I walked into the dormitory that afternoon already in a rather bad mood.
We were still covering winged horses in Care of Magical Creatures - a subject in which I had been doing really well, if I do say so myself. Key words being had been. Not this last lesson, though. It had been near impossible to do anything at all, when I couldn't even see the beasts. I just hoped Thestrals wouldn't come up in our O.W.L.s; they were now officially my least favourite type of horse.
And speaking of our O.W.L.s, here was to hoping that my performance in Potions wasn't completely in shambles now, too, after that stupid debacle that morning, with Lisa Gruber's Draught of Peace erupting like a stinking volcano, which had then caused me to have to get out of the way, and therefore stop stirring my own potion much too soon, rendering it a hardened, useless gunk.
These, then, were about the biggest concerns going around in my mind, as I entered the dormitory that May afternoon.
There, I found Lisa in full on pity fest mode. She sat on her bed bawling her eyes out, and the Carrow twins gathered around her, wallowing in her fake tears and crooning like she was an injured baby unicorn fighting for its life.
You might think I'm being terribly insensitive here, but this was kind of a recurring scene, you see, and like I said, I was in a bad mood.
Anyway, so that afternoon, Lisa and her friends all turned to glare at me when I came in. Surprise, surprise.
I rolled my eyes at all of them and headed to my side of the dormitory, where I went about collecting the rest of my books and study materials, intending to head to the library for a couple hours of work before dinner. All the while, though, I could feel their disapproving glares burning through my back.
Now, allow me to give you a little bit of context for the scene that is about to unfold: see, when Professor Slughorn had taken up our fourth year Potions class the year before, he'd turned out to be one of those teachers who had us sit alphabetically. To more easily memorise our names, he'd said, because he was old and there were so many of us.
So the previous year, I'd ended up sharing a work table with a Gryffindor bloke named Dan Gregson - with whom I had never spoken before in my life, but whom everyone had heard comment loud and clear during our very first flying lesson in first year, "It's just like riding a bicycle, right? I had Mum and Dad throw away my training wheels by my second try!"
Well, I'd be lying if I said I had been particularly excited with those sitting arrangements at the time. Never mind his Muggle background, who wouldn't prefer to sit in class with their own friends? And my excitement had taken yet another nosedive when Professor Slughorn had announced that for our first lesson, we would actually be working in pairs, and that the pair who managed to brew the best Shrinking Solution would win a prize.
Contrary to our expectations though, Gregson and I actually hit it off.
I mean, he talked incessantly, mostly about football, and his bicycle, and something called a playstation, which he had terribly regretted not being able to bring to Hogwarts. I think at first he was doing it on purpose, trying to needle the stereotypical prejudiced pureblood Slytherin with incessant Muggle talk, you know.
I told him I liked Smarties, thinking that would shut him up.
Nope. He smiled approvingly, and told me I should try Pez next. Which then turned into a detailed listing of his collection of Pez dispensers. I then told him I already collected Chocolate Frog Cards, so of course he replied that he collected both Pez dispensers and Chocolate Frog Cards.
"Best of both worlds, Greenie." he said, and winked. I kid you not, he actually winked.
I recall I muttered something along the lines of "Right now I'd settle for the best of mincing your daisy roots in silence..." And he laughed. But then indeed reduced the chatter to a minimum that I couldn't really bring myself to begrudge, because all the while he'd been doing his part of the work, and admittedly it hadn't been turning out half bad.
Then at the end of the lesson, when Professor Slughorn had gone around the room checking the cauldrons, guess whose Shrinking Solution won the prize. That's right: this girl's here and the muggle-born chatterbox's had!
I still kept my prize tiny little phial of Felix Felicis, over a year later, as something of a talisman to remind myself that I totally had this and I could ace those bloody O.W.L.s. (shame it was against the rules to actually use it during examinations, though).
Of course, now in our fifth year, with the new regime in place, Gregson, being muggle-born, was among the students who were unable to attend school. So I'd ended up sitting with Lisa Gruber in Potions instead. Needless to say, I hadn't been winning any prizes with her for a partner.
Thankfully, in preparation for the upcoming exam, most assignments this year had been solo. Still, every time Slughorn came around our table and, sighing, instructed "Miss Greengrass, give Miss Gruber here a hand, will you?", I instantly started to sweat.
And here's why.
Back to the pity fest in the dormitory: I let the lid of my trunk fall shut with a loud thud and turned, shouldering my book bag, to head back out. That's when Hestia Carrow at last came out and shot coldly at me "Don't you have something to say to poor Lisa, Tori?"
A couple rather uncharitable retorts crossed my mind, but I still held my tongue and just shrugged. "Not really."
They tut-tutted and glared some more, and Lisa sniffled dramatically. I walked to the door.
"You could at least apologise!" Flora Carrow sniffed indignantly. "You know poor Lisa has been struggling in Potions, and now because of you, her mark is going to fall!"
Another time, I might've still walked away. Indeed, I had done before. I should've done this time, too. But instead I whirled back around and snapped. "Yeah? A0nd how do you figure that, Flora?"
All three of them puffed up, but I didn't give them a chance to reply, before I angrily went on.
"If anything, because of me she hasn't already flunked completely! Curiously, I never heard you offer to help fix her screwed up potions! So mind your own damned business! And you!" I rounded on Lisa "Instead of playing the victim and setting your dogs on me, you might want to recall who it was that went and dumped Horklump juice into the cauldron, when I'd only just told to add syrup of hellebore!"
"It was an accident!" Lisa protested, addressing me directly for the first time since Potions class, "Maybe if you didn't make a cluttered mess of our working table, I wouldn't have grabbed the wrong phial!"
"And maybe if you learned how to read, you would've grabbed the right one!" I angrily retorted "That's why they're all labelled, you know!"
Of course, the whole group took great offence at my uncharitable jab at Lisa's intelligence. I'll spare you the details, but you can imagine they basically turned on me like a band of banshees.
Then at some point, Lisa, either still or again with tears in her eyes, spat at me "Well, why don't you go and ask Slughorn to let you work by yourself, then?! Since I'm so stupid, and you're so smart that you don't even need a partner?"
"Oh, I've worked just fine with a partner! What you are is dead weight!"
Okay, was that unnecessarily mean? Maybe. I'm fairly certain I remember the twins gasping dramatically.
Lisa positively shrieked "Yeah? Then maybe you should go and get that Mudblood Gregson to work with you again, then, since you liked him so much better!"
"Well, I wish I could!" I shouted back. And because by then my brain to mouth filter had already taken leave in the face of my mounting frustration, I had to go and add "Given the choice, I'd take most any mudblood for a partner over a dimwit like you!"
Well, I'm sure you can appreciate the gravity of my spiteful comeback, in the heart of Slytherin House, during the height of the Dark Lord's rule. And in the presence of two Carrows, no less. Not only had I said about the most offensive thing possible to the biggest drama queen in the House, I had also handed her and her minions the perfect cue for their revenge on a proverbial silver platter.
"Oh, I didn't know you for such a fan of mudbloods, Tori Greengrass!" Lisa retorted nastily, her previously profuse tears now completely replaced by a threatening gleam in her eye. The twins had gone completely quiet now, grinning avidly. "You know what that makes you?"
"A blood traitor!" Flora eagerly piped up, probably very proud of herself for knowing the answer to a question for once in her life, the blithering idiot. "You're a blood traitor, Tori!"
"I'm not! Shut up, Flora!" I retorted, before I could stop myself.
Because, trust me, that was definitely not a term you'd want yourself associated with, in that time and place. You know who had been branded that? The sort of kids on whom Professor Amycus Carrow had the older students practice the Cruciatus Curse, during his Dark Arts lessons...
Of course, Lisa was well aware of that. That's why a positively vicious smirk stretched across her face.
"No? Well, I might be failing Potions, but I reckon you're the one struggling with basic concepts in Muggle Studies, then... Would you like me to, er, give you a hand with that?"
The twins snickered gleefully.
I stuck my chin up and did my best to look confidently unconcerned as I stared silently back.
"Or maybe, since I'm so stupid," Lisa viciously went on, "It's best if you go take lessons directly from the teacher... What'd you say, Tori? Shall we ask Professor Carrow for an extra lesson for you?"
Okay, my heart might've actually missed a beat, then.
The twins, meanwhile, seemed to have taken to the idea like a Niffler to a pouch of gold. "Ooh, which of them, though?"
"Cousin Alecto, of course, she's the Muggle Studies teacher, isn't she?"
"Yeah, but Cousin Amycus likes to play with that knife of his... Remember what he did to that Longbottom's face?"
And they actually broke out into mad peals of laughter. I genuinely thought I might be sick right then and there.
But mercifully, before I gave them that satisfaction, a much more welcome voice sounded from the direction of the doorway. "What's going on?"
At once, Lisa's expression visibly soured. And as if on cue, her minions' uproarious mirth simmered down to scathing scowls, as Cordelia Runcorn stepped into the room and up to my side.
"Nothing much," Lisa spat, with a flip of her hair and a rather insolent glance at the Prefect badge gleaming on the chest of Cordelia's robes. "Only I'd expect the likes of you to do a better job keeping your own friends up with the current school policies..."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
But as Lisa's only response was to sneer again, Cordelia simply turned her back on the three of them and asked me, "Have you got everything?"
"Yeah" I said."Let's go."
And I practically shoved her out the door, leaving Lisa and the twins to whisper amongst themselves. I shuddered to think what about.
That evening, when Professor Slughorn led our House into the Great Hall for dinner, I distinctly remember I chose Cordelia and me the very first seats available at the top of the Slytherin table nearest the entrance. You'd remember too, if no fewer than three different people had remarked upon your apparently very unusual choice of sitting throughout one dinner.
The first being Cordelia herself, as soon as she sat down across from me. Shooting me a knowing look, she said in an undertone "You sure you don't want to go sit at the top of the Astronomy Tower? That's about as far from Lisa and company as you can get in this castle."
"Hmm?" I said, as my eyes zeroed in on the figures of Professors Carrow, who were already at their places on either side of Professor Snape, all the way down the Hall at the High Table. Both brother and sister were on their feet, avidly overseeing the crowd of subdued students entering the Hall and quietly occupying their respective House tables.
"Seriously," Cordelia went on whispering, "Look around us! We're surrounded by first years! I know it's okay for you, you're practically a pixie yourself, but I'm feeling like a giant at a table full of gnomes! And where's the food? I'm starving!"
I was only half listening to her, to be honest. "Is it just me, or are the Carrows looking particularly menacing this evening?"
Cordelia took a cursory glance up at the High Table, then at the string of students now crossing the centre aisle, led by Professor McGonagall. "Well, maybe... But then the Gryffindors just came in, so that might be it... Oh, finally! Quick, grab the lamb chops, won't you?"
I absently handed over a platter that had just materialised to my left. "Yeah, that must be it..."
That's when I sensed, rather than saw, Cordelia's thoughtful hazel eyes narrow on me. "So what exactly happened with those three earlier in the dormitory, anyway?" she asked, as she topped her plate.
I vaguely mumbled something along the lines of "Oh, you know, just Lisa being Lisa", but I swear my heartbeat positively skyrocketed just at the thought of the trio's threats.
Why, oh why, had I gone and taken Lisa's bait?! Even as we spoke, that telltale and her friends could be tattling to the rest of our class all about our stupid confrontation. And then some, of course. I could only imagine what kind of spin she was putting on my words. My thoughtless, potentially incriminating words. And it's not like the Carrows were known to need much incentive, let alone proof, to hand out punishments...
"Again, huh?" said Cordelia sympathetically, "You know you just have to ignore her. She talks really big, for someone" and here she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper so that only I could hear,"whose father is on the run from the Ministry..."
That effectively snapped my attention from the High Table, for a moment. "You mean, like a criminal?!"
"Yeah, Dad's told me. Apparently, dear old Gruber's family tree didn't check out, and he's missed three summons from the Muggle-Born Registration Committee already."
"Oh, wow... I suppose that sort of explains why Lisa seems to be breaking all her tantrum records, lately..."
"Yeah, I suppose. Can you pass the gravy? – Thanks."
