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Stories begun in 2006 (post-HBP)

Author Notes:

From this chapter through to the end, the contents were in draft and/or outline form at the time of Deathly Hallows' publication in 2008.  An effort was made to keep from being influenced by DH; I haven't spotted any serious slips in that regard, but if you do happen to find evidence of said influence... well, it's accidental.  This is definitely post-Half Blood Prince fanfiction, and all that entails (Grindelwald's very different history alone should have demonstrated that).

On a practical note, I'm having some technical difficulties in responding to reviews.  I don't believe the problem is on FFA.net's end -- honestly, I think it's a Javascript conflict on my laptop, but don't have time to address it.  So, a general comment: I'm trying to get the rest of this posted quickly, but by the time I get things formatted the way I wanted them to appear, etc., the upload of each chapter takes about an hour.  I am severely lacking in free time at the moment, and have been on the road extensively since late November.  If everything falls into place, I'll have the remainder of Last Horcrux posted here by New Year's Day (a chapter every day or two).

Thanks for reading!

FIFTEEN
His Own Man

 

November 1, 1998     Inn of the Healing order of Halla, due north of Skaftafell, Iceland

Madam Gisladottir found him sitting on a bench outside the Inn, looking off into the horizon. “It is cold,” she said.

Harry shrugged and returned, “That's what warming charms are for.”

“An interesting view, is it not? A landscape cold and forbidding, with a sea of fire beneath: the eternal contest of heat and cold, birth and death, new and old, rightness and wrongness... of justice and injustice,” the ancient healer said.

Harry said nothing for a long while before he asked, “So how often does the mountain, erm, fire off?”

“Hekla has had four periods of eruption in the last fifty years. The volcanic eruption is rarely a single explosion as writers of fiction would have you believe. Eruptions linger; they ebb and flow.  The most recent eruption continued for two months,” she explained.

They said nothing for a long while before he observed, “You people certainly don't mind silence.”

“We speak when we have something to say. That is enough, I think,” she replied; “You are bothered by silence?”

“Silence means not being noticed, I guess. That was a good thing where I grew up,” he said.

“Your upbringing, it was abusive,” she concluded.

He shook his head and said, “I wasn't beaten, if that's what you mean. A lot of people have had it worse than me.”

She observed, “The poor treatment of children, it is not a thing to be excused. You were unloved and unnoticed as a child and so you wished to be noticed by those who showed interest. Now that you are a public figure and of an age to understand the consequences of being noticed, you wish to be unnoticed. You are not the first to experience such things."

“Feels like it,” he said sourly.

“Alas, they are more common than you know – so much so that I believe the Supreme Mugwump planned for both: the former so that you would be shaped into a hero, and the latter so that you would neither bask in adulation nor become a villain,” she observed.

He tensed as he asked her, “You're not in my head, are you? If you are, we're done here.”

“No. That would be rude. I have observed twenty decades of life and all that comes with it, and have some understanding of it without benefit from manipulations. The emotions preyed upon by the Supreme Mugwump, they were of the common sort. The stage upon which your troubles were played out, it is that which was unique. Now that Ski-madr has departed, more of your troubles will be of the ordinary sort," she said.

“Except for this,” Harry said as he tapped his index finger against his now stark-white scar.

“Except for this,” she agreed.

“So what do I do now?” he asked.

She said, “I am a healer. I am not an oracle. Do you think that I possess the wisdom you require merely because I am old?”

“I suppose you don't,” he grumbled.

“Your quest will not be resolved by the ramblings of an old crone, nor will the answer be stated plainly in the pages of a book,” she said.

He admitted, “Well, I had to start somewhere, right?  I've read Ravenclaw's Grimoire from cover to cover, a dozen times or more, and I didn't see anything that applies to something like this – didn't understand half of it after the sections on Hogwarts, really. I've been through most of the Black library, and almost everything in those books would be out of the question. I'll not become a necromancer, thank you very much!”

She gave a slight shrug and said, “It is a good thing that you will not become a true practitioner of necromancy, but do not reject all of its principles until you have studied the subject sufficient to make such a judgement. The same is true of the full breadth and depth of magic.  There is much for you to learn. 

