"What if he doesn't tell us anything?" whined Roisin, as she and Neve strode out of the castle towards Hagrid's hut.
"He will," said Neve firmly. "If he's lax enough to tell someone about it, he'll be lax enough to tell others. We'll weasel it out of him somehow."
Hagrid's small wooden house stood on the edge of the Forbidden Forest, with a crossbow and a pair of galoshes outside the door. Tufts of smoke curled from the chimney on one side of the roof; on the other was a large bronze weathervane.
Neve took a deep breath and banged her fist on the door three times. Loud barking thundered from within, followed by scratching at the door and a booming voice that made Neve and Roisin jump a foot into the air. "Back, Fang. Back, I said!"
The door opened and a gigantic smiling face, surrounded by a bushy black clumps of hair, peered around it. As soon as Hagrid saw who it was, though, the smile faded from his ruddy face to be replaced by a slight frown. He stepped into the doorway, blocking the insides of his house, and his eyes flew to the house badges on the robes of the girls causing his frown to deepen.
"Sorry. I was expectin' someone else," he mumbled.
Neve stared at him stonily. "Yes, we gathered that much. Everyone's smiles seem to disappear whenever Slytherins are around."
If possible, Hagrid's cheeks reddened even more. "Sorry. I didn't mean it like that." He shuffled embarrassedly around the doorway.
"Well?" snapped Neve. "Are you going to let us in or are we going to conduct our whole conversation out here?"
"Er - yes, yes, come in." Hagrid moved away from the door and grabbed the collar of a big, black boarhound who was emitting ear-splitting barks.
"Oh! What a gorgeous dog!" exclaimed Roisin, hurrying over to pat the boarhound, which proceeded to slobber all over her robes.
Neve raised both eyebrows and shuddered. "Sometimes I worry for you, Roisin." She sat down in a roughly hewn wooden chair at the table, her feet dangling a couple of inches from the floor.
"Tea?" asked Hagrid, taking a boiling kettle off the fireplace. He chuckled into his beard as he looked on at Roisin and Fang.
"Yes," said Neve. She paused for a moment then decided to add, "Please," before fidgeting on her chair in a quest for comfort.
There were four other chairs in the room. A huge bed, covered by a colourful patchwork quilt, took up half the room; several hams, pheasants and bunches of herbs hung from the ceiling. Copper pots and pans decorated the walls.
Hagrid set three mugs onto the table and poured from the copper kettle into each, filling them almost to the brim. At first Neve thought they were just going to be drinking hot water, but looking into her mug she saw chopped up tea leaves settling in the bottom. Hagrid filled a wooden bowl full of rock cakes and set it in the center of the table.
As soon as he sat down, Neve took the Daily Prophet cutting from her bag and pushed it across the table towards Hagrid. "I believe you lost something," she said, staring at him intently.
Hagrid's face suddenly lost all its colour, turning from red to a pasty white in a matter of seconds. His beard began to tremble and the mug he was holding rattled on the tabletop until he let go of it. "I don't know what you mean," he managed to choke out.
Roisin had stopped playing with Fang to watch and listen. Even Fang cocked his head to one side as though, he too, was wondering what would happen.
Neve raised an eyebrow imperiously. "No?" she said. "But Hagrid," - she leaned forward - "I believe you do. And, if my ears do not play tricks, certain Gryffindors do too."
Hagrid's mug was halfway to his mouth when, all of a sudden, his eyes glazed over and the mug fell out of his hand, smashing on the floor. He didn't even notice the tea splattering his vest. "Who - who are you?" he gasped. "I've heard yer voice before ... it's like a snake, hissin' and spittin' ..." His hands twitched spasmodically.
"I don't know where you heard my voice before because we've never actually been introduced," said Neve, scowling. "My name is Neve Coulden. And that," Neve tossed her head in Roisin's direction, "is Roisin MacKeve. We didn't come here to find out if we can steal whatever it is that three-headed dog is guarding. All we want to know is what it is and who's after it. And we know that you know."
Hagrid jerked out of his stupor. "You know about Fluffy?" he asked incredulously.
