Harry opens his eyes and finds himself in a forest. Hermione and Ron are there, but Ron is bleeding profusely, a huge chunk of his side missing. Hermione explains that he has been Splinched, meaning he left a part of himself behind while Disapparating. They treat his wound with a potion from Hermione’s bag, and Hermione tells Harry how she had taken them to Grimmauld Place, but Yaxley had grabbed hold of her so that she inadvertently took Yaxley with them, within the perimeter of the house’s protective enchantments. She was then able to slip out of Yaxley’s grip and bring them to these woods—the site of the Quidditch World Cup the year before—but now that Yaxley has gained entry to the house, they can no longer go back there.
Harry and Hermione set up the tent and cast protective charms on it, then they consider their situation. They do have the Horcrux, as Hermione had succeeded in taking the locket from Umbridge. As they are unable to open it and have no idea how to destroy it, all Harry can think to do for the moment is to wear it on a chain around his neck for safekeeping. Moreover, they have no idea where to start looking for any of the other Horcruxes, and they have little or nothing to eat while they try to figure it out.
Harry’s scar prickles and he sees through Voldemort’s eyes as Voldemort interrogates the wand maker Gregorovitch. Gregorovitch insists that he does not have what Voldemort wants, as it was stolen from him long ago. Voldemort, thinking he’s lying, reads his mind and sees a memory of a young, handsome blond man stealing the wand, stunning Gregorovitch with a spell, and escaping through a window. Voldemort draws back out of Gregorovitch’s mind, Gregorovitch screams, and there is a flash of green light as Voldemort kills Gregorovitch.
Hermione does not want to hear about Harry’s vision, being angry at his letting it occur. Harry describes it to Ron, saying that the vision makes no sense. Why would Voldemort kill Gregorovitch, when surely Voldemort must have visited him because he wanted Gregorovitch to make a new, more powerful wand that could defeat Harry? Yet Voldemort made no mention of such a desire.
Harry reflects that the mischievous-looking blond youth must be Voldemort’s next target. Harry thinks he’s seen this man before, but can’t think where.
Harry buries Moody’s eye in the forest. The trio move their camp near to a market town, and Harry goes to steal food, but he sees dementors and is unable to summon his Patronus to protect himself, so he has to leave. Back at the tent, Hermione realizes that Harry’s problem is that he’s wearing the Horcrux. The Horcrux exerts a negative magical influence, blocking the positive emotion needed to summon a Patronus. They agree to take turns wearing it, but it makes whoever wears it irritable and argumentative.
The three friends embark on a difficult phase of their quest, moving from place to place, procuring food irregularly and with difficulty, unable to agree on what to try next, and with tensions growing between them.
One night, as Ron and Hermione are bickering, they hear voices nearby and discover that Tonks’s father, a young wizard named Dean, and two goblins are traveling near them, all on the run from Voldemort and the Ministry. One of the goblins, who worked at Gringotts bank, tells his companions a remarkable story about his revenge against the wizards of the Ministry.
According to the goblin, three students at Hogwarts—Ginny, Neville, and Luna—broke into Snape’s office and stole the sword of Gryffindor, but were caught and punished. Snape had the sword sent to Gringotts, but the goblin says that the Gringotts goblins all recognized the sword as a fake—though they said nothing of this to Snape.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione take out the portrait of Phineas Black, force Phineas to wear a blindfold, and question him about whether he’d seen the sword removed or replaced from the headmaster’s office. The last time Phineas saw the sword, Dumbledore was using it to break a ring. Harry and his friends realize that Phineas is describing Dumbledore destroying a Horcrux—the ring of Marvolo Gaunt—and that the Sword of Gryffindor must be able to destroy such objects because it has been impregnated with basilisk venom. One of the sword’s properties is that it absorbs anything that makes it stronger, and Harry had used it to kill a basilisk. They deduce that Dumbledore left the sword to Harry in his will (knowing that it would not actually be delivered to Harry) to signal its importance, then made a fake sword to leave in the office. The only question remaining is where Dumbledore hid the real sword.
Despite this breakthrough, Ron is unimpressed by their progress. Frustrated and disappointed that Harry doesn’t have a better plan, and especially irritable because he’s wearing the Horcrux, he and Harry have a fight. Ron takes the Horcrux off, then asks Hermione if she’s staying with Harry or going with him. She says she’s staying, and Ron Disapparates.
These chapters represent the low point in the quest. With Ron injured, and their comfortable house (and house-elf) lost, and having to forage for food, this is the most physically challenging period for them. But this is also the time when they are most frustrated and closest to despair. They wander from place to place, having no good ideas about what to try next, and the Horcrux exerts its subtle negative influence on them. It seems inevitable that divisions will arise between them.
However, neither Harry nor Hermione is willing to excuse Ron’s desertion based on the fact that he’s wearing the Horcrux when he decides to leave. Rather than a true case of possession, the Horcrux’s negative influence is like the hunger or frustration that they all experience—it’s something that tests them and makes it harder to do the right thing but that doesn’t take away their free will. Ron’s abandonment of his friends is a true moment of failure for him, one that stems from flaws in his character that are specific to him. Ron’s overindulgence in food is a running joke throughout the series, and of the three friends he is least used to being deprived of material comforts. In fact, because of his mother, he is used to being taken care of and takes it for granted that other people will take care of him, and in that sense he is still the most childish of the three. We can see that his action is not due to the Horcrux later in the book, when we find out that Dumbledore long ago predicted Ron’s moment of despair and his abandonment of Harry based solely on Ron’s character. Fortunately for Ron, Dumbledore, that famous believer in second chances, has prepared a way back for Ron.