Reading Chapter Fifteen: The Forbidden Forest
Things couldn’t have been worse.
“And now you jinxed it,” Ron sighed.
Filch took them down to Professor McGonagall's study on the first floor, where they sat and waited without saying a word to each other. Hermione was trembling. Excuses, alibis, and wild cover- up stories chased each other around Harry's brain, each more feeble than the last. He couldn't see how they were going to get out of trouble this time. They were cornered. How could they have been so stupid as to forget the cloak?
“Well that’s very simple Harry,” George began
“Because you are quite stupid,” Fred finished and Harry mock glared at the two.
There was no reason on earth that Professor McGonagall would accept for their being out of bed and creeping around the school in the dead of night, let alone being up the tallest astronomy tower, which was out-of-bounds except for classes.
“I could think of a few that might work,” Remus mused.
“I do not want to know Mr. Lupin.” McGonagall answered stoutly.
Add Norbert and the invisibility cloak, and they might as well be packing their bags already.
Had Harry thought that things couldn't have been worse? He was wrong.
“See?” Ron said, as though making a great point.
When Professor McGonagall appeared, she was leading Neville.
"Harry!" Neville burst out, the moment he saw the other two. "I was trying to find you to warn you, I heard Malfoy saying he was going to catch you, he said you had a drag-"
Harry shook his head violently to shut Neville up, but Professor McGonagall had seen. She looked more likely to breathe fire than Norbert as she towered over the three of them.
McGonagall gave Harry a long look at that description to which he tried his best to look innocent.
"I would never have believed it of any of you. Mr. Filch says you were up in the astronomy tower. It's one o'clock in the morning. Explain yourselves."
“Why ask if you know they aren’t going to tell you?” Remus wondered aloud.
It was the first time Hermione had ever failed to answer a teacher's question. She was staring at her slippers, as still as a statue.
Hermione turned to Harry and raised an eyebrow at the adjective.
"I think I've got a good idea of what's been going on," said Professor McGonagall. "It doesn't take a genius to work it out. You fed Draco Malfoy some cock-and-bull story about a dragon, trying to get him out of bed and into trouble.
“That wouldn’t have been a bad idea actually,” Fred said.
I've already caught him. I suppose you think it's funny that Longbottom here heard the story and believed it, too?"
“I wouldn’t call that a good idea Professor,” Ron commented.
Harry caught Neville's eye and tried to tell him without words that this wasn't true, because Neville was looking stunned and hurt. Poor, blundering Neville -- Harry knew what it must have cost him to try and find them in the dark, to warn them.
“I really am sorry about that Neville,” Harry said to his friend.
“I know Harry, but I think you got the worst end of the stick,” Neville said with a smile.
"I'm disgusted," said Professor McGonagall. "Four students out of bed in one night! I've never heard of such a thing before!
Nearly all the teachers coughed and looked over at Remus, since he was the only Marauder present.
“Not even the Marauders?” He asked McGonagall innocently. “I seem to recall that they were out of bed quite often and got caught.”
“Perhaps I should have amended my statement. ‘I have never heard of such a thing in nearly fifteen years’. Is that better Mr. Lupin?”
“Wait a minute, you know the Marauders?” Fred asked.
“We’ve met.” Remus said shortly and Harry grinned at the words that Remus had told him when he asked the same question.
You, Miss Granger, I thought you had more sense. As for you, Mr. Potter, I thought Gryffindor meant more to you than this. All three of you will receive detentions -- yes, you too, Mr. Longbottom, nothing gives you the right to walk around school at night, especially these days, it's very dangerous -- and fifty points will be taken from Gryffindor."
"Fifty?" Harry gasped -- they would lose the lead, the lead he'd won in the last Quidditch match.
"Fifty points each," said Professor McGonagall,
“That’s a bit harsh,” Remus pointed out. “Whenever we used to get in trouble for being out after curfew, it was only twenty points or a detention.”
“Except for that one time.” McGonagall gave Remus her sternest look.
He ran a hand through his hair nervously. “Well yes, but that was an exceptional case.”
“What happened?” Harry asked.
Remus coughed. “I think that’s better left unsaid.”
“I could tell it if you wish Mr. Lupin,” McGonagall offered with a hint of a smirk and Remus’s eyes went wide.
“No, no! That’s quite all right, really Professor!”
breathing heavily through her long, pointed nose.
"Professor -- please
"You can't --"
"Don't tell me what I can and can't do, Potter.
