Concentrating with all his might, Harry Apparates back to Hogsmeade with Dumbledore, who immediately sinks to the ground and tells Harry to find Professor Snape. He’s about to run up to Hogwarts when Madam Rosmerta comes running out of her bar and alerts them to the fact that the Dark Mark has appeared over Hogwarts, meaning there are Death Eaters inside. Harry summons two brooms from the bar and he and a seemingly fortified Dumbledore head off toward the castle. Harry wonders if one of his friends has been hurt while patrolling the castle at his behest.
Dumbledore’s order again underscores his trust in Snape – especially since even most Order members don’t know about his quest to find the Horcruxes. Harry describes Madam Rosmerta – present now and when he left the castle – in terms of her kindness, but this impression will be challenged in the next chapters.
Muttering spells, Dumbledore undoes some of the school’s protective enchantments, so that they can fly directly into the astronomy tower where the Dark Mark has appeared. Dumbledore orders Harry to summon Professor Snape and return to the tower. Under the Invisibility Cloak, he’s about to run down the stairs when they hear footsteps; someone shouts the Expelliarmus charm and Harry feels himself become paralyzed. He realizes that Dumbledore has silently immobilized him and thus lost the chance to defend himself. The professor seems unfazed to find himself unarmed and facing Draco.
Dumbledore has treated Harry like an adult and even relied on him throughout this evening, but at the moment of true peril he makes sure the teenager is out of harm’s way – even when doing so involves sacrificing his own advantage. Meanwhile, Draco’s appearance on the balcony seems to confirm Harry’s suspicions and vindicate his hatred of Draco.
Full of bravado, Draco informs Dumbledore that he’s smuggled Death Eaters into the school right under his nose. He continues that he has an important job to do, but seems hesitant and unsure. Unafraid, Dumbledore speaks calmly to him and tells him that although he knows about the “feeble attempts” he’s been making all year with the necklace and the mead, he doesn’t believe Draco is a killer. Still, he points out that if Draco really wants to kill him he should do it now, before members of the Order arrive. Draco snaps that he’s not afraid, but he still doesn’t do anything.
While Dumbledore has been treating Harry more and more like an adult, he’s doing everything possible to make Draco feel like a child – from revealing he’s been watching him all year to joking about his own murder. Both students are on the threshold of adulthood, and their decision to conceive of themselves as boys or men affects the choices they’ll make going forward.
Conversationally, Dumbledore asks how Draco managed to smuggle in the Death Eaters. Draco says that he fixed the Vanishing Cabinet in the Room of Requirement, allowing people to pass from Borgin and Burkes directly into the school. Dumbledore commends Draco’s cleverness and he seems to derive “courage and comfort” from the praise. Dumbledore says that he’s ordered Professor Snape to spy on Draco all year; even when Draco sneeringly says that Snape is a double agent, Dumbledore reiterates his trust in Snape.
The fact that Draco is pleased by Dumbledore’s praise reflects the extent to which he’s still a child, rather than an adult Death Eater. Although he’s trying to distance himself from Dumbledore and drum up the courage to kill him, he can’t help connecting with his “enemy,” which shows Harry that Draco doesn’t really want to carry out this task – rather, it was forced upon him.
Dumbledore asks how he managed to get the necklace to Katie, and Draco reveals that he has used the Imperius Curse on Madam Rosmerta. Dumbledore realizes aloud that she must have poisoned the mead as well, and she also alerted Draco that Dumbledore had left the school. Draco says that he got the idea for the mead after hearing “the Mudblood Granger” talking about Filch’s inability to detect poisonous potions. Dumbledore reprimands Draco for using the slur but goes on to ask if the Death Eaters have killed anyone and Draco says that they only cast the Dark Mark in order to lure Dumbledore to the tower; still, he thinks he saw a body in one of the corridors as he passed. Harry can hear fighting from below and wonders who has died.
Just as Harry’s bias against Snape leads him to distrust the professor without much evidence, his predisposition to like Madam Rosmerta keeps him from ever suspecting her of wrongdoing – even though the novel remarks significantly on her whereabouts tonight and the day of Katie’s accident. Meanwhile, Dumbledore’s reprimand is a testament to his deep integrity – he refuses to sacrifice his ideals even in a moment of great danger – and perhaps a tactical ploy. By seeming unworried and dignified, he increases Draco’s respect for and fear of him.
Crisply, Dumbledore says he wants to discuss Draco’s “options,” since he doesn’t believe the boy actually wants to kill him. Draco shouts that he has to do it, or else Voldemort will kill his family. Sympathetically, Dumbledore says he understands this; he hasn’t confronted Draco all year because he knows that doing so would bring Voldemort’s wrath down on the boy. If Draco joins the right side, Dumbledore says, he can hide him and his mother and keep him from becoming a murderer.
Draco’s reason for joining the Death Eaters is now abundantly clear – although he’s a generally unpleasant person, he’s driven by the universally identifiable wish to save his family. While Harry is vindicated in his hunch that Draco was up to no good, he’s never tried to understand the pressures that led him into wrongdoing – and thus the methods by which his allegiance might be changed.
Seemingly wavering, Draco almost drops his wand, but suddenly several Death Eaters storm onto the ramparts. They chortle at seeing Dumbledore so defenseless, but the headmaster greets them politely. Among them is Fenrir Greyback, and Dumbledore says he’s surprised to see that Draco invited such a bloodthirsty person to the place where his friends live. Seeming appalled, Draco protests that he didn’t know Fenrir was coming. Hearing members of the Order on the stairs, the older Death Eaters order Draco to get on with the murder, but he’s shaking too badly to move.
While Draco has been uneasy and almost upset to see Dumbledore helpless before him, the other Death Eaters take cruel pleasure in this scene. This contrast separates Draco from his comrades and shows that he’s not a stock villain, like they are; he’s a morally ambiguous character who’s been doomed by his personal circumstances. Noticing that Draco is “shaking,” even Harry can see how he’s misjudged his enemy.
Suddenly Snape himself appears at the top of the stairs. The Death Eaters turn to him, wanting him to energize Draco. Meanwhile Dumbledore speaks Snape’s name in a soft tone, seeming to be begging for something. His face filled with “revulsion and hatred,” Snape raises his wand and kills Dumbledore with the Killing Curse. Dumbledore’s body flies into the air and then falls off the ramparts.
Even as his villainy seems established, it’s important that his actions are phrased in a vague and morally neutral way; for example, although his face is filled with “revulsion and hatred,” the object of this emotion is never specified. It’s important to note that this moment is portrayed in such a way that many explanations are possible – including the unlikely one that will emerge in the next book.