The Sugar Quill
Author: Mrs Weasley (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Sixth Year Showdowns  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Summary: In his sixth year, Harry faces problems and danger - but his biggest problem is that his two best friends aren't getting on together. This was the first HP story I ever wrote, and it was written before GOF came out, so may contain a few things which contradict GOF.

Disclaimer: These characters belong to JK Rowling, except for a couple I've added.

***

Harry Potter was perplexed. Something was wrong. Ever since he and his two best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, had returned to Hogwarts for the beginning of their sixth year, both his friends had been acting a little out of character. Everything had been fine during the summer holidays. He and Hermione had both spent the last two weeks of the holidays staying with the Weasleys at their home, The Burrow. It had been good fun, especially since Charlie Weasley, Ron's second-oldest brother, had been home for a visit, full of stories about his work with dragons in Rumania. He was a very broad-shouldered, cheerful young man, his face and arms bronzed from his outdoor life, and with the flaming red hair shared by all the Weasleys. Harry thought that, looking at Charlie and Bill, the oldest Weasley brother, one could see what Ron would be like when he was fully grown up. Bill and Ron were the tallest of the Weasley brothers, and physically very alike. Already, at sixte en and a half, Ron was the tallest student in Gryffindor House, and had to remember to duck through a lot of the older, lower doorways on his way around Hogwarts. Harry and Hermione had grown used to looking up when they spoke to him these days, although Harry was only a few inches shorter now.

Yes, the holidays had been fun, but now they had been back at school for a few weeks Harry had become aware that all was not well with his two friends. Ron would fall into fits of unaccustomed gloom, and Hermione was unusually quiet, and spending long periods of time shut up in the girls' dormitory, possibly writing in her diary. And although they were both still perfectly friendly to Harry, neither of his two friends seemed to be as comfortable around each other as they usually were. When he came back from Quidditch practices, Harry was used to finding Hermione and Ron together waiting for him, playing chess in the commonroom or revising in the library, or perhaps collaborating on a new banner or jingle for the Gryffindor supporters to use at the next Quidditch match. But these days, he never did seem to find them together. He might almost have thought they were avoiding each other. If Ron was in the common room, Hermione would be in the owlery, or the library. And vice v ersa. Harry would have thought they had merely quarrelled - for they had had many quarrels in the past - but Harry knew there had been no big arguments. And they were not scowling or sniping at each other. When they were forced together at meals or in class, they were not hostile, just distant. Harry couldn't work it out.

 

He had no clue as to what the problem might be until one day when he chatted to Ginny Weasley - Ron's younger sister - after a Gryffindor house Quidditch practice. The practice had gone well. Harry was in his second year as captain now, and he was pleased to see that the new members of the team were getting used to playing together. Five players had remained from last year's team but he had had to select two new Chasers - fifth years Ginny Weasley and Tony Forest. Looking at his team gliding and darting about the pitch, Harry thought he had made a good team selection. After the practice Harry changed out of his Quidditch robes and set off towards the school, thinking about the Potions essay he had to finish for Snape before bedtime. He hadn't gone far before he heard a voice calling behind him. "Hey, Harry, wait!"

Harry turned and saw Ginny jogging to catch up with him. He grinned at her in a friendly way. Ginny had embarrassed Harry horribly in her first two years at Hogwarts by developing a huge crush on him, but now that she was a fifth-year she was far more confident and had grown out of her crush long ago. She and Harry got on well together when they met at school or at the Weasleys' house.

"I think we've got a good chance of beating Ravenclaw, don't you?" said Harry, as they walked on together.

"I hope so," said Ginny. "Gryffindor were unlucky to lose the Cup last year, we need to get it back again. Are you going to Hogsmeade on Saturday?"

"I expect so," replied Harry. "I didn't know it was a Hogsmeade day."

"Yes, the notice only went up just before dinner. I want to go to the new Magical Creatures shop in the village, it's supposed to be brilliant." Ginny was just as fond of animals as her brother Charlie, and was hoping to study veterinary magic when she left school.

Harry wondered what he, Ron and Hermione could do in Hogsmeade. The usual things, he supposed - go to Zonko's Joke Shop, although they were a bit old now for practical jokes, go to the sweet shop, go to the Three Broomsticks - although it wouldn't be as much fun as usual if Ron and Hermione were still treating each other so distantly. He sighed, looked at Ginny and thought it was worth asking her if she could throw any light on the problem.

"Ginny - you're Ron's sister - do you know if there's anything wrong with Ron lately?"

Ginny looked surprised. "You see more of him than I do at school. Wrong with him? How do you mean?"

"Well - he just seems a bit gloomy lately. Different somehow. But he keeps saying there's nothing wrong. Hermione's been acting strangely lately as well."

To his surprise, Ginny giggled. "Oh, well - I can tell you what *her* problem is," she said.

"What?" asked Harry curiously.

"Charlie," said Ginny, and giggled again.

"Charlie? Your brother Charlie? What do you mean?"

"Hermione's got a crush on him, that's what," said Ginny. "Didn't you notice, when you were staying at our house? She blushed every time he looked at her. Mum and I were talking about it."