“Never a good idea,” George said wisely.
“We’ve tried,” Fred added.
Now get back to bed, all of you. I've never been more ashamed of Gryffindor students."
McGonagall looked down. That wasn’t quite true, she had been ashamed of Sirius Black when she first found out that he was the traitor, but now Peter Pettigrew held that anger and shame.
A hundred and fifty points lost. That put Gryffindor in last place. In one night, they'd ruined any chance Gryffindor had had for the house cup.
Fred and George whistled, “That is quite impressive.”
Harry felt as though the bottom had dropped out of his stomach. How could they ever make up for this?
“Win a Quidditch match, or answer every question correctly for about a week, charming other students to keep their hands down,” Remus answered. “Not that I would know anything about that of course.”
Harry didn't sleep all night. He could hear Neville sobbing into his pillow for what seemed like hours. Harry couldn't think of anything to say to comfort him. He knew Neville, like himself, was dreading the dawn. What would happen when the rest of Gryffindor found out what they'd done?
“They will ignore you and blame you, maybe even insult you, but you learn to ignore them in return,” Remus said gently, thinking back to some of the Marauder’s worst moments, namely when they got caught or in trouble for their pranks.
At first, Gryffindors passing the giant hourglasses that recorded the house points the next day thought there'd been a mistake. How could they suddenly have a hundred and fifty points fewer than yesterday? And then the story started to spread: Harry Potter, the famous Harry Potter, their hero of two Quidditch matches, had lost them all those points, him and a couple of other stupid first years.
From being one of the most popular and admired people at the school, Harry was suddenly the most hated. Even Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs turned on him,
Flitwick and Sprout looked at one another. Perhaps they needed to have a few words with their students as well.
because everyone had been longing to see Slytherin lose the house cup. Everywhere Harry went, people pointed and didn't trouble to lower their voices as they insulted him. Slytherins, on the other hand, clapped as he walked past them, whistling and cheering,
"Thanks Potter, we owe you one!"
Harry frowned slightly. “Sometimes I think the whole House Cup thing goes a bit far.”
“That hasn’t stopped you from wanting to win though,” Hermione pointed out and Harry grinned.
“Of course not, I’m just saying.”
Only Ron stood by him.
"They'll all forget this in a few weeks. Fred and George have lost loads of points in all the time they've been here, and people still like them."
"They've never lost a hundred and fifty points in one go, though, have they?" said Harry miserably.
“No but you gave us a record to try and break Harry,” George said grinning, trying to cheer Harry up.
"Well -- no," Ron admitted.
It was a bit late to repair the damage, but Harry swore to himself not to meddle in things that weren't his business from now on. He'd had it with sneaking around and spying.
“And how long did that last Potter?” Snape inquired.
“Almost a month and a half sir,” Harry replied easily. “It was quite a record for me.”
He felt so ashamed of himself that he went to Wood and offered to resign from the Quidditch team.
“That won’t go over well,” Fred said.
"Resign?" Wood thundered. "What good'll that do? How are we going to get any points back if we can't win at Quidditch?"
But even Quidditch had lost its fun. The rest of the team wouldn't speak to Harry during practice, and if they had to speak about him, they called him "the Seeker."
“The whole team?” Ginny inquired and Harry nodded. Then, before the twins had time to react, the received to very hard hits to the back of the head from their younger sister. To everyone’s surprise, they did not react in anyway, feeling that they deserved it.
Hermione and Neville were suffering, too. They didn't have as bad a time as Harry, because they weren't as well-known, but nobody would speak to them, either. Hermione had stopped drawing attention to herself in class, keeping her head down and working in silence.
“Why though? Wouldn’t that have helped you win points back?” Ginny asked her friend gently, who grimaced.
“Because the first time I did, Lavender accused me of being a know-it-all who didn’t care about anything but making myself look good for the teacher’s again.”
Harry was almost glad that the exams weren't far away. All the studying he had to do kept his mind off his misery. He, Ron, and Hermione kept to themselves, working late into the night, trying to remember the ingredients in complicated potions, learn charms and spells by heart, memorize the dates of magical discoveries and goblin rebellions....
Then, about a week before the exams were due to start, Harry's new resolution not to interfere in anything that didn't concern him was put to an unexpected test.
Snape sneered, fully believing that Potter would fail this ‘test’.
Walking back from the library on his own one afternoon, he heard somebody whimpering from a classroom up ahead. As he drew closer, he heard Quirrell's voice.