Cordelia poured herself a generous spoonful, then happily tuck in. Too bad my own stomach was twisting up in knots; I pushed a bit of food around on my plate and, unable to help myself, took another furtive glance in the Carrows' direction.
Only my vision was suddenly obscured by a familiar figure of bony limbs and unruly sandy hair that suddenly barged in next to me.
"Are you quite done with those chops?" grumbled my little cousin Alfie, proceeding to unceremoniously snatch the half-empty platter in front of me. "What're you doing all the way down here, anyway?" he demanded, now reaching for the gravy boat as well.
I huffed. "Heard you were missing me, so I thought I'd come sit closer to you."
Alfie snorted. "Closer to the exit, more like. Hold this" he said, handing me a bowl of mashed potatoes. Then he reached for the nearest basket of bread, placed it rather precariously on top of the gravy boat, and took the mashed potatoes back. "Well? Anyone I need to have a go at, cousin?"
"You and the army you're stocking up to feed, I suppose? Just hurry up and move along, will you!" I urged, as I took another worried glance at the High Table.
Alfie, for good measure, grabbed a second platter of chops. "What?" he said defiantly, as I shot him a look. "I'm a growing boy!"
"You'll be a growing boy in big trouble, if you don't get back to your seat! Snape's already looking at us!" And next moment, even I could hear the note of panic in my voice as I gasped "Oh no! Now we've done it, the Carrows are getting up!"
Cordelia looked at me like I was mental. I couldn't see Alfie's face, but I'm guessing he was thinking much the same. You see, students weren't really supposed to chat during meals, sure, much less leave their seats and stroll up and down the tables to consort with each other. However, we knew that, as generally rule-abiding Slytherins - especially Slytherins from upstanding good, old wizarding families - we could count on a bit more slack than the average student.
Of course, at the moment I wasn't so sure I was still on the Carrows' list of rule-abiding Slytherins, hence my little panic attack.
As it turned out, the Carrows were indeed looking absolutely ferocious as they scrambled down the dais. But their target was a boy who'd got to his feet halfway down the Ravenclaw table. In my momentary distraction with my cousin's hoarding ways, I hadn't noticed the commotion start, but soon it was quite impossible to miss.
"... into Gringotts! They flew out on a dragon!" the boy was shouting loud and clear, stirring up a buzz around the Hall.
The Carrows were now lumbering as fast as they could between the house tables, shoving students brusquely out of the way. But more and more people kept getting up and stepping out of their places, so that the two siblings were forced to shuffle along in zigzags, trying to get to the boy, who actually stood up on his seat, and went on shouting, speaking louder and louder, faster and faster as they approached.
"Snape and those two didn't want us knowing that their Death Eater pals have failed to capture Harry Potter yet again! But he's broken into their Ministry before! Now into their vaults! And soon into Hogwarts t –"
But what exactly he expected Harry Potter to break into Hogwarts to do, he never got to say. Because that's when Amycus Carrow got to him, and yanked him down so violently, that the boy quite literally smashed to the floor, with a horrible cracking noise. Without a moment's pause, Carrow then started kicking him with all the viciousness he could muster, while his sister had meanwhile started shooting Cruciatus Curses at any one who dared step within a ten-foot radius of them.
It was truly awful. I'll spare you the ghastly details, and in any case, I didn't actually see most of the beating myself, what with everyone on their feet. But even if I'd had a clear, unobstructed view, I would've most certainly ended up looking away. The noises that reached me were bad enough. The cries of pain, the unmistakable cracking of bones, the yells of fury from the Carrow brother, the shrieks from his sister... And it seemed to go on and on, though objectively, it can't have been more than a few minutes before the other teachers had reached them and intervened.
For a moment there, it appeared as though Carrow might even turn on them next. He was a complete brute, but in the end he wasn't stupid enough to try and take on Professors Flitwick, McGonagall and Sprout all together. Not to mention Snape, who had himself given the order to stop the assault, and was now staring the sister down, until she put away her wand.
I got a full view of the boy - or what was left of him - as he was taken out of the Hall on a stretcher that one of the teachers must have Conjured. I couldn't even tell if his face was familiar in any way. Merlin, I could hardly tell there was a face at all under all that blood and bruising!
Snape then ordered everyone to settle down and go back to their meals, but even with the two Carrows now closely patrolling between the tables, looking as murderous as ever, there was no quelling the restless buzz that pervaded all the tables in the Hall.
"Was that true, d'you think?" asked my cousin, who, after all this, had managed to push himself fully into the space next to me. "That Potter broke into Gringotts today? And flew a dragon?" he added excitedly, while forking up a lamb chop right off of one of the platters, which he'd at some point chucked haphazardly back onto the table. Then, looking expectantly between Cordelia and me, proceeded to chomp away.
Honestly, I couldn't even think of taking another bite, myself.
"It's all complete rubbish" Cordelia replied dismissively, picking her cutlery back up, as well. "There's no way a teenage boy could break into Gringotts. Or into the Ministry, for that matter."
"But if he's got a dragon..."
"Of course he hasn't got a dragon, Alfie", I said, "You can't have dragons, they're untamable. Not to mention, a bit too conspicuous for someone with the whole Ministry on his back."
"I'm just saying, it'd be kind of cool if he did come here next..."
"Oh, say that a bit louder, why don't you?!" I hissed, instinctively throwing a look around the Hall.
"... maybe have the dragon puff a flame down Carrow's..."
"Alpheus! For Merlin's sake, shut up!" I snapped.
He threw his hands up, protesting, if anything, even louder. "The whole Hall is buzzing about it, Tori, I'm hardly the one they're going to pick on!"
I just glared at him.
He huffed. "Whatever. You're awfully prickly today!"
And without another word, he pushed off the seat and set off down the table - not forgetting the platters of lamb chops - hopefully to go back to his original spot, and to stuff his mouth too full of food for running it off to be possible.
Of course, the evening's excitement wasn't quite over yet. I've mentioned that no fewer than three people had remarked upon my choice of sitting during that dinner. Well, the third person I spotted soon after that; a willowy figure with long shiny caramel brown locks was making her way up the table, her clear blue gaze scanning faces as she went. In a moment, it landed squarely on me, and that questioning little crease popped up between her perfectly styled brows.
"Oh, here you are!" said my sister Daphne, coming up behind Cordelia, who was just polishing off the last of her mash. "I was starting to think you'd sneaked out of the Hall already. Why're you lot so far down here, today?"
Honestly, you'd think we had designated seats! We didn't, you know, not at meals anyway. Perhaps the Carrows would push for that next; they already tried to control everything else in the school.
"Oh, you know," I muttered, "just hanging out with the younger kids, thought it might be fun."
Daphne ignored that. Instead, with a glance at my practically untouched plate, she pointed out "You're not eating." She even pursed her lips and crossed her arms, in quite an uncanny imitation of our Mum. Truly, I even half-expected the 'Astoria Prudence' at the end. "And you do look a bit queasy, Tori. Is everything alright?"
"Absolutely! The Carrows just beat a kid to a pulp in the middle of dinner, but everything's just peachy!"
"You weren't eating even before that." Cordelia treacherously pointed out. "You've been fixed on the Carrows all dinner. It's not like their penchant for violence is exactly today's news, you know."
"And, well, Terry Boot did say some things that he knew were bound to stir up trouble..."
"Oh, well, in that case, everything's perfectly fine!" I couldn't help retorting. "He needed the lesson! Because, apparently, that's how it is now! You say one wrong thing, and you're basically asking for torture!"
Good thing the whole Hall was still abuzz, because by the way a few kids in the vicinity turned to glance my way, and the startled look Daphne and Cordelia exchanged, my voice had just gone up a couple octaves.
"Okay, Tori, calm down," said Daphne, "I didn't say that. But, well, that is the way it is. It's been all year. So I really don't understand what's got into you, I mean, I just heard –"
"It's not true!" I spluttered across her, as my blood positively ran cold. "Whatever she's saying, it's not true! I mean, I did say something I shouldn't have, but – but she was goading me! I – I didn't mean anything..."
I trailed off, as two perfectly perplexed faces stared back at me.
"What're you talking about, Tori?"
"I –" I took a deep, calming breath. "Nothing... What're you talking about?"
Daphne shook her head. "I see what Alfie meant; you're not just jumpy, you're positively frightened! Tori, what's going on? Who is 'she'?"
"Lisa Gruber." Cordelia supplied, with a dark look on her face. "Something happened earlier in the dormitory - I don't know what, exactly –"
"Well, isn't it your job to know? What kind of Prefect are you?" snapped my sister.
"Daphne! Leave off! It was nothing!"
"It was obviously not nothing, Tori!" my sister snapped at me, in turn. "Who's this Lisa Gruber?" she demanded, already scanning the table up and down again. "Point her out to me!"
"Absolutely not! Stay out of it, Daphne! I mean it!"
But when, in the whole, long history of meddlesome big sisters, has that kind of request ever been heeded?
I don't know what I had expected. But it certainly didn't include arriving at the Common Room that evening - already cutting it way too close to curfew for comfort, after trying to put in a couple more hours of work in the library - to walk in on what looked like the whole of my House still up, still in their robes, gathered excitedly together in the middle of the room, making a racket that could probably reach the Headmaster's office.
My first thought was that Blaise Zabini was at it again, challenging people for a hand of Exploding Snap. Except he always had them bet real money on it, and nobody will ever convince me that he didn't have a trick for making the cards explode exactly when he wanted them to. Really, there's no way I would've lost my entire Chocolate Frog budget that one time in one single round, otherwise.
Well, it was not a card game that was going on. The first clue was the main voice that reached my ears the moment the stone passage closed behind Cordelia and me. I couldn't quite make out what it was saying over the din, but I'd recognise Pansy Parkinson's voice in a sold-out Quidditch stadium.
A rather ominous feeling settled in my gut right then, and, exchanging a look with Cordelia, we hastened to get closer.
"Excuse me! Sorry! Excuse me!" We kept saying as we tried to get through the crowd. Then at last we emerged at the very front between a couple of third years, and my stomach did a somersault.
"... don't think everyone here caught that. You're going to have to speak up!" Pansy was ordering, lazily twirling her wand between her fingers, as she stood in the centre of the room, with my sister next to her, looking haughtily on, and Tracey Davies on her other side, with a vaguely amused smirk on her face.
Also looking - and sounding - particularly amused were the four other girls standing just behind them, who were really just one year ahead of me but often gravitated toward the older girls' group, especially when Pansy was putting on a show.
And she was definitely putting on quite the show. Because topping off the squad, was the hulking figure of Millicent Bullstrode, who usually only got to tag along with the rest of them when some extra knuckle-cracking was required. As, apparently, it was in this moment. CRACK CRACK.
"Alright, alright!" cried Lisa Gruber, looking rather small and forlorn, standing alone before all eight of them.
I spotted the twins quickly enough, but they were standing further back, quietly mixed in with the rest of my class, while Lisa had centre stage to flush visibly crimson - even under the whole murky, greenish tinge the Slytherin common room has going on - and call out "I, Lisa Gruber..."
"Louder!" snapped Pansy.
"I... LISA GRUBER... AM A LIAR... A-AND..."
"Go on! We haven't got all day!"
"...and a-a Muggle-loving s-slag..."
Not even I would have said that the tears now brimming Lisa's eyes were fake anymore, as all around there were harsh laughs and catcalls and rude remarks, and Pansy, smiling delightedly, demanded "Again! Louder!"
I wished I had gone straight to the dormitory. I wished I could slip back through the crowd and pretend this really was just another of Zabini's card games. I wished a lot of things, not the least of which was that my sister would catch a nasty case of Mumblemumps that left her confined to the Hospital Wing for a month, with nobody around whose business to meddle in!
What I did, however, was pull Cordelia by the arm, shuffling us a bit deeper back into the crowd. "You've got to stop this!" I said.
"Well, you're the Prefect!"
"And Parkinson's Head Girl!" Cordelia protested, even as another bout of laughter drowned out the sound of Lisa's stammered response.
"What do we do, then?" I insisted.
"Take a seat and clap along?" muttered Cordelia.
"You realise the worse she gets it, the worse she's going to take it out on someone else. Most likely, us."
