The dimly lit room was crowded full of dark, shadow-like shapes. Few features could be discerned from beneath their hooded cloaks, but there was a tangible air of nervousness around them. They stood in a semi-circle at one end of the room, surrounding a group of three that cowered under the red-eyed glare of the nightmarish figure seated above them in a large, winged chair. Lord Voldemort, the last living descendant of Salazar Slytherin and the most feared dark Wizard of the twentieth century, turned his gaze to the massed ranks of his Death Eaters.
“So, Albus Dumbledore is finally gone. I should be happy, yet I find myself strangely disappointed. Perhaps, Draco, you may be able to tell me why?”
The shortest of the three figures pushed his hood back to reveal the pale, pallid face of a teenage boy with sleek, blond hair. He fought to control his trembling limbs as he returned Voldemort’s gaze.
“Master, I am sorry. I got the Death Eaters into the castle, I had Dumbledore at my mercy, but...I was weak. I couldn’t do it, I—”
His apology was cut short as Voldemort pointed his wand directly at him, and almost lazily muttered, “Crucio.” As one, the watching audience cringed as Draco’s screams of agony filled the room until, just as casually as he had applied it, Voldemort lifted the curse.
“I have killed people for lesser failures than this,” he hissed softly. “However, you laid the groundwork for your task well, and in so doing, sowed the seeds of Dumbledore’s destruction. For this I shall allow you a second chance. Leave us. I will speak with you shortly.”
Voldemort’s gaze shifted to a pale, greasy-haired man as Malfoy made his way shakily out of the room.
“Severus. You stepped in to accomplish what Draco could not. When final victory is assured you will be amongst the most honoured of my supporters.” Again Voldemort turned his gaze to the room at large. “Even now I still hear mutterings that Severus Snape cannot be trusted. Let all of you standing here be in no doubt that by killing Dumbledore, he has proven that his true loyalty is to me. Should any more rumours to the contrary reach my ears, the person behind them will receive no mercy. As neither should you.”
This last remark was addressed to the last member of the three: a tall, slim woman with long, straggly blonde hair. Narcissa Malfoy wore the look of a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights as Voldemort fixed her with a steely glare. “The task I gave Draco was known to few. Secrecy was key to its success. Yet you chose to reveal that secret to a person whose loyalty was questioned by many. Had Severus truly been a servant of Dumbledore, your actions could have resulted in incalculable damage to our cause.”
Narcissa bowed her head, not daring to meet Voldemort’s angry stare. “My lord, I meant no disrespect,” she quavered. “I was concerned my son would not succeed. I sought only to guard against that.”
“Silence!” snapped Voldemort. Narcissa shrank back as he loomed over her, a malevolent gleam in his eyes. “Strange, the difference a few years can make,” he mused. “Once, the name of Malfoy was well respected in all circles. Yet now the influence it commanded within the Ministry is gone. Lucius has destroyed objects precious to me through his arrogance. Your son has shown unacceptable weakness. And you defied a direct instruction.”
Narcissa’s eyes grew wide with fear as she watched Voldemort slowly raise his wand. “I will not tolerate your family’s failures any longer. Avada Kedavra!”
A bolt of green light hit Narcissa squarely in the chest. The people standing behind her jumped out of the way as her lifeless body tumbled to the floor, and outside in the draughty hallway, Draco stood frozen with shock, his brain numbly refusing to accept what he had just seen through the crack in the doorway. He fought back the desire to scream as thoughts slowly began to trickle back into his head. Now was not the time to grieve; he had to move fast or he would be dead, too. He knew that Voldemort would never take him back now. He preferred to wipe out whole families rather than leave anyone alive to attempt revenge. And that, Draco swore, was what he would do. Even though it would probably cost him his life, he would make Voldemort pay for destroying his family. As tears began coursing silently down his cheeks, Draco spun on the spot and disappeared with a loud crack. As he sat back in his throne-like chair, Voldemort shook his head in mock disappointment.
“Find him and kill him,” he instructed the room in general. “Then find me Potter. Now he has finally lost the protection of his mother’s sacrifice, and Dumbledore can no longer interfere, I shall destroy him once and for all.”
It was strange, Harry mused, how much difference a few days could make. The sun had finally managed to burn away the clouds and the mist to reveal a clear blue sky, and along with Ron, Ginny, and Hermione, he was taking full advantage of it by sunbathing in the Weasleys’ small orchard. This was a new experience for Harry; he had never owned a pair of shorts in his life, but after much cajoling he had allowed Mrs Weasley to cut the legs off of an old pair of jeans. It was a strange feeling, sitting there with the sun beating down on his bare legs and arms. As he shifted around, trying to find a comfortable spot on the hot grass, Harry cast his mind back to Bill and Fleur’s wedding, which had passed off peacefully a few days before.
