Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Page 12) eBook online

Through the thicket of legs around him, Harry spotted Fred and George Weasley, wrestling the rogue Bludger into a box. It was still putting up a terrific fight.

“Stand back,” said Lockhart, who was rolling up his jade green sleeves.

“No—don’t—” said Harry weakly, but Lockhart was twirling his wand and a second later had directed it straight at Harry’s arm.

A strange and unpleasant sensation started at Harry’s shoulder and spread all the way down to his fingertips. It felt as though his arm was being deflated. He didn’t dare look at what was happening. He had shut his eyes, his face turned away from his arm, but his worst fears were realized as the people above him gasped and Colin Creevey began clicking away madly. His arm didn’t hurt anymore—nor did it feel remotely like an arm.

“Ah,” said Lockhart. “Yes. Well, that can sometimes happen. But the point is, the bones are no longer broken. That’s the thing to bear in mind. So, Harry, just toddle up to the hospital wing—ah, Mr. Weasley, Miss Granger, would you escort him?—and Madam Pomfrey will be able to—er—tidy you up a bit.”

As Harry got to his feet, he felt strangely lopsided. Taking a deep breath he looked down at his right side. What he saw nearly made him pass out again.

Poking out of the end of his robes was what looked like a thick, fleshcolored rubber glove. He tried to move his fingers. Nothing happened.

Lockhart hadn’t mended Harry’s bones. He had removed them.

Madam Pomfrey wasn’t at all pleased.

“You should have come straight to me!” she raged, holding up the sad, limp remainder of what, half an hour before, had been a working arm. “I can mend bones in a second—but growing them back—”

“You will be able to, won’t you?” said Harry desperately.

“I’ll be able to, certainly, but it will be painful,” said Madam Pomfrey grimly, throwing Harry a pair of pajamas. “You’ll have to stay the night…”

Hermione waited outside the curtain drawn around Harry’s bed while Ron helped him into his pajamas. It took a while to stuff the rubbery, boneless arm into a sleeve.

“How can you stick up for Lockhart now, Hermione, eh?” Ron called through the curtain as he pulled Harry’s limp fingers through the cuff. “If Harry had wanted deboning he would have asked.”

“Anyone can make a mistake,” said Hermione. “And it doesn’t hurt anymore, does it, Harry?”

“No,” said Harry, getting into bed. “But it doesn’t do anything else either.”

As he swung himself onto the bed, his arm flapped pointlessly.

Hermione and Madam Pomfrey came around the curtain. Madam Pomfrey was holding a large bottle of something labeled Skele Gro.

“You’re in for a rough night,” she said, pouring out a steaming beakerful and handing it to him. “Regrowing bones is a nasty business.

So was taking the Skele Gro. It burned Harry’s mouth and throat as it went down, making him cough and splutter. Still tut tutting about dangerous sports and inept teachers, Madam Pomfrey retreated, leaving Ron and Hermione to help Harry gulp down some water.

“We won, though,” said Ron, a grin breaking across his face. “That was some catch you made. Malfoy’s face… he looked ready to kill!”

“I want to know how he fixed that Bludger,” said Hermione darkly.

“We can add that to the list of questions we’ll ask him when we’ve taken the Polyjuice Potion,” said Harry, sinking back onto his pillows. “I hope it tastes better than this stuff…”

“If it’s got bits of Slytherins in it? You’ve got to be joking,” said Ron.

The door of the hospital wing burst open at that moment. Filthy and soaking wet, the rest of the Gryffindor team had arrived to see Harry. “Unbelievable flying, Harry,” said George. “I’ve just seen Marcus Flint yelling at Malfoy. Something about having the Snitch on top of his head and not noticing. Malfoy didn’t seem too happy.” They had brought cakes, sweets, and bottles of pumpkin juice; they gathered around Harry’s bed and were just getting started on what promised to be a good party when Madam Pomfrey came storming over, shouting, “This boy needs rest, he’s got thirty three bones to regrow! Out! OUT!” And Harry was left alone, with nothing to distract him from the stabbing pains in his limp arm.

Hours and hours later, Harry woke quite suddenly in the pitch blackness and gave a small yelp of pain: His arm now felt full of large splinters. For a second, he thought that was what had woken him. Then, with a thrill of horror, he realized that someone was sponging his forehead in the dark.