Cordelia huffed, but then looked around, scanning the rowdy crowd as though searching for something. And after a moment, nodded to a spot somewhere at the back of the room, in the direction of a row of windows that looked out into the Black Lake. "Well, there's Malfoy. He's still Prefect, isn't he? Go and get him to call Parkinson off."
"Yeah, because he's one to even listen to the likes of me, and not escalate that sort of thing at all!", I retorted, "We need the Head Boy! Can you see Nott anywhere?" I asked, practically stretching myself up on my toes.
"Your sister's not wrapped around him, so I take it he's still back at the library."
I took a glance at my watch. "He can't be for much longer, it's less than ten minutes to curfew..."
And indeed, no sooner had I said it, than the passage on the wall opened, and a tall, lean figure came in, scratching his already messy dark hair.
"Oh, there he is! Theodore!" I called out. "Thank Merlin!"
He stumbled to a startled stop as I reached him. "Whas' wrong? Is it Daphne? Have they got her?"
"What? You mean the Carrows? No, Daphne's fine." I said, "Better than she deserves, actually. Look," and I nodded toward the excited crowd, from the midst of which another of Pansy's shrill cackles issued, followed by renewed jeering and heckling.
With a resigned sort of sigh, Theodore set off across the room, calling out "Alright, that's quite enough! Everyone off to bed now! Light's out in five minutes!"
The tumult soon simmered down as people turned in the direction of his voice and began to disperse.
That's when I saw Daphne beam widely as she stepped away from her gaggle of friends - who were still talking excitedly together, enjoying the final high of their latest showdown - and I made a beeline for her, intercepting her long before Theodore, who was dutifully meandering through the room, breaking up the groups that were dawdling about.
"This was all you, wasn't it?!" I said, as soon as I'd pulled her around a cluster of empty high-backed leather armchairs toward a corner of the dungeon.
My sister waved dismissively. "Pans has long been needing to let off some steam, and that girl had it coming." And then she actually huffed incredulously. "What! You're mad at me?!"
"No, Daphne, this is my face of ecstatic glee!" I snapped. "I told you to leave it alone! I told you!"
"You know, you can be such a brat sometimes, Tori! I mean, you were a nervous wreck at dinner, I tried to look out for you..."
"Oh, is that what you call ganging up on a younger girl and humiliating her in front of the whole House?!"
"Well, it got a little out of hand, I'll admit..." my sister said, somewhat defensively, though she quickly stuck her chin back up and added "But that'll teach that whelp against picking on you again and spreading lies! Wasn't that what you wanted?"
"No! What I wanted was for you to stay of it, Daphne, like I asked you to do! But no! You had to go and be a meddlesome shrew! Well, I was handling Lisa just fine before you meddled!"
"Yeah? And how exactly were you doing that?" Daphne sneered "Oh right! By hiding away from the little twit, like a cowardly little baby!"
"I'm not a baby! And I was not hiding, I was letting the dust settle!"
My sister snorted inelegantly.
"Whatever, Daphne!" I spluttered angrily "I didn't ask for your help! I didn't need it! And even if I did, you were probably the last person I would've gone to! So from now on, I'll thank you to just stay the heck away from –"
My sister and I both snapped around, to find Theodore just approaching.
"Sorry to interrupt, Tori" he said, though his chocolate brown eyes only slid cursorily over me before settling back on my sister, whose face at once broke into a winsome smile.
"Hi." Daphne said, a bit breathlessly. "I'll just be a minute, it seems my little baby sister" she added, throwing me a bit of a condescending smirk "is trying to make some kind of a stand here..."
Seething, I opened my mouth to retort, but Theodore cut across me. "Nevermind that, Daffy, listen…"
And his rather strained undertone instantly drew her attention.
"There're a few extra pairs of eyes on the way to patrol the school tonight... Superior orders," he said tersely, with a bit of a flexing move of his left arm that made Daphne's eyes widen briefly. "So I really need you go to your dormitory now. Both of you." He added, as though in an afterthought, with a brief glance my way.
"Fine!" I grouched, "We were about done here, anyway!"
And with one last dirty look at my sister - which I highly doubt she even noticed, considering she was already too busy whispering with Theodore - I made my way to my dormitory.
Where, unsurprisingly, a few more filthy looks were directed at me, along with the ominous promise that "You're gonna pay for that, Greengrass", before I was allowed the sweet oblivion of sleep. Of course, even that didn't last long.
It seemed like my head had only just hit the pillow, when the pounding on the door began.
"I swear, a stupid fancy bathroom is not worth all this trouble!" I heard Cordelia's muffled mutter from the bed next to mine, followed by the sound of the hangings on her four-poster being pulled back, and her feet padding across the floor.
This is it, I thought in alarm, burrowing deeper under my covers as the dormitory door inched open. Lisa's threats were coming true; the Carrows were coming to fetch me. As a first-time offender, hopefully they'd decide to go easy on me and would leave it at chaining me alone in one of the cold, abandoned dungeons for the night, like I'd heard they'd done with some of the younger kids...
And indeed a booming male voice reached me indistinctly from somewhere down in the direction of the common room, seeming to confirm my fears.
But when suddenly the green velvet hangings around my bed were yanked back, it was Cordelia who towered over me, saying urgently "Get up! Everybody up! Slughorn's calling everyone to gather outside, now!"
In something of a daze, I rolled out of bed and followed her out the door, as a great flurry of movement, a lot of rustling and hustling, and calls of "What's happened?", "What's going on?!" took over the room.
"What is it?" I asked, too, as Cordelia and I squeezed through the throng shuffling sleepily along the corridor out of the dormitories.
"Dunno", she said, "Some kind of emergency meeting."
And that was pretty much all the information we had from Professor Slughorn, too.
"Not my place... Professor McGonagall will say... All Houses expected in the Great Hall... No reason to panic…" was all he would offer, though looking rather pale-faced and sweaty himself, with his vast silk pajamas in disarray and his walrus moustache all aquiver, as he and Pansy shepherded the mass of befuddled students through the passage on the wall. Some of whom looked almost comical in their absurd states of dress.
Like Lisa, pushing briskly past me in her travelling cloak and fluffy bunny slippers. Or Flora and Hestia right after her, one with rolls in her hair, the other with vestiges of her pimple vanisher still smeared all over her face. Or that sixth year bloke who positively made me do a double take - and then look determinedly away, with my cheeks burning - because he seemed to be wearing nothing but boxer shorts under his night robe.
Even Cordelia appeared a bit loopy, with her eyemask still pushed up her forehead, her ebony curls sticking up in all directions, her Prefect badge pinned upside-down on the front of her pajamas, and her wand held out in her hand like a sword ready for battle. Which, in hindsight, was actually very proactive of her.
The same cannot be said of me. Me, I was stumbling after the rest of them exactly as I'd stumbled out of bed: with nothing but my baggy cotton bottoms, my old, ratty Weird Sisters t-shirt, and my hair probably half falling out of my two braids. Merlin, I hadn't even thought to grab a bra, let alone my wand!
But there was no time to linger on that though, as Cordelia and I were fast approaching the exit. I threw one last look around the quickly emptying common room, and that's when the long, bright nightgown drew my eye, among the four dark shrouded figures huddled in the far shadowy back of the dungeon.
I could just make out the two portly silhouettes of Crabbe and Goyle, the platinum blond head belonging to Malfoy, and my sister, pulling on the arm of a fourth tall, lean figure – Theodore.
I had the strangest thought that she seemed to be pleading – my sister, pleading! – but before I could make sense of the startling sight, I was getting pushed into the passage by a harassed Professor Slughorn, and followed impatiently by Cordelia and a string of more and more anxious-looking kids.
Then of course, there were the rumours. For, naturally, when real answers are withheld, fantasy fills in the blanks. And as we trooped along the labyrinthine corridors of the dungeons, making our way to the Great Hall, there were some pretty fantastical ideas going around.
Such as renewed talk of Harry Potter breaking into the school.
"Oh, must've flown in on his pet dragon," I remarked when we heard that one from a cluster of little younger kids, which included my cousin Alfie.
"Yeah," Cordelia added, "Then domesticated the hundred or so Dementors that hang around the neighbourhood, and now they're all joining us for a late supper."
There were a few nervous giggles, but another kid from the group insisted, in a terrified whisper "I heard Crabbe and Goyle say the Dark Lord himself is on his way here!"
"Oh, dang it!" I made a point to say, with a wink at my cousin, "I guess I should've eaten my veggies at dinner!"
Well, try not to judge me too harshly. I didn't know what I know now. Safe, pampered bubble and all that, remember?
Anyway, so it was in this state of nervous confusion that we arrived at the Great Hall, where we found the students from the other houses sitting at their tables, as though we really were all coming in for a spot of supper. True, everyone was looking somewhat frightened, but considering how an ordinary meal could turn out when Professors Carrow were around, that wasn't much of a clue in itself.
Though, speaking of the Carrows, they didn't seem to be anywhere to be found at the moment. Trust me, I made sure to look several times.
And neither was Professor Snape, which was for me the first real sign that something really important was off. After all, if there was such an urgent announcement to be made that it even warranted breaking curfew, shouldn't the Headmaster be the one addressing us?
Instead, it was Professor McGonagall who was stepping up to the raised platform at the front of the room. Behind her, one by one, appeared the rest of the teachers, along with a string of other apparently random people. Such as Professor Lupin, who'd been the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher in my first year, sacked when the news had broken out of his condition.
"What's that werewolf doing back here?" Cordelia muttered quietly, eyeing his ever shabby-looking figure.
"Well, Nott did say something earlier about more people coming in tonight to help keep curfew..."
"I doubt that's the sort of people he meant. That one I think is that troublesome crackpot, Arthur Weasley," she said, pointing out a tall, middle aged man with thinning red hair and glasses. "The Ministry surely wouldn't send him, Dad told me he's finally got the sack... And that one there's another Weasley, for sure" she added, indicating a young man with his equally red hair in a pony tail, and deep, prominent gashes across his face.
"Merlin's beard, wonder how he got those scars?"
But before we could speculate any further, someone rudely shushed us. Professor McGonagall had started to speak.
"He who Must-Not-Be-Named is coming, " she told the Great Hall.
All around there were gasps and groans and a great deal of terrified whispering. Also, I'm sorry to admit, a couple muffled cheers from a few idiots at our table who must've thought themselves way funnier than they actually were.
Me, I confess I heard the words but their real meaning didn't quite register right away. Sort of how if someone up and pulled you out of bed one night to tell you that the Bogeyman was on his way over; all I kept thinking was how absurd the notion was, and what in Merlin's name I had to do with any of that. And where on Earth was Professor Snape, anyway?
I looked around at Cordelia to voice that exact question, but her thoughtful hazel eyes were on the front of the Hall, from where McGonagall was still speaking.
"... arranged for secure passage out of the premises. Evacuation will be overseen by Mr. Filch and Madam Pomfrey. Prefects, when I give the word, you will organise your House and take your charges, in an orderly fashion, to the evacuation point –"
"And what if we want to stay and fight?" abruptly shouted a sandy-haired boy that I thought might have been Ernie Macmillan, standing up at the Hufflepuff table.
I grasped Cordelia's elbow. "What does he mean 'fight'?!"
"Bloody idiots" she said with a shake of her head, as all across the room there were smatterings of applause, and a great deal of excited whispering was breaking out.
Professor McGonagall went on to speak again, but what she said I didn't quite catch. I heard Lisa a couple seats down the table ask loudly after Professor Snape, but even that answer couldn't draw my attention away from the rather furtive figure I'd just noticed skirting the walls near the Gryffindor Table.
Giving Cordelia's arm another tug that had her glaring daggers at me, I hissed "Look! Does that bloke look like Potter to you?"
"Oh, not you too!" she grumbled, before perfunctorily following my gaze. And then she gasped. "Can't be!"
But before we'd even had time to wrap our heads around that sight, a voice much different from Professor McGonagall's echoed throughout the Hall, drowning out all other noise. It was high, clean and cold. The coldest voice I have ever heard. And there was no telling where it was coming from; it seemed to emanate from the very walls.
"I know you are preparing to fight."
I let out a scream. And I certainly wasn't the only one.
