A Dish Best Served Cold
– CHAPTER TWO –
A Dish Best Served Cold
The dimly lit rays pouring into my room and the excited squeals of children woke me. I instantly noticed the hard iron bedstead, felt the coarse grey blanket rubbing against my thigh and smelt the distinct odour of freshly cooked porridge. I was occupying Tom Riddle's body in a memory akin to the one in Riddle's diary last year. Except I was not at Hogwarts. Was this the Muggle Orphanage Riddle had complained about?
As I – no, Tom – stretched, I concentrated on finding a mirror in order to discern Tom's age. I found none. Instead, there was an old wardrobe at the other side of the iron bedstead, equally shabby but spotlessly clean. The rest of the room was bare with a coating of paint a colour matching the aroma which, by now, had grown fainter.
Tom headed purposefully towards the door. There was stifled giggling coming from the corridor. Before he could even furrow his brow in suspicion, his right foot slipped out from under him and he collapsed to the floor, his head banging against the leg of the bed with a resonating thud.
Tom's reaction was immediately that of anger. Clutching his head, his narrowed eyes flitted around the room for a culprit. They landed on a plank of wood resting on two rolls of tissue paper. I found it quite amusing. Tom did not.
He gritted his teeth and trembled with fury. The wardrobe door opened and slammed shut of its own accord with such force I was surprised it was not blown off its hinges. The wood and tissues rose, as if carried by an invisible wind, and was encompassed by a dome of crackling flames. I was stunned at the power and complexity of the 'accidental' magic – I certainly would have struggled to do the same with my wand.
Taking a few deep breaths, he opened the door. An iron bucket carrying arctic cold water upturned its contents onto his head. He kept himself from screaming as the water trickled down his torso like icy fingers fresh from a winter's day.
He could not see because of the bucket, his head felt as if it would explode from pain and he was drenched.
I no longer found it amusing.
With cold ire coursing through his veins, Tom choked back tears and placed the bucket just outside the door. Rather than change his clothes or even consider ratting on the bullies to the staff at the orphanage, he marched up the dimly-lit corridor. The hideous purple wallpaper had mostly peeled to reveal an equally grotesque grey. Despite the shabby appearance of the walls and partly unhinged wooden doors, there was practically no mess. The only open door was one beside a curved stone staircase.
As Tom entered it, I saw that it was only slightly larger than Tom's but had a large, arched window on one wall. The faded blue carpet was littered with small toys such as a rocking horse with so many dents and chippings, it looked more like a rocking duck.
Sitting around a decrepit bed were seven children; five boys and two girls who all looked as though they were approaching the age for entrance into Hogwarts. As Tom entered, his hole-filled socks squelching with every step, the babbling and giggling died down. They all stared at Tom with their mouths hung slightly ajar. One of the boys with curly ginger locks and an explosion of angry freckles across his face bit his lip to stop himself from laughing.
"W-What 'appened, Tom?" asked a girl with blonde hair parted into two pigtails. Her large, circular glasses had slipped to the end of her nose as she squinted up at him.
"Who did this?" said Tom, his voice barely above a whisper. His body was trembling from the cold.
A boy with a pug-like nose and exceptionally round cheeks shrugged. "Most of us only just woke up. You can ask anyone, I just came up from breakfast."
Tom's ability to extract selfish fear did not go unnoticed by both he and I. He pressed his advantage and said, "Who did it, then?"
The boy with the pug-like nose looked around fearfully, almost begging one of the others to save him. "No-one 'ere," he mumbled, his eyes fixed on one of the many wooden spinning tops strewn at the foot of the bed.
"Tell the truth!" said Tom with such force that both I and the children were taken aback.
"Honest to God Almighty, I dunno," said the girl with the pigtails. Tom's eyes narrowed for a split second.
"Was it Dennis?" Tom asked coolly. The children were decidedly silent. "I said, was it Dennis!"
They seemed to jump as one. "We dunno!" exclaimed the boy with curly ginger hair. "Cross our 'earts and 'ope to die, stick a needle in our eyes! Why don't you ask 'im yerself?"
The poor boy looked as though he regretted his words seconds after uttering them. "What did you say?" whispered Tom dangerously.
"N-nothin'," stuttered the boy, "i-it was just an idea."
Luckily, the trembling boy was rescued by two other children who almost skipped in, laughing and talking loudly. One was a tall and thin boy with jet black hair parted over to one side. The other was a short girl with sandy hair tied in a bun, wearing the same grey apron the other children had on. They took one look at Tom and burst into a fit of renewed giggles. The only children could only stare on enviously.
