Chapter 1 : The Serpent of Draco Malfoy
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THE SERPENT OF DRACO MALFOY
'What could've happened to Professor McGonagall?' said Hermione anxiously. 'She's never been this late before.'
The fourth-year Gryffindors had been sitting in the Transfiguration corridor for nearly half an hour that late September morning, waiting for Professor McGonagall to let them into the classroom.
'First time for everything,' Ron shrugged.
'Well, if she doesn't get here soon, there won't be much time left for the lesson,' muttered Hermione, checking her watch.
'One missed lesson won't kill you, Hermione,' Ron said in exasperation. 'We've had classes cancelled before.'
'Yes, cancelled, but never a teacher just not shown up!' said Hermione, now sounding quite upset. 'Something might really be wrong!'
'You worry too much,' Ron told her. 'Professor McGonagall probably got called off right as the bell rang. Something urgent came up and she didn't have time to come and tell us ...'
'But surely she would've sent someone,' said Hermione.
'Not if everyone was already in class,' Ron came back swiftly.
Harry sat slumped against the wall, only half listening to their wrangling. He had problems of his own to brood on. Snape had been casting dark looks at him all through breakfast that morning and he hadn't the faintest idea why. This was especially troubling in light of what had happened between the two of them over the summer holidays. Although Snape had loathed Harry from the moment Harry started at Hogwarts, Snape now had more reason to hate him than ever before ... and Harry had reason to believe Snape was going mad.
Harry's gloomy reflections were cut short when Hermione, in a steely voice very much reminiscent of the absent McGonagall, said, 'We've sat here long enough! Harry, go and see if anyone in the staff room knows something. Ron, you check her office. I'll go to the hospital wing and ask Madam Pomfrey if she's ill.'
The look on Hermione's face made it clear she would brook no argument. Harry reluctantly heaved himself up from the floor and trudged off to the staff room. When he rapped on the door, a sharp voice from within called out, 'Enter!'
Harry's heart sank; it was Professor Snape. Before he could decide whether he should risk going in or not, the door was yanked open. Snape stood in the threshold, glaring down his hooked nose at Harry.
'What are you doing here?' demanded Snape. 'Why aren't you in class?'
'I was looking for Professor McGonagall,' said Harry. 'She never showed up for Transfiguration.'
'Return to your classroom,' Snape snapped. 'And that will be twenty points from Gryffindor. For being in places you shouldn't be,' he added, giving Harry a meaningful look.
Then, instead of going back into the staff room, Snape swept past Harry and went striding down the corridor. Harry stared after him in bewilderment. Twenty points from Gryffindor for going to look for a missing teacher was unusually harsh, even for Snape. And where was he going to in such a hurry? There was nothing in that direction except some unused classrooms, the staircase to the Ravenclaw common room ... and a secret passage to the Owlery.
Harry felt as though he'd been hit in the stomach with a powerful Freezing Charm. He'd been dreading that Snape would try and do something horrible to Hedwig ever since his fourteenth birthday, when Snape had got his hand badly mauled trying to take a letter away from her. Next second, Harry was hurtling off in the opposite direction. The secret passage to the Owlery wasn't that much shorter than the regular route; if he ran flat out, he might be able to get there before Snape.
When Harry arrived at the Owlery -- gasping for breath, his heart pounding -- all was calm. The owls were mostly asleep and neither Snape nor any other person was present. Harry collapsed against the doorway in relief. Still, he thought, as he leant there catching his breath, what with the funny way Snape had been behaving, it would be best to get Hedwig away from Hogwarts for a while. Snape could easily turn up at the Owlery later, and Harry couldn't stay there all day to guard her.
Taking quill, parchment and ink from his bag, Harry scribbled a brief note to Mrs Weasley asking if Hedwig could stay at The Burrow for a couple of days, as she'd had a quarrel with another owl. This was rather unfair on Hedwig, who got on quite well with her fellow birds, but Harry didn't think Mrs Weasley would take him seriously if he'd tried to explain the situation with Snape. Harry poked Hedwig into disgruntled wakefulness and sent her soaring off, then went to rejoin Ron and Hermione.
Professor Snape walked swiftly along the Ravenclaw corridor, barely able to suppress a smirk. Not only had he managed to give Potter his comeuppance for last night's bit of attempted larceny, but it appeared that McGonagall had overslept for the first time in all his years at Hogwarts, and he intended to be the one to wake her up. Coming to a halt in front of a statue of Philippa the Slothful, Snape barked out, 'Patronus!' It slid aside to reveal the passageway to the staff quarters.