"Oh." Harry considered this. "No, I didn't notice." Ginny looked worldly-wise, as if she was thinking, No, but you're just a man! "Well, I suppose that would explain why she's been acting strangely, if she's daydreaming about Charlie. Still doesn't explain what Ron's problem is though."

"Perhaps he knows she likes Charlie and he doesn't like the idea," suggested Ginny.

"Why should he mind?" asked Harry. "I should think he'd think it was quite funny - you know, and be teasing her about it."

Ginny sighed again at the density of the male sex. "Not if he's jealous," she said patiently.

"Jealous?" Harry was confused. "Of Charlie? But Ron doesn't want Hermione to like him that way - they argue all the time."

"Well, perhaps I'm wrong then," said Ginny, as they reached the front door and Harry opened it for her. But her tone of voice said, But I don't think I'm wrong.

Harry really didn't think she was right. But he mulled the new idea over in his mind as he walked Ginny along the corridors to the Fat Lady's portrait hole. He knew that, underneath their sniping and quarrelling, Ron and Hermione were really very good friends and cared about each other, just as they cared about him, Harry. But it had never occurred to him that Ron might want to have a closer relationship with Hermione. Although Harry could quite understand that if Ron did feel that way, the last thing he would want would be to find out that she had a crush on his admired elder brother.

But, as Harry got out his Potions essay, and worried about his best friends, he did not know that in a few hours' time he would have a much bigger problem to worry about. Sorting out Ron and Hermione would have to take second place behind the danger Harry was about to face this term.

* * * * *

When Harry got back to the Gryffindor common room, he found Ron scribbling at his Potions essay, muttering and clutching at his red hair as he wrote. He looked up as Harry got his quill and parchment and came to join him. "Good practice?"

"Yes. I think we're going to have a really good team this year. Ginny's pretty speedy you know - and Tony Forest is quick too."

"Great." Ron loved watching Quidditch although he freely admitted his height stopped him from being a very agile player. Ron looked at what he'd just written, sighed, and started erasing it.

"Where's Hermione?" asked Harry, looking round the crowded room.

Ron shrugged. "Don't know. She's finished her essay. Probably gone to the library." He did not look up.

They were quiet for half an hour until Harry finished the last words of his essay, put down his quill and flexed his fingers. "I'm worn out - think I'll go to bed early." As he spoke, the portrait hole opened and Hermione came in.

"Professor McGonagall says it's time first-years went to bed," she said, speaking so everyone could hear her. There were a few mutters and groans but most of the first-years started getting ready to go upstairs. Harry remembered that he, Ron, Hermione and the other sixth-year prefects were in charge of Gryffindor tower all week. The seventh-years, who included the Head Prefect, had all gone on a week's field trip with Professor Flitwick, which was part of their work for their N.E.W.T. exams. That left the sixth-years in charge.

Harry looked around and decided Hermione and the others didn't really need him to help send the younger ones to bed. He was pretty tired after Quidditch practice, so he said goodnight to Ron, nodded to a few other friends and went up the spiral staircase. He dropped off to sleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow, and never heard Ron, Neville, Seamus or Dean coming into the dormitory.

Several hours later, a terrible noise jerked Harry out of his sleep. He had been dreaming happily about beating Slytherin at Quidditch, and was confused when he suddenly woke up. Someone - or something - was screaming in terror.

Harry remembered his old nightmare - his mother screaming during Voldemort's attack - and cold sweat broke out all over him. But this wasn't his mother's ghost. Someone really was screaming - somewhere outside the window. As he realised this, Harry heard thuds as several of his friends got out of bed to investigate. He could hear Ron groaning, as he always did when woken early.

When Harry pulled back his bed curtains, he saw Seamus and Dean peering out of the dormitory window. Ron was sitting, half-awake, half-asleep, on the side of his bed, and Neville's alarmed face had just emerged from his curtains. "What is it? What's happening?"

"Dunno," said Dean. The screaming had now stopped. "Can't see anything, it's too dark. Must be -" he checked "-three o'clock?"

"Maybe it was an animal - being killed by another animal in the Forbidden Forest?" suggested Harry, peering over Dean's shoulder but seeing nothing but blackness.

"Didn't sound like an animal to me," said Ron sleepily. "Sounded like a person."

They could hear confused voices outside their door. It sounded as though the whole of Gryffindor House had been woken up. Harry remembered that the sixth-years were supposed to be in charge. "We'd better go and send those kids back to bed," he said, reaching for his dressing-gown.

"There's nothing happening now! Go back to bed!" he heard Hermione saying firmly, as he opened the door. She was down in the common room. Harry grinned.

Dean was still looking out of the window. "I can see lights down there now - I think it's some of the teachers."

Harry, with Ron behind him, went down to the common room. Quite a lot of students were milling about, talking and wondering what the screaming had been. Hermione was trying to reassure a first-year girl who was in tears of fright. The portrait hole opened and Professor McGonagall came in suddenly.

"Back to bed, please," she ordered sternly. "You're in no danger."

Harry wanted to ask her what the noise had been, but looking at her tight lips and her frown he decided he probably wouldn't get an answer. He joined the other prefects in settling down the rest of the House, and half an hour later was in bed himself, but he only managed to sleep rather restlessly for the remainder of the night.