"So you did this, Dennis?" said Tom through gritted teeth. "And you too, Amy?"
By this time, Dennis was on all fours, his fist pounding against the floor and Amy was clutching the doorway for support. The boy with the pug-like nose began to laugh nervously but was silenced by the look on Tom's face. I could only look on with intrigue.
Tom closed his eyes for a moment and took deep breaths to try and calm down but to no avail. I gasped – I could feel his burning hot anger. As if by magic, Amy and Dennis' hysterical laughter became screams of pain. Amy was clutching her stomach as if she had been shot and Dennis held his head in his arms.
"I asked you a question," said Tom. "Did you do it?"
Amy nodded her head feverishly as tears streaked down her face. Dennis cried, "it was only a little joke, we didn't mean nothin' by it, honest!"
"Not so funny now–" Tom halted in mid-sentence and the pranksters stopped screaming, the only remnant of their pain the tears still flowing thick and fast down her pale cheeks. The reason behind Tom's change of heart soon became apparent.
A skinny, harassed-looking woman stood in the corridor, her hands on her hips. She had a sharp-featured face that appeared more anxious than unkind. Behind her stood a very young woman with a howling baby in her arms.
"Good morning, Mrs. Cole," said Tom, feigning brightness.
"What on earth is the infernal racket up here?" she demanded, scanning the room suspiciously as if half expecting the old rocking horse to recount the events it had witnessed with its only remaining eye.
"What should I do about this baby?" yelled the young maid over the screaming.
"Rock him gently to sleep after giving him a bottle of warm milk," replied Mrs. Cole distractedly. "I swear I heard some screaming in here, and why are you crying again, girl?" Her eyes flitted from Amy to Tom, as if she had a strong inclination as to what had transpired but had no way of proving it.
"I…uh…tripped over the 'orse, ma'am," sobbed Amy.
"Right," said Mrs. Cole disbelievingly, "then stop being so darned clumsy. It's no way for a young woman to behave. And what did you do, jump in the Thames?"
"I slipped in the toilet and fell into the bath, ma'am," said Tom earnestly.
"Quite a lot of slipping and tripping going on here, don't you think?" she said knowingly. "Well don't just stand there and gape gormlessly, you'll get pneumonia, child! Come with me to your room. And stop crying girl, you're almost old enough to apprentice as a nurse!"
When Mrs. Cole turned her back, Tom shot Amy and Dennis a contemptuous glare which clearly said he was not finished with them.
Mrs. Cole led him back into his bedroom and found him fresh clothes: brown shorts and a white, short-sleeved shirt, a welcome change to the usual grey uniform. She also managed to find him a towel with a few holes gnawed into it. "Are you sure Amy tripped over that horse?" she said, finally.
Tom nodded. "I swear she did. Heaven strike me down if she didn't." Mrs. Cole's lips thinned but she did not press the topic and scurried away at the sound of more crying.
Tom changed quickly and made his way down the spiral stone staircase to the first floor landing; this comprised solely of one door, leading into the kitchen. The sweet aroma of pancakes wafted into Tom's nostrils as he swung open the door. On one side of the room were two stoves, manned by a frantically sweating old woman, wearing a hair-net and an apron covered with so many stains it was impossible to work out its original colour. A mountain of dirty pots and pans beside the sink was slowly being worked through by two sulky children, neither older than eight years old.
On the other side of the room was a long table, able to seat about a dozen children, with two teenagers making their way through a small stack of pancakes serenaded with what looked like honey. Tom sat a few chairs down from them. They did not acknowledge him and he returned the favour.
A quarter of an hour and many pancakes later, Mrs. Cole popped her head around the door and said, "Get yourselves changed; the coaches are coming in half an hour." She turned to the two adolescents. "John, you're in charge of getting all the boys ready, Edith, you're in charge of the girls. You'll get a hiding if they ain't all lined up looking presentable by the time the coaches come. Tom, you can help John as you're already changed."
A very laborious half an hour passed where Tom had to chase half-dressed, hyper-active toddlers around the building but between them, they managed to round up all the children going to Southend and have them standing on the ground floor, the only thing restraining their excitement the threat of a beating ("And you'll stay home with the babies," Mrs. Cole had warned them). I noticed Dennis and Amy had steered far clear of Tom.
It was only when Mrs. Cole took a final headcount, gave the thumbs up to one of her helpers and opened the door that the difference in time period hit me like a blow to the head. Past the bare courtyard and high iron railings were two weather-beaten horses an inch from their graves each harnessed to wooden carriages.
