The only thing really worrying Harry was how much Ron was allowing the tactics of the Slytherin team to upset him before they even got on to the pitch. Harry, of course, had endured their snide comments for over four years, so whispers of, ‘Hey, Potty, I heard Warrington's sworn to knock you off your broom on Saturday', far from chilling his blood, made him laugh. ‘Warrington's aim's so pathetic I'd be more worried if he was aiming for the person next to me,’ he retorted, which made Ron and Hermione laugh and wiped the smirk off Pansy Parkinson's face.
But Ron had never endured a relentless campaign of insults, jeers and intimidation. When Slytherins, some of them seventh-years and considerably larger than he was, muttered as they passed in the corridors, ‘Got your bed booked in the hospital wing, Weasley?’ he didn't laugh, but turned a delicate shade of green. When Draco Malfoy imitated Ron dropping the Quaffle (which he did whenever they came within sight of each other), Ron's ears glowed red and his hands shook so badly that he was likely to drop whatever he was holding at the time, too.
October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy draughts that bit at exposed hands and faces. The skies and the ceiling of the Great Hall turned a pale, pearly grey, the mountains around Hogwarts were snowcapped, and the temperature in the castle dropped so low that many students wore their thick protective dragonskin gloves in the corridors between lessons.
The morning of the match dawned bright and cold. When Harry awoke he looked round at Ron's bed and saw him sitting bolt upright, his arms around his knees, staring fixedly into space.
‘You all right?’ said Harry.
Ron nodded but did not speak. Harry was reminded forcibly of the time Ron had accidentally put a Slug-vomiting Charm on himself; he looked just as pale and sweaty as he had done then, not to mention as reluctant to open his mouth.
‘You just need some breakfast,’ Harry said bracingly. ‘C'mon.’
The Great Hall was filling up fast when they arrived, the talk louder and the mood more exuberant than usual. As they passed the Slytherin table there was an upsurge of noise. Harry looked round and saw that, in addition to the usual green and silver scarves and hats, every one of them was wearing a silver badge in the shape of what seemed to be a crown. For some reason many of them waved at Ron, laughing uproariously. Harry tried to see what was written on the badges as he walked by, but he was too concerned to get Ron past their table quickly to linger long enough to read them.
They received a rousing welcome at the Gryffindor table, where everyone was wearing red and gold, but far from raising Ron's spirits the cheers seemed to sap the last of his morale; he collapsed on to the nearest bench looking as though he were facing his final meal.
‘I must've been mental to do this,’ he said in a croaky whisper. ‘Mental.’
‘Don't be thick,’ said Harry firmly, passing him a choice of cereals, ‘you're going to be fine. It's normal to be nervous.’
‘I'm rubbish,’ croaked Ron. ‘I'm lousy. I can't play to save my life. What was I thinking?’
‘Get a grip,’ said Harry sternly. ‘Look at that save you made with your foot the other day, even Fred and George said it was brilliant.’
Ron turned a tortured face to Harry.
‘That was an accident,’ he whispered miserably. ‘I didn't mean to do it—I slipped off my broom when none of you were looking and when I was trying to get back on I kicked the Quaffle by accident.’
‘Well,’ said Harry, recovering quickly from this unpleasant surprise, ‘a few more accidents like that and the game's in the bag, isn't it?’
Hermione and Ginny sat down opposite them wearing red and gold scarves, gloves and rosettes.
‘How're you feeling?’ Ginny asked Ron, who was now staring into the dregs of milk at the bottom of his empty cereal bowl as though seriously considering attempting to drown himself in them.
‘He's just nervous,’ said Harry.
‘Well, that's a good sign, I never feel you perform as well in exams if you're not a bit nervous,’ said Hermione heartily.
‘Hello,’ said a vague and dreamy voice from behind them. Harry looked up: Luna Lovegood had drifted over from the Ravenclaw table. Many people were staring at her and a few were openly laughing and pointing; she had managed to procure a hat shaped like a life-size lion's head, which was perched precariously on her head.
‘I'm supporting Gryffindor,’ said Luna, pointing unnecessarily at her hat. ‘Look what it does ...’
She reached up and tapped the hat with her wand. It opened its mouth wide and gave an extremely realistic roar that made everyone in the vicinity jump.
‘It's good, isn't it?’ said Luna happily. ‘I wanted to have it chewing up a serpent to represent Slytherin, you know, but there wasn't time. Anyway ... good luck, Ronald!’