“Get off!” he said loudly, and then, “Dobby!”

The house-elf’s goggling tennis ball eyes were peering at Harry through the darkness. A single tear was running down his long, pointed nose.

“Harry Potter came back to school,” he whispered miserably. “Dobby warned and warned Harry Potter. Ah sir, why didn’t you heed Dobby? Why didn’t Harry Potter go back home when he missed the train?” Harry heaved himself up on his pillows and pushed Dobby’s sponge away.

“What’re you doing here?” he said. “And how did you know I missed the train?”

Dobby’s lip trembled and Harry was seized by a sudden suspicion.

“It was you!” he said slowly. “You stopped the barrier from letting us through!”

“Indeed yes, sir,” said Dobby, nodding his head vigorously, ears flapping. “Dobby hid and watched for Harry Potter and sealed the gateway and Dobby had to iron his hands afterward”—he showed Harry ten long, bandaged fingers—”but Dobby didn’t care, sir, for he thought Harry Potter was safe, and never did Dobby dream that Harry Potter would get to school another way!”

He was rocking backward and forward, shaking his ugly head.

“Dobby was so shocked when he heard Harry Potter was back at Hogwarts, he let his master’s dinner burn! Such a flogging Dobby never had, sir…”

Harry slumped back onto his pillows.

“You nearly got Ron and me expelled,” he said fiercely. “You’d better get lost before my bones come back, Dobby, or I might strangle you.”

Dobby smiled weakly.

“Dobby is used to death threats, sir. Dobby gets them five times a day at home.”

He blew his nose on a corner of the filthy pillowcase he wore, looking so pathetic that Harry felt his anger ebb away in spite of himself.

“Why d’you wear that thing, Dobby?” he asked curiously.

“This, sir?” said Dobby, plucking at the pillowcase. “’Tis a mark of the house-elf’s enslavement, sir. Dobby can only be freed if his masters present him with clothes, sir. The family is careful not to pass Dobby even a sock, sir, for then he would be free to leave their house forever.”

Dobby mopped his bulging eyes and said suddenly, “Harry Potter must go home! Dobby thought his Bludger would be enough to make—”

“Your Bludger?” said Harry, anger rising once more. “What d’you mean, your Bludger? You made that Bludger try and kill me?”

“Not kill you, sir, never kill you!” said Dobby, shocked. “Dobby wants to save Harry Potter’s life! Better sent home, grievously injured, than remain here, sir! Dobby only wanted Harry Potter hurt enough to be sent home!”

“Oh, is that all?” said Harry angrily. “I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me why you wanted me sent home in pieces?”

“Ah, if Harry Potter only knew!” Dobby groaned, more tears dripping onto his ragged pillowcase. “If he knew what he means to us, to the lowly, the enslaved, we dregs of the magical world! Dobby remembers how it was when He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was at the height of his powers, sir! We house-elves were treated like vermin, sir! Of course, Dobby is still treated like that, sir,” he admitted, drying his face on the pillowcase. “But mostly, sir, life has improved for my kind since you triumphed over He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Harry Potter survived, and the Dark Lord’s power was broken, and it was a new dawn, sir, and Harry Potter shone like a beacon of hope for those of us who thought the Dark days would never end, sir… And now, at Hogwarts, terrible things are to happen, are perhaps happening already, and Dobby cannot let Harry Potter stay here now that history is to repeat itself, now that the Chamber of Secrets is open once more—”

Dobby froze, horror struck, then grabbed Harry’s water jug from his bedside table and cracked it over his own head, toppling out of sight. A second later, he crawled back onto the bed, cross eyed, muttering, “Bad Dobby, very bad Dobby…”

“So there is a Chamber of Secrets?” Harry whispered. “And did you say it’s been opened before? Tell me, Dobby!”

He seized the elf’s bony wrist as Dobby’s hand inched toward the water jug. “But I’m not Muggle-born—how can I be in danger from the Chamber?”