Snape stepped inside and the statue moved back into place behind him. When he reached the door to McGonagall's rooms, he hammered on it loudly. There was no response. After waiting nearly a minute, Snape banged on the door again, shouting, 'McGonagall! Are you there?' Still no one answered. He seized the doorknob, meaning to give it a good rattling, but to his great surprise it turned easily and the door opened.
In an instant, Snape had flattened himself against the wall just outside the door-frame and drawn his wand. However heavy a sleeper McGonagall might be, she wasn't stupid enough to leave her door unlocked -- not with the sort of things that had been going on at the school during the past three years.
Snape stretched his arm out and tapped the door with his wand, causing it to fly violently open and hit the wall inside the room with a crash. It didn't sound as though there was anyone standing behind it, nor did any retaliatory curses come blasting out.
Snape cautiously leant over to peer through the doorway. McGonagall's sitting room looked much as it had the one time he'd previously seen it -- walls lined with shelves full of old, tattered books, overstuffed armchairs gathered round a low table near the fireplace and an odd collection of objects on the sideboard. He supposed these must be the results of past Transfiguration experiments, as they certainly had no ornamental value. There was no sign of anything amiss, no sign of a struggle ... and no sign of McGonagall.
'McGonagall?' Snape called, with the same lack of results as before.
His eyes fell on a door at the far side of the room. Wand at the ready, he edged over to it and went through the same procedure in opening it as he had done with the first one. This door led to a bedroom. Curled up on the unmade bed was a tabby cat with square, spectacle-shaped markings around its eyes, looking up at him with an expression of mild startlement.
Snape surveyed the cat, eyes narrowed. It looked like the transformed McGonagall ... but why hadn't she answered him? Even if she'd somehow not heard all the racket he was making, she certainly knew he was here now. He would have expected rather more of a reaction than this. Particularly, Snape thought with a twisted smile, if she'd had to transform herself quickly because she wasn't dressed.
'McGonagall?' he said. Another possibility suddenly occurred to him. 'Are you not able to transform back?'
The cat completely ignored him. It lowered its head, eyes half-shut, and kneaded the bedspread with its paws.
'Can you understand me?' said Snape. 'Meow twice if you can.'
The cat closed its eyes and rested its chin on the bed, settling back to sleep. Snape gazed down at the creature, not at all happily. Apart from their abnormal reactions to certain potions, he knew very little about Animagi, but for one of them to no longer understand English could not be a good sign. Best Dumbledore have a look at her as soon as possible.
Snape started towards the bed then stopped, realising that he had no idea how to handle an animal he wasn't planning to kill and pickle for future use as potion ingredients. He'd seen Filch pick up Mrs Norris, of course, but he'd also seen the blood splattered along the Defence Against the Dark Arts corridor two years ago, when a pair of exceptionally dim Slytherin second-years had tried to duplicate this feat.
It had been some time since Snape had taken Care of Magical Creatures as a student and the subject had never much interested him anyway. As a teacher, at the staff table, he had heard Professor Kettleburn hold forth at great length on the importance of not showing fear, waving the stump of his left arm and pounding his wooden leg on the floor for emphasis. Hagrid's methods were evidently more effective, but appeared to consist mainly of being much too large for most magical creatures to damage. This was not a skill that could be readily passed on to others, as proved by the unfortunate incident of Draco Malfoy's arm.
Draco ... he'd had cause for complaint against Hagrid on yet another occasion, Snape recalled ... something about a biting set book. In his mind's ear Snape could hear young Malfoy grumbling, '"Yeh've got ter stroke 'em," honestly.' But it seemed to have worked, as none of the books had ended up in front of the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures.
So ... show no fear, and stroke them. Snape squared his shoulders and summoned up every ounce of authority that he'd developed in thirteen years as a master of Hogwarts. A trifle stiffly, he placed his hand on the cat's head and ran his fingers down its back. 'Good girl!' he said tersely, more as a command than an endearment. 'Nice puss!'
After several seconds, the cat began to purr. Snape was not much comforted by this. It probably meant he could carry her without having his arms ripped to shreds, but had McGonagall been in anything approaching her right mind, Snape suspected his arms would already have been shredded for taking such liberties. He scooped her up and made for Dumbledore's office, moving as quickly as his dignity -- and the cat's temper -- would permit.