"You have been instructed solely in the ways of Merlin and those who followed him. The Supreme Mugwump thought himself superior to others in intellect and judgement, and thus obligated to lead.  Those who lead all suffer from this attitude to some degree, but he was most powerfully afflicted. 

"In itself, this would not have posed a great problem, but he also believed himself superior to others because he was an Englishman.  The sons and daughters of Merlin have often thought themselves such.  The Supreme Mugwump was fascinated by those of us raised with other practices, but in the way one is fascinated when visiting a zoo.  None of this was acknowledged in the halls of the Confederation – perhaps he did not even acknowledge this to himself – but it was clear to those with eyes that saw. This manner of thinking leads to lost opportunities and lazy scholarship – an ironic path for a man who claimed to be a schoolmaster above all else.”

“Well, there's no doubting that you knew him. I feel like I should apologise for that,” he said with not a little bitterness.

Her nose wrinkled as she explained, “You are not required to apologise for the acts of others and I should not speak ill of the dead.  I was long acquainted with the Supreme Mugwump.  Few truly knew him, for he wished to be respected or admired rather than to be known. After enough time in shared company, even the most reluctant observer sees through the fog of public deeds and discerns something of that man's true self.  I did have ample opportunity where the Supreme Mugwump was concerned. For five decades, I was put forward as the people's representative to the Confederation by the Althingi, those who govern the people. You would call them Wizengamot, I think, but the gođar – the members of the Althingi – they are selected by the people rather than appointed according to lineage.”

He pointed out, “If you hated it, then why not pass it off to someone else?”

She snorted and said, “The Confederation accomplishes little, even in the face of great need.  Seek the meaning of the title 'mugwump' in the course of your studies and you will understand this.  Simply put, I was appointed because no one else would have it. I believe this is called 'drawing the short straw'?”

He laughed and then they fell into silence, which allowed him to gather his thoughts. Finally he spoke up, “So the answer isn't written out in a book, but there's still a good chance that the things I'll need to know are. Bloody hell... it'll be like going back to school. Me, playing at being a scholar – that's rich. Hermione would love this; she'd have a good laugh over it.”

Madam Gisladottir rose swiftly – it was often hard for Harry to accept that she was nearly a century older than Dumbledore had been – and said to him in a formal way, “You must be told this now, and know that I speak true, Harry Potter.  You are welcome in this place now and for the rest of your days. Just as the English, we of the Healing Order and the other mages of this island relate to the higher magics in a particular manner and by practices of our own design. Know that we will share what we know without reservation, but I will also invite to this place skilled mages willing to share with you their own knowledge and understanding. If I am able to make introductions for you with still more – those unable or unwilling to journey here – then I shall do so. The Healing Order will arrange this for as long as needed, until the time that you are ready to go forward. You will know when that time has come. For now, we invite you to be at ease, to learn as you will, and to heal. Perhaps your views on the quality of silence may change?”

“Anything's possible. Look... I do appreciate all of this, but you've already done a lot for me. You honestly don't have to do any more,” he said.

She put on a small smile and shook her head in a way that seemed at once fond and disappointed in him; “To prevail in a war, no matter your wishes otherwise, you can not fight without the help of others. Those around you chose to give you their aid; many did so at grave cost but their aid was freely given all the same. Because of what has happened to you and your beloved, the war is not yet ended for you.

“We owe you a great debt, not for sending Ski-madr on his way, but for releasing grœd that those fools had trapped. They did not understand that in doing this, the balance of justice was tipped for nigh unto thirty decades in favour of greed and selfishness and arrogance and darkness. This would have directly affected all of England, perhaps Ireland and even portions of the continent. We give you aid and rest and healing because it is right. We will help you to commune with grœd at any time that you wish it. In the proper place and at the proper time, the Healing Order will arrange for you a boon.”

“A what?” Harry asked.

“A boon: a particular benefit bestowed in gratitude,” she explained.

“I see. Well... well... thank you for that. I'm glad to have freed it, you know? It just felt wrong for it to be locked inside that room. As for this communing business... erm... once was enough, I think. It didn't help,” he said.

“The value of a thing is not always clear at first,” she ventured.

“I'm surprised you didn't ask what happened in there,” he admitted.

She said, “Communing is a private matter. It is something that you may share, but no one here will question you.”

