Knee-high hedges criss-crossed the quidditch pitch. The shadow of the hoops loomed over them before the spring sun. The stands gathered dust at the edges.
‘Heresy! Sacrilege!’ Katie darted past Harry’s shoulder and swung her foot at the hedge. ‘Blasphemy!’
Nev dived in between, taking a solid kick in the shins. ‘No! This is a really rare plant. I’ve never seen it outside of pictures and books. It’s supposed to be nearly impossible to grow.’
Katie glowered. ‘It’s on the quidditch pitch!’
‘You can’t even use the pitch this year, Katie,’ Harry said. ‘I’m sure they’ll take the hedges down for next year.’
‘That doesn’t mean they should ruin it!’ Katie wound up for another swing.
Nev stepped in between once more.
She paused. ‘Really?’
‘Maybe leave the hedge alone, Katie.’ Harry let his wand slide out of his sleeve. ‘I think Nev may be in love with it.’
Katie fumed. ‘Well, at least the hedge doesn’t have a stupid French accent.’
Harry pretended he hadn’t heard that. ‘Given the context, Nev, I’d appreciate any useful insight about the hedge. Something tells me I may be getting intimately acquainted with it in a few weeks.’
Nev ran his fingers along the top of the hedge. ‘It’ll be really big in a few weeks. Twice our height.’
Of course it will be. Harry prodded it with his wand. I bet it’s got some horrible catch to it, too. Like that gropy tentacle vine from first year.
‘Anything else?’ Harry probed. ‘Like, does it sprout thorns, emit a foul smell, make loud noises, or anything else I might find inconvenient?’
Nev stopped patting the hedge. ‘It’s Lying Leylandii, a particularly rare type of cypress that’s almost extinct. It needs a lot of magic to grow. A lot. It absorbs it like water.’
Harry eyed the little green rows and frowned. ‘And what does it do with all that magic?’
Nev shrugged. ‘Not much. Well, it’s all but impervious to any spells we can cast and when it’s big enough, it even exudes a magically resistant mist, too.’
‘What?’ Katie snatched her wand out of her pocket. ‘Incendio!’
Noooo!’ Nev cried.
A gout of flame washed through the nearest hedge.
Katie huffed. ‘Not even scorched.’ She stuffed her wand away. ‘That’s just not fair.’
Nev released a deep sigh and gave the hedge a gentle pat. ‘Guess this little fellow’s old enough to be pretty resistant already. By the time you’re doing the task, there won’t be many spells that’ll be able to damage it.’
Harry turned that over in his head. ‘So, what you’re saying, is it’s going to be a complete pain.’ He fished out a piece of parchment and started sketching the lie of the hedges. ‘Best I plan ahead, then.’
Nev shuffled his feet. ‘Actually, Harry. It’s called Lying Leylandii because it rearranges itself all the time to deceive anything trying to get through it. That way the oldest part of the hedge, the most resistant bit, is always surrounding and protecting the new bits. That’s why they went extinct, muggles cut all the wild hedges down and because it grows in patches together, they got it bit by bit. There’s supposed to some patches on the Isle of Skye and Anglesey, but that’s all that’s left in Britain. We didn’t help, either. It used to be a fashionable thing to have a small maze of it, but when it went out of fashion, they all got cut down.’
‘A maze…’ Harry studied the lie of the hedges. ‘A maze of magically resistant, self-rearranging, giant hedges.’
‘Yes.’ Nev bobbed his head. ‘People used to put their most valuable things in the middle of them. Or have competitions. It was supposed to be great fun.’
‘Oh, I’m sure I’ll find out,’ Harry muttered.
Time to find some spells that will get through it, and let Viktor, Diggory, and Fleur worry about getting lost.
Nev squirmed. ‘I’m going to go find Professor Sprout, Harry. I’ve got so many questions for her about how she managed to get this to grow here.’
Katie laughed. ‘I think you’re right, Harry. I think Neville is in love.’
Neville squeaked. ‘I’m not.’
‘Go on, Nev.’ Harry glanced at the hedges. ‘I’ve got some thinking to do.’
Katie cocked her head and swiped a scatter of brown hair away from her eyes. ‘I’ll stay. Nothing else urgent to do on a Saturday, anyway.’
‘If you like.’ Harry strolled round the edge of the hedges as Nev disappeared toward the greenhouses.
Katie bounded after him. ‘I like.’ She kicked at the hedge again. A ripple passed along the line from one side of the pitch to another.
Harry tracked it. ‘Maybe don’t do that, please? It might remember and take it out on me later.’
Katie grinned. ‘Fair enough. But only if you tell me how your yule date with Frenchie went.’
‘It wasn’t a date,’ Harry said.
‘Looked like one to everyone else.’ Katie laughed. ‘Just ask Rita Skeeter. You could offer her an exclusive if you’re mad at Frenchie, you know. Rita Skeeter likes taking a swing at her.’
