their friends had a giantess for a mother.
“I'll explain inside,” said Ron quietly, “c'mon...”
Fleur and Roger Davies had disappeared, probably into a more private clump of bushes. Harry and Ron returned to the Great Hall. Parvati and Padma were now sitting at a distant table with a whole crowd of Beauxbatons boys, and Hermione was once more dancing with Krum. Harry and Ron sat down at a table far removed from the dance floor.
“So?” Harry prompted Ron. “What's the problem with giants?”
“Well, they're... they're...” Ron struggled for words. “... not very nice,” he finished lamely.
“Who cares?” Harry said. “There's nothing wrong with Hagrid!”
“I know there isn't, but... blimey, no wonder he keeps it quiet,” Ron said, shaking his head. “I always thought he'd got in the way of a bad Engorgement Charm when he was a kid or something. Didn't like to mention it...”
“But what's it matter if his mother was a giantess?” said Harry.
“Well... no one who knows him will care, 'cos they'll know he's not dangerous,” said Ron slowly. “But... Harry, they're just vicious, giants. It's like Hagrid said, it's in their natures, they're like trolls... they just like killing, everyone knows that. There aren't any left in Britain now, though.”
“What happened to them?”
“Well, they were dying out anyway, and then loads got themselves killed by Aurors. There're supposed to be giants abroad, though... They hide out in mountains mostly...”
“I don't know who Maxime thinks she's kidding,” Harry said, watching Madame Maxime sitting alone at the judges' table, looking very somber. “If Hagrid's half-giant, she definitely is. Big bones... the only thing that's got bigger bones than her is a dinosaur.”
Harry and Ron spent the rest of the ball discussing giants in their corner, neither of them having any inclination to dance. Harry tried not to watch Cho and Cedric too much; it gave him a strong desire to kick something.
When the Weird Sisters finished playing at midnight, everyone gave them a last, loud round of applause and started to wend their way into the entrance hall. Many people were expressing the wish that the ball could have gone on longer, but Harry was perfectly happy to be going to bed; as far as he was concerned, the evening hadn't been much fun.
Out in the entrance hall, Harry and Ron saw Hermione saying good night to Krum before he went back to the Durmstrang ship. She gave Ron a very cold look and swept past him up the marble staircase without speaking. Harry and Ron followed her, but halfway up the staircase Harry heard someone calling him.
“Hey-Harry!”
It was Cedric Diggory. Harry could see Cho waiting for him in the entrance hall below.
“Yeah?” said Harry coldly as Cedric ran up the stairs toward him.
Cedric looked as though he didn't want to say whatever it was in front of Ron, who shrugged, looking bad-tempered, and continued to climb the stairs.
“Listen ...” Cedric lowered his voice as Ron disappeared. “I owe you one for telling me about the dragons. You know that golden egg? Does yours wail when you open it?”
“Yeah,” said Harry.
“Well... take a bath, okay?”
“What?”
“Take a bath, and—er—take the egg with you, and—er—just mull things over in the hot water. It'll help you think... Trust me.”
Harry stared at him.
“Tell you what,” Cedric said, “use the prefects' bathroom. Fourth door to the left of that statue of Boris the Bewildered on the fifth floor. Password's 'pine fresh. ' Gotta go ...want to say good night—”
He grinned at Harry again and hurried back down the stairs to Cho.
Harry walked back to Gryffindor Tower alone. That had been extremely strange advice. Why would a bath help him to work out what the wailing egg meant? Was Cedric pulling his leg? Was he trying to make Harry look like a fool, so Cho would like him even more by comparison?
The Fat Lady and her friend Vi were snoozing in the picture over the portrait hole. Harry had to yell “Fairy lights!” before he woke them up, and when he did, they were extremely irritated. He climbed into the common room and found Ron and Hermione having a blazing row. Standing ten feet apart, they were bellowing at each other, each scarlet in the face.
“Well, if you don't like it, you know what the solution is, don't you?” yelled Hermione; her hair was coming down out of its elegant bun now, and her face was screwed up in anger.
“Oh yeah?” Ron yelled back. “What's that?”
“Next time there's a ball, ask me before someone else does, and not as a last resort!”
Ron mouthed soundlessly like a goldfish out of water as Hermione turned on her heel and stormed up the girls' staircase to bed. Ron turned to look at Harry.
“Well,” he sputtered, looking thunderstruck, “well—that just proves—completely missed the point—”
Harry didn't say anything. He liked being back on speaking terms with Ron too much to speak his mind right now—but he somehow thought that Hermione had gotten the point much better than Ron had.

(hpvn.net)
Posted 12/14/07
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR
RITA SKEETER'S SCOOP

Everybody got up late on Boxing Day. The Gryffindor common room was much quieter than it had been lately, many yawns punctuating the lazy conversations. Hermione's hair was bushy again; she confessed to Harry that she had used liberal amounts of Sleekeazy's Hair Potion on it for the ball, “but it's way too much bother to do every day,” she said matter-of-factly, scratching a purring Crookshanks behind the ears.
Ron and Hermione seemed to have reached an unspoken agreement not to discuss their argument. They were being quite friendly to each other, though oddly formal. Ron and Harry wasted no time in telling Hermione about the conversation they had overheard between Madame Maxime and Hagrid, but Hermione didn't seem to find the news that Hagrid was a half-giant nearly as shocking as Ron did.
“Well, I thought he must be,” she said, shrugging. “I knew he couldn't be pure giant because they're about twenty feet tall. But honestly, all this hysteria about giants. They can't all be horrible... It's the same sort of prejudice that people have toward werewolves... It's just bigotry, isn't it?”
Ron looked as though he would have liked to reply scathingly, but perhaps he didn't want another row, because he contented himself with shaking his head disbelievingly while Hermione wasn't looking.
It was time now to think of the homework they had neglected during the first week of the holidays. Everybody seemed to be feeling rather flat now that Christmas was over—everybody except Harry, that is, who was starting (once again) to feel slightly nervous.
The trouble was that February the twenty-fourth looked a lot closer from this side of Christmas, and he still hadn't done anything about working out the clue inside the golden egg. He therefore started taking the egg out of his trunk every time he went up to the dormitory, opening it, and listening intently, hoping that this time it would make some sense. He strained to think what the sound reminded him of, apart from thirty musical saws, but he had never heard anything else like it. He closed the egg, shook it vigorously, and opened it again to see if the sound had changed, but it hadn't. He tried asking the egg questions, shouting over all the wailing, but nothing happened. He even threw the egg across the room—though he hadn't really expected that to help.
Harry had not forgotten the hint that Cedric had given him, but his less-than-friendly feelings toward Cedric just now meant that he was keen not to take his help if he could avoid it. In any case, it seemed to him that if Cedric had really wanted to give Harry a hand, he would have been a lot more explicit. He, Harry, had told Cedric exactly what was coming in the first task—and Cedric's idea of a fair exchange had been to tell Harry to take a bath. Well, he didn't need that sort of rubbishy help—not from someone who kept walking down corridors hand in hand with Cho, anyway. And so the first day of the new term arrived, and Harry set off to lessons, weighed down with books, parchment, and quills as usual, but also with the lurking worry of the egg heavy in his stomach, as though he were carrying that around with him too.
Snow was still thick upon the grounds, and the greenhouse windows were covered in condensation so thick that they couldn't see out of them in Herbology. Nobody was looking forward to Care of Magical Creatures much in this weather, though as Ron said, the skrewts would probably warm them up nicely, either by chasing them, or blasting off so forcefully that Hagrid's cabin would catch fire.
When they arrived at Hagrid 's cabin, however, they found an elderly witch with closely cropped gray hair and a very prominent chin standing before his front door.
“Hurry up, now, the bell rang five minutes ago,” she barked at them as they struggled toward her through the snow.
“Who're you?” said Ron, staring at her. “Wheres Hagrid?”
“My name is Professor Grubbly-Plank,” she said briskly. “I am your temporary Care of Magical Creatures teacher.”
“Where's Hagrid?” Harry repeated loudly.
“He is indisposed,” said Professor Grubbly-Plank shortly.
Soft and unpleasant laughter reached Harrys ears. He turned; Draco Malfoy and the rest of the Slytherins were joining the class. All of them looked gleeful, and none of them looked surprised to see Professor Grubbly-Plank.
“This way, please,” said Professor Grubbly-Plank, and she strode off around the paddock where the Beauxbatons horses were shivering. Harry, Ron, and Hermione followed her, looking back over their shoulders at Hagrid's cabin. All the curtains were closed. Was Hagrid in there, alone and ill?
“What's wrong with Hagrid?” Harry said, hurrying to catch up with Professor Grubbly-Plank.
“Never you mind,” she said as though she thought he was being nosy.
“I do mind, though,” said Harry hotly. “What's up with him?”
Professor Grubbly-Plank acted as though she couldn't hear him. She led them past the paddock where the huge Beauxbatons horses were standing, huddled against the cold, and toward a tree on the edge of the forest, where a large and beautiful unicorn was tethered.
Many of the girls “ooooohed!” at the sight of the unicorn.
“Oh it's so beautiful!” whispered Lavender Brown. “How did she get it? They're supposed to be really hard to catch!”
The unicorn was so brightly white it made the snow all around look gray. It was pawing the ground nervously with its golden hooves and throwing back its horned head.
“Boys keep back!” barked Professor Grubbly-Plank, throwing out an arm and catching Harry hard in the chest. “They prefer the woman's touch, unicorns. Girls to the front, and approach with care, come on, easy does it...”
She and the girls walked slowly forward toward the unicorn, leaving the boys standing near the paddock fence, watching. The moment Professor Grubbly-Plank was out of earshot. Harry turned to Ron.
“What d'you reckons wrong with him? You don't think a skrewt—?”
“Oh he hasn't been attacked, Potter, if that's what you're thinking,” said Malfoy softly. “No, he's just too ashamed to show his big, ugly face.”
“What d'you mean?” said Harry sharply.
Malfoy put his hand inside the pocket of his robes and pulled out a folded page of newsprint.
“There you go,” he said. “Hate to break it to you. Potter...”
He smirked as Harry snatched the page, unfolded it, and read it, with Ron, Seamus, Dean, and Neville looking over his shoulder. It was an article topped with a picture of Hagrid looking extremely shifty.

DUMBLEDORE'S GIANT MISTAKE

Albus Dumbledore, eccentric Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, has never been afraid to make controversial staff appointments, writes Rita Skeeter, Special Correspondent. In September of this year, he hired Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody, the notoriously jinx-happy ex-Auror, to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts, a decision that caused many raised eyebrows at the Ministry of Magic, given Moody's well-known habit of attacking anybody who makes a sudden movement in his presence. Mad-Eye Moody, however, looks responsible and kindly when set beside the part-human Dumbledore employs to teach Care of Magical Creatures.
Rubeus Hagrid, who admits to being expelled from Hogwarts in his third year, has enjoyed the position of gamekeeper at the school ever since, a job secured for him by Dumbledore. Last year, however, Hagrid used his mysterious influence over the headmaster to secure the additional post of Care of Magical Creatures teacher, over the heads of many better-qualified candidates.
An alarmingly large and ferocious-looking man, Hagrid has been using his newfound authority to terrify the students in his care with a succession of horrific creatures. While Dumbledore turns a blind eye, Hagrid has maimed several pupils during a series of lessons that many admit to being “very frightening.”
'I was attacked by a hippogriff, and my friend Vincent Crabbe got a bad bite off a flobberworm,” says Draco Malfoy, a fourth-year student. “We all hate Hagrid, but we're just too scared to say anything.”
Hagrid has no intention of ceasing his campaign of intimidation, however. In conversation with a Daily Prophet reporter last month, he admitted breeding creatures he has dubbed “Blast-Ended Skrewts,” highly dangerous crosses between manti-cores and fire-crabs. The creation of new breeds of magical creature is, of course, an activity usually closely observed by the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. Hagrid, however, considers himself to be above such petty restrictions.
“I was just having some fun,” he says, before hastily changing the subject.
As if this were not enough, the Daily Prophet has now unearthed evidence that Hagrid is not—as he has always pretended—a pure-blood wizard. He is not, in fact, even pure human. His mother, we can exclusively reveal, is none other than the giantess Fridwulfa, whose whereabouts are currently unknown.
Bloodthirsty and brutal, the giants brought themselves to the point of extinction by warring amongst themselves during the last century. The handful that remained joined the ranks of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and were responsible for some of the worst mass Muggle killings of his reign of terror.
While many of the giants who served He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named were killed by Aurors working against the Dark Side, Fridwulfa was not among them. It is possible she escaped to one of the giant communities still existing in foreign mountain ranges. If his antics during Care of Magical Creatures lessons are any guide, however, Frid-wulfa's son appears to have inherited her brutal nature.
In a bizarre twist, Hagrid is reputed to have developed a close friendship with the boy who brought around You-Know-Who's fall from power—thereby driving Hagrid's own mother, like the rest of You-Know-Who's supporters, into hiding. Perhaps Harry Potter is unaware of the unpleasant truth about his large friend—but Albus Dumbledore surely has a duty to ensure that Harry Potter, along with his fellow students, is warned about the dangers of associating with part-giants.

Harry finished reading and looked up at Ron, whose mouth was hanging open.
“How did she find out?” he whispered.
But that wasn't what was bothering Harry.
“What d'you mean, 'we all hate Hagrid'?” Harry spat at Malfoy. “What's this rubbish about him”—he pointed at Crabbe—”getting a bad bite off a flobberworm? They haven't even got teeth!”
Crabbe was sniggering, apparently very pleased with himself.
“Well, I think this should put an end to the oaf's teaching career,” said Malfoy, his eyes glinting. “Half-giant... and there was me thinking he'd just swallowed a bottle of Skele-Gro when he was young... None of the mummies and daddies are going to like this at all... They'll be worried he'll eat their kids, ha, ha...”
“You-”
“Are you paying attention over there?”
Professor Grubbly-Planks voice carried over to the boys; the girls were all clustered around the unicorn now, stroking it. Harry was so angry that the Daily Prophet article shook in his hands as he turned to stare unseeingly at the unicorn, whose many magical properties Professor Grubbly-Plank was now enumerating in a loud voice, so that the boys could hear too.
“I hope she stays, that woman!” said Parvati Patil when the lesson had ended and they were all heading back to the castle for lunch. “That's more what I thought Care of Magical Creatures would be like... proper creatures like unicorns, not monsters...”
“What about Hagrid?” Harry said angrily as they went up the steps.
“What about him?” said Parvati in a hard voice. “He can still be gamekeeper, can't he?”
Parvati had been very cool toward Harry since the ball. He supposed that he ought to have paid her a bit more attention, but she seemed to have had a good time all the same. She was certainly telling anybody who would listen that she had made arrangements to meet the boy from Beauxbatons in Hogsmeade on the next weekend trip.
“That was a really good lesson,” said Hermione as they entered the Great Hall. “I didn't know half the things Professor Grubbly-Plank told us about uni—”
“Look at this!” Harry snarled, and he shoved the Daily Prophet article under Hermione's nose.
Hermione's mouth fell open as she read. Her reaction was exactly the same as Ron's.
“How did that horrible Skeeter woman find out? You don't think Hagrid told her?”
“No,” said Harry, leading the way over to the Gryffindor table and throwing himself into a chair, furious. “He never even told us, did he? I reckon she was so mad he wouldn't give her loads of horrible stuff about me, she went ferreting around to get him back.”
“Maybe she heard him telling Madame Maxime at the ball,” said Hermione quietly.
“We'd have seen her in the garden!” said Ron. “Anyway, she's not supposed to come into school anymore, Hagrid said Dumbledore banned her...”
“Maybe she's got an Invisibility Cloak,” said Harry, ladling chicken casserole onto his plate and splashing it everywhere in his anger. “Sort of thing she'd do, isn't it, hide in bushes listening to people.”
“Like you and Ron did, you mean,” said Hermione.
“We weren't trying to hear him!” said Ron indignantly. “We didn't have any choice! The stupid prat, talking about his giantess mother where anyone could have heard him!”
“We've got to go and see him,” said Harry. “This evening, after Divination. Tell him we want him back... you do want him back?” he shot at Hermione.
“I—well, I'm not going to pretend it didn't make a nice change, having a proper Care of Magical Creatures lesson for once—but I do want Hagrid back, of course I do!” Hermione added hastily, quailing under Harry's furious stare.
So that evening after dinner, the three of them left the castle once more and went down through the frozen grounds to Hagrid's cabin. They knocked, and Fang's booming barks answered.
“Hagrid, it's us!” Harry shouted, pounding on the door. “Open up!”
Hagrid didn't answer. They could hear Fang scratching at the door, whining, but it didn't open. They hammered on it for ten more minutes; Ron even went and banged on one of the windows, but there was no response.
“What's he avoiding us for?” Hermione said when they had finally given up and were walking back to the school. “He surely doesn't think we'd care about him being half-giant?”
But it seemed that Hagrid did care. They didn't see a sign of him all week. He didn't appear at the staff table at mealtimes, they didn't see him going about his gamekeeper duties on the grounds, and Professor Grubbly-Plank continued to take the Care of Magical Creatures classes. Malfoy was gloating at every possible opportunity.
“Missing your half-breed pal?” he kept whispering to Harry whenever there was a teacher around, so that he was safe from Harry's retaliation. “Missing the elephant-man?”
There was a Hogsmeade visit halfway through January. Hermione was very surprised that Harry was going to go.
“I just thought you'd want to take advantage of the common room being quiet,” she said. “Really get to work on that egg.”
“Oh I—I reckon I've got a pretty good idea what it's about now,” Harry lied.
“Have you really?” said Hermione, looking impressed. “Well done!”
Harrys insides gave a guilty squirm, but he ignored them. He still had five weeks to work out that egg clue, after all, and that was ages... whereas if he went into Hogsmeade, he might run into Hagrid, and get a chance to persuade him to come back.
He, Ron, and Hermione left the castle together on Saturday and set off through the cold, wet grounds toward the gates. As they passed the Durmstrang ship moored in the lake, they saw Viktor Krum emerge onto the deck, dressed in nothing but swimming trunks. He was very skinny indeed, but apparently a lot tougher than he looked, because he climbed up onto the side of the ship, stretched out his arms, and dived, right into the lake.
“He's mad!” said Harry, staring at Krums dark head as it bobbed out into the middle of the lake. “It must be freezing, it's January!”
“It's a lot colder where he comes from,” said Hermione. “I suppose it feels quite warm to him.”
“Yeah, but there's still the giant squid,” said Ron. He didn't sound anxious—if anything, he sounded hopeful. Hermione noticed his tone of voice and frowned.
“He's really nice, you know,” she said. “He's not at all like you'd think, coming from Durmstrang. He likes it much better here, he told me.”
Ron said nothing. He hadn't mentioned Viktor Krum since the ball, but Harry had found a miniature arm under his bed on Boxing Day, which had looked very much as though it had been snapped off a small model figure wearing Bulgarian Quidditch robes.
Harry kept his eyes skinned for a sign of Hagrid all the way down the slushy High Street, and suggested a visit to the Three Broomsticks once he had ascertained that Hagrid was not in any of the shops.
The pub was as crowded as ever, but one quick look around at all the tables told Harry that Hagrid wasn't there. Heart sinking, he went up to the bar with Ron and Hermione, ordered three butterbeers from Madam Rosmerta, and thought gloomily that he might just as well have stayed behind and listened to the egg wailing after all.
“Doesn't he ever go into the office?” Hermione whispered suddenly. “Look!”
She pointed into the mirror behind the bar, and Harry saw Ludo Bagman reflected there, sitting in a shadowy corner with a bunch of goblins. Bagman was talking very fast in a low voice to the goblins, all of whom had their arms crossed and were looking rather menacing.
It was indeed odd. Harry thought, that Bagman was here at the Three Broomsticks on a weekend when there was no Triwizard event, and therefore no judging to be done. He watched Bagman in the mirror. He was looking strained again, quite as strained as he had that night in the forest before the Dark Mark had appeared. But just then Bagman glanced over at the bar, saw Harry, and stood up.
“In a moment, in a moment!” Harry heard him say brusquely to the goblins, and Bagman hurried through the pub toward Harry, his boyish grin back in place.
“Harry!” he said. “How are you? Been hoping to run into you! Everything going all right?”
“Fine, thanks,” said Harry.
“Wonder if I could have a quick, private word, Harry?” said Bagman eagerly. “You couldn't give us a moment, you two, could you?”
“Er—okay,” said Ron, and he and Hermione went off to find a table.
Bagman led Harry along the bar to the end furthest from Madam Rosmerta.
“Well, I just thought I'd congratulate you again on your splendid performance against that Horntail, Harry,” said Bagman. “Really superb.”
“Thanks,” said Harry, but he knew this couldn't be all that Bagman wanted to say, because he could have congratulated Harry in front of Ron and Hermione. Bagman didn't seem in any particular rush to spill the beans, though. Harry saw him glance into the mirror over the bar at the goblins, who were all watching him and Harry in silence through their dark, slanting eyes.
“Absolute nightmare,” said Bagman to Harry in an undertone, noticing Harry watching the goblins too. “Their English isn't too good... it's like being back with all the Bulgarians at the Quidditch World Cup... but at least they used sign language another human could recognize. This lot keep gabbling in Gobblede-gook... and I only know one word of Gobbledegook. Bladvak. It means 'pickax. ' I don't like to use it in case they think I'm threatening them.”
He gave a short, booming laugh.
“What do they want?” Harry said, noticing how the goblins were still watching Bagman very closely.
“Er—well...” said Bagman, looking suddenly nervous. “They ...er ...they're looking for Barty Crouch.”
“Why are they looking for him here?” said Harry. “He's at the Ministry in London, isn't he?”
“Er ...as a matter of fact, I've no idea where he is,” said Bagman. “He's sort of... stopped coming to work. Been absent for a couple of weeks now. Young Percy, his assistant, says he's ill. Apparently he's just been sending instructions in by owl. But would you mind not mentioning that to anyone. Harry? Because Rita Skeeter's still poking around everywhere she can, and I'm willing to bet she'd work up Bartys illness into something sinister. Probably say he's gone missing like Bertha Jorkins.”
“Have you heard anything about Bertha Jorkins?” Harry asked.
“No,” said Bagman, looking strained again. “I've got people looking, of course ...” (About time, thought Harry) “and it's all very strange. She definitely arrived in Albania, because she met her second cousin there. And then she left the cousin's house to go south and see an aunt... and she seems to have vanished without trace en route. Blowed if I can see where she's got to ...she doesn't seem the type to elope, for instance... but still... What are we doing, talking about goblins and Bertha Jorkins? I really wanted to ask you”—he lowered his voice—”how are you getting on with your golden egg?”
“Er... not bad,” Harry said untruthfully.
Bagman seemed to know he wasn't being honest.
“Listen, Harry,” he said (still in a very low voice), “I feel very bad about all this... you were thrown into this tournament, you didn't volunteer for it... and if...” (his voice was so quiet now, Harry had to lean closer to listen) “if I can help at all... a prod in the right direction... I've taken a liking to you... the way you got past that dragon!... well, just say the word.”
Harry stared up into Bagman's round, rosy face and his wide, baby-blue eyes.
“We're supposed to work out the clues alone, aren't we?” he said, careful to keep his voice casual and not sound as though he was accusing the head of the Department of Magical Games and Sports of breaking the rules.
“Well... well, yes,” said Bagman impatiently, “but—come on. Harry—we all want a Hogwarts victory, don't we?”
“Have you offered Cedric help?” Harry said.
The smallest of frowns creased Bagman's smooth face. “No, I haven't,” he said. “I—well, like I say, I've taken a liking to you. Just thought I'd offer ...”
“Well, thanks,” said Harry, “but I think I'm nearly there with the egg... couple more days should crack it.”
He wasn't entirely sure why he was refusing Bagman's help, except that Bagman was almost a stranger to him, and accepting his assistance would feel somehow much more like cheating than asking advice from Ron, Hermione, or Sirius.
Bagman looked almost affronted, but couldn't say much more as Fred and George turned up at that point.
“Hello, Mr. Bagman,” said Fred brightly. “Can we buy you a drink?”
“Er... no,” said Bagman, with a last disappointed glance at Harry, “no, thank you, boys ...”
Fred and George looked quite as disappointed as Bagman, who was surveying Harry as though he had let him down badly.
“Well, I must dash,” he said. “Nice seeing you all. Good luck, Harry.”
He hurried out of the pub. The goblins all slid off their chairs and exited after him. Harry went to rejoin Ron and Hermione.
“What did he want?” Ron said, the moment Harry had sat down.
“He offered to help me with the golden egg,” said Harry.
“He shouldn't be doing that!” said Hermione, looking very shocked. “He's one of the judges! And anyway, you've already worked it out—haven't you?”
“Er... nearly,” said Harry.
“Well, I don't think Dumbledore would like it if he knew Bagman was trying to persuade you to cheat!” said Hermione, still looking deeply disapproving. “I hope he's trying to help Cedric as much!”
“He's not, I asked,” said Harry.
“Who cares if Diggorys getting help?” said Ron. Harry privately agreed.
“Those goblins didn't look very friendly,” said Hermione, sipping her butterbeer. “What were they doing here?”
“Looking for Crouch, according to Bagman,” said Harry. “He's still ill. Hasn't been into work.”
“Maybe Percys poisoning him,” said Ron. “Probably thinks if Crouch snuffs it he'll be made head of the Department of International Magical Cooperation.”
Hermione gave Ron a don't-joke-about-things-like-that look, and said, “Funny, goblins looking for Mr. Crouch... They'd normally deal with the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures.”
“Crouch can speak loads of different languages, though,” said Harry. “Maybe they need an interpreter.”
“Worrying about poor 'ickle goblins, now, are you?” Ron asked Hermione. “Thinking of starting up S. P. U. G. or something? Society for the Protection of Ugly Goblins?”
“Ha, ha, ha,” said Hermione sarcastically. “Goblins don't need protection. Haven't you been listening to what Professor Binns has been telling us about goblin rebellions?”
“No,” said Harry and Ron together.
“Well, the/re quite capable of dealing with wizards,” said Hermione, taking another sip of butterbeer. “They're very clever. They're not like house-elves, who never stick up for themselves.”
“Uh-oh,” said Ron, staring at the door.
Rita Skeeter had just entered. She was wearing banana-yellow robes today; her long nails were painted shocking pink, and she was accompanied by her paunchy photographer. She bought drinks, and she and the photographer made their way through the crowds to a table nearby. Harry, Ron, and Hermione glaring at her as she approached. She was talking fast and looking very satisfied about something.
“...didn't seem very keen to talk to us, did he, Bozo? Now, why would that be, do you think? And what's he doing with a pack of goblins in tow anyway? Showing them the sights... what nonsense ...he was always a bad liar. Reckon something's up? Think we should do a bit of digging? 'Disgraced Ex-Head of Magical Games and Sports, Ludo Bagman... ' Snappy start to a sentence, Bozo—we just need to find a story to fit it—”
“Trying to ruin someone else's life?” said Harry loudly.
A few people looked around. Rita Skeeter's eyes widened behind her jeweled spectacles as she saw who had spoken.
“Harry!” she said, beaming. “How lovely! Why don't you come and join?”
“I wouldn't come near you with a ten-foot broomstick,” said Harry furiously. “What did you do that to Hagrid for, eh?”
Rita Skeeter raised her heavily penciled eyebrows.
“Our readers have a right to the truth, Harry. I am merely doing my-”
“Who cares if he's half-giant?” Harry shouted. “There's nothing wrong with him!”
The whole pub had gone very quiet. Madam Rosmerta was staring over from behind the bar, apparently oblivious to the fact that the flagon she was filling with mead was overflowing.
Rita Skeeters smile flickered very slightly, but she hitched it back almost at once; she snapped open her crocodile-skin handbag, pulled out her Quick-Quotes Quill, and said, “How about giving me an interview about the Hagrid you know. Harry? The man behind the muscles? Your unlikely friendship and the reasons behind it. Would you call him a father substitute?”
Hermione stood up very abruptly, her butterbeer clutched in her hand as though it were a grenade.
“You horrible woman,” she said, through gritted teeth, “you don't care, do you, anything for a story, and anyone will do, wont they? Even Ludo Bagman—”
“Sit down, you silly little girl, and don't talk about things you don't understand,” said Rita Skeeter coldly, her eyes hardening as they fell on Hermione. “I know things about Ludo Bagman that would make your hair curl... not that it needs it—” she added, eyeing Hermione's bushy hair.
“Let's go,” said Hermione, “c'mon. Harry—Ron...”
They left; many people were staring at them as they went. Harry glanced back as they reached the door. Rita Skeeter's Quick-Quotes Quill was out; it was zooming backward and forward over a piece of parchment on the table.
“She'll be after you next, Hermione,” said Ron in a low and worried voice as they walked quickly back up the street.
“Let her try!” said Hermione defiantly; she was shaking with rage. “I'll show her! Silly little girl, am I? Oh, I'll get her back for this. First Harry, then Hagrid ...”
“You don't want to go upsetting Rita Skeeter,” said Ron nervously. “I'm serious, Hermione, she'll dig up something on you—”
“My parents don't read the Daily Prophet. She can't scare me into hiding!” said Hermione, now striding along so fast that it was all Harry and Ron could do to keep up with her. The last time Harry had seen Hermione in a rage like this, she had hit Draco Malfoy around the face. “And Hagrid isn't hiding anymore! He should never have let that excuse for a human being upset him! Come on!”
Breaking into a run, she led them all the way back up the road, through the gates flanked by winged boars, and up through the grounds to Hagrid's cabin.
The curtains were still drawn, and they could hear Fang barking as they approached.
“Hagrid!” Hermione shouted, pounding on his front door. “Hagrid, that's enough! We know you're in there! Nobody cares if your mum was a giantess, Hagrid! You can't let that foul Skeeter woman do this to you! Hagrid, get out here, you're just being—”
The door opened. Hermione said, “About t-!” and then stopped, very suddenly, because she had found herself face-to-face, not with Hagrid, but with Albus Dumbledore.
“Good afternoon,” he said pleasantly, smiling down at them.
“We-er-we wanted to see Hagrid,” said Hermione in a rather small voice.
“Yes, I surmised as much,” said Dumbledore, his eyes twinkling. “Why don't you come in?”
“Oh... um ...okay,” said Hermione.
She, Ron, and Harry went into the cabin; Fang launched himself upon Harry the moment he entered, barking madly and trying to lick his ears. Harry fended off Fang and looked around.
Hagrid was sitting at his table, where there were two large mugs of tea. He looked a real mess. His face was blotchy, his eyes swollen, and he had gone to the other extreme where his hair was concerned; far from trying to make it behave, it now looked like a wig of tangled wire.
“Hi, Hagrid,” said Harry.
Hagrid looked up.
“'Lo,” he said in a very hoarse voice.
“More tea, I think,” said Dumbledore, closing the door behind Harry, Ron, and Hermione, drawing out his wand, and twiddling it; a revolving tea tray appeared in midair along with a plate of cakes. Dumbledore magicked the tray onto the table, and everybody sat down. There was a slight pause, and then Dumbledore said, “Did you by any chance hear what Miss Granger was shouting, Hagrid?”
Hermione went slightly pink, but Dumbledore smiled at her and continued, “Hermione, Harry, and Ron still seem to want to know you, judging by the way they were attempting to break down the door.”
“Of course we still want to know you!” Harry said, staring at Hagrid. “You don't think anything that Skeeter cow—sorry, Professor,” he added quickly, looking at Dumbledore.
“I have gone temporarily deaf and haven't any idea what you said. Harry,” said Dumbledore, twiddling his thumbs and staring at the ceiling.
“Er-right,” said Harry sheepishly. “I just meant-Hagrid, how could you think we'd care what that-woman-wrote about you?”
Two fat tears leaked out of Hagrid's beetle-black eyes and fell slowly into his tangled beard.
“Living proof of what I've been telling you, Hagrid,” said Dumbledore, still looking carefully up at the ceiling. “I have shown you the letters from the countless parents who remember you from their own days here, telling me in no uncertain terms that if I sacked you, they would have something to say about it—”
“Not all of 'em,” said Hagrid hoarsely. “Not all of 'em wan me ter stay.”
“Really, Hagrid, if you are holding out for universal popularity, I'm afraid you will be in this cabin for a very long time,” said Dumbledore, now peering sternly over his half-moon spectacles. “Not a week has passed since I became headmaster of this school when I haven't had at least one owl complaining about the way I run it. But what should I do? Barricade myself in my study and refuse to talk to anybody?”
“Yeh—yeh're not half-giant!” said Hagrid croakily.
“Hagrid, look what I've got for relatives!” Harry said furiously. “Look at the Dursleys!”
“An excellent point,” said Professor Dumbledore. “My own brother, Aberforth, was prosecuted for practicing inappropriate charms on a goat. It was all over the papers, but did Aberforth hide? No, he did not! He held his head high and went about his business as usual! Of course, I'm not entirely sure he can read, so that may not have been bravery...”
“Come back and teach, Hagrid,” said Hermione quietly, “please come back, we really miss you.”
Hagrid gulped. More tears leaked out down his cheeks and into his tangled beard.
Dumbledore stood up. “I refuse to accept your resignation, Hagrid, and I expect you back at work on Monday,” he said. “You will join me for breakfast at eight-thirty in the Great Hall. No excuses. Good afternoon to you all.”
Dumbledore left the cabin, pausing only to scratch Fangs ears. When the door had shut behind him, Hagrid began to sob into his dustbin-lid-sized hands. Hermione kept patting his arm, and at last, Hagrid looked up, his eyes very red indeed, and said, “Great man, Dumbledore... great man...”
“Yeah, he is,” said Ron. “Can I have one of these cakes, Hagrid?”
“Help yerself,” said Hagrid, wiping his eyes on the back of his hand. “Ar, he's righ', o' course—yeh're all righ'... I bin stupid... my ol' dad woulda bin ashamed o' the way I've bin behavin'...” More tears leaked out, but he wiped them away more forcefully, and said, “Never shown you a picture of my old dad, have I? Here...”
Hagrid got up, went over to his dresser, opened a drawer, and pulled out a picture of a short wizard with Hagrid's crinkled black eyes, beaming as he sat on top of Hagrid's shoulder. Hagrid was a good seven or eight feet tall, judging by the apple tree beside him, but his face was beardless, young, round, and smooth—he looked hardly older than eleven.
“Tha was taken jus' after I got inter Hogwarts,” Hagrid croaked. “Dad was dead chuffed ...thought I migh' not be a wizard, see, 'cos me mum ...well, anyway. 'Course, I never was great shakes at magic, really... but at least he never saw me expelled. Died, see, in me second year...”
“Dumbledore was the one who stuck up for me after Dad went. Got me the gamekeeper job... trusts people, he does. Gives 'em second chances ...tha's what sets him apar' from other heads, see. He'll accept anyone at Hogwarts, s'long as they've got the talent. Knows people can turn out okay even if their families weren' ...well... all tha' respectable. But some don understand that. There's some who'd always hold it against yeh... there's some who'd even pretend they just had big bones rather than stand up an' say—I am what I am, an' I'm not ashamed. 'Never be ashamed,' my ol' dad used ter say, 'there's some who'll hold it against you, but they're not worth botherin' with. ' An' he was right. I've bin an idiot. I'm not botherin' with her no more, I promise yeh that. Big bones... I'll give her big bones.”
Harry, Ron, and Hermione looked at one another nervously; Harry would rather have taken fifty Blast-Ended Skrewts for a walk than admit to Hagrid that he had overheard him talking to Madame Maxime, but Hagrid was still talking, apparently unaware that he had said anything odd.
“Yeh know wha, Harry?” he said, looking up from the photograph of his father, his eyes very bright, “when I firs' met you, you reminded me o' me a bit. Mum an' Dad gone, an' you was feelin' like yeh wouldn' fit in at Hogwarts, remember? Not sure yeh were really up to it... an' now look at yeh, Harry! School champion!”
He looked at Harry for a moment and then said, very seriously, “Yeh know what I'd love. Harry? I'd love yeh ter win, I really would. It'd show 'em all... yeh don' have ter be pureblood ter do it. Yeh don have ter be ashamed of what yeh are. It'd show 'em Dumbledore's the one who's got it righ', lettin' anyone in as long as they can do magic. How you doin' with that egg, Harry?”
“Great,” said Harry. “Really great.”
Hagrid's miserable face broke into a wide, watery smile.
“Tha's my boy... you show 'em, Harry, you show 'em. Beat 'em all.”
Lying to Hagrid wasn't quite like lying to anyone else. Harry went back to the castle later that afternoon with Ron and Hermione, unable to banish the image of the happy expression on Hagrid's whiskery face as he had imagined Harry winning the tournament. The incomprehensible egg weighed more heavily than ever on Harrys conscience that evening, and by the time he had got into bed, he had made up his mind—it was time to shelve his pride and see if Cedric's hint was worth anything.