“Ah, sir, ask no more, ask no more of poor Dobby,” stammered the elf, his eyes huge in the dark. “Dark deeds are planned in this place, but Harry Potter must not be here when they happen—go home, Harry Potter, go home. Harry Potter must not meddle in this, sir, ’tis too dangerous—”

“Who is it, Dobby?” Harry said, keeping a firm hold on Dobby’s wrist to stop him from hitting himself with the water jug again. “Who’s opened it? Who opened it last time?”

“Dobby can’t, sir, Dobby can’t, Dobby mustn’t tell!” squealed the elf. “Go home, Harry Potter, go home!”

“I’m not going anywhere!” said Harry fiercely. “One of my best friends is Muggle-born; she’ll be first in line if the Chamber really has been opened—”

“Harry Potter risks his own life for his friends!” moaned Dobby in a kind of miserable ecstasy. “So noble! So valiant! But he must save himself, he must, Harry Potter must not—”

Dobby suddenly froze, his bat ears quivering. Harry heard it, too. There were footsteps coming down the passageway outside.

“Dobby must go!” breathed the elf, terrified. There was a loud crack, and Harry’s fist was suddenly clenched on thin air. He slumped back into bed, his eyes on the dark doorway to the hospital wing as the footsteps drew nearer.

Next moment, Dumbledore was backing into the dormitory, wearing a long woolly dressing gown and a nightcap. He was carrying one end of what looked like a statue. Professor McGonagall appeared a second later, carrying its feet. Together, they heaved it onto a bed.

“Get Madam Pomfrey,” whispered Dumbledore, and Professor McGonagall hurried past the end of Harry’s bed out of sight. Harry lay quite still, pretending to be asleep. He heard urgent voices, and then Professor McGonagall swept back into view, closely followed by Madam Pomfrey, who was pulling a cardigan on over her nightdress. He heard a sharp intake of breath.

“What happened?” Madam Pomfrey whispered to Dumbledore, bending over the statue on the bed.

“Another attack,” said Dumbledore. “Minerva found him on the stairs.”

“There was a bunch of grapes next to him,” said Professor McGonagall. “We think he was trying to sneak up here to visit Potter.”

Harry’s stomach gave a horrible lurch. Slowly and carefully, he raised himself a few inches so he could look at the statue on the bed. A ray of moonlight lay across its staring face.

It was Colin Creevey. His eyes were wide and his hands were stuck up in front of him, holding his camera.

“Petrified?” whispered Madam Pomfrey.

“Yes,” said Professor McGonagall. “But I shudder to think… If Albus hadn’t been on the way downstairs for hot chocolate—who knows what might have—”

The three of them stared down at Colin. Then Dumbledore leaned forward and wrenched the camera out of Colin’s rigid grip.

“You don’t think he managed to get a picture of his attacker?” said Professor McGonagall eagerly.

Dumbledore didn’t answer. He opened the back of the camera.

“Good gracious!” said Madam Pomfrey.

A jet of steam had hissed out of the camera. Harry, three beds away, caught the acrid smell of burnt plastic.

“Melted,” said Madam Pomfrey wonderingly. “All melted…”

“What does this mean, Albus?” Professor McGonagall asked urgently.

“It means,” said Dumbledore, “that the Chamber of Secrets is indeed open again.”

Madam Pomfrey clapped a hand to her mouth. Professor McGonagall stared at Dumbledore.

“But, Albus… surely… who?”

“The question is not who,” said Dumbledore, his eyes on Colin. “The question is, how…”

And from what Harry could see of Professor McGonagall’s shadowy face, she didn’t understand this any better than he did.




11. THE DUELING CLUB


Harry woke up on Sunday morning to find the dormitory blazing with winter sunlight and his arm reboned but very stiff. He sat up quickly and looked over at Colin’s bed, but it had been blocked from view by the high curtains Harry had changed behind yesterday. Seeing that he was awake, Madam Pomfrey came bustling over with a breakfast tray and then began bending and stretching his arm and fingers.

“All in order,” she said as he clumsily fed himself porridge left handed. “When you’ve finished eating, you may leave.”

Harry dressed as quickly as he could and hurried off to Gryffindor Tower, desperate to tell Ron and Hermione about Colin and Dobby, but they weren’t there. Harry left to look for them, wondering where they could have got to and feeling slightly hurt that they weren’t interested in whether he had his bones back or not.

As Harry passed the library, Percy Weasley strolled out of it, looking in far better spirits than last time they’d met.