"Your efforts are futile. You cannot fight me. I do not want to kill you. I have great respect for the teachers of Hogwarts. I do not want to spill magical blood."
Silence had fallen over the Hall. Not quiet, sedate silence, but the kind that seems to press in on you and trap the breath right in your lungs.
"Give me Harry Potter," the voice went on to command, "and none shall be harmed. Give me Harry Potter, and I shall leave the school untouched. Give me Harry Potter, and you should be rewarded. You have until midnight."
Then the horrible silence swallowed us all again.
My fingers were digging into Cordelia's arm as though locked in place by a Freezing Charm. And that seemed to be the only part of me that remained solid. I felt like everything else within me had turned to jelly as, slowly, without even conscious thought, my head turned again.
Harry Potter stood across the Hall, seeming frozen in his tracks like a deer caught in the glare of a thousand beams. Every single head in the place was turned his way, as the oppressive silence seemed to stretch on, ringing loudly in our ears.
Then something moved in my peripheral vision; a figure rose at our table. And Pansy's shaky voice rang out, "But he's there! Potter's there! Someone grab him!"
There was a rumble of movement, and the Gryffindors all got up, followed almost at the same time by the Hufflepuffs and the Ravenclaws. All of them stood facing our table, wands out pointing straight at Pansy and the rest of us.
I felt like the very floor had dropped away under my feet.
I mean, I had long known us Slytherins weren't exactly on the other houses' good books - I wasn't that clueless. But to see them all, our own school mates, turn on us en masse and armed, at the moment I was the most terrified I had ever been in my whole life, well, it broke something inside of me, you know.
"Thank you, Miss Parkinson." replied Professor McGonagall in a clipped voice. "You will leave the Hall first with Mr. Filch. If the rest of your House could follow."
Leave the Hall?! At the moment I didn't think I could trust my legs to even try to stand, let alone to follow anyone anywhere!
But at once, our table had erupted into motion. I felt my hold on Cordelia's sleeve break, as people jostled us in their haste to scramble to their feet, then we got further and further separated as she started calling out for first years to gather round and follow her. That shook me into clambering out of my seat, and numbly follow my colleagues trooping out of the Hall.
Many Ravenclaws followed shortly, and then some Hufflepuffs, too, until we were all one messy, noisy throng pushing and shoving our way up the marble staircase.
One floor, then another.
Where exactly was this evacuation point?
Up another floor we went.
Professor McGonagall must've said, but I could hardly hear myself think, with my heartbeat thundering in my ears, and all the crying and shouting around me, as people called out desperately for siblings and friends.
I too, kept looking this way and that, stretching up on my toes, hardly noticing where I was going, trying to catch a glimpse of long, caramel brown hair or a flash of a bright, satin nightrobe.
"Daph! Daphne!" I actually squeaked a couple times, even though there was virtually zero hope I would be heard among the clamour of all the other voices. Was she even among them, I wondered, the thought making my already speeding heart give a lurch in my chest.
The last I'd seen of my sister, she'd been preoccupied with that group of her classmates, all the way at the back of the dungeon, while the rest of us were led out by Slughorn. Had she even left the common room? Did she know we were evacuating the school? And what about Theodore's odd question 'have they got her?' Could someone actually be after my sister?
"Daphne!" I cried again, as the distressed crowd swept me up another flight of stairs. I tripped along, barely noticing where I put my feet, so that even as I tried to rush faster, attempting to spot Pansy up ahead or Theodore, or any of the other seventh years, my breath was all sucked out in a whoosh when I suddenly felt my leg sink down to the knee.
Stupid, stupid, stupid!
I had known all the tricky vanishing steps by heart since my first year; it goes to show how completely out of my mind I was that I had gone and got myself stuck in one at a time like this.
I pulled and pulled, trying to free my stupid leg, as the impatient crowd pushed and shoved mercilessly past me, and I jerked and yanked, and every second that passed was an eternity, and I was well and stuck and that cold, high voice was coming soon, and my big sister was nowhere to be found, and the last thing I had said to her had been horrible and spiteful, and now my eyes were getting blurry and I would never, ever leave these bloody stairs...
I was just starting to hyperventilate, when someone stopped and said "Brusque movements only make it lock, you've got to ease out gently."
I looked up to find a chubby Hufflepuff I recognised from my Arithmancy class standing one step above me. "Here, hold onto me for leverage."
Taking a deep, calming breath, I grasped her offered hand and gingerly eased my leg out. "Thanks" I mumbled, hastily dropping her hand and brushing the stupid moist from my eyes, as we both merged with the rushing throng again.
But it was a few more flights of stairs yet, and several twists and turns, before I reunited with the main bulk of the crowd, where it clumped frenetically in front of a large tapestry of a group of trolls being taught ballet. Here, the pushing and shoving appeared to reach an alltime high, and I was quickly pressed in on all sides, barely able to breathe, as everyone seemed to be funnelling toward what I could only assume was a small, hidden passage on the wall.
I tried and I tried to discern a familiar face in the riotous mass, but the more I tried to stretch up on my toes, the more I kept getting elbowed and tripped and shoved back.
And that's when I spotted them. Two burly figures bowling over the younger kids, and a pale blond head following in their wake.
Without a moment's pause, I started pushing my way after them. I didn't even notice how I was struggling against the current to do so; I didn't even stop to think why they were barrelling their way in the opposite direction as everyone else. They were my sister's classmates and the last people I'd seen her with. I had to get to them. I just had to.
And I almost did.
I chased after them all the way to an interception at the opposite end of the corridor than the one I'd come, then around one corner, and then I don't even know exactly how it happened. One moment they were there, the next I had lost them. I thought maybe they'd taken a different turn at the interception after all, so I started to go back.
But with a great clamour of metal and stone, an army of animated armours and statues suddenly turned into view, marching steadily in my direction. I had no choice but to turn back around and dash ahead of them, then split off into the nearest passage that I could find, or else get trampled.
By then I was starting to realise it had probably been a very stupid idea to stray away from the evacuation point.
I ran down this new corridor, then made the next turn, thinking it was bound to lead to some other point of the first corridor where everybody was getting out. Instead it led me to a dead end with nothing but a portrait of a fat lady in a pink silk dress, who smiled brightly at me and exclaimed "Oh, another one for the group upstairs, I take it? Good, they'll need all the wands they can get to defend the battlements! Password, dearie?"
"I... What? Sorry, I don't know any password. Just made a wrong turn." I said, to her obvious displeasure, then swiftly rushed back the way I'd come.
I tried to retrace my steps, but fear and panic were clouding my thoughts and I kept losing track of the turns I'd taken, until I was completely turned around.
I honestly thought I was starting to hallucinate, when I blundered around yet another corner and ran right into a completely unexpected face among a small knot of people gathered near an empty plinth, whose statue seemed to have concealed a secret passageway. As a red-headed young man, who I thought might be one of the notorious Weasley twins, stuck his head in the remaining hole and made some sort of remark I couldn't quite catch, Dan Gregson looked up to exchange a chuckle with another boy, and his eyes found me.
"Greenie!" exclaimed my old potions partner, making a couple others of his group - including Weasley - look up to glance curiously my way. "You've come to join the right side! I knew not all you snakes were completely rotten!"
At that, the others' curious glances turned visibly distrustful, at once bringing to mind the other houses' hostile stand earlier in the Great Hall. And I instinctively took a step back.
"How good are you at Blasting Curses?" Gregson went on prattling, grinning excitedly as if nothing was amiss. "We're going to make the passage collapse on them if they try to get in this way, see. C'mon now, get over here, or you'll miss all the fun!"
I looked uneasily at the rest of the group. A blonde girl smiled tentatively at me and, with a nod at my t-shirt, said encouragingly "Fan of the Weird Sisters? Me too."
I returned her smile uncertainly and took a step closer, as my old potions partner went on to opine "Yeah, they're cool. But you should really have a listen to the greatest masters. Ever heard of the Rolling Stones? Pink Floyd? Led Zeppelin? You must've at least heard of the Bea –"
The sound of a great blast cut off his prattling, reaching us through the concealed hole behind the plinth, then followed by a positively blood-chilling, keening scream.
The battle had begun.
"Heads up, everyone!" called Weasley, who seemed to be the leader. And no sooner had he said it, than another blast was heard, seeming closer this time.
A fear like I'd never known before poured through my veins. Nothing short of that would've made me blurt desperately to the group in front of me, all of whom now had their wands drawn at the ready and were listening closely at the hole. "Can anyone tell me where the evacuation point is?"
That got me some disparaging looks, but they all had more pressing concerns, as thundering steps sounded from somewhere not too far down the passageway.
"Through the Room of Requirement. Stone passage that leads to the Hog's Head." Offered Weasley, even as he slashed his wand in a whip-like movement toward the tunnel and cried "Reducto!"
There was a flash of light, and a great rumble of crumbling stone, so that I had to shout "Sorry, the room of what?"
"Just go that way, take two left turns, then one right, then down the corridor with the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy teaching trolls ballet."
"Thanks!" I said, swiftly scampering in the direction he'd indicated, while the group took turns shooting spells through the hole on the wall, and the loudest explosion yet made the whole castle shudder in the grip of enchantments more sinister than anything I could conceive of.
I did not glance back to see the look on Dan Gregson's face as I fled.
Hurtling along trembling passages, diving to the floor when a row of windows just ahead shattered with explosive force and shards of glass flew like shrapnel through the air, clambering and nearly falling over a pile of rubble of what had once been a column topped with the bust of some famous wizard or another, I kept reciting Weasley's instructions in my head like a mantra "Two left turns, one right, then down the corridor with the trolls; two left turns, one right, then down the corridor with the trolls..."
With a cry of relief, I made the final turn and spotted the tapestry of the trolls up ahead, just as the castle quaked frighteningly again.
There was no one left around, however; not a riotous throng struggling for the exit, not even a trickling line of last stragglers. Only a long stretch of empty corridor.
Had everyone left already? Was I the last one?
I tried not to let that thought dishearten me completely as I skidded to a stop and set about looking closely at the patch of bare, rough wall where I was sure everyone had been funnelling through, earlier. But there was no sign of a passage at all! Had Weasley led me wrong? Was some sort of password necessary to reveal it, like the concealed entrance to our common room? But if it was, how was I ever going to guess it?
I looked desperately around for, I don't know, some kind of clue, maybe. I thought I saw a tall figure with long grey hair that sort of reminded me of the late Professor Dumbledore standing at the other end of the corridor, as though keeping guard.
Finally, an adult! Perhaps he could open the passage for me, or at the very least contact someone who could, and provide me with some protection in the meantime.
I started toward him at once, and was a mere few yards behind him, when the figure called out in a gruff sort of voice "Potter!"
Another figure had just hurtled into view ahead of him, and the man stepped forward to intercept it, grunting "I've had hundreds of kids thundering through my pub, Potter!"
"I know" panted Potter "We're evacuating, Voldemort's –"
"Attacking because they haven't handed you over, yeah" interrupted the man, who I deduced must be the owner of the Hog's Head. "I'm not deaf, the whole of Hogsmeade heard him. And it never occurred to you to keep a few Slytherins hostage?"
That positively froze me in my steps, as you can imagine. So much for asking him for anything!
What now?, I thought in a panic, as I turned on my tail and backtracked up the corridor as fast and as inconspicuously as I could manage. Who could I possibly turn to, when I couldn't even trust the school's defenders?
I gave the blank stretch of wall in front of the tapestry one last cursory look as I passed by again but, without a means to open the passage and no prospects of anyone else doing it for me any time soon, there wasn't much point in hanging around here any longer.
So I just kept right on running, rounding the corner at the interception at a panic-induced sprint. And smashed right into someone running in the opposite direction.
"Oomph!" I let out as I fell right on my bum, and someone else staggered back with a muttered curse as several yellowish, curved, pointy things rained down to the floor with a clatter like rattling bones.
"Ron, careful! Someone could get pricked on those!" a girl's voice said, even as one of the bloody things scratched my leg through my thick cotton bottoms.
I looked up to see a girl with bushy brown hair standing above me with her arms full of more of that stuff, and a red-headed young man holding a broom, who hastily doubled down to start picking up the fallen items, shooting me a worried look. "Sorry! Are you okay? You didn't prick yourself, did you?"