‘If I ever end up alone in a room with Rita Skeeter, one of us probably isn’t leaving alive.’
‘I reckon she could take you,’ Katie said. ‘Her fake nails look like they could take off a man’s arm in a single swing.’
‘To say nothing of her hair.’ Harry grimaced. ‘Anything with that much bleach in it must be poisonous.’
Katie prodded him in the hip. ‘Come on. Stop avoiding my question. Tell me about the gorgeous Fleur Delacour.’
Harry scowled. ‘Let’s just say we probably won’t be attending may Yule Balls together in the future.’
Or anything else. He buried the memory of their brief encounter in the room of requirement. No sense in getting wound up over it now. She’s just another, well, another Katie, I suppose.
Katie shrugged. ‘Ah well. A shame, I guess, since she’s really pretty, obviously very clever, and has a sexy French accent.’
‘Should I let her know you’re interested?’ Harry raised an eyebrow at her. ‘That is why you’re asking me, right?’
Katie laughed. ‘No. I just wanted to make sure you were ok.’
‘Well, I’m fine.’ He paused beneath the hoops on the far side from the school. ‘I’ve had dates that ended worse…’
She squirmed. ‘Well, you need to be with someone you enjoy spending time with and understands you. So if she couldn’t do that, then she wasn’t the one for you anyway.’
‘Exactly,’ Harry said.
But Fleur does understand me. And I did enjoy spending time with her. I still do, even though I know she’s just using her allure on me. He stifled a sigh and smothered a fist-sized hollow lurking somewhere around his heart. She doesn’t feel the same way for some reason. Nothing can be done.
Katie poked him on the arm. ‘Oi. Stop thinking about other girls when you’re with me. You’re only allowed to fantasise about me tying my hair up or not wearing a seashell bra when we’re together.’
Harry snorted. ‘Alright. Alright. It’s your fault for bringing it up, anyway.’
‘Fair.’ Katie did a little spin and cackled. ‘Bet you’re not thinking about her right now, are you? I reckon it’s all seashells and brown eyes. No silver and blue to be seen.’
Fleur’s bright blue eyes and warm smile swirled through Harry’s thoughts. ‘It’s a good thing I’ve already seen a fair amount of you in the locker room, otherwise it’d be really hard to imagine you in that seashell bra.’
‘Oh, watching me change were you?’ Katie beamed. ‘You never mentioned that before.’
‘It wasn’t deliberate. I was, like, twelve. Wasn’t even interested, just curious.’
‘Want to find out if I’ve still got cooties?’ Katie winked. ‘There’s only one way…’
Harry chuckled. ‘I’ve got to go plan for this maze.’ He leant in.
Katie’s breath caught.
‘Don’t tell, Nev,’ he whispered, ‘but I’m definitely going to try and find a way of destroying the hedges.’
A small smile appeared on her lips. ‘Well, you have fun. I’m going to go find Angelina and Alicia. Gossip time!’ She bounced away.
And I’m going to go find Salazar. Harry laughed to himself and headed toward the chamber. Who’s probably even more gossipy in the right mood.
Myrtle’s sobs echoed out from her cubicle over the puddle on the floor. Harry crept through and down into the Chamber of Secrets.
Harry stepped into the study. ‘Know anything about magically resistant plants?’
‘Helga did.’ Salazar’s green eyes turned distant. ‘She knew everything there was to know.’
‘What about Lying Lily-something?’
‘Lying Leylandii?’ Salazar uncoiled the serpent from around his neck and shook it off his hand onto the floor. ‘Tricky plant, that.’
‘There’s a maze of it on the quidditch pitch.’
‘Auspicious timing.’ Salazar stroked his chin. ‘How old is it?’
Salazar nodded, fending off his snake with one hand. ‘Probably doesn’t matter too much. There’s a lot of magic in this area, that’s the whole reason we built the school here, so let’s assume it’s going to be as strong as it can grow to be. You’ll find a very magically resistant plant that emits a thick, magically resistant fog.’
Harry frowned. ‘Right. So what do I do?’
‘Well, you can’t map it. The maze walls will move. So either you have to stumble through on the day, or find a way to breach the walls.’ Salazar tapped his fingers in a slow staccato atop his serpent’s head. ‘There aren’t many spells that can destroy something that magically resistant.’
‘Which one shall I try for?’
Salazar sighed. ‘Given what we know about Tom and the horcruxes he’s made, fiendfyre is probably something you’re going to have to learn anyway.’
‘Fiendfyre.’ Harry hid a grin behind his hand. ‘But – but that’s dark magic.’
‘There’s no such thing!’ Salazar wrung his snake like a wet rag. ‘You know there isn’t – oh, you’re winding me up, aren’t you, you ungrateful little urchin.’
‘It brings me untold joy.’ Harry slipped his wand out of his sleeve. ‘So what do I do?’
