“I’ve got nothing to do with this, Aunt Petunia, I swear! I really have no idea what happened with Miss Stein’s hair!” Harry pleaded. Only the first day back after the autumn holiday, and he was already in trouble. His last year in primary could not finish soon enough.
It was true that he did not like his teacher; she shared a permanently constipated look and Little Whinging Bridge Club membership with Aunt Petunia and believed every nasty word his aunt said about him. But did they really think he could turn her hair blue? Miss Stein had been ranting about his own messy hair and dirty clothes when it happened, and that was enough to blame it on him. His clothes were not even dirty; he had washed them himself the day before and avoided all the beans Dudley had thrown at him at breakfast. But they were all his cousin’s cast-offs, old and twice his size. There was only so much he could do.
“Of course, it’s your fault, you little freak!” Aunt Petunia shrieked, bodily pushing Harry into his cupboard. “Don’t expect to come out of here until Monday!”
Once the door slammed shut behind him, Harry slumped on his cot, gingerly rubbing the shoulder his aunt had been gripping. His stomach grumbled, but he knew he could forget about food for the day. Probably for tomorrow as well. He was fairly sure Aunt Petunia would let him out by then—not out of any kindness but to do the long list of chores she planned for the weekends—but anytime something weird happened around Harry, she was especially vicious. He hoped she would at least let him go to the bathroom.
A black ball came down from the ceiling, stopping inches in front of his face. Startled, Harry squinted in the dim light and yelped, scrambling back against the wall. He was used to spiders in his cupboard and wasn’t usually bothered by the little guys. Here on the string of silk, however, hung the biggest spider Harry had ever seen. With its long legs gathered up, it was the size of a tennis ball, and its body was covered in thick black fur.
“Are you crying there, freak? Crying like a little girl?” Dudley shouted gleefully from the stairs over Harry’s head, punctuating his words with heavy thumps. Harry wondered if one day the stairs would collapse under one jump too many. It would be a shame to survive a car crash as a baby only to be crushed to death by your elephant-sized cousin.
The impact made the thin string snap, and the spider fell right onto Harry’s lap. Slowly, carefully, Harry raised his hand to his mouth and bit the back of his palm. He had listened to a program on deadly Australian spiders from his cupboard once when Uncle Vernon fell asleep in front of the telly. Maybe it was one of them. On the other hand, it could hardly be deadlier than catching Aunt Petunia’s attention right now.
“How rude,” the spider squeaked.
Harry stared at it. Apparently, on top of everything, he was going crazy.
“Reminds me of my older brother,” the spider continued in a high-pitched voice. “The size of a hare already, and just as harebrained.”
“What are you blabbering there?” Aunt Petunia shouted from the kitchen. “Be quiet, boy!”
“Please speak quieter,” Harry whispered. If it was a figment of his imagination, Aunt Petunia could hear it too. And she did not approve of his imagination in the slightest.
“Your aunt is a right snake,” the spider said, thankfully lowering its voice.
Despite his fear, Harry giggled. Nobody ever said anything bad about Aunt Petunia, and hearing a different opinion for once was incredibly gratifying, even if it came from a talking spider.
“How come you can speak?” he asked.
“Why wouldn’t I?” The spider’s face was, by its nature, not very expressive, but Harry was sure it looked at him as if he was stupid. “Although if you only ever met those embarrassments there” —it gestured to the corner of the cupboard where a daddy-longlegs usually resided— “I don’t blame you for being surprised.”
The small spider trembled and dove under the nearest bottle of detergent in one swift motion.
“See? Useless. Anyway, I’m Ariadne.”
“Nice to meet you,” Harry said automatically. The spider—who was apparently a girl—was yet to move from his lap, so he decided to be extra polite, just in case. “I’m Harry. Er… what are you doing here?”
“I was kidnapped.”
“I was hunting a mouse and, well, might have got too far from our part of the forest. You know, centaurs just hate when other creatures go into their territory, and you don’t want to get trampled by a herd of overexcited thestrals.”
“What’s a thestral?” Harry asked.
“A winged horse. I suppose you don’t have them here either.”
“No winged horses, no.” Harry was pretty sure they did not exist, along with centaurs. On the other hand, before today, he did not think spiders could talk.
Ariadne’s black eyes glistened like beads. “Mama always tells us to be careful and stay close. But there was this mouse,” she added defensively.
“Don’t you catch prey in your web or something?”
“Usually. But where’s the fun in that?”
“Then I came across this human snooping around the forest.” Her pincers clicked indignantly. “He caught me and stuffed me into a horrible cage together with two boomslangs and a fairy.”
The clicking grew louder. Realising that it was a sign of distress, Harry cautiously raised his hand to pet her. Despite his expectations, the hairs under his fingers were not at all coarse. Ariadne stiffened under his hand but then slowly relaxed her pincers.