Most of the children, finally unable to suppress their delight, ran towards the iron railings, swung open the doors and practically jumped into either one of the carriages. There were only a dozen other children at the orphanage, most of whom were toddlers. It was no wonder Mrs. Cole never had a moment's peace.
Tom was last to get in, choosing not the carriage containing Mrs. Cole, who was barking out orders, but the one behind it with a panicky young helper in charge of it. He sat next to a five year-old boy with a shock of auburn hair, hopping up and down on his seat like an excitable rabbit.
Throughout the entirety of the lengthy, painstaking journey to Southend, Tom did not speak once. He instead chose instead to gaze out at the landscape. Smoggy, narrow, grey London streets became barren land waiting to be worked on. Barren land became farmland decorated with golds, greens and browns. Farmland became wild country with small, bumpy paths. Finally, the horses, exhausted, pulled into the sleepy village of Southend.
The sun was high in the sky, casting down its rays over the landscape. The air was crisp, fresh and so salty it was almost tangible. The village itself consisted of a bumpy road, a smattering of cottages within a mile radius and a small church which doubled as a school during the weekdays.
I soon found the children were not actually allowed anywhere near the beach, and, considering most of them were already screaming with delight and throwing dirt around, the result of doing so would have been disastrous. It was not a strain on the imagination to envisage one of the younger orphans drowning far out at sea; the one place where Mrs. Cole had no control. It seemed they had only come out on the day trip in order to escape the bleak monotony of London, experience the sea air and watch the waves attacking the cliff base in at the distance.
I felt a little sorry for Mrs. Cole; she single-handedly had to take care of ten restless children (her helper could not seem to act without exact instructions), none of whom had reached their sixth birthday. The result was that she was forced to relinquish control over the older children.
Duly, Tom strolled past the quiet cottages until he reached a high outcrop of dark rock, water forming and churning below him. Behind was a towering cliff, a sheer drop, black and faceless. A few chunks of rock, such as the one he was standing on, had broken away from the cliff face at some point in the past. Despite the sun, it was a bleak, harsh view without even a trace of vegetation to carpet the bare rock.
Tom suddenly, but very deliberately, turned around. Standing in the wake of his shadow were Amy and Dennis.
"Have you been following me?" Tom asked slowly.
Dennis started at being caught but quickly recovered his composure. "Well, we…er…just wanted to say sorry for earlier. It was only a little joke, nothin' more."
Tom smiled coolly. Encouraged, Amy piped, "Yeah, we didn't 'alf feel bad about it after. Where do you go every year, anyway? You always run off when Mrs. Cole lets us go."
Both she and Dennis looked at him hopefully. I fully expected Tom to tell them to mind their own business, or even continue to torture them with magic. He surprised me when he said, "do you want to see?" They nodded fervently and I spotted a mischievous glint in Dennis' eyes.
Tom ignored it and beckoned for them to follow him towards the edge of the rock. A treacherous descent lay below with a series of jagged niches which made footholds and led down to boulders that lay soaking wet from the high tide which had, thankfully, passed. I sincerely hoped Tom was not going to attempt to make his way down for it seemed nearly impossible, practically suicide. But there were no other alternatives. Dennis and Amy seemed to catch on.
"You're not thinkin' of going down are you?" gasped Amy, her sandy bun of hair quivering.
"Why not?" asked Tom quickly.
"'Cos you'll probably fall and die and then what'll Mrs. Cole say?" cried Amy. Dennis was staring into the depths of the glistening water, his pallid face slowly turning a sickly shade of green.
"You're not scared are you?" said Tom sardonically. "I knew it! You're both chicken! Wait 'til the others hear about this…"
Dennis pursed his lips defiantly; he looked as if he would throw up if he spoke a word. "What? Chicken? No, 'course not! We're just scared you won't be able to 'ack it ain't we, Den?" He nodded ardently.
"Let's go then," said Tom enthusiastically. "I'll go first, but make sure Dennis isn't sick all over me."
Tom descended quickly and efficiently at first but once the lower, slippery rocks were reached, he slowed down. I had the distinct feeling the descent was nigh on impossible without magic. There were flecks of cold salt spray hitting his face as he reached the boulder closest to the cliff face.
He looked up when his body was stable and was satisfied to see Amy struggling to make the next step downwards and Dennis just above her holding on for dear life.
"My fingers are slipping!" he shouted.
Indeed, a split second later, Dennis relinquished his grasp and began falling towards a bed of jagged rocks with waves caressing them. He brushed past Amy and began to fall too. I cried out in alarm, but of course it made no difference.
