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.