‘We’re not doing fiendfyre in the study.’ Salazar grimaced. ‘We shouldn’t even do it in the chamber, really.’
‘It’s that bad?’
‘You’ve no idea.’ Salazar’s eyes darkened. ‘It’s not that hard to learn or cast, but it takes a wizard or witch of rare willpower to control it properly.’ The painting clapped his hands together. ‘I’ve no doubt you’ll manage it, but I do wish we’d somewhere else for you to learn.’
‘Room of Requirement?’ Harry hauled the painting off the wall and carried it out over the bridge. ‘Would that be better?’
‘No.’ Salazar shook his head. ‘Godric and Rowena’s magic will be more delicate than the blood magic I used here.’
Harry set the portrait down. ‘Right, so, incantation?’
‘No incantation.’ Salazar draped his serpent over his shoulders. ‘Fiendfyre’s not really a spell, not like the charms or curses you’ve learnt. Like soul magic and blood magic, it sits at the farthest, most abstract and complex branch of destructive magic. You have to want to destroy whatever you’re casting it at. You have to want it so much you manifest your intent as an avatar of flame.’
‘Can it be something other than flame?’ Harry asked.
‘It could, but there are few things that better fit the idea of destroying something than burning it to ashes.’ Salazar stroked his chin. ‘Try it on that irritating golden egg. Make sure, though, you keep your focus. I don’t want to be burnt to ash just yet.’
Harry fetched the golden egg and set it down on the floor. ‘So, I just have to want to destroy it.’
‘It can’t just be a whim. It takes no small amount of desire.’ Salazar eyed the golden egg. ‘If I were a person and not just a painting, I’d have no trouble with that irritating paperweight. You seem bizarrely fond of it, though, so I’d suggest thinking of something else that you do want destroyed.’
‘Right.’ Harry struggled to find something he hated. Something he could watch turn to ash with a smile on his face.
Privet Drive flashed before his eyes. The neat, square hedges, trimmed grass, pruned roses, and Aunt Petunia’s precious patch of lilies. Uncle Vernon’s polished car and neat garage. The fake, sweet smiles Dudley aimed at the neighbours. The whole, ugly, perfect, stereotype. Ice lanced through Harry’s veins as he pictured it crumbling into flames.
He thrust his wand at the egg. A flicker of red flame spurted from his wand and splashed over the egg. It melted through the gold casing like boiling water through snow. Half the egg vanished as the fiendfyre coiled round it like a viper.
‘Bloody hell,’ Harry whispered. ‘That’s unbelievable.’
‘Don’t lose focus!’ Salazar cried. ‘Don’t let it grow.’
‘Let it grow?’ Harry glanced at the painting.
The red flame flared up as if he’d hurled petrol over it. Heat seared at Harry’s face and hands. Hungry whispers echoed from the crackle of the flames as the rest of the egg vanished.
‘Put it out!’ Salazar yelled. ‘Put it out! Opposite intent, strong will!’
Harry took a deep breath. Something I don’t want to see destroyed. Fleur’s face hovered in his thoughts. Hogwarts’ towers rose behind her silver hair and blue eyes.
The fiendfyre faded and guttered out.
He swiped the sweat off his brow and winced at the toll. ‘That’s way more dangerous than anything else I’ve learnt.’
‘You know how to fracture your own soul.’ Salazar peered at the patch of scorched stone. ‘At least you got it out before it did any damage to the chamber. Fiendfyre damage is almost always permanent.’
Harry grimaced. ‘I still need to practice.’
‘No more today.’ Salazar pointed his wand at the seared flagstone. ‘You’re tired. Do it tomorrow when you’re fresh, once you’ve managed to start it and put it out a good few times, then you can start pushing things a bit.’
‘Probably wise,’ Salazar mimicked in a falsetto. ‘I am Salazar Slytherin. Literally the greatest wizard to walk these isles and a good number of other places, too. Probably wise…’
‘You’re quite tetchy today,’ Harry said. ‘Did your snake keep you up last night?’
‘It won’t stay still!’ Salazar wrenched the serpent into a knot and hurled it into the background of his painting. ‘Wretched reptile. It’ll be back in a few moments. The more I throw it away, the clingier it gets; it’s like a bad penny with a really tickly tongue and terrible breath.’
Harry chuckled. ‘Well, on that note, I’ll go do some research on maze competitions in wizarding Britain while a thousand pictures of Fleur stare at me.’
‘Sounds like a great fun,’ Salazar quipped. ‘You know, instead of sulking in a room with a load of creepy pictures, you could try and talk to her.’
And get enthralled and messed with again? No thanks.
‘At least her pictures don’t talk.’ Harry strode toward the entrance. ‘Or have annoying snakes!’
‘Don’t leave me on the floor, Harry!’ Salazar shouted. ‘Put me back up on the wall!’
He snorted. ‘I’ll be back in a few hours.’
Salazar’s curses echoed up the steps after him.