In hindsight it wasn’t a surprise that there hadn’t been any trouble, given the number of security measures that Moody and Mr Weasley had put in place. There had only been one false alarm, caused when Bill’s Best Man had Apparated to the wrong spot, and had almost been knocked unconscious by a volley of mouldy potatoes from one of Moody’s exploding dustbins. Harry had spent most of the day chatting with Amanda, a Muggle woman who ran the paper shop in the local village, and who had turned up with George (Fred, claiming it was for no other reason than his invitation read, ‘Mr Weasley and Guest’ had brought Verity, the young Witch who helped run their shop). Amanda had been positively wide-eyed in amazement at the everyday magic going on around her, and Harry could appreciate how she felt; he had been exactly the same during his first trip to Diagon Alley. Having never been to a wedding of any sort before, he had been surprised when she had informed him that the ceremony was exactly the same as the Muggle one. At the reception afterwards, he had sought an explanation from Hagrid.
“Well, there’s never been any need to have our own version; the Muggle one works perfectly well,” he had responded airily, waving a goblet the size of a bucket. “Plus, o’ course, if one of the couple is a Muggle, or a Muggle-born, then it’s what they’re used to.” Hagrid cast a glance at Ginny, who was chatting animatedly with Gabrielle on the other side of the room, and then grinned slyly at Harry. “Taking notes, are yer?” Harry had nearly choked on his Butterbeer as Hagrid had roared with laughter.
He had also managed to tackle Lupin on the issue of gaining entry to Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place. Knowing that Harry now owned the property, the former Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher had seen no reason to withhold the information.
“Well, you know where it is, and how to make it reveal itself,” he said, “so that deals with most of the more powerful charms. Actually getting in shouldn’t be much of a problem; the house will recognize you as its owner. Just tap on the door three times with your wand.”
“Is there any way of knowing if other people are there?” Harry asked carefully. “I’m not asking you to tell me when Order meetings are,” he added hastily, seeing the suspicious look on Lupin’s face, “but you know what Moody is like. If I come through the door unannounced, he’ll probably curse first and ask questions later.”
Lupin frowned as he considered Harry’s request, before finally shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Harry,” he said. “But I can’t reveal anything about the Order to non-members, not even you. What I would suggest is that you tell Molly or Arthur if you intend to visit. They can warn the rest of us.”
Finally, events in the evening had rounded off what Harry considered to be a reasonably successful day. As daylight had given way to dusk, Charlie had lit several dozen magic lamps scattered around the bushes and trees in the garden, before producing a record player that had been bewitched to work without electricity. Hermione and Ron had taken advantage of one of the slower songs to show that they had definitely decided how they felt about each other. Red-faced and grinning, they had only returned to the large table they were sharing with Harry, Ginny, the twins, and their partners when George, after grumpily handing over a large gold coin to a gleeful Ginny, had started wondering loudly if he would need to use a severing charm to separate them.
“What are you grinning about?”
Bringing his thoughts back to the present, Harry looked over at Ron, who was peering at him suspiciously.
Ginny sat up, shading her eyes. “Leave him alone,” she said without rancor. “He doesn’t smile enough as it is.”
Outnumbered, Ron decided to change tack. He nodded towards Hermione, who, true to form, was propped up against the base of a small tree, leafing through the pile of books that Harry had brought with him from Privet Drive. “When are you going to tell us about these, then?” he asked. “They’re not exactly light reading.”
Harry could understand Ron’s concern. The books were mostly concerned with medicine, but it was unlikely that they would ever be found at St Mungo’s, or in the Hogwarts infirmary. Harry had ordered them from a bookshop in Knockturn Alley.
“It’s to do with something Dumbledore said to me a few years ago,” he replied. “He said that Tom Riddle underwent a series of magical transformations to become Lord Voldemort. I thought these might give us some clues as to what they might have involved.” He didn’t add that he was also hoping that they might provide more information about Horcruxes.
Hermione flipped a page over absently. “This sort of magic hasn’t been practiced in Britain for hundreds of years though. Most of the wizards mentioned here are from Eastern Europe.”
Harry nodded. “That would make sense. Dumbledore said Voldemort spent a lot of time in Albania. I was hoping that you might still be writing to Krum. He might know of anything odd that’s happened in the past.” He watched Ron carefully out of the corner of his eye as he spoke, but for the first time he could remember, Ron showed no reaction to Krum’s name. Presumably Ron and Hermione had sorted out that particular issue.
“Well, I don’t know if he will,” Hermione replied, “but obviously he has some contacts in the Bulgarian Ministry of Magic. It’s probably worth a try.” They were interrupted as a shadow glided over their heads, accompanied by a flapping sound. Hedwig landed beside Harry, a bundle of letters clutched in her beak.
“What have you got there, then?” Harry wondered aloud as he took them. Looking at the top envelope, his happiness evaporated as he recognized the Hogwarts crest. “Hogwarts letters,” he announced as he handed them round. Ginny tore hers open immediately, but the other three looked at each other in silence. Finally, as if on an unheard signal, they all simultaneously opened the thick, yellow envelopes and examined the contents. The first thing Harry noticed was that there were many more pages than in previous years. The first one informed him that after much discussion, it had been decided that Hogwarts would re-open as usual on the first of September for all students who wished to attend, and that he should use the enclosed form to indicate whether he intended to return or not. Discarding both the form and the next sheet, which turned out to be the book list, he examined the last page, which looked to be much more interesting. It was titled ‘Additional Notes for the Forthcoming Term’. Harry scanned through it.