At breakfast the next morning, the whole school was buzzing with speculation about the screaming. Harry was wondering just as much as the others, but he still had time to notice that Ron and Hermione were as distant to each other today as they had been the day before. They both talked to Harry, but about the only words they addressed to each other were "Hermione - can you pass down the milk jug?" or "Ron - can I have the toast rack?", and even then their eyes did not meet as they spoke. Harry thought about what Ginny had said yesterday. Did Hermione *really* have a crush on Charlie? And would Ron mind about it if she did? He was startled out of these thoughts by the sudden arrival of Seamus Finnegan, who rushed late into the hall and came over to the other Gryffindors looking full of excitement.

"Hey! You'll never guess what?"

"What?"

"Well, I just saw Hagrid and I asked him about last night. He said that when the teachers went out to see what the noise was, they couldn't find anyone out there. But now it's daylight, Hagrid says you can see where the ground's all trampled - just under Gryffindor Tower. And what's more..." Seamus paused for dramatic effect.

"What? What?"

"There's blood all over the ground there!" said Seamus impressively. The other Gryffindors stared at him.

"What sort of blood?" asked Hermione. "Human or animal?"

Seamus shook his head. "Nobody's sure - but Hagrid says there was a lot."

The Gryffindors looked at each other. "Maybe something was killed there," said Ron. "But what killed it?"

"And is it coming back to kill anything else?" wondered Harry. Strangely enough, he didn't feel scared, but there was a prickle of excitement in his stomach at the prospect of a mystery to solve.

* * * * *

Hogwarts was buzzing with mystery. What had screamed in the night outside Gryffindor Tower? Had something been killed? And, as Harry had already wondered to himself, was it coming back to kill anything else? They talked of nothing else during breakfast and the first lesson of the day. The Gryffindor sixth-years had Transfiguration second lesson, so they made their way to Professor McGonagall's classroom and waited for her. Very unusually, she was late. When she did arrive, she looked tense.

"I have a message from Professor Dumbledore," she said, leaning on her desk. "He wants the sixth-year prefects to go to the Great Hall now. The Transfiguration lesson is postponed. Off you go."

The prefects hurried off to the Great Hall, wondering. When they got there they found the Ravenclaw, Slytherin and Hufflepuff prefects waiting there already. Professor Dumbledore was looking serious.

"Ah, there you are," he said. "Now, as you know there was a disturbance last night. The teachers have done a quick search of the grounds, but we found nothing except some bloodstains, which I gather you already know about. There may be nothing to worry about. I don't want to disturb all the classes by sending all the teachers on another search, so I'm going to ask you prefects to check the grounds thoroughly. You must stay in twos, and if you see anything untoward, don't try to deal with it yourselves - report straight back here and we will decide what to do."

All the prefects nodded, and started breaking up into groups. Dumbledore came over to the Gryffindors. "Harry, would you organize some pairs to search the owlery, the sheds, the herb gardens and greenhouses?" As Harry nodded, Dumbledore turned away to speak to the Ravenclaws. Harry turned back to the other prefects.

"Dumbledore's right. We mustn't get split up - it could be dangerous. Seamus and Lavender, would you check the owlery? Dean and Parvati, you check the sheds. Ron and Hermione, you search the herb gardens and Neville and I will go to the greenhouses. OK?" They all nodded. "Meet by the front steps in half an hour."

Harry had deliberately paired up his two best friends in the hope that if they were forced to spend some time together they might sort out whatever was bothering them. Neither had said anything or looked at each other when Harry named them; they had just nodded. As the Gryffindor prefects parted on the castle steps to begin their search, Harry saw Ron and Hermione start off towards the herb gardens, side by side but not talking - yet. He sighed and beckoned to Neville to follow him across the grounds towards the Herbology greenhouses.

Thirty minutes later Harry and Neville walked wearily back towards the castle after a fruitless and anxious search of the greenhouses. When they got back to the meeting point by the steps, Dean and Parvati were waiting for them - they had nothing to report either. Soon, Seamus and Lavender appeared, but they too had found nothing. They waited for another ten minutes, not talking much, but there was still no sign of Ron or Hermione.

"D'you think they're OK?" asked Neville anxiously. "I mean - they might have found something hiding in the herb gardens."

Harry thought for a moment. "Neville and I will go and look. The rest of you wait here in case they come back."

Neville's round face looked worried as he and Harry set off towards the herb gardens. He was obviously imagining all the nasty fates which could have befallen the two missing Gryffindors.

"Don't worry, Neville," said Harry bracingly. "Hermione's probably just doing an extra-thorough search - so it's taking them a bit longer."

But when they reached the herb gardens they couldn't see Ron or Hermione anywhere. The paths twisted and turned, and there were bushes blocking the view, so Harry and Neville walked in and out of the gardens, looking.

"Ro-on!" "Her-mi-on-eee!"

No answer. Harry was getting anxious. He strode ahead of Neville, and almost tripped as he rounded a corner of the path. Looking down, he saw what he had stumbled on. "It's - Hermione's wand. And that's Ron's! Why did they leave them on the ground?"

"Something terrible's happened to them, I know it," said Neville.

"They might be all right," said Harry, trying to cheer Neville up. "But I think we should get help. You go back and get Dumbledore and the others. I'll wait here to mark where we found the wands."