“What did he want from you?”
“At best, enslave me for my web and my venom, at worst, chop me up for potions ingredients. I didn’t stick around long enough to find out. Well, he did get some of my venom in the end.”
“You killed him?” Harry gasped.
“Likely not. I’m too young for my bite to be properly deadly. Enough to make him regret his life choices, though.” Ariadne preened, getting up on her hind legs briefly. “Hope those green noodles finished him off for good. Boomslangs,” Ariadne elaborated at his confused expression, not that it cleared much. “I sank my fangs into his hand as soon as he brought me out of the cage and ran away as fast as I could.”
Harry nodded. He knew very well that you had to react quickly and run fast to escape danger—be it Dudley and his gang, Vernon’s meaty fists or Aunt Petunia’s frying pan—and hesitation only got you beaten up.
“I ran and ran and ran, along the road with those scary metal beasts with humans inside.”
“If that’s what they are called,” Ariadne said, moving her front legs in a way that was not quite a shrug. “I tried to ask some woman how to get to the forest, but she just screamed and fainted.”
“Can’t imagine why,” Harry deadpanned.
“It’s a weird area you’re living in.”
“Weird?” He never heard that said about Privet Drive, whose residents prided themselves on being perfectly normal.
“Not a lick of magic anywhere. I passed three towns before I came across your place.”
“What’s special about this house? And magic doesn’t exist.”
“Did that snake of your Aunt tell you that?”
“Well... yes.” After meeting Ariadne, however, Harry was not so sure anymore.
“Funny you say that, since you’re a wizard.”
“Aren’t you being punished for turning your teacher’s hair blue?”
“It’s not my fault! I’ve no idea how it happened.”
“Do things like that happen around you often?”
Harry’s first instinct was to say no, but then he remembered the gust of wind that brought him to the school roof and that time his hair grew out overnight. “Maybe,” he admitted.
“See? Not sure if it’s just you or something else too, but your house is glowing with magic, and it’s certainly not because of your family.”
“So what are you going to do?” he asked, still not quite believing her. Even if magic existed, him being a wizard sounded too good to be true. “You need to return to your forest, right?”
“Yes, I do. Actually, I hoped you might know how to get there,” Ariadne said glumly. “There’s a magic school for young humans just outside the forest. But you didn’t even know you’re a wizard a minute ago.”
“A magic school? What do they teach there?” Harry perked up.
“Learning to do magic with wands, Mama said. Although the only human I met before that filthy kidnapper used an umbrella.”
“A pink umbrella, yes. I guess it’s a matter of taste.”
“I wish I could go there,” Harry said wistfully. He would even agree to a pink umbrella if it meant he could turn Dudders into a pig next time he stole Harry’s lunch. “And help you get home,” he added. “But I don’t know where this place is or whom to ask. My relatives would wash my mouth with soap just for saying the word ‘magic’.”
“Awfully suspicious, that,” Ariadne noted.
“Even if they know something, they’ll never tell me.”
“I can bite them or at least give them a good scare. Your Aunt seems like the type to scream and faint.”
“No!” Harry said quickly. “Uncle Vernon would kill me. And you. And then me again.”
“Fine,” she agreed with a put upon sigh.
Since they had no idea how to get Ariadne back home, she remained at Privet Drive, sharing Harry’s cupboard. He enjoyed having a secret friend who told him stories about magical forest creatures and suggested to bite the Dursleys when they got on his case too much. (Harry always refused but appreciated the sentiment.) Her voice, now decidedly girlish, was getting less squeaky but still sounded rather high, undermining her bloodthirsty ideas. In turn, Harry was teaching Ariadne to read and snuck food from the kitchen for her. Occasionally, he even took her to school in his backpack, at least until she grew too big.
By the end of the school year, she was the size of a cat, and Harry realised they need to hurry up with getting her to her forest. Early into their friendship, he asked her how big she would get.
“King Aragog, my grandfather, can swallow a deer whole,” she said.
Harry imagined himself with a rainbow-coloured magic parasol, strolling side by side with a human-sized Ariadne down Privet Drive, a pretty bow on her black head, greeting the neighbours with a cheerful wave of a hand and a pincer. Aunt Petunia would have a conniption!
Now the situation seemed less funny. “Since there are no thestrals or hippogriffs around to fly us, we’d have to get on the train. And the bigger you get, the harder it would be to hide you.”
“I saw a Kneazle while you were mowing the lawn today,” Ariadne said, clicking her pincers twice. She would never admit it, but Harry knew that the lawnmower scared her more than the giant snake rumoured to live in the magic school next to the forest.
“A magical cat?” Harry asked. “Where? And I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t leave during the day.” They had a few close calls, and once Ariadne did show herself to Dudley’s best mate Piers as he chased Harry into the school loo. Piers avoided the place ever since.