"No, just a little scratch, didn't even bleed. It's fine, really" I added when the girl stepped closer, as though to have a look for herself. "Guess I'll start listening to Filch when he nags about running in the corridors, huh?" And I quickly clambered back to my feet, gathering a few of the scattered fangs - for that's what I realised they were; great grisly fangs from some sort of giant beast. "Here."
"Thanks." said the boy, Ron Weasley, as the girl went on to exclaim "Oh, there's Harry!"
I heard someone shout to them from somewhere a few yards behind me, just as I took off again, tucking one single fang into the waistband of my trousers.
Well, it wasn't a wand, but if somebody came at me, it would have to do in a pinch.
Though I didn't reckon it would do much good if it was the whole castle that fell apart on me, like it seemed about to do when yet another earth-shattering explosion sounded from overhead, and dust and debris fell from the ceiling like rain.
Covering my mouth and nose, and squinting my eyes as much as I could, I blundered on along trembling corridors. I had some vague notion that I would try to find a teacher, explain my situation and they'd find a way to get me out of there. And since I didn't know where any teacher could be found at the moment, down seemed as good a direction to go as any; if I couldn't find anyone, I still might be able to pop in to my dormitory to at least get my wand.
I tried to focus on that plan instead of in my mounting terror, as explosion after explosion shook the walls and filled the air with dust. And the noise! It was deafening! I could hardly tell what frightened me most: the thunderous bangs, or the hair-rising screams.
But the first truly horrifying shock of the night came a little while later. I don't know how long exactly, it was hard to keep track of the time in that chaos. I know I had just tripped down – in complete darkness, for I had no wand to light up - a long set of narrow stone steps that I'd found behind a half-torn tapestry, and was still trying to get my bearings as I came out the other end right into a cloud of dust and debris.
A few people were stumbling over the rubble, coughing and desperately calling after each other a few feet ahead, where it seemed like half the corridor had collapsed, and a huge, gaping hole in the wall opened right out into the night sky, which was lit up with bursts of green and red like some perverse fireworks show.
All of a sudden, a massive grey fist the size of a boulder shoved through the newly formed opening and, in one fell swoop, snatched one of the coughing girls right off her feet.
I swear her terrified shrieks as she vanished into the night rang on and on in my ears, as I blindly scrambled back and ran.
I ran and ran. I stumbled, I fell, I ran again. I ran until my lungs burned and my legs were numb.
Then I ran some more, because suddenly flashes of light soared over my head and yells and shouts filled the corridor.
Two hooded, black-robed figures with ghastly skull-like masks over their faces burst into view, wands in hand, duelling three older girls that I was fairly certain had been chasers for the Gryffindor Quidditch team a couple years back.
With another jolt of panic I hadn't thought I could still feel in my already terrified state, I realised as I hurtled down another flight of stairs and came out on a different corridor altogether, that yet more hooded, masked figures were sweeping down the passage, shooting curses at everyone in sight.
The Death Eaters had managed to penetrate the castle!
I crouched down low to avoid the flying flashes of light, and took cover in a niche where presumably a suit of armour had been, gripping my measly yellowed fang for dear life.
I actually held my breath as they passed, those horrid masked monsters, and still I was sure that even my heartbeat would give me away, for how could they fail to hear it, when it was banging like a drum in my ears?
But, miraculously, they passed by and carried on right ahead. I felt positively sick to my stomach, don't know if from plain terror, if from the small reprieve, or if at their loud jeering as they pursued other poor, terrified students.
And then I had the strangest thought that one of their jeering voices sounded vaguely familiar.
Certainly my fear must have been tampering with my senses, I thought. But even as I willed my ears to listen properly, there was a great clamour, like a galloping herd of wooden legged horses, and so I chanced a peek out of my hiding place.
Indeed, a herd of animated desks was charging down the corridor toward the hooded, masked figures. They clashed violently together in a fierce battle, and I took advantage of the distraction to make a dash in the opposite direction.
Down the next staircase I went, then around the corner after the door to the Hospital Wing, to come up on the main first floor corridor, where complete mayhem ruled.
Portraits on either side of the walls were crammed with figures screaming advice and encouragement. Spells criss-crossed the air from a myriad of duels. And Peeves the Poltergeist zoomed overhead, screeching "Wheeeeeeee!" and dropping what looked like Snargaluff pods down the masked fighters' heads.
Keeping close to the walls with my head down, I inched along, slipping and sliding in pools of Snargaluff juice and trying not to trip over the wriggling, tuber-like worms.
That's when I spotted the first familiar-ish face I had seen in what seemed like hours and hours: it was covered in dust and soot, and his matted hair appeared more grey than blond, but it was definitely Draco Malfoy who stood at the top of the marble staircase that led down to the Entrance Hall.
And even though I was still a bit too far away to catch what he was saying over the cacophony, it seemed to me that he was arguing with the hooded, masked man in front of him. Then I don't know what he did - I didn't see him move at all - but the man suddenly keeled over.
Malfoy looked around, beaming, only to inexplicably fall over as well.
For a second there, I thought with another jolt of panic that some sort of invisible force was swooping down, striking people at random. But then Malfoy started to get up, wiping his bloody mouth on his sleeve. And I rushed forward.
His head whipped around at my approach, and he eyed me uncertainly. "D-Daphne?"
An honest mistake to make, I suppose, under the circumstances. Similar features, similar colouring, smaller frame, a few more freckles.
"No, I'm her sister" I said quickly, "Isn't she with you? Daphne, I mean; I saw her with you in the common r –"
But I got cut off mid-sentence, as we both had to dive out of the way of the cross-fire from several more duels taking place right across the stairs.
It seemed that everywhere you looked, there were people duelling and curses flying, all the way down to the Entrance Hall, and at the very front doors.
To the other side of the grand staircase landing, the same scenario stretched on along the corridor: people darting back and forth, flashes of light zigzagging across the air, the paintings adding to the racket with shouted encouragement.
Panting, I scrambled in a near crawl after Malfoy, as he scuttled low against the wall just under a portrait where a particularly excitable little knight kept screeching "Braggarts and rogues! Drive them out, brave comrades! Drive them out!"
"Daphne was with you in the common room, last I saw her" I insisted, raising my voice to make sure he heard me over the racket, "we were all leaving, and you lot were at the back..."
"– dogs and scoundrels! Upon my honour –"
"Oh, yeah..." Malfoy said distractedly, his eyes snapping from side to side, warily tracking the flashes of light flying in every direction. "I saw her, but she's gone now…"
"– vanquish the vile trespassers –"
"Left", he amended, "through the passage in the Room of Requirement, like everybody else. Didn't rest until she'd dragged Nott out with her too, the insufferab – LOOK OUT!"
With one sweep of his arm, he suddenly pushed me to the floor, just before a flash of red light hit the wall behind us with an impact like a Bludger, and the little painted knight fell silent in the middle of his tirade.
"Thanks" I gasped, heart slamming in my chest as I cautiously looked back up. But I barely even had time to process my relief.
Suddenly, a loud crash seemed to come down from the Entrance Hall, followed by a horrible sound of scuttling and clicking, as though of a thousand Creepy Crawlies. And screams upon screams of sheer terror promptly echoed through the air in a tumult that surpassed all other noise.
I began to scramble hastily to my feet, but Malfoy suddenly grabbed my wrist, holding me back, and urgently demanded "Have you got a wand?"
He shook his head frantically. Then his eyes landed keenly on my other hand. "What's that you're holding, then?"
"Dunno, just something I grabbed…" I said, showing him my measly yellowed fang.
To my surprise, though, his pale grey eyes went wide. "Is that a – a basilisk fang?!"
And something about his tone had me gripping the grisly thing tighter.
But even as his hand made a sort of jerking motion toward it, there were more shouts and blasts from somewhere not far down the corridor ahead, and we both snapped around in alarm.
Another couple of masked men had just charged into view around the next corner, chasing a little group of students that were struggling to parry the blows while at the same time half-carrying, half-dragging a smaller figure between them.
With a start, I recognised the blonde Weird Sisters fan from earlier and the older Gryffindor bloke that used to commentate the Quidditch matches, whom I was sure I had also seen among the small knot of fighters led by the Weasley twin.
And then my eyes landed on the smaller boy stumbling along between them.
He seemed to be supported entirely by the other two, his feet dragging more than stepping along the floor, and his head kept drooping over his chest as though it took him tremendous effort to hold it up.
Then even as I watched, the Gryffindor bloke turned awkwardly sideways to shoot another red flash of light at their pursuers, and slipped on a pool of Snargaluff juice. As the whole group scrambled to regain balance, the two men closed in, raining spells down on them, until they were soon effectively overwhelmed, and the two older students had no choice but to turn around and engage in proper duel, letting go of Gregson.
He stumbled groggily a few paces, before slumping down to the floor in a heap, a mere couple yards from where I was still crouching against the wall.
"Gregson!" I called, to no answer. I started inching closer. "Gregson, can you hear me? You've got to move!"
"What're you doing?" hissed Malfoy "Get down!"
"He's going to get trampled!" I called back, as Gregson seemed to make a twitching, feeble attempt at rolling over onto his knees.
With a deep breath, I looked right and left – it seemed to me like more and more fighters were now weaving and darting back and forth, curses flying everywhere. I scuttled as quickly as I could manage, grabbed Gregson by the arm and heaved and pulled haphazardly.
"Wazappenned'?" he slurred, as I tried to prop him up in a sitting position against the wall.
There was dried blood on the side of his face, and his shaggy hair was matted where a big, bloody lump was visible just above his temple.
"You seem to have hit your head." I said. "Do you remember that? D'you know how that happened?"
He mumbled something that I couldn't quite make out, and his eyes began to drift shut.
"Gregson? Gregson?" I called, snapping my fingers. "No, don't fall asleep now!"
He blinked rather unfocusedly back at me.
"You've hit your head, sleep is bad, okay? Just… just keep your head up and – and keep talking... Yes, talking is good, Gregson, you like to talk! Tell me about the, er, the pink flood, and the rowing stones, and the, the lead zapping …"
"Yes, that. Just keep your head up, and keep talking, okay?" I said. Which, of course was weak advice; his consciousness was deteriorating fast, what he needed was urgent medical assistance. "Just keep talking… Malfoy, help me get him to the Hosp – Malfoy?!"
I looked desperately behind me, and for a moment there I thought that he had already simply up and vanished.
Then I realised it was him standing a mere couple feet ahead, with his back to me, blocking my view as he talked to somebody.
"... Malfoy, Draco Malfoy! You know I'm on your side!"
"Malfoy!" I called out, impatiently getting to my feet.
He heard me then, and turned his head slightly, shooting me a warning look that I didn't immediately comprehend. At the same time, the face of the man he was talking to snapped in my direction.
"She's with me! She's wi –"
But with a cry of utter relief, I pushed past Malfoy and his senseless blabbering.
"Mr. Runcorn! Oh, thank Merlin!" I called out to the tall, stocky, bearded man, whose familiar hazel eyes had gone wide at the sight of me. "You've got to help us!"
"Tori! What're you doing here?!" he exclaimed, a deeply troubled expression taking over his slightly battered features, as he briskly stepped up to me. "Is Cordelia here too?!"
"No, no, she went ahead to lead the first years out. I – I got stuck in a vanishing step, then got turned around… But you're here! Thank Merlin, you're here!"
Of course, in that moment it didn't even occur to me to question how or why he had come to be there at a time such as that; all I saw was a familiar face.
"You've got to helps us," I desperately repeated, "We haven't even got wands, and, look, Gregson, over there..." and I turned to indicate the spot where I'd just left my barely conscious old classmate slumped against the wall.
Except he wasn't slumping now.
With a strength I hadn't thought he had left, Dan Gregson was on his feet - though swaying severely and with his face completely drained of colour and contorted in a grimace - one hand braced on the wall, the other in a white-knuckled grip around his raised wand.
I didn't even get another word out.
I heard Cordelia's dad's voice rumble an incantation, and there was a flash of green light that blasted Dan violently against the wall at his back. Then he crumpled to the floor, and did not move again.