"But you said we should stay together-"

"Look, it'll be OK, just run back quickly. Take their wands to show Dumbledore." Harry pressed them into Neville's hands. "Quick!"

Neville took to his heels. Harry looked around him. Near the place where he had found the wands was a large bush. Some of the twigs on it were bent and broken, as though someone had just disturbed it. Harry pushed them aside to have a look. His eyes widened as he saw, hidden beneath the bush, a flagstone with a rusty iron pull-ring in the top. It looked as if it had been disturbed recently - had Ron and Hermione lifted it and climbed down? What was underneath it? Harry hesitated for a moment. Should he wait until Neville came back with help? Or should he just have a quick look? Harry decided. He grasped the iron ring and started to pull. But it was too heavy to lift with one hand. He didn't have any pockets to put his wand in, but he didn't want to leave it on the ground as his friends had done - just in case. So he tucked his wand under his armpit, grasped the ring with both hands and heaved with all his might. With a grating sound the flagstone lifted. Sweating, H arry looked down and saw nothing but blackness in the opening.

"Hey!" he shouted. "Is there anyone down there?"

And - very faintly - he heard an answer.

"Harry? Is that you?" Surely that was Hermione?

"Yes!" he shouted. Excited, he leaned over into the opening - and lost his footing. There was a brief moment as he fought to stay upright, before his feet slipped on the damp grass and he fell - into the hole. Harry yelled in shock as he plummeted downwards, his arms and legs flailing. The last thing he heard as he was swallowed by the darkness was the terrible crash of the flagstone falling back into place above his head and sealing the entrance.

* * * * *

Cold air rushed past Harry. He was falling and sliding down a tunnel, bouncing painfully off the earth walls - down...down...down - into total darkness. It felt as though he was falling for ages, but in reality it could only have been about ten seconds before he felt the tunnel levelling out and he slid fast and bumpily on to cold stone and slithered to a halt. He lay there, bruised, shaken and with the breath totally knocked out of him. There was a moment's total silence, before a tentative voice in the darkness spoke.

"H-Harry? Is that you?" It was Hermione.

Harry groaned as he pulled himself into a sitting position. Every bone in his body ached, but, amazingly, he didn't seem to have broken anything. "Yeah. Where are you?" The darkness was complete - he couldn't see a thing.

He heard a shuffling noise as Hermione crawled towards the sound of his voice, and then her searching fingers brushed his back. "Here."

"Don't try to stand up," Ron's voice came out of the dark close by. "I did, and bashed my head. The roof's only about four feet high."

Harry pulled himself together a bit, and realised he was sitting on cold stone slabs. "Are you both all right?"

"Yeah. Just bruises. How did you get here?"

"I was just about to ask you the same question!" said Harry ruefully. "When you didn't come back Neville and I went to look for you in the herb gardens. We found your wands and Neville went back to get help. I found the stone with the ring in it and I was just looking to see if you were there when I fell down. I suppose it was stupid really, I should have waited for the others. Now we're all stuck. I heard the stone banging down again."

Hermione sighed. "We found the stone when we were looking in the herb gardens -"

"The bush was already broken when we found it," Ron interrupted her. "Someone must have used that entrance not long ago. We wouldn't have found it if Hermione hadn't been looking so closely."

"We pulled up the stone and - well -" Hermione sounded embarrassed, "I fell down the hole, I don't know how, I was being careful -" Harry guessed she was blaming herself for investigating without getting help first. It was certainly a bit out of character, but he had to admit the secret entrance had been tempting - he had made the same mistake. "I felt myself slipping and I grabbed Ron and -"

"We both fell down," Ron finished.

"It was my fault."

"No, it was just bad luck -"

Harry interrupted. "OK, so now we're here, have you worked out what sort of place we're in?"

"It's small," said Ron flatly. "About ten feet square I'd say. Stone - like a dungeon. And there doesn't seem to be any way out."

Harry had been feeling around him on the floor. "I had my wand under my arm - but I dropped it when I fell. It might have rolled down the tunnel with me, but I can't find it."

"Wands!" cried Hermione. "Did you say you found ours? What did you do with them?"

"We've been kicking ourselves for putting them down," put in Ron.

"Neville took them back to show Dumbledore," Harry told them. "He must have found him by now. They'll be coming to get us out."

"Did Neville know about the stone?"

"No," Harry admitted, still feeling on the floor for his wand without success. "But you found it - and so did I - I bet the teachers will, if Neville takes them to where we found the wands."

"If," said Ron gloomily. "What if Neville can't remember where it was?"

"Oh, I'm sure he will," said Hermione brightly.

"Yeah - but Neville? Are you sure?" Ron was unconvinced.

"He's not that useless. After all, Dumbledore made him a prefect, didn't he?

He must know that Neville's got hidden talents-"

"Yeah, well hidden -" Imprisonment was making Ron grumpy.

"That's not fair, Ron, Neville's all right -"

"Don't start arguing!" Harry broke in. The other two stopped talking. Harry sighed. The stone floor was feeling harder and colder with each minute he sat on it. "Still, I'm quite glad to *hear* you arguing. It feels like old times. Lately you've hardly been speaking to each other."

"I don't know what you mean," said Hermione, after an uncomfortable pause. Ron didn't say anything.