Luckily, Tom realised that murder was not a just punishment and their fall veered towards the large boulder Tom was standing on. Instead of accelerating, they slowed down the smaller the gap was between them and the boulder became until they landed, quite safely, on their feet.
Amy still had her eyes screwed tight and was screaming and crying. Dennis' mouth was moving quickly, as if muttering a prayer. He was the first to recover and stammered, "I-I'm n-not d-dead?"
"No, you big baby," said Tom curtly, "you only took a little tumble."
"L-little tumble? Little tumble! We were flyin' through the air." Dennis turned his head up, as if measuring the distance.
"Then why ain't you dead?" said Tom. "And if you don't stop crying, Amy, Mrs. Cole's gonna find us and give us all a hiding and extra chores." This seemed enough encouragement to dissipate her howling into silent sobs.
"I-I don't get it…" said Dennis, almost to himself.
"C'mon, we're not done yet," said Tom forcefully. "You don't mind getting a bit wet do you?" Amy's mouth hung open and Dennis looked positively terrified.
"You mean we're not done yet?" asked Dennis.
"No, this dumb boulder's hardly a good hiding place is it? You're not gonna give up on me already, are you? It's alright; I know it's been a bit scary so far." This once again had the effect of the strengthening the resolve of both of Tom's poor victims.
"Where's your 'iding place then?"
"You see the hole in the cliff under us?" Tom said, pointing to a fissure in the cliff into which dark water was flowing. "We're going in there. Unless you're scared of a bit of water?" With a small smile, Tom slid from the boulder with incredible guile and landed in the sea. The icy water came up to his knees and instantly waterlogged his shoes.
Tom waded through the water towards the slit in the rock face. Two splashes behind told him Dennis and Amy were in hot pursuit. The fissure soon opened into a dark tunnel that I could tell would be filled with water at high tide. The slimy walls were barely three feet apart and glimmering like wet tar in the faint light from the opening far behind. A little way in, the passageway curved to the left and I saw it extended far into the cliff. Tom continued to push his way through the water until, finally, he reached some steps which led into a large cave.
The air here was still and freezing. "Are we finished 'ere?" Tom turned his head to find Dennis and Amy shivering silently. Dennis' trousers were soaked knee down and his grey top was smattered with grey flecks of water, Amy was looking no better, her dress was dripping like an umbrella in a rainstorm.
"No, just a little further," said Tom. Both Amy and Dennis groaned as Tom stepped into what seemed total darkness.
An eerie sight met Tom: he was standing on the edge of a great black lake, so vast it was impossible to make out the distant banks, the cavern so high that the ceiling, too, was out of sight. A misty greenish light shone far away in what looked like the middle of the lake; it reflected the completely still water below. The greenish glow was the only thing that broke the otherwise velvety blackness, though its rays did not penetrate as far as I would have expected. The darkness was somehow denser than normal darkness.
"Follow me," said Tom quietly, after hearing a gasp from behind him.
"'ow d-did you find this place?" asked Amy.
"I was exploring a few years ago and fell off that boulder. It all went from there." Tom set off around the edge of the lake, and the two friends followed closely behind him. Their footsteps made echoing, slapping sounds on the narrow rim of rock that surrounded the water. On and on they walked but the view did not vary: on one side of them, the rough cavern wall; on the other, the boundless expanse of smooth, glassy blackness. I found the place and the silence oppressive, unnerving, but Tom seemed to bask in it.
"Awake," Tom hissed suddenly. With a noise like an explosion, something very large and pale erupted out of the dark water some twenty feet away; before I could see what it was, it had vanished again with a crashing splash that made great, deep ripples on the mirrored surface. I cried out in surprise, and then remembered it was futile – this was a memory. Dennis, however, leapt backwards in shock and hit the wall. Amy seemed frozen in horror.
There was a deadly silence.
"Show yourself," Tom hissed, with such authority I was taken aback. "Don't hurt them!"
A lone ripple dispersed from near the centre of the pool, as if someone had cast a stone into its depths. Then nothing.
"W-what was that?" stammered Dennis. Tom did not reply.
A shadow pierced the green glow near the middle of the lake for a split second. "I said what was that!" cried Dennis hysterically. Tom did not reply.
The same shadow appeared, this time closer to the three children. Tiny ripples disturbed the lake's mirrored surface.
"D-Dennis," stuttered Amy, her voice oddly high, "l-let's go." She edged away from Tom slowly, as if afraid he would attack her. He did not react however; his eyes were fixed on the centre of the lake.
There was a scream and a splash. Large ripples disturbed the water.