“The house with a blue door on the street with the corner shop. I caught a whiff of magic from it, but it was very small. I never noticed before, because your house has so much of it, blocking everything else.”
“Mrs Figg is a witch?” She was a batty old lady who smelled of cats and boiled cabbages. Harry had to stay with her whenever the Dursleys left on holidays and powered through never-ending pictures of Tibbles, Tufty, Snowy and Mr Paws when he wasn’t busy in her garden. If he stayed overnight, he slept on an old tartan sofa with a spring poking into his side no matter how he turned. What was the point of being a witch if she couldn’t even fix her sofa?
Maybe she was an evil witch, Harry thought, like in that Hansel and Gretel story they read at school that Aunt Petunia forbade mentioning at home, even to Dudley. After all, Mrs Figg did insist on feeding him stale gingerbread cookies every time.
“Why would anyone choose to live in a gingerbread house?” Ariadne, a staunch carnivore, asked when Harry told her the story. “She probably used magic to mess with their heads.”
“You can do that?”
“Of course. There are some plants in the forest that will make you believe you are a Giant Squid in a tutu if you’re not careful around them.”
The chance to find out if Mrs Figg was really a witch turned up soon enough. In the first week of the summer holidays, the Dursleys decided to celebrate Dudley finishing primary. Against all odds, Harry’s cousin managed to not get held up for a repeat year, and that warranted a weekend trip to Brighton.
Dudley pestered Harry with taunts, making up for the lack of variety and imagination with persistence, but for once, Harry did not let it get to him, too busy thinking about his mission. Really, he had no desire to go to the seaside with them, none at all. He wouldn’t be able to keep from laughing at Dudley in his swimming trunks, and that would only get him in trouble.
So as Uncle Vernon’s car disappeared down the road, Harry set out to Mrs Figg’s house, Ariadne taking up most of the space in his battered backpack. She was bound to shed her hair all over his change of clothes, but then again, those had once belonged to Dudley. They had definitely seen worse.
The trouble started as soon as Harry stepped inside. Tibbles, Tufty, Snowy and Mr Paws quit whatever feline things they were doing and appeared before Harry in the hall, distrustful eyes trained on him as they crept closer. Slowly, Harry took down his backpack. Tufty, a large ginger tomcat, arched his back and hissed.
“Meow,” Ariadne said from the inside.
Harry bumped the backpack with his knee.
Mrs Figg shuffled out of the living room in her floral house dress, grey hair sticking in every direction.
“What’s going on, my dears?” she asked the cats before wagging her finger at Harry. “My kitties are very smart. Can smell trouble for miles! So I very much hope you haven’t got any pranks in that bag of yours!”
“I don’t do pranks,” Harry said. He was usually the one on the receiving end of them.
“No? I’d expect you to.”
Harry stared at her, not sure what in the previous times Mrs Figg had babysat him could give her the idea. Probably another lie from Aunt Petunia.
She petted Tufty’s head fondly, the corners of her eyes crinkling. The cat leaned into her hand in delight but kept one of his eyes half-open, never looking away from Harry.
“Now, Harry, it’s such a nice and sunny day today,” Mrs Figg said as she straightened with a grunt. “ Would be a shame to waste it inside. I hoped you’d help me with the garden, would you?”
It was not exactly a question, despite being phrased as such. Aunt Petunia was not going to waste money on actually paying Mrs Figg to mind Harry, so the standing deal was for him to do chores for her. And while Mrs Figg treated him kinder than his family, she made sure to get the most of it.
By midday, Harry was sweaty, exhausted and covered with pricks. Mrs Figg had some weird spiky bushes growing in between the geranium beds, and no matter how careful he tried to be, his hands ended up in the line of fire again and again.
“Stupid shrub,” Harry muttered, sucking on his finger.
He was pretty sure the nearest bush sent a spike flying at him. Another check to the ‘Mrs Figg the Evil Witch’ theory.
Having learned his lesson the hard way with the Dursleys, he waited until Mrs Figg fed him lunch before asking any questions. He wolfed down the chicken stew—he cooked it better if he said so himself—and was finishing his tea when he finally found his nerve.
“Er... Mrs Figg?”
“Yes, dear?” She gave him her usual absent-minded smile over the shoulder as she busied herself with cat bowls.
“Do you believe in magic?” Harry asked.
She straightened abruptly. “Why are you asking?”
“Some weird things have been happening around me,” Harry said carefully. “At first I thought they were just my luck, but recently I’ve been wondering—”
“Did you discuss this with your Aunt? You should probably speak to Petunia about that first.”
She did not let him finish. “Go finish with the garden, Harry dear,” she said. The smile returned on her face, strained, but her voice brooked no argument.
“The old bat definitely knows something,” Ariadne said once he returned to the flower beds. “I don’t think she’s a witch, though. Those shrubs seem to have more magic than she does.”