"Fluffy!" Roisin burst out. "You called that thing Fluffy? Well, I can understand Drooler, or Spike, or even just That Thing. And while you were at it you might as well have gone for acronyms. Something like B.U.M. - for Big, Ugly Monster. But, honestly, who would name a gigantic three-headed dog after a poodle?"
"Well, I did," shrugged Hagrid, looking distinctly chagrined.
"The point," Neve continued, glaring at Roisin, "is that Fluffy is guarding something very valuable and very dangerous, and we think we might have an idea as to who's after it ..." Neve paused uncomfortably. "... But we need confirmation from someone who knows for sure to proceed."
Hagrid's eyes were as round as saucers. "Proceed?"
"You know, eliminate evil, save the world, get some glory for our house." Neve shrugged. "Stuff that Gryffindors do."
"Now why do you have to go nosin' 'round other people's business, eh?" Hagrid frowned at Neve, trying his best to look angry but failing considerably.
"What can I say, we're Slytherins." Neve set her elbow on the table and propped her chin up with her fist. "Nosiness is in the job description."
Hagrid heaved a great sigh and shrugged his massive shoulders. "More'n my job's worth to keep this secret," he whispered, looking fixedly at his huge hands. "I wouldn't tell you even if I knew what it was. That's a secret kept between Dumbledore and Nicolas Flamel."
Neve's elbow slid off the table. She blinked up at Hagrid, who had a combination of shock and annoyance on his face. "Why, Hagrid, how kind of you," she grinned.
Roisin clapped her hands together several times and tickled Fang's stomach.
Neve stood, swung her bag onto her shoulder and saluted Hagrid cheerfully. "You can sleep easy tonight, my friend, knowing that you've helped a restless soul." She turned to Roisin, who was rolling around on the floor with Fang again. "Come along, Roisin, we have much to attend to." And without further ado she marched out of Hagrid's hut, leaving a very stunned half-giant behind.
A month later the most awaited event on the calendar - apart from Christmas - took its toll. The smell of pumpkin continuously wafted through the castle corridors on October thirty-first in preparation for the customary Hallowe'en feast in the evening. Rumours flew around the whole school faster than light, it seemed, for everyone was gossiping about what kind of entertainment would be provided that night.
Several Hufflepuff fifth-years insisted that the Weird Sisters, a popular wizarding band, were invited over to Hogwarts for the evening; a few Ravenclaw first-years swore on their grandmothers' lives and beyond that a performance from a delegation of Egyptian ghosts was in store; a bunch of Gryffindor third-years were wishing on a couple hundred barrels of mulled mead and asserting that the entertainment would provide itself accordingly; and a handful of Slytherin seventh-years were terrorising any first-years they could reach with threats of Death Eater attacks.
All students were to drop off their school things in their dormitories after their last lesson of the day and immediately continue to the Great Hall. The last lesson of the day for Slytherin first-years was Charms, which turned out to be a lot of fun indeed, as a joint effort from Roisin and Ted caused Professor Flitwick to soar around the room and land on his knobbly head. The good-hearted professor even gave them five points apiece for their untoward success - they were supposed to be working with feathers.
Neve had been partnered with Blaise Zabini, but their attempts turned out to be a little less successful.
"Professor, I think you gave us a faulty feather," Neve had complained when, at the third try, the feather remained immobile and landlocked.
Suddenly, there was a loud explosion and Neve found herself covered in soot. Beside her, Blaise looked much the same, except her curls stuck out in odd angles around her face like a spikey black halo. The accursed feather was reduced to a tiny pile of ash.
"Not to worry! That happens very often!" Professor Flitwick had squeaked. "Just today I had a first-year Gryffindor class and the exact same thing happened to Seamus Finnigan."
As soon as the lesson had finished and both Neve and Blaise had acquired the correct wrist movements needed to make things float, the Slytherin first-years set off for their dormitories. Blaise spent an inordinately long time in the dormitory bathroom, so Neve decided to use the girls' toilets near the entrance to the dungeons to clean herself up.
As soon as she pushed open the door of the girls' toilets, someone's sobbing and sniffling filled the room. It seemed to be coming from one of the cubicles to her right.