"Yes you do," said Harry, feeling that this might at least be a chance to thrash things out. "What's the problem? I'm getting tired of my two best friends treating each other like strangers."

"We don't-" Ron and Hermione's voices said simultaneously, before they both stopped. Harry heard Ron sigh. He was obviously nerving himself to say something he couldn't say in daylight. After a pause he said awkwardly, "I'm sorry, Hermione. I didn't mean to be horrible to you - "

"You weren't!" she said quickly.

"Well, I wasn't very - I mean, I didn't know how to - well, I know about you and Charlie," he said with a rush. Harry could imagine that Ron's face was burning. "That you - like him I mean. And I don't know - I just felt strange about it. He's a great guy, really - it's none of my business - I shouldn't have given you a hard time about it -"

"Ron," said Hermione's voice out of the darkness, cutting Ron's embarrassed ramblings short.

"Yeah?"

"What are you talking about?" Harry could hear the astonishment in her voice even though he couldn't see her face. "I don't like Charlie - well, I mean, not in the way you mean, I think. What made you think I did?"

There was a pause before Ron, also sounding surprised, said, "I - I - well, I heard Mum and Ginny talking about it in the kitchen one day. When we were at our house. They were saying you must have a crush on Charlie because you blushed whenever you looked at him. And I looked - and it was true, you did - so I thought -"

"Oh, Ron!" Hermione sounded as though she couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry. "No! You've got it all wrong! I *like* Charlie - I mean, I like all your family - but I really don't feel anything special for him. He's a bit old for me."

Harry had kept quiet for a while, feeling a bit embarrassed at being present during this conversation. Now he asked, "But why did you blush when you saw him though? Or was that just Aunt Molly's and Ginny's imagination?"

"Um - no." Hermione sounded as awkward as Ron had done a moment ago. "You see, when I was staying at Ron's house I dropped my diary - and Charlie found it and gave it back to me - but he read something I didn't want anyone to see and he teased me about it - so every time I saw him after that I felt really embarrassed, I couldn't look at him. And - and I thought he must have told you what was in it, Ron, because you were being so strange with me, so that's why I couldn't face you either..." She trailed off.

"No, he never said anything. But - what was in it?" asked Ron. "Of course, if you don't want to say -"

"We'll understand," said Harry quickly. "Don't worry about it. I can't believe you two just spent all these weeks completely misunderstanding each other!" He heard both his friends laugh in rather an ashamed way. But there was a less tense atmosphere. Somehow it was easier to talk in the dark. They were able to say things that were hard to admit face to face.

"I ought to tell you. I want to, really, but-" But whatever Hermione was going to say next was lost. There was a grating crunch as some of the stone slabs around them started to move. Ron yelled as he felt the stone his feet were resting on drop away like a trapdoor. He scrambled back against the wall and found a solid stone to crouch on. Cold air gushed up from the hole which had opened in the middle of the dungeon's floor. Harry stumbled up from the floor and shivered. He put out an arm and touched Hermione's shoulder. The three of them huddled against the wall, half-standing, half crouching, with their heads almost touching the ceiling. They couldn't see anything but they could feel the sudden icier chill, and smell a dank, musty smell wafting up. And they could hear...far below...footsteps on stone steps. There were steps inside that opening. Someone - or something - was coming up the steps. Harry moved nervously, and his foot struck something. He groped around a nd felt what was on the floor - his wand! It must have rolled down with him after all.

"I've found my wand!" he murmured, just loud enough for Ron and Hermione to hear. He heard Hermione give a little sigh of relief, and Ron mutter "*Yes*!" very quietly. But the footsteps kept coming - they were almost at the top of the steps now - and Harry braced himself to strike a light with his wand and look into the face of the being they were about to encounter.

* * * * *

Harry gripped his wand tightly in his hand, waiting for the right moment. The footsteps were very close - he swallowed -

"Lumos!" he cried, and a light sprang from the end of his wand to illuminate the dungeon. It wasn't bright, but after total darkness it seemed dazzling, and they all blinked, disorientated. If Harry had looked to his left he would have seen the pale, shaken faces of Ron and Hermione, but he was staring in the same direction they were. There *was* a stone stair leading down in the middle of the floor, and standing on the second step from the top was one of the strangest people they had seen. He was a dwarf - less than four feet high, but very thickset, with huge muscular arms and a powerful chest. He had a long face with a short, grizzled beard and was dressed in a stained grey cloak. When the light had been lit, the dwarf had not made a sound but had frozen where he stood, staring at them unblinkingly with his dark, beady eyes.

"Who - who are you?" Harry croaked, realising that no one else was going to say anything.

The dwarf did not say anything. He looked quickly from Harry, still crouching with wand upraised, to Ron and Hermione, who were staring back in fascination and apprehension. Then, taking them all by surprise, he suddenly whirled round and ran back down the stone steps into the darkness below. The three Gryffindors looked at each other in confusion, but Harry made a swift decision.

"I'm going down," he said, moving to the steps.

"We don't know what else is down there," Hermione breathed, but she was already moving after him.

"Maybe one of you should stay up here in case Dumbledore and the others get here," said Harry, beginning to descend the steps.

"No way, you might need us." Ron was bringing up the rear.