Tom finally wrenched his eyes from the centre of the lake. Amy had seemingly slipped into the lake. Her floundering arms were slowly disappearing from sight as if the water had draped its icy arms around her ankles and pulled her in.
"AMY! 'OLD ON! I'M COMIN' IN!" Dennis jumped in after her blindly, casting an almighty wall of spray in all directions. Tom looked down at his white shirt where some of the water had landed. I screamed at him to help the drowning girl but it was of no use.
Her head was no longer visible.
Dennis inexpertly kicked with all his might, desperately trying to reach the point where she had disappeared. He took a great gasp of breath and dived into the mirrored surface. Tom merely looked on passively.
A moment passed before Dennis' dark hair penetrated the surface. I sighed in relief; he was struggling with Amy's limp form in his arms, his dark, wet hair plastered to his forehead.
"Tom!" he gasped. "Tom, please." His eyes were screwed tightly and he kicked out with all his might. He was not strong enough. He was struggling to keep her head above the water.
"Tom! P-Please! I-I can't!"
I prayed Tom would do something. For the first time, he seemed worried they might die and for that I was glad. But would he do anything?
The shadow was now no more than a yard away from the drowning children. Tom noticed this and glanced at Amy's limp form. Just as her chin stroked the dark surface of the water, she burst into a fit of coughs, her eyes suddenly open. She took in her surroundings, her breathing becoming heavier and heaver.
"Wait until they are out of the water," Tom hissed autocratically.
"Kick!" grunted Dennis, noticing that she was awake.
"I-I can't s-swim!" she said quietly.
"D-Don't worry," rasped Dennis. "Just kick as 'ard as you can!" He glanced up at Tom not with hatred, but terror. "Tom! Please!"
Gradually, they began moving, slow at first but as they started kicking in time, they made real progress until, finally, Dennis pushed Amy out of the water selflessly. She in turn held her hand out and helped him onto the narrow bank where they collapsed.
"Now!" hissed Tom.
The shadow grew as it moved closer and closer to the lake's surface. A horrific sight curdled my blood. A horse's head appeared from the surface, its mane sodden and auburn. Etched where its ears should have been were blood-shot gills. Before I could even comprehend the absurdity of the situation, it rose further. At first, I merely thought its bark-like neck was rather long but it did not seem to end. Then it all made sense. The parseltongue, its obedience of Tom. This was no horse – it was a sea serpent.
Dennis and Amy clambered to their feet, every inch of them sodden, and held onto each other for support. Dennis edged away from the snake and towards the cave entrance, taking Amy with him. The sea serpent emitted a shrill neigh which rumbled the very ground underneath their feet. The echo against the cavern wall seemed to last an age.
Tom's poor victims broke out into a full out sprint. Tom smiled as the velvety blackness coiled around and consumed them, their screams still echoing through the still air. He knew they would not tell a soul. Who would believe them?
Revenge was sweet.
The cave blurred and faded into light.
I tried to make something out in the light. I hoped this was not another of Tom Riddle's memories, I had seen enough to last me a lifetime. The bed was familiar – incredibly soft and comfortable with a heated pillow. I felt around the bed blindly with my hand; there was no iron.
I awoke fully and cast my eye around the room. I breathed a sigh of relief, everything was a blur. I fumbled around for my glasses and found them on the bedside table. Now I could see beds separated by curtains, groaning from someone two beds down and a room filled with medical supplies a stone throw away – this was the hospital wing.
On the bedside table was a mountain of get-well cards and half-eaten chocolates. How long was I out? I picked up the card nearest to me and glanced at it.
You better get well soon! The first match of the season is against Slytherin and we'll be hopeless without you. Wood is already pulling his hair out over it.
I frowned. Term had already started? That must mean I have been out for at least a week. Shuddering at the thought, I put the card down and wiggled my feet around. They seemed to work fine. I swivelled around on the bed and lay one foot on the cold, hard floor. I shivered as a chill ran up my leg. Despite the cool respite, it seemed to handle weight perfectly. I tried my other foot. Again, fine.
I stood up gingerly. I was a little wobbly due to lack of practise but I managed it. A disquieting thought came to the forefront of my mind; why was I here? What had I done to myself? I tried to think back but all I remember was having a bad dream at the Dursleys then running out of the house. Then, of course, Tom's revenge.
Was I run over by a car? No, there were never any cars on Privet Drive at that time of night. My thoughts were interrupted by the angry orders of Madame Pomfrey.