“Ha! I knew it!” Harry cast an evil eye at the nearest green menace.
Ariadne walked up and poked it with her pincer.
“Don’t just stay like that in the open!” he called after her. “The last thing we need is for Mrs Figg to see you, witch or not. Her cats are already on my case.”
“I might have chased one of the furballs around a bit. The ginger one. That’s how I noticed he was magic.”
“Don’t even think about eating her cats!”
“Who do you take me for?” Ariadne asked, sounding offended by the idea. “They are too big for me right now.”
Once Mrs Figg was assured he would not ask her any more uncomfortable questions, she let him watch cartoons on her ancient TV. Tufty the cat sat on the windowsill, his tail twitching. His yellow eyes were glued to the spot under the sofa where Ariadne fit in, providing muffled commentary.
“If push comes to shove with your relatives, we can always run away to live in the sewers and fight crime like these turtles.”
“I’m not living in the sewers!”
“What’s that, dearie?” Mrs Figg asked from the kitchen.
“Nothing, Mrs Figg!” Harry shouted. Quieter, he repeated to Ariadne, “I’m not living in the sewers.”
Not that he hadn’t thought about running away, but his hope was to actually improve his living conditions. Although recently Vernon had been having some trouble at work and took it out on his favourite punching bag. Talking Ariadne out of biting him was harder and harder each time, and each time, Harry had less desire to do so. By the end of the summer, he might have to seriously consider the sewer option.
Finally, Mrs Figg gave him spare bedding and went to her room for the night. Tufty left with her, but not before glaring at Harry as if promising to keep a close eye on them should they try anything funny.
Harry waited until the old grandfather clock struck midnight and crept from the sofa, not daring to turn on the lights. Instead, he cupped his hands together and concentrated on the only magic he could do at will so far. Ariadne had always said he was a wizard, but Harry had not believed her until he had learned to create a tiny light after weeks of trying. It chased the darkness away when Aunt Petunia shouted at him to stop wasting electricity and turn off his lightbulb.
Carefully, he carried the bluish light, pleasantly warm instead of hot, around the room. He hoped Mrs Figg had some books on magic, but the only bookshelf was filled with romance novels and cat breeding brochures. Disappointed, Harry moved to the fireplace, twice as big as the electric one at the Dursleys. Despite the unusually hot June this year, it seemed to have been lit quite recently.
The mantelpiece was busy with china figurines of cats and, unexpectedly, a bronze phoenix-shaped candle holder, way too fancy for Mrs Figg’s living room. The light in Harry’s hand reflected in its eyes, making the creature look almost alive.
“Do phoenixes exist?” Harry asked Ariadne under his breath.
“I think there’s one living in the castle, but I’ve never seen it myself.”
A cat food tin next to the candle holder was filled with some emerald powder, glowing mutely. Harry dipped his finger in it and sniffed.
“Put it back!” Ariadne clicked her pincer in irritation. “It’s a wonder you’re still alive, Harry. You wouldn’t survive one day in a forest. At least you had enough mind not to lick it.”
Cheeks heating up, Harry flicked the powder back into the tin. He had meant to do just that.
A photo frame lying face down behind the candle holder caught his attention. He felt a bit guilty to pick it up, but his curiosity won. What could be on it that Mrs Figg did not want anybody to see? A particularly embarrassing cat picture?
Instead, it showed a big group of people, most of them wearing strange clothes, who smiled and waved at him. Literally waved. Even though Harry had come to terms with the idea of magic, he barely stifled a surprised yelp as they moved. A wizard in the middle—and Harry had no doubt an old man with a long white beard and a purple robe was indeed a wizard—winked, while another man glared at him with a scary prosthetic eye. Harry found a somewhat younger Mrs Figg in the corner, next to a severe-looking woman in a pointy hat. On the other side, a pair of redheads, too similar-looking not to be brothers, was grinning mischievously. Harry’s eyes lingered on people in a row above them: a man with glasses and messy dark hair, a bit like Harry’s own, and a pretty woman who looked at Harry with a wistful half-smile. The man planted a kiss on the woman’s cheek, inciting a soundless laugh, and slung his hand over the shoulder of the handsome man at his other side.
Harry brought the magic light closer and traced the small figures with his finger, not quite touching the surface. The woman’s hair still held traces of red, but it was impossible to tell the colour of her eyes on the discoloured paper. For some reason, this felt important.
“I wonder who all these people are,” Ariadne asked from his shoulder where she had climbed to see better.
Harry shook his head and put the photo back. “Yeah. But it’s not like I could just ask Mrs Figg.” She had way more secrets than Harry could ever expect from a batty cat lady.