"No -- no -- not again, please --"
It sounded as though someone was threatening him. Harry moved closer.
"All right -- all right --" he heard Quirrell sob.
Next second, Quirrell came hurrying out of the classroom straightening his turban. He was pale and looked as though he was about to cry. He strode out of sight; Harry didn't think Quirrell had even noticed him. He waited until Quirrell's footsteps had disappeared, then peered into the classroom.
“What was that promise Potter?” Snape sneered, betting that Harry had gone in.
It was empty, but a door stood ajar at the other end.
Harry was halfway toward it before he remembered what he'd promised himself about not meddling.
“It took incredible amounts of strength to do that mind you,” Harry said in general, but looking at Snape.
All the same, he'd have gambled twelve Sorcerer's Stones that Snape had just left the room, and from what Harry had just heard, Snape would be walking with a new spring in his step -- Quirrell seemed to have given in at last.
“You would have lost that bet wouldn’t you Potter?” Snape sneered.
Harry went back to the library, where Hermione was testing Ron on Astronomy. Harry told them what he'd heard.
"Snape's done it, then!" said Ron. "If Quirrell's told him how to break his Anti-Dark Force spell --"
"There's still Fluffy, though," said Hermione.
"Maybe Snape's found out how to get past him without asking Hagrid," said Ron, looking up at the thousands of books surrounding them. "I bet there's a book somewhere in here telling you how to get past a giant three-headed dog. So what do we do, Harry?"
The light of adventure was kindling again in Ron's eyes, but Hermione answered before Harry could.
"Go to Dumbledore. That's what we should have done ages ago.
Dumbledore nodded. “Admittedly, coming to me would have been an idea.” The twinkle was back in his eyes. “However, I think you three managed quite well on your own.”
If we try anything ourselves we'll be thrown out for sure."
“Or not,” Hermione amended.
"But we've got no proof!" said Harry. "Quirrell's too scared to back us up. Snape's only got to say he doesn't know how the troll got in at Halloween and that he was nowhere near the third floor -- who do you think they'll believe, him or us? It's not exactly a secret we hate him, Dumbledore'll think we made it up to get him sacked. Filch wouldn't help us if his life depended on it, he's too friendly with Snape, and the more students get thrown out, the better, he'll think. And don't forget, we're not supposed to know about the Stone or Fluffy. That'll take a lot of explaining."
“Excellent points Harry,” Remus said, sounding like a teacher again.
“Thanks Professor,” Harry responded with a grin.
Hermione looked convinced, but Ron didn't.
"If we just do a bit of poking around --"
"No," said Harry flatly, "we've done enough poking around."
He pulled a map of Jupiter toward him and started to learn the names of its moons.
“See? I can be good!”
Ron sighed. “Mate, that was once, four years ago.”
The following morning, notes were delivered to Harry, Hermione, and Neville at the breakfast table. They were all the same:
Your detention will take place at eleven o'clock tonight. Meet Mr. Filch in the entrance hall.
“That’s rather late for a detention,” Remus asked. “I think the latest I ever got was nine.”
“Us too.” The twins piped up.
Harry had forgotten they still had detentions to do in the furor over the points they'd lost. He half expected Hermione to complain that this was a whole night of studying lost, but she didn't say a word. Like Harry, she felt they deserved what they'd got.
At eleven o'clock that night, they said good-bye to Ron in the common room and went down to the entrance hall with Neville. Filch was already there -- and so was Malfoy. Harry had also forgotten that Malfoy had gotten a detention, too.
“Oh yeah,” Ginny realized.
"Follow me," said Filch, lighting a lamp and leading them outside.
“Oh, here comes the detention speech,” Remus said rolling his eyes. Fred and George nodded, having experienced that same speech many times.
“I bet you'll think twice about breaking a school rule again, won't you, eh?" he said, leering at them. "Oh yes... hard work and pain are the best teachers if you ask me.... It's just a pity they let the old punishments die out... hang you by your wrists from the ceiling for a few days, I've got the chains still in my office, keep 'em well-oiled in case they're ever needed....
“I am so glad that was revoked before I came to school,” Remus said shuddering slightly.
“Would you have not caused as much mischief then?” Flitwick asked squeakily.
Remus smirked and shook his head. “No, I’d just be more careful not to get caught.”
Right, off we go, and don't think of running off, now, it'll be worse for you if you do."
“Something needs to be done about that man,” McGonagall murmured to Dumbledore, who nodded.
