"The appointment - or suspension - of the headmaster is a matter for the governors, Fudge," said Mr. Malfoy smoothly. "And as Dumbledore has failed to stop these attacks -"
"See here, Malfoy, if Dumbledore can't stop them," said Fudge, whose upper lip was sweating now, "I mean to say, who can?"
"That remains to be seen," said Mr. Malfoy with a nasty smile. "But as all twelve of us have voted -"
Hagrid leapt to his feet, his shaggy black head grazing the ceiling.
'An' how many did yeh have ter threaten an' blackmail before they agreed, Malfoy, eh?" he roared.
"Dear, dear, you know, that temper of yours will lead you into trouble one of these days, Hagrid," said Mr. Malfoy. "I would advise you not to shout at the Azkaban guards like that. They won't like it at all."
"Yeh can' take Dumbledore!" yelled Hagrid, making Fang the boarhound cower and whimper in his basket. "Take him away, an' the Muggle-borns won' stand a chance! There'll be killin' next!"
"Calm yourself, Hagrid," said Dumbledore sharply. He looked at Lucius Malfoy.
"If the governors want my removal, Lucius, I shall of course step aside -"
"But -" stuttered Fudge.
Dumbledore had not taken his bright blue eyes off Lucius Malfoy's cold gray ones.
"However," said Dumbledore, speaking very slowly and clearly so that none of them could miss a word, "you will find that I will
ummer was creeping over the grounds around the castle; sky and lake alike turned periwinkle blue and flowers large as cabbages burst into bloom in the greenhouses. But with no Hagrid visible from the castle windows, striding the grounds with Fang at his heels, the scene didn't look right to Harry; no better, in fact, than the inside of the castle, where things were so horribly wrong.
Harry and Ron had tried to visit Hermione, but visitors were now barred from the hospital wing.
"We're taking no more chances," Madam Pomfrey told them severely through a crack in the infirmary door. "No, I'm sorry, there's every chance the attacker might come back to finish these people off . . ."
With Dumbledore gone, fear had spread as never before, so that the sun warming the castle walls outside seemed to stop at the mullioned windows. There was barely a face to be seen in the schoolthat didn't look worried and tense, and any laughter that rang through the corridors sounded shrill and unnatural and was quickly stifled.
Harry constantly repeated Dumbledore's final words to himself "I will only truly have left this school when none here are loyal to me... Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it." But what good were these words? Who exactly were they supposed to ask for help, when everyone was just as confused and scared as they were?
Hagrid's hint about the spiders was far easier to understand the trouble was, there didn't seem to be a single spider left in the castle to follow. Harry looked everywhere he went, helped (rather reluctantly) by Ron. They were hampered, of course, by the fact that they weren't allowed to wander off on their own but had to move around the castle in a pack with the other Gryffindors. Most of their fellow students seemed glad that they were being shepherded from class to class by teachers, but Harry found it very irksome.
One person, however, seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the atmosphere of terror and suspicion. Draco Malfoy was strutting around the school as though he had just been appointed Head Boy. Harry didn't realize what he was so pleased about until the Potions lesson about two weeks after Dumbledore and Hagrid had left, when, sitting right behind Malfoy, Harry overheard him gloating to Crabbe and Goyle.
"I always thought Father might be the one who got rid of Dumbledore," he said, not troubling to keep his voice down. "I told you he thinks Dumbledore's the worst headmaster the school's everhad. Maybe we'll get a decent headmaster now. Someone who won't want the Chamber of Secrets closed. McGonagall won't last long, she's only filling in ......
Snape swept past Harry, making no comment about Hermione's empty seat and cauldron.
"Sir," said Malfoy loudly. "Sir, why don't you apply for the headmaster's job?"
"Now, now, Malfoy," said Snape, though he couldn't suppress a thin- lipped smile. "Professor Dumbledore has only been suspended by the governors. I daresay he'll be back with us soon enough."
"Yeah, right," said Malfoy, smirking. "I expect you'd have Father's vote, sir, if you wanted to apply for the job - I'll tell Father you're the best teacher here, sir -"
Snape smirked as he swept off around the dungeon, fortunately not spotting Seamus Finnigan, who was pretending to vomit into his cauldron.
"I'm quite surprised the Mudbloods haven't all packed their bags by now," Malfoy went on. "Bet you five Galleons the next one dies. Pity it wasn't Granger -"
The bell rang at that moment, which was lucky; at Malfoy's last words, Ron had leapt off his stool, and in the scramble to collect bags and books, his attempts to reach Malfoy went unnoticed.