Harry expected to be back at Mrs Figg’s soon for Dudley’s eleventh birthday party, but she had broken her leg a few days earlier, and the Dursleys grudgingly took him with them to the zoo. The day started great, and neither the million presents Dudley got, nor Ariadne trying repeatedly to get into the pile of them to freak Dudley out could spoil Harry’s mood. He even got an ice pop because Aunt Petunia was too slow to drag him away from the stall after Dudley and Piers had got their ice-creams. The zoo did not have half of the animals Ariadne told him about, but Harry did not expect it to. He watched a family of pandas that everybody cooed over, a tiger sunbathing on the rock and a giraffe that reminded him of his aunt when she craned her long neck to see over the neighbours’ hedge.
And then they went to the snake house where he met the talking snake and vanished the glass in the terrarium. Of course it would end in the worst punishment he had in years. The trip was much too fun for it to last.
Back in his cupboard, Ariadne had her own concerns about the whole story. “Fraternising with the enemy! How could you?”
Harry winced. “Keep your voice down.” He did not need any more attention from the Dursleys right now. “The snake just wanted to go home. Imagine sitting in a glass cage for everyone to gawk at you.”
Ariadne nodded glumly. “Yes. Home.”
“Hey!” Harry carded his fingers through the fur on her back. “We’ll get you back to the forest one day.”
She said nothing but climbed up on his lap and allowed him to pet her.
“I know how much you miss your family,” he said soothingly.
Harry himself did not remember his parents, and although he would spend countless nights huddled on his cot, imagining how his life would have turned out if they were alive, it was the idea of a family that he yearned for. And he certainly would not miss the Dursleys were he to spend a year away from them. But Ariadne was always full of stories of the first year of her life, and while her parents and numerous siblings did not sound particularly warm and welcoming—being a colony of giant spiders was bound to come with certain cultural differences—they seemed like a tightly-knit lot that were there for each other.
“You could stay with us in the forest if things ever get too tough here.”
“Thank you, Ariadne,” Harry said. Privately, the idea of living in the woods where half of the flora and fauna would try to kill you held as much appeal as fighting crime from the sewers, but her offer felt nice nevertheless.
“Yes, well.” She made a clicking noise. “Do you think your relatives are asleep already? I’m hungry.”
The next month passed uneventfully if one did not count Dudley receiving his Smeltings uniform. The image of his cousin in orange knickerbockers would be forever etched in Harry’s brain. His own ‘uniform’—Dudley’s rags being dyed grey—was stenching up the kitchen when he was sent to get the post and saw a letter addressed to him. Well, that was a first.
Mr H. Potter
The Cupboard under the Stairs
4 Privet Drive
read the emerald ink on the yellowish parchment. Harry frowned. Nobody knew where he was sleeping. Was it a prank from Dudley and his gang? Harry could not imagine any of them to have such fancy handwriting. It was a miracle his cousin had learned to write at all.
Harry turned the letter in his hand. It was thick and sealed with wax, another point against it being a prank. Dudley would never go to such lengths. Just as he was going to open it, Ariadne appeared at his side and sniffed the air.
“Magic,” she said.
A thrill of anticipation ran through Harry. Uncle Vernon was already shouting at him to hurry up, so he threw the letter into the cupboard and gestured for Ariadne to go back there.
“Don’t read it without me,” he said. She could read fluently now and was partial to Charlotte’s Web, a book that Harry nicked from Dudley’s second bedroom knowing that his cousin would never notice its absence.
It was another few hours before he finished with his chores—cleaning the upstairs bathroom, the most disgusting thing in the universe!—and returned to his cupboard. By that time, he was bursting with curiosity. Aunt Petunia would surely notice something amiss, but thankfully she had long perfected the art of pretending Harry did not exist unless she needed him to do something.
“Open it!” Ariadne urged as soon as he closed the door. She was bouncing on her long legs and looking over his shoulder as he tore the envelope and read aloud:
HOGWARTS SCHOOL of WITCHCRAFT and WIZARDRY
Headmaster: ALBUS DUMBLEDORE
(Order of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorc., Chf. Warlock, Supreme Mugwump, International Confed. of Wizards)
Dear Mr Potter,
We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.
Term begins on September 1. We await your owl by no later than July 31.
Harry stared at the page, unable to believe his luck. He could learn magic!
“This is it! The school!” Ariadne exclaimed. “I think I remember the name now. You’ll get to learn your wandwaving, and I’ll see my family again!”
Looking through the list of school supplies, Harry deflated somewhat. Cauldron set? Dragon hide gloves? Books on magic? He wouldn’t know where to buy them even if he had money. Which he did not.
“The Dursleys will never pay for all this,” he said gloomily.
Ariadne pondered that. “That man who kidnapped me was going on and on about the prices for my kind’s venom. I can give some for you to sell.”