Pushing up her sleeves, Neve turned on a tap and said loudly over the sound of the water, "Has your grandmother died then?"
"Go away!" was the answer.
"'Yes, she has,' would have been the polite answer," huffed Neve. "It's your own fault she died. You shouldn't have sworn on her life."
The sound of a cubicle being unlocked replaced the sniffling. Neve turned to see a tear-stained face, surrounded by brown bushy hair, peer around the door. "What are you talking about?"
"Oh, it's you Granger," said Neve nonchalantly. "I thought you were a Ravenclaw. Why aren't you stuffing yourself with pumpkin like the rest of your Gryffindor friends?"
This made Hermione's face pucker up, and she burst into tears again. "I don't have any friends!" she wailed.
Neve raised an eyebrow. "What? A goody-good Gryffindor smarty-pants doesn't have friends? Honestly." She rolled her eyes. "What about those two bubbleheads, Brown and Patil?"
"That's just it, they're bubbleheads!" Hermione said, wiping her face with the palms of her hands. "I don't have anything in common with them!"
"Well ..." Neve rubbed the back of her neck. "Why don't you just be your own friend?"
"And talk to myself?" Hermione scowled. "No, thank you."
"Well, no one would think any worse of you," Neve shrugged. "After all, you are a Muggle-born."
Hermione raised her head abruptly. "What's that supposed to mean?" she snapped, bristling.
Neve opened her mouth, but never got the chance to reply as the door of the bathroom opened and a foul stench, rather like dirty socks and mould, blew in like a cannonball. She and Hermione exchanged disgusted looks.
Then, a low growling reverberated off the walls as an enormous grey troll staggered in, dragging a club that was half his own size behind him.
"Where's Neve?" asked Ted of Roisin, as they grouped in front of the doors of the Great Hall with the rest of the school.
Roisin scratched her head, frowning slightly. "I don't know. She said she was going to the toilets to wash her hands, and she said not to wait, so I went on. I haven't seen her since then, though."
Ted shrugged. "She might turn up later on. If she's still not here halfway through the feast, we'll have to go look for her."
Roisin nodded, but only relaxed her forehead when they filed into the glittering cavernous Hall.
Hundreds of real black bats swooped all around the Hall and fluttered placidly over the tables, which had a grinning jack-o'-lantern planted every few metres between the golden plates. The Hall seemed to be even more golden than usual; the walls were strung with gold stars and real orange maple leaves; fairy dust was being sprinkled from the ceiling, which showed a full moon and dozens of silver stars set into an inky black sky.
It was almost perfect; almost, because Neve wasn't there to comment on it, Roisin thought.
As everyone sat down at the tables the golden platters filled with food and the jugs with different kinds of fruit and berry juices, from orange to blackcurrant. As usual, Roisin piled her plate high: first came the hillock of roast potatoes; next were several slices of roast lamb; a couple of onions and carrots were placed on the side; and the inevitable sauce was poured over the whole lot, this time apricot.
Just as she was about to stuff half of a potato into her mouth, the doors of the Great Hall burst open and Professor Quirrell came charging through the aisle. His robes were half off his shoulders, his shoelaces were untied, and his customary purple turban was in danger of flying off his head.
"Troll!" he shrieked. "Troll in the dungeons!" He ran all the way up to Dumbledore's place at the High Table. "Thought you ought to know," he gasped, and keeled over in a faint.
Roisin exchanged looks of horror with Ted and Draco, and all three promptly let out high-pitched screams. Blaise Zabini and Pansy Parkinson immediately set themselves into swooning-mode, both frozen with identical expressions of terror on their faces.
The rest of the students were all in the same state of hysteria. Roisin saw a couple of Gryffindors shovel food into their hats with alarming speed. Several firecrackers exploded from Dumbledore's wand before quiet was finally gained.
"Prefects, lead your Houses to the dormitories immediately, and without panic," he directed. "Teachers are to follow me."
But as the teachers rose from the High Table Roisin noticed that Snape was not among those who followed Dumbledore, and he was definitely there at the start of the feast.