“Oh, hello, Harry,” he said. “Excellent flying yesterday, really excellent. Gryffindor has just taken the lead for the House Cup—you earned fifty points!”

“You haven’t seen Ron or Hermione, have you?” said Harry.

“No, I haven’t,” said Percy, his smile fading. “I hope Ron’s not in another girls’ toilet…”

Harry forced a laugh, watched Percy walk out of sight, and then headed straight for Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom. He couldn’t see why Ron and Hermione would be in there again, but after making sure that neither Filch nor any prefects were around, he opened the door and heard their voices coming from a locked stall.

“It’s me,” he said, closing the door behind him. There was a clunk, a splash, and a gasp from within the stall and he saw Hermione’s eye peering through the keyhole.

“Harry!” she said. “You gave us such a fright—come in—how’s your arm?”

“Fine,” said Harry, squeezing into the stall. An old cauldron was perched on the toilet, and a crackling from under the rim told Harry they had lit a fire beneath it. Conjuring up portable, waterproof fires was a speciality of Hermione’s.

“We’d’ve come to meet you, but we decided to get started on the Polyjuice Potion,” Ron explained as Harry, with difficulty, locked the stall again. “We’ve decided this is the safest place to hide it.”

Harry started to tell them about Colin, but Hermione interrupted.

“We already know—we heard Professor McGonagall telling Professor Flitwick this morning. That’s why we decided we’d better get going—”

“The sooner we get a confession out of Malfoy, the better,” snarled Ron. “D’you know what I think? He was in such a foul temper after the Quidditch match, he took it out on Colin.”

“There’s something else,” said Harry, watching Hermione tearing bundles of knotgrass and throwing them into the potion. “Dobby came to visit me in the middle of the night.”

Ron and Hermione looked up, amazed. Harry told them everything Dobby had told him—or hadn’t told him. Hermione and Ron listened with their mouths open.

“The Chamber of Secrets has been opened before?” Hermione said.

“This settles it,” said Ron in a triumphant voice. “Lucius Malfoy must’ve opened the Chamber when he was at school here and now he’s told dear old Draco how to do it. It’s obvious. Wish Dobby’d told you what kind of monster’s in there, though. I want to know how come nobody’s noticed it sneaking around the school.”

“Maybe it can make itself invisible,” said Hermione, prodding leeches to the bottom of the cauldron. “Or maybe it can disguise itself—pretend to be a suit of armor or something—I’ve read about Chameleon Ghouls—”

“You read too much, Hermione,” said Ron, pouring dead lacewings on top of the leeches. He crumpled up the empty lacewing bag and looked at Harry.

“So Dobby stopped us from getting on the train and broke your arm.” He shook his head. “You know what, Harry? If he doesn’t stop trying to save your life he’s going to kill you.”

The news that Colin Creevey had been attacked and was now lying as though dead in the hospital wing had spread through the entire school by Monday morning. The air was suddenly thick with rumor and suspicion. The first years were now moving around the castle in tight knit groups, as though scared they would be attacked if they ventured forth alone.

Ginny Weasley, who sat next to Colin Creevey in Charms, was distraught, but Harry felt that Fred and George were going the wrong way about cheering her up. They were taking turns covering themselves with fur or boils and jumping out at her from behind statues. They only stopped when Percy, apoplectic with rage, told them he was going to write to Mrs. Weasley and tell her Ginny was having nightmares.

Meanwhile, hidden from the teachers, a roaring trade in talismans, amulets, and other protective devices was sweeping the school. Neville Longbottom bought a large, evil smelling green onion, a pointed purple crystal, and a rotting newt tail before the other Gryffindor boys pointed out that he was in no danger; he was a pureblood, and therefore unlikely to be attacked.

“They went for Filch first,” Neville said, his round face fearful. “And everyone knows I’m almost a Squib.”

In the second week of December Professor McGonagall came around as usual, collecting names of those who would be staying at school for Christmas. Harry, Ron, and Hermione signed her list; they had heard that Malfoy was staying, which struck them as very suspicious. The holidays would be the perfect time to use the Polyjuice Potion and try to worm a confession out of him.