“I doubt the chemist’s shop on the corner of Wisteria Walk would buy it from me.” Harry shook his head. “And I wouldn’t want to bring attention to you from people like that man anyway.” Uncle Vernon loved to rant about violent criminals and thugs roaming around the unsuspecting neighbourhoods and doing their dirty deeds while police did nothing.
“Write to them anyway. I’m sure they’ll figure something out.”
“At least I can find out where the school is to help you get there.” And then maybe they would let him stay anyway, Harry added in his mind. “But how will I send a letter? I don’t have an owl.” Ariadne once explained to him that wizards used owls to carry messages, like pigeons in the Middle Ages. The rare bird who flew too low over the spiders’ territory was never seen again.
“How do non-wizards send mail? Try that.”
Harry rewrote his letter twice, wishing he could use the kitchen table as he did for his homework. But it was too risky, so a stack of books would do.
Dear Deputy Headmistress McGonagall!
I would very much like to attend Hogwarts. However, I can’t afford to pay for the school supplies and the tuition, and the relatives I’m living with
hate magic plan to send me to a local public school. Do you have some sort of a school fund? I can work in the kitchens or on the grounds to earn my keep.
Harry hesitated before adding the last sentence. He didn’t really want his new classmates to mock him for that, but that was going to happen anyway at Stonewall High when the other students saw him in those rags that were boiling in the kitchen.
Your letter didn’t have an address of the school; please tell me how I can find it and where I can get the supplies.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
Satisfied that he had used his very best grammar, he fished the handful of pennies he had collected over the years from a tin hidden under his cot and sneaked out of the house to the post-office. He worried that the name alone would not be enough for the letter to find its way to the school, but this was out of his hands. The only thing he could do now was to wait.
The days went by, and almost a week later, just when Harry started to lose hope, he received another letter. A big brown owl swooped in when he was working in the garden, and he hastily untied the odd scroll from her leg, praying that Aunt Petunia did not decide to look out of the window. Something told Harry she would not approve of the owl correspondence.
Dear Mr Potter,
A representative of Hogwarts will accompany you on your trip to Diagon Alley tomorrow and help you purchase your school books and equipment. He will be at your residence at 9:00 a.m.
Harry reread the letter twice when Uncle Vernon’s car came from around the corner. Quickly, he stuffed the parchment into his pocket.
“Why are you standing there grinning like a loon?” his uncle yelled, moustache twitching angrily. “Get back to work, boy!”
Damn. He and Dudley were supposed to be at Aunt Marge’s for the day, shooting ducks in the countryside and doing other ‘manly things a boy should start learning at this age’. Watching Uncle Vernon marching into the house with a hunting rifle on his shoulder and Dudley, uncharacteristically silent, scurrying behind without even a look in Harry’s direction, Harry could only conclude that that trip was not a success. How was he supposed to break the news about the magic school, with Uncle Vernon already pissed off?
Uncle Vernon was in a foul mood all throughout dinner, so Harry did not dare to say anything and went to sleep equal parts excited and terrified. He dreamt an old dream about a flying motorcycle, only now a giant was taking him away from the people he had seen in Mrs Figg’s photo. The woman and the bespectacled man waved at him as the motorcycle went higher and higher, and they turned into small dots on the ground.
The following morning, Harry waited until he could not delay the conversation any longer. He considered not telling them at all, but the teacher coming for him would likely want to see his relatives, and the Dursleys did not deal well with surprises.
It was already well past eight, and Harry was washing the dishes when Dudley gave him an opening. “I heard they closed that school for criminal boys, and now all of them go to Stonewall High. Do you think it’ll take them a week to beat you up, or they’ll do it on the very first day?” he asked gleefully.
Uncle Vernon smirked behind his paper.
“Actually, I’m not going to Stonewall High,” Harry said, sidestepping Dudley’s attempt to trip him with his Smeltings cane.
“Of course, you are,” said Aunt Petunia.
“I’ve got accepted into another school, Hogwarts.”
Vernon and Dudley looked confused, but Aunt Petunia paled and balled her hands into fists. “Well, you’re not going there,” she said shrilly.
“I am. In fact, ‘a representative of Hogwarts’ will be here to take me to get my school supplies in—” Harry glanced at the clock “—fifteen minutes.”
She sprang to her feet. “I won’t let any of those freaks darken my doorstep! I will not!”
Dudley looked between her and Harry, even more puzzled, but Uncle Vernon seemed to get the idea. “One of THOSE people?!” he boomed. “We took you in out of the goodness of our hearts, boy, and that’s how you pay us back? Inviting them to our home?!” His face was getting dangerously red. “I will not stand for this!”
“Dad—?” Dudley started.
“Go to your room, Dudley!”
“Listen to your father, Duddydums. And you—” Aunt Petunia looked at Harry, lips pinched, expression determined. “—you, go to your cupboard.”