(hpvn.net)
Posted 12/14/07
CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE
THE EGG AND THE EYE

Harry had no idea how long a bath he would need to work out the secret of the golden egg, he decided to do it at night, when he would be able to take as much time as he wanted. Reluctant though he was to accept more favors from Cedric, he also decided to use the prefects' bathroom; far fewer people were allowed in there, so it was much less likely that he would be disturbed.
Harry planned his excursion carefully, because he had been caught out of bed and out-of-bounds by Filch the caretaker in the middle of the night once before, and had no desire to repeat the experience. The Invisibility Cloak would, of course, be essential, and as an added precaution, Harry thought he would take the Marauders Map, which, next to the cloak, was the most useful aid to rule-breaking Harry owned. The map showed the whole of Hogwarts, including its many shortcuts and secret passageways and, most important of all, it revealed the people inside the castle as minuscule, labeled dots, moving around the corridors, so that Harry would be forewarned if somebody was approaching the bathroom.
On Thursday night, Harry sneaked up to bed, put on the cloak, crept back downstairs, and, just as he had done on the night when Hagrid had shown him the dragons, waited for the portrait hole to open. This time it was Ron who waited outside to give the Fat Lady the password (“banana fritters”), “Good luck,” Ron muttered, climbing into the room as Harry crept out past him.
It was awkward moving under the cloak tonight, because Harry had the heavy egg under one arm and the map held in front of his nose with the other. However, the moonlit corridors were empty and silent, and by checking the map at strategic intervals, Harry was able to ensure that he wouldn't run into anyone he wanted to avoid. When he reached the statue of Boris the Bewildered, a lost-looking wizard with his gloves on the wrong hands, he located the right door, leaned close to it, and muttered the password, “Pine fresh,” just as Cedric had told him.
The door creaked open. Harry slipped inside, bolted the door behind him, and pulled off the Invisibility Cloak, looking around.
His immediate reaction was that it would be worth becoming a prefect just to be able to use this bathroom. It was softly lit by a splendid candle-filled chandelier, and everything was made of white marble, including what looked like an empty, rectangular swimming pool sunk into the middle of the floor. About a hundred golden taps stood all around the pools edges, each with a differently colored Jewel set into its handle. There was also a diving board. Long white linen curtains hung at the windows; a large pile of fluffy white towels sat in a corner, and there was a single golden-framed painting on the wall. It featured a blonde mermaid who
was fast asleep on a rock, her long hair over her face. It fluttered every time she snored.
Harry moved forward, looking around, his footsteps echoing off the walls. Magnificent though the bathroom was—and quite keen though he was to try out a few of those taps—now he was here he couldn't quite suppress the feeling that Cedric might have been having him on. How on earth was this supposed to help solve the mystery of the egg? Nevertheless, he put one of the Huffy towels, the cloak, the map, and the egg at the side of the swimming-pool-sized bath, then knelt down and turned on a few of the taps.
He could tell at once that they carried different sorts of bubble bath mixed with the water, though it wasn't bubble bath as Harry had ever experienced it. One tap gushed pink and blue bubbles the size of footballs; another poured ice-white foam so thick that Harry thought it would have supported his weight if he'd cared to test it; a third sent heavily perfumed purple clouds hovering over the surface of the water. Harry amused himself for awhile turning the taps on and off, particularly enjoying the effect of one whose jet bounced off the surface of the water in large arcs. Then, when the deep pool was full of hot water, foam, and bubbles, which took a very short time considering its size, Harry turned off all the taps, pulled off his pajamas, slippers, and dressing gown, and slid into the water.
It was so deep that his feet barely touched the bottom, and he actually did a couple of lengths before swimming back to the side and treading water, staring at the egg. Highly enjoyable though it was to swim in hot and foamy water with clouds of different-colored steam wafting all around him, no stroke of brilliance came to him, no sudden burst of understanding.
Harry stretched out his arms, lifted the egg in his wet hands, and opened it. The wailing, screeching sound filled the bathroom, echoing and reverberating off the marble walls, but it sounded just as incomprehensible as ever, if not more so with all the echoes. He snapped it shut again, worried that the sound would attract Filch, wondering whether that hadn't been Cedric's plan—and then, making him jump so badly that he dropped the egg, which clattered away across the bathroom floor, someone spoke.
“I'd try putting it in the water, if I were you.”
Harry had swallowed a considerable amount of bubbles in shock. He stood up, sputtering, and saw the ghost of a very glum-looking girl sitting cross-legged on top of one of the taps. It was Moaning Myrtle, who was usually to be heard sobbing in the S-bend of a toilet three floors below.
“Myrtle!” Harry said in outrage, “I'm—I'm not wearing anything!”
The foam was so dense that this hardly mattered, but he had a nasty feeling that Myrtle had been spying on him from out of one of the taps ever since he had arrived.
“I closed my eyes when you got in,” she said, blinking at him through her thick spectacles. “You haven't been to see me for ages.”
“Yeah... well...” said Harry, bending his knees slightly, just to make absolutely sure Myrtle couldn't see anything but his head, “I'm not supposed to come into your bathroom, am I? It's a girls' one.”
“You didn't used to care,” said Myrtle miserably. “You used to be in there all the time.”
This was true, though only because Harry, Ron, and Hermione had found Myrtle's out-of-order toilets a convenient place to brew Polyjuice Potion in secret—a forbidden potion that had turned him and Ron into living replicas of Crabbe and Goyle for an hour, so that they could sneak into the Slytherin common room.
“I got told off for going in there.” said Harry, which was half-true; Percy had once caught him coming out of Myrtles bathroom. “I thought I'd better not come back after that.”
“Oh ...I see ...” said Myrtle, picking at a spot on her chin in a morose sort of way. “Well... anyway... I'd try the egg in the water. That's what Cedric Diggory did.”
“Have you been spying on him too?” said Harry indignantly. “What d'you do, sneak up here in the evenings to watch the prefects take baths?”
“Sometimes,” said Myrtle, rather slyly, “but I've never come out to speak to anyone before.”
“I'm honored,” said Harry darkly. “You keep your eyes shut!”
He made sure Myrtle had her glasses well covered before hoisting himself out of the bath, wrapping the towel firmly around his waist, and going to retrieve the egg. Once he was back in the water, Myrtle peered through her fingers and said, “Go on, then... open it under the water!”
Harry lowered the egg beneath the foamy surface and opened it... and this time, it did not wail. A gurgling song was coming out of it, a song whose words he couldnt distinguish through the water.
“You need to put your head under too,” said Myrtle, who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying bossing him around. “Go on!”
Harry took a great breath and slid under the surface—and now, sitting on the marble bottom of the bubble-filled bath, he heard a chorus of eerie voices singing to him from the open egg in his hands:

“Come seek us where our voices sound,
We cannot sing above the ground,
And while you re searching, ponder this:
Wove taken what you'll sorely miss,
An hour long you'll have to look,
And to recover what we took,
But past an hourthe prospect's black,
Too late, it's gone, it wont come back”

Harry let himself float back upward and broke the bubbly surface, shaking his hair out of his eyes.
“Hear it?” said Myrtle.
“Yeah ...'Come seek us where our voices sound... ' and if I need persuading ...hang on, I need to listen again...”
He sank back beneath the water. It took three more underwater renditions of the egg's song before Harry had it memorized; then he trod water for a while, thinking hard, while Myrtle sat and watched him.
“I've got to go and look for people who can't use their voices above the ground...” he said slowly. “Er... who could that be?”
“Slow, aren't you?”
He had never seen Moaning Myrtle so cheerful, apart from the day when a dose of PolyJuice Potion had given Hermione the hairy face and tail of a cat. Harry stared around the bathroom, thinking ...if the voices could only be heard underwater, then it made sense for them to belong to underwater creatures. He ran this theory past Myrtle, who smirked at him.
“Well, thats what Diggory thought,” she said. “He lay there talking to himself for ages about it. Ages and ages... nearly all the bubbles had gone...”
“Underwater ...” Harry said slowly. “Myrtle... what lives in the lake, apart from the giant squid?”
“Oh all sorts,” she said. “I sometimes go down there... sometimes don't have any choice, if someone flushes my toilet when I'm not expecting it...”
Trying not to think about Moaning Myrtle zooming down a pipe to the lake with the contents of a toilet. Harry said, “Well, does anything in there have a human voice? Hang on—”
Harry's eyes had fallen on the picture of the snoozing mermaid on the wall.
“Myrtle, there aren't merpeople in there, are there?”
“Oooh, very good,” she said, her thick glasses twinkling, “it took Diggory much longer than that! And that was with her awake too”—Myrtle jerked her head toward the mermaid with an expression of great dislike on her glum face—”giggling and showing off and flashing her fins...”
“Thats it, isn't it?” said Harry excitedly. “The second tasks to go and find the merpeople in the lake and ...and ...”
But he suddenly realized what he was saying, and he felt the excitement drain out of him as though someone had just pulled a plug in his stomach. He wasn't a very good swimmer; he'd never had much practice. Dudley had had lessons in his youth, but Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, no doubt hoping that Harry would drown one day, hadn't bothered to give him any. A couple of lengths of this bath were all very well, but that lake was very large, and very deep... and merpeople would surely live right at the bottom...
“Myrtle,” Harry said slowly, “how am I supposed to breathe?”
At this, Myrtle's eyes filled with sudden tears again.
“Tactless!” she muttered, groping in her robes for a handkerchief.
“What's tactless?” said Harry, bewildered.
“Talking about breathing in front of me!” she said shrilly, and her voice echoed loudly around the bathroom. “When I can't... when I haven't... not for ages ...”
She buried her face in her handkerchief and sniffed loudly. Harry remembered how touchy Myrtle had always been about being dead, but none of the other ghosts he knew made such a fuss about it.
“Sorry,” he said impatiently. “I didn't mean—I just forgot...”
“Oh yes, very easy to forget Myrtle's dead,” said Myrtle, gulping, looking at him out of swollen eyes. “Nobody missed me even when I was alive. Took them hours and hours to find my body—I know, I was sitting there waiting for them. Olive Hornby came into the bathroom—Are you in here again, sulking, Myrtle?' she said, 'because Professor Dippet asked me to look for you -' And then she saw my body... ooooh, she didn't forget it until her dying day, I made sure of that... followed her around and reminded her, I did. I remember at her brother's wedding—”
But Harry wasn't listening; he was thinking about the merpeople's song again. “We've taken what you II sorely miss.” That sounded as though they were going to steal something of his, something he had to get back. What were they going to take?
“—and then, of course, she went to the Ministry of Magic to stop me stalking her, so I had to come back here and live in my toilet.”
“Good,” said Harry vaguely. “Well, I'm a lot further on than I was... Shut your eyes again, will you? I'm getting out.”
He retrieved the egg from the bottom of the bath, climbed out, dried himself, and pulled on his pajamas and dressing gown again.
“Will you come and visit me in my bathroom again sometime?” Moaning Myrtle asked mournfully as Harry picked up the Invisibility Cloak.
“Er... I'll try,” Harry said, though privately thinking the only way he'd be visiting Myrtle's bathroom again was if every other toilet in the castle got blocked. “See you. Myrtle... thanks for your help.”
“Bye, 'bye,” she said gloomily, and as Harry put on the Invisibllity Cloak he saw her zoom back up the tap.
Out in the dark corridor, Harry examined the Marauders Map to check that the coast was still clear. Yes, the dots belonging to Filch and his cat, Mrs. Norris, were safely in their office... nothing else seemed to be moving apart from Peeves, though he was bouncing around the trophy room on the floor above... Harry had taken his first step back toward Gryffindor Tower when something else on the map caught his eye... something distinctly odd.
Peeves was not the only thing that was moving. A single dot was flitting around a room in the bottom left-hand corner—Snapes office. But the dot wasn't labeled “Severus Snape” ...it was Bartemius Crouch.
Harry stared at the dot. Mr. Crouch was supposed to be too ill to go to work or to come to the Yule Ball—so what was he doing, sneaking into Hogwarts at one o'clock in the morning? Harry watched closely as the dot moved around and around the room, pausing here and there...
Harry hesitated, thinking... and then his curiosity got the better of him. He turned and set off in the opposite direction toward the nearest staircase. He was going to see what Crouch was up to.
Harry walked down the stairs as quietly as possible, though the faces in some of the portraits still turned curiously at the squeak of a floorboard, the rustle of his pajamas. He crept along the corridor below, pushed aside a tapestry about halfway along, and proceeded down a narrower staircase, a shortcut that would take him down two floors. He kept glancing down at the map, wondering ...It just didn't seem in character, somehow, for correct, law-abiding Mr. Crouch to be sneaking around somebody else's office this late at night...
And then, halfway down the staircase, not thinking about what he was doing, not concentrating on anything but the peculiar behavior of Mr. Crouch, Harrys leg suddenly sank right through the trick step Neville always forgot to jump. He gave an ungainly wobble, and the golden egg, still damp from the bath, slipped from under his arm. He lurched forward to try and catch it, but too late; the egg fell down the long staircase with a bang as loud as a bass drum on every step—the Invisibility Cloak slipped—Harry snatched at it, and the Marauder s Map fluttered out of his hand and slid down six stairs, where, sunk in the step to above his knee, he couldn't reach it.
The golden egg fell through the tapestry at the bottom of the staircase, burst open, and began wailing loudly in the corridor below. Harry pulled out his wand and struggled to touch the Marauder s Map, to wipe it blank, but it was too far away to reach—
Pulling the cloak back over himself Harry straightened up, listening hard with his eyes screwed up with fear... and, almost immediately—
“PEEVES!”
It was the unmistakable hunting cry of Filch the caretaker. Harry could hear his rapid, shuffling footsteps coming nearer and nearer, his wheezy voice raised in fury.
“What's this racket? Wake up the whole castle, will you? I'll have you, Peeves, I'll have you, you'll... and what is this?”
Filch's footsteps halted; there was a clink of metal on metal and the wailing stopped—Filch had picked up the egg and closed it. Harry stood very still, one leg still Jammed tightly in the magical step, listening. Any moment now, Filch was going to pull aside the tapestry, expecting to see Peeves... and there would be no Peeves ...but if he came up the stairs, he would spot the Marauder's Map... and Invisibility Cloak or not, the map would show “Harry Potter” standing exactly where he was.
“Egg?” Filch said quietly at the foot of the stairs. “My sweet!”—Mrs. Norris was obviously with him—”This is a Triwizard clue! This belongs to a school champion!”
Harry felt sick; his heart was hammering very fast—
“PEEVES!” Filch roared gleefully. “You've been stealing!”
He ripped back the tapestry below, and Harry saw his horrible, pouchy face and bulging, pale eyes staring up the dark and (to Filch) deserted staircase.
“Hiding, are you?” he said softly. “I'm coming to get you, Peeves... You've gone and stolen a Triwizard clue, Peeves... Dumbledore'll have you out of here for this, you filthy, pilfering poltergeist...”
Filch started to climb the stairs, his scrawny, dust-colored cat at his heels. Mrs. Morris's lamp-like eyes, so very like her masters, were fixed directly upon Harry. He had had occasion before now to wonder whether the Invisibility Cloak worked on cats... Sick with apprehension, he watched Filch drawing nearer and nearer in his old flannel dressing gown—he tried desperately to pull his trapped leg free, but it merely sank a few more inches—any second now, Filch was going to spot the map or walk right into him—
“Filch? Whats going on?”
Filch stopped a few steps below Harry and turned. At the foot of the stairs stood the only person who could make Harry's situation worse: Snape. He was wearing a long gray nightshirt and he looked livid.
“Its Peeves, Professor,” Filch whispered malevolently. “He threw this egg down the stairs.”
Snape climbed up the stairs quickly and stopped beside Filch. Harry gritted his teeth, convinced his loudly thumping heart would give him away at any second...
“Peeves?” said Snape softly, staring at the egg in Filch's hands. “But Peeves couldn't get into my office...”
“This egg was in your office. Professor?”
“Of course not,” Snape snapped. “I heard banging and wailing—”
“Yes, Professor, that was the egg—”
“- I was coming to investigate—”
“Peeves threw it. Professor—”
“and when I passed my office, I saw that the torches were lit and a cupboard door was ajar! Somebody has been searching it!”
But Peeves couldn't—”
“I know he couldn't, Filch!” Snape snapped again. “I seal my office with a spell none but a wizard could break!” Snape looked up the stairs, straight through Harry, and then down into the corridor below. “I want you to come and help me search for the intruder, Filch.”
“I—yes, Professor—but—”
Filch looked yearningly up the stairs, right through Harry, who could see that he was very reluctant to forgo the chance of cornering Peeves. Go, Harry pleaded with him silently, go with Snape... go... Mrs. Norris was peering around Filch's legs... Harry had the distinct impression that she could smell him... Why had he filled that bath with so much perfumed foam?
“The thing is, Professor,” said Filch plaintively, “the headmaster will have to listen to me this time. Peeves has been stealing from a student, it might be my chance to get him thrown out of the castle once and for all—”
“Filch, I don't give a damn about that wretched poltergeist; it's my office that's—”
Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.
Snape stopped talking very abruptly. He and Filch both looked down at the foot of the stairs. Harry saw Mad-Eye Moody limp into sight through the narrow gap between their heads. Moody was wearing his old traveling cloak over his nightshirt and leaning on his staff as usual.
“Pajama party, is it?” he growled up the stairs.
“Professor Snape and I heard noises, Professor,” said Filch at once. “Peeves the Poltergeist, throwing things around as usual—and then Professor Snape discovered that someone had broken into his off—”
“Shut up!” Snape hissed to Filch.
Moody took a step closer to the foot of the stairs. Harry saw Moodys magical eye travel over Snape, and then, unmistakably, onto himself.
Harrys heart gave a horrible jolt. Moody could see through Invisibility Cloaks... he alone could see the full strangeness of the scene:
Snape in his nightshirt, Filch clutching the egg, and he, Harry, trapped in the stairs behind them. Moody's lopsided gash of a mouth opened in surprise. For a few seconds, he and Harry stared straight into each other's eyes. Then Moody closed his mouth and turned his blue eye upon Snape again.
“Did I hear that correctly, Snape?” he asked slowly. “Someone broke into your office?”
“It is unimportant,” said Snape coldly. “On the contrary,” growled Moody, “it is very important. Who'd want to break into your office?”
“A student, I daresay,” said Snape. Harry could see a vein flickering horribly on Snape's greasy temple. “It has happened before. Potion ingredients have gone missing from my private store cupboard ...students attempting illicit mixtures, no doubt...”
“Reckon they were after potion ingredients, eh?” said Moody. “Not hiding anything else in your office, are you?”
Harry saw the edge of Snapes sallow face turn a nasty brick color, the vein in his temple pulsing more rapidly.
“You know I'm hiding nothing, Moody,” he said in a soft and dangerous voice, “as you've searched my office pretty thoroughly yourself.”
Moodys face twisted into a smile. “Auror's privilege, Snape. Dumbledore told me to keep an eye—”
“Dumbledore happens to trust me,” said Snape through clenched teeth. “I refuse to believe that he gave you orders to search my office!”
“Course Dumbledore trusts you,” growled Moody. “Hes a trusting man, isn't he? Believes in second chances. But me—I say there are spots that don't come off, Snape. Spots that never come off, d'you know what I mean?”
Snape suddenly did something very strange. He seized his left forearm convulsively with his right hand, as though something on it had hurt him.
Moody laughed. “Get back to bed, Snape.”
“You don't have the authority to send me anywhere!” Snape hissed, letting go of his arm as though angry with himself. “I have as much right to prowl this school after dark as you do!”
“Prowl away,” said Moody, but his voice was full of menace. “I look forward to meeting you in a dark corridor some time... You've dropped something, by the way...”
With a stab of horror. Harry saw Moody point at the Marauders Map, still lying on the staircase six steps below him. As Snape and Filch both turned to look at it, Harry threw caution to the winds; he raised his arms under the cloak and waved furiously at Moody to attract his attention, mouthing “It's mine! Mine!”
Snape had reached out for it, a horrible expression of dawning comprehension on his face—
“Accio Parchment!”
The map flew up into the air, slipped through Snapes outstretched fingers, and soared down the stairs into Moodys hand.
“My mistake,” Moody said calmly. “It's mine—must've dropped it earlier—”
But Snape's black eyes were darting from the egg in Filch's arms to the map in Moodys hand, and Harry could tell he was putting two and two together, as only Snape could...
“Potter,” he said quietly.
“What's that?” said Moody calmly, folding up the map and pocketing it.
“Potter!” Snape snarled, and he actually turned his head and stared right at the place where Harry was, as though he could suddenly see him. “That egg is Potters egg. That piece of parchment belongs to Potter. I have seen it before, I recognize it! Potter is here! Potter, in his Invisibility Cloak!”
Snape stretched out his hands like a blind man and began to move up the stairs; Harry could have sworn his over-large nostrils were dilating, trying to sniff Harry out—trapped. Harry leaned backward, trying to avoid Snapes fingertips, but any moment now—
“There's nothing there, Snape!” barked Moody, “but I'll be happy to tell the headmaster how quickly your mind jumped to Harry Potter!”
“Meaning what?” Snape turned again to look at Moody, his hands still outstretched, inches from Harry's chest.
“Meaning that Dumbledore's very interested to know who's got it in for that boy!” said Moody, limping nearer still to the foot of the stairs. “And so am I, Snape... very interested...” The torchlight flickered across his mangled face, so that the scars, and the chunk missing from
his nose, looked deeper and darker than ever.
Snape was looking down at Moody, and Harry couldn't see the expression on his face. For a moment, nobody moved or said anything. Then Snape slowly lowered his hands.
“I merely thought,” said Snape, in a voice of forced calm, “that if Potter was wandering around after hours again ...it's an unfortunate habit of his ...he should be stopped. For—for his own safety.”
“Ah, I see,” said Moody softly. “Got Potter's best interests at heart, have you?”
There was a pause. Snape and Moody were still staring at each other, Mrs. Norris gave a loud meow, still peering around Filch's legs, looking for the source of Harry's bubble-bath smell.
“I think I will go back to bed,” Snape said curtly.
“Best idea you've had all night,” said Moody. “Now, Filch, if you'll just give me that egg-”
“No!” said Filch, clutching the egg as though it were his firstborn son. “Professor Moody, this is evidence of Peeves' treachery!”
“It's the property of the champion he stole it from,” said Moody. Hand it over, now.”
Snape swept downstairs and passed Moody without another word. Filch made a chirruping noise to Mrs. Norris, who stared blankly at Harry for a few more seconds before turning and following her master. Still breathing very fast. Harry heard Snape walking away down the corridor; Filch handed Moody the egg and disappeared from view too, muttering to Mrs. Norris. “Never mind. my sweet... we'll see Dumbledore in the morning ...tell him what Peeves was up to...”
A door slammed. Harry was left staring down at Moody, who placed his staff on the bottommost stair and started to climb laboriously toward him, a dull clunk on every other step.
“Close shave. Potter,” he muttered.
“Yeah ...I—er ...thanks,” said Harry weakly.
“What is this thing?” said Moody, drawing the Marauder's Map out of his pocket and unfolding it.
“Map of Hogwarts,” said Harry, hoping Moody was going to pull him out of the staircase soon; his leg was really hurting him.
“Merlins beard,” Moody whispered, staring at the map, his magical eye going haywire. “This... this is some map. Potter!”
“Yeah, its... quite useful,” Harry said. His eyes were starting to water from the pain. “Er—Professor Moody, d'you think you could help me—?”
“What? Oh! Yes... yes, of course...”
Moody took hold of Harrys arms and pulled; Harrys leg came free of the trick step, and he climbed onto the one above it. Moody was still gazing at the map.
“Potter ...” he said slowly, “you didn't happen, by any chance, to see who broke into Snapes office, did you? On this map, I mean?”
“Er... yeah, I did...” Harry admitted. “It was Mr. Crouch.”
Moodys magical eye whizzed over the entire surface of the map. He looked suddenly alarmed.
“Crouch?” he said. “You're—you're sure. Potter?”
“Positive,” said Harry.
“Well, he's not here anymore,” said Moody, his eye still whizzing over the map. “Crouch... that's very—very interesting...”
He said nothing for almost a minute, still staring at the map. Harry could tell that this news meant something to Moody and very much wanted to know what it was. He wondered whether he dared ask. Moody scared him slightly... yet Moody had just helped him avoid an awful lot of trouble...
“Er ...Professor Moody... why d'you reckon Mr. Crouch wanted to look around Snapes office?”
Moodys magical eye left the map and fixed, quivering, upon Harry. It was a penetrating glare, and Harry had the impression that Moody was sizing him up, wondering whether to answer or not, or how much to tell him.
“Put it this way. Potter,” Moody muttered finally, “they say old Mad-Eye's obsessed with catching Dark wizards... but I'm nothing—nothing—compared to Barty Crouch.”
He continued to stare at the map. Harry was burning to know more.
“Professor Moody?” he said again. “D'you think... could this have anything to do with... maybe Mr. Crouch thinks there's something going on...”
“Like what?” said Moody sharply.
Harry wondered how much he dare say. He didn't want Moody to guess that he had a source of information outside Hogwarts; that might lead to tricky questions about Sirius.
“I don't know,” Harry muttered, “odd stuffs been happening lately, hasn't it? It's been in the Daily Prophet... the Dark Mark at the World Cup, and the Death Eaters and everything...”
Both of Moody's mismatched eyes widened.
“You're a sharp boy. Potter,” he said. His magical eye roved back to the Marauder's Map. “Crouch could be thinking along those lines,” he said slowly. “Very possible... there have been some funny rumors flying around lately—helped along by Rita Skeeter, of course. It's making a lot of people nervous, I reckon.” A grim smile twisted his lopsided mouth. “Oh if there's one thing I hate,” he muttered, more to himself than to Harry, and his magical eye was fixed on the left-hand corner of the map, “its a Death Eater who walked free...”
Harry stared at him. Could Moody possibly mean what Harry thought he meant?
“And now I want to ask you a question. Potter,” said Moody in a more businesslike tone.
Harrys heart sank; he had thought this was coming. Moody was going to ask where he had got this map, which was a very dubious magical object—and the story of how it had fallen into his hands incriminated not only him, but his own father, Fred and George Weasley, and Professor Lupin, their last Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Moody waved the map in front of Harry, who braced himself—
“Can I borrow this?”
“Oh!” said Harry.
He was very fond of his map, but on the other hand, he was extremely relieved that Moody wasn't asking where he'd got it, and there was no doubt that he owed Moody a favor.
“Yeah, okay.”
“Good boy,” growled Moody. “I can make good use of this... this might be exactly what I've been looking for... Right, bed, Potter, come on, now...”
They climbed to the top of the stairs together, Moody still examining the map as though it was a treasure the like of which he had never seen before. They walked in silence to the door of Moody's office, where he stopped and looked up at Harry.
“You ever thought of a career as an Auror, Potter?”
“No,” said Harry, taken aback.
“You want to consider it,” said Moody, nodding and looking at Harry thoughtfully. “Yes, indeed ...and incidentally ...I'm guessing you werent Just taking that egg for a walk tonight?”
“Er—no,” said Harry, grinning. “I've been working out the clue.”
Moody winked at him, his magical eye going haywire again. “Nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas, Potter... See you in the morning...”
He went back into his office, staring down at the Marauders Map again, and closed the door behind him.
Harry walked slowly back to Gryffindor Tower, lost in thought about Snape, and Crouch, and what it all meant... Why was Crouch pretending to be ill, if he could manage to get to Hogwarts when he wanted to? What did he think Snape was concealing in his office?
And Moody thought he. Harry, ought to be an Auror! Interesting idea... but somehow. Harry thought, as he got quietly into his four-poster ten minutes later, the egg and the cloak now safely back in his trunk, he thought he'd like to check how scarred the rest of them were before he chose it as a career.