Unfortunately, the potion was only half finished. They still needed the Bicorn horn and the boomslang skin, and the only place they were going to get them was from Snape’s private stores. Harry privately felt he’d rather face Slytherin’s legendary monster than let Snape catch him robbing his office.

“What we need,” said Hermione briskly as Thursday afternoon’s double Potions lesson loomed nearer, “is a diversion. Then one of us can sneak into Snape’s office and take what we need.” Harry and Ron looked at her nervously.

“I think I’d better do the actual stealing,” Hermione continued in a matter of fact tone. “You two will be expelled if you get into any more trouble, and I’ve got a clean record. So all you need to do is cause enough mayhem to keep Snape busy for five minutes or so.”

Harry smiled feebly. Deliberately causing mayhem in Snape’s Potions class was about as safe as poking a sleeping dragon in the eye.

Potions lessons took place in one of the large dungeons. Thursday afternoon’s lesson proceeded in the usual way. Twenty cauldrons stood steaming between the wooden desks, on which stood brass scales and jars of ingredients. Snape prowled through the fumes, making waspish remarks about the Gryffindors’ work while the Slytherins sniggered appreciatively. Draco Malfoy, who was Snape’s favorite student, kept flicking puffer fish eyes at Ron and Harry, who knew that if they retaliated they would get detention faster than you could say “Unfair.”

Harry’s Swelling Solution was far too runny, but he had his mind on more important things. He was waiting for Hermione’s signal, and he hardly listened as Snape paused to sneer at his watery potion. When Snape turned and walked off to bully Neville, Hermione caught Harry’s eye and nodded.

Harry ducked swiftly down behind his cauldron, pulled one of Fred’s Filibuster fireworks out of his pocket, and gave it a quick prod with his wand. The firework began to fizz and sputter. Knowing he had only seconds, Harry straightened up, took aim, and lobbed it into the air; it landed right on target in Goyle’s cauldron.

Goyle’s potion exploded, showering the whole class. People shrieked as splashes of the Swelling Solution hit them. Malfoy got a faceful and his nose began to swell like a balloon; Goyle blundered around, his hands over his eyes, which had expanded to the size of a dinner plate—Snape was trying to restore calm and find out what had happened. Through the confusion, Harry saw Hermione slip quietly into Snape’s office.

“Silence! SILENCE!” Snape roared. “Anyone who has been splashed, come here for a Deflating Draft—when I find out who did this—”

Harry tried not to laugh as he watched Malfoy hurry forward, his head drooping with the weight of a nose like a small melon. As half the class lumbered up to Snape’s desk, some weighted down with arms like clubs, others unable to talk through gigantic puffed up lips, Harry saw Hermione slide back into the dungeon, the front of her robes bulging.

When everyone had taken a swig of antidote and the various swellings had subsided, Snape swept over to Goyle’s cauldron and scooped out the twisted black remains of the firework. There was a sudden hush.

“If I ever find out who threw this,” Snape whispered, “I shall make sure that person is expelled.”

Harry arranged his face into what he hoped was a puzzled expression. Snape was looking right at him, and the bell that rang ten minutes later could not have been more welcome.

“He knew it was me,” Harry told Ron and Hermione as they hurried back to Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom. “I could tell.”

Hermione threw the new ingredients into the cauldron and began to stir feverishly.

“It’ll be ready in two weeks,” she said happily.

“Snape can’t prove it was you,” said Ron reassuringly to Harry. “What can he do?”

“Knowing Snape, something foul,” said Harry as the potion frothed and bubbled.

A week later, Harry, Ron, and Hermione were walking across the entrance hall when they saw a small knot of people gathered around the notice board, reading a piece of parchment that had just been pinned up. Seamus Finnigan and Dean Thomas beckoned them over, looking excited.

“They’re starting a Dueling Club!” said Seamus. “First meeting tonight! I wouldn’t mind dueling lessons; they might come in handy one of these days…”

“What, you reckon Slytherin’s monster can duel?” said Ron, but he, too, read the sign with interest.

“Could be useful,” he said to Harry and Hermione as they went into dinner. “Shall we go?”

Harry and Hermione were all for it, so at eight o’clock that evening they hurried back to the Great Hall. The long dining tables had vanished and a golden stage had appeared along one wall, lit by thousands of candles floating overhead. The ceiling was velvety black once more and most of the school seemed to be packed beneath it, all carrying their wands and looking excited.