“No.” Harry crossed his arms, or at least he tried before Uncle Vernon grabbed his forearm and dragged him out of the kitchen as Aunt Petunia ushered Dudley upstairs.
“Ungrateful brat!” Vernon roared. “After all we’ve done for you!”
And what exactly was that, Harry longed to ask. Aloud, he tried to appeal to his uncle’s logic. “Just imagine, you’d be rid of me for most of the year!”
Of course, it was all in vain, since Uncle Vernon, whatever he himself might believe, did not have an ounce of logic in him. Ignoring Harry’s pleas, he threw the cupboard door open and tried to push Harry inside. Harry resisted, holding the doorframe for dear life. He knew that Uncle Vernon would overpower him sooner or later, but he would not go down without a fight.
“Let him go, or I’ll bite you!” Ariadne darted between their legs into the hall.
“Ariadne, no!” Harry cried, panicked.
Uncle Vernon looked around, searching for the source of the voice. His eyes landed on the foot-tall spider. “What sort of devilry is that?!” he shouted, spit flying everywhere. The vein on his temple pulsed dangerously.
“My bite is lethal, you know,” Ariadne said conversationally. “So you’d better do as I say.”
Without another word, Uncle Vernon let go of Harry’s arm, turned around and stomped to the living room.
“Well, that was easy.”
“No way he will leave it at that,” Harry muttered, diving to his cupboard to get his backpack. “Hop in, and let’s get out of here.”
He was at the front door, Ariadne half-inside the backpack, when Uncle Vernon came back, the rifle in his hands.
“Put that creature down,” he snarled.
Harry hugged the backpack, keeping Ariadne from jumping out, and flattened himself against the door. “I’m just leaving, Uncle. You don’t have to see me ever again. I-I’ll go live in the sewers. Just put the rifle down, p-please.”
“I said to put it down, or I’ll shoot you too, dirty freak!” Vernon’s eyes were bloodshot and clouded with blind rage. Harry always knew there was no love lost between him and his relatives, but never before had he been afraid for his life. Facing his uncle now, he felt cold dread rising up in his throat.
Suddenly, the door behind Harry opened, and he stumbled back, losing balance. Instead of falling, however, he bumped into something soft. With a gasp, he felt a steadying hand on his shoulder.
“Who the hell are you? Another freak?” Uncle Vernon pointed the rifle at the newcomer. “Go away!”
“My, my, what a warm welcome,” a deep baritone said over Harry’s head, and the rifle muzzle came alive, rolling up and twisting into a knot.
Uncle Vernon let go of the pretzel-like rifle as if scalded, blinked once and charged.
The hand pushed Harry aside and back, and he found himself behind a tall man dressed entirely in black, head to shiny shoes. Even his hair, longish and tied at his nape, was black. Almost lazily, the man waved a wand in his hand, and Uncle Vernon collapsed mid-step.
Not a pink umbrella, after all, a silly thought came unbidden, the only one ringing in Harry’s brain at the moment. Maybe he had one in black. A laugh escaped Harry’s lips, sounding disturbingly like a sob.
“Is-is he dead?” he asked, clutching his backpack closer to his chest.
“Unfortunately, no.” The man stared down his long nose at Uncle Vernon’s unconscious form with a mixture of astonishment and disgust.
The man looked at Harry then, an odd expression on his face. Harry suddenly felt self-conscious about his taped glasses and the sleeve Uncle Vernon had torn dragging him into the cupboard.
“You!” Aunt Petunia ran down the stairs to them. Harry expected her to rip into him, but she was pointing an accusing finger at his saviour.
“So this is your life now, Tuney?” the man drawled. “Another minute, and your bovine husband would’ve succeeded in what the Dark Lord failed at and killed your own nephew.”
She observed the scene, thin-lipped but unsurprised. It occurred to Harry that she must have been watching them from the stairs for a while.
“It was a good life until the boy got dropped on our doorstep,” she said tightly. “We tried to stamp the freakishness out of him, but I can see now that it’s useless. He’s incorrigible, just like Lily, and will end up like her.”
“You dare!” The man reeled, but then the anger on his face twisted into a poisonous smirk. “Still jealous of your sister, are you?”
Aunt Petunia flinched and jutted her chin. “Take the boy, Snape, and never come back. We’ve had enough of your world.”
She marched to the door and, without sparing even a look to Harry, shut it in their faces.
Through the glass part of the door, Harry watched her silhouette leaning over Uncle Vernon. He had never felt so lost. Hot shame rose to his cheeks: he was always the unwanted one. A burden, first to his relative, and now to a complete stranger.
“Let us leave this ghastly place, Mr Potter.” The man—Mr Snape—put his hand back on his shoulder. His voice was almost business-like.