(hpvn.net)
Posted 12/14/07
CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX
THE SECOND TASK

You said you'd already worked out that egg clue!” said Hermione indignantly.
“Keep your voice down!” said Harry crossly. “I just need to—sort of fine-tune it, all right?”
He, Ron, and Hermione were sitting at the very back of the Charms class with a table to themselves. They were supposed to be practicing the opposite of the Summoning Charm today—the Banishing Charm. Owing to the potential for nasty accidents when objects kept flying across the room. Professor Flitwick had given each student a stack of cushions on which to practice, the theory being that these wouldn't hurt anyone if they went off target. It was a good theory, but it wasn't working very well. Neville's aim was so poor that he kept accidentally sending much heavier things flying across the room—Professor Flitwick, for instance.
“Just forget the egg for a minute, all right?” Harry hissed as Professor Flitwick went whizzing resignedly past them, landing on top of a large cabinet. “I'm trying to tell you about Snape and Moody...”
This class was an ideal cover for a private conversation, as everyone was having far too much fun to pay them any attention. Harry had been recounting his adventures of the previous night in whispered installments for the last half hour.
“Snape said Moodys searched his office as well?” Ron whispered, his eyes alight with interest as he Banished a cushion with a sweep of his wand (it soared into the air and knocked Parvati's hat off). “What... d'you reckon Moody's here to keep an eye on Snape as well as Karkaroff?”
“Well, I dunno if that's what Dumbledore asked him to do, but he's definitely doing it,” said Harry, waving his wand without paying much attention, so that his cushion did an odd sort of belly flop off the desk. “Moody said Dumbledore only lets Snape stay here because he's giving him a second chance or something...”
“What?” said Ron, his eyes widening, his next cushion spinning high into the air, ricocheting off the chandelier, and dropping heavily onto Flitwick's desk. “Harry... maybe Moody thinks Snape put your name in the Goblet of Fire!”
“Oh Ron,” said Hermione, shaking her head sceptically, “we thought Snape was trying to kill Harry before, and it turned out he was saving Harry's life, remember?”
She Banished a cushion and it flew across the room and landed in the box they were all supposed to be aiming at. Harry looked at Hermione, thinking... it was true that Snape had saved his life once, but the odd thing was, Snape definitely loathed him, just as he'd loathed Harry s father when they had been at school together. Snape loved taking points from Harry, and had certainly never missed an opportunity to give him punishments, or even to suggest that he should be suspended from the school.
“I don't care what Moody says,” Hermione went on. “Dumbledore's not stupid. He was right to trust Hagrid and Professor Lupin, even though loads of people wouldn't have given them jobs, so why shouldn't he be right about Snape, even if Snape is a bit—”
“evil,” said Ron promptly. “Come on, Hermione, why are all these Dark wizard catchers searching his office, then?”
“Why has Mr. Crouch been pretending to be ill?” said Hermione, ignoring Ron. “Its a bit funny, isn't it, that he cant manage to come to the Yule Ball, but he can get up here in the middle of the night when he wants to?”
“You just don't like Crouch because of that elf, Winky,” said Ron, sending a cushion soaring into the window.
“You just want to think Snapes up to something,” said Hermione, sending her cushion zooming neatly into the box.
“I just want to know what Snape did with his first chance, if he's on his second one,” said Harry grimly, and his cushion, to his very great surprise, flew straight across the room and landed neatly on top of Hermione's.

Obedient to Sirius's wish of hearing about anything odd at Hogwarts, Harry sent him a letter by brown owl that night, explaining all about Mr. Crouch breaking into Snape s office, and Moody and Snape's conversation. Then Harry turned his attention in earnest to the most urgent problem facing him: how to survive underwater for an hour on the twenty-fourth of February.
Ron quite liked the idea of using the Summoning Charm again—Harry had explained about Aqua-Lungs, and Ron couldn't see why Harry shouldn't Summon one from the nearest Muggle town. Hermione squashed this plan by pointing out that, in the unlikely event that Harry managed to learn how to operate an Aqua-Lung within the set limit of an hour, he was sure to be disqualified for breaking the International Code of Wizarding Secrecy—it was too much to hope that no Muggles would spot an Aqua-Lung zooming across the countryside to Hogwarts.
“Of course, the ideal solution would be for you to Transfigure yourself into a submarine or something,” Hermione said. “If only we'd done human Transfiguration already! But I don't think we start that until sixth year, and it can go badly wrong if you don't know what you're doing...”
“Yeah, I don't fancy walking around with a periscope sticking out of my head,” said Harry. “I s'pose I could always attack someone in front of Moody; he might do it for me...”
“I don't think he'd let you choose what you wanted to be turned into, though,” said Hermione seriously. “No, I think your best chance is some sort of charm.”
So Harry, thinking that he would soon have had enough of the library to last him a lifetime, buried himself once more among the dusty volumes, looking for any spell that might enable a human to survive without oxygen. However, though he, Ron, and Hermione searched through their lunchtimes, evenings, and whole weekends—though Harry asked Professor McGonagall for a note of permission to use the Restricted Section, and even asked the irritable, vulture-like librarian. Madam Pince, for help—they found nothing whatsoever that would enable Harry to spend an hour underwater and live to tell the tale.
Familiar flutterings of panic were starting to disturb Harry now, and he was finding it difficult to concentrate in class again. The lake, which Harry had always taken for granted as just another feature of the grounds, drew his eyes whenever he was near a classroom window, a great, iron-gray mass of chilly water, whose dark and icy depths were starting to seem as distant as the moon.
Just as it had before he faced the Horntail, time was slipping away as though somebody had bewitched the clocks to go extra-fast. There was a week to go before February the twenty-fourth (there was still time)... there were five days to go (he was bound to find something soon)... three days to go (please let me find something... please)...
With two days left. Harry started to go off food again. The only good thing about breakfast on Monday was the return of the brown owl he had sent to Sirius. He pulled off the parchment, unrolled it, and saw the shortest letter Sirius had ever written to him.

Send date of next Hogsmeade weekend by return owl.

Harry turned the parchment over and looked at the back, hoping to see something else, but it was blank.
“Weekend after next,” whispered Hermione, who had read the note over Harrys shoulder. “Here—take my quill and send this owl back straight away.”
Harry scribbled the dates down on the back of Sirius's letter, tied it onto the brown owl's leg, and watched it take flight again. What had he expected? Advice on how to survive underwater? He had been so intent on telling Sirius all about Snape and Moody he had completely forgotten to mention the eggs clue.
“What's he want to know about the next Hogsmeade weekend for?” said Ron.
“Dunno,” said Harry dully. The momentary happiness that had flared inside him at the sight of the owl had died. “Come on ...Care of Magical Creatures.”
Whether Hagrid was trying to make up for the Blast-Ended Skrewts, or because there were now only two skrewts left, or because he was trying to prove he could do anything that Professor Grubbly-Plank could. Harry didnt know, but Hagrid had been continuing her lessons on unicorns ever since he'd returned to work. It turned out that Hagrid knew quite as much about unicorns as he did about monsters, though it was clear that he found their lack of poisonous fangs disappointing.
Today he had managed to capture two unicorn foals. Unlike full-grown unicorns, they were pure gold. Parvati and Lavender went into transports of delight at the sight of them, and even Pansy Parkinson had to work hard to conceal how much she liked them.
“Easier ter spot than the adults,” Hagrid told the class. “They turn silver when they're abou' two years old, an' they grow horns at aroun four. Don' go pure white till they're full grown, 'round about seven. They're a bit more trustin when they're babies... don mind boys so much... C'mon, move in a bit, yeh can pat 'em if yeh want... give 'em a few o' these sugar lumps...
“You okay. Harry?” Hagrid muttered, moving aside slightly, while most of the others swarmed around the baby unicorns.
“Yeah,” said Harry. “Jus' nervous, eh?” said Hagrid.
“Bit,” said Harry.
“Harry,” said Hagrid, clapping a massive hand on his shoulder, so that Harry's knees buckled under its weight, “I'd've bin worried before I saw yeh take on tha Horntail, but I know now yeh can do anythin' yeh set yer mind ter. I'm not worried at all. Yeh're goin ter be fine. Got yer clue worked out, haven' yeh?”
Harry nodded, but even as he did so, an insane urge to confess that he didn't have any idea how to survive at the bottom of the lake for an hour came over him. He looked up at Hagrid—perhaps he had to go into the lake sometimes, to deal with the creatures in it? He looked after everything else on the grounds, after all—
“Yeh're goin' ter win,” Hagrid growled, patting Harrys shoulder again, so that Harry actually felt himself sink a couple of inches into the soft ground. “I know it. I can feel it. Yeh're goin' ter win, Harry n
Harry just couldn't bring himself to wipe the happy, confident smile off Hagrid's face. Pretending he was interested in the young unicorns, he forced a smile in return, and moved forward to pat them with the others.

By the evening before the second task. Harry felt as though he were trapped in a nightmare. He was fully aware that even if, by some miracle, he managed to find a suitable spell, he'd have a real job mastering it overnight. How could he have let this happen? Why hadn't he got to work on the egg's clue sooner? Why had he ever let his mind wander in class—what if a teacher had once mentioned how to breathe underwater?
He sat with Hermione and Ron in the library as the sun set outside, tearing feverishly through page after page of spells, hidden from one another by the massive piles of books on the desk in front of each of them. Harry s heart gave a huge leap every time he saw the word “water” on a page, but more often than not it was merely “Take two pints of water, half a pound of shredded mandrake leaves, and a newt...”
“I don't reckon it can be done,” said Rons voice flatly from the other side of the table. “There's nothing. Nothing. Closest was that thing to dry up puddles and ponds, that Drought Charm, but that was nowhere near powerful enough to drain the lake.”
“There must be something,” Hermione muttered, moving a candle closer to her. Her eyes were so tired she was poring over the tiny print of Olde and Forgotten Bewitchments and Charmes with her nose about an inch from the page. “They'd never have set a task that was undoable.”
“They have,” said Ron. “Harry, just go down to the lake tomorrow, right, stick your head in, yell at the merpeople to give back whatever they've nicked, and see if they chuck it out. Best you can do, mate.”
“There's a way of doing it!” Hermione said crossly. “There Just has to be!”
She seemed to be taking the library's lack of useful information on the subject as a personal insult; it had never failed her before.
“I know what I should have done,” said Harry, resting, face-down, on Saucy Tricks for Tricky Sorts. “I should've learned to be an Animagus like Sirius.”
An Animagus was a wizard who could transform into an animal.
“Yeah, you could've turned into a goldfish any time you wanted!” said Ron.
“Or a frog,” yawned Harry. He was exhausted. “It takes years to become an Animagus, and then you have to register yourself and everything,” said Hermione vaguely, now squinting down the index of Weird Wizarding Dilemmas and Their Solutions. “Professor McGonagall told us, remember... you've got to register yourself with the Improper Use of Magic Office ...what animal you become, and your markings, so you can't abuse it...”
“Hermione, I was joking,” said Harry wearily. “I know I haven't got a chance of turning into a frog by tomorrow morning...”
“Oh this is no use,” Hermione said, snapping shut Weird Wizarding Dilemmas. “Who on earth wants to make their nose hair grow into ringlets?”
“I wouldn't mind,” said Fred Weasleys voice. “Be a talking point, wouldn't it?”
Harry, Ron, and Hermione looked up. Fred and George had just emerged from behind some bookshelves.
“What're you two doing here?” Ron asked.
“Looking for you,” said George. “McGonagall wants you, Ron. And you, Hermione.”
“Why?” said Hermione, looking surprised.
“Dunno ...she was looking a bit grim, though,” said Fred.
“We're supposed to take you down to her office,” said George.
Ron and Hermione stared at Harry, who felt his stomach drop. Was Professor McGonagall about to tell Ron and Hermione off? Perhaps she'd noticed how much they were helping him, when he ought to be working out how to do the task alone?
“We'll meet you back in the common room,” Hermione told Harry as she got up to go with Ron—both of them looked very anxious. “Bring as many of these books as you can, okay?”
“Right,” said Harry uneasily.
By eight o'clock. Madam Pince had extinguished all the lamps and came to chivvy Harry out of the library. Staggering under the weight of as many books as he could carry, Harry returned to the Gryffindor common room, pulled a table into a corner, and continued to search. There was nothing in Madcap Magic for Wacky Warlocks... nothing in A Guide to Medieval Sorcery... not one mention of underwater exploits in An Anthology of Eighteenth-Century Charms, or in Dreadful Denizens of the Deep, or Powers You Never Knew You Had and What to Do with Them Now Youve Wised Up.
Crookshanks crawled into Harrys lap and curled up, purring deeply. The common room emptied slowly around Harry. People kept wishing him luck for the next morning in cheery, confident voices like Hagrid s, all of them apparently convinced that he was about to pull off another stunning performance like the one he had managed in the first task. Harry couldn't answer them, he just nodded, feeling as though there were a golfball stuck in his throat. By ten to midnight, he was alone in the room with Crookshanks. He had searched all the remaining books, and Ron and Hermione had not come back.
It's over, he told himself. You can't do it. You'll just have to go down to the lake in the morning and tell the judges...
He imagined himself explaining that he couldn't do the task. He pictured Bagman's look of round-eyed surprise, Karkaroffs satisfied, yellow-toothed smile. He could almost hear Fleur Delacour saying “I knew it... 'e is too young, 'e is only a little boy.” He saw Malfoy flashing his POTTER STINKS badge at the front of the crowd, saw Hagrid s crestfallen, disbelieving face...
Forgetting that Crookshanks was on his lap. Harry stood up very suddenly; Crookshanks hissed angrily as he landed on the floor, gave Harry a disgusted look, and stalked away with his bottlebrush tail in the air, but Harry was already hurrying up the spiral staircase to his dormitory... He would grab the Invisibility Cloak and go back to the library, he'd stay there all night if he had to...
“Lumos,” Harry whispered fifteen minutes later as he opened the library door.
Wand tip alight, he crept along the bookshelves, pulling down more books—books of hexes and charms, books on merpeople and water monsters, books on famous witches and wizards, on magical inventions, on anything at all that might include one passing reference to underwater survival. He carried them over to a table, then set to work, searching them by the narrow beam of his wand, occasionally checking his watch...
One in the morning... two in the morning... the only way he could keep going was to tell himself, over and over again, next book... in the next one... the next one...

The mermaid in the painting in the prefects' bathroom was laughing. Harry was bobbing like a cork in bubbly water next to her rock, while she held his Firebolt over his head.
“Come and get it!” she giggled maliciously. “Come on, jump!”
“I can't,” Harry panted, snatching at the Firebolt, and struggling not to sink. “Give it to me!”
But she just poked him painfully in the side with the end of the broomstick, laughing at him.
“That hurts—get offouch—”
“Harry Potter must wake up, sir!”
“Stop poking me—”
“Dobby must poke Harry Potter, sir, he must wake up!”
Harry opened his eyes. He was still in the library; the Invisibility Cloak had slipped off his head as he'd slept, and the side of his face was stuck to the pages of Where There's a Wand, There's a Way. He sat up, straightening his glasses, blinking in the bright daylight.
“Harry Potter needs to hurry!” squeaked Dobby. “The second task starts in ten minutes, and Harry Potter—”
“Ten minutes?” Harry croaked. “Ten—ten minutes?”
He looked down at his watch. Dobby was right. It was twenty past nine. A large, dead weight seemed to fall through Harry's chest into his stomach.
“Hurry, Harry Potter!” squeaked Dobby, plucking at Harry's sleeve. “You is supposed to be down by the lake with the other champions, sir!”
“It's too late, Dobby,” Harry said hopelessly. “I'm not doing the task, I don't know how-”
“Harry Potter will do the task!” squeaked the elf. “Dobby knew Harry had not found the right book, so Dobby did it for him!”
“What?” said Harry. “But you don't know what the second task is—”
“Dobby knows, sir! Harry Potter has to go into the lake and find his Wheezy—”
“Find my what?”
“and take his Wheezy back from the merpeople!”
“What's a Wheezy?”
“Your Wheezy, sir, your Wheezy-Wheezy who is giving Dobby his sweater!”
Dobby plucked at the shrunken maroon sweater he was now wearing over his shorts.
“What?” Harry gasped. “They've got... they've got Ron?”
“The thing Harry Potter will miss most, sir!” squeaked Dobby. “'But past an hour-'”
“'the prospect's black,'” Harry recited, staring, horror-struck, at the elf. “ 'Too late, it's gone, it won't come back. ' Dobby—what've I got to do?”
“You has to eat this, sir!” s queaked the elf, and he put his hand in the pocket of his shorts and drew out a ball of what looked like slimy, grayish-green rat tails. “Right before you go into the lake, sir—gillyweed!”
“What's it do?” said Harry, staring at the gillyweed.
“It will make Harry Potter breathe underwater, sir!”
“Dobby,” said Harry frantically, “listen—are you sure about this?”
He couldn't quite forget that the last time Dobby had tried to “help” him, he had ended up with no bones in his right arm.
“Dobby is quite sure, sir!” said the elf earnestly. “Dobby hears things, sir, he is a house-elf, he goes all over the castle as he lights the fires and mops the floors. Dobby heard Professor McGonagall and Professor Moody in the staffroom, talking about the next task... Dobby cannot let Harry Potter lose his Wheezy!”
Harrys doubts vanished. Jumping to his feet he pulled off the Invisibility Cloak, stuffed it into his bag, grabbed the gillyweed, and put it into his pocket, then tore out of the library with Dobby at his heels.
“Dobby is supposed to be in the kitchens, sir!” Dobby squealed as they burst into the corridor. “Dobby will be missed—good luck, Harry Potter, sir, good luck!”
“See you later, Dobby!” Harry shouted, and he sprinted along the corridor and down the stairs, three at a time.
The entrance hall contained a few last-minute stragglers, all leaving the Great Hall after breakfast and heading through the double oak doors to watch the second task. They stared as Harry flashed past, sending Colin and Dennis Creevey flying as he leapt down the stone steps and out onto the bright, chilly grounds.
As he pounded down the lawn he saw that the seats that had encircled the dragons' enclosure in November were now ranged along the opposite bank, rising in stands that were packed to the bursting point and reflected in the lake below. The excited babble of the crowd echoed strangely across the water as Harry ran flat-out around the other side of the lake toward the judges, who were sitting at another gold-draped table at the water's edge. Cedric, Fleur, and Krum were beside the judges' table, watching Harry sprint toward them.
“I'm... here ...” Harry panted, skidding to a halt in the mud and accidentally splattering Fleurs robes.
“Where have you been?” said a bossy, disapproving voice. “The task's about to start!”
Harry looked around. Percy Weasley was sitting at the judges' table—Mr. Crouch had failed to turn up again.
“Now, now, Percy!” said Ludo Bagman, who was looking intensely relieved to see Harry. “Let him catch his breath!”
Dumbledore smiled at Harry, but Karkaroff and Madame Maxime didn't look at all pleased to see him... It was obvious from the looks on their faces that they had thought he wasn't going to turn up.
Harry bent over, hands on his knees, gasping for breath; he had a stitch in his side that felt as though he had a knife between his ribs, but there was no time to get rid of it; Ludo Bagman was now moving among the champions, spacing them along the bank at intervals of ten feet. Harry was on the very end of the line, next to Krum, who was wearing swimming trunks and was holding his wand ready.
“All right. Harry?” Bagman whispered as he moved Harry a few feet farther away from Krum. “Know what you're going to do?”
“Yeah,” Harry panted, massaging his ribs.
Bagman gave Harry's shoulder a quick squeeze and returned to the judges' table; he pointed his wand at his throat as he had done at the World Cup, said, “Sonorus!” and his voice boomed out across the dark water toward the stands.
“Well, all our champions are ready for the second task, which will start on my whistle. They have precisely an hour to recover what has been taken from them. On the count of three, then. One... two... three!”
The whistle echoed shrilly in the cold, still air; the stands erupted with cheers and applause; without looking to see what the other champions were doing, Harry pulled off his shoes and socks, pulled the handful of gillyweed out of his pocket, stuffed it into his mouth, and waded out into the lake.
It was so cold he felt the skin on his legs searing as though this were fire, not icy water. His sodden robes weighed him down as he walked in deeper; now the water was over his knees, and his rapidly numbing feet were slipping over silt and flat, slimy stones. He was chewing the gillyweed as hard and fast as he could; it felt unpleasantly slimy and rubbery, like octopus tentacles. Waist-deep in the freezing water he stopped, swallowed, and waited for something to happen.
He could hear laughter in the crowd and knew he must look stupid, walking into the lake without showing any sign of magical power. The part of him that was still dry was covered in goose pimples; half immersed in the icy water, a cruel breeze lifting his hair, Harry started to shiver violently. He avoided looking at the stands; the laughter was becoming louder, and there were catcalls and jeering from the Slytherins...
Then, quite suddenly, Harry felt as though an invisible pillow had been pressed over his mouth and nose. He tried to draw breath, but it made his head spin; his lungs were empty, and he suddenly felt a piercing pain on either side of his neck—
Harry clapped his hands around his throat and felt two large slits just below his ears, flapping in the cold air... He had gills. Without pausing to think, he did the only thing that made sense—he flung himself forward into the water.
The first gulp of icy lake water felt like the breath of life. His head had stopped spinning; he took another great gulp of water and felt it pass smoothly through his gills, sending oxygen back to his brain. He stretched out his hands in front of him and stared at them. They looked green and ghostly under the water, and they had become webbed. He twisted around and looked at his bare feet—they had become elongated and the toes were webbed too:
It looked as though he had sprouted flippers.
The water didn't feel icy anymore either ...on the contrary, he felt pleasantly cool and very light... Harry struck out once more, marveling at how far and fast his flipper-like feet propelled him through the vater, and noticing how clearly he could see, and how he no longer seemed to need to blink. He had soon swum so far into the lake that he could no longer see the bottom. He flipped over and dived into its depths.
Silence pressed upon his ears as he soared over a strange, dark, foggy landscape. He could only see ten feet around him, so that as he sped throuugh the water new scenes seemed to loom suddenly out of the incoming darkness: forests of rippling, tangled black weed, wide plains of mud littered with dull, glimmering stones. He swam deeper and deeper, out toward the middle of the lake, his eyes wide, staring through the eerily gray-lit water around him to the shadow beyond, where the water became opaque.
Small fish flickered past him like silver darts. Once or twice he thought he saw something larger moving ahead of him, but when he got nearer, he discovered it to be nothing but a large, blackened log, or a dense clump of weed. There was no sign of any of the other champions, merpeople, Ron—nor, thankfully, the giant squid.
Light green weed stretched ahead of him as far as he could see, two feet deep, like a meadow of very overgrown grass. Harry was staring unblinkingly ahead of him, trying to discern shapes through the gloom... and then, without warning, something grabbed hold of his ankle.
Harry twisted his body around and saw a grindylow, a small, horned water demon, poking out of the weed, its long fingers clutched tightly around Harry's leg, its pointed fangs bared—Harry stuck his webbed hand quickly inside his robes and fumbled for his wand. By the time he had grasped it, two more grindylows had risen out of the weed, had seized handfuls of Harry's robes, and were attempting to drag him down.
“Relashio!” Harry shouted, except that no sound came out... A large bubble issued from his mouth, and his wand, instead of sending sparks at the grindylows, pelted them with what seemed to be a jet of boiling water, for where it struck them, angry red patches appeared on their green skin. Harry pulled his ankle out of the grindylows grip and swam, as fast as he could, occasionally sending more jets of hot water over his shoulder at random; every now and then he felt one of the grindylows snatch at his foot again, and he kicked out, hard; finally, he felt his foot connect with a horned skull, and looking back, saw the dazed grindylow floating away, cross-eyed, while its fellows shook their fists at Harry and sank back into the weed.
Harry slowed down a little, slipped his wand back inside his robes, and looked around, listening again. He turned full circle in the water, the silence pressing harder than ever against his eardrums. He knew he must be even deeper in the lake now, but nothing was moving but the rippling weed.
“How are you getting on?”
Harry thought he was having a heart attack. He whipped around and saw Moaning Myrtle floating hazily in front of him, gazing at him through her thick, pearly glasses.
“Myrtle!” Harry tried to shout—but once again, nothing came out of his mouth but a very large bubble. Moaning Myrtle actually giggled.
“You want to try over there!” she said, pointing. “I won't come with you... I don't like them much, they always chase me when I get too close...”
Harry gave her the thumbs-up to show his thanks and set off once more, careful to swim a bit higher over the weed to avoid any more grindylows that might be lurking there.
He swam on for what felt like at least twenty minutes. He was passing over vast expanses of black mud now, which swirled murkily as he disturbed the water. Then, at long last, he heard a snatch of haunting mersong.