“I wonder who’ll be teaching us?” said Hermione as they edged into the chattering crowd. “Someone told me Flitwick was a dueling champion when he was young—maybe it’ll be him.”

“As long as it’s not—” Harry began, but he ended on a groan: Gilderoy Lockhart was walking onto the stage, resplendent in robes of deep plum and accompanied by none other than Snape, wearing his usual black.

Lockhart waved an arm for silence and called “Gather round, gather round! Can everyone see me? Can you all hear me? Excellent!

“Now, Professor Dumbledore has granted me permission to start this little dueling club, to train you all in case you ever need to defend yourselves as I myself have done on countless occasions—for full details, see my published works.

“Let me introduce my assistant, Professor Snape,” said Lockhart, flashing a wide smile. “He tells me he knows a tiny little bit about dueling himself and has sportingly agreed to help me with a short demonstration before we begin. Now, I don’t want any of you youngsters to worry—you’ll still have your Potions master when I’m through with him, never fear!”

“Wouldn’t it be good if they finished each other off?” Ron muttered in Harry’s ear.

Snape’s upper lip was curling. Harry wondered why Lockhart was still smiling; if Snape had been looking at him like that he’d have been running as fast as he could in the opposite direction.

Lockhart and Snape turned to face each other and bowed; at least, Lockhart did, with much twirling of his hands, whereas Snape jerked his head irritably. Then they raised their wands like swords in front of them.

“As you see, we are holding our wands in the accepted combative position,” Lockhart told the silent crowd. “On the count of three, we will cast our first spells. Neither of us will be aiming to kill, of course.”

“I wouldn’t bet on that,” Harry murmured, watching Snape baring his teeth.

“One—two—three—”

Both of them swung their wands above their heads and pointed them at their opponent; Snape cried: “Expelliarmus!” There was a dazzling flash of scarlet light and Lockhart was blasted off his feet: He flew backward off the stage, smashed into the wall, and slid down it to sprawl on the floor.

Malfoy and some of the other Slytherins cheered. Hermione was dancing on tiptoes. “Do you think he’s all right?” she squealed through her fingers.

“Who cares?” said Harry and Ron together.

Lockhart was getting unsteadily to his feet. His hat had fallen off and his wavy hair was standing on end.

“Well, there you have it!” he said, tottering back onto the platform. “That was a Disarming Charm—as you see, I’ve lost my wand—ah, thank you, Miss Brown—yes, an excellent idea to show them that, Professor Snape, but if you don’t mind my saying so, it was very obvious what you were about to do. If I had wanted to stop you it would have been only too easy—however, I felt it would be instructive to let them see…”

Snape was looking murderous. Possibly Lockhart had noticed, because he said, “Enough demonstrating! I’m going to come amongst you now and put you all into pairs. Professor Snape, if you’d like to help me—”

They moved through the crowd, matching up partners. Lockhart teamed Neville with Justin Finch-Fletchley, but Snape reached Harry and Ron first.

“Time to split up the dream team, I think,” he sneered. “Weasley, you can partner Finnigan. Potter—”

Harry moved automatically toward Hermione.

“I don’t think so,” said Snape, smiling coldly. “Mr. Malfoy, come over here. Let’s see what you make of the famous Potter. And you, Miss Granger—you can partner Miss Bulstrode.”

Malfoy strutted over, smirking. Behind him walked a Slytherin girl who reminded Harry of a picture he’d seen in Holidays with Hags. She was large and square and her heavy jaw jutted aggressively. Hermione gave her a weak smile that she did not return.

“Face your partners!” called Lockhart, back on the platform. “And bow!”

Harry and Malfoy barely inclined their heads, not taking their eyes off each other.

“Wands at the ready!” shouted Lockhart. “When I count to three, cast your charms to disarm your opponents—only to disarm them—we don’t want any accidents—one… two… three—”

Harry swung his wand high, but Malfoy had already started on “two”: His spell hit Harry so hard he felt as though he’d been hit over the head with a saucepan. He stumbled, but everything still seemed to be working, and wasting no more time, Harry pointed his wand straight at Malfoy and shouted, “Rictusempra!”