"Hurry up, you lot." Marcus Flint had arrived, with his Prefect girlfriend, Beth Wilkes (who, despite her reputation, was much gentler than her boyfriend), by his side. Together they hurried the Slytherins out of the Hall, through a not-very-secret passage that led into the dungeons, and pretty soon they were all inside the Slytherin common-room, enjoying the Hallowe'en feast while lounging in leather armchairs.
That is, all except for Roisin, who had long passed the stages of nail-biting and hand-wringing, and was currently up to hair-chewing. Neve had not returned and the troll was still on the loose, after all.
Meanwhile, Neve and Hermione Granger were having the times of their lives in the girls' toilets. The troll had begun to knock the sinks off the walls with his club, slowly advancing on the girls as he went.
"Why do I always manage to find myself in dangerous situations?" Neve moaned, backing as far away from the troll as she could. "I don't go looking for trouble! I am not a Gryffindor!"
"Just because Gryffindors are brave doesn't mean they go looking for trouble," Hermione cried shrilly.
"Well, if Gryffindors are so brave," Neve retorted, "why don't you strut your stuff, Granger? We're are in grave danger of being decapitated by a troll, you know."
Hermione was panting in terror. "Slytherins are supposed to be the experts on the Dark Arts," she said. "Why don't you just zap it with some sort of Disembowelling Curse or something?"
Neve smirked grimly. "That is a magnificent idea, Granger, except for one very minor detail: I don't have my wand!"
"Where is it?"
"In my bag, which is the Slytherin girls' dormitory, with all the rest of my things. Who would have expected a troll to have interracial, not to mention paedophilic, tendencies?"
Hermione gave Neve a disturbed look. "Well, what are we going to do? I don't have my wand either."
Neve scowled at the troll. It emitted particularly nasty growls every time she or Hermione raised her voice, and the idea that she suddenly got from this fact might just be their only chance of escape, if the troll was distracted enough.
Hermione frowned at Neve. "What?"
"You heard me. Scream. As loud as you can." When Hermione made no move to obey, Neve elbowed her in the side. "Now."
Hermione opened her mouth and let loose a high-pitched and very obviously terrified scream.
"Excellent! Inspiring!" Neve gushed, and blew a cloud of dust into the troll's face. "Keep screaming!"
Hermione screamed again and the troll howled noisily, rubbing its face with its great fists, adding to the din inside the bathroom. It didn't even remotely resemble a bathroom anymore - more a two-thousand-year-old pile of rubble that smelled like a sewer of the same age.
The troll began to blindly swing his club in every direction, and Neve and Hermione had to duck down to avoid being hit by it. Hermione's mouth was stretched into an 'O' shape and her eyes were almost popping out of her head. She seemed frozen where she was on the floor, and Neve knew she wouldn't be getting any more help from her, so she cleared her throat in preparation to let out her own scream ...
But she never got the chance. The bathroom door was flung open and two people stumbled in whom Neve thought she'd never be glad to see.
Harry Potter and Ron Weasley stood gaping at the troll, resembling nothing more than a pair of goldfish which somehow suddenly found themselves out of water.
"The cavalry has arrived!" Neve cried.
The shout seemed to jolt Harry and Ron back to their senses. Harry grabbed a tap and threw it at the troll. He was saying something to Ron, but Neve couldn't make out what it was over the noise. Ron ran to the other side of the room, picked up a pipe and threw it at the troll's shoulder. Then Neve picked up a jagged piece of stone and lobbed it at the troll's head - it didn't even cause a scratch.
Although it didn't seem to notice the various objects being thrown at it, the noise in the bathroom was enough to make its head ring, Neve thought. And indeed, the troll began to howl again and wave its club around its head, which gave Harry time to run around it to Hermione and Neve.
"Come on, run!" he shouted to them.
"I can, but she seems to be paralysed," Neve yelled back, gesturing at Hermione, who was still staring at the troll, dumbstuck.
Then the troll lumbered towards Ron who was nearest to it and couldn't find an escape route, and what Harry did next was possibly one of the most typical Gryffindor things to do that Neve could ever think of.