"Let me at him," Ron growled as Harry and Dean hung onto his arms. "I don't care, I don't need my wand, I'm going to kill him with my bare hands -"
"Hurry up, I've got to take you all to Herbology," barked Snape over the class's heads, and off they marched, with Harry, Ron, and Dean bringing up the rear, Ron still trying to get loose. It was onlysafe to let go of him when Snape had seen them out of the castle and they were making their way across the vegetable patch toward the greenhouses.
The Herbology class was very subdued; there were now two missing from their number, Justin and Hermione.
Professor Sprout set them all to work pruning the Abyssinian Shrivelfigs. Harry went to tip an armful of withered stalks onto the compost heap and found himself face-to-face with Ernie Macmillan. Ernie took a deep breath and said, very formally, "I just want to say, Harry, that I'm sorry I ever suspected you. I know you'd never attack Hermione Granger, and I apologize for all the stuff I said. We're all in the same boat now, and, well -"
He held out a pudgy hand, and Harry shook it.
Ernie and his friend Hannah came to work at the same Shrivelfig as Harry and Ron.
"That Draco Malfoy character," said Ernie, breaking off dead twigs, "he seems very pleased about all this, doesn't he? D'you know, I think he might be Slytherin's heir."
"That's clever of you," said Ron, who didn't seem to have forgiven Ernie as readily as Harry.
"Do you think it's Malfoy, Harry?" Ernie asked.
"No," said Harry, so firmly that Ernie and Hannah stared.
A second later, Harry spotted something.
Several large spiders were scuttling over the ground on the other side of the glass, moving in an unnaturally straight line as though taking the shortest route to a prearranged meeting. Harry hit Ron over the hand with his pruning shears.
"Ouch! What're you -"
Harry pointed out the spiders, following their progress with his eyes screwed up against the sun.
"Oh, yeah," said Ron, trying, and failing, to look pleased. "But we can't follow them now -"
Ernie and Hannah were listening curiously.
Harry's eyes narrowed as he focused on the spiders. If they pursued their fixed course, there could be no doubt about where they would end up.
"Looks like they're heading for the Forbidden Forest . . . ."
And Ron looked even unhappier about that
At the end of the lesson Professor Sprout escorted the class to their Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson. Harry and Ron lagged behind the others so they could talk out of earshot.
"We'll have to use the Invisibility Cloak again," Harry told Ron. "We can take Fang with us. He's used to going into the forest with Hagrid, he might be some help."
"Right," said Ron, who was twirling his wand nervously in his fingers. "Er - aren't there - aren't there supposed to be werewolves in the forest?" he added as they took their usual places at the back of Lockhart's classroom.
Preferring not to answer that question, Harry said, "There are good things in there, too. The centaurs are all right, and the unicorns ...
Ron had never been into the Forbidden Forest before. Harry had entered it only once and had hoped never to do so again.
Lockhart bounded into the room and the class stared at him. Every other teacher in the place was looking grimmer than usual, but Lockhart appeared nothing short of buoyant.
"Come now," he cried, beaming around him. "Why all these long faces?"
People swapped exasperated looks, but nobody answered.
"Don't you people realize," said Lockhart, speaking slowly, as though they were all a bit dim, "the danger has passed! The culprit has been taken away -"
"Says who?" said Dean Thomas loudly.
"My dear young man, the Minister of Magic wouldn't have taken Hagrid if he hadn't been one hundred percent sure that he was guilty," said Lockhart, in the tone of someone explaining that one and one made two.
"Oh, yes he would," said Ron, even more loudly than Dean.
"I flatter myself I know a touch more about Hagrid's arrest than you do, Mr. Weasley," said Lockhart in a self-satisfied tone.
Ron started to say that he didn't think so, somehow, but stopped in midsentence when Harry kicked him hard under the desk.
"We weren't there, remember?" Harry muttered.
But Lockhart's disgusting cheeriness, his hints that he had always thought Hagrid was no good, his confidence that the whole business was now at an end, irritated Harry so much that he yearned to throw Gadding with Ghouls right in Lockhart's stupid face. Instead he contented himself with scrawling a note to Ron: Let's do it tonight.