A jet of silver light hit Malfoy in the stomach and he doubled up, wheezing.

“I said disarm only!” Lockhart shouted in alarm over the heads of the battling crowd, as Malfoy sank to his knees; Harry had hit him with a Tickling Charm, and he could barely move for laughing. Harry hung back, with a vague feeling it would be unsporting to bewitch Malfoy while he was on the floor, but this was a mistake; gasping for breath, Malfoy pointed his wand at Harry’s knees, choked, “Tarantallegra!” and the next second Harry’s legs began to jerk around out of his control in a kind of quickstep.

“Stop! Stop!” screamed Lockhart, but Snape took charge. “Finite Incantatem!” he shouted; Harry’s feet stopped dancing, Malfoy stopped laughing, and they were able to look up.

A haze of greenish smoke was hovering over the scene. Both Neville and Justin were lying on the floor, panting; Ron was holding up an ashen faced Seamus, apologizing for whatever his broken wand had done; but Hermione and Millicent Bulstrode were still moving; Millicent had Hermione in a headlock and Hermione was whimpering in pain; both their wands lay forgotten on the floor. Harry leapt forward and pulled Millicent off. It was difficult: She was a lot bigger than he was.

“Dear, dear,” said Lockhart, skittering through the crowd, looking at the aftermath of the duels. “Up you go, Macmillan… Careful there, Miss Fawcett… Pinch it hard, it’ll stop bleeding in a second, Boot…”

“I think I’d better teach you how to block unfriendly spells,” said Lockhart, standing flustered in the midst of the hall. He glanced at Snape, whose black eyes glinted, and looked quickly away. “Let’s have a volunteer pair—Longbottom and Finch-Fletchley, how about you—”

“A bad idea, Professor Lockhart,” said Snape, gliding over like a large and malevolent bat. “Longbottom causes devastation with the simplest spells. We’ll be sending what’s left of Finch-Fletchley up to the hospital wing in a matchbox.” Neville’s round, pink face went pinker. “How about Malfoy and Potter?” said Snape with a twisted smile.

“Excellent idea!” said Lockhart, gesturing Harry and Malfoy into the middle of the hall as the crowd backed away to give them room.

“Now, Harry,” said Lockhart. “When Draco points his wand at you, you do this.”

He raised his own wand, attempted a complicated sort of wiggling action, and dropped it. Snape smirked as Lockhart quickly picked it up, saying, “Whoops—my wand is a little overexcited—”

Snape moved closer to Malfoy, bent down, and whispered something in his ear. Malfoy smirked, too. Harry looked up nervously at Lockhart and said, “Professor, could you show me that blocking thing again?”

“Scared?” muttered Malfoy, so that Lockhart couldn’t hear him.

“You wish,” said Harry out of the corner of his mouth.

Lockhart cuffed Harry merrily on the shoulder. “Just do what I did, Harry!”

“What, drop my wand?”

But Lockhart wasn’t listening.

“Three—two—one—go!” he shouted.

Malfoy raised his wand quickly and bellowed, “Serpensortia!”

The end of his wand exploded. Harry watched, aghast, as a long black snake shot out of it, fell heavily onto the floor between them, and raised itself, ready to strike. There were screams as the crowd backed swiftly away, clearing the floor.

“Don’t move, Potter,” said Snape lazily, clearly enjoying the sight of Harry standing motionless, eye to eye with the angry snake. “I’ll get rid of it…”

“Allow me!” shouted Lockhart. He brandished his wand at the snake and there was a loud bang; the snake, instead of vanishing, flew ten feet into the air and fell back to the floor with a loud smack. Enraged, hissing furiously, it slithered straight toward Justin Finch-Fletchley and raised itself again, fangs exposed, poised to strike.

Harry wasn’t sure what made him do it. He wasn’t even aware of deciding to do it. All he knew was that his legs were carrying him forward as though he was on casters and that he had shouted stupidly at the snake, “Leave him alone!” And miraculously—inexplicably—the snake slumped to the floor, docile as a thick, black garden hose, its eyes now on Harry. Harry felt the fear drain out of him. He knew the snake wouldn’t attack anyone now, though how he knew it, he couldn’t have explained.