They marched off across the dark grounds. Neville kept sniffing. Harry wondered what their punishment was going to be. It must be something really horrible, or Filch wouldn't be sounding so delighted.
George shrugged. “He always sounds that way about detention.”
“Even if it was for nothing at all.” Fred agreed.
The moon was bright, but clouds scudding across it kept throwing them into darkness. Ahead, Harry could see the lighted windows of Hagrid's hut. Then they heard a distant shout.
"Is that you, Filch? Hurry up, I want ter get started."
Harry's heart rose; if they were going to be working with Hagrid it wouldn't be so bad. His relief must have showed in his -face, because Filch said, "I suppose you think you'll be enjoying yourself with that oaf? Well, think again, boy -- it's into the forest you're going and I'm much mistaken if you'll all come out in one piece."
“Well then he’s much mistaken.” Ron said simply.
At this, Neville let out a little moan, and Malfoy stopped dead in his tracks.
"The forest?" he repeated, and he didn't sound quite as cool as usual. "We can't go in there at night -- there's all sorts of things in there -- werewolves, I heard."
“Not for nearly fourteen years Mr. Malfoy,” Remus said.
Neville clutched the sleeve of Harry's robe and made a choking noise.
"That's your problem, isn't it?" said Filch, his voice cracking with glee. "Should've thought of them werewolves before you got in trouble, shouldn't you?"
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s not like he knew we were going in the forest!” Harry pointed out.
Hagrid came striding toward them out of the dark, Fang at his heel. He was carrying his large crossbow, and a quiver of arrows hung over his shoulder.
"Abou' time," he said. "I bin waitin' fer half an hour already. All right, Harry, Hermione?"
"I shouldn't be too friendly to them, Hagrid," said Filch coldly, “they're here to be punished, after all."
"That's why yer late, is it?" said Hagrid, frowning at Filch. "Bin lecturin' them, eh?
“See, even Hagrid knows the speech!”
'Snot your place ter do that. Yeh've done yer bit, I'll take over from here."
“Well done Hagrid!” Fred and George cheered, causing Hagrid to blush.
"I'll be back at dawn," said Filch, "for what's left of them," he added nastily, and he turned and started back toward the castle, his lamp bobbing away in the darkness.
Malfoy now turned to Hagrid.
"I'm not going in that forest, he said, and Harry was pleased to hear the note of panic in his voice.
“Can’t really blame him for that…” Harry mumbled, thinking about his experiences with the Forbidden Forest.
"Yeh are if yeh want ter stay at Hogwarts," said Hagrid fiercely. "Yeh've done wrong an' now yehve got ter pay fer it."
"But this is servant stuff, it's not for students to do. I thought we'd be copying lines or something, if my father knew I was doing this,”
“-he'd tell yer that's how it is at Hogwarts," Hagrid growled. "Copyin' lines! What good's that ter anyone? Yeh'll do summat useful or Yeh'll get out. If yeh think yer father'd rather you were expelled, then get back off ter the castle an' pack. Go on"'
Fred and George – as well as Harry and Ron – clapped enthusiastically.
Malfoy didn't move. He looked at Hagrid furiously, but then dropped his gaze.
"Right then," said Hagrid, "now, listen carefully, 'cause it's dangerous what we're gonna do tonight, an' I don' want no one takin' risks. Follow me over here a moment."
He led them to the very edge of the forest. Holding his lamp up high, he pointed down a narrow, winding earth track that disappeared into the thick black trees. A light breeze lifted their hair as they looked into the forest.
"Look there," said Hagrid, "see that stuff shinin' on the ground? Silvery stuff? That's unicorn blood.
“Oh no,” Luna whispered quietly.
There's a unicorn in there bin hurt badly by summat. This is the second time in a week. I found one dead last Wednesday. We're gonna try an' find the poor thing. We might have ter put it out of its misery."
Ginny, Luna, and Hermione all looked saddened by that thought.
"And what if whatever hurt the unicorn finds us first?" said Malfoy, unable to keep the fear out of his voice.
"There's nothin' that lives in the forest that'll hurt yeh if yer with me or Fang," said Hagrid. "An' keep ter the path. Right, now, we're gonna split inter two parties an' follow the trail in diff'rent directions. There's blood all over the place, it must've bin staggerin'
around since last night at least."
Again, all of the girls – and some of the women (not Umbridge though) looked miserable.
"I want Fang," said Malfoy quickly, looking at Fang's long teeth.
“Bloody coward,” Hagrid mumbled.