He ran up behind the troll and jumped up like a spring onto its back, crawled up to its neck and fastened his arms around the fleshy folds. His wand, which had been in his hand at the time, went straight up the troll's nose. The troll began to stagger and moan and stupidly flap his hands around his face, Harry flying around his neck every time it turned abruptly.
Hermione had sunk back onto the floor, looking even more petrified than she had done before, if it was possible. Neve chewed her lip furiously, finally succeeding in making it bleed, and feeling like a proper fool for not being able to think of anything.
She saw Ron pull out his wand and hesitate, not knowing what spell to cast. She glanced at her soot-covered robes and had a light-bulb moment. "The club!" she screamed. "Use the club!"
Ron glanced at the troll's club confusedly.
"What did you do in Charm's today?" Neve bellowed.
Ron's mouth formed a small 'O', mimicking Hermione's, and then he lifted his wand, hesitating slightly, pointed it at the club, and pronounced, "Wingardium Leviosa!"
The club lifted out of the troll's hand, as though by invisible strings, and hovered around it before suddenly dropping onto the troll's bald skull with a thud. The troll began to sway drunkenly, completely forgetting about the wand stuck in its nostril, and without warning collapsed on top of the rubble that used to be a bathroom, but not before Harry managed to jump off its back and safely land away from it.
A ringing silence fell. Harry was panting over the troll, Ron was still standing with his wand raised, looking utterly overwhelmed, and Neve was clenching and unclenching her fists, trying to stop trembling. Hermione was the first to speak.
"Is it - dead?" she whispered, still looking rather shellshocked on the floor.
"I don't think so," Harry replied, "probably just knocked out." He took his wand out of the troll's nostril and wiped it on its loincloth. "Ugh, troll bogies!"
A door slammed somewhere near them and brisk, loud fooststeps hurried towards the bathroom. Professor McGonagall skidded through the door, with Professor Snape almost bumping into her. Professor Quirrell peered around the door and as soon as he saw the troll he placed his hand on his heart and sat down on one of the toilets, or, more correctly, what remained of it.
Snape examined the troll, prodding and poking here and there, while McGonagall surveyed them all with the utmost fury. Her mouth looked so thin that it was in danger of disappearing altogether, and her eyes spat sparks.
"How dare you put yourselves at risk in such a way?" she said, her voice trembling. "Do you know how much danger you were in? What were you thinking? Or, better yet, with what?"
Neve was feeling slightly wronged. It wasn't like they had intruded into a massacre; they were just tackling an indubitably ugly, hygiene-deficient, unquestioningly stupid troll. Dragon dealers had to deal with much worse situations, and they volunteered for such an occupation.
"Such creatures are best dealt with by those who know how to handle them," McGonagall continued. "You could have died!"
"But we didn't," Neve piped up.
Snape turned his unfathomable black eyes on her and furrowed his brow. His clasped hands twitched, as though he wanted nothing more than to grasp Neve by the shoulders, shake her until her head fell off, and ask her why she had been present in such a typically Gryffindor predicament.
McGonagall raised her thin eyebrows at Neve. She opened her mouth to say something Neve didn't want to hear, when a trembling voice spoke to her right.
"Please, Professor - I can explain everything," said Hermione, clambering to her feet.
"Miss Granger!" McGonagall couldn't have looked more shocked had Lord Voldemort stood in the place of Hermione. "I truly hope so!"
"I - I went looking for the troll - because I've read about them, you see - and I - I thought I could deal with it ... because I've read about them so much ... but I couldn't ... and then Harry and Ron turned up and save me. Harry stuck his wand up the troll's nose and Ron knocked it out with its club. If they had gone to find help instead, it would have finished me off."
McGonagall seemed even more thunderstruck with this news. Ron had dropped his wand and Harry was staring wide-eyed at Hermione. Neve was trying hard not to smirk. Maybe everyone had a bit of Slytherin in them after all, even prissy little Hermione Granger, who certainly seemed to be the type of person who never even told a 'white lie'.