"Potter! What on earth do you think you're doing? You need bed rest, lie back down! Merlin knows you've been in a coma long enough and I've only just managed to get rid of those stubborn friends of yours."
"What's the date today?" I asked. My voice was extremely hoarse, barely above a whisper. I could not help but smile at the thought of Madam Pomfrey trying to get rid of Ron and Hermione.
"It's the seventh of September. Here, drink this up!" She proffered a vial of red liquid I knew to be pepper-up potion.
"But it has side effects of long-term magical energy loss and, in some cases, mental instability through overdose." The words slipped out of my mouth and I had no idea where they had come from. Pomfrey looked as though she had been hit by a bolt of lightning, her mouth opening and closing like a goldfish.
"H-how on earth? That's not on the Hogwarts syllabus–"
"Professor Snape has indicated he insists on teaching it to his Seventh years when last I spoke with him." Both I and Madame Pomfrey turned to the door, where Dumbledore stood, wearing a robe of rich purple adorned with crescent moons.
"Headmaster!" said Pomfrey angrily. "You know he can't have any visitors now, he's only just woken up. Please, come back when he's ready." I wondered vaguely how Dumbledore had found out so quickly about my return to consciousness.
"I understand, dear Poppy, but I must insist on a few words with him. He has been through a traumatic experience and it is necessary to deliver some explanations. I will only take a few minutes of his time."
Pomfrey glared at him before leaving in a huff, muttering about irresponsible teachers. I smiled then turned my attention to Dumbledore. There was something slightly different about the way he was looking at me, as if he was deeply perturbed by something. Far from his warmth at the end of last year, he seemed almost wary of me, though his serene smile was fixed in place.
"Ah, the delights of the hospital wing," said Dumbledore, calmly moving his hand through the air like a host pointing out his most prized painting. "You, of course, are not a virgin to its walls and I'm afraid Madame Pomfrey may be growing weary of your presence." He smiled warmly.
"Why are you here?" I said coldly, far icier than I had ever intended. I quickly smiled at him to make up for my tone. Dumbledore's only reaction to my impudence was a slight eyebrow movement towards his white hairline.
"While you are quite wrong to imply I am not concerned about your health," said Dumbledore quietly, "there are some matters I wish to discuss with you. Matters concerning the night you fell unconscious."
"I was going to ask you, sir," I said softly, continuing to make up for my previous outburst. Dumbledore sat at the foot of the bed, betraying no emotion.
"I understand it might be difficult to retell, you witnessed some horrific acts of violence. Nevertheless, I must ask you to muster the courage you have been gifted with." For some reason this sentence angered me, but it passed quickly so I ignored it.
"I honestly don't know what happened, sir," I insisted. "I know I had a bad dream of some sort and I woke up screaming–"
"Screaming?" interrupted Dumbledore. "What were the contents of the dream and have any other dreams caused this same reaction?" He looked at me straight in the eyes with interest.
"I don't remember the dream," I lied, "and it's never happened before, no." For the first time in the conversation, Dumbledore seemed surprised. Had he realised I was lying?
"I imagine your screaming would wake your relatives," said Dumbledore knowingly.
"Yeah. They came into the room and started shouting at me. Aunt Marge said something bad about my parents and I lost my temper and-and-"
"It's quite alright, Harry," said Dumbledore understandingly. "Temper is a fragile object; a slight movement in the wrong direction could shatter it."
"After using some magic on Aunt Marge," I said, deliberately not mentioning my lust to torture her, "I ran out of the house. Her dog, Ripper, chased after me. It stopped for some reason and I blacked out. That's all I can remember." Dumbledore nodded slowly and stayed silent, as if waiting for me to say more.
"Err, that's all," I said a little louder.
"I think I can make some guesses as to what followed, but remember this is a theory, nothing more. I believe Ripper's sudden withdrawal was caused by a far greater threat. A bigger dog, perhaps. Yes, it is my belief that a hound of quite formidable stature threatened Ripper before running off. You followed this dog."
"How can I have-" I stopped in mid-sentence at Dumbledore's raised hand.
"Please allow me to finish my account, all will be explained in due course." I stayed silent, a little agitated at being ordered to stop talking. "You followed this dog into a little used, fenced off area. I'm afraid, Harry, you walked into a trap.
"The dog was not, indeed, a dog – it was a wizard, an illegal animagus. Do you know what an animagus is?" I nodded. Dumbledore's expression of surprise was there only for a split second before his tranquil persona returned once more.
"Hermione told me about them," I lied. "They're wizards who can turn into one animal form whenever they like."
"Quite right. The name of the illegal animagus was Sirius Black."