"All right, but I warn yeh, he's a coward," said Hagrid. "So me, Harry, an' Hermione'll go one way an' Draco, Neville, an' Fang'll go the other.
“You sent two first years into the forest alone?” McGonagall asked, her face pale.
“Well technically Professor, you did since you gave us the detention,” Harry pointed out and her face went paler but she still managed to send a somewhat concealed glare towards Dumbledore.
Now, if any of us finds the unicorn, we'll send up green sparks, right? Get yer wands out an' practice now -- that's it -- an' if anyone gets in trouble, send up red sparks, an' we'll all come an' find yeh -- so, be careful -- let's go."
The forest was black and silent. A little way into it they reached a fork in the earth path, and Harry, Hermione, and Hagrid took the left path while Malfoy, Neville, and Fang took the right.
They walked in silence, their eyes on the ground. Every now and then a ray of moonlight through the branches above lit a spot of silver-blue blood on the fallen leaves.
Harry saw that Hagrid looked very worried.
"Could a werewolf be killing the unicorns?" Harry asked.
“No, not fast enough,” Remus answered
"Not fast enough," said Hagrid. "It's not easy ter catch a unicorn, they're powerful magic creatures. I never knew one ter be hurt before."
They walked past a mossy tree stump. Harry could hear running water; there must be a stream somewhere close by. There were still spots of unicorn blood here and there along the winding path.
"You all right, Hermione?" Hagrid whispered. "Don' worry, it can't've gone far if it's this badly hurt, an' then we'll be able ter – GET BEHIND THAT TREE!"
“Oh yes, now they won’t worry at all,” Ginny said, rolling her eyes.
Hagrid seized Harry and Hermione and hoisted them off the path behind a towering oak. He pulled out an arrow and fitted it into his crossbow, raising it, ready to fire. The three of them listened. Something was slithering over dead leaves nearby: it sounded like a cloak trailing along the ground.
Harry tried not to shiver but the memory of that encounter with Voldemort still scared him slightly. It was one thing to be facing your enemy, it was another entirely knowing that he was there somewhere...hiding...
Hagrid was squinting up the dark path, but after a few seconds, the sound faded away.
"I knew it, " he murmured. "There's summat in here that shouldn' be."
"A werewolf?" Harry suggested.
“Sorry,” Harry said looking over at Remus, who simply shrugged.
“Given the circumstances, you had every right to be overly cautious.”
"That wasn' no werewolf an' it wasn' no unicorn, neither," said Hagrid grimly. "Right, follow me, but careful, now."
They walked more slowly, ears straining for the faintest sound. Suddenly, in a clearing ahead, something definitely moved.
"Who's there?" Hagrid called. "Show yerself -- I'm armed!"
And into the clearing came -- was it a man, or a horse?
“Or both.” Ginny said.
To the waist, a man, with red hair and beard, but below that was a horse's gleaming chestnut body with a long, reddish tail. Harry and Hermione's jaws dropped.
"Oh, it's you, Ronan," said Hagrid in relief. "How are yeh?"
He walked forward and shook the centaur's hand.
"Good evening to you, Hagrid," said Ronan. He had a deep, sorrowful voice. "Were you going to shoot me?"
"Can't be too careful, Ronan," said Hagrid, patting his crossbow. "There's summat bad loose in this forest. This is Harry Potter an' Hermione Granger, by the way. Students up at the school. An' this is Ronan, you two. He's a centaur.”
“I think they might have noticed that Hagrid,” Remus pointed out.
"We'd noticed," said Hermione faintly.
"Good evening," said Ronan. "Students, are you? And do you learn much, up at the school?"
"A bit," said Hermione timidly.
“A bit?” Fred and George inquired and Hermione blushed.
"A bit. Well, that's something." Ronan sighed. He flung back his head and stared at the sky. "Mars is bright tonight."
"Yeah," said Hagrid, glancing up, too. "Listen, I'm glad we've run inter yeh, Ronan, 'cause there's a unicorn bin hurt -- you seen anythin'?"
Ronan didn't answer immediately. He stared unblinkingly upward, then sighed again.
"Always the innocent are the first victims," he said. "So it has been for ages past, so it is now."
Harry couldn’t help but think of Cedric at that. He had been innocent…wrong place at the wrong time.
"Yeah," said Hagrid, "but have yeh seen anythin', Ronan? Anythin' unusual?"
"Mars is bright tonight," Ronan repeated, while Hagrid watched him impatiently. "Unusually bright."