Ron read the message, swallowed hard, and looked sideways at the empty seat usually filled by Hermione. The sight seemed to stiffen his resolve, and he nodded.
The Gryffindor common room was always very crowded these days, because from six o'clock onward the Gryffindors had no -
where else to go. They also had plenty to talk about, with the result that the common room often didn't empty until past midnight.
Harry went to get the Invisibility Cloak out of his trunk right after dinner, and spent the evening sitting on it, waiting for the room to clear. Fred and George challenged Harry and Ron to a few games of Exploding Snap, and Ginny sat watching them, very subdued in Hermione's usual chair. Harry and Ron kept losing on purpose, trying to finish the games quickly, but even so, it was well past midnight when Fred, George, and Ginny finally went to bed.
Harry and Ron waited for the distant sounds of two dormitory doors closing before seizing the cloak, throwing it over themselves, and climbing through the portrait hole.
It was another difficult journey through the castle, dodging all the teachers. At last they reached the entrance hall, slid back the lock on the oak front doors, squeezed between them, trying to stop any creaking, and stepped out into the moonlit grounds.
"'Course," said Ron abruptly as they strode across the black grass, "we might get to the forest and find there's nothing to follow. Those spiders might not've been going there at all. I know it looked like they were moving in that sort of general direction, but. . ."
His voice trailed away hopefully.
They reached Hagrid's house, sad and sorry-looking with its blank windows. When Harry pushed the door open, Fang went mad with joy at the sight of them. Worried he might wake everyone at the castle with his deep, booming barks, they hastily fed him treacle fudge from a tin on the mantelpiece, which glued his teeth together.
Harry left the Invisibility Cloak on Hagrid's table. There would be no need for it in the pitch-dark forest.
"Come on, Fang, we're going for a walk," said Harry, patting his leg, and Fang bounded happily out of the house behind them, dashed to the edge of the forest, and lifted his leg against a large sycamore tree.
Harry took out his wand, murmured, "Lumos!" and a tiny light appeared at the end of it, just enough to let them watch the path for signs of spiders.
"Good thinking," said Ron. "Id light mine, too, but you know - it'd probably blow up or something ......
Harry tapped Ron on the shoulder, pointing at the grass. Two solitary spiders were hurrying away from the wandlight into the shade of the trees.
"Okay," Ron sighed as though resigned to the worst, "I'm ready. Let's go."
So, with Fang scampering around them, sniffing tree roots and leaves, they entered the forest. By the glow of Harry's wand, they followed the steady trickle of spiders moving along the path. They walked behind them for about twenty minutes, not speaking, listening hard for noises other than breaking twigs and rustling leaves. Then, when the trees had become thicker than ever, so that the stars overhead were no longer visible, and Harry's wand shone alone in the sea of dark, they saw their spider guides leaving the path.
Harry paused, trying to see where the spiders were going, but everything outside his little sphere of *light was pitch-black. He had never been this deep into the forest before. He could vividly remember Hagrid advising him not to leave the forest path last time he'd been in here. But Hagrid was miles away now, probably sitting in a cell in Azkaban, and he had also said to follow the spiders.
Something wet touched Harry's hand and he jumped backward, crushing Rods foot, but it was only Fang's nose.
"What d'you reckon?" Harry said to Ron, whose eyes he could just make out, reflecting the light from his wand.
"We've come this far," said Ron.
So they followed the darting shadows of the spiders into the trees. They couldn't move very quickly now; there were tree roots and stumps in their way, barely visible in the near blackness. Harry could feel Fang's hot breath on his hand. More than once, they had to stop, so that Harry could crouch down and find the spiders in the wandlight.
They walked for what seemed like at least half an hour, their robes snagging on low-slung branches and brambles. After a while, they noticed that the ground seemed to be sloping downward, though the trees were as thick as ever.
Then Fang suddenly let loose a great, echoing bark, making both Harry and Ron jump out of their skins.
"What?" said Ron loudly, looking around into the pitch-dark, and gripping Harry's elbow very hard.
"There's something moving over there," Harry breathed. "Listen ... sounds like something big ......
They listened. Some distance to their right, the something big was snapping branches as it carved a path through the trees.
"Oh, no," said Ron. "Oh, no, oh, no, oh -"
"Shut up," said Harry frantically. "It'll hear you."
"Hear me?" said Ron in an unnaturally high voice. "It's already heard Fang!"
The darkness seemed to be pressing on their eyeballs as they