The steps were broad, and holding up the lighted wand Harry quickened his pace and hurried down them. Cold air struck off the stones, and the smell got worse as they descended. A flickering light began to reflect off the walls as they reached the bottom of the staircase and picked their way along a passage. The light came from a torch burning in a bracket. There was no sign of the dwarf, but there was only one way to go. They were running now, towards a lighted doorway. Harry reached it - and stopped so suddenly that the other two bumped into him.

Another stone chamber - a larger one, lit by more flickering torches - but this room contained a sight that made their eyes widen with horror. A large wooden table stood in the centre of the room, and on it lay a centaur, his hooves and wrists tightly bound, his golden horse's body and human chest filthy and bloodstained, and his face pale. White-blond hair was matted around his unconscious face. Appalled, Harry and Hermione recognised him.

"*Firenze!*" Harry cried. "What happened to you?" He rushed forward to the table, remembering the magnificent centaur he had met in the Forbidden Forest long ago, in his first year. What on earth could have reduced Firenze to this condition? Hermione was already checking the pulse in Firenze's neck, and Ron hung back, looking around the room for signs of danger. There was another door at the other side of the chamber, but it was closed. The dwarf must have gone out that way.

There was a groan, and Firenze opened his eyes - still a brilliant blue, but dazed now. "Harry - Potter," he said haltingly, focussing on Harry. "What are you doing here?"

"Never mind that, why are *you* here?" Harry asked. "Liberatus!" As he spoke the last word, he aimed his wand and the ropes tying Firenze fell away. Harry noticed for the first time a dirty bandage around Firenze's chest, which was heavily bloodstained. More stains on the table showed that the centaur's wound must be serious.

"The dwarves - they shot me - arrow in the - chest," panted Firenze. "A vile trap - brought me to this chamber."

"So it was *your* blood all over the grass last night, was it?" said Hermione, looking around for something to use as a new bandage, and noticing a wooden bucket underneath the table which contained a little grimy water.

"But why did they want to trap you?" asked Ron, pulling out a large, fairly clean handkerchief and handing it to Hermione. "I mean - shooting a centaur -" He broke off, obviously horrified at the idea.

"And why did they bandage you up after they shot you?" Harry wondered.

"They want - me to - tell them what the stars predict -" gasped Firenze, wincing at Hermione's touch. "They are working for Voldemort - he wants to know if his return is foretold -"

"And you wouldn't tell them?"

"I would not - if I could - I set myself against the heavens - if they predict evil -" Firenze was quickly becoming exhausted with talking.

"We'd better get out of here," said Ron edgily. "That dwarf might be back with his friends at any moment."

"We can't leave Firenze here," said Harry. "And we'd never get him up those steps, or into that first room - he's too big."

"They must have brought him in that way," Ron said, pointing to the closed door, which was wider.

"Can you walk?" Hermione asked the centaur. Firenze shook his head weakly.

"Save - yourselves - I fear that -"

"*No*!" said Harry. "We're not leaving you - and anyway, we can't get out the way we came, there's a stone over the entrance."

Ron moved to the closed door and put his hand on the handle. "We'll just have to see what's through -"

"No, Ron!" said Hermione quickly. "The dwarf went that way - you don't know what might be on the other side - they're working for Voldemort -"

"But it's the only way out." There was a moment's pause as they all stared indecisively at each other. Then -

CRASH! The heavy door burst open, knocking Ron sprawling on to the floor. Harry whirled, wand in hand, and saw two dwarves - the one they had seen before and another, with a wild black beard. They carried heavy wooden clubs. When the dwarves saw that Firenze was unbound, they started towards him, clubs upraised. Hermione screamed "No!" and flung herself in front of the helpless centaur. Ron, scrambling to his feet, yelled too.

For a second Harry was motionless, then, raising his wand, he aimed it at the dwarves and shouted the words of a freezing charm.

It didn't work. The dwarves paused in their tracks for a few seconds, then seemed to shrug off the spell and lunged at Firenze, snarling. Firenze seemed to have passed out again. Ron jumped at the black-bearded dwarf from behind, grabbing him round the neck, and they struggled, Ron getting the worst of it. He got a blow to the wrist from the dwarf's club that made him yelp in pain, but he didn't let go. Harry ducked as the other dwarf swung his club at him, and tried shouting another charm, but without success. He had to jump out of the way again. Hermione grabbed the wooden bucket from under the table and brought it down on the head of the dwarf who was grappling with Ron. There was a loud crack as it made contact, and the dwarf staggered back, stumbled, and fell to the ground with Ron on top of him.

Hermione grabbed the club from the fallen dwarf's hand. "Harry!" She chucked the club to him and Harry just managed to catch it, staggering back under the weight. He and the other dwarf circled each other, clubs upraised.

"Hermione!" Ron, pinning down the first dwarf, was having problems, as he was handicapped by his injured wrist and the angry dwarf was trying to throw him off. Hermione bit her lip, looking from Ron to Harry and trying to decide who needed her help more. Then she looked up as she heard a new sound - footsteps, hurrying along the passage down which they had come. It sounded like more than one person.

"Harry! Are you there?" Neville burst panting into the room, followed closely by - Professor Dumbledore. Harry had never been so glad to see them. The dwarf who was threatening him looked shocked at the sight of Dumbledore, and turned to escape, but before he could take one step Dumbledore stretched out his wand arm and said two words.