“So you didn't hear...?” he confirmed.

“There was no sound.  For a time, we could not see you.  Most of our elders have never witnessed a more corporeal communing; I can think of one or two occasions, perhaps,” she said.

Something about the old healer radiated trust, and he supposed there was no harm in at least acknowledging that he had been told something.  He explained, “It kept asking me 'what do you want?' before it finally gave an answer, if you want to call it that... wasn't much of an answer, if you ask me. It did the same thing at the Department of Mysteries, but it didn't really gave an answer then, not in words anyway –”

She held up a hand to stop him; “I have surely misheard. You were asked this, you say? The grœd spoke to you?” she queried.

“Erm... well, yeah,” he answered.

“Words were exchanged – or more properly, thoughts?” she pressed.

He nodded and tried to explain, “Hogwarts has this hat, the Sorting Hat. It sorts the firsties into the four houses. It talks to you in your head and sorts through your mind to get a sense of you – basically, are you more courageous, bookish, loyal, or ambitious? Anyway, the grœd does something like that, I think.”

All the members of the Healing Order were generally reserved in both speech and action.  When her eyes narrowed for a long moment, Harry saw it for the expression of irritation and distaste that was intended.  She said, “I know of this practice, this Hat. Such a thing is profoundly unhealthy: an enchantment that, based upon a single invalidated assessment of an immature personality, assigns each of the English to one of four groups that will in most cases determine her life-long place in the order of things. Only four traits upon which an entire culture is built: ambition, courage, knowledge and loyalty – these are important things, but alone they do not render us human. I am told that interaction between these groups of children is allowed but not encouraged for purposes other than competition or compliance. I am also told that families of long standing are assigned by this hat to the same group for generation upon generation.

“Therefore, it follows that the mages of England have for ten centuries assembled and segregated their most ambitious youth; educated them to place lesser value upon courage, knowledge and loyalty; and encouraged them to live, work, socialise and rear children in a way that perpetuates these prejudices. This explains much about your countrymen.”

He said uneasily, “Erm... when you put it that way, it sounds really bad.”

She said, “We will speak no more of this, as it resolves nothing and serves only to frustrate. I prefer to explore this communication between yourself and grœd.”

“I take it this isn't normal, then,” Harry observed.

“It is unique,” she emphasized; “There is much that we may teach and that you may learn, and so we shall begin with this.”

January 12, 1999     Inn of the Healing order of Halla, due north of Skaftafell, Iceland

Harry rather liked the room that the Healing Order had set aside for his visits to Iceland. Like the rest of the Inn, it had a uniquely Nordic sensibility to it, an aesthetic that found beauty in simplicity. The fact that he was aware of this, or was using the word 'aesthetic' for that matter, was still another sign that he was a different person than the Harry Potter who woke up in hospital after the final battle of what the Muggles were calling the London War. He was more focused, more capable, more refined, and undeniably smarter – or at least more able to apply his intelligence. His magic was stronger, purer, and in some ways more dangerous than before. It was becoming something, he thought, and he tried not to worry too much about what that might be.

In school, he had struggled to pull together a number of different issues and make sense of them – to 'synthesize', as one of his books described it – but now it came to him almost as easily as breathing. He read much more and much faster than ever before, simply because it had to be done. Hermione had to be freed; she needed to come back. It was true that he needed her to come back, but restoring her was an inherently just and good thing to do – he was sure of that much.

He had already made progress on his own before the October prior, but seven weeks spent in Iceland had already led him to the first hints of the answers that he needed. It didn't come fast enough and there were never enough hours in the day, but everyone involved in his studies said that his progress was nothing short of incredible. Madam Gisladottir – or Siggy, as he called her – forced him to stop in the evenings. She insisted that his work would improve if he broadened his studies beyond what seemed necessary; she made him read classics of English literature as well as translations of Iceland's Great Sagas, and some of the great works of Western thought, and newspapers from around the world, and even a trashy Muggle novel or two. The other elders of the Healing Order and the scholars Siggy brought to the Inn taught him calculus and advanced conjuring and French cooking and Slavic runes and emergency healing and introductory Greek and draw poker, and somehow most of it was getting through to him.