1. New Staff Appointments.
Following a unanimous vote by the Governors, Professor McGonagall has agreed to take up the post as Headmistress, and will also continue to take Transfiguration classes until a replacement teacher can be appointed.
Professor Flitwick is now the Deputy Headmaster.
Professor Hagrid will take over the position of head of Gryffindor House.
Professor Slughorn has agreed to stay on as Potions Master, and will also resume his former post of head of Slytherin House.
No surprises there, thought Harry.He was pleased to see Hagrid’s appointment, although part of him suspected that this was down to the fact that Hagrid and McGonagall were now the only Gryffindor members of staff. Reading on, he found the next section much less pleasing.
2. The Inter-House Quidditch Cup.
Following a Ministry assessment of security arrangements, it has been decided to suspend the inter-house Quidditch competition indefinitely. However, current team captains will retain the prefect-level privileges that accompany the position.
Harry suspected that this would upset a great many people, but it was probably a wise move. He knew first-hand that the Quidditch pitch was both isolated and exposed to the elements, making any meaningful security very difficult. Sighing inwardly, he turned his attention to the last section.
3. Defense Against the Dark Arts (DADA).
Due to the lack of suitable candidates for the post, it has been decided that there will be no formal DADA lessons held this academic year. However, a number of staff members will be organizing informal tutorials in defensive magic, and students will be encouraged to form their own after-school clubs in order to continue their studies. The school will be happy to provide as much equipment and assistance as possible.
Harry threw the page down in disgust. No Defense Against the Dark Arts lessons? Why didn’t they just surrender to Voldemort now? He turned to look at Ginny, who had also finished her letter.
“No Quidditch, and no Dark Arts,” she scowled. “Hardly worth going back, is it?”
Mrs Weasley agreed. “How could they do such a ridiculous thing?” she stormed at her husband over dinner that night. “How are our children supposed to be able to defend themselves if they aren’t being taught anything?”
“They really didn’t have a lot of choice,” Mr Weasley replied wearily. “They simply couldn’t find anyone prepared to take up the position, and after the debacle with Dolores Umbridge, Minerva wasn’t prepared to accept another Ministry appointment.” He shifted uncomfortably under his wife’s glare before continuing. “It’s not as if nothing is being done. Minerva’s already asked Gawain Robards to provide a list of charms and spells he thinks the students should learn, and Mad-Eye’s campaigning like mad to be put back on the active list and posted to the Auror squad guarding Hogwarts.”
“Yes, well,” said Mrs Weasley stiffly, “I’d just feel happier about sending Ginny back if I knew that the staff numbers were going up, not down.”
At the other end of table, Harry tried his best to avoid looking at Ginny. He hadn’t told her directly, but he was sure that she knew that he had no intention of returning to school. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much choice. Her OWL exams had been cancelled after Dumbledore’s death; she would be sitting them in the second week of term. Lost in his thoughts, it was several moments before Harry realized that Mrs Weasley was talking to him. He looked up guiltily. “Sorry, Mrs Weasley, what did you say?”
She sighed in exasperation. “I said if you fill in your form and give it to me, I’ll send them all off together.”
“What form?” Harry asked, without thinking.
“The form saying that you’ll be going back to school.”
“Oh.” For a moment Harry wasn’t sure how to respond.
“You are going back, aren’t you, Harry?” Mrs Weasley asked suspiciously. Harry couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes.
“No, I’m not going back,” he replied quietly.
“WHAT?” came the cry from both of Ron’s parents.
Harry sighed heavily. “There are...things I have to do. Dumbledore gave me a task, before he died. I have to complete that first.”
“What? On your own? Harry, you can’t—”
“He’s not going on his own, Mum,” interrupted Ron. “Hermione and I are going with him.”
Mrs Weasley looked at the three of them in disbelief. “I don’t believe this,” she cried. “Arthur, talk some sense into them.”
Her husband didn’t respond immediately. Instead he spent a moment polishing his glasses on his robes, something he always did when he wanted some time to think. When he finally responded, he too couldn’t meet Mrs Weasley’s eyes.
“We knew this would happen, Molly,” he said quietly. “Dumbledore did warn us that sooner or later Harry would have to carry the fight on by himself.”
“Yes, when he’d finished school, when the Order had been able to train him up a bit,” wailed Mrs Weasley. “Not now, when he’s barely of age. Arthur, you can’t let him—”
“I can’t stop him, Molly,” corrected Mr Weasley. “Harry’s of age. They all are. It’s no longer our place to tell them what they can and cannot do.”
Mrs Weasley stared at them all in bewilderment, and then without warning, suddenly turned and hurried from the room. Harry was startled to hear her sobbing as she climbed up the stairs. He, Ron, and Hermione all looked guiltily at each other, and not for the first time, Harry found himself wondering if he was really doing the right thing.