"Pacificus elvum!" At this, both dwarves flinched, and then seemed to freeze. The dwarf who was standing dropped his club to the floor and hung his head docilely. The dwarf who was pinned beneath Ron sudddenly stopped struggling and lay still and quiet.

Dumbledore turned to Neville. "Tie them up, please. They won't give you any trouble now." He produced lengths of rope, seemingly from thin air, and handed them to Neville, who looked stunned at being entrusted with the task, but started binding the standing dwarf's wrists. The dwarf made no move to stop him. Hermione helped Neville to finish the job.

"Well, I'm glad to have been able to help you," remarked Dumbledore, with his usual calm. "But you seem to have been doing very well by yourselves. We must get this unfortunate centaur back to Madam Pomfrey as soon as possible. She will be able to heal him."

"How did you get here, sir?" asked Ron, climbing off the fallen dwarf as Neville and Hermione began tying the dwarf's legs.

Dumbledore nodded at Neville. "Mr. Longbottom alerted us to your discovery of the wands. When we reached the herb gardens you were nowhere to be found, but we discovered the entrance you used. Rather an uncomfortable place to descend, but I was able to conjure up a rope ladder to help us on our way. Professor McGonagall and the other prefects are waiting by the stone to assist us on our way back." He looked at Firenze. "However, we won't be able to take this poor chap out that way. If I remember rightly, that other door leads to a passage which will eventually bring us out by the lake."

Ron's mouth was open. "I thought - do you know about this place then?"

Harry knew what Ron was thinking. These passages and rooms were not shown on the Marauders' Map Harry owned, which was supposedly a complete guide to the secret tunnels of Hogwarts.

Dumbledore's expression was vague and dreamy. "It has come to my attention *once* before. I do think a headmaster should know just a little bit more about his school than do his students." His gaze became piercing, and Harry couldn't help feeling, uncomfortably, that Dumbledore probably knew all about the Marauders' Map. However, Dumbledore said nothing more on the subject, to their relief. Instead he said, "Mr. Longbottom, perhaps you would be so good as to return by way of that rope ladder and tell Professor McGonagall to arrange for a cart to meet us by the west end of the lake. We will need help to transport this centaur to the castle. You had better get Hagrid as well."

"Yes sir," said Neville, hurrying to obey. Ron was still keeping a sharp eye on the motionless dwarves, while rubbing his wrist. Hermione was checking on Firenze, who was still unconscious.

Harry looked at Dumbledore. "Sir - I tried to use a freezing charm on the dwarves - but it didn't seem to work -"

"Ah. No. Very interesting creatures, dwarves," the Headmaster mused. "They have no real power to do magic of their own, but they seem to have a strange ability to block the spells of others. There are only a very few enchantments which will have an effect on them. Curious."

"Firenze said - they attacked him because they were working for Voldemort. They wanted him to tell them what the stars said about Voldemort's return."

"Yes. Well, I'm afraid these two won't be able to report back to their master - wherever he may be - for some considerable time. No doubt the Ministry of Magic will want to question them when they have taken them into custody." Dumbledore reached into a pocket inside his robes. "Have some chocolate, Harry. I think you all need a little something to keep you going until we get back to the castle." At these words, Harry, Ron and Hermione all became suddenly aware than they had had nothing to eat or drink since breakfast.

It was late afternoon by the time Harry had a proper chance to discuss the day's events with his friends. It had taken several hours to transport Firenze safely out of the hidden room, along the passageway and out through the hidden lakeside exit Dumbledore showed them. He was loaded on to a cart and taken to a warm shed where Madam Pomfrey was tending his injury. Messages had been sent to tell the other centaurs in the Forbidden Forest that Firenze had been found and was being cared for. The two dwarves had been taken to the castle dungeons and put under guard, to wait until the Ministry of Magic sent someone to question them. Dumbledore had given orders for a feast to be held that evening, to celebrate Firenze's rescue and the successful outcome of the day's adventures.

When Madam Pomfrey had arrived to examine Firenze, she had pounced on Ron, who was still discreetly nursing his wrist, and ordered him to go up to the hospital wing and wait for her to come and look at it. "I'll be with you when I've taken care of this poor centaur," she said. "No, don't argue with me, Weasley, that wrist needs to be seen to."

So Ron was now sitting on the side of one of the beds in the hospital wing, grumbling at the fact that he was missing what was no doubt being said about them in the Gryffindor common room. "I hope she hurries up, I don't want to be late for the feast," he said to Harry and Hermione, who were waiting with him.

"I need a feast after all that," said Harry. "What a day."

"Yeah, it's not every day you get to fall down a hole, land in a dungeon and mess with two angry dwarves," grinned Ron. "Ouch!"

"You should keep that wrist still, Ron," Hermione remonstrated.

"Oh, it's all right. Don't fuss." But Ron looked quite pleased at the attention.

"Well, one good thing's happened today," said Harry. "You two are talking to each other properly again." These words made both his friends blush.

"Yeah, I was an idiot," said Ron gruffly. "I thought - I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions -"

Hermione had averted her face from the others. "Um - about my diary -"

"Look, don't worry," said Ron earnestly, obviously trying to make Hermione feel less embarrassed. "Charlie's a decent guy - whatever you wrote I'm *sure* he won't tell anyone - he didn't tell me after all, did he?"