For a second that contained an eternity, I stared into Dan's face, at his open eyes, blank and expressionless like the windows of a deserted house, at his downturned mouth, which looked frozen in a revolted scowl. And then, before my mind had accepted what I was seeing, before I could feel anything but numb disbelief, I felt myself getting pulled back around.
I looked up at a face I had known for years and years, and I found a complete stranger looking back down at me. His mouth was moving, but it was of my own throat that a long, wordless scream tore out.
Mr. Runcorn stumbled back, letting go of me. Then I'm not even sure; I think I saw some fighters come at him with raised wands, and soon they were all gone, probably lost in the melee that I distantly noted was still going on.
I vaguely remember curling down next to Gregson's unmoving form, not daring to touch him, but desperately, absurdly, willing him to blink, to twitch, to please stop scowling and just keep talking, just keep talking. I don't consciously remember saying any of it aloud, really, but I was later told I was mumbling something about stones and zeppelins.
What I do remember is suddenly feeling somebody at my back again, trying to grab at me.
A truly primitive terror poured into me like ice, shocking me into motion. In a flash, I grabbed the great, grisly fang from where I'd dropped it on the floor when trying to prop Gregson up, and whirled around with a cry, swiping blindly.
"Wow! Hey!" cried out Malfoy, scuttling back hastily and avoiding the wicked sharp tip by inches. "Easy now, I'm on your side here!"
"Do you use that line on everyone?!" I heard myself shriek.
I can only imagine how absolutely disturbed I must've appeared at that point, my breaths coming in great, heaving gasps, my hand convulsively grasping the miserable fang.
"Easy now" Malfoy repeated. "Tori, is it?"
I nodded jerkily.
"C'mon, now," he urged as he slowly crouched down beside me and Dan's lifeless body. "We should move."
"Move?" I repeated blankly.
Malfoy ducked low to avoid a few more stray flashes of light, then grabbed my wrist and began to pull me to my feet.
"Wait!… No! Gregson, he... he..."
"There's nothing you can do for him. C'mon."
Numb with horror, I let myself be pulled up and steered through the fray, as I struggled to refocus my scattered wits. It wasn't easy to do; disjointed bits and pieces of thoughts were buzzing around in my head as frantically as wasps trapped beneath a glass.
"Find someone… have to find someone… a teacher – where're the teachers? And, and... and my wand... my wand's in my dormitory... need my wand…"
I wasn't sure Malfoy was even listening to any of my blabbering, because, as we reached the grand staircase again, he came to an abrupt stop, cursing under his breath.
I looked around him, to find that a mountain of a man who must've been duelling down in the Entrance Hall, having clearly just freed himself of his opponents, was eagerly lumbering up the steps, as though searching for his next target.
Instinctively shrinking back behind Malfoy, I heard my panicky voice squeak "What, going to try talking to him, too?!"
"With Rowle?! He knows exactly who I am!"
Indeed not half a second later, this Rowle's searching gaze landed on us. And his face broke into a cruel leer that positively sent chills down my spine.
There was no need to tell me twice. I threw myself forward, and the man's first jet of light soared right over my head at the exact same time I heard Malfoy shout "Stupefy!"
The man jumped aside to avoid the flash of red light, and I took the chance to set off at a mad dash down the stairs, Malfoy right on my heels.
"Please! " I wildly started to cry, "Somebody, help –"
But I cut off in a yelp, as a portion of the banister to my left was blasted apart, bits and chunks of marble flying in every direction.
I bent down, covering my head with my arms, and reached the Entrance Hall at an awkward run, only to feel my feet positively fly out from underneath me.
I cried out, flailing for a moment, before grasping Malfoy's forearm. He let out a hiss of pain, even as his right hand swiped the air again, shooting another Stunner that went wide off the mark, as he too slipped and staggered on the myriad marbles that someone seemed to have scattered across the floor.
No, not marbles, I realised. The enormous hour-glass that recorded Slytherin's points for the inter-house championship was gone, shards of glass and emeralds spilled everywhere.
We tottered as fast as we dared across the floor, ducking low to avoid the jets of light relentlessly flying all around.
I threw a terrified backward glance at our pursuer, as we careened around the marble banister, but another pair of duellers briefly crossed my line of vision.
"Oh, Flitwick!" I cried, recognising the tiny Charms Professor. "There's Flitwick!"
"He's a bit busy right now!" snapped Malfoy "C'mon!"
With another harsh tug, he shoved me through a plain wooden door, which sealed itself behind us with an odd squelching noise at his shout of "Colloportus!"
"Hey, I thought you said you didn't have a wand!"
But Malfoy said nothing, as we practically flew down the stone steps into the maze-like, dimly-lit underground passage that led to the dungeons.
Soon the crashes and booms from the battle grew muffled with the distance, but I still kept glancing wildly behind me as I ran. Our own harsh breaths sounded disproportionately loud, echoing eerily off the stone walls, and the thundering of my own heart in my ears seemed just like heavy footsteps in our wake.
It wasn't until we came to an abrupt halt before a stretch of smooth, blank stone wall and Malfoy panted "Dark Mark", opening the concealed door to our common room, that I thought to drop the vise-like grip I realised I still had on his charred sleeve.
Weak-kneed and shaking, I stumbled inside after him, then slumped on the nearest armchair that I came across.
It was a few minutes before I managed to draw a full breath. And it was a few full, deep breaths before I began to register the familiar sight around me.
The black and dark green leather sofas and armchairs were arranged in their same, customary clusters around the room. The majestic tapestries hung pristinely on the rough stone walls. The greenish light shimmered soothingly from the round lamps hung from the ceiling on chains, which only the keenest eye would notice swaying a bit every now and then, as though in a gust of wind. A school of fish even swam peacefully by, right across one window up ahead. And the fire under the elaborately carved mantelpiece was burning gently on, banked for the night as though this was just another ordinary night and everybody was still blissfully slumbering away in their dormitories.
Slowly, slowly, I felt my numb fingers begin to loosen around the basilisk fang.
And that's when, quite suddenly, that high, cold voice spoke again.
"You have fought valiantly."
I positively jumped out of my skin, gripping the grisly fang tightly.
"Lord Voldemort knows how to value bravery. Yet you have sustained heavy losses. If you continue to resist me, you will all die, one by one."
The words reverberated from the walls and floor, sounding so close, he could have been standing right behind me, in that seemingly untouched little haven, where for the briefest moment one could have almost been deceived into believing that all the horror was far, far away.
"I do not wish this to happen." the voice went on, clear and emotionlessly "Every drop of magical blood spilled is a loss and a waste. Lord Voldemort is merciful. I command my forces to retreat immediately. You have one hour. Dispose of your dead with dignity. Treat your injured.
"I speak now, Harry Potter, directly to you. You have permitted your friends to die for you rather than face me yourself. I shall wait for one hour in the Forbidden Forest. If, at the end of that hour, you have not come to me, have not given yourself up, then battle recommences. This time, I shall enter the fray myself, Harry Potter, and I shall find you, and I shall punish every last man, woman, and child who has tried to conceal you from me. One hour."
Then the voice fell silent again. But there was no quiet in its wake. My heart sounded like thunder in my ears, like a trapped wild thing slamming against my ribs.
Suddenly, there was no longer anything remotely comforting about my surroundings; in fact, the whole room actually felt gloomy and forbidding, and the notion that I was in a dungeon hit me like never before.
I realised Malfoy was on his feet, either still or again, I couldn't have said. He seemed to dither in the middle of the room, looking as helpless as I felt.
He took a glance toward the mantel, where the ornate clock sat, chiming unnervingly loud in the oppressive silence. And I thought he seemed to be growing paler with every ticking second.
He closed his eyes for a moment, then made as if to move. "I, er, have to go…"
Go?! And leave me down there all alone?! Of course, I did not say this out loud; instead I just asked "G-go where?"
But he only seemed to grow a few shades paler, and snapped "Wasn't there something you wanted to come down here for?"
"What? Oh, right, yes, my wand… it's, huh, in-in my dormitory… I'll go get it, then…" For all the good it would do me when the man behind the voice came for me. Still, it was something to do, so I clambered unsteadily to my feet. "I'll-I'll just be a minute, okay?" I said, only just keeping myself from pathetically adding please don't go anywhere.
And I hastily tripped my way up to my dormitory.
Here, there was certainly no illusion of normalcy. Despite it being well after three in the morning, all five four-posters were empty, with their green velvet hangings thrown open and the covers haphazardly thrown back. Wardrobe doors and trunk lids were hanging wide open with clothes spilling half-way out. School supplies and personal effects were scattered around the floor, some broken, some bent, as though thrown out of the way in a rush.
My alarm-clock ticked away eerily loud in the silence of the abandoned room, but I kept my eyes determinedly away from it as I rushed over. Casting aside the dirty old fang onto the bed, I shakily threw open the top drawer of my night table, and fished out my faithful alder wand.
Then something else also caught my eye; a glint of shimmering gold sitting on the pile of five years' worth of clutter sleepily put away at bedtime.
Gingerly, I picked up the tiny little phial of Felix Felicis that Professor Slughorn had awarded me so long ago for mine and Dan Gregson's excellent work.
Poor, poor Dan Gregson…
The image of his broken, unmoving body and empty, sightless stare jumped to the front of my mind with startling vividness.
My eyes suddenly brimmed with hot tears, and I had to choke back a sob. But promptly another one escaped. And just like that, it was like a dam broke.
All the horrors, all the terror, all the despair of the last few hours came crashing down on me all at once.
Gregson crumpling to the floor, the blast of green light, Cordelia's dad's betrayal, masked men hunting down students, giants' fists smashing through crumbling corridors and crushing people where they stood, explosions after explosions...
I tried to push back the onslaught of horrible visions, but I might as well try to hold back a tidal wave.
Utterly overwhelmed, I staggered and crumpled against the side of the bed, trembling and sobbing convulsively.
Some tiny little part at the back of my mind still echoed the fateful ticking of the clock, calling for urgency, but will and reason seemed to have utterly deserted me, and I was left a sobbing, blubbering mess.
Then, through the mindless, paralysing horror, my family appeared to me.
There was Dad, tall and venerable, with his hands behind his back. His moustache twitched and he smiled his quiet, secret smile at me. There was Mum, who discreetly smoothed down the front of her robe, patted her pristinely coiffed hair, then effortlessly resumed her queenly demeanour and smiled gracefully. Then my sister, waving primly and almost as regally poised, her other arm thrown familiarly around a little younger me. There was little Alfie laughing as he wriggled out of his mum's hold…
I realised I was staring at the photograph inside the small silver frame that was perched on top of my cluttered night table, just behind the odious ticking clock.
Somehow, as I hungrily took in all their dear faces, the tempest of anguish gradually abated. And a fierce desire bubbled up from deep inside to be with them again, to hold them all tight, to go home.
It was such a visceral yearning, that it positively obliterated everything else from my mind.
Home. I want to go home.
I'm getting out of here. I want to go home.
Almost feverishly, I looked from my family to the tiny little phial that I was still clutching in my hand. Yanking out the stopper, I downed about half of the golden liquid in a swig.
Well, I don't know about luck, but at least a much welcome bit of clarity did seem to break through the haze of panic and despair.
I carefully re-stoppered and pocketed the precious phial. Then I picked up my wand and tucked the fang back into the waistband of my trousers, as the beginnings of an idea clicked into place, making me almost giddy with hope.
"See you soon." I whispered with a last look at my family. And I dashed back to the common room.
There was no one left there, but I simply ran right out through the passage on the wall and, sure enough, didn't even take a second to make out the figure slinking down the corridor, just ahead.
"Malfoy!" I called out.
He seemed to falter for an instant, but then pretended not to have heard me and quickened his step. So I picked up my pace as well, and did something I can't say I was exactly proud of, even as I raised my wand.
Moving targets had always been somewhat tricky for me, but now the jet of light went straight and true, hitting Malfoy squarely on the back. He cursed loudly, swaying momentarily on the spot, as the soles of his shoes instantly fused with the stone floor.