“An hour long you'll have to look,
And to recover what we took...”

Harry swam faster and soon saw a large rock emerge out of the muddy water ahead. It had paintings of merpeople on it; they were carrying spears and chasing what looked like the giant squid. Harry swam on past the rock, following the mersong.

“... your time's half gone, so tarry not
Lest what you seek stays here to rot...”

A cluster of crude stone dwellings stained with algae loomed suddenly out of the gloom on all sides. Here and there at the dark windows, Harry saw faces... faces that bore no resemblance at all to the painting of the mermaid in the prefects' bathroom...
The merpeople had grayish skin and long, wild, dark green hair. Their eyes were yellow, as were their broken teeth, and they wore thick ropes of pebbles around their necks. They leered at Harry as he swam past; one or two of them emerged from their caves to watch him better, their powerful, silver fish tails beating the water, spears clutched in their hands.
Harry sped on, staring around, and soon the dwellings became more numerous; there were gardens of weed around some of them, and he even saw a pet grindylow tied to a stake outside one door. Merpeople were emerging on all sides now, watching him eagerly, pointing at his webbed hands and gills, talking behind their hands to one another. Harry sped around a corner and a very strange sight met his eyes.
A whole crowd of merpeople was floating in front of the houses that lined what looked like a mer-version of a village square. A choir of merpeople was singing in the middle, calling the champions toward them, and behind them rose a crude sort of statue; a gigantic merperson hewn from a boulder. Four people were bound tightly to the tail of the stone merperson.
Ron was tied between Hermione and Cho Chang. There was also a girl who looked no older than eight, whose clouds of silvery hair made Harry feel sure that she was Fleur Delacour's sister. All four of them appeared to be in a very deep sleep. Their heads were lolling onto their shoulders, and fine streams of bubbles kept issuing from their mouths.
Harry sped toward the hostages, half expecting the merpeople to lower their spears and charge at him, but they did nothing. The ropes of weed tying the hostages to the statue were thick, slimy, and very strong. For a fleeting second he thought of the knife Sirius had bought him for Christmas—locked in his trunk in the castle a quarter of a mile away, no use to him whatsoever.
He looked around. Many of the merpeople surrounding them were carrying spears. He swam swiftly toward a seven-foot-tall merman with a long green beard and a choker of shark fangs and tried to mime a request to borrow the spear. The merman laughed and shook his head.
“We do not help,” he said in a harsh, croaky voice.
“Come ON!” Harry said fiercely (but only bubbles issued from his mouth), and he tried to pull the spear away from the merman, but the merman yanked it back, still shaking his head and laughing.
Harry swirled around, staring about. Something sharp... anything...
There were rocks littering the lake bottom. He dived and snatched up a particularly jagged one and returned to the statue. He began to hack at the ropes binding Ron, and after several minutes' hard work, they broke apart. Ron floated, unconscious, a few inches above the lake bottom, drifting a little in the ebb of the water.
Harry looked around. There was no sign of any of the other champions. What were they playing at? Why didn't they hurry up? He turned back to Hermione, raised the jagged rock, and began to hack at her bindings too—
At once, several pairs of strong gray hands seized him. Half a dozen mermen were pulling him away from Hermione, shaking their green-haired heads, and laughing.
“You take your own hostage,” one of them said to him. “Leave the others ...”
“No way!” said Harry furiously—but only two large bubbles came out.
Your task is to retrieve your own friend... leave the others ...” She's my friend too!” Harry yelled, gesturing toward Hermione, an enormous silver bubble emerging soundlessly from his lips. “And I don't want them to die either!”
Cho's head was on Hermiones shoulder; the small silver-haired girl was ghostly green and pale. Harry struggled to fight off the mermen, but they laughed harder than ever, holding him back. Harry looked wildly around. Where were the other champions? Would he have time to take Ron to the surface and come back down for Hermione and the others? Would he be able to find them again? He looked down at his watch to see how much time was left—it had stopped working.
But then the merpeople around him pointed excitedly over his head. Harry looked up and saw Cedric swimming toward them. There was an enormous bubble around his head, which made his features look oddly wide and stretched.
“Got lost!” he mouthed, looking panic-stricken. “Fleur and Krum're coming now!”
Feeling enormously relieved, Harry watched Cedric pull a knife out of his pocket and cut Cho free. He pulled her upward and out of sight.
Harry looked around, waiting. Where were Fleur and Krum? Time was getting short, and according to the song, the hostages would be lost after an hour...
The merpeople started screeching animatedly. Those holding Harry loosened their grip, staring behind them. Harry turned and saw something monstrous cutting through the water toward them: a human body in swimming trunks with the head of a shark... It was Krum. He appeared to have transfigured himselfbut badly.
The shark-man swam straight to Hermione and began snapping and biting at her ropes; the trouble was that Krum's new teeth were positioned very awkwardly for biting anything smaller than a dolphin, and Harry was quite sure that if Krum wasn't careful, he was going to rip Hermione in half. Darting forward. Harry hit Krum hard on the shoulder and held up the jagged stone. Krum seized it and began to cut Hermione free. Within seconds, he had done it; he grabbed Hermione around the waist, and without a backward glance, began to rise rapidly with her toward the surface.
Now what? Harry thought desperately. If he could be sure that Fleur was coming... But still no sign. There was nothing to be done except...
He snatched up the stone, which Krum had dropped, but the mermen now closed in around Ron and the little girl, shaking their heads at him. Harry pulled out his wand.
“Get out of the way!”
Only bubbles flew out of his mouth, but he had the distinct impression that the mermen had understood him, because they suddenly stopped laughing. Their yellowish eyes were fixed upon Harry's wand, and they looked scared. There might be a lot more of them than there were of him, but Harry could tell, by the looks on their faces, that they knew no more magic than the giant squid did.
“You've got until three!” Harry shouted; a great stream of bubbles burst from him, but he held up three fingers to make sure they got the message. “One...” (he put down a finger) “two...” (he put down a second one)—
They scattered. Harry darted forward and began to hack at the ropes binding the small girl to the statue, and at last she was free. He seized the little girl around the waist, grabbed the neck of Rons robes, and kicked off from the bottom.
It was very slow work. He could no longer use his webbed hands to propel himself forward; he worked his flippers furiously, but Ron and Fleur's sister were like potato-filled sacks dragging him back down... He fixed his eyes skyward, though he knew he must still be very deep, the water above him was so dark,...
Merpeople were rising with him. He could see them swirling around him with ease, watching him struggle through the water... Would they pull him back down to the depths when the time was up? Did they perhaps eat humans? Harry's legs were seizing up with the effort to keep swimming; his shoulders were aching horribly with the effort of dragging Ron and the girl...
He was drawing breath with extreme difficulty. He could feel pain on the sides of his neck again ...he was becoming very aware of how wet the water was in his mouth... yet the darkness was definitely thinning now... he could see daylight above him...
He kicked hard with his flippers and discovered that they were nothing more than feet... water was flooding through his mouth into his lungs ...he was starting to feel dizzy, but he knew light and air were only ten feet above him ...he had to get there ...he had to ...
Harry kicked his legs so hard and fast it felt as though his muscles were screaming in protest; his very brain felt waterlogged, he couldn't breathe, he needed oxygen, he had to keep going, he could not stop—
And then he felt his head break the surface of the lake; wonderful, cold, clear air was making his wet face sting; he gulped it down, feeling as though he had never breathed properly before, and, panting, pulled Ron and the little girl up with him. All around him, wild, green-haired heads were emerging out of the water with him, but they were smiling at him.
The crowd in the stands was making a great deal of noise; shouting and screaming, they all seemed to be on their feet; Harry had the impression they thought that Ron and the little girl might be dead, but they were wrong... both of them had opened their eyes; the girl looked scared and confused, but Ron merely expelled a great spout of water, blinked in the bright light, turned to Harry, and said, “Wet, this, isn't it?” Then he spotted Fleur's sister. “What did you bring her for?”
“Fleur didn't turn up, I couldn't leave her,” Harry panted.
“Harry, you prat,” said Ron, “you didn't take that song thing seriously, did you? Dumbledore wouldn't have let any of us drown!”
“The song said—”
“It was only to make sure you got back inside the time limit!” said Ron. “I hope you didn't waste time down there acting the hero!”
Harry felt both stupid and annoyed. It was all very well for Ron; he'd been asleep, he hadn't felt how eerie it was down in the lake, surrounded by spear-carrying merpeople who'd looked more than capable of murder.
“C'mon,” Harry said shortly, “help me with her, I don't think she can swim very well.”
They pulled Fleur's sister through the water, back toward the bank where the judges stood watching, twenty merpeople accompanying them like a guard of honor, singing their horrible screechy songs.
Harry could see Madam Pomfrey fussing over Hermione, Krum, Cedric, and Cho, all of whom were wrapped in thick blankets.
Dumbledore and Ludo Bagman stood beaming at Harry and Ron from the bank as they swam nearer, but Percy, who looked very white and somehow much younger than usual, came splashing out to meet them. Meanwhile Madame Maxime was trying to restrain Fleur Delacour, who was quite hysterical, fighting tooth and nail to return to the water.
“Gabrielle! Gabrielle! Is she alive? Is she 'urt?”
“She's fine!” Harry tried to tell her, but he was so exhausted he could hardly talk, let alone shout.
Percy seized Ron and was dragging him back to the bank (“Gerroff, Percy, I'm all right!”); Dumbledore and Bagman were pulling Harry upright; Fleur had broken free of Madame Maxime and was hugging her sister.
“It was ze grindylows... zey attacked me ...oh Gabrielle, I thought... I thought...”
“Come here, you,” said Madam Pomfrey. She seized Harry and pulled him over to Hermione and the others, wrapped him so tightly in a blanket that he felt as though he were in a straitjacket, and forced a measure of very hot potion down his throat. Steam gushed out of his ears.
“Harry, well done!” Hermione cried. “You did it, you found out how all by yourself!”
“Well—” said Harry. He would have told her about Dobby, but he had just noticed Karkaroff watching him. He was the only judge who had not left the table; the only judge not showing signs of pleasure and relief that Harry, Ron, and Fleur's sister had got back safely. “Yeah, that's right,” said Harry, raising his voice slightly so that Karkaroff could hear him.
“You haff a water beetle in your hair, Herm-own-ninny,” said Krum. Harry had the impression that Krum was drawing her attention back onto himself; perhaps to remind her that he had just rescued her from the lake, but Hermione brushed away the beetle impatiently and said, “You're well outside the time limit, though, Harry... Did it take you ages to find us?”
“No ...I found you okay...”
Harry's feeling of stupidity was growing. Now he was out of the water, it seemed perfectly clear that Dumbledores safety precautions wouldn't have permitted the death of a hostage just because their champion hadn't turned up. Why hadn't he just grabbed Ron and gone? He would have been first back... Cedric and Krum hadn't wasted time worrying about anyone else; they hadn't taken the mersong seriously...
Dumbledore was crouching at the water's edge, deep in conversation with what seemed to be the chief merperson, a particularly wild and ferocious-looking female. He was making the same sort of screechy noises that the merpeople made when they were above water; clearly, Dumbledore could speak Mermish. Finally he straightened up, turned to his fellow judges, and said, “A conference before we give the marks, I think.”
The judges went into a huddle. Madam Pomfrey had gone to rescue Ron from Percy's clutches; she led him over to Harry and the others, gave him a blanket and some Pepperup Potion, then went to fetch Fleur and her sister. Fleur had many cuts on her face and arms and her robes were torn, but she didn't seem to care, nor would she allow Madam Pomfrey to clean them.
“Look after Gabrielle,” she told her, and then she turned to Harry. “You saved 'er,” she said breathlessly. “Even though she was not your 'ostage.”
“Yeah,” said Harry, who was now heartily wishing he'd left all three girls tied to the statue.
Fleur bent down, kissed Harry twice on each cheek (he felt his face burn and wouldn't have been surprised if steam was coming out of his ears again), then said to Ron, “And you too-you 'elped—”
“Yeah,” said Ron, looking extremely hopeful, “yeah, a bit—”
Fleur swooped down on him too and kissed him. Hermione looked simply furious, but just then, Ludo Bagman's magically magnified voice boomed out beside them, making them all jump, and causing the crowd in the stands to go very quiet.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached our decision. Merchieftainess Murcus has told us exactly what happened at the bottom of the lake, and we have therefore decided to award marks out of fifty for each of the champions, as follows...
“Fleur Delacour, though she demonstrated excellent use of the Bubble-Head Charm, was attacked by grindylows as she approached her goal, and failed to retrieve her hostage. We award her twenty-five points.”
Applause from the stands.
“I deserved zero,” said Fleur throatily, shaking her magnificent head.
“Cedric Diggory, who also used the Bubble-Head Charm, was first to return with his hostage, though he returned one minute outside the time limit of an hour.” Enormous cheers from the Hufflepuffs in the crowd; Harry saw Cho give Cedric a glowing look. “We therefore award him forty-seven points.”
Harrys heart sank. If Cedric had been outside the time limit, he most certainly had been.
“Viktor Krum used an incomplete form of Transfiguration, which was nevertheless effective, and was second to return with his hostage. We award him forty points.”
Karkaroff clapped particularly hard, looking very superior.
“Harry Potter used gillyweed to great effect,” Bagman continued. “He returned last, and well outside the time limit of an hour. However, the Merchieftainess informs us that Mr. Potter was first to reach the hostages, and that the delay in his return was due to his determination to return all hostages to safety, not merely his own.”
Ron and Hermione both gave Harry half-exasperated, half-commiserating looks.
“Most of the judges,” and here, Bagman gave Karkaroff a very nasty look, “feel that this shows moral fiber and merits full marks. However... Mr. Potter's score is forty-five points.”
Harry's stomach leapt—he was now tying for first place with Cedric. Ron and Hermione, caught by surprise, stared at Harry, then laughed and started applauding hard with the rest of the crowd.
“There you go. Harry!” Ron shouted over the noise. “You weren't being thick after all—you were showing moral fiber!”
Fleur was clapping very hard too, but Krum didn't look happy at all. He attempted to engage Hermione in conversation again, but she was too busy cheering Harry to listen.
“The third and final task will take place at dusk on the twenty-fourth of June,” continued Bagman. “The champions will be notified of what is coming precisely one month beforehand. Thank you all for your support of the champions.”
It was over. Harry thought dazedly, as Madam Pomfrey began herding the champions and hostages back to the castle to get into dry clothes ...it was over, he had got through ...he didn't have to worry about anything now until June the twenty-fourth...
Next time he was in Hogsmeade, Harry decided as he walked back up the stone steps into the castle, he was going to buy Dobby a pair of socks for every day of the year.

(hpvn.net)
Posted 12/14/07
CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN
PADFOOT RETURNS

One of the best things about the aftermath of the second task was that everybody was very keen to hear details of what had happened down in the lake, which meant that Ron was getting to share Harry's limelight for once. Harry noticed that Ron's version of events changed subtly with every retelling. At first, he gave what seemed to be the truth; it tallied with Hermione's story, anyway—Dumbledore had put all the hostages into a bewitched sleep in Professor McGonagall's office, first assuring them that they would be quite safe, and would awake when they were back above the water. One week later, however, Ron was telling a thrilling tale of kidnap in which he struggled single-handedly against fifty heavily armed merpeople who had to beat him into submission before tying him up.
“But I had my wand hidden up my sleeve,” he assured Padma Patil, who seemed to be a lot keener on Ron now that he was getting so much attention and was making a point of talking to him every time they passed in the corridors. “I could've taken those mer-idiots any time I wanted.”
“What were you going to do, snore at them?” said Hermione waspishly. People had been teasing her so much about being the thing that Viktor Krum would most miss that she was in a rather tetchy mood.
Ron's ears went red, and thereafter, he reverted to the bewitched sleep version of events.
As they entered March the weather became drier, but cruel winds skinned their hands and faces every time they went out onto the grounds. There were delays in the post because the owls kept being blown off course. The brown owl that Harry had sent to Sirius with the dates of the Hogsmeade weekend turned up at breakfast on Friday morning with half its feathers sticking up the wrong way; Harry had no sooner torn off Sirius's reply than it took flight, clearly afraid it was going to be sent outside again.
Sirius's letter was almost as short as the previous one.

Be at stile at end of road out of Hogsmeade (past Dervish and
Banges) at two o'clock on Saturday afternoon. Bring as much
food as you can.

“He hasn't come back to Hogsmeade?” said Ron incredulously.
“It looks like it, doesn't it?” said Hermione.
“I can't believe him,” said Harry tensely, “if he's caught...”
“Made it so far, though, hasn't he?” said Ron. “And it's not like the place is swarming with dementors anymore.”
Harry folded up the letter, thinking. If he was honest with himself, he really wanted to see Sirius again. He therefore approached the final lesson of the afternoon—double Potions—feeling considerably more cheerful than he usually did when descending the steps to the dungeons.
Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle were standing in a huddle outside the classroom door with Pansy Parkinson's gang of Slytherin girls. All of them were looking at something Harry couldn't see and sniggering heartily. Pansys pug-like face peered excitedly around Goyle's broad back as Harry, Ron, and Hermione approached.
“There they are, there they are!” she giggled, and the knot of Slytherins broke apart. Harry saw that Pansy had a magazine in her hands—Witch Weekly. The moving picture on the front showed a curly-haired witch who was smiling toothily and pointing at a large sponge cake with her wand.
“You might find something to interest you in there, Granger!” Pansy said loudly, and she threw the magazine at Hermione, who caught it, looking startled. At that moment, the dungeon door opened, and Snape beckoned them all inside.
Hermione, Harry, and Ron headed for a table at the back of the dungeon as usual. Once Snape had turned his back on them to write up the ingredients of todays potion on the blackboard, Hermione hastily rifled through the magazine under the desk. At last, in the center pages, Hermione found what they were looking for. Harry and Ron leaned in closer. A color photograph of Harry headed a short piece entitled:

Harry Potter's Secret Heartache

A boy like no other, perhaps—yet a boy suffering all the usual pangs of adolescence, writes Rita Skeeter. Deprived of love since the tragic demise
of his parents, fourteen-year-old Harry Potter thought he had found solace in his steady girlfriend at Hogwarts, Muggle-born Hermione Granger. Little did he know that he would shortly be suffering yet another emotional blow in a life already littered with personal loss.
Miss Granger, a plain but ambitious girl, seems to have a taste for famous wizards that Harry alone cannot satisfy. Since the arrival at Hogwarts of Viktor Krum, Bulgarian Seeker and hero of the last World Quidditch Cup, Miss Granger has been toying with both boys' affections. Krum, who is openly smitten with the devious Miss Granger, has already invited her to visit him in Bulgaria over the summer holidays, and insists that he has “never felt this way about any other girl.”
However, it might not be Miss Granger's doubtful natural charms that have captured these unfortunate boys' interest.
“She's really ugly,” says Pansy Parkinson, a pretty and vivacious fourth-year student, “but she'd be well up to making a Love Potion, she's quite brainy. I think that's how she's doing it.”
Love Potions are, of course, banned at Hogwarts, and no doubt Albus Dumbledore will want to investigate these claims. In the meantime, Harry Potters well-wishers must hope that, next time, he bestows his heart on a worthier candidate.

“I told you!” Ron hissed at Hermione as she stared down at the article. “I told you not to annoy Rita Skeeter! She's made you out to be some sort ofof scarlet woman!”
Hermione stopped looking astonished and snorted with laughter. “Scarlet woman?” she repeated, shaking with suppressed giggles as she looked around at Ron.
“It's what my mum calls them,” Ron muttered, his ears going red.
“If that's the best Rita can do, she's losing her touch,” said Hermione, still giggling, as she threw Witch Weekly onto the empty chair beside her. “What a pile of old rubbish.”
She looked over at the Slytherins, who were all watching her and Harry closely across the room to see if they had been upset by the article. Hermione gave them a sarcastic smile and a wave, and she, Harry, and Ron started unpacking the ingredients they would need for their Wit-Sharpening Potion.
“There's something funny, though,” said Hermione ten minutes later, holding her pestle suspended over a bowl of scarab beetles. “How could Rita Skeeter have known...?”
“Known what?” said Ron quickly. “You haven't been mixing up Love Potions, have you?”
“Don't be stupid,” Hermione snapped, starting to pound up her beetles again. “No, it's just... how did she know Viktor asked me to visit him over the summer?”
Hermione blushed scarlet as she said this and determinedly avoided Ron's eyes.
“What?” said Ron, dropping his pestle with a loud clunk.
“He asked me right after he'd pulled me out of the lake,”
Hermione muttered. “After he'd got rid of his shark's head. Madam Pomfrey gave us both blankets and then he sort of pulled me away from the judges so they wouldn't hear, and he said, if I wasn't doing anything over the summer, would I like to—”
“And what did you say?” said Ron, who had picked up his pestle and was grinding it on the desk, a good six inches from his bowl, because he was looking at Hermione.
“And he did say he'd never felt the same way about anyone else,” Hermione went on, going so red now that Harry could almost feel the heat coming from her, “but how could Rita Skeeter have heard him? She wasn't there ...or was she? Maybe she has got an Invisibility Cloak; maybe she sneaked onto the grounds to watch the second task...”
“And what did you say?” Ron repeated, pounding his pestle down so hard that it dented the desk.
“Well, I was too busy seeing whether you and Harry were okay to-”
“Fascinating though your social life undoubtedly is. Miss Granger,” said an icy voice right behind them, and all three of them jumped, “I must ask you not to discuss it in my class. Ten points from Gryffindor.”
Snape had glided over to their desk while they were talking. The whole class was now looking around at them; Malfoy took the opportunity to flash POTTER STINKS across the dungeon at Harry.
“Ah... reading magazines under the table as well?” Snape added, snatching up the copy of Witch Weekly. “A further ten points from Gryffindor ...oh but of course ...” Snapes black eyes glittered as they fell on Rita Skeeter's article. “Potter has to keep up with his press cuttings...”
The dungeon rang with the Slytherins' laughter, and an unpleasant smile curled Snape's thin mouth. To Harry's fury, he began to read the article aloud.
“'Harry Potter's Secret Heartache... dear, dear. Potter, what's ailing you now? 'A boy like no other, perhaps... '”
Harry could feel his face burning. Snape was pausing at the end of every sentence to allow the Slytherins a hearty laugh. The article sounded ten times worse when read by Snape. Even Hermione was blushing scarlet now.
“'... Harry Potter's well-wishers must hope that, next time, he bestows his heart upon a worthier candidate. ' How very touching,” sneered Snape, rolling up the magazine to continued gales of laughter from the Slytherins. “Well, I think I had better separate the three of you, so you can keep your minds on your potions rather than on your tangled love lives. Weasley, you stay here. Miss Granger, over there, beside Miss Parkinson. Potter—that table in front of my desk. Move. Now.”
Furious, Harry threw his ingredients and his bag into his cauldron and dragged it up to the front of the dungeon to the empty table. Snape followed, sat down at his desk and watched Harry unload his cauldron. Determined not to look at Snape, Harry resumed the mashing of his scarab beetles, imagining each one to have Snape's face.
“All this press attention seems to have inflated your already over-large head. Potter,” said Snape quietly, once the rest of the class had settled down again.
Harry didn't answer. He knew Snape was trying to provoke him; he had done this before. No doubt he was hoping for an excuse to take a round fifty points from Gryffindor before the end of the class.
“You might be laboring under the delusion that the entire wizarding world is impressed with you,” Snape went on, so quietly that no one else could hear him (Harry continued to pound his scarab beetles, even though he had already reduced them to a very fine powder), “but I don't care how many times your picture appears in the papers. To me. Potter, you are nothing but a nasty little boy who considers rules to be beneath him.”
Harry tipped the powdered beetles into his cauldron and started cutting up his ginger roots. His hands were shaking slightly out of anger, but he kept his eyes down, as though he couldn't hear what Snape was saying to him.
“So I give you fair warning, Potter,” Snape continued in a sorter and more dangerous voice, “pint-sized celebrity or not—if I catch you breaking into my office one more time—”
“I haven't been anywhere near your office!” said Harry angrily, forgetting his feigned deafness.
“Don't lie to me,” Snape hissed, his fathomless black eyes boring into Harrys. “Boomslang skin. Gillyweed. Both come from my private stores, and I know who stole them.”
Harry stared back at Snape, determined not to blink or to look guilty. In truth, he hadn't stolen either of these things from Snape. Hermione had taken the boomslang skin back in their second year—they had needed it for the Polyjuice Potion—and while Snape had suspected Harry at the time, he had never been able to prove it. Dobby, of course, had stolen the gillyweed.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” Harry lied coldly.
“You were out of bed on the night my office was broken into!” Snape hissed. “I know it. Potter! Now, Mad-Eye Moody might have joined your fan club, but I will not tolerate your behavior! One more nighttime stroll into my office, Potter, and you will pay!”
“Right,” said Harry coolly, turning back to his ginger roots. “I'll bear that in mind if I ever get the urge to go in there.”
Snape's eyes flashed. He plunged a hand into the inside of his black robes. For one wild moment. Harry thought Snape was about to pull out his wand and curse him—then he saw that Snape had drawn out a small crystal bottle of a completely clear potion. Harry stared at it.
“Do you know what this is. Potter?” Snape said, his eyes glittering dangerously again.
“No,” said Harry, with complete honesty this time.
“It is Veritaserum—a Truth Potion so powerful that three drops would have you spilling your innermost secrets for this entire class to hear,” said Snape viciously. “Now, the use of this potion is controlled by very strict Ministry guidelines. But unless you watch your step, you might just find that my hand slips”—he shook the crystal bottle slightly—”right over your evening pumpkin juice. And then. Potter... then we'll find out whether you've been in my office or not.”
Harry said nothing. He turned back to his ginger roots once more, picked up his knife, and started slicing them again. He didn't like the sound of that Truth Potion at all, nor would he put it past Snape to slip him some. He repressed a shudder at the thought of what might come spilling out of his mouth if Snape did it... quite apart from landing a whole lot of people in trouble—Hermione and Dobby for a start—there were all the other things he was concealing... like the fact that he was in contact with Sirius... and—his insides squirmed at the thought—how he felt about Cho... He tipped his ginger roots into the cauldron too, and wondered whether he ought to take a leaf out of Moody s book and start drinking only from a private hip flask.
There was a knock on the dungeon door.
“Enter,” said Snape in his usual voice.
The class looked around as the door opened. Professor Karkaroff came in. Everyone watched him as he walked up toward Snape's desk. He was twisting his finger around his goatee and looking agitated.
“We need to talk,” said Karkaroff abruptly when he had reached Snape. He seemed so determined that nobody should hear what he was saying that he was barely opening his lips; it was as though he were a rather poor ventriloquist. Harry kept his eyes on his ginger roots, listening hard.
“I'll talk to you after my lesson, Karkaroff,” Snape muttered, but Karkaroff interrupted him.
“I want to talk now, while you can't slip off, Severus. You've been avoiding me.”
“After the lesson,” Snape snapped.
Under the pretext of holding up a measuring cup to see if he'd poured out enough armadillo bile, Harry sneaked a sidelong glance at the pair of them. Karkaroff looked extremely worried, and Snape looked angry.
Karkaroff hovered behind Snape's desk for the rest of the double period. He seemed intent on preventing Snape from slipping away at the end of class. Keen to hear what Karkaroff wanted to say, Harry deliberately knocked over his bottle of armadillo bile with two minutes to go to the bell, which gave him an excuse to duck down behind his cauldron and mop up while the rest of the class moved noisily toward the door.
“What's so urgent?” he heard Snape hiss at Karkaroff.
“This,” said Karkaroff, and Harry, peering around the edge of his cauldron, saw Karkaroff pull up the left-hand sleeve of his robe and show Snape something on his inner forearm.
“Well?” said Karkaroff, still making every effort not to move his lips. “Do you see? It's never been this clear, never since—”
“Put it away!” snarled Snape, his black eyes sweeping the classroom.
“But you must have noticed—” Karkaroff began in an agitated voice.
“We can talk later, Karkaroff!” spat Snape. “Potter! What are you doing?”
“Clearing up my armadillo bile, Professor,” said Harry innocently, straightening up and showing Snape the sodden rag he was holding.
Karkaroff turned on his heel and strode out of the dungeon. He looked both worried and angry. Not wanting to remain alone with an exceptionally angry Snape, Harry threw his books and ingredients back into his bag and left at top speed to tell Ron and Hermione what he had just witnessed.