Unfortunately, all of this synthesizing had led to not a few unpleasant conclusions. Events of the last two years came together in different ways and raised many issues. His impression of the war had changed, and he was more conscious of who supported whom; of who the betrayers were and where they came from; of the ugly underbelly of wizarding that he'd known about but hadn't thought about. His opinion of Dumbledore was actually worse than it had been before. He understood the reasons for Siggy's view of the old man and of the English wizarding world, though she would no longer speak of them. Sadly, he concluded that she was for the most part correct, and that very little was actually changing despite the best efforts of the new regime.

Most troubling was the apparent role of the goblins in the war.  That was why Bill Weasley sat surrounded by books and scrolls and a hundred pages of notes at the small table where Harry took his meals. 

Though Bill's scars left him with a darker look than befit a Weasley – the corners of his mouth were permanently down-turned – there was no mistaking the true anger on his face.  “Are you sure of this, Harry?  Are you absolutely, positively certain?” he asked.

Harry looked to the sketches in front of Bill for form's sake, but it wasn't needed.  He  said, “That's the exact sequence.  I pulled the memories and went over them in a pensieve.  So I'm right, then?  These are goblin runes?”

Bill said, “Oh, they're goblin runes, all right.  It's a Gringotts warding sequence: one of the best they have to offer, and lethal as hell... and this is what  You-Know-Who sprung on you.  They lied to me!  They lied through their bloody teeth!”

Harry was as angry as Bill but it was a cold fury; he had suspected the truth for several days.  He wanted – needed – to be absolutely certain before acting on what they knew, so he asked Bill, “Could Voldemort have stolen it?”

Bill shook his head; “The human warders at Gringotts aren't even taught this category.  I'm only familiar with it because of some work we did in '93.  We were contracted to de-curse an estate in Hungary, and it turned out that Gringotts had laid the wards and curses themselves back in the fifteen century.  These type are activated by goblin blood – and before you ask, it has to be willingly given at the location of the wards.  So, Voldemort couldn't have kidnapped a warder or stolen a phial of blood.”

“Could he have taken over a place that already had the wards?” Harry went on.

Bill immediately said, “No.  They were set to activate based on his conditions, right?  The warders would have to take that into account, and he couldn't have altered these particular wards.  They have to be taken down and re-established if you want to change the configuration.  This was in a cave, you say?”

“More like caverns, actually... went on for miles and miles,” Harry said.

Bill's eyes blazed; he asked, “Do you have a map?  We need to go over everything that you remember.”

Harry looked to Dumbledore's pensieve in the corner of the room and said, “It might be easier if I just show you.”

Twenty minutes later, an ashen-faced Bill was on his third tumbler of a powerful Icelandic liquor; the first two had been downed in seconds.  He babbled, “Ron... he knew it was going to happen.  Well, not that exactly, but he knew it was probably going to kill him.  I've taken my share of risks – nature of the work, you know? – but nothing like that... I suppose that's how it was for Fred, as well?  Maybe there's a good reason Weasleys tend to have big families... would have died out otherwise, all that stupid bloody courage...”   

“Did you see what you needed to see?” Harry asked.

Bill's face hardened.  “They lied to us, Harry," he said; "Goblins will always play to the absolute letter of an agreement if it's in their favour; you expect to be mislead, if you know anything about them at all.  This is different.  Not only did Ragnok tell us that they weren't allied with Voldemort, but that they weren't doing business with him, full stop.  He said there were no contracts, active or inactive, and that no new business of any sort was being initiated with his Ministry.”

“Voldemort was at this for fifty years.  Maybe he made the arrangements back in the day, before the end of the First War?” Harry suggested.

Bill shut that down immediately; “Not a chance.  Not only were some of the rune sets fresh – I mean, you could still see blood spatters – but I've been in that place, Harry.  The first tunnel and those passages to the left may have been new, but when you came back to the right...?  If you go to the far side of that cavern, there's a side passage that eventually leads to the Gringotts silver reserves below... erm... right, then – I can't tell you what they're below, but trust me, it's all connected.  You were in part of Gringotts' extended tunnel system.”

Harry winced – it was as bad as he had feared.  “So they were backing Voldemort.  I guess that explains why they were so nasty about money-changing just before the Ministry fell,” he said; when Bill looked at him blankly, he added, “You know, when they switched the exchange rates...?”