"What the hell, you little –"
"I'm terribly sorry," I cut across him a bit breathlessly, as I approached. "But, look, you know how to get out of here, don't you? I know you do," I added, as he seemed about to deny it. "You've mentioned a Room of Requirement, that's the same thing Weasley called it. So you know it, then you must know –"
"I can't help you!" he snapped, giving the wand in his hand an irritable flick. There was a pop like that of pulling out a suction cup, and he gingerly shuffled his feet.
"You can have the basilisk fang." I offered, planting myself right across his way before he could take a single step.
He snorted disdainfully, but I wasn't deterred. I pulled out the grisly thing and held it out to him.
"Please." I said. "I just want to go home. Tell me how to get into the passage to the Hog's Head, I'll figure out the rest from there..."
He eyed the fang thoughtfully for a moment, but then just shook his head.
"You're a Greengrass, right?"
"Go back to the common room," he said, "wait things out –"
"Wait things out?!" I cut across him, frustration making the words come out a bit more sharply than I had intended. "Like you clearly are doing?! Just tell me the bloody password, or whatever –"
"There is no password!" Malfoy snapped back. "There never was! And there certainly is no passage now, I doubt there's even a Room of Requirement anymore!"
"What do you mean?"
He shook his head briefly again, and for a second I thought he was refusing to answer.
But then he muttered, "There's a fire… Cursed fire, you see… It's all gone up in flames...", and a positively haunted look crossed his soot smudged face. But it was gone in a moment, as he went on brutally, "So unless you want to get yourself burned to a cinder too, I suggest you get it into your thick head: there's no getting out of this! There's no way out!"
"Where are you going, then?"
"I..." Malfoy looked away. "None of your business, just go back to the damned common r –"
"Enough with the common room!" I snapped. "Why don't you go back to the common room, then, if you think it's so great in there?"
"BECAUSE I CAN'T!" he burst out, suddenly. "I can't! Don't you understand?! Didn't you hear him?!I have to go! I have to!"
Taken aback, I stared uncomprehendingly at him for a moment.
Then understanding hit me like a Knockback Jinx.
"You weren't just saying it to get by, then?! You - You really are one of them?!"
Two long beats of silence rung meaningfully in the space between us.
I heard myself let out a harsh sort of laugh, even though there was nothing very humorous about the situation."Well, and here I always thought you were all bark and no bite..."
Malfoy's mouth contorted involuntarily, as though he had tasted something bitter. My eyes flickered warily to the wand he held at his side, but he made no attempt to raise it; he merely stood there, staring back at me with a rather half-hearted scowl that, bizarrely, I suddenly found less intimidating than ever.
"Are they all as friendly to you as that big bloke Rowle?"
He still made no move.
"Is that why you turned back from the evacuation, then?" I savagely went on. "To help them? Thought you'd sell us all out from the inside, did you? Thought you'd –" But the most horrifying thought occurred to me, positively smothering me. "That cursed fire – that was you sabotaging the evacuation?!"
"No," Malfoy croaked faintly.
I felt my insides freeze; I thought of Daphne, and Alfie, and Cordelia, and everyone in that passage…
"No, everyone had left," Malfoy insisted, seemingly trying to convince himself as well as me. Under the flickering torchlight, he was now looking downright ashen."It was an accident… I tried to tell him! C-Crabbe… I tried to tell him not to… h-he didn't know what he was doing… couldn't control it… he didn't listen… he didn't listen, and now…"
He gulped, and took several deep breaths, as though trying to pull himself together. It seemed to me as though he might actually be fighting down the urge to cry, or to vomit.
I know I was.
The barman had said that hundreds of kids had made it to his pub, so surely they were all safe at home by now. They had to be. I just had to get home too. Somehow, everything would be fine if I could just get home. I just had to think of another way to get home.
"I-I have to go…" Malfoy mumbled again.
"Yeah, so you keep saying." I retorted, but there was no real sharpness in my tone anymore.
No, instead, as I met his hopeless, wild-eyed gaze, the maddest idea occurred to me.
Slowly, I reached inside my pocket and took out my tiny little phial of golden potion. I could tell that he recognised it right away by the hungry look that spread across his face. And so - don't even ask me why, I'd have to answer something crazy like 'the Felix Felicis made me do it' - I went and offered him my little treasure.
Malfoy's pale eyes snapped to my face in disbelief, but he was smart enough not to question my decision too much. He took the phial, pulled out the stopper and eagerly gulped down the remainder of the precious golden liquid in one great swig.
"You know, that could've just as easily have been poison." I deadpanned.
Already the littlest bit of colour seemed to be returning to his cheeks as he handed me back the empty phial. "I'll take my chances." he said, and I could swear I saw the corners of his mouth lift infinitesimally in the tiniest hint of a smile.
In a moment, however, his face grew decidedly sombre again, and all at once the weight of the dwindling minutes seemed to settle momentously upon us. He didn't try to insist I go back to the common room; I didn't ask him for a way out again. Without another word, we fell into step side by side.
The castle was unnaturally silent as we emerged in the deserted Entrance Hall. There were no flashes of light now, no bangs or screams or shouts. The flagstones were stained with blood. Emeralds were still scattered all over the floor, along with pieces of marble and splintered wood. Several parts of the banisters had been blown away.
The only signs of life were the subdued sounds drifting out through the open doors of the Great Hall. Instinctively, we wandered closer to the doorway.
The room inside was crowded. The House tables were gone, and the survivors stood in groups all around, their arms over each other's shoulders. The dead lay in a row in the middle of the Hall.
I did not want to look, but at the same time, I just couldn't help myself.
It took me a minute to find Dan Gregson's body. I finally spotted him, partially concealed by the two sobbing Patil twins, who were huddled together over the body next to him. He looked so small, and broken. His eyes were closed now, but that final scowl was forever etched into his features.
I looked away, trying to push down the sudden lump in my throat. And a distinct family of read heads drew my eye, as they clustered together a little further down the row, pain so raw on all their blotchy, tear-stained faces that I felt my heart twist in my chest just from looking at them.
A bit farther yet, another dull blow to my stomach as I recognised Professor Lupin's wearied face, utterly blank and still and cold. Hadn't Cordelia mentioned he'd just recently had a baby?
So many losses, so many families torn apart... And for what?
All of a sudden, a howl of pain pulled my attention from the heartbreaking sight, and I whipped around, looking for the source of the sound.
Malfoy was gone, I realised with a sinking feeling.
Of course he was, how foolish of me to have expected otherwise... He had Dan's wand now, as well as a healthy dose of my Liquid Luck to help him along. Why had I given it to him, again? And worse, why did it still not feel wrong that I had? Was the Felix Felicis making me side with the Death Eaters, was that the key to surviving the night? I wasn't at all sure how I felt about that.
But I tried to push back those thoughts. And then my attention was riveted instead on the two young men just passing by me into the Great Hall, awkwardly half-carrying, half-dragging a centaur. He was crying out and sweating profusely, and there was a serious-looking wound on his flank, which was pouring blood so copiously that it left a trail upon the floor.
I found myself following the group at a distance, as they made their slow, painful way to the raised platform at the front of the Great Hall. Here, with another harrowing yowl, the poor centaur was gingerly lowered down amongst a group of some dozen more people, who sat or lay there, some whimpering, some crying, some stonily silent, cradling broken limbs and bloody injuries.
"What do we have here?" I heard a flustered Madam Pomfrey question as she scurried toward the new arrivals with a trey full of bandages and bottles of healing potions.
A couple yards away from them, another feebly groaning young man was being attended by a couple of helpers, who were trying to cut away his bloody trousers while he shook as though in a terrible fever. Then, as they managed to pull away the fabric, I was barely able to contain a gasp. The poor man's legs seemed to have been completely crushed!
I took a shaky step back, and suddenly felt a hand on my back.
"Have you been checked up yet?" a girl's voice said gently.
Turning around, I found the blonde Weird Sisters fan from earlier standing there, looking a bit battered, with teartracks down her grubby face, and holding a handful of chocolate bars.
"Oh, no," I said quickly "I'm not hurt."
"That cut on your forehead says otherwise."
And indeed, almost as if her words themselves had set it off, a little stinging pain above my brow was just making itself noticed. I gingerly felt it with my hand, and was surprised to see my finger come away a bit bloody.
"Oh." I murmured. "Well, it's just a little scrape, really, nothing to worry about."
But she continued to eye me thoughtfully for a moment more. I thought she was still deliberating on the seriousness of my injury, until her eyes dropped to my now grimy t-shirt. And I saw recognition, as well as a little suspicion, dawn on her face.
"So," she asked, a little less gently, "still here, huh? Did you not find the evacuation point, or –"
Luckily, though, I was saved from having to respond to that, as right that moment Madam Pomfrey's voice made itself heard, "More Dementor victims over here, Miss Abbott, where's that chocolate?"
With one last sideways glance my way, the girl rushed off toward the other side of the platform.
And I was left standing there, pondering.
No, I had not been able to find the evacuation point, but did that mean I had given up? I didn't think so. I still very much intended to make it back home. It's just that, at the moment, for some reason I couldn't quite comprehend, I really felt that right there in the Great Hall was the place to be, you know?
Standing off towards one corner, I watched as Madam Pomfrey and her helpers kept darting back and forth, trying to attend to all the injured people that continued to arrive on the increasingly crowded dais.
It wasn't long until somebody bumped into me, a lad struggling to hold up an ashen-faced woman with one side of her robes practically soaked with blood.
"Oh, hey!" he said, "Quick, she won't stop bleeding!"
And before I'd even had time to open my mouth, the injured woman had been pushed into my arms, and the boy was rushing off again, hastily blabbering something that sounded horribly like "– look for the rest of her arm –"
Gingerly lowering the young woman to the floor, I took a quick look and, well, let us just say that the boy's words made sense. I found myself ripping a stripe of cloth off of the poor woman's already tattered robe, and tied it tightly a couple inches above the gaping wound, to stanch the blood flow. Then I tried to hail for help, but the nurse was still busy with the now delirious young man with the shattered legs. So, in a moment's decision, I got to work.
And you know what? It actually came rather easily to me. I wasn't a stranger to healing potions, my family having long been in the business of producing a few of them. A little Wound-Cleaning Solution here, a little Essence of Dittany there, then a bit of Bitterroot Balm to ease the pain and inflammation. And for the first time that horrible night, I wasn't merely floundering and blundering like a nitwit. I was actually doing something useful, and right.
I had just finished another curative, and was in the process of returning the bottles to the emergency potions crate that sat open near one corner of the dais, when a nearby voice hissed "Psst! Greengrass!"
I glanced around.
Draco Malfoy was just approaching along the edge of the Hall, looking a bit pink about the cheeks, and sounding a bit out of breath as he panted "Oh good, it is you!"
"Not sure I can say the same," I couldn't help retorting, "Your Master sending you lot back before the hour's up, then?"
Malfoy's lip curled reflexively, and he looked quickly around to make sure nobody had heard me.
"Never left, did I?" he gritted out. "Went to find Goyle…"
It was then that I noticed the large dark shape hovering a bit behind him, like a grotesque balloon.
"He was Stunned, earlier... Had to hide him upstairs, couldn't carry him far... And now something's wrong with him…"
"He was in the fire, too?" I asked, not that the soot on his chubby face and the singed robes and hair didn't make for answer enough. Setting the bottles down, I straightened up to approach them, as Goyle's limp form floated softly to the floor.
"Yeah," Malfoy replied, rather anxiously, "but I got him out. I-I thought he was fine, he was only Stun – What's happened to you?!"
"What? Oh" I said, glancing down at myself. There was a big patch of crimson on my t-shirt. "Nothing, it's not mine. Have you tried Rennervate?"
"What d'you think I've been doing, singing him lullabies?! Of course I've tried Rennervate!" Malfoy snapped impatiently, as I kneeled down beside Goyle's prone figure and began to check his vital signs like I'd seen Madam Pomfrey do on other patients. "Just go fetch him some – I dunno - Dittany, or something, and don't tell anyone –"
"I don't think Dittany will be very helpful here, it's more for topical use, you see." I said. There were no obvious wounds that I could see, only a lot of soot, and Goyle's breathing was shallow and wheezy. "Let's see. Can you hold his head back and open his mouth wide?"
Malfoy looked at me somewhat dubiously, but then did as asked. More gently, I must say, than I'd ever guess him capable of being. "See anything?"
