She peered at it solemnly, then up at Harry.
“Do you know who this is?” he repeated in a much slower and louder voice than usual. “This man? Do you know him? What’s he called?”
Bathilda merely looked vague. Harry felt an awful frustration. How had Rita Skeeter unlocked Bathilda’s memories?
“Who is this man?” he repeated loudly.
“Harry, what area you doing?” asked Hermione.
“This picture. Hermione, it’s the thief, the thief who stole from Gregorovitch! Please!” he said to Bathilda. “Who is this?”
But she only stared at him.
“Why did you ask us to come with you, Mrs. – Miss – Bagshot?” asked Hermione, raising her own voice. “Was there something you wanted to tell us?”
Giving no sign that she had heard Hermione, Bathilda now shuffled a few steps closer to Harry. With a little jerk of her head she looked back into the hall.
“You want us to leave?” he asked.
She repeated the gesture, this time pointing firstly at him, then at herself, then at the ceiling.
“Oh, right… Hermione, I think she wants me to go upstairs with her.”
“All right,” said Hermione, “let’s go.”
But when Hermione moved, Bathilda shook her head with surprising vigor, once more pointing first at Harry, then to herself.
“She wants me to go with her, alone.”
“Why?” asked Hermione, and her voice rang out sharp and clear in the candlelit room, the old lady shook her head a little at the loud noise.
“Maybe Dumbledore told her to give the sword to me, and only to me?”
“Do you really think she knows who you are?”
“Yes,” said Harry, looking down into the milky eyes fixed upon his own. “I think she does.”
“Well, okay then, but be quick, Harry.”
“Lead the way,” Harry told Bathilda.
She seemed to understand, because she shuffled around him toward the door. Harry glanced back at Hermione with a reassuring smile, but he was not sure she had seen it; she stood hugging herself in the midst of the candlelit squalor, looking toward the bookcase. As Harry walked out of the room, unseen by both Hermione and Bathilda, he slipped the silver-framed photograph of the unknown thief inside his jacket.
The stairs were steep and narrow; Harry was half tempted to place his hands on stout Bathilda’s backside to ensure that she did not topple over backward on top of him, which seemed only too likely. Slowly, wheezing a little, she climbed to the upper landing, turned immediately right, and led him into a low-ceilinged bedroom.
It was pitch-black and smelled horrible: Harry had just made out a chamber pot protruding from under the bed before Bathilda closed the door and even that was swallowed by the darkness.
“Lumos,” said Harry, and his wand ignited. He gave a start: Bathilda had moved close to him in those few seconds of darkness, and he had not heard her approach.
“You are Potter?” she whispered.
“Yes, I am.”
She nodded slowly, solemnly. Harry felt the Horcrux beating fast, faster than his own heart; It was an unpleasant, agitating sensation.
“Have you got anything for me?” Harry asked, but she seemed distracted by his lit wand-tip.
“Have you got anything for me?” he repeated.
Then she closed her eyes and several things happened at once: Harry’s scar prickled painfully; the Horcrux twitched so that the front of his sweater actually moved; the dark, fetid room dissolved momentarily. He felt a leap of joy and spoke in a high, cold voice: Hold him!
Harry swayed where he stood: The dark, foul-smelling room seemed to close around him again; he did not know what had just happened.
“Have you got anything for me?” he asked for a third time, much louder.
“Over here,” she whispered, pointing to the corner. Harry raised his wand and saw the outline of a cluttered dressing table beneath the curtained window.
This time she did not lead him. Harry edged between her and the unmade bed, his wand raised. He did not want to look away from her.
“What is it?” he asked as he reached the dressing table, which was heaped high with what looked and smelled like dirty laundry.
“There,” she said, pointing at the shapeless mass.
And in the instant that he looked away, his eyes taking the tangled mess for a sword hilt, a ruby, she moved weirdly: He saw it out of the corner of his eye; panic made him turn and horror paralyzed him as he saw the old body collapsing and the great snake pouring from the place where her neck had been.
The snake struck as he raised his wand: The force of the bite to his forearm sent the wand spinning up toward the ceiling; its light swung dizzyingly around the room and was extinguished; Then a powerful blow from the tail to his midriff knocked the breath out of him: He fell backward onto the dressing table, into the mound of filthy clothing –