“Five pounds Sterling per galleon was set into law when the Muggles moved from coin to paper.  The only reason they could change it was because  the Wizengamot was dissolved,” Bill said.

Harry frowned deeply.  He said, “You might want to do some asking around, then.  They gave Remus less than half that on my trust vault, and I've had people tell me they were offered one pound per Galleon when they were trying to leave the country.  They were keeping people from taking gold out of their vaults, and I know for a fact that they refused to make good on some of their own transfer drafts with the gnomes.  What I can't figure is why they're being so aggressive now?  Kingsley told me that he's thinking about changing the name of the Goblin Liaison Office to the Office for Exchanging Threats.  You'd think they would be a little more worried about being found out.”

“That part I can understand, actually.  Goblins are gamblers by nature, and they like to bluff.  When their bluff is called, they throw a rebellion.  After they lose, we get a reminder that they have the gold and therefore make the rules, and everyone backs down.  It's been happening for five hundred years,” said Bill.

Harry shook his head; “I don't think it's that simple this time.  Look, I slept through Binns like everyone else, but I'm still fairly certain that the goblins have never backed one side of a wizarding civil war before,” he pointed out.

“If they have, then it was never spotted,” Bill admitted.

“So, the question is: what changed?  I think I can answer that, actually,” Harry went on.  He proceeded to give Bill a general explanation of horcruces.

Bill nodded thoughtfully throughout.  He concluded, “They bet everything on a sure thing.  He gave them one of these things to protect, in exchange for their support.  They were guaranteed he wouldn't go back on his word as long as they had control of it –” 

“So they must have thought he had only one horcrux?” Harry cut in.

Bill disagreed, “They probably figured on two of them.  Ragnok would never have expected You-Know-Who to give them total control, just enough leverage to strike a deal.  At any rate, Ragnok and his circle would have made the same mistake as You-Know-Who, and it was a whopper of a mistake.”

“What's that?” Harry asked.

Bill explained, “They wouldn't have counted on someone doing what Ron did.  No goblin would ever sacrifice himself for others on general principle.  He'd follow orders, sure, or dive in front of a curse to protect his own mate or spawn, but that's not the same.  I don't know the rune sets that they used, but I can read the conditions.  Ron didn't want the horcrux for himself or his own gain.  He was willing to die to get inside that ward, if that's what it took.  He wanted to manage it without anything bad happening to you or Hermione.  The condition runes didn't account for any of that.  If they did, the defences would have been triggered without so much as a flicker in the ward.”

“I knew we were lucky.  I didn't know we were that lucky,” Harry said.

“It wasn't luck.  It was because my brother's too bloody noble for his own good.  I blame you for that, you know?” Bill laughed.

“He's a good man,” Harry said.

Bill agreed, “Damn straight.  You need to patch things with him, Harry.  You and I both know that he isn't the reason Hermione is –”  At the same time as Bill said 'dead', Harry said 'away'. 

“Care to explain that?” Bill asked.

Harry shook his head; “One thing at a time.  What should I do about the goblins, do you think?”

Bill quirked an eyebrow at that.  “What should you do?  It's more a matter of what the Ministry should do, isn't it?” he asked.

“Right, the Ministry will make it all better,” Harry snorted; “They've let this go for centuries.  Besides, I have some leverage of my own... had a bit of an accident with a Galleon recently, and I doubt they'll like it if anyone else finds out what I know.”

Bill sat up sharply.  “Do tell...?” he prodded.

“I need to know more about the treaties, about banking, about the goblins in general – allies, enemies, politics, all of it.  If we do bring Kingsley in on this, I want to have a plan first,” Harry diverted him.

“You're really serious about this,” Bill observed.

Harry set his jaw and said, “If your brother hadn't gotten through that ward, Voldemort would still be out there.  Thousands of people lost most of their money.  Hundreds probably died because they were able to be tracked.  Ragnok did that, Bill.”