"Yeah, but I was meanin' anythin' unusual a bit nearer home,” said Hagrid. "So yeh haven't noticed anythin' strange?"
Yet again, Ronan took a while to answer. At last, he said, "The forest hides many secrets."
A movement in the trees behind Ronan made Hagrid raise his bow again, but it was only a second centaur, black-haired and -bodied and wilder-looking than Ronan.
"Hullo, Bane," said Hagrid. "All right?"
"Good evening, Hagrid, I hope you are well?"
"Well enough. Look, I've jus' bin askin' Ronan, you seen anythin' odd in here lately? There's a unicorn bin injured -- would yeh know anythin' about it?"
Bane walked over to stand next to Ronan. He looked skyward. "Mars is bright tonight," he said simply.
“Is it really that hard to get a straight answer out of them?” Neville asked.
"We've heard," said Hagrid grumpily. "Well, if either of you do see anythin', let me know, won't yeh? We'll be off, then."
Harry and Hermione followed him out of the clearing, staring over their shoulders at Ronan and Bane until the trees blocked their view.
"Never," said Hagrid irritably, "try an' get a straight answer out of a centaur. Ruddy stargazers. Not interested in anythin' closer'n the moon."
“Firenze isn’t that bad,” Ron said. “He’s actually pretty cool.”
"Are there many of them in here?" asked Hermione.
"Oh, a fair few... Keep themselves to themselves mostly, but they're good enough about turnin' up if ever I want a word. They're deep, mind, centaurs... they know things... jus' don' let on much."
“Or anything at all,” Ginny grumbled.
"D'you think that was a centaur we heard earlier?" said Harry.
"Did that sound like hooves to you? Nah, if yeh ask me, that was what's bin killin' the unicorns -- never heard anythin' like it before."
They walked on through the dense, dark trees. Harry kept looking nervously over his shoulder. He had the nasty feeling they were being watched. He was very glad they had Hagrid and his crossbow with them. They had just passed a bend in the path when Hermione grabbed Hagrid's arm.
"Hagrid! Look! Red sparks, the others are in trouble!"
Neville blushed at the memory of that night.
"You two wait here!" Hagrid shouted. "Stay on the path, I'll come back for yeh!"
They heard him crashing away through the undergrowth and stood looking at each other, very scared, until they couldn't hear anything but the rustling of leaves around them.
"You don't think they've been hurt, do you?" whispered Hermione.
"I don't care if Malfoy has, but if something's got Neville... it's our fault he's here in the first place."
The minutes dragged by. Their ears seemed sharper than usual. Harry's seemed to be picking up every sigh of the wind, every cracking twig. What was going on? Where were the others?
At last, a great crunching noise announced Hagrid's return. Malfoy, Neville, and Fang were with him. Hagrid was fuming. Malfoy, it seemed, had sneaked up behind Neville and grabbed him as a joke. Neville had panicked and sent up the sparks.
“What a git!” Fred exclaimed. Then, “Oh not you Neville, Malfoy.”
“Thanks Fred,” Neville replied, rolling his eyes.
"We'll be lucky ter catch anythin' now, with the racket you two were makin'. Right, we're changin' groups -- Neville, you stay with me an' Hermione, Harry, you go with Fang an' this idiot.
“Well said!” All the students cheered.
I'm sorry," Hagrid added in a whisper to Harry, "but he'll have a harder time frightenin' you, an' we've gotta get this done."
Ron snorted. “More like Harry would frighten Malfoy.”
So Harry set off into the heart of the forest with Malfoy and Fang. They walked for nearly half an hour, deeper and deeper into the forest, until the path became almost impossible to follow because the trees were so thick. Harry thought the blood seemed to be getting thicker. There were splashes on the roots of a tree, as though the poor creature had been thrashing around in pain close by.
Luna cooed softly.
Harry could see a clearing ahead, through the tangled branches of an ancient oak.
"Look --" he murmured, holding out his arm to stop Malfoy.
Something bright white was gleaming on the ground. They inched closer.
It was the unicorn all right, and it was dead. Harry had never seen anything so beautiful and sad. Its long, slender legs were stuck out at odd angles where it had fallen and its mane was spread pearly-white on the dark leaves.
Ginny and Hermione dabbed at their eyes while Luna looked fierce at the thought that something could kill such a pure animal.