"You mean the Muggle serial killer?" I blurted out.
"No, I mean the serial killer of Muggles. Sirius Black was a wizard, one who managed to escape from Azkaban, the wizarding prison, using his hidden ability to change into animals. It is my belief that he attempted to murder you."
"What?" I exclaimed. "Why?"
Dumbledore looked at me sadly. "Sirius Black was one of Voldemort's most brutal followers. Perhaps he thought your murder would bring back his master, perhaps it was mere vengeance. What is certain is that he, like his master, did not succeed. The events following are a mystery."
"Wait a minute," I said, "you mean to say I was alone with a powerful Dark wizard and he didn't manage to kill me?" My mind was spinning, how could I not remember this?
"You are evidence of that at least. Black was found with a bullet in his head the next morning. A little known Ministry wizard was found dead beside him and an arm's length away was you, hit by a memory charm."
"There was another wizard?" I said. "How on earth?"
"He was an Auror, Harry, a dark wizard catcher, one of the best. I believe he tracked Black successfully and decided to use Muggle methods to deal with him, methods he presumably learned from his Muggle father. Considering Black's level of magical expertise, it was a well-informed decision."
"How did he die, then?" I asked.
"That is the real mystery. There were a barrage of curses so advanced I doubt even Black knew them. However, Black may have learnt many things from his master. Suffice to say, it is a real conundrum."
"But I didn't die…"
"And that, my dear boy, is the biggest mystery of them all. I will ask you once more: do you remember anything?" Dumbledore stared at me unblinkingly.
"No," I said firmly.
"I believe you, Harry." He placed a hand on my shoulder before standing up. "Do you have anything else you wish to tell me?"
"Yeah," I said, before I could stop myself. "Is it alright if I change my options?" Dumbledore blinked then smiled.
"I am sure it is not yet too late. What do you wish to change?"
"Can I change from Care of Magical Creatures and Divination to Arithmancy and Ancient Runes?" I was unsure why I was doing this, but it felt like the right thing to do. Dumbledore nodded in approval.
"I do not see why not – they are wise choices. I shall tell Professor McGonagall. Now I shall take my leave before I become the third fatality at the hands of an angry healer. I hope you recover in time for Gryffindor's anticipated match against Slytherin."
"Thanks," I muttered distantly. What had happened? How could they have killed each other so finally without involving me? How did Black kill the Auror when he'd been shot in the head? So much of the story did not make sense and for the first time in my two years at Hogwarts, I felt as though I had not been told the whole truth by Dumbledore. There was something missing.
I spent two long, monotonous days in the hospital wing. Word had yet to go round about my return to consciousness, it seemed, and in any case, Madame refused to let anyone visit me – except Ron and Hermione before Breakfast and after Dinner. We put our heads together and tried to work out what had happened but none of us could come with anything beyond what Dumbledore had told me.
I appreciated the cards and the occasional gift from the other Gryffindors who weren't allowed into the Hospital Wing. One person, a fourth year Gryffindor I did not know, sent me an empty diary. While it seemed a bizarre thing to do, it was rather useful as I wrote in it regularly. Luckily, it was charmed never to run out of paper.
Finally, Madame Pomfrey allowed me to leave on a Thursday morning. She gave me a copy of my timetable for the year and assured me all of my things had been transported to my dormitory.
The corridors of Hogwarts seemed oddly lonesome and melancholic without the rabble of students scurrying between lessons. It also seemed rather larger. I had only just reached the second floor landing when there was a call of, "Potter!"
I sighed – my futile hope was to make my way into the Gryffindor tower and miss double potions. As I had guessed, it was Professor McGonagall who had called out to me.
"Yes, professor?" I said, trying not to show my agitation.
"Where do you think you're going?" Her lips were pursed, her expression decidedly stern. She wore her typical emerald green robes and black hair in a tight bun.
"I just got released from the Hospital Wing so I thought I may as well –"
"Are you alright now?" she said, her expression softening.
"Yeah, I was alright when I woke up," I replied awkwardly.
"Then I'm sure you can start catching up on the lessons you missed, starting by attending the class you have now." She gave me an appraising look over her square glasses. I knew arguing would be futile so I bade her farewell and gloomily made my way to the dungeons.
I dragged my feet towards the cold dungeons and reluctantly entered the Potions classroom. The sight was rather comical. Most of the class were frantically chopping up pieces of caterpillar, prodding their cauldrons with their wands or blowing at the multicoloured liquid bubbling precariously close to the rim of the cauldron. Poor Neville was sweating profusely, even with Hermione whispering what was most likely advice into his ear when Snape was not looking.