"N-no."

Ron grinned. "Though I must admit I'm intrigued to know -"

"You," said Hermione suddenly, in a very small voice.

"What?" Ron asked, confused.

Hermione had covered her flushed face with her hands, muffling her words, but they could just hear her. "It was about you."

"*Me*?" Ron's mouth was open in confusion. "What - what about me?" he asked, beginning to pick nervously at the sheet with his uninjured hand. Harry noticed that they were having trouble meeting each other's eyes again.

Hermione's voice was still muffled. "Charlie read - what I wrote about you," she admitted.

"Was it - what was it?" Ron asked slowly, still picking at the sheet.

Hermione removed her fingers from her face and looked straight at him at last. And Ron looked straight back at her. Both their expressions were questioning - almost pleading. Harry, who could see where this conversation was heading, decided it was past time he slipped away and left them to it. "Um - I'm going to see if I can find Neville," he murmured, and headed for the door. When he got there he turned back, but they were still just staring at each other, as if hypnotized. Then Ron put out a tentative hand and stroked Hermione's hair awkwardly. She brought a hand up to meet his stroking fingers. Harry grinned to himself and closed the door quietly behind him.

The Great Hall was buzzing with talk as the students gathered for the feast. Rumours about the day's events had been sweeping the school, some accurate and some completely preposterous. As Harry and Neville walked in they were besieged by those who wanted to know all the facts.

"Harry!" Harry saw the other members of the Gryffindor Quidditch team waving at him from their table. He went to sit down, Neville following him. Ginny leaned forward in excitement. "Is it true about the bloodstains? Was it really a centaur who was screaming last night?"

"Yes." Harry poured himself a drink. "He's called Firenze. The dwarves shot him in the chest with an arrow - but Madam Pomfrey says he'll be OK in a few weeks."

"Someone said Ron got hurt," said Ginny, a touch of anxiety in her face. "Is he all right?"

"Yeah, he just got bashed on the wrist," Harry reassured her. "I left him waiting to have Madam Pomfrey look at it. It wasn't too serious."

"Potter," came a new voice. Harry turned and saw Professor McGonagall looking down at him. "I have a message for you from Professor Dumbledore." She paused, but Harry noticed that she looked much less stern than usual - almost pleased. "He wants you to know that he is awarding you, Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger forty house points each for your efforts in dealing with the situation today." She paused again, and sniffed. "Naturally, I'm pleased for Gryffindor, but I would also like to suggest that the next time you find a hidden passage, perhaps you could proceed with greater caution?"

Harry grinned. "Yes, Professor!"

Professor McGonagall turned to Neville. "Longbottom, Professor Dumbledore asked me to tell you that you have thirty house points for your quick action in leading us to the entrance and going down there with him."

Neville blushed pink with surprise and pleasure. "Thank you, Professor!" Harry banged him on the back in congratulation. The other Gryffindors waited until Professor McGonagall had moved away before celebrating the news.

"A hundred and fifty points!" crowed Tony Forest. "We're going to murder Slytherin in the house championship at this rate!"

"Just wait till the first Quidditch match," said Ginny, looking determined. "They won't know what's hit them." She glanced around the table. "So where's Ron? He doesn't know about his house points yet. Madam Pomfrey can't *still* be looking at his wrist, can she?"

"I expect he'll be here in a minute," said Harry. "He was with Hermione." He looked at Ginny. "Ginny - you know what we were talking about yesterday, after Quidditch practice?"

"Yesterday?" Ginny looked blank. "Oh yeah - about Hermione fancying Charlie, and Ron being jealous -" She giggled.

"Yeah - well, you were wrong about Hermione," Harry told her. "She doesn't have a crush on Charlie at all."

"Really?" Ginny looked slightly disappointed. She loved gossip. "Oh."

"But you weren't wrong about everything," Harry added. Behind Ginny's head he had seen the door open and Ron and Hermione come in together. They were not touching or holding hands as they came over to the Gryffindor table, but Hermione's face was still rather pink and Harry was pleased to see that they both looked much happier than they had done in a long time. Harry grinned at Ginny. "In fact, you weren't far wrong at all."

Ginny just looked confused. "How d'you mean?"

Harry leaned back, clasped his hands behind his head and grinned at her again annoyingly. "Just wait and see."

THE END

There are 2 sequels to this story - "The Gift" and "The Siren and the Spy".

//
Write a review! PLEASE NOTE: The purpose of reviewing a story or piece of art at the Sugar Quill is to provide comments that will be useful to the author/artist. We encourage you to put a bit of thought into your review before posting. Please be thoughtful and considerate, even if you have legitimate criticism of a story or artwork. (You may click here to read other reviews of this work).
* = Required fields
*Sugar Quill Forums username:
*Sugar Quill Forums password:
If you do not have a Sugar Quill Forums username, please register. Bear in mind that it may take up to 72 hours for your account to be approved. Thank you for your patience!
*Comment:
The Sugar Quill was created by Zsenya and Arabella. For questions, please send us an Owl!

-- Powered by SQ3 : Coded by David : Design by James --