Bill disagreed, “No, the Anglo-Saxon clans did it.  Ragnok isn't a bank president or the Minister of Magic.  He's the head of goblin society.  They aren't human, and wizards forget that too easily – I worked for them, and I've still been guilty of that.  He would never have done something this radical without a clan edict.  Sure, they have politics and factions and all of that, but a clan edict commits everyone from Ragnok down to the youngest spawn.  Now, the clans in the Orient or the Americas are a different matter –”

“Anders explained that much,” Harry cut him off.

Bill said slowly, “I see.  You've been meeting with Twing...”

“He's been a big help.  With the goblins keeping me from my family vault, I've had to reconstruct the family holdings without any records to speak off.  He and Ginny pulled it off – I don't know how, and probably don't want to know,” Harry said.

“My sister –”

“– is happy.  Before the war, she would have been pushed by Molly to marry young and raise her own Quidditch team.  Now...”

“Mum wouldn't have –”

“Really?  Who went to work for dangerous non-humans and moved thousands of miles away within a month of finishing Hogwarts – was that you or Charlie?  Steady on – it was both!” Harry said with a smirk.

“Right, so she can be a bit set in her ways,” Bill returned flatly.

“Ginny grew up.  She's smart, creative, and can't be stopped when she's set on something.  In six months, Anders has tripled his family's business, and Ginny's been a big part of that.  They work twelve hour days and they mingle with the beautiful people at night.  She loves it.  I'd hate it.  Be happy for her, Bill,” Harry fired back.

“His family were spies.  He's a mercenary!” Bill grumbled.

“Hardly.  Anders works in some fairly grey areas, but that's his job.  He's a businessman.  He's oath-bound to the Danish government, and there are lines he won't cross for any price,” Harry said.

“I don't like him,” Bill said.

“Is it because he's a squib?” Harry asked honestly.

“NO!” Bill insisted.

Harry settled back into his chair with a knowing grin.  He said, “I get it now.  The mystery man swept your little sister off her feet.  You think she's in over her head, and you don't want to be picking up the pieces when he moves on – something like that?”; when Bill grunted, he went on, “I wondered about it myself.  Spend a day with the two of them and you'll change your mind.  Ginny isn't a 20th century English pure-blood witch, and your mum can't change that.  If you want to keep close to your sister, then you'd best accept that.”

Bill admitted, “Fleur says the same thing, more or less.  You've changed, Harry – even more than Ron has, and that's saying something.”

Harry said blandly, “You have no idea.” 

January 28, 1999      The Moddey Dhoo, Ramsey, Isle of Man

Shacklebolt looked with clear interest at the privacy runes that Harry had inscribed around the doors and windows of the private banquet room.  “How did you ever stumble across this place?” he asked.

Harry's voice took on an edge; he snapped, “It's part of the family portfolio.  Apparently I own a share in half a dozen pubs around the U.K.  Just add it to the other things I didn't know about until recently... quite a long list, that.”

Shacklebolt raised his hands in placation.  “I was never a party to any discussions regarding your assets, inheritance, or anything of the sort.  In those days, I was to keep Sirius from being recaptured and little else.  You were only mentioned with respect to keeping you and your relations out of You-Know-Who's hands.  By the time that changed, we were in the thick of things,” he said.

“Fair enough,” Harry grumbled; “At any rate, you said to pick a place out of the way but still under the Crown's jurisdiction.  The Isle of Man is outside of your jurisdiction, though.”

“And you feel a need to be outside of Ministry jurisdiction?  I've turned the Ministry upside down to move on the goblin issue, and that hasn't come without cost.  Dash it all, Harry, I'm your friend and you'd do well to remember that,” Shacklebolt said. 

“And this is one of your friends, you say?  Your enemies must be something to behold,” said the man who accompanied the Minister.  He was a tall, rakish fellow with wavy brown hair and an affable smile.

Harry didn't bother with manners; “And you are...?” he demanded.

The man extended a hand and introduced himself, “Ben Lytton, Mr. Potter.  I work within Her Majesty's Government.”

Harry relaxed slightly.  “Good, you're not one of the pure-blood wastes of space cluttering up the Ministry, then.  Beat them in a war and they're back in power already... makes you wonder, doesn't it?  Well, I've met a few blokes from Whitehall.  Are you one of them, or are you with the PM?”  he asked.

Lytton's smile never wavered as he returned, “We're rather less public; my people are at Vauxhall Cross.  We have a mutual acquaintance: Anders Twing...?  His father worked closely with my predecessor.”