"Hang on." I said, raising my wand. "Lumus!"
The tip lit up, and I pointed the beam of light into the back of Goyle's throat.
"There's ash in his mouth… And I think his airways are getting swollen..." And somehow, even though I'd never done anything of the sort, once again I felt I knew what to do. "We need some kind of lung-clearing potion. I'll go see if…"
But without missing a beat, Malfoy raised his stolen wand. "Accio!"
And as luck would have it, immediately a crystal flask containing a clear, bluish fluid came zooming into his hand.
"Careful," I warned, "his throat will be very sore, so you have to make the medicine drip down gently. Here, use this."
Gingerly, Draco took the clean piece of gauze I extended, dunked the tip into the flask and began to slowly squeeze out drop after drop into Goyle's open mouth. In a minute, Goyle's chest suddenly heaved as he took a deep, gasping breath, and then he broke out into ugly, hacking coughs.
"Goyle?!" called Malfoy in alarm. "Goyle, mate?"
But there was no response; Goyle continued to cough and choke. A blackish phlegm began to dribble between his lips.
"He must've inhaled a lot of fumes in the fire," I said.
"Right you are, young lady." Madam Pomfrey had practically materialised at my side. "Turn him on his side, quick!"
Draco and I both scrambled to comply. And not a minute too soon did we manage it, as Goyle began to cough and retch in earnest; great, racking heaves that shook his whole vast frame and took what felt like several long minutes to subside. Then he flopped back down, mouth slack and eyes rolling back.
"Goyle?" Draco called again, shaking him slightly. "Goyle?"
"Stand aside, give him some space to breathe!" said Madam Pomfrey crisply. But I couldn't help noticing the grim sort of expression on her face, as she bent over Goyle's limp form again and went about examining him.
"What's wrong with him? Do something!"
"We are doing all there is in our power to do at the moment, Mr. Malfoy, but I run a school infirmary, not a fully equipped hospital!" said the matron. "You've done well. He is still breathing – very shallowly, yes – but on his own, at least. Let us hope he continues to manage it for a little longer…"
Her eyes drifted anxiously toward the watch on her wrist. Then she seemed to catch herself, flushed a little as though somewhat embarrassed of her own thoughts, and, concluding her examination, picked her medical supplies back up and quickly took off toward another waiting patient.
Draco and I exchanged a glance over Goyle's prone figure. And I knew he was thinking it, too.
"Hour's up..." he said quietly.
I breathed out a heavy sigh, and sat back on my haunches. All across the Great Hall, the subdued, mournful atmosphere was giving way to a sort of grim restlessness, as people appeared to be coming to the same realisation and began to brace themselves.
My thoughts drifted to my family and my home again, but they seemed a long way away now, in a far-off country. Unreachable, untouchable.
"You know," I said softly, "for whatever it's worth, I'm glad you stayed…"
Draco glanced up, eyeing me uncertainly. He opened his mouth, as though to say something, but suddenly the terrible voice exploded from the walls once more.
"HARRY POTTER IS DEAD."
I thought I heard a sound like a glass smashing, and cries and laments broke out all across the Great Hall. Only to be quickly drowned out again, as the voice went on with undisguised relish, "He was killed as he ran away, trying to save himself while you lay down your lives for him. We bring you his body as proof that your hero is gone."
"Rubbish!" someone, one of Potter's friends, immediately shouted from somewhere some twenty yards away. "He just wants us to give up the fight!"
All around, a murmur was erupting, I think, of equal parts agreement and uncertainty, but it was little more than the faint buzz of a fly under the relentless voice.
"The battle is won. You have lost half your fighters. My Death Eaters outnumber you, and the Boy Who Lived is finished. There must be no more war. Anybody who continues to resist, man, woman, or child, will be slaughtered, as will every member of their family."
Sheer terror washed over me anew like a bucket of iced water. As well as an entirely new horror that I, very naively, had not anticipated until this point.
My family. They were supposed to be safe! Far away. Untouchable.
Merlin, had my stupidity in getting myself left behind damned them all as well?!
"Come out of the castle now, kneel before me, and you shall be spared. Your parents and children, your brothers and sisters will live and be forgiven, and you will join me in the new world we shall build together."
Without a second thought, I started scrambling up. But a hand closed suddenly around my wrist, holding me back.
"Wait!" Draco hissed, and threw a wary glance around, before turning sharply back to me. "C'mon, don't lose your head now! We're surrounded by Potter supporters, how d'you think they'll feel about you looking so eager to switch sides?"
"I don't care! He's going after my family!"
"Your family will be fine! But we might not be, if you don't keep your head down!"
I took a deep, calming breath and tried to pull myself together. Sure enough I noticed, even as people all around started to turn uncertainly to the door, quite a few unfriendly, distrustful looks directed our way.
"Right. Right, okay…" I said, and let Draco pull me back down.
Quietly, we both watched, and waited, as the Great Hall slowly, mournfully emptied. Around us, those able to walk began to trickle down the dais as well, and joined the defeated crowd trudging toward the exit.
"Now?" I whispered.
Draco shook his head, keeping his hand firmly around my wrist.
"Let them all go." He said very quietly, even though there was hardly anyone left in the vicinity. "You heard Longbottom, there's no way they are just going to go quietly. You don't want to get mixed up in that."
"So we just –"
"Hang back," he nodded, "wait it out."
"But the voice said –"
"Can you just trust me?"
Oddly enough, I realised I did.
So we waited. The only sounds in the Great Hall were Goyle's laboured breaths and the occasional groan or rustling from one of the other injured. Completely silent, Draco and I kept our ears strained, trying to distinguish any sounds from outside.
I thought at some point I heard some whooping voices and a woman's shrill cackle. Then a growing, muffled sort of hubbub.
And all of a sudden, a frightening bang that shook the windows of the Hall, followed by a resounding high, cold "SILENCE!"
I closed my eyes tightly, and bit my lip hard, while my heart thundered against my ribs.
Minutes went by.
A couple more times there was that woman's maniacal sort of cackling that positively sent chills down my back, and once again that thundering, deafening BANG.
I had not a clue what could possibly be happening outside, and every scenario I tried to picture was worse than the last.
Then, quite suddenly, an unmistakable chorus of horrified screams broke out.
I know I was practically cutting off circulation to Draco's fingers by this point. He didn't complain, though; he was nearly breaking mine.
All at once, I became aware of an indistinct uproar that kept growing and growing, like a full-on thunderstorm coming closer and closer, until it was coming right from the Entrance Hall.
"Oh Gosh, they're coming… they're coming for – W-what're you doing?"
Draco had moved swiftly; his wand now pointing straight at me, while his own body appeared to be turning, well, not exactly invisible, but the colour and texture of the wall behind him. I felt a peculiar sensation, kind of like a raw egg being cracked down my head. Then, looking down at myself, I realised that I too seemed to have become a human chameleon.
"Disillusionment Charm," Draco explained.
"Good thinking!" I breathed, as I saw Goyle became an oddly shaped extension of the floor he was lying on. "What about the others?"
"No time to do everyone…"
And indeed no sooner had he said it, than screams and bangs and flashes erupted through the door on the other side of the Great Hall.
Wildly, I looked to the feebly stirring figures strewn across the dais. In a moment's decision, I raised my wand and whispered "Protego!"
Then everywhere there was fighting and duelling and curses flying, and we were huddling down as quietly as we possibly could, barely daring to breathe, while utter and complete chaos took over the room.
And right at the centre of the battle I saw, with an icy surge of terror, a tall and skeletally thin figure that seemed straight out of a nightmare, striking and smiting all within reach.
Professors Slughorn and McGonagall and a tall black man I did not know rushed at the figure, and as it wove and turned to meet their challenge, I got a full glimpse of a nightmarish face: whiter than a skull, with wide, livid scarlet eyes and a nose that was flat as a snake's with slits for nostrils.
There was absolutely no need to ask who that was.
A blood-curdling scream suddenly drew my attention just beyond the fearsome duel.
"NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!"
A plump red-headed woman was running at a crazed-looking woman in Death Eater robes, who spun on the spot to meet her, roaring with maniacal laughter, and another mighty fight broke out.
Well, you know how it happened then. It's been told and retold again and again all across the wizarding world. Maybe even in the Muggle world; I'll bet anything that someone has already leaked the whole thing there at some point and the Ministry has bent itself backwards in some huge, super-secret operation to make it all seem like some fictional children's story or something.
So Mama Weasley took out the mad, cackling Death Eater, and the Dark Lord's fury exploded with the force of a bomb, blasting Slughorn, McGonagall and the other wizard backward, flailing and writhing through the air.
Suddenly Harry Potter materialised out of thin air. No, out of the other world, even.
There were gasps, and yells of shock, and cheers and screams and shouts all across the Hall, but they were stifled at once. The crowd was afraid, and silence fell abruptly and completely as Potter and the Dark Lord looked at each other and began, at the same moment, to circle one another.
They said many things, many shocking and controversial things. I confess I heard them speak, but by this point my mind was beyond registering or processing anything but the sheer, icy terror pumping through my veins.
I remember the nightmarish figure saying something about "After I have killed you, I can attend to Draco Malfoy…", mostly because I heard a soft, strangled sort of sound from right beside me and felt the poor fellow in question dig his nails on my hand.
Then there was some complication with the wands, which has meanwhile been analysed and discussed at length by several wand experts around the world in a myriad articles and publications, a compilation of which I reckon should still be stuffed somewhere in my husband's study at home.
And so, against all odds, Harry Potter defeated the big bad wizard, Lord Voldemort (I don't care that the Ministry encourages folk not to be afraid of the name, it still makes my skin crawl, so don't expect me to say that again any time soon).
As you can expect, the whole place went mad. The sun was now rising steadily over Hogwarts and the Great Hall blazed with life and light. People crying, people cheering, everyone rushing the man of the hour, the Boy Who Lived, the hero that came back from the dead to win a losing battle and save the wizarding world.
And then, amidst the furore, a veritable mirage caught my eye.
I jumped to my feet, squeaking incoherently as my heart practically tried to burst out of my chest.
Two figures were weaving hurriedly across the room, heads whipping from side to side.
My Dad, my cool-headed, venerable businessman of a Dad, who was supposed to be on a business trip in Spain, was currently zigzagging across the Great Hall in his plaid night robe, eyes red and watery and voice breaking as he shouted my name!
And my Mum! My Mum, who I don't think I had ever seen leave her bedroom, let alone the house, looking anything less than ready to star on the cover of Witch Weekly, was now jogging alongside him with her hair undone, a travelling cloak hanging askew off her shoulders over her silk nightgown, and a pinched look across her completely make-up free face, as she cried out for me!
Everything else vanished from my mind, and I tried to rush forward to meet them, but I was impeded by my own Shield Charm that ran the edge of the dais.
By the time I had managed to remove it, I was losing sight of Mum and Dad among the crowd. So I set off at a headlong run, hardly caring that I rudely bumped and shoved people out of my way, and almost gave my parents a heart attack when I ran smack into them. I didn't even remember I was still practically invisible. I just clung to them tightly, and promptly broke out in sobs.
So there you go. All is well when it ends well. I got to go home to my family, Mediwizards showed up to check on everybody and take the injured to St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, the Death Eaters were rounded up and taken to Azkaban, and everything was peace and love and happiness from then on.
Don't believe me, do you?
Of course, the war might be over, but that was hardly the end. Grief, and fear, and pain, and prejudice, and resentment don't just go away overnight.
And clamouring for Justice is all well and good. As long as Justice is going after nightmarish figures, and faceless masked monsters. But the world, as it turns out, isn't neatly split into Good and Evil, Light and Dark, innocent and guilty. And Justice isn't almighty.
So what about when the masks fall? What about when the monsters aren't monsters at all? What about when Justice comes knocking on your door?
A/N: Hey everyone! Thank you for reading, I realise this chapter ended up a little too long, but I still hope you enjoyed it. Also, if there are any grammar mistakes or awkward sentences, I apologise; I've read this through several times, but since English isn't my native language, there might be things that slipped my notice. If you've got any comments, suggestions or corrections, do feel free to share in a review :D