They left the castle at noon the next day to find a weak silver sun shining down upon the grounds. The weather was milder than it had been all year, and by the time they arrived in Hogsmeade, all three of them had taken off their cloaks and thrown them over their shoulders. The food Sirius had told them to bring was in Harry's bag; they had sneaked a dozen chicken legs, a loaf of bread, and a flask of pumpkin juice from the lunch table.
They went into Gladrags Wizardwear to buy a present for Dobby, where they had fun selecting the most lurid socks they could find, including a pair patterned with flashing gold and silver stars, and another that screamed loudly when they became too smelly. Then, at half past one, they made their way up the High Street, past Dervish and Banges, and out toward the edge of the village.
Harry had never been in this direction before. The winding lane was leading them out into the wild countryside around Hogsmeade. The cottages were fewer here, and their gardens larger; they were walking toward the foot of the mountain in whose shadow Hogsmeade lay. Then they turned a corner and saw a stile at the end of the lane. Waiting for them, its front paws on the topmost bar, was a very large, shaggy black dog, which was carrying some newspapers in its mouth and looking very familiar...
“Hello, Sirius,” said Harry when they had reached him.
The black dog sniffed Harry's bag eagerly, wagged its tail once, then turned and began to trot away from them across the scrubby patch of ground that rose to meet the rocky foot of the mountain. Harry, Ron, and Hermione climbed over the stile and followed.
Sirius led them to the very foot of the mountain, where the ground was covered with boulders and rocks. It was easy for him, with his four paws, but Harry, Ron, and Hermione were soon out of breath. They followed Sirius higher, up onto the mountain itself. For nearly half an hour they climbed a steep, winding, and stony path, following Sirius's wagging tail, sweating in the sun, the shoulder straps of Harry's bag cutting into his shoulders.
Then, at last, Sirius slipped out of sight, and when they reached the place where he had vanished, they saw a narrow fissure in the rock. They squeezed into it and found themselves in a cool, dimly lit cave. Tethered at the end of it, one end of his rope around a large rock, was Buckbeak the hippogriff. Half gray horse, half giant eagle, Buckbeak's fierce orange eye flashed at the sight of them. All three of them bowed low to him, and after regarding them imperiously for a moment, Buckbeak bent his scaly front knees and allowed Hermione to rush forward and stroke his feathery neck. Harry, however, was looking at the black dog, which had just turned into his godfather.
Sirius was wearing ragged gray robes; the same ones he had been wearing when he had left Azkaban. His black hair was longer than it had been when he had appeared in the fire, and it was untidy and matted once more. He looked very thin.
“Chicken!” he said hoarsely after removing the old Daily Prophets from his mouth and throwing them down onto the cave floor.
Harry pulled open his bag and handed over the bundle of chicken legs and bread.
“Thanks,” said Sirius, opening it, grabbing a drumstick, sitting down on the cave floor, and tearing off a large chunk with his teeth. “I've been living off rats mostly. Can't steal too much food from Hogsmeade; I'd draw attention to myself.”
He grinned up at Harry, but Harry returned the grin only reluctantly.
“What're you doing here, Sirius?” he said.
“Fulfilling my duty as godfather,” said Sirius, gnawing on the chicken bone in a very doglike way. “Don't worry about it, I'm pretending to be a lovable stray.”
He was still grinning, but seeing the anxiety in Harrys face, said more seriously, “I want to be on the spot. Your last letter... well, let's just say things are getting fishier. I've been stealing the paper every time someone throws one out, and by the looks of things, I'm not the only one who's getting worried.”
He nodded at the yellowing Daily Prophets on the cave floor, and Ron picked them up and unfolded them. Harry, however, continued to stare at Sirius.
“What if they catch you? What if you're seen?”
“You three and Dumbledore are the only ones around here who know I'm an Animagus,” said Sirius, shrugging, and continuing to devour the chicken leg.
Ron nudged Harry and passed him the Daily Prophets. There were two: The first bore the headline Mystery Illness ofBartemius Crouch, the second, Ministry Witch Still Missing-Minister of Magic Now Personally Involved.
Harry scanned the story about Crouch. Phrases jumped out at him: hasn't been seen in public since November... house appears deserted... St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries decline comment... Ministry refuses to confirm rumors of critical illness...
“They're making it sound like he's dying,” said Harry slowly. “But he can't be that ill if he managed to get up here...”
“My brothers Crouch's personal assistant,” Ron informed Sirius. “He says Crouch is suffering from overwork.”
“Mind you, he did look ill, last time I saw him up close,” said Harry slowly, still reading the story. “The night my name came out of the goblet...”
“Getting his comeuppance for sacking Winky, isn't he?” said Hermione, an edge to her voice. She was stroking Buckbeak, who was crunching up Sirius's chicken bones. “I bet he wishes he hadn't done it now—bet he feels the difference now she's not there to look after him.”
“Hermione's obsessed with house-elfs,” Ron muttered to Sirius, casting Hermione a dark look. Sirius, however, looked interested.
“Crouch sacked his house-elf?”
“Yeah, at the Quidditch World Cup,” said Harry, and he launched into the story of the Dark Mark's appearance, and Winky being found with Harrys wand clutched in her hand, and Mr. Crouch's fury. When Harry had finished, Sirius was on his feet again and had started pacing up and down the cave.
“Let me get this straight,” he said after a while, brandishing a fresh chicken leg. “You first saw the elfin the Top Box. She was saving Crouch a seat, right?”
“Right,” said Harry, Ron, and Hermione together.
“But Crouch didn't turn up for the match?”
“No,” said Harry. “I think he said he'd been too busy.”
Sirius paced all around the cave in silence. Then he said, “Harry, did you check your pockets for your wand after you'd left the Top Box?”
“Erm...” Harry thought hard. “No,” he said finally. “I didn't need to use it before we got in the forest. And then I put my hand in my pocket, and all that was in there were my Omnioculars.” He stared at Sirius. “Are you saying whoever conjured the Mark stole my wand in the Top Box?”
“It's possible,” said Sirius.
“Winky didn't steal that wand!” Hermione insisted.
“The elf wasn't the only one in that box,” said Sirius, his brow furrowed as he continued to pace. “Who else was sitting behind you?”
“Loads of people,” said Harry. “Some Bulgarian ministers... Cornelius Fudge ...the Malfoys ...”
“The Malfoys!” said Ron suddenly, so loudly that his voice echoed all around the cave, and Buckbeak tossed his head nervously. “I bet it was Lucius Malfoy!”
“Anyone else?” said Sirius.
“No one,” said Harry.
“Yes, there was, there was Ludo Bagman,” Hermione reminded him.
“Oh yeah...”
“I don't know anything about Bagman except that he used to be Beater for the Wimbourne Wasps,” said Sirius, still pacing. “What's he like?”
“He's okay,” said Harry. “He keeps offering to help me with the Triwizard Tournament.”
“Does he, now?” said Sirius, frowning more deeply. “I wonder why he'd do that?”
“Says he's taken a liking to me,” said Harry.
“Hmm,” said Sirius, looking thoughtful.
“We saw him in the forest just before the Dark Mark appeared,” Hermione told Sirius. “Remember?” she said to Harry and Ron.
“Yeah, but he didn't stay in the forest, did he?” said Ron. “The moment we told him about the riot, he went off to the campsite.”
“How d'you know?” Hermione shot back. “How d'you know where he Disapparated to?”
“Come off it,” said Ron incredulously. “Are you saying you reckon Ludo Bagman conjured the Dark Mark?”
“It's more likely he did it than Winky,” said Hermione stubbornly.
“Told you,” said Ron, looking meaningfully at Sirius, “told you she's obsessed with house—”
But Sirius held up a hand to silence Ron.
“When the Dark Mark had been conjured, and the elf had been discovered holding Harry's wand, what did Crouch do?”
“Went to look in the bushes,” said Harry, “but there wasn't anyone else there.”
“Of course,” Sirius muttered, pacing up and down, “of course, he'd want to pin it on anyone but his own elf... and then he sacked her?”
“Yes,” said Hermione in a heated voice, “he sacked her, just because she hadn't stayed in her tent and let herself get trampled—”
“Hermione, will you give it a rest with the elf!” said Ron.
Sirius shook his head and said, “She's got the measure of Crouch better than you have, Ron. If you want to know what a mans like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”
He ran a hand over his unshaven face, evidently thinking hard.
“All these absences of Barty Crouch's ...he goes to the trouble of making sure his house-elf saves him a seat at the Quidditch World Cup, but doesn't bother to turn up and watch. He works very hard to reinstate the Triwizard Tournament, and then stops coming to that too... It's not like Crouch. If he's ever taken a day off work because of illness before this, I'll eat Buckbeak.”
“D'you know Crouch, then?” said Harry.
Sirius's face darkened. He suddenly looked as menacing as he had the night when Harry first met him, the night when Harry still believed Sirius to be a murderer.
“Oh I know Crouch all right,” he said quietly. “He was the one who gave the order for me to be sent to Azkaban—without a trial.”
“What?” said Ron and Hermione together.
“You're kidding!” said Harry.
“No, I'm not,” said Sirius, taking another great bite of chicken. “Crouch used to be Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, didn't you know?”
Harry, Ron, and Hermione shook their heads.
“He was tipped for the next Minister of Magic,” said Sirius. “He's a great wizard, Barty Crouch, powerfully magical—and power-hungry. Oh never a Voldemort supporter,” he said, reading the look on Harrys face. “No, Barty Crouch was always very outspoken against the Dark Side. But then a lot of people who were against the Dark Side... well, you wouldn't understand... you're too young...”
“That's what my dad said at the World Cup,” said Ron, with a trace of irritation in his voice. “Try us, why don't you?”
A grin flashed across Sirius's thin face.
“All right, I'll try you...” He walked once up the cave, back again, and then said, “Imagine that Voldemort's powerful now. You don't know who his supporters are, you don't know who's working for him and who isn't; you know he can control people so that they do terrible things without being able to stop themselves. You're scared for yourself, and your family, and your friends. Every week, news comes of more deaths, more disappearances, more torturing... the Ministry of Magic's in disarray, they don't know what to do, they're trying to keep everything hidden from the Muggles, but meanwhile, Muggles are dying too. Terror everywhere... panic... confusion... that's how it used to be.
“Well, times like that bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. Crouch's principles might've been good in the beginning—I wouldn't know. He rose quickly through the Ministry, and he started ordering very harsh measures against Voldemorts supporters. The Aurors were given new powers—powers to kill rather than capture, for instance. And I wasn't the only one who was handed straight to the dementors without trial. Crouch fought violence with violence, and authorized the use of the Unforgivable Curses against suspects. I would say he became as ruthless and cruel as many on the Dark Side. He had his supporters, mind you—plenty of people thought he was going about things the right way, and there were a lot of witches and wizards clamoring for him to take over as Minister of Magic. When Voldemort disappeared, it looked like only a matter of time until Crouch got the top job. But then something rather unfortunate happened...” Sirius smiled grimly. “Crouch's own son was caught with a group of Death Eaters who'd managed to talk their way out of Azkaban. Apparently they were trying to find Voldemort and return him to power.”
“Crouch's son was caught?” gasped Hermione.
“Yep,” said Sirius, throwing his chicken bone to Buckbeak, flinging himself back down on the ground beside the loaf of bread, and tearing it in half. “Nasty little shock for old Barty, I'd imagine. Should have spent a bit more time at home with his family, shouldn't he? Ought to have left the office early once in a while... gotten to know his own son.”
He began to wolf down large pieces of bread.
“Was his son a Death Eater?” said Harry.
“No idea,” said Sirius, still stuffing down bread. “I was in Azkaban myself when he was brought in. This is mostly stuff I've found out since I got out. The boy was definitely caught in the company of people I'd bet my life were Death Eaters—but he might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, just like the house-elf.”
“Did Crouch try and get his son off?” Hermione whispered.
Sirius let out a laugh that was much more like a bark.
“Crouch let his son off? I thought you had the measure of him, Hermione! Anything that threatened to tarnish his reputation had to go; he had dedicated his whole life to becoming Minister of Magic. You saw him dismiss a devoted house-elf because she associated him with the Dark Mark again—doesn't that tell you what he's like? Crouch's fatherly affection stretched just far enough to give his son a trial, and by all accounts, it wasn't much more than an excuse for Crouch to show how much he hated the boy... then he sent him straight to Azkaban.”
“He gave his own son to the dementors?” asked Harry quietly.
“That's right,” said Sirius, and he didn't look remotely amused now. “I saw the dementors bringing him in, watched them through the bars in my cell door. He can't have been more than nineteen. They took him into a cell near mine. He was screaming for his mother by nightfall. He went quiet after a few days, though... they all went quiet in the end... except when they shrieked in their sleep...”
For a moment, the deadened look in Sirius's eyes became more pronounced than ever, as though shutters had closed behind them.
“So he's still in Azkaban?” Harry said.
“No,” said Sirius dully. “No, he's not in there anymore. He died about a year after they brought him in.”
“He died?”
“He wasn't the only one,” said Sirius bitterly. “Most go mad in there, and plenty stop eating in the end. They lose the will to live. You could always tell when a death was coming, because the dementors could sense it, they got excited. That boy looked pretty sickly when he arrived. Crouch being an important Ministry member, he and his wife were allowed a deathbed visit. That was the last time I saw Barty Crouch, half carrying his wife past my cell. She died herself, apparently, shortly afterward. Grief. Wasted away just like the boy. Crouch never came for his sons body. The dementors buried him outside the fortress; I watched them do it.”
Sirius threw aside the bread he had just lifted to his mouth and instead picked up the flask of pumpkin juice and drained it.
“So old Crouch lost it all, just when he thought he had it made,” he continued, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “One moment, a hero, poised to become Minister of Magic... next, his son dead, his wife dead, the family name dishonored, and, so I've heard since I escaped, a big drop in popularity. Once the boy had died, people started feeling a bit more sympathetic toward the son and started asking how a nice young lad from a good family had gone so badly astray. The conclusion was that his father never cared much for him. So Cornelius Fudge got the top job, and Crouch was shunted sideways into the Department of International Magical Cooperation.”
There was a long silence. Harry was thinking of the way Crouch's eyes had bulged as he'd looked down at his disobedient house-elf back in the wood at the Quidditch World Cup. This, then, must have been why Crouch had overreacted to Winky being found beneath the Dark Mark. It had brought back memories of his son, and the old scandal, and his fall from grace at the Ministry.
“Moody says Crouch is obsessed with catching Dark wizards,” Harry told Sirius.
“Yeah, I've heard it's become a bit of a mania with him,” said Sirius, nodding. “If you ask me, he still thinks he can bring back the old popularity by catching one more Death Eater.”
“And he sneaked up here to search Snape's office!” s aid Ron triumphantly, looking at Hermione.
“Yes, and that doesn't make sense at all,” said Sirius.
“Yeah, it does!” said Ron excitedly, but Sirius shook his head.
“Listen, if Crouch wants to investigate Snape, why hasn't he been coming to judge the tournament? It would be an ideal excuse to make regular visits to Hogwarts and keep an eye on him.”
“So you think Snape could be up to something, then?” asked Harry, but Hermione broke in.
“Look, I don't care what you say, Dumbledore trusts Snape—”
“Oh give it a rest, Hermione,” said Ron impatiently. “I know Dumbledores brilliant and everything, but that doesn't mean a really clever Dark wizard couldn't fool him—”
“Why did Snape save Harry's life in the first year, then? Why didn't he just let him die?”
“I dunno—maybe he thought Dumbledore would kick him out-”
“What d'you think, Sirius?” Harry said loudly, and Ron and Hermione stopped bickering to listen.
“I think they've both got a point,” said Sirius, looking thoughtfully at Ron and Hermione. “Ever since I found out Snape was teaching here, I've wondered why Dumbledore hired him. Snape's always been fascinated by the Dark Arts, he was famous for it at school. Slimy, oily, greasy-haired kid, he was,” Sirius added, and Harry and Ron grinned at each other. “Snape knew more curses when he arrived at school than half the kids in seventh year, and he was part of a gang of Slytherins who nearly all turned out to be Death Eaters.”
Sirius held up his fingers and began ticking off names.
“Rosier and Wilkes—they were both killed by Aurors the year before Voldemort fell. The Lestranges—they're a married couple—they're in Azkaban. Avery—from what I've heard he wormed his way out of trouble by saying he'd been acting under the Imperius Curse—he's still at large. But as far as I know, Snape was never even accused of being a Death Eater—not that that means much. Plenty of them were never caught. And Snape s certainly clever and cunning enough to keep himself out of trouble.”
“Snape knows Karkaroff pretty well, but he wants to keep that quiet,” said Ron.
“Yeah, you should've seen Snape's face when Karkaroff turned up in Potions yesterday!” said Harry quickly. “Karkaroff wanted to talk to Snape, he says Snape's been avoiding him. Karkaroff looked really worried. He showed Snape something on his arm, but I couldn't see what it was.”
He showed Snape something on his arm?” said Sirius, looking frankly bewildered. He ran his fingers distractedly through his filthy hair, then shrugged again. “Well, I've no idea what that's about... but if Karkaroff s genuinely worried, and he's going to Snape for answers ...”
Sirius stared at the cave wall, then made a grimace of frustration.
“There's still the fact that Dumbledore trusts Snape, and I know Dumbledore trusts where a lot of other people wouldn't, but I just can't see him letting Snape teach at Hogwarts if he'd ever worked for Voldemort.”
“Why are Moody and Crouch so keen to get into Snapes office then?” said Ron stubbornly.
“Well,” said Sirius slowly, “I wouldn't put it past Mad-Eye to have searched every single teacher's office when he got to Hogwarts. He takes his Defense Against the Dark Arts seriously, Moody. I'm not sure he trusts anyone at all, and after the things he's seen, it's not surprising. I'll say this for Moody, though, he never killed if he could help it. Always brought people in alive where possible. He was tough, but he never descended to the level of the Death Eaters. Crouch, though... he's a different matter ...is he really ill? If he is, why did he make the effort to drag himself up to Snape's office? And if he's not... what's he up to? What was he doing at the World Cup that was so important he didn't turn up in the Top Box? What's he been doing while he should have been judging the tournament?”
Sirius lapsed into silence, still staring at the cave wall. Buckbeak was ferreting around on the rocky floor, looking for bones he might have overlooked. Finally, Sirius looked up at Ron.
“You say your brother s Crouch's personal assistant? Any chance you could ask him if he's seen Crouch lately?”
“I can try,” said Ron doubtfully. “Better not make it sound like I reckon Crouch is up to anything dodgy, though. Percy loves Crouch.”
“And you might try and find out whether they've got any leads on Bertha Jorkins while you're at it,” said Sirius, gesturing to the second copy of the Daily Prophet.
“Bagman told me they hadn't,” said Harry.
“Yes, he's quoted in the article in there,” said Sirius, nodding at the paper. “Blustering on about how bad Bertha's memory is. Well, maybe she's changed since I knew her, but the Bertha I knew wasn't forgetful at all—quite the reverse. She was a bit dim, but she had an excellent memory for gossip. It used to get her into a lot of trouble; she never knew when to keep her mouth shut. I can see her being a bit of a liability at the Ministry of Magic... maybe that's why Bagman didn't bother to look for her for so long...”
Sirius heaved an enormous sigh and rubbed his shadowed eyes.
“What's the time?”
Harry checked his watch, then remembered it hadn't been working since it had spent over an hour in the lake.
“It's half past three,” said Hermione.
“You'd better get back to school,” Sirius said, getting to his feet. “Now listen...” He looked particularly hard at Harry. “I don't want you lot sneaking out of school to see me, all right? Just send notes to me here. I still want to hear about anything odd. But you're not to go leaving Hogwarts without permission; it would be an ideal opportunity for someone to attack you.”
“No one's tried to attack me so far, except a dragon and a couple of grindylows,” Harry said, but Sirius scowled at him.
“I don't care... I'll breathe freely again when this tournament's over, and that's not until June. And don't forget, if you're talking about me among yourselves, call me Snuffles, okay?”
He handed Harry the empty napkin and flask and went to pat Buckbeak good-bye. “I'll walk to the edge of the village with you,” said Sirius, “see if I can scrounge another paper.”
He transformed into the great black dog before they left the cave, and they walked back down the mountainside with him, across the boulder-strewn ground, and back to the stile. Here he allowed each of them to pat him on the head, before turning and setting off at a run around the outskirts of the village. Harry, Ron, and Hermione made their way back into Hogsmeade and up toward Hogwarts.
“Wonder if Percy knows all that stuff about Crouch?” Ron said as they walked up the drive to the castle. “But maybe he doesn't care... It'd probably just make him admire Crouch even more. Yeah, Percy loves rules. He'd just say Crouch was refusing to break them for his own son.”
“Percy would never throw any of his family to the dementors,” said Hermione severely.
“I don't know,” said Ron. “If he thought we were standing in the way of his career... Percy's really ambitious, you know...”
They walked up the stone steps into the entrance hall, where the delicious smells of dinner wafted toward them from the Great Hall.
“Poor old Snuffles,” said Ron, breathing deeply. “He must really like you. Harry... Imagine having to live off rats.”

(hpvn.net)
Posted 12/28/07
CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT
THE MADNESS OF MR CROUCH


Harry, Ron, and Hermione went up to the Owlery after breakfast on Sunday to send a letter to Percy, asking, as Sirius had suggested, whether he had seen Mr. Crouch lately. They used Hedwig, because it had been so long since she'd had a job. When they had watched her fly out of sight through the Owlery window, they proceeded down to the kitchen to give Dobby his new socks.
The house-elves gave them a very cheery welcome, bowing and curtsying and bustling around making tea again. Dobby was ecstatic about his present.
“Harry Potter is too good to Dobby!” he squeaked, wiping large tears out of his enormous eyes.
“You saved my life with that gillyweed, Dobby, you really did,” said Harry.
“No chance of more of those eclairs, is there?” said Ron, who was looking around at the beaming and bowing house-elves.
“You've just had breakfast!” said Hermione irritably, but a great silver platter of eclairs was already zooming toward them, supported by four elves.
“We should get some stuff to send up to Snuffles,” Harry muttered.
“Good idea,” said Ron. “Give Pig something to do. You couldn't give us a bit of extra food, could you?” he said to the surrounding elves, and they bowed delightedly and hurried off to get some more.
“Dobby, where's Winky?” said Hermione, who was looking around.
“Winky is over there by the fire, miss,” said Dobby quietly, his ears drooping slightly.
“Oh dear,” said Hermione as she spotted Winky.
Harry looked over at the fireplace too. Winky was sitting on the same stool as last time, but she had allowed herself to become so filthy that she was not immediately distinguishable from the smoke-blackened brick behind her. Her clothes were ragged and unwashed. She was clutching a bottle of butterbeer and swaying slightly on her stool, staring into the fire. As they watched her, she gave an enormous hiccup.
“Winky is getting through six bottles a day now,” Dobby whispered to Harry.
“Well, it's not strong, that stuff,” Harry said.
But Dobby shook his head. “'Tis strong for a house-elf, sir,” he said.
Winky hiccuped again. The elves who had brought the eclairs gave her disapproving looks as they returned to work.
“Winky is pining, Harry Potter,” Dobby whispered sadly. “Winky wants to go home. Winky still thinks Mr. Crouch is her master, sir, and nothing Dobby says will persuade her that Professor Dumbledore is her master now.”
“Hey, Winky,” said Harry, struck by a sudden inspiration, walking over to her, and bending down, “you don't know what Mr. Crouch might be up to, do you? Because he's stopped turning up to judge the Triwizard Tournament.”
Winky's eyes flickered. Her enormous pupils focused on Harry. She swayed slightly again and then said, “M—Master is stopped—hic—coming?”
“Yeah,” said Harry, “we haven't seen him since the first task. The Daily Prophet's saying he's ill.”
Winky swayed some more, staring blurrily at Harry.
“Masterhicill?”
Her bottom lip began to tremble.
“But we're not sure if that's true,” said Hermione quickly.
“Master is needing his—hie—Winky!” whimpered the elf. “Master cannot—hic—manage—hic—all by himself...”
“Other people manage to do their own housework, you know, Winky,” Hermione said severely.
“Winky—hic—is not only—hic—doing housework for Mr. Crouch!” Winky squeaked indignantly, swaying worse than ever and slopping butterbeer down her already heavily stained blouse. “Master is—hic—trusting Winky with—hic—the most important—hic—the most secret...”
“What?” said Harry.
But Winky shook her head very hard, spilling more butterbeer down herself.
“Winky keeps—hic—her master's secrets,” she said mutinously, swaying very heavily now, frowning up at Harry with her eyes crossed. “You is—hic—nosing, you is.”
“Winky must not talk like that to Harry Potter!” said Dobby angrily. “Harry Potter is brave and noble and Harry Potter is not nosy!”
“He is nosing—hic—into my master's—hic—private and secret—hic—Winky is a good house-elfhic—Winky keeps her silence—hic—people trying to—hic—pry and poke—hic—”
Winky's eyelids drooped and suddenly, without warning, she slid off her stool into the hearth, snoring loudly. The empty bottle of butterbeer rolled away across the stone-flagged floor. Half a dozen house-elves came hurrying forward, looking disgusted. One of them picked up the bottle; the others covered Winky with a large checked tablecloth and tucked the ends in neatly, hiding her from view.
“We is sorry you had to see that, sirs and miss!” squeaked a nearby elf, shaking his head and looking very ashamed. “We is hoping you will not judge us all by Winky, sirs and miss!”
“She's unhappy!” said Hermione, exasperated. “Why don't you try and cheer her up instead of covering her up?”
“Begging your pardon, miss,” said the house-elf, bowing deeply again, “but house-elves has no right to be unhappy when there is work to be done and masters to be served.”
“Oh for heavens sake!” Hermione cried. “Listen to me, all of you! You've got just as much right as wizards to be unhappy! You've got the right to wages and holidays and proper clothes, you don't have to do everything you're told—look at Dobby!”
“Miss will please keep Dobby out of this,” Dobby mumbled, looking scared. The cheery smiles had vanished from the faces of the house-elves around the kitchen. They were suddenly looking at Hermione as though she were mad and dangerous.
“We has your extra food!” squeaked an elf at Harry's elbow, and he shoved a large ham, a dozen cakes, and some fruit into Harry's arms. “Good-bye!”
The house-elves crowded around Harry, Ron, and Hermione and began shunting them out of the kitchen, many little hands pushing in the smalls of their backs.
“Thank you for the socks, Harry Potter!” Dobby called miserably from the hearth, where he was standing next to the lumpy tablecloth that was Winky.
“You couldn't keep your mouth shut, could you, Hermione?” said Ron angrily as the kitchen door slammed shut behind them. “They won't want us visiting them now! We could've tried to get more stuff out of Winky about Crouch!”
“Oh as if you care about that!” scoffed Hermione. “You only like coming down here for the food!”
It was an irritable sort of day after that. Harry got so tired of Ron and Hermione sniping at each other over their homework in the common room that he took Sirius's food up to the Owlery that evening on his own.
Pigwidgeon was much too small to carry an entire ham up to the mountain by himself, so Harry enlisted the help of two school screech owls as well. When they had set off into the dusk, looking extremely odd carrying the large package between them. Harry leaned on the windowsill, looking out at the grounds, at the dark, rustling treetops of the Forbidden Forest, and the rippling sails of the Durmstrang ship. An eagle owl flew through the coil of smoke rising from Hagrids chimney; it soared toward the castle, around the Owlery, and out of sight. Looking down, Harry saw Hagrid digging energetically in front of his cabin. Harry wondered what he was doing; it looked as though he were making a new vegetable patch. As he watched, Madame Maxime emerged from the Beauxbatons carriage and walked over to Hagrid. She appeared to be trying to engage him in conversation. Hagrid leaned upon his spade, but did not seem keen to prolong their talk, because Madame Maxime returned to the carriage shortly afterward.
Unwilling to go back to Gryffindor Tower and listen to Ron and Hermione snarling at each other, Harry watched Hagrid digging until the darkness swallowed him and the owls around Harry began to awake, swooshing past him into the night.