Harry's brow rose sharply.  “MI6?  License to kill and all that?” he said.

Lytton laughed, “We go by 'SIS' these days, and it's not as glamorous as Mr. Fleming would have had people believe.  I'd happily take the Aston Martin, though.”

“Well, I can't imagine you're here over the goblins, so I suppose something else has gone horribly wrong and I'm to be dragged into it?” Harry asked.

“Quite,” Shacklebolt said with not a little embarrassment.

“How does murder as a prelude to insurrection grab you, Mr. Black?” Lytton added.

Harry sighed, “Getting back their Wizengamot seats wasn't enough for our old friends, is that it?  Well, that's just grand, isn't it?  I don't see where I fit into this, though.”

“Put bluntly, you're the only living magical sort who has directly sworn fealty to Her Majesty and isn't currently appointed to your government.  That makes it impossible for you to have been knowingly involved in both the murders and the assassination attempts, and therefore makes you a safe advisor,” said Lytton.

Harry sat bolt upright; “Who's been killed?”

“Four of the thirty-seven officials in Her Majesty's government and military  who were added to the Right to Know registry by the Ministry-in-exile,” Shacklebolt answered.

Harry said, “Great.  They couldn't even wait long enough to mourn the dead, could they?  I suppose the killers were hired, but who's writing the cheques?  Is it Hedgerow and his flunkies – Newbury and that lot?  Or is it someone keeping his head down to deflect the blame... maybe Collins?  He's the sort that really bothers me: posing as a moderate except for the times when it actually matters.”

“I wasn't aware you followed the Wizengamot so closely,” Shacklebolt said in a cautious tone.

“Know your enemy,” Harry returned.

Lytton cut in, “It's none of your usual suspects; I wouldn't be involved if it were.  I expect the Minister here thought the same as you did until after the second assassination attempt –”

“Bloody hell, Shack!  They tried to kill you?” Harry blurted out.

“They made a botch of it, obviously, but they didn't intend to succeed.  It was a message.  They were letting me know that if they wanted me dead, I would be dead,” Shacklebolt said.

“Who are 'they'?” Harry demanded.

Lytton answered him, “A friendly little club calling itself 'The Department of Mysteries'.  They appear to be part of your Ministry, except that they claim that they don't fall under its authority... flies, Mr. Black – if your mouth stays like that, they'll find their way in.”

Harry was reeling; “The Unspeakables tried to kill you?  They're killing people in the regular government?  Are they mad?  Do they want to start another war?” he gasped.

Shacklebolt explained, “Croaker showed up at the first Wizengamot meeting after we reconvened and demanded that everyone added to the registry during the war be relieved of all of their memories of the preceding year.  Wentworth – he's one of Collins' coalition – pointed out that the Muggle government would likely notice if dozens of officials suddenly developed amnesia.  Croaker's response was that it would be impossible to selectively Obliviate them at this point, and that we overestimate the Muggles' ability to keep their attention on a problem.  He went on to cite a three hundred year old ruling that he claimed required us to do this.  The conservatives don't appreciate having their hand forced any more than the rest of us; even Hedgerow voted against. 

“Over the next few weeks, there were a series of assassination attempts on members from all four Wizengamot factions, in addition to the first attempt on myself.  Sometime after that, Croaker showed up in my office via apparation – yes, I know the wards are supposed to prevent that – and insisted that I meet their demand via executive order.  He also insisted that I restore some very obscure ministerial appointments that went vacant when Voldemort executed Scrimgeour's people; six posts, and I'd never even heard of five of them.”

“I'm guessing you didn't go for any of it?” Harry said.

“I don't respond favourably to threats,” Shacklebolt returned.

Lytton said, “That's where my people enter into this.  It seems these Unspeakable chaps decided that they were required to act in your Minister's stead, supposedly something to do with their charter.  They popped in on one of our offices and turned a high ranking counter-terrorism expert into an amnesiac.  He didn't just lose a year, either: the poor bastard barely remembers his boarding school days.  Their second visit was met with more resistance.”

“Oh, boy...” Harry winced.