Harry nodded, grateful for the lack of pity in it. With a lurch at his belly-button, Privet Drive disappeared around him. He felt as if he was squeezed through a tube and spat in front of a different, rather more ramshackle house. His stomach would have surely expelled his breakfast if he had not been too nervous earlier this morning to eat much of anything. Ariadne shifted inside the backpack, grumbling under her breath, and Harry held it tighter.
“Er… Mr Snape? Where are we?”
“It’s Professor Snape,” the man corrected him. After a moment of silence, he explained, “We’re at my house, Mr Potter. I imagine you're in no state for a shopping trip right now, and I need to contact the Headmaster about your situation as soon as possible.”
“Please don’t send me back!” Harry exclaimed. “Uncle Vernon will kill me!”
“Sending you back is not an option,” the man said solemnly. “Your mother would haunt me from her grave.”
“So you knew my mum? Will you tell me about her?” Harry asked excitedly, forgetting his gloomy thoughts for a moment. “Aunt Petunia hated it when I asked about my parents.”
Professor Snape looked pained. “We shall see.”
Inside, the house could not feel more different from the sterile normalcy of Privet Drive. The web in the corners hinted at the long times it stood empty—which made sense, Harry supposed, if the teacher spent most of the year living in the school. Bookshelves lined all four walls of the living room, and a worn sofa was buried under parchment rolls. Professor Snape swept them to one side with a flick of his wand and gestured for Harry to sit, while he himself occupied an armchair with a black coat—or a robe—thrown over its back.
“What’s in that bag of yours?” he asked, eyes narrowing suspiciously as Ariadne moved inside again.
“Nothing!” Harry said quickly.
“In fact, I think I saw the eyes and a flash of fur while your whale of an uncle was screaming obscenities. Hiding a secret pet, Potter?”
“I’m no pet,” Ariadne said from the backpack in an offended tone.
Harry elbowed the backpack, but it was too late.
Professor Snape stilled. “What’s that?”
“Please don’t hurt her!”
“Show me,” he ordered.
When Harry hesitated, a furry leg shot up from the half-zipped backpack and opened it fully.
Professor Snape shot up to his feet as Ariadne jumped onto Harry’s lap. “Potter, don’t move!”
“It’s Ariadne, she’s very well-behaved,” Harry said quickly, shooting out his arms against Professor Snape’s drawn wand. “She just wants to go back to her forest!”
“The forest will still be there in a month,” Ariadne said, clicking her pincers menacingly at Snape. “First I want to make sure you treat Harry better than those sorry excuses for humans.”
“Shut up,” Harry hissed.
“How long have you had it?” Professor Snape asked.
“I’m not an ‘it’!”
“Ariadne is a girl.” Harry frowned. “She found me last autumn after escaping some man who stole her and other creatures. She didn’t know how to get home, so she stayed in my cupb—stayed with me.” He petted Ariadne’s fur fondly.
“A poacher from Surrey was admitted into St. Mungo’s with an acromantula bite in November,” Professor Snape muttered, as if to himself. Two sets of black eyes bored into each other in some sort of a staring contest, the Professor holding his own admirably considering that Ariadne had three times as many. Finally, he nodded. “You can stay, on condition that I charm protective caps onto your fangs. And you, Potter, you are fully responsible for any damage this creature might do around the house.”
“Thank you, sir!” Harry beamed, relieved, before the words fully registered. “Do you mean I can stay with you?”
“I doubt anyone else will allow an acromantula in their home, unless you want to chance Hagrid’s hut,” Professor Snape said gruffly. “This house isn’t what you’ve been used to at Petunia’s, but—”
“We’ve lived in a cupboard there,” Ariadne interrupted.
Harry felt his cheeks growing hot again. “Must you?”
“Yes. I absolutely must.”
A motley crowd of wizards and witches filled the platform: stately blond parents giving a reserved hug to the mini version of the father; a big family of readheads all talking over each other; kids laughing and crying. Harry watched them out of his window: Severus—whom he had to remember to call Professor Snape again once the school started—had dropped him at the compartment early before apparating straight to Hogwarts. Ariadne was in the box right next to him, having bribed Severus to join the trip with her venom.
The train moved, and Harry opened the Potions book, determined to prove his worth at the subject. It was from Severus’s own library, with his commentary covering the margins. Harry squinted behind his new glasses, deciphering the spidery scrawl. A few pages in, the compartment door slid open, and one of the redheaded boys from the platform stepped in.
“Is that seat free?” he asked.
The boy—Ron—turned out to be an avid Quidditch fan, chocolate frog card collector and the owner of an ancient rat.
“Scabbers is pretty boring, really,” he said. “He just eats and sleeps all day. Still, he’s a good pet. A boy in the next compartment has a toad—now that’s sad. And Lee Jordan, my brothers’ friend, has a huge tarantula.” He shuddered.
Ariadne, forgetting her promise to stay low, perked up from her box. “Really? How huge?”
A blood-curdling scream shook the train.