When Harry finally got back to the Transfiguration classroom, Ron and Hermione were waiting for him.
'Did you find her?' said Hermione.
'No, and Snape took twenty points off me for going to look,' said Harry. 'I tell you, he's --'
'He's coming,' hissed Hermione, craning over Harry's shoulder.
Harry dodged behind Ron and made himself small. He needn't have bothered, though; Snape swished past them at top speed, looking neither left nor right.
'Well, something's definitely up with him,' Ron said, once Snape had passed out of earshot. 'Did you see? He had a cat!'
Hermione was staring after Snape, open-mouthed.
'Ron, that was Professor McGonagall he was carrying down the hall!'
Ron and Harry boggled.
'You're mad,' said Ron. 'It was a cat -- oh.'
'D'you think he -- did something to her?' said Harry. 'Should we tell Dumbledore?'
At that moment the bell rang for the next class.
'I'll tell Professor Vector,' Hermione decided. She said rather nastily, 'Don't bother telling Professor Trelawney, I'm sure with her All-Seeing Inner Eye she already knows all about it.'
Hermione headed off to the Arithmancy classroom, and Harry and Ron to Professor Trelawney's tower.
When they met again for lunch in the Great Hall, Hermione said in a low voice, 'Professor Vector spoke with Dumbledore. She said he was taking care of things and to try and keep it quiet.'
Professor McGonagall wasn't at the staff table. Snape was, looking even angrier than he had done at breakfast, but it was Fred and George Weasley at whom he was now glowering. Towards the middle of the meal, Dumbledore stood up and announced that afternoon Transfiguration classes were cancelled, as Professor McGonagall wasn't feeling well.
After lunch was double Potions with the Slytherins, which had become a greater trial than ever to Harry this year. Snape had somehow got his hands on a Chocolate Frogs Famous Witches and Wizards card of Harry as a baby wearing a lacy white christening robe. Even more embarrassing than the robe was the letter from the manufacturer that had apparently come with the card.
First Potions lesson of the year, Snape had read this letter out loud in his most sarcastic tones to the whole class. Its flowery descriptions of the baby Harry made Aunt Petunia's cooing over Dudley sound dignified and restrained. Harry had felt like sliding under the table and staying there until the end of term. The card was now prominently Spellotaped to the blackboard, so it wouldn't slip Draco Malfoy's mind to make snide remarks about it every lesson.
Most unusually, Snape wasn't in the classroom yet when the bell rang.
'I do hope nothing's happened to him,' said Hermione.
'Why on earth not?' said Ron, staring at her as though she'd lost her mind.
'I mean, after Transfiguration -- missing two lessons in one day --'
Malfoy, who was sitting at the table in front of them, twisted around and gave her a contemptuous look.
'Couldn't stand to go that long without showing off, could you, Granger?' he sneered.
'You shut up, Malfoy!' said Ron furiously.
'Ignore him,' Harry told Hermione, not particularly quietly. 'He's just jealous because you came out ahead of him in the Transfiguration exam last year -- and in all the other exams, all the other years, too.'
Malfoy had a very ugly look indeed on his pointed face.
'Hey, Granger!' he said. 'I'll give you a Transfiguration lesson!'
Malfoy waved his wand in a complicated pattern and pointed it at Harry. A cloud of yellow sparks came shooting out, momentarily blinding him. This, however, was the least of Harry's difficulties. It felt as though a blanket had wound itself about his entire body, pinning his arms to his sides. His legs refused to hold him up and he fell forward, though fortunately not nearly as heavily as he would have expected.
When Harry's vision cleared, he was lying on the floor surrounded by the feet of stools, tables and his fellow students, all of which had grown to an enormous size. Strong odours filled the room -- dust, stone, wood, leather and a peculiar combination of soap and people who hadn't bathed in a good while. Harry flicked out his tongue to get a better whiff. It seemed to extend much further than usual -- and why would sticking his tongue out help him to smell?
Hermione screamed, and Ron bellowed, 'Malfoy!'
There was a great shuffling of feet -- Harry could feel the vibrations in his very bones.
Then Snape's voice roared, 'Weasley!'
Harry felt a lesser shuffling and heard the sound of cloth uncrumpling.
'He turned Harry into a snake!' Hermione shrieked.
Disclaimer: All characters and concepts from the Harry Potter series copyright J K Rowling.