Harry had taken one step toward it when a slithering sound made him freeze where he stood. A bush on the edge of the clearing quivered.... Then, out of the shadows, a hooded figure came crawling across the ground like some stalking beast. Harry, Malfoy, and Fang stood transfixed. The cloaked figure reached the unicorn, lowered its head over the wound in the animal's side, and began to drink its blood.
By now, everyone in the room looked disgusted and fearful of what would happen when that…whatever it was took notice of Harry.
Malfoy let out a terrible scream and bolted -- so did Fang. The hooded figure raised its head and looked right at Harry -- unicorn blood was dribbling down its front. It got to its feet and came swiftly toward Harry -- he couldn't move for fear.
“Not a good time to panic Harry!” George cried, getting caught up in the story.
Then a pain like he'd never felt before pierced his head; it was as though his scar were on fire. Half blinded, he staggered backward. He heard hooves behind him, galloping, and something jumped clean over Harry, charging at the figure.
The pain in Harry's head was so bad he fell to his knees. It took a minute or two to pass.
Harry absently rubbed the scar, reflecting on how similar the pain then had been to the pain before Christmas.
When he looked up, the figure had gone. A centaur was standing over him, not Ronan or Bane; this one looked younger; he had white-blond hair and a palomino body.
“Firenze.” Harry stated.
"Are you all right?" said the centaur, pulling Harry to his feet.
"Yes -- thank you -- what was that?"
The centaur didn't answer. He had astonishingly blue eyes, like pale sapphires. He looked carefully at Harry, his eyes lingering on the scar that stood out, livid, on Harry's forehead.
"You are the Potter boy," he said.
Harry sighed. “Is there anyone that doesn’t know who I am?” He asked rhetorically.
“Sure there is mate,” George said cheerfully.
“Yeah, it’s you!” Fred continued.
“’Oh him?’ ring any bells?” They finished.
"You had better get back to Hagrid. The forest is not safe at this time -- especially for you. Can you ride? It will be quicker this way.
“You got to ride a centaur?” Everyone looked greatly impressed.
"My name is Firenze," he added, as he lowered himself on to his front legs so that Harry could clamber onto his back.
There was suddenly a sound of more galloping from the other side of the clearing. Ronan and Bane came bursting through the trees, their flanks heaving and sweaty.
"Firenze!" Bane thundered. "What are you doing? You have a human on your back! Have you no shame? Are you a common mule?"
“Bane has serious issues with humans,” Harry stated.
"Do you realize who this is?" said Firenze. "This is the Potter boy. The quicker he leaves this forest, the better."
"What have you been telling him?" growled Bane. "Remember, Firenze, we are sworn not to set ourselves against the heavens. Have we not read what is to come in the movements of the planets?"
Ronan pawed the ground nervously. "I'm sure Firenze thought he was acting for the best, " he said in his gloomy voice.
Bane kicked his back legs in anger.
"For the best! What is that to do with us? Centaurs are concerned with what has been foretold! It is not our business to run around like donkeys after stray humans in our forest!"
“He also has issues with donkeys,” Harry added and a few people chuckled.
Firenze suddenly reared on to his hind legs in anger, so that Harry had to grab his shoulders to stay on.
"Do you not see that unicorn?" Firenze bellowed at Bane. "Do you not understand why it was killed? Or have the planets not let you in on that secret? I set myself against what is lurking in this forest, Bane, yes, with humans alongside me if I must."
“He managed to make that both a good thing and a derogatory comment at the same time,” Hermione stated in amazement.
And Firenze whisked around; with Harry clutching on as best he could, they plunged off into the trees, leaving Ronan and Bane behind them.
Harry didn't have a clue what was going on.
"Why's Bane so angry?" he asked. "What was that thing you saved me from, anyway?"
Firenze slowed to a walk, warned Harry to keep his head bowed in case of low-hanging branches, but did not answer Harry's question. They made their way through the trees in silence for so long that Harry thought Firenze didn't want to talk to him anymore. They were passing through a particularly dense patch of trees, however, when Firenze suddenly stopped.
"Harry Potter, do you know what unicorn blood is used -for?"
"No," said Harry, startled by the odd question. "We've only used the horn and tail hair in Potions."
"That is because it is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn," said Firenze. "Only one who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips."
A few people shivered at that, even just the idea seemed horrific.
Harry stared at the back of Firenze's head, which was dappled silver in the moonlight.
“There is a lot of silver in this chapter isn’t there?” Remus muttered more to himself.
"But who'd be that desperate?" he wondered aloud. "If you're going to be cursed forever, deaths better, isn't it?"