"Well," McGonagall began, "if that's the case, Miss Granger, I hope you realise how foolishly you acted, and that there will not be a repeat performance of such thoughtlessness. For goodness sake, how could you believe you could possibly take on a mountain troll?"
Hermione hung her head in the perfect exemplar of shame. Neve stood close enough to her to see that she was shivering and could hear her teeth chattering, and knew that even attempting to class her as a Slytherin was a lost cause - the girl was Gryffindor through and through; lying was just a demonstration of her chivalry and courage.
"What I'd like to know," Snape finally spoke up, "is why Miss Coulden decided to join you three in this ... experiment ..." He was still staring at Neve darkly, now with one eyebrow raised in challenge.
"Neve was already here when I turned up," Hermione quickly explained. "She helped Ron and Harry defeat the troll."
"I was washing my hands when this whole hullaballoo started," Neve added. "As far as I know, cleanliness is not a crime."
Neve could have sworn that Snape almost smiled. The corners of his mouth turned upward ever so slightly and his eyes warmed from a cold black to a deep, dark brown.
McGonagall sighed. "Five points will be taken off Gryffindor for your conduct, Miss Granger, and I would like you to know that I am very disappointed in you. Your housemates are finishing the Hallowe'en feast in the common-room; if you are not injured in any way, you may join them."
Hermione silently left the bathroom, still with bowed head.
"As for you three ..." McGonagall's nostrils dilated a little. "Well, I personally believe that luck was on your side, as not many first-years could defeat a grown mountain troll by themselves. Professor Dumbledore shall hear of this, of course. Five points to Gryffindor for each of you - " - she glanced at Harry and Ron - " - and -"
"Ten points to Slytherin," Snape cut across her before she could finish.
Ron's mouth fell agape and Harry frowned. Neve merely raised her head a bit higher and quirked her lips into a lopsided smirk.
It was then that Snape noticed her lip was bleeding. "Miss Coulden, you are injured!"
"I'm fine." Neve wiped her bloody lip with the sleeve of her robe. "It's only a bit of blood."
"If you're sure ..." Snape pursed his lips in concern.
"I'm fine," Neve repeated, "honestly, I am."
"Then you may all go to your common-rooms," instructed McGonagall, "and finish the feast there."
Neve was the first out of the bathroom. Passing a mirror that was only half broken she noticed that her hair, robes and face were layered with dust. She ran her tongue over her lips and found that the bottom one was encrusted with blood. When she turned around the corner and out of sight of the bathroom, she shook her hair and robes, and a ring of dust settled around her on the floor.
"Hey!" a voice rang out. "Hey - wait!"
She turned to see Harry hurrying over to her, a reluctant Ron hanging behind.
"Hi," said Harry brightly.
Neve raised an eyebrow insolently. "I think that after what we've just been through we ought to be past the formalities, Potter."
Harry looked down at his shoes. "Yeah, er, about that ..." He looked up and his brilliant emerald eyes sparkled. "Thanks for helping out with the troll."
Neve stared at him a moment then rolled her eyes. "Well, what did you expect me to do? Goggle at it like a landed trout and be useless? Say, that reminds me of Granger." She smirked. "Tell her that I'm very disappointed in her and that I hope there will not be a repeat performance of such incompetency on her part."
"Well, she was very scared," Ron blurted, scowling.
"But you didn't see me pissing my pants, did you?" Neve said coolly. "Anyway, I have to be off. I'm sure you two aren't devoid of hungry stomachs?" She threw the boys a parting half-amused glance before turning around and heading for the dungeons.
Ron scratched his head. "Wow. She didn't tease you about your hero status."
"And she didn't insult your family," Harry said.
They looked at each other. "Weird," they said in unison, and turned to go to their own common-room.
"Still, she got five points more than we did," Ron complained almost half-heartedly. "And she didn't really do anything."
"Well, that's Snape for you," shrugged Harry. "But we didn't see everything that happened anyway. If Hermione says she helped, she probably did."
"But Hermione lied to save our skins," Ron reminded him.
They walked in silence a while. Suddenly, a smirk broke over Harry's face. He looked at Ron. "I wonder, does Malfoy know he has competition?"