I had only taken my second step into the classroom when Snape peered up from the tome on his desk and spotted me. His lips thinned with contempt and he leered at me over his sallow hooked nose.
"Ah Potter," he said sarcastically, getting up from his chair. "How kind of you to grace us with your presence at last." All of the students looked up from their work, except Hermione and Neville, who were attempting to curtail a disaster.
"Harry!" cried Ron from the front row.
"How kind of you to welcome me," I said coolly, surprising both I and Snape. Ron's smile quickly became a gleeful look.
"Ten points from Gryffindor for your insolence," snapped Snape. "Clearly your weak disposition for the past week has failed to instil any humility into you." I could see Malfoy and most of his Slytherin friends guffawing mindlessly.
"Clearly not," I replied. I did not know where these witty comebacks were coming from or why I was not in the least bit angry.
"Another ten points from Gryffindor," said Snape dangerously. "Now, if you are quite satisfied with the attention you're receiving, go to a cauldron and follow the instructions on the board. If you do not finish on time, you can have a detention."
"I don't have any of my things," I said, shaking a little from anger at the injustice.
"Luckily, your Head of House does have the sense you lack and had your potion equipment sent down earlier. Perhaps you should consider beginning? The clock is ticking away…" With that, he retook his sat at his desk, failing to acknowledge Hermione's hand in the air.
I was thankful for small miracles; my cauldron was next to Ron's. I quickly prepared the ingredients for the Shrinking Solution. Ron clapped me on the back in greeting. His solution was effervescing and had turned a pale pink colour.
"Alright?" he said.
"Yeah," I said distractedly, I was concentrating on making sure the caterpillars were cut perfectly.
"Can you believe he made me do half of Malfoy's potion?" he said heatedly.
"Really?" I grunted, not really listening.
"Yeah, all because he was stupid enough to insult a hypogriff! You should've seen him scream like a baby, though…"
"Is that so?" I said absent-mindedly. I was now timing my turns and making sure I did it in the right direction.
"Harry!" said Ron heatedly.
"What?" I said irritably, finally looking at him.
"You haven't been listening to a word I've been saying!" I noticed his potion was turning a deeper, deeper shade of red.
"I'm trying to concentrate on this potion, aren't I?" I snapped impatiently.
"You're just as bad as Hermione!"
"Weasley, you can join Potter in detention," called Snape.
"Actually, technically I haven't got that detention yet," I said. A few of the Gryffindors giggled and Snape's beetle-black eyes became slits.
I did not wait for Snape's response, the potion needed another counter-clockwise turn before it turned as red as Ron's. The rest of the lesson passed quickly and, thankfully, Ron did not attempt to start any more conversations. By the end of the lesson, the potion had turned acid green.
As usual, Snape manoeuvred his way around the cauldrons with the usual displeasure. He congratulated Malfoy for his attempt (it was pale green and steaming). He cast one look at Ron's bubbling brick red effort and muttered, "another disaster." He peered down at mine and his expression soured.
"Do you like it?" I asked. He examined it carefully, trying to find fault with it. Even dipping his quill into it yielded no glee, it shrunk perfectly.
"Who helped you?" he snapped.
"Nobody," I said, "I just followed the exact instructions."
"Which is one step above the upper limit of your…intellect," said Snape. "Ten points from Gryffindor for lying to a teacher." Ron and many other Gryffindors cried out in anger over the miscarriage of justice. Snape ignored them and continued moving between the cauldrons, sneering at the poor attempts produced by the other Gryffindors.
Finally, he reached the back of the classroom where Neville was shuffling his feet anxiously. Snape put his hand out, as if asking for something. All eyes were on the pair. Neville shakily handed the Potions Master Trevor the frog. With his free hand, Snape procured a test-tube from his pocket and dipped it in the potion. Even I did not think Snape would go as far as to risk killing a student's pet which, I concluded, was to be the result of Neville's abysmal potion-making skills.
Snape tipped a couple of drops of the potion onto Trevor. I spotted Malfoy's eyes alight with glee and it sickened me. I almost sighed in relief as Trevor became a small, black tadpole, wriggling around Snape's thin hand. Snape emptied the excess potion back into the cauldron and placed it on Neville's desk. He fished around in his robe pocket and produced the antidote. In a blink of an eye, Trevor was back to his usual size, looking as though he had just woken up rather than been turned into a tadpole.
"Ten points from Gryffindor," said Snape, instantly dissipating the Gryffindor cheers. "I told you not to help him, Granger. You are dismissed."
Some things never change.