By breakfast the next day Ron's and Hermione's bad moods had burnt out, and to Harrys relief, Ron's dark predictions that the house-elves would send substandard food up to the Gryffindor table because Hermione had insulted them proved false; the bacon, eggs, and kippers were quite as good as usual.
When the post owls arrived, Hermione looked up eagerly; she seemed to be expecting something.
“Percy won't've had time to answer yet,” said Ron. “We only sent Hedwig yesterday.”
“No, it's not that,” said Hermione. “I've taken out a subscription to the Daily Prophet. I'm getting sick of finding everything out from the Slytherins.”
“Good thinking!” said Harry, also looking up at the owls. “Hey, Hermione, I think you're in luck—”
A gray owl was soaring down toward Hermione.
“It hasn't got a newspaper, though,” she said, looking disappointed. “It's—”
But to her bewilderment, the gray owl landed in front of her plate, closely followed by four barn owls, a brown owl, and a tawny.
“How many subscriptions did you take out?” said Harry, seizing Hermione's goblet before it was knocked over by the cluster of owls, all of whom were jostling close to her, trying to deliver their own letter first.
“What on earth—?” Hermione said, taking the letter from the gray owl, opening it, and starting to read. “Oh really!” she sputtered, going rather red.
“What's up?” said Ron.
“It,'s—oh how ridiculous—”
She thrust the letter at Harry, who saw that it was not handwritten, but composed from pasted letters that seemed to have been cut out of the Daily Prophet.

YOU ARE A WICKED GIRL. HARRY POTTER DESERVES
BETTER. GO BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM MUGGLE.

“They're all like it!” said Hermione desperately, opening one letter after another. “'Harry Potter can do much better than the likes of you... ' 'You deserve to be boiled in frog spawn... ' Ouch!”
She had opened the last envelope, and yellowish-green liquid smelling strongly of petrol gushed over her hands, which began to erupt in large yellow boils.
“Undiluted bubotuber pus!” said Ron, picking up the envelope gingerly and sniffing it.
“Ow!” said Hermione, tears starting in her eyes as she tried to rub the pus off her hands with a napkin, but her fingers were now so thickly covered in painful sores that it looked as though she were wearing a pair of thick, knobbly gloves.
“You'd better get up to the hospital wing,” said Harry as the owls around Hermione took flight. “We'll tell Professor Sprout where you've gone...”
“I warned her!” said Ron as Hermione hurried out of the Great Hall, cradling her hands. “I warned her not to annoy Rita Skeeter! Look at this one ...” He read out one of the letters Hermione had left behind: “I read In Witch Weekly about how you are playing Harry Potter false and that boy has had enough hardship and I will be sending you a curse by next post as soon as I can find a big enough envelope. ' Blimey, she'd better watch out for herself.”
Hermione didn't turn up for Herbology. As Harry and Ron left the greenhouse for their Care of Magical Creatures class, they saw Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle descending the stone steps of the castle. Pansy Parkinson was whispering and giggling behind them with her gang of Slytherin girls. Catching sight of Harry, Pansy called, “Potter, have you split up with your girlfriend? Why was she so upset at breakfast?”
Harry ignored her; he didn't want to give her the satisfaction of knowing how much trouble the Witch Weekly article had caused.
Hagrid, who had told them last lesson that they had finished with unicorns, was waiting for them outside his cabin with a fresh supply of open crates at his feet. Harrys heart sank at the sight of the crates—surely not another skrewt hatching?—but when he got near enough to see inside, he found himself looking at a number of flurry black creatures with long snouts. Their front paws were curiously flat, like spades, and they were blinking up at the class, looking politely puzzled at all the attention.
“These're nifflers,” said Hagrid, when the class had gathered around. “Yeh find 'em down mines mostly. They like sparkly stuff... There yeh go, look.”
One of the nifflers had suddenly leapt up and attempted to bite Pansy Parkinson's watch off her wrist. She shrieked and jumped backward.
“Useful little treasure detectors,” said Hagrid happily. “Thought we'd have some fun with 'em today. See over there?” He pointed at the large patch of freshly turned earth Harry had watched him digging from the Owlery window. “I've buried some gold coins. I've got a prize fer whoever picks the niffler that digs up most. Jus' take off all yer valuables, an' choose a niffler, an get ready ter set 'em loose.”
Harry took off his watch, which he was only wearing out of habit, as it didn't work anymore, and stuffed it into his pocket. Then he picked up a niffler. It put its long snout in Harry's ear and sniffed enthusiastically. It was really quite cuddly.
“Hang on,” said Hagrid, looking down into the crate, “there's a spare niffler here... who's missin? Where's Hermione?”
“She had to go to the hospital wing,” said Ron.
“We'll explain later,” Harry muttered; Pansy Parkinson was listening.
It was easily the most fun they had ever had in Care of Magical Creatures. The nifflers dived in and out of the patch of earth as though it were water, each scurrying back to the student who had released it and spitting gold into their hands. Ron's was particularly efficient; it had soon filled his lap with coins.
“Can you buy these as pets, Hagrid?” he asked excitedly as his niffler dived back into the soil, splattering his robes.
“Yer mum wouldn' be happy, Ron,” said Hagrid, grinning. “They wreck houses, nifflers. I reckon they've nearly got the lot, now,” he added, pacing around the patch of earth while the nifflers continued to dive. “I on'y buried a hundred coins. Oh there y'are, Hermione!”
Hermione was walking toward them across the lawn. Her hands were very heavily bandaged and she looked miserable. Pansy Parkinson was watching her beadily.
“Well, let's check how yeh've done!” said Hagrid. “Count yer coins! An' there's no point tryin' ter steal any, Goyle,” he added, his beetle-black eyes narrowed. “It's leprechaun gold. Vanishes after a few hours.”
Goyle emptied his pockets, looking extremely sulky. It turned out that Ron's niffler had been most successful, so Hagrid gave him an enormous slab of Honeydukes chocolate for a prize. The bell rang across the grounds for lunch; the rest of the class set off back to the castle, but Harry, Ron, and Hermione stayed behind to help Hagrid put the nifflers back in their boxes. Harry noticed Madame Maxime watching them out other carriage window.
“What yeh done ter your hands, Hermione?” said Hagrid, looking concerned.
Hermione told him about the hate mail she had received that morning, and the envelope full of bubotuber pus.
“Aaah, don worry,” said Hagrid gendy, looking down at her. “I got some o' those letters an all, after Rita Skeeter wrote abou me mum. 'Yeh're a monster an yeh should be put down. ' 'Yer mother killed innocent people an if you had any decency you d jump in a lake. '”
“No!” said Hermione, looking shocked.
“Yeah,” said Hagrid, heaving the niffler crates over by his cabin wall. “They're jus' nutters, Hermione. Don' open 'em if yeh get any more. Chuck 'em straigh' in the fire.”
“You missed a really good lesson,” Harry told Hermione as they headed back toward the castle. “They're good, nifflers, aren't they, Ron?”
Ron, however, was frowning at the chocolate Hagrid had given him. He looked thoroughly put out about something.
“What's the matter?” said Harry. “Wrong flavor?”
“No,” said Ron shortly. “Why didn't you tell me about the gold?”
“What gold?” said Harry.
“The gold I gave you at the Quidditch World Cup,” said Ron. “The leprechaun gold I gave you for my Omnioculars. In the Top Box. Why didn't you tell me it disappeared?”
Harry had to think for a moment before he realized what Ron was talking about.
“Oh...” he said, the memory coming back to him at last. “I dunno ...I never noticed it had gone. I was more worried about my wand, wasn't I?”
They climbed the steps into the entrance hall and went into the Great Hall for lunch.
“Must be nice,” Ron said abruptly, when they had sat down and started serving themselves roast beef and Yorkshire puddings. “To have so much money you don't notice if a pocketful of Galleons goes missing.”
“Listen, I had other stuff on my mind that night!” s aid Harry impatiently. “We all did, remember?”
“I didn't know leprechaun gold vanishes,” Ron muttered. “I thought I was paying you back. You shouldn't've given me that Chudley Cannon hat for Christmas.”
“Forget it, all right?” said Harry.
Ron speared a roast potato on the end of his fork, glaring at it. Then he said, “I hate being poor.”
Harry and Hermione looked at each other. Neither of them really knew what to say.
“It's rubbish,” said Ron, still glaring down at his potato. “I don't blame Fred and George for trying to make some extra money. Wish I could. Wish I had a niffler.”
“Well, we know what to get you next Christmas,” said Hermione brightly. Then, when Ron continued to look gloomy, she said, “Come on, Ron, it could be worse. At least your fingers aren't full of pus.” Hermione was having a lot of difficulty managing her knife and fork, her fingers were so stiff and swollen. “I hate that Skeeter woman!” she burst out savagely. “I'll get her back for this if it's the last thing I do!”

Hate mail continued to arrive for Hermione over the following week, and although she followed Hagrid's advice and stopped opening it, several of her ill-wishers sent Howlers, which exploded at the Gryffindor table and shrieked insults at her for the whole Hall to hear. Even those people who didn't read Witch Weekly knew all about the supposed Harry-Krum-Hermione triangle now. Harry was getting sick of telling people that Hermione wasn't his girlfriend.
“It'll die down, though,” he told Hermione, “if we just ignore it... People got bored with that stuff she wrote about me last time
“I want to know how she's listening into private conversations when she's supposed to be banned from the grounds!” said Hermione angrily.
Hermione hung back in their next Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson to ask Professor Moody something. The rest of the class was very eager to leave; Moody had given them such a rigorous test of hex-deflection that many of them were nursing small injuries. Harry had such a bad case of Twitchy Ears, he had to hold his hands clamped over them as he walked away from the class.
“Well, Rita's definitely not using an Invisibility Cloak!” Hermione panted five minutes later, catching up with Harry and Ron in the entrance hall and pulling Harrys hand away from one of his wiggling ears so that he could hear her. “Moody says he didn't see her anywhere near the judges' table at the second task, or anywhere near the lake!”
“Hermione, is there any point in telling you to drop this?” said Ron.
“No!” said Hermione stubbornly. “I want to know how she heard me talking to Viktor! And how she found out about Hagrids mum!”
“Maybe she had you bugged,” said Harry.
“Bugged?” said Ron blankly. “What... put fleas on her or something?”
Harry started explaining about hidden microphones and recording equipment. Ron was fascinated, but Hermione interrupted them.
“Aren't you two ever going to read Hogwarts, A History^”
“What's the point?” said Ron. “You know it by heart, we can just ask you.”
“All those substitutes for magic Muggles use—electricity, computers, and radar, and all those things—they all go haywire around Hogwarts, there's too much magic in the air. No, Rita's using magic to eavesdrop, she must be... If I could just find out what it is ...ooh, if it's illegal, I'll have her ...”
“Haven't we got enough to worry about?” Ron asked her. “Do we have to start a vendetta against Rita Skeeter as well?”
“I'm not asking you to help!” Hermione snapped. “I'll do it on my own!”
She marched back up the marble staircase without a backward glance. Harry was quite sure she was going to the library.
“What's the betting she comes back with a box of / Hate Rita Skeeter badges?” said Ron.
Hermione, however, did not ask Harry and Ron to help her pursue vengeance against Rita Skeeter, for which they were both grateful, because their workload was mounting ever higher in the days before the Easter holidays. Harry frankly marveled at the fact that Hermione could research magical methods of eavesdropping as well as everything else they had to do. He was working flat-out just to get through all their homework, though he made a point of sending regular food packages up to the cave in the mountain for Sirius; after last summer, Harry had not forgotten what it felt like to be continually hungry. He enclosed notes to Sirius, telling him that nothing out of the ordinary had happened, and that they were still waiting for an answer from Percy.
Hedwig didn't return until the end of the Easter holidays. Percy's letter was enclosed in a package of Easter eggs that Mrs. Weasley had sent. Both Harrys and Ron's were the size of dragon eggs and full of homemade toffee. Hermiones, however, was smaller than a chicken egg. Her face fell when she saw it.
“Your mum doesn't read Witch Weekly, by any chance, does she, Ron?” she asked quietly.
“Yeah,” said Ron, whose mouth was full of toffee. “Gets it for the recipes.”
Hermione looked sadly at her tiny egg.
“Don't you want to see what Percy's written?” Harry asked her hastily.
Percys letter was short and irritated.

As I am constantly telling the Daily Prophet, Mr. Crouch is taking a well-deserved break. He is sending in regular owls with instructions. No, I haven't actually seen him, but I think I can be trusted to know my own superior's handwriting. I have quite enough to do at the moment without trying to quash these ridiculous rumors. Please don't bother me again unless it's something important. Happy Easter.

The start of the summer term would normally have meant that Harry was training hard for the last Quidditch match of the season. This year, however, it was the third and final task in the Triwizard Tournament for which he needed to prepare, but he still didn't know what he would have to do. Finally, in the last week of May, Professor McGonagall held him back in Transfiguration.
“You are to go down to the Quidditch field tonight at nine o'clock. Potter,” she told him. “Mr. Bagman will be there to tell the champions about the third task.”
So at half past eight that night. Harry left Ron and Hermione in Gryffindor Tower and went downstairs. As he crossed the entrance hall, Cedric came up from the Hufflepuff common room.
“What d'you reckon it's going to be?” he asked Harry as they went together down the stone steps, out into the cloudy night. “Fleur keeps going on about underground tunnels; she reckons we've got to find treasure.”
“That wouldn't be too bad,” said Harry, thinking that he would simply ask Hagrid for a niffler to do the job for him.
They walked down the dark lawn to the Quidditch stadium, turned through a gap in the stands, and walked out onto the field.
“What've they done to it?” Cedric said indignantly, stopping dead.
The Quidditch field was no longer smooth and flat. It looked as though somebody had been building long, low walls all over it that twisted and crisscrossed in every direction.
“They're hedges!” said Harry, bending to examine the nearest one.
“Hello there!” called a cheery voice.
Ludo Bagman was standing in the middle of the field with Krum and Fleur. Harry and Cedric made their way toward them, climbing over the hedges. Fleur beamed at Harry as he came nearer. Her attitude toward him had changed completely since he had saved her sister from the lake.
“Well, what d'you think?” said Bagman happily as Harry and Cedric climbed over the last hedge. “Growing nicely, aren't they? Give them a month and Hagrid'll have them twenty feet high. Don't worry,” he added, grinning, spotting the less-than-happy expressions on Harrys and Cedric's faces, “you'll have your Quidditch field back to normal once the task is over! Now, I imagine you can guess what we're making here?”
No one spoke for a moment. Then—
“Maze,” grunted Krum.
“That's right!” said Bagman. “A maze. The third task's really very straightforward. The Triwizard Cup will be placed in the center of the maze. The first champion to touch it will receive full marks.”
“We seemply 'ave to get through the maze?” said Fleur.
“There will be obstacles,” said Bagman happily, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Hagrid is providing a number of creatures... then there will be spells that must be broken ...all that sort of thing, you know. Now, the champions who are leading on points will get a head start into the maze.” Bagman grinned at Harry and Cedric. “Then Mr. Krum will enter... then Miss Delacour. But you'll all be in with a fighting chance, depending how well you get past the obstacles. Should be fun, eh?”
Harry, who knew only too well the kind of creatures that Hagrid was likely to provide for an event like this, thought it was unlikely to be any fun at all. However, he nodded politely like the other champions.
“Very well... if you haven't got any questions, we'll go back up to the castle, shall we, it's a bit chilly...”
Bagman hurried alongside Harry as they began to wend their way out of the growing maze. Harry had the feeling that Bagman was going to start offering to help him again, but just then, Krum tapped Harry on the shoulder.
“Could I haff a vord?”
“Yeah, all right,” said Harry, slightly surprised.
“Vill you valk vith me?”
“Okay,” said Harry curiously.
Bagman looked slightly perturbed.
“I'll wait for you. Harry, shall I?”
“No, it's okay, Mr. Bagman,” said Harry, suppressing a smile, “I think I can find the castle on my own, thanks.”
Harry and Krum left the stadium together, but Krum did not set a course for the Durmstrang ship. Instead, he walked toward the forest.
“What're we going this way for?” said Harry as they passed Hagrid s cabin and the illuminated Beauxbatons carriage.
“Don't vont to be overheard,” said Krum shortly.
When at last they had reached a quiet stretch of ground a short way from the Beauxbatons horses' paddock, Krum stopped in the shade of the trees and turned to face Harry.
“I vant to know,” he said, glowering, “vot there is between you and Hermy-own-ninny.”
Harry, who from Krum's secretive manner had expected something much more serious than this, stared up at Krum in amazement.
“Nothing,” he said. But Krum glowered at him, and Harry, somehow struck anew by how tall Krum was, elaborated. “We're friends. She's not my girlfriend and she never has been. It's just that Skeeter woman making things up.”
“Hermy-own-ninny talks about you very often,” said Krum, looking suspiciously at Harry.
“Yeah,” said Harry, “because were friends.”
He couldn't quite believe he was having this conversation with Viktor Krum, the famous International Quidditch player. It was as though the eighteen-year-old Krum thought he. Harry, was an equal—a real rival—
“You haff never... you haff not...”
“No,” said Harry very firmly.
Krum looked slightly happier. He stared at Harry for a few seconds, then said, “You fly very veil. I vos votching at the first task.”
“Thanks,” said Harry, grinning broadly and suddenly feeling much taller himself. “I saw you at the Quidditch World Cup. The Wronski Feint, you really—”
But something moved behind Krum in the trees, and Harry, who had some experience of the sort of thing that lurked in the forest, instinctively grabbed Krum's arm and pulled him around.
“Vot is it?”
Harry shook his head, staring at the place where he'd seen movement. He slipped his hand inside his robes, reaching for his wand.
Suddenly a man staggered out from behind a tall oak. For a moment, Harry didn't recognize him... then he realized it was Mr. Crouch.
He looked as though he had been traveling for days. The knees of his robes were ripped and bloody, his face scratched; he was unshaven and gray with exhaustion. His neat hair and mustache were both in need of a wash and a trim. His strange appearance, however, was nothing to the way he was behaving. Muttering and gesticulating, Mr. Crouch appeared to be talking to someone that he alone could see. He reminded Harry vividly of an old tramp he had seen once when out shopping with the Dursleys. That man too had been conversing wildly with thin air; Aunt Petunia had seized Dudley's hand and pulled him across the road to avoid him; Uncle Vernon had then treated the family to a long rant about what he would like to do with beggars and vagrants.
“Vosn't he a judge?” said Krum, staring at Mr. Crouch. “Isn't he vith your Ministry?”
Harry nodded, hesitated for a moment, then walked slowly toward Mr. Crouch, who did not look at him, but continued to talk to a nearby tree.
“...and when you've done that, Weatherby, send an owl to Dumbledore confirming the number of Durmstrang students who will be attending the tournament, Karkaroff has just sent word there will be twelve...”
“Mr. Crouch?” said Harry cautiously.
“...and then send another owl to Madame Maxime, because she might want to up the number of students she's bringing, now Karkaroff's made it a round dozen ...do that, Weatherby, will you? Will you? Will...”
Mr. Crouch's eyes were bulging. He stood staring at the tree, muttering soundlessly at it. Then he staggered sideways and fell to his knees.
“Mr. Crouch?” Harry said loudly. “Are you all right?”
Crouch's eyes were rolling in his head. Harry looked around at Krum, who had followed him into the trees, and was looking down at Crouch in alarm.
“Vot is wrong with him?”
“No idea,” Harry muttered. “Listen, you'd better go and get someone—”
“Dumbledore!” gasped Mr. Crouch. He reached out and seized a handful of Harrys robes, dragging him closer, though his eyes were staring over Harry's head. “I need... see ...Dumbledore...”
“Okay,” said Harry, “if you get up, Mr. Crouch, we can go up to the-”
“I've done... stupid... thing...” Mr. Crouch breathed. He looked utterly mad. His eyes were rolling and bulging, and a trickle of spittle was sliding down his chin. Every word he spoke seemed to cost him a terrible effort. “Must... tell... Dumbledore...”
“Get up, Mr. Crouch,” said Harry loudly and clearly. “Get up, I'll take you to Dumbledore!”
Mr, Crouch's eyes rolled forward onto Harry.
“Who ...you?” he whispered.
“I'm a student at the school,” said Harry, looking around at Krum for some help, but Krum was hanging back, looking extremely nervous.
“You're not... his?” whispered Crouch, his mouth sagging.
“No,” said Harry, without the faintest idea what Crouch was talking about.
“Dumbledore's?”
“That's right,” said Harry.
Crouch was pulling him closer; Harry tried to loosen Crouch's grip on his robes, but it was too powerful.
“Warn ...Dumbledore ...”
“I'll get Dumbledore if you let go of me,” said Harry. “Just let go, Mr. Crouch, and I'll get him...”
“Thank you, Weatherby, and when you have done that, I would like a cup of tea. My wife and son will be arriving shortly, we are attending a concert tonight with Mr. and Mrs. Fudge.”
Crouch was now talking fluently to a tree again, and seemed completely unaware that Harry was there, which surprised Harry so much he didn't notice that Crouch had released him.
“Yes, my son has recently gained twelve o. w. l. s, most satisfactory, yes, thank you, yes, very proud indeed. Now, if you could bring me that memo from the Andorran Minister of Magic, I think I will have time to draft a response...”
“You stay here with him!” Harry said to Krum. “I'll get Dumbledore, I'll be quicker, I know where his office is—”
“He is mad,” said Krum doubtfully, staring down at Crouch, who was still gabbling to the tree, apparently convinced it was Percy.
“Just stay with him,” said Harry, starting to get up, but his movement seemed to trigger another abrupt change in Mr. Crouch, who seized him hard around the knees and pulled Harry back to the ground.
“Don't... leave... me!” he whispered, his eyes bulging again. “I... escaped... must warn... must tell... see Dumbledore... my fault... all my fault... Bertha... dead ...all my fault... my son ...my fault... tell Dumbledore ...Harry Potter ...the Dark Lord... stronger... Harry Potter ...”
“I'll get Dumbledore if you let me go, Mr. Crouch!” said Harry. He looked furiously around at Krum. “Help me, will you?”
Looking extremely apprehensive, Krum moved forward and squatted down next to Mr. Crouch.
“Just keep him here,” said Harry, pulling himself free of Mr. Crouch. “I'll be back with Dumbledore.”
“Hurry, von't you?” Krum called after him as Harry sprinted away from the forest and up through the dark grounds. They were deserted; Bagman, Cedric, and Fleur had disappeared. Harry tore up the stone steps, through the oak front doors, and off up the marble staircase, toward the second floor.
Five minutes later he was hurtling toward a stone gargoyle standing halfway along an empty corridor.
“Sher—sherbet lemon!” he panted at it.
This was the password to the hidden staircase to Dumbledore's office—or at least, it had been two years ago. The password had evidently changed, however, for the stone gargoyle did not spring to life and jump aside, but stood frozen, glaring at Harry malevolently.
“Move!” Harry shouted at it. “C'mon!”
But nothing at Hogwarts had ever moved just because he shouted at it; he knew it was no good. He looked up and down the dark corridor. Perhaps Dumbledore was in the staffroom? He started running as fast as he could toward the staircase—
“POTTER!”
Harry skidded to a halt and looked around. Snape had just emerged from the hidden staircase behind the stone gargoyle. The wall was sliding shut behind him even as he beckoned Harry back toward him.
“What are you doing here, Potter?”
“I need to see Professor Dumbledore!” said Harry, running back up the corridor and skidding to a standstill in front of Snape instead. “It's Mr. Crouch... he's just turned up ...he's in the forest... he's asking—”
“What is this rubbish?” said Snape, his black eyes glittering. “What are you talking about?”
“Mr. Crouch!” Harry shouted. “From the Ministry! He's ill or something—he's in the forest, he wants to see Dumbledore! Just give me the password up to—”
“The headmaster is busy. Potter,” said Snape, his thin mouth curling into an unpleasant smile.
“I've got to tell Dumbledore!” Harry yelled.
“Didn't you hear me. Potter?”
Harry could tell Snape was thoroughly enjoying himself, denying Harry the thing he wanted when he was so panicky.
“Look,” said Harry angrily, “Crouch isn't right—he's—he's out of his mind—he says he wants to warn—”
The stone wall behind Snape slid open. Dumbledore was standing there, wearing long green robes and a mildly curious expression. “Is there a problem?” he said, looking between Harry and Snape.
“Professor!” Harry said, sidestepping Snape before Snape could speak, “Mr. Crouch is here—he's down in the forest, he wants to speak to you!”
Harry expected Dumbledore to ask questions, but to his relief, Dumbledore did nothing of the sort.
“Lead the way,” he said promptly, and he swept off along the corridor behind Harry, leaving Snape standing next to the gargoyle and looking twice as ugly.
“What did Mr. Crouch say. Harry?” said Dumbledore as they walked swiftly down the marble staircase.
“Said he wants to warn you... said he's done something terrible ...he mentioned his son... and Bertha Jorkins... and—and Voldemort... something about Voldemort getting stronger...”
“Indeed,” said Dumbledore, and he quickened his pace as they hurried out into the pitch-darkness.
“He's not acting normally,” Harry said, hurrying along beside Dumbledore. “He doesn't seem to know where he is. He keeps talking like he thinks Percy Weasley's there, and then he changes, and says he needs to see you... I left him with Viktor Krum.”
“You did?” said Dumbledore sharply, and he began to take longer strides still, so that Harry was running to keep up. “Do you know if anybody else saw Mr. Crouch?”
“No,” said Harry. “Krum and I were talking, Mr. Bagman had just finished telling us about the third task, we stayed behind, and then we saw Mr. Crouch coming out of the forest—”
“Where are they?” said Dumbledore as the Beauxbatons carriage emerged from the darkness.
“Over here,” said Harry, moving in front of Dumbledore, leading the way through the trees. He couldn't hear Crouch's voice anymore, but he knew where he was going; it hadn't been much past the Beauxbatons carriage... somewhere around here...
“Viktor?” Harry shouted.
No one answered.
“They were here,” Harry said to Dumbledore. “They were definitely somewhere around here...”
“Lumos,” Dumbledore said, lighting his wand and holding it up.
Its narrow beam traveled from black trunk to black trunk, illuminating the ground. And then it fell upon a pair of feet.
Harry and Dumbledore hurried forward. Krum was sprawled on the forest floor. He seemed to be unconscious. There was no sign at all of Mr. Crouch. Dumbledore bent over Krum and gently lifted one of his eyelids.
“Stunned,” he said softly. His half-moon glasses glittered in the wandlight as he peered around at the surrounding trees.
“Should I go and get someone?” said Harry. “Madam Pomfrey?”
“No,” said Dumbledore swiftly. “Stay here.”
He raised his wand into the air and pointed it in the direction of Hagrid's cabin. Harry saw something silvery dart out of it and streak away through the trees like a ghostly bird. Then Dumbledore bent over Krum again, pointed his wand at him, and muttered, “Ennervate.”
Krum opened his eyes. He looked dazed. When he saw Dumbledore, he tried to sit up, but Dumbledore put a hand on his shoulder and made him lie still.
“He attacked me!” Krum muttered, putting a hand up to his head. “The old madman attacked me! I vos looking around to see vare Potter had gone and he attacked from behind!”
“Lie still for a moment,” Dumbledore said.
The sound of thunderous footfalls reached them, and Hagrid came panting into sight with Fang at his heels. He was carrying his crossbow.
“Professor Dumbledore!” he said, his eyes widening. “Harry—what the—?”
“Hagrid, I need you to fetch Professor Karkaroff,” said Dumbledore. “His student has been attacked. When you've done that, kindly alert Professor Moody—”
“No need, Dumbledore,” said a wheezy growl. “I'm here.”
Moody was limping toward them, leaning on his staff, his wand lit.
“Damn leg,” he said furiously. “Would've been here quicker... what's happened? Snape said something about Crouch—”
“Crouch?” said Hagrid blankly.
“Karkaroff, please, Hagrid!” said Dumbledore sharply.
“Oh yeah .. '. right y'are, Professor...” said Hagrid, and he turned and disappeared into the dark trees, Fang trotting after him.
“I don't know where Barty Crouch is,” Dumbledore told Moody, “but it is essential that we find him.”
“I'm onto it,” growled Moody, and he pulled out his wand and limped off into the forest.
Neither Dumbledore nor Harry spoke again until they heard the unmistakable sounds of Hagrid and Fang returning. Karkaroff was hurrying along behind them. He was wearing his sleek silver furs, and he looked pale and agitated.
“What is this?” he cried when he saw Krum on the ground and Dumbledore and Harry beside him. “What's going on?”
“I vos attacked!” said Krum, sitting up now and rubbing his head. “Mr. Crouch or votever his name—”
“Crouch attacked you? Crouch attacked you? The Triwizard judge?”
“Igor,” Dumbledore began, but Karkaroff had drawn himself up, clutching his furs around him, looking livid.
“Treachery!” he bellowed, pointing at Dumbledore. “It is a plot! You and your Ministry of Magic have lured me here under false pretenses, Dumbledore! This is not an equal competition! First you sneak Potter into the tournament, though he is underage! Now one of your Ministry friends attempts to put my champion out of action! I smell double-dealing and corruption in this whole affair, and you, Dumbledore, you, with your talk of closer international
wizarding links, of rebuilding old ties, of forgetting old differences—here's what I think of you!”
Karkaroff spat onto the ground at Dumbledore's feet. In one swift movement, Hagrid seized the front of Karkaroff's furs, lifted him into the air, and slammed him against a nearby tree.
“Apologize!” Hagrid snarled as Karkaroff gasped for breath, Hagrid's massive fist at his throat, his feet dangling in midair.
“Hagrid, no!” Dumbledore shouted, his eyes flashing.
Hagrid removed the hand pinning Karkaroff to the tree, and Karkaroff slid all the way down the trunk and slumped in a huddle at its roots; a few twigs and leaves showered down upon his head.
“Kindly escort Harry back up to the castle, Hagrid,” said Dumbledore sharply.
Breathing heavily, Hagrid gave Karkaroff a glowering look.
“Maybe I'd better stay here. Headmaster...”
“You will take Harry back to school, Hagrid,” Dumbledore repeated firmly. “Take him right up to Gryffindor Tower. And Harry—I want you to stay there. Anything you might want to do—any owls you might want to send—they can wait until morning, do you understand me?”
“Er—yes,” said Harry, staring at him. How had Dumbledore known that, at that very moment, he had been thinking about sending Pigwidgeon straight to Sirius, to tell him what had happened?
“I'll leave Fang with yeh. Headmaster,” Hagrid said, staring menacingly at Karkaroff, who was still sprawled at the foot of the tree, tangled in furs and tree roots. “Stay, Fang. C'mon, Harry.”
They marched in silence past the Beauxbatons carriage and up toward the castle.
“How dare he,” Hagrid growled as they strode past the lake. “How dare he accuse Dumbledore. Like Dumbledore'd do anythin' like that. Like Dumbledore wanted you in the tournament in the firs' place. Worried! I dunno when I seen Dumbledore more worried than he's bin lately. An' you!” Hagrid suddenly said angrily to Harry, who looked up at him, taken aback. “What were yeh doin', wanderin' off with ruddy Krum? He's from Durmstrang, Harry! Coulda jinxed yeh right there, couldn he? Hasn' Moody taught yeh nothin'? 'Magine lettin him lure yeh off on yer own—”
“Krum's all right!” said Harry as they climbed the steps into the entrance hall. “He wasn't trying to jinx me, he just wanted to talk about Hermione—”
“I'll be havin' a few words with her, an' all,” said Hagrid grimly, stomping up the stairs. “The less you lot 'ave ter do with these foreigners, the happier yeh'll be. Yeh can trust any of 'em.”
“You were getting on all right with Madame Maxime,” Harry said, annoyed.
“Don' you talk ter me abou' her!” said Hagrid, and he looked quite frightening for a moment. “I've got her number now! Tryin' ter get back in me good books, tryin' ter get me ter tell her what's comin in the third task. Ha! You can' trust any of'em!”
Hagrid was in such a bad mood, Harry was quite glad to say good-bye to him in front of the Fat Lady. He clambered through the portrait hole into the common room and hurried straight for the corner where Ron and Hermione were sitting, to tell them what had happened.