“Oh, I’m sure we can think of someone that would be that desperate,” George mused.
“What was his name?” Fred asked.
“Oh I know!” Harry said. “Voldemort.”
“Lies!” Umbridge hissed. She might have said more, but a warning glance from Fudge stopped her. He wanted these books to be over with, the quicker the better.
"It is," Firenze agreed, "unless all you need is to stay alive long enough to drink something else -- something that will bring you back to full strength and power -- something that will mean you can never die. Mr. Potter, do you know what is hidden in the school at this very moment?"
"The Sorcerer's Stone! Of course -- the Elixir of Life! But I don't understand who "
"Can you think of nobody who has waited many years to return to power, who has clung to life, awaiting their chance?"
“I wish I couldn’t.” Harry muttered.
It was as though an iron fist had clenched suddenly around Harry's heart. Over the rustling of the trees, he seemed to hear once more what Hagrid had told him on the night they had met: "Some say he died. Codswallop, in my opinion. Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die."
“He did die! He is dead!” Umbridge half said, half hissed.
"Do you mean," Harry croaked, "that was Vol-"
"Harry! Harry, are you all right?"
Hermione was running toward them down the path, Hagrid puffing along behind her.
"I'm fine," said Harry, hardly knowing what he was saying. "The unicorn's dead, Hagrid, it's in that clearing back there."
"This is where I leave you," Firenze murmured as Hagrid hurried off to examine the unicorn. "You are safe now."
Harry slid off his back.
"Good luck, Harry Potter," said Firenze. "The planets have been read wrongly before now, even by centaurs. I hope this is one of those times."
“Things must have been bad for him to admit that centaurs can be wrong,” Remus mused. “And if Mars was out…the symbol of war…”
“Don’t tell me you believe in that stuff!” Harry exclaimed.
“I don’t,” Remus reassured him. “I’m merely saying that in mythology, that is what Mars means.”
He turned and cantered back into the depths of the forest, leaving Harry shivering behind him.
[*Ron had fallen asleep in the dark common room, waiting for them to return. He shouted something about Quidditch fouls
People snickered or chuckled quietly as Ron’s ears went red, the tension dissolving now that Harry was safe.
when Harry roughly shook him awake. In a matter of seconds, though, he was wide-eyed as Harry began to tell him and Hermione what had happened in the forest.
Harry couldn't sit down. He paced up and down in front of the fire. He was still shaking.
"Snape wants the stone for Voldemort... and Voldemort's waiting in the forest... and all this time we thought Snape just wanted to get rich...."
“Oh come on people!” Harry cried when he say that everyone except for Dumbledore, Hermione, Remus and himself were wincing or flinching at the name. “It’s just a name!”
"Stop saying the name!" said Ron in a terrified whisper, as if he thought Voldemort could hear them.
Harry wasn't listening.
"Firenze saved me, but he shouldn't have done so.... Bane was furious... he was talking about interfering with what the planets say is going to happen.... They must show that Voldemort's coming back.... Bane thinks Firenze should have let Voldemort kill me.... I suppose that's written in the stars as well."
"Will you stop saying the name!" Ron hissed.
“Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.”
“Well that’s great mate, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
"So all I've got to wait for now is Snape to steal the Stone," Harry went on feverishly, "then Voldemort will be able to come and finish me off... Well, I suppose Bane'll be happy."
Hermione looked very frightened, but she had a word of comfort.
"Harry, everyone says Dumbledore's the only one You-Know-Who was ever afraid of. With
Dumbledore around, You-Know-Who won't touch you.
“Thank you Miss Granger,” Dumbledore said, smiling down at her.
Anyway, who says the centaurs are right? It sounds like fortune-telling to me, and Professor McGonagall says that's a very imprecise branch of magic."
“Haven’t changed much, have you?” Ron asked and Hermione huffed.
The sky had turned light before they stopped talking. They went to bed exhausted, their throats sore. But the night's surprises weren't over.
When Harry pulled back his sheets, he found his invisibility cloak folded neatly underneath them. There was a note pinned to it:
Just in case.
“You gave it back to him?” Snape groaned to Dumbledore.
“Of course. It is his inheritance.” Dumbledore replied.
“That’s the end of this chapter. Minister, would you like to read next?” Amelia offered innocently and Fudge squirmed.
“Well, unless anyone else would like to read. Severus? Dolares?” When both shook their heads, Fudge sighed. “Very well then.” And he took the offered book.