He looked up at Justin, grinning, expecting to see Justin looking relieved, or puzzled, or even grateful—but certainly not angry and scared.

“What do you think you’re playing at?” he shouted, and before Harry could say anything, Justin had turned and stormed out of the hall.

Snape stepped forward, waved his wand, and the snake vanished in a small puff of black smoke. Snape, too, was looking at Harry in an unexpected way: It was a shrewd and calculating look, and Harry didn’t like it. He was also dimly aware of an ominous muttering all around the walls. Then he felt a tugging on the back of his robes.

“Come on,” said Ron’s voice in his ear. “Move—come on—”

Ron steered him out of the hall, Hermione hurrying alongside them. As they went through the doors, the people on either side drew away as though they were frightened of catching something. Harry didn’t have a clue what was going on, and neither Ron nor Hermione explained anything until they had dragged him all the way up to the empty Gryffindor common room. Then Ron pushed Harry into an armchair and said, “You’re a Parselmouth. Why didn’t you tell us?”

“I’m a what?” said Harry.

“A Parselmouth!” said Ron. “You can talk to snakes!”

“I know,” said Harry. “I mean, that’s only the second time I’ve ever done it. I accidentally set a boa constrictor on my cousin Dudley at the zoo once—long story—but it was telling me it had never seen Brazil and I sort of set it free without meaning to that was before I knew I was a wizard—”

“A boa constrictor told you it had never seen Brazil?” Ron repeated faintly.

“So?” said Harry. “I bet loads of people here can do it.”

“Oh, no they can’t,” said Ron. “It’s not a very common gift. Harry, this is bad.”

“What’s bad?” said Harry, starting to feel quite angry. “What’s wrong with everyone? Listen, if I hadn’t told that snake not to attack Justin—”

“Oh, that’s what you said to it?”

“What d’you mean? You were there—you heard me—”

“I heard you speaking Parseltongue,” said Ron. “Snake language. You could have been saying anything—no wonder Justin panicked, you sounded like you were egging the snake on or something—it was creepy, you know—”

Harry gaped at him.

“I spoke a different language? But—I didn’t realize—how can I speak a language without knowing I can speak it?”

Ron shook his head. Both he and Hermione were looking as though someone had died. Harry couldn’t see what was so terrible.

“D’you want to tell me what’s wrong with stopping a massive snake biting off Justin’s head?” he said. “What does it matter how I did it as long as Justin doesn’t have to join the Headless Hunt?”

“It matters,” said Hermione, speaking at last in a hushed voice, “because being able to talk to snakes was what Salazar Slytherin was famous for. That’s why the symbol of Slytherin House is a serpent.”

Harry’s mouth fell open.

“Exactly,” said Ron. “And now the whole school’s going to think you’re his great great great great grandson or something—”

“But I’m not,” said Harry, with a panic he couldn’t quite explain.

“You’ll find that hard to prove,” said Hermione. “He lived about a thousand years ago; for all we know, you could be.”

Harry lay awake for hours that night. Through a gap in the curtains around his four-poster he watched snow starting to drift past the tower window and wondered…

Could he be a descendant of Salazar Slytherin? He didn’t know anything about his father’s family, after all. The Dursleys had always forbidden questions about his wizarding relatives.

Quietly, Harry tried to say something in Parseltongue. The words wouldn’t come. It seemed he had to be face to face with a snake to do it.

But I’m in Gryffindor, Harry thought. The Sorting Hat wouldn’t have put me in here if I had Slytherin blood…

Ah, said a nasty little voice in his brain, but the Sorting Hat wanted to put you in Slytherin, don’t you remember?

Harry turned over. He’d see Justin the next day in Herbology and he’d explain that he’d been calling the snake off, not egging it on, which (he thought angrily, pummeling his pillow) any fool should have realized.

By next morning, however, the snow that had begun in the night had turned into a blizzard so thick that the last Herbology lesson of the term was canceled: Professor Sprout wanted to fit socks and scarves on the Mandrakes, a tricky operation she would entrust to no one else, now that it was so important for the Mandrakes to grow quickly and revive Mrs. Norris and Colin Creevey.

Harry fretted about this next to the fire in the Gryffindor common room, while Ron and Hermione used their time off to play a game of wizard chess.
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