(hpvn.net)
Posted 12/28/07
CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE
THE DREAM

It comes down to this,” said Hermione, rubbing her forehead. “Either Mr. Crouch attacked Viktor, or somebody else attacked both of them when Viktor wasn't looking.”
“It must've been Crouch,” said Ron at once. “That's why he was gone when Harry and Dumbledore got there. He'd done a runner.”
“I don't think so,” said Harry, shaking his head. “He seemed really weak—I don't reckon he was up to Disapparating or anything.”
“You cant Disapparate on the Hogwarts grounds, haven't I told you enough times?” said Hermione.
“Okay... hows this for a theory,” said Ron excitedly. “Krum attacked Crouch—no, wait for it—and then Stunned himself!”
“And Mr. Crouch evaporated, did he?” said Hermione coldly.
“Oh yeah...”
It was daybreak. Harry, Ron, and Hermione had crept out of their dormitories very early and hurried up to the Owlery together to send a note to Sirius. Now they were standing looking out at the misty grounds. All three of them were puffy-eyed and pale because they had been talking late into the night about Mr. Crouch.
“Just go through it again, Harry,” said Hermione. “What did Mr. Crouch actually say?”
“I've told you, he wasn't making much sense,” said Harry. “He said he wanted to warn Dumbledore about something. He definitely mentioned Bertha Jorkins, and he seemed to think she was dead. He kept saying stuff was his fault... He mentioned his son.”
“Well, that was his fault,” said Hermione testily.
“He was out of his mind,” said Harry. “Half the time he seemed to think his wife and son were still alive, and he kept talking to Percy about work and giving him instructions.”
“And... remind me what he said about You-Know-Who?” said Ron tentatively.
“I've told you,” Harry repeated dully. “He said he's getting stronger.”
There was a pause. Then Ron said in a falsely confident voice, “But he was out of his mind, like you said, so half of it was probably just raving...”
“He was sanest when he was trying to talk about Voldemort,” said Harry, and Ron winced at the sound of the name. “He was having real trouble stringing two words together, but that was when he seemed to know where he was, and know what he wanted to do. He just kept saying he had to see Dumbledore.”
Harry turned away from the window and stared up into the rafters. The many perches were half-empty; every now and then, another owl would swoop in through one of the windows, returning from its night's hunting with a mouse in its beak.
“If Snape hadn't held me up,” Harry said bitterly, “we might've got there in time. 'The headmaster is busy. Potter... what's this rubbish, Potter?' Why couldn't he have just got out of the way?”
“Maybe he didn't want you to get there!” said Ron quickly. “Maybe—hang on—how fast d'you reckon he could've gotten down to the forest? D'you reckon he could've beaten you and Dumbledore there?”
“Not unless he can turn himself into a bat or something,” said Harry.
“Wouldn't put it past him,” Ron muttered.
“We need to see Professor Moody,” said Hermione. “We need to find out whether he found Mr. Crouch,”
“If he had the Marauder's Map on him, it would've been easy,” said Harry.
“Unless Crouch was already outside the grounds,” said Ron, “because it only shows up to the boundaries, doesn't—”
“Shh!” said Hermione suddenly.
Somebody was climbing the steps up to the Owlery. Harry could hear two voices arguing, coming closer and closer.
“that's blackmail, that is, we could get into a lot of trouble for that-”
“we've tried being polite; it's time to play dirty, like him. He wouldn't like the Ministry of Magic knowing what he did—”
“I'm telling you, if you put that in writing, it's blackmail!”
“Yeah, and you won't be complaining if we get a nice fat payoff, will you?”
The Owlery door banged open. Fred and George came over the threshold, then froze at the sight of Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
“What're you doing here?” Ron and Fred said at the same time.
“Sending a letter,” said Harry and George in unison.
“What, at this time?” said Hermione and Fred.
Fred grinned.
“Fine—we won't ask you what you're doing, if you don't ask us,” he said.
He was holding a sealed envelope in his hands. Harry glanced at it, but Fred, whether accidentally or on purpose, shifted his hand so that the name on it was covered.
“Well, don't let us hold you up,” Fred said, making a mock bow and pointing at the door.
Ron didn't move. “Who're you blackmailing?” he said.
The grin vanished from Fred's face. Harry saw George half glance at Fred, before smiling at Ron.
“Don't be stupid, I was only joking,” he said easily.
“Didn't sound like that,” said Ron.
Fred and George looked at each other. Then Fred said abruptly, “I've told you before, Ron, keep your nose out if you like it the shape it is. Can't see why you would, but—”
“It's my business if you're blackmailing someone,” said Ron. “George's right, you could end up in serious trouble for that.”
“Told you, I was joking,” said George. He walked over to Fred, pulled the letter out of his hands, and began attaching it to the leg of the nearest barn owl. “You're starting to sound a bit like our dear older brother, you are, Ron. Carry on like this and you'll be made a prefect.”
“No, I won't!” said Ron hotly.
George carried the barn owl over to the window and it took off. George turned around and grinned at Ron.
“Well, stop telling people what to do then. See you later.”
He and Fred left the Owlery. Harry, Ron, and Hermione stared at one another.
“You don't think they know something about all this, do you?” Hermione whispered. “About Crouch and everything?”
“No,” said Harry. “If it was something that serious, they'd tell someone. They'd tell Dumbledore.”
Ron, however, was looking uncomfortable.
“What's the matter?” Hermione asked him.
“Well...” said Ron slowly, “I dunno if they would. They're... they're obsessed with making money lately, I noticed it when I was hanging around with them—when—you know—”
“We weren't talking.” Harry finished the sentence for him. “Yeah, but blackmail...”
“It's this joke shop idea they've got,” said Ron. “I thought they were only saying it to annoy Mum, but they really mean it, they want to start one. They've only got a year left at Hogwarts, they keep going on about how it's time to think about their future, and Dad can't help them, and they need gold to get started.”
Hermione was looking uncomfortable now.
“Yes, but... they wouldn't do anything against the law to get gold.”
“Wouldn't they?” said Ron, looking skeptical. “I dunno... they don't exactly mind breaking rules, do they?”
“Yes, but this is the law” said Hermione, looking scared. “This isn't some silly school rule... They'll get a lot more than detention for blackmail! Ron... maybe you'd better tell Percy...”
“Are you mad?” said Ron. “Tell Percy? He'd probably do a Crouch and turn them in.” He stared at the window through which Fred and George's owl had departed, then said, “Come on, let's get some breakfast.”
“D'you think it's too early to go and see Professor Moody?” Hermione said as they went down the spiral staircase.
“Yes,” said Harry. “He'd probably blast us through the door if we wake him at the crack of dawn; he'll think we're trying to attack him while he's asleep. Let's give it till break.”
History of Magic had rarely gone so slowly. Harry kept checking Ron's watch, having finally discarded his own, but Ron's was moving so slowly he could have sworn it had stopped working too. All three of them were so tired they could happily have put their heads down on the desks and slept; even Hermione wasn't taking her usual notes, but was sitting with her head on her hand, gazing at Professor Binns with her eyes out of focus.
When the bell finally rang, they hurried out into the corridors toward the Dark Arts classroom and found Professor Moody leaving it. He looked as tired as they felt. The eyelid of his normal eye was drooping, giving his face an even more lopsided appearance than usual.
“Professor Moody?” Harry called as they made their way toward him through the crowd.
“Hello, Potter,” growled Moody. His magical eye followed a couple of passing first years, who sped up, looking nervous; it rolled into the back of Moody's head and watched them around the corner before he spoke again.
“Come in here.”
He stood back to let them into his empty classroom, limped in after them, and closed the door.
“Did you find him?” Harry asked without preamble. “Mr. Crouch?”
“No,” said Moody. He moved over to his desk, sat down, stretched out his wooden leg with a slight groan, and pulled out his hip flask.
“Did you use the map?” Harry said.
“Of course,” said Moody, taking a swig from his flask. “Took a leaf out of your book, Potter. Summoned it from my office into the forest. He wasn't anywhere on there.”
“So he did Disapparate?” said Ron.
“You can't Disapparate on the grounds, Ron!” said Hermione. “There are other ways he could have disappeared, aren't there, Professor?”
Moody's magical eye quivered as it rested on Hermione. “You're another one who might think about a career as an Auror,” he told her. “Mind works the right way. Granger.”
Hermione flushed pink with pleasure.
“Well, he wasn't invisible,” said Harry. “The map shows invisible people. He must've left the grounds, then.”
“But under his own steam?” said Hermione eagerly, “or because someone made him?”
“Yeah, someone could've—could've pulled him onto a broom and flown off with him, couldn't they?” said Ron quickly, looking hopefully at Moody as if he too wanted to be told he had the makings of an Auror.
“We can't rule out kidnap,” growled Moody.
“So,” said Ron, “d'you reckon he's somewhere in Hogsmeade?”
“Could be anywhere,” said Moody, shaking his head. “Only thing we know for sure is that he's not here.”
He yawned widely, so that his scars stretched, and his lopsided mouth revealed a number of missing teeth. Then he said, “Now, Dumbledore's told me you three fancy yourselves as investigators, but there's nothing you can do for Crouch. The Ministry'll be looking for him now, Dumbledore's notified them. Potter, you just keep your mind on the third task.”
“What?” said Harry. “Oh yeah...”
He hadn't given the maze a single thought since he'd left it with Krum the previous night.
“Should be right up your street, this one,” said Moody, looking up at Harry and scratching his scarred and stubbly chin. “From what Dumbledore's said, you've managed to get through stuff like this plenty of times. Broke your way through a series of obstacles guarding the Sorcerers Stone in your first year, didn't you?”
“We helped,” Ron said quickly. “Me and Hermione helped.”
Moody grinned.
“Well, help him practice for this one, and I'll be very surprised if he doesn't win,” said Moody. “In the meantime... constant vigilance, Potter. Constant vigilance.” He took another long draw from his hip flask, and his magical eye swiveled onto the window. The topmost sail of the Durmstrang ship was visible through it.
“You two,” counseled Moody, his normal eye on Ron and Hermione, “you stick close to Potter, all right? I'm keeping an eye on things, but all the same... you can never have too many eyes out.”

Sirius sent their owl back the very next morning. It fluttered down beside Harry at the same moment that a tawny owl landed in front of Hermione, clutching a copy of the Daily Prophet in its beak. She took the newspaper, scanned the first few pages, said, “Ha! She hasn't got wind of Crouch!” then joined Ron and Harry in reading what Sirius had to say on the mysterious events of the night before last.

Harry—what do you think you are playing at, walking off into the forest with Viktor Krum? I want you to swear, by return owl, that you are not going to go walking with anyone else at night. There is somebody highly dangerous at Hogwarts. It is clear to me that they wanted to stop Crouch from seeing Dumbledore and you were probably feet away from them in the dark. You could have been killed.
Your name didn't get into the Goblet of Fire by accident. If someone's trying to attack you, they're on their last chance. Stay close to Ron and Hermione, do not leave Gryffindor Tower after hours, and arm yourself for the third task. Practice Stunning and Disarming. A few hexes wouldn't go amiss either. There's nothing you can do about Crouch. Keep your head down and look after yourself. I'm waiting for your letter giving me your word you won't stray out-of-bounds again.
Sirius

“Who's he, to lecture me about being out-of-bounds?” said Harry in mild indignation as he folded up Sirius's letter and put it inside his robes. “After all the stuff he did at school!”
“He's worried about you!” said Hermione sharply. “Just like Moody and Hagrid! So listen to them!”
“No one's tried to attack me all year,” said Harry. “No one's done anything to me at
all-”
“Except put your name in the Goblet of Fire,” said Hermione. “And they must've done that for a reason. Harry. Snuffles is right. Maybe they've been biding their time. Maybe this is the task they're going to get you.”
“Look,” said Harry impatiently, “let's say Sirius is right, and someone Stunned Krum to kidnap Crouch. Well, they would've been in the trees near us, wouldn't they? But they waited till I was out of the way until they acted, didn't they? So it doesn't look like I'm their target, does it?”
“They couldn't have made it look like an accident if they'd murdered you in the forest!” said Hermione. “But if you die during a task-”
“They didn't care about attacking Krum, did they?” said Harry. “Why didn't they just polish me off at the same time? They could've made it look like Krum and I had a duel or something.”
“Harry, I don't understand it either,” said Hermione desperately. “I just know there are a lot of odd things going on, and I don't like it... Moody's right—Sirius is right—you've got to get in training for the third task, straight away. And you make sure you write back to Sirius and promise him you're not going to go sneaking off alone again.”

The Hogwarts grounds never looked more inviting than when Harry had to stay indoors. For the next few days he spent all of his free time either in the library with Hermione and Ron, looking up hexes, or else in empty classrooms, which they sneaked into to practice. Harry was concentrating on the Stunning Spell, which he had never used before. The trouble was that practicing it involved certain sacrifices on Ron's and Hermione's part.
“Can't we kidnap Mrs. Norris?” Ron suggested on Monday lunchtime as he lay flat on his back in the middle of their Charms classroom, having just been Stunned and reawoken by Harry for the fifth time in a row. “Let's Stun her for a bit. Or you could use Dobby, Harry, I bet he'd do anything to help you. I'm not complaining or anything”—he got gingerly to his feet, rubbing his backside—”but I'm aching all over...”
“Well, you keep missing the cushions, don't you!” said Hermione impatiently, rearranging the pile of cushions they had used for the Banishing Spell, which Flitwick had left in a cabinet. “Just try and fall backward!”
“Once you're Stunned, you can't aim too well, Hermione! “said Ron angrily. “Why don't you take a turn?”
“Well, I think Harry's got it now, anyway,” said Hermione hastily. “And we don't have to worry about Disarming, because he's been able to do that for ages... I think we ought to start on some of these hexes this evening.”
She looked down the list they had made in the library.
“I like the look of this one,” she said, “this Impediment Curse. Should slow down anything that's trying to attack you. Harry. We'll start with that one.”
The bell rang. They hastily shoved the cushions back into Flitwicks cupboard and slipped out of the classroom.
“See you at dinner!” said Hermione, and she set off for Arithmancy, while Harry and Ron headed toward North Tower, and Divination. Broad strips of dazzling gold sunlight tell across the corridor from the high windows. The sky outside was so brightly blue it looked as though it had been enameled.
“It's going to be boiling in Trelawney's room, she never puts out that fire,” said Ron as they started up the staircase toward the silver ladder and the trapdoor.
He was quite right. The dimly lit room was swelteringly hot. The fumes from the perfumed fire were heavier than ever. Harrys head swam as he made his way over to one of the curtained windows. While Professor Trelawney was looking the other way, disentangling her shawl from a lamp, he opened it an inch or so and settled back in his chintz armchair, so that a soft breeze played across his face. It was extremely comfortable.
“My dears,” said Professor Trelawney, sitting down in her winged armchair in front of the class and peering around at them all with her strangely enlarged eyes, “we have almost finished our work on planetary divination. Today, however, will be an excellent opportunity to examine the effects of Mars, for he is placed most interestingly at the present time. If you will all look this way, I will dim the lights...”
She waved her wand and the lamps went out. The fire was the only source of light now. Professor Trelawney bent down and lifted, from under her chair, a miniature model of the solar system, contained within a glass dome. It was a beautiful thing; each of the moons glimmered in place around the nine planets and the fiery sun, all of them hanging in thin air beneath the glass. Harry watched lazily as Professor Trelawney began to point out the fascinating angle Mars was making to Neptune. The heavily perfumed fumes washed over him, and the breeze from the window played across his face. He could hear an insect humming gently somewhere behind the curtain. His eyelids began to droop...
He was riding on the back of an eagle owl, soaring through the clear blue sky toward an old, ivy-covered house set high on a hillside. Lower and lower they flew, the wind blowing pleasantly in Harry's face, until they reached a dark and broken window in the upper story of the house and entered. Now they were flying along a gloomy passageway, to a room at the very end... through the door they went, into a dark room whose windows were boarded up...
Harry had left the owl's back... he was watching, now, as it fluttered across the room, into a chair with its back to him... There were two dark shapes on the floor beside the chair... both of them were stirring...
One was a huge snake... the other was a man ...a short, balding man, a man with watery eyes and a pointed nose ...he was wheezing and sobbing on the hearth rug...
“You are in luck, Wormtail,” said a cold, high-pitched voice from the depths of the chair in which the owl had landed. “You are very fortunate indeed. Your blunder has not ruined everything. He is dead.”
“My Lord!” gasped the man on the floor. “My Lord, I am ...I am so pleased... and so sorry...”
“Nagini,” said the cold voice, “you are out of luck. I will not be feeding Wormtail to you, after all... but never mind, never mind... there is still Harry Potter...”
The snake hissed. Harry could see its tongue fluttering.
“Now, Wormtail,” said the cold voice, “perhaps one more little reminder why I will not tolerate another blunder from you...”
“My Lord ...no ...I beg you...”
The tip of a wand emerged from around the back of the chair. It was pointing at Wormtail.
“Crucio!” said the cold voice.
Wormtail screamed, screamed as though every nerve in his body were on fire, the screaming filled Harry's ears as the scar on his forehead seared with pain; he was yelling too... Voldemort would hear him, would know he was there...
“Harry! Harry!”
Harry opened his eyes. He was lying on the floor of Professor Trelawney's room with his hands over his face. His scar was still burning so badly that his eyes were watering. The pain had been real. The whole class was standing around him, and Ron was kneeling next to him, looking terrified.
“You all right?” he said.
“Of course he isn't!” said Professor Trelawney, looking thoroughly excited. Her great eyes loomed over Harry, gazing at him. “What was it. Potter? A premonition? An apparition? What did you see?”
“Nothing,” Harry lied. He sat up. He could feel himself shaking. He couldn't stop himself from looking around, into the shadows behind him; Voldemorts voice had sounded so close...
“You were clutching your scar!” said Professor Trelawney. “You were rolling on the floor, clutching your scar! Come now. Potter, I have experience in these matters!”
Harry looked up at her.
“I need to go to the hospital wing, I think,” he said. “Bad headache.”
“My dear, you were undoubtedly stimulated by the extraordinary clairvoyant vibrations of my room!” said Professor Trelawney. “If you leave now, you may lose the opportunity to see further than you have ever—”
“I don't want to see anything except a headache cure,” said Harry.
He stood up. The class backed away. They all looked unnerved.
“See you later,” Harry muttered to Ron, and he picked up his bag and headed for the trapdoor, ignoring Professor Trelawney, who was wearing an expression of great frustration, as though she had just been denied a real treat.
When Harry reached the bottom of her stepladder, however, he did not set off for the hospital wing. He had no intention whatsoever of going there. Sirius had told him what to do if his scar hurt him again, and Harry was going to follow his advice: He was going straight to Dumbledore's office. He marched down the corridors, thinking about what he had seen in the dream... it had been as vivid as the one that had awoken him on Privet Drive... He ran over the details in his mind, trying to make sure he could remember them... He had heard Voldemort accusing Wormtail of making a blunder... but the owl had brought good news, the blunder had been repaired, somebody was dead ...so Wormtail was not going to be fed to the snake... he, Harry, was going to be fed to it instead...
Harry had walked right past the stone gargoyle guarding the entrance to Dumbledores office without noticing. He blinked, looked around, realized what he had done, and retraced his steps, stopping in front of it. Then he remembered that he didn't know the password.
“Sherbet lemon?” he tried tentatively.
The gargoyle did not move.
“Okay,” said Harry, staring at it, “Pear Drop. Er—Licorice Wand. Fizzing Whizbee. Drooble's Best Blowing Gum. Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans ...oh no, he doesn't like them, does he?... oh just open, can't you?” he said angrily. “I really need to see him, its urgent!”
The gargoyle remained immovable.
Harry kicked it, achieving nothing but an excruciating pain in his big toe.
“Chocolate Frog!” he yelled angrily, standing on one leg. “Sugar Quill! Cockroach Cluster!”
The gargoyle sprang to life and jumped aside. Harry blinked.
“Cockroach Cluster?” he said, amazed. “I was only joking...”
He hurried through the gap in the walls and stepped onto the foot of a spiral stone staircase, which moved slowly upward as the doors closed behind him, taking him up to a polished oak door with a brass door knocker.
He could hear voices from inside the office. He stepped off the moving staircase and hesitated, listening.
“Dumbledore, I'm afraid I don't see the connection, don't see it at all!” It was the voice of the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge. “Ludo says Berthas perfectly capable of getting herself lost. I agree we would have expected to have found her by now, but all the same, we've no evidence of foul play, Dumbledore, none at all. As for her disappearance being linked with Barty Crouch's!”
“And what do you thinks happened to Barty Crouch, Minister?” said Moody's growling voice.
“I see two possibilities, Alastor,” said Fudge. “Either Crouch has finally cracked—more than likely, I'm sure you'll agree, given his personal history—lost his mind, and gone wandering off somewhere—”
“He wandered extremely quickly, if that is the case, Cornelius,” said Dumbledore calmly.
“Or else—well...” Fudge sounded embarrassed. “Well, I'll reserve judgment until after I've seen the place where he was found, but you say it was just past the Beauxbatons carriage? Dumbledore, you know what that woman is?”
“I consider her to be a very able headmistress—and an excellent dancer,” said Dumbledore quietly.
“Dumbledore, come!” said Fudge angrily. “Don't you think you might be prejudiced in her favor because of Hagrid? They don't all turn out harmless—if, indeed, you can call Hagrid harmless, with that monster fixation he's got—”
“I no more suspect Madame Maxime than Hagrid,” said Dumbledore, just as calmly. “I think it possible that it is you who are prejudiced, Cornelius.”
“Can we wrap up this discussion?” growled Moody.
“Yes, yes, let's go down to the grounds, then,” said Fudge impatiently.
“No, it's not that,” said Moody, “it's just that Potter wants a word with you, Dumbledore. He's just outside the door.”

(hpvn.net)
Posted 12/28/07
CHAPTER THIRTY
THE PENSIEVE

The door of the office opened.
“Hello, Potter,” said Moody. “Come in, then.”
Harry walked inside. He had been inside Dumbledore's office once before; it was a very beautiful, circular room, lined with pictures of previous headmasters and headmistresses of Hogwarts, all of whom were fast asleep, their chests rising and falling gently.
Cornelius Fudge was standing beside Dumbledore's desk, wearing his usual pinstriped cloak and holding his lime-green bowler hat.
“Harry!” said Fudge jovially, moving forward. “How are you?”
“Fine,” Harry lied.
“We were just talking about the night when Mr. Crouch turned up on the grounds,” said Fudge. “It was you who found him, was it not?”
“Yes,” said Harry. Then, feeling it was pointless to pretend that he hadn't overheard what they had been saying, he added, “I didn't see Madame Maxime anywhere, though, and she'd have a job hiding, wouldn't she?”
Dumbledore smiled at Harry behind Fudge's back, his eyes twinkling.
“Yes, well,” said Fudge, looking embarrassed, “we're about to go for a short walk on the grounds, Harry, if you'll excuse us ...perhaps if you just go back to your class—”
“I wanted to talk to you. Professor,” Harry said quickly, looking at Dumbledore, who gave him a swift, searching look.
“Wait here for me, Harry,” he said. “Our examination of the grounds will not take long.”
They trooped out in silence past him and closed the door. After a minute or so, Harry heard the clunks of Moody's wooden leg growing fainter in the corridor below. He looked around.
“Hello, Fawkes,” he said.
Fawkes, Professor Dumbledore's phoenix, was standing on his golden perch beside the door. The size of a swan, with magnificent scarlet-and-gold plumage, he swished his long tail and blinked benignly at Harry.
Harry sat down in a chair in front of Dumbledore's desk. For several minutes, he sat and watched the old headmasters and headmistresses snoozing in their frames, thinking about what he had just heard, and running his fingers over his scar. It had stopped hurting now.
He felt much calmer, somehow, now that he was in Dumbledore's office, knowing he would shortly be telling him about the dream. Harry looked up at the walls behind the desk. The patched and ragged Sorting Hat was standing on a shelf. A glass case next to it held a magnificent silver sword with large rubies set into the hilt, which Harry recognized as the one he himself had pulled out of the Sorting Hat in his second year. The sword had once belonged to Godric Gryffindor, founder of Harry's House. He was gazing at it, remembering how it had come to his aid when he had thought all hope was lost, when he noticed a patch of silvery light, dancing and shimmering on the glass case. He looked around for the source of the light and saw a sliver of silver-white shining brightly from within a black cabinet behind him, whose door had not been closed properly. Harry hesitated, glanced at Fawkes, then got up, walked across the office, and pulled open the cabinet door.
A shallow stone basin lay there, with odd carvings around the edge: runes and symbols that Harry did not recognize. The silvery light was coming from the basin's contents, which were like nothing Harry had ever seen before. He could not tell whether the substance was liquid or gas. It was a bright, whitish silver, and it was moving ceaselessly; the surface of it became ruffled like water beneath wind, and then, like clouds, separated and swirled smoothly. It looked like light made liquid—or like wind made solid—Harry couldn't make up his mind.
He wanted to touch it, to find out what it felt like, but nearly four years' experience of the magical world told him that sticking his hand into a bowl full of some unknown substance was a very stupid thing to do. He therefore pulled his wand out of the inside of his robes, cast a nervous look around the office, looked back at the contents of the basin, and prodded them.
The surface of the silvery stuff inside the basin began to swirl very fast.
Harry bent closer, his head right inside the cabinet. The silvery substance had become transparent; it looked like glass. He looked down into it expecting to see the stone bottom of the basin—and saw instead an enormous room below the surface of the mysterious substance, a room into which he seemed to be looking through a circular window in the ceiling.
The room was dimly lit; he thought it might even be underground, for there were no windows, merely torches in brackets such as the ones that illuminated the walls of Hogwarts. Lowering his face so that his nose was a mere inch away from the glassy substance, Harry saw that rows and rows of witches and wizards were seated around every wall on what seemed to be benches rising in levels. An empty chair stood in the very center of the room. There was something about the chair that gave Harry an ominous feeling. Chains encircled the arms of it, as though its occupants were usually tied to it.
Where was this place? It surely wasn't Hogwarts; he had never seen a room like that here in the castle. Moreover, the crowd in the mysterious room at the bottom of the basin was comprised of adults, and Harry knew there were not nearly that many teachers at Hogwarts. They seemed, he thought, to be waiting for something; even though he could only see the tops of their hats, all of their faces seemed to be pointing in one direction, and none of them were talking to one another.
The basin being circular, and the room he was observing square, Harry could not make out what was going on in the corners of it. He leaned even closer, tilting his head, trying to see...
The tip of his nose touched the strange substance into which he was staring.
Dumbledore's office gave an almighty lurch—Harry was thrown forward and pitched headfirst into the substance inside the basin—
But his head did not hit the stone bottom. He was falling through something icy-cold and black; it was like being sucked into a dark whirlpool—
And suddenly, Harry found himself sitting on a bench at the end of the room inside the basin, a bench raised high above the others. He looked up at the high stone ceiling, expecting to see the circular window through which he had just been staring, but there was nothing there but dark, solid stone.
Breathing hard and fast. Harry looked around him. Not one of the witches and wizards in the room (and there were at least two hundred of them) was looking at him. Not one of them seemed to have noticed that a fourteen-year-old boy had just dropped from the ceiling into their midst. Harry turned to the wizard next to him on the bench and uttered a loud cry of surprise that reverberated around the silent room.
He was sitting right next to Albus Dumbledore.
“Professor!” Harry said in a kind of strangled whisper. “I'm sorry—I didn't mean to—I was just looking at that basin in your cabinet—I—where are we?”
But Dumbledore didn't move or speak. He ignored Harry completely. Like every other wizard on the benches, he was staring into the far corner of the room, where there was a door.
Harry gazed, nonplussed, at Dumbledore, then around at the silently watchful crowd, then back at Dumbledore. And then it dawned on him...
Once before. Harry had found himself somewhere that nobody could see or hear him. That time, he had fallen through a page in an enchanted diary, right into somebody else's memory... and unless he was very much mistaken, something of the sort had happened again...
Harry raised his right hand, hesitated, and then waved it energetically in from of Dumbledore's face. Dumbledore did not blink, look around at Harry, or indeed move at all. And that, in Harry's opinion, settled the matter. Dumbledore wouldn't ignore him like that. He was inside a memory, and this was not the present-day Dumbledore. Yet it couldn't be that long ago... the Dumbledore sitting next to him now was silver-haired, just like the present-day Dumbledore. But what was this place? What were all these wizards waiting for?
Harry looked around more carefully. The room, as he had suspected when observing it from above, was almost certainly underground—more of a dungeon than a room, he thought. There was a bleak and forbidding air about the place; there were no pictures on the walls, no decorations at all; just these serried rows of benches, rising in levels all around the room, all positioned so that they had a clear view of that chair with the chains on its arms.
Before Harry could reach any conclusions about the place in which they were, he heard footsteps. The door in the corner of the dungeon opened and three people entered—or at least one man, flanked by two dementors.
Harry's insides went cold. The dementors—tall, hooded creatures whose faces were concealed—were gliding slowly toward the chair in the center of the room, each grasping one of the man's arms with their dead and rotten-looking hands. The man between them looked as though he was about to faint, and Harry couldn't blame him ...he knew the dementors could not touch him inside a memory, but he remembered their power only too well. The watching crowd recoiled slightly as the dementors placed the man in the chained chair and glided back out of the room. The door swung shut behind them.
Harry looked down at the man now sitting in the chair and saw that it was Karkaroff.
Unlike Dumbledore, Karkaroff looked much younger; his hair and goatee were black. He was not dressed in sleek furs, but in thin and ragged robes. He was shaking. Even as Harry watched, the chains on the arms of the chair glowed suddenly gold and snaked their way up Karkaroff's arms, binding him there.
“Igor Karkaroff,” said a curt voice to Harry's left. Harry looked around and saw Mr. Crouch standing up in the middle of the bench beside him. Crouch's hair was dark, his face was much less lined, he looked fit and alert. “You have been brought from Azkaban to present evidence to the Ministry of Magic. You have given us to understand that you have important information for us.”
Karkaroff straightened himself as best he could, tightly bound to the chair.
“I have, sir,” he said, and although his voice was very scared, Harry could still hear the familiar unctuous note in it. “I wish to be of use to the Ministry. I wish to help. I—I know that the Ministry is trying to—to round up the last of the Dark Lords supporters. I am eager to assist in any way I can...”
There was a murmur around the benches. Some of the wizards and witches were surveying Karkaroff with interest, others with pronounced mistrust. Then Harry heard, quite distinctly, from Dumbledores other side, a familiar, growling voice saying, “Filth.”
Harry leaned forward so that he could see past Dumbledore. Mad-Eye Moody was sitting there—except that there was a very noticeable difference in his appearance. He did not have his magical eye, but two normal ones. Both were looking down upon Karkaroff, and both were narrowed in intense dislike.
“Crouch is going to let him out,” Moody breathed quietly to Dumbledore. “He's done a deal with him. Took me six months to track him down, and Crouch is going to let him go if he's got enough new names. Let's hear his information, I say, and throw him straight back to the dementors.”
Dumbledore made a small noise of dissent through his long, crooked nose.
“Ah, I was forgetting... you don't like the dementors, do you, Albus?” said Moody with a sardonic smile.
“No,” said Dumbledore calmly, “I'm afraid I don't. I have long felt the Ministry is wrong to ally itself with such creatures.”
“But for filth like this...” Moody said softly.
“You say you have names for us, Karkaroff,” said Mr. Crouch. “Let us hear them, please.”
“You must understand,” said Karkaroff hurriedly, “that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named operated always in the greatest secrecy... He preferred that we—I mean to say, his supporters—and I regret now, very deeply, that I ever counted myself among them—”
“Get on with it,” sneered Moody.
“we never knew the names of every one of our fellows—He alone knew exactly who we all were—”
“Which was a wise move, wasn't it, as it prevented someone like you, Karkaroff, from turning all of them in,” muttered Moody.
“Yet you say you have some names for us?” said Mr. Crouch.
“I—I do,” said Karkaroff breathlessly. “And these were important supporters, mark you. People I saw with my own eyes doing his bidding. I give this information as a sign that I fully and totally renounce him, and am filled with a remorse so deep I can barely—”
“These names are?” said Mr. Crouch sharply.
Karkaroff drew a deep breath.
“There was Antonin Dolohov,” he said. “I—I saw him torture countless Muggles and—and non-supporters of the Dark Lord.”
“And helped him do it,” murmured Moody.
“We have already apprehended Dolohov,” said Crouch. “He was caught shortly after yourself.”
“Indeed?” said Karkaroff, his eyes widening. “I—I am delighted to hear it!”
But he didn't look it. Harry could tell that this news had come as a real blow to him. One of his names was worthless.
“Any others?” said Crouch coldly.
“Why, yes ...there was Rosier,” said Karkaroff hurriedly. “Evan Rosier.”
“Rosier is dead,” said Crouch. “He was caught shortly after you were too. He preferred to fight rather than come quietly and was killed in the struggle.”
“Took a bit of me with him, though,” whispered Moody to Harry's right. Harry looked around at him once more, and saw him indicating the large chunk out of his nose to Dumbledore.
“No—no more than Rosier deserved!” said Karkaroff, a real note of panic in his voice now. Harry could see that he was starting to worry that none of his information would be of any use to the Ministry. Karkaroff's eyes darted toward the door in the corner, behind which the dementors undoubtedly still stood, waiting.
“Any more?” said Crouch.
“Yes!” said Karkaroff. “There was Travers—he helped murder the McKinnons! Mulciber—he specialized in the Imperius Curse, forced countless people to do horrific things! Rookwood, who was a spy, and passed He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named useful information from inside the Ministry itself!”
Harry could tell that, this time, Karkaroff had struck gold. The watching crowd was all murmuring together.
“Rookwood?” said Mr. Crouch, nodding to a witch sitting in front of him, who began scribbling upon her piece of parchment. “Augustus Rookwood of the Department of Mysteries?”
“The very same,” said Karkaroff eagerly. “I believe he used a network of well-placed wizards, both inside the Ministry and out, to collect information—”
“But Travers and Mulciber we have,” said Mr. Crouch. “Very well, Karkaroff, if that is all, you will be returned to Azkaban while we decide—”
“Not yet!” cried Karkaroff, looking quite desperate. “Wait, I have more!”
Harry could see him sweating in the torchlight, his white skin contrasting strongly with the black of his hair and beard.
“Snape!” he shouted. “Severus Snape!”
“Snape has been cleared by this council,” said Crouch disdainfully. “He has been vouched for by Albus Dumbledore.”
“No!” shouted Karkaroff, straining at the chains that bound him to the chair. “I assure you! Severus Snape is a Death Eater!”
Dumbledore had gotten to his feet.
“I have given evidence already on this matter,” he said calmly. “Severus Snape was indeed a Death Eater. However, he rejoined our side before Lord Voldemort's downfall and turned spy for us, at great personal risk. He is now no more a Death Eater than I am.”
Harry turned to look at Mad-Eye Moody. He was wearing a look of deep skepticism behind Dumbledore's back.
“Very well, Karkaroff,” Crouch said coldly, “you have been of assistance. I shall review your case. You will return to Azkaban in the meantime...”
Mr. Crouch's voice faded. Harry looked around; the dungeon was dissolving as though it were made of smoke; everything was fading; he could see only his own body—all else was swirling darkness...
And then, the dungeon returned. Harry was sitting in a different seat, still on the highest bench, but now to the left side of Mr. Crouch. The atmosphere seemed quite different: relaxed, even cheerful. The witches and wizards all around the walls were talking to one another, almost as though they were at some sort of sporting event. Harry noticed a witch halfway up the rows of benches opposite. She had short blonde hair, was wearing magenta robes, and was sucking the end of an acid-green quill. It was, unmistakably, a younger Rita Skeeter. Harry looked around; Dumbledore was sitting beside him again, wearing different robes. Mr. Crouch looked more tired and somehow fiercer, gaunter... Harry understood. It was a different memory, a different day ...a different trial.
The door in the corner opened, and Ludo Bagman walked into the room.
This was not, however, a Ludo Bagman gone to seed, but a Ludo Bagman who was clearly at the height of his Quidditch-playing fitness. His nose wasn't broken now; he was tall and lean and muscular. Bagman looked nervous as he sat down in the chained chair, but it did not bind him there as it had bound Karkaroff, and Bagman, perhaps taking heart from this, glanced around at the watching crowd, waved at a couple of them, and managed a small smile.
“Ludo Bagman, you have been brought here in front of the Council of Magical Law to answer charges relating to the activities of the Death Eaters,” said Mr. Crouch. “We have heard the evidence against you, and are about to reach our verdict. Do you have anything to add to your testimony before we pronounce judgment?”
Harry couldn't believe his ears. Ludo Bagman, a Death Eater?
“Only,” said Bagman, smiling awkwardly, “well—I know I've been a bit of an idiot—”
One or two wizards and witches in the surrounding seats smiled indulgently. Mr. Crouch did not appear to share their feelings. He was staring down at Ludo Bagman with an expression of the utmost severity and dislike.
“You never spoke a truer word, boy,” someone muttered dryly to Dumbledore behind Harry. He looked around and saw Moody sitting there again. “If I didn't know he'd always been dim, I'd have said some of those Bludgers had permanently affected his brain...”
“Ludovic Bagman, you were caught passing information to Lord Voldemort's supporters,” said Mr. Crouch. “For this, I suggest a term of imprisonment in Azkaban lasting no less than—”
But there was an angry outcry from the surrounding benches. Several of the witches and wizards around the walls stood up, shaking their heads, and even their fists, at Mr. Crouch.
“But I've told you, I had no idea!” Bagman called earnestly over the crowd's babble, his round blue eyes widening. “None at all! Old Rookwood was a friend of my dad's... never crossed my mind he was in with You-Know-Who! I thought I was collecting information for our side! And Rookwood kept talking about getting me a job in the Ministry later on ...once my Quidditch days are over, you know ...I mean, I can't keep getting hit by Bludgers for the rest of my life, can I?”
There were titters from the crowd.
“It will be put to the vote,” said Mr. Crouch coldly. He turned to the right-hand side of the dungeon. “The jury will please raise their hands... those in favor of imprisonment...”
Harry looked toward the right-hand side of the dungeon. Not one person raised their hand. Many of the witches and wizards around the walls began to clap. One of the witches on the jury stood up.
“Yes?” barked Crouch.
“We'd just like to congratulate Mr. Bagman on his splendid performance for England in the Quidditch match against Turkey last Saturday,” the witch said breathlessly.
Mr. Crouch looked furious. The dungeon was ringing with applause now. Bagman got to his feet and bowed, beaming.
“Despicable,” Mr. Crouch spat at Dumbledore, sitting down as Bagman walked out of the dungeon. “Rookwood get him a job indeed... The day Ludo Bagman joins us will be a sad day indeed for the Ministry...”
And the dungeon dissolved again. When it had returned, Harry looked around. He and Dumbledore were still sitting beside Mr. Crouch, but the atmosphere could not have been more different. There was total silence, broken only by the dry sobs of a frail, wispy-looking witch in the seat next to Mr. Crouch. She was clutching a handkerchief to her mouth with trembling hands.
Harry looked up at Crouch and saw that he looked gaunter and grayer than ever before. A nerve was twitching in his temple.
“Bring them in,” he said, and his voice echoed through the silent dungeon.
The door in the corner opened yet again. Six dementors entered this time, flanking a group of four people. Harry saw the people in the crowd turn to look up at Mr. Crouch. A few of them whispered to one another.
The dementors placed each of the four people in the four chairs with chained arms that now stood on the dungeon floor. There was a thickset man who stared blankly up at Crouch; a thinner and more nervous-looking man, whose eyes were darting around the crowd; a woman with thick, shining dark hair and heavily hooded eyes, who was sitting in the chained chair as though it were a throne; and a boy in his late teens, who looked nothing short of petrified. He was shivering, his straw-colored hair all over his face, his freckled skin milk-white. The wispy little witch beside Crouch began to rock backward and forward in her seat, whimpering into her handkerchief.
Crouch stood up. He looked down upon the four in front of him, and there was pure hatred in his face.
“You have been brought here before the Council of Magical Law,” he said clearly, “so that we may pass judgment on you, for a crime so heinous—”
“Father,” said the boy with the straw-colored hair. “Father... please...
“that we have rarely heard the like of it within this court,” said Crouch, speaking more loudly, drowning out his son's voice.
“We have heard the evidence against you. The four of you stand accused of capturing an Auror—Frank Longbottom—and subjecting him to the Cruciatus Curse, believing him to have knowledge of the present whereabouts of your exiled master, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named—”
“Father, I didn't!” shrieked the boy in chains below. “I didn't, I swear it. Father, don't send me back to the dementors—”
“You are further accused,” bellowed Mr. Crouch, “of using the Cruciatus Curse on Frank Longbottom's wife, when he would not give you information. You planned to restore He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to power, and to resume the lives of violence you presumably led while he was strong. I now ask the jury—”
“Mother!” screamed the boy below, and the wispy little witch beside Crouch began to sob, rocking backward and forward. “Mother, stop him. Mother, I didn't do it, it wasn't me!”
“I now ask the jury,” shouted Mr. Crouch, “to raise their hands if they believe, as I do, that these crimes deserve a life sentence in Azkaban!”
In unison, the witches and wizards along the right-hand side of the dungeon raised their hands. The crowd around the walls began to clap as it had for Bagman, their faces full of savage triumph. The boy began to scream.
“No! Mother, no! I didn't do it, I didn't do it, I didn't know! Don't send me there, don't let him!”
The dementors were gliding back into the room. The boys' three companions rose quietly from their seats; the woman with the heavy-lidded eyes looked up at Crouch and called, “The Dark Lord will rise again, Crouch! Throw us into Azkaban; we will wait! He
will rise again and will come for us, he will reward us beyond any of his other supporters! We alone were faithful! We alone tried to find him!”
But the boy was trying to fight off the dementors, even though Harry could see their cold, draining power starting to affect him. The crowd was jeering, some of them on their feet, as the woman swept out of the dungeon, and the boy continued to struggle.
“I'm your son!” he screamed up at Crouch. “I'm your son!”
“You are no son of mine!” bellowed Mr. Crouch, his eyes bulging suddenly. “I have no son!”
The wispy witch beside him gave a great gasp and slumped in her seat. She had fainted. Crouch appeared not to have noticed.
“Take them away!” Crouch roared at the dementors, spit flying from his mouth. “Take them away, and may they rot there!”
“Father! Father, I wasn't involved! No! No! Father, please!”
“I think. Harry, it is time to return to my office,” said a quiet voice in Harrys ear.
Harry started. He looked around. Then he looked on his other side.
There was an Albus Dumbledore sitting on his right, watching Crouch's son being dragged away by the dementors—and there was an Albus Dumbledore on his left, looking right at him.
“Come,” said the Dumbledore on his left, and he put his hand under Harrys elbow. Harry felt himself rising into the air; the dungeon dissolved around him; for a moment, all was blackness, and then he felt as though he had done a slow-motion somersault, suddenly landing flat on his feet, in what seemed like the dazzling light of Dumbledore's sunlit office. The stone basin was shimmering in the cabinet in front of him, and Albus Dumbledore was standing beside him.
“Professor,” Harry gasped, “I know I shouldn't've—I didn't mean—the cabinet door was sort of open and—”
“I quite understand,” said Dumbledore. He lifted the basin, carried it over to his desk, placed it upon the polished top, and sat down in the chair behind it. He motioned for Harry to sit down opposite him.
Harry did so, staring at the stone basin. The contents had returned to their original, silvery-white state, swirling and rippling beneath his gaze.
“What is it?” Harry asked shakily.
“This? It is called a Pensieve,” said Dumbledore. “I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.”
“Er,” said Harry, who couldn't truthfully say that he had ever felt anything of the sort.
“At these times,” said Dumbledore, indicating the stone basin, “I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.”
“You mean... that stuff's your thoughts?” Harry said, staring at the swirling white substance in the basin.
“Certainly,” said Dumbledore. “Let me show you.”
Dumbledore drew his wand out of the inside of his robes and placed the tip into his own silvery hair, near his temple. When he took the wand away, hair seemed to be clinging to it—but then Harry saw that it was in fact a glistening strand of the same strange silvery-white substance that filled the Pensieve. Dumbledore added this fresh thought to the basin, and Harry, astonished, saw his own face swimming around the surface of the bowl. Dumbledore placed his long hands on either side of the Pensieve and swirled it, rather as a gold prospector would pan for fragments of gold... and Harry saw his own face change smoothly into Snape's, who opened his mouth and spoke to the ceiling, his voice echoing slightly.
“It's coming back... Karkaroff's too... stronger and clearer than ever...”
“A connection I could have made without assistance,” Dumbledore sighed, “but never mind.” He peered over the top of his half-moon spectacles at Harry, who was gaping at Snape's face, which was continuing to swirl around the bowl. “I was using the Pensieve when Mr. Fudge arrived for our meeting and put it away rather hastily. Undoubtedly I did not fasten the cabinet door properly. Naturally, it would have attracted your attention.”
“I'm sorry,” Harry mumbled.
Dumbledore shook his head. “Curiosity is not a sin,” he said. “But we should exercise caution with our curiosity... yes, indeed ...”
Frowning slightly, he prodded the thoughts within the basin with the tip of his wand. Instantly, a figure rose out of it, a plump, scowling girl of about sixteen, who began to revolve slowly, with her feet still in the basin. She took no notice whatsoever of Harry or Professor Dumbledore. When she spoke, her voice echoed as Snape's had done, as though it were coming from the depths of the stone basin. “He put a hex on me, Professor Dumbledore, and I
was only teasing him, sir, I only said I'd seen him kissing Florence behind the greenhouses last Thursday...”
“But why. Bertha,” said Dumbledore sadly, looking up at the now silently revolving girl, “why did you have to follow him in the first place?”
“Bertha?” Harry whispered, looking up at her. “Is that—was that Bertha Jorkins?”
“Yes,” said Dumbledore, prodding the thoughts in the basin again; Bertha sank back into them, and they became silvery and opaque once more. “That was Bertha as I remember her at school.”
The silvery light from the Pensieve illuminated Dumbledore's face, and it struck Harry suddenly how very old he was looking. He knew, of course, that Dumbledore was getting on in years, but somehow he never really thought of Dumbledore as an old man.
“So, Harry,” said Dumbledore quietly. “Before you got lost in my thoughts, you wanted to tell me something.”
“Yes,” said Harry. “Professor—I was in Divination just now, and—er—I fell asleep.”
He hesitated here, wondering if a reprimand was coming, but Dumbledore merely said, “Quite understandable. Continue.”
“Well, I had a dream,” said Harry. “A dream about Lord Voldemort. He was torturing Wormtail... you know who Wormtail-”
“I do know,” said Dumbledore promptly. “Please continue.”
“Voldemort got a letter from an owl. He said something like, Wormtail's blunder had been repaired. He said someone was dead. Then he said, Wormtail wouldn't be fed to the snake—there was a snake beside his chair. He said—he said he'd be feeding me to it,
instead. Then he did the Cruciatus Curse on Wormtail—and my scar hurt,” Harry said. “It woke me up, it hurt so badly.”
Dumbledore merely looked at him.
“Er—that's all,” said Harry.
“I see,” said Dumbledore quietly. “I see. Now, has your scar hurt at any other time this year, excepting the time it woke you up over the summer?”
“No, I—how did you know it woke me up over the summer?” said Harry, astonished.
“You are not Sirius's only correspondent,” said Dumbledore. “I have also been in contact with him ever since he left Hogwarts last year. It was I who suggested the mountainside cave as the safest place for him to stay.”
Dumbledore got up and began walking up and down behind his desk. Every now and then, he placed his wand tip to his temple, removed another shining silver thought, and added it to the Pensieve. The thoughts inside began to swirl so fast that Harry couldn't make out anything clearly: It was merely a blur of color.
“Professor?” he said quietly, after a couple of minutes.
Dumbledore stopped pacing and looked at Harry.
“My apologies,” he said quietly. He sat back down at his desk.
“D'you—d'you know why my scar's hurting me?”
Dumbledore looked very intently at Harry for a moment, and then said, “I have a theory, no more than that... It is my belief that your scar hurts both when Lord Voldemort is near you, and when he is feeling a particularly strong surge of hatred.”
“But... why?”
“Because you and he are connected by the curse that failed,” said Dumbledore. “That is no ordinary scar.”
“So you think... that dream... did it really happen?”
“It is possible,” said Dumbledore. “I would say—probable. Harry—did you see Voldemort?”
“No,” said Harry. “Just the back of his chair. But—there wouldn't have been anything to see, would there? I mean, he hasn't got a body, has he? But... but then how could he have held the wand?” Harry said slowly.
“How indeed?” muttered Dumbledore. “How indeed...”
Neither Dumbledore nor Harry spoke for a while. Dumbledore was gazing across the room, and, every now and then, placing his wand tip to his temple and adding another shining silver thought to the seething mass within the Pensieve.
“Professor,” Harry said at last, “do you think he's getting stronger?”
“Voldemort?” said Dumbledore, looking at Harry over the Pensieve. It was the characteristic, piercing look Dumbledore had given him on other occasions, and always made Harry feel as though Dumbledore were seeing right through him in a way that even Moody's magical eye could not. “Once again. Harry, I can only give you my suspicions.”
Dumbledore sighed again, and he looked older, and wearier, than ever.
“The years of Voldemort's ascent to power,” he said, “were marked with disappearances. Bertha Jorkins has vanished without a trace in the place where Voldemort was certainly known to be last. Mr. Crouch too has disappeared... within these very grounds. And there was a third disappearance, one which the Ministry, I regret to say, do not consider of any importance, for it concerns a Muggle. His name was Frank Bryce, he lived in the village where Voldemort's father grew up, and he has not been seen since last August. You see, I read the Muggle newspapers, unlike most of my Ministry friends.”
Dumbledore looked very seriously at Harry.
“These disappearances seem to me to be linked. The Ministry disagrees—as you may have heard, while waiting outside my office.”
Harry nodded. Silence fell between them again, Dumbledore extracting thoughts every now and then. Harry felt as though he ought to go, but his curiosity held him in his chair.
“Professor?” he said again.
“Yes, Harry?” said Dumbledore.
“Er... could I ask you about... that court thing I was in ...in the Pensieve?”
“You could,” said Dumbledore heavily. “I attended it many times, but some trials come back to me more clearly than others ...particularly now...”
“You know—you know the trial you found me in? The one with Crouch's son? Well...were they talking about Neville's parents?”
Dumbledore gave Harry a very sharp look. “ Has Neville never told you why he has been brought up by his grandmother?” he said.
Harry shook his head, wondering, as he did so, how he could have failed to ask Neville this, in almost four years of knowing him.
“Yes, they were talking about Nevilles parents,” said Dumbledore. “His father, Frank, was an Auror just like Professor Moody. He and his wife were tortured for information about Voldemort's whereabouts after he lost his powers, as you heard.”
“So they're dead?” said Harry quietly.
“No,” said Dumbledore, his voice full of a bitterness Harry had never heard there before. “They are insane. They are both in St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. I believe Neville visits them, with his grandmother, during the holidays. They do not recognize him.”
Harry sat there, horror-struck. He had never known... never, in four years, bothered to find out...
“The Longbottoms were very popular,” said Dumbledore. “The attacks on them came after Voldemort's fall from power, just when everyone thought they were safe. Those attacks caused a wave of fury such as I have never known. The Ministry was under great pressure to catch those who had done it. Unfortunately, the Longbottoms' evidence was—given their condition—none too reliable.”
“Then Mr. Crouch's son might not have been involved?” said Harry slowly.
Dumbledore shook his head.
“As to that, I have no idea.”
Harry sat in silence once more, watching the contents of the Pensieve swirl. There were two more questions he was burning to ask... but they concerned the guilt of living people...
“Er,” he said, “Mr. Bagman...”
“...has never been accused of any Dark activity since,” said Dumbledore calmly.
“Right,” said Harry hastily, staring at the contents of the Pensieve again, which were swirling more slowly now that Dumbledore had stopped adding thoughts. “And ...er ...”
But the Pensieve seemed to be asking his question for him.
Snape's face was swimming on the surface again. Dumbledore glanced down into it, and then up at Harry.
“No more has Professor Snape,” he said.
Harry looked into Dumbledore's light blue eyes, and the thing he really wanted to know spilled out of his mouth before he could stop it.
“What made you think he'd really stopped supporting Voldemort, Professor?”
Dumbledore held Harrys gaze for a few seconds, and then said, “That, Harry, is a matter between Professor Snape and myself.”
Harry knew that the interview was over; Dumbledore did not look angry, yet there was a finality in his tone that told Harry it was time to go. He stood up, and so did Dumbledore.
“Harry,” he said as Harry reached the door. “Please do not speak about Neville's parents to anybody else. He has the right to let people know, when he is ready.”
“Yes, Professor,” said Harry, turning to go.
“And-”
Harry looked back. Dumbledore was standing over the Pensieve, his face lit from beneath by its silvery spots of light, looking older than ever. He stared at Harry for a moment, and then said, “Good luck with the third task.”

(hpvn.net)
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