“It must not have occurred to them that everyone in one of our conference rooms would be armed.  I've had the full brief, Mr. Black – listed on your registry since '88 – and there's no doubt you people can do some remarkable things with your magic.  Apparently, blocking a head shot isn't one of those things,” Lytton explained.

Shacklebolt went on, “The Prime Minister was not amused –”

“ – and I can tell you that the press has old man Lowell pegged: a volcanic temper, that one,” Lytton added.

Shacklebolt went on, “The next morning, there were three dead Unspeakables laid out in the Ministry Atrium.  Mr. Lowell had a handwritten note pinned to one of their cloaks.  It was rather formal, and far more polite than the dressing down I received in his office that afternoon. 

“I figure that Croaker and his ilk expected the conservatives to demand an aggressive response.  What the Unspeakables don't seem to realise is that while they were hiding under Level Nine, the rest of us got an eyeful of what the British military can do.  Newbury may champion pure-blood superiority, but he was a few hundred feet from the Nott's manor when the RAF destroyed it.  He sponsored a formal order to the Department of Mysteries to desist that passed unanimously.

“That was followed by a second assassination attempt on my person; formal notice to my office that the Ministry has no governing authority over the Department of Mysteries; and the murders via Killing Curse of two SAS senior officers, an under-secretary in the Home Office and a senior man at Treasury.”

They sat in silence for a long while.  Lytton seemed to accept it, but Shacklebolt began to fidget; Harry knew that a few months earlier, he would have fidgeted as well.  Finally, Harry asked, “So what do you want from me?”

Shacklebolt sighed, “Well, I'd appreciate an alternative to borrowing a large bomb from the British army and levelling my own Ministry building.”

“That request has already been approved, Mr. Black,” Lytton added before Harry could scoff.

Harry shook his head; “That's what they want you to do.  You don't even know if they're still down there.  Do they have other facilities?  They're just arrogant enough to think they're in no real danger, but they're smart enough to have more than one plan.  So, you blow them up, your government falls in disgrace, the pure-bloods take control, and then the Unspeakables pop up again in a year and get what they want from a government unable to stop them,” he concluded.

“Well reasoned, lad, but the killings have to stop nonetheless.  My government won't tolerate even one more.  We have some experience at dealing with dangerous zealots, and there's already a precedent for using the military to battle terror on our own soil.  The only things staying our hand at present are Her Majesty's respect for your actions, Mr. Black; and Mr. Lowell's  remaining good will toward the Minister here,” Lytton pointed out.

Harry went quiet again for a few moments before he asked, “So who's in charge of the Department of Mysteries, then?”

“No one, apparently – not that they'd listen to anyone who was,” Shacklebolt grumbled.

Harry shrugged; he pointed out, “Well, that's the question you need to answer, isn't it?  Do you really think no one's above them?  If they don't answer to you, then it's something to do with how the lines were drawn after the Great Divide.  Take the Isle of Man, for example.  The reason it isn't under the Ministry is because the Baron Strange at the time was magical, and also happened to be the 8th or 9th Earl of Derby, or something like that.  At any rate, the royals intervened and that family kept control of the Isle.  There aren't any wizards in their line any more, so you'd have to go back a dozen generations to figure out who's actually in charge, but the Ministry's still out in the cold.  It has to be something like that, don't you think?”

Shacklebolt gaped at him, while Lytton looked thoughtful; the spy said, “He has a point, but this is a government service.  Surely it can't be under control of a peer?”

“No offence, but you're thinking like a Muggle.  The Ministry didn't look anything like the Muggle government until after the Great Divide, and there's nothing on the Muggle side parallel to the Department of Mysteries.  People probably think the Unspeakables are like your lot, Lytton, but they're not spies – they're more like guardians, or at least that's what they're supposed to be,” Harry offered.

Shacklebolt's eyes narrowed; “Clearly you know something,” he accused.

Harry snapped at him, “Look, I don't want this coming back to me in the end.  I don't have the time to mess about with those lunatics trying to kill me – things to do and all that.  Summon the Department's charter from the Ministry archives, why don't you?  Go to Hogwarts and talk to Binns; for some reason, he's a lot more useful now that he knows he isn't a teacher any more... who knows, maybe the old man cursed him so he wouldn't be able to teach me anything I needed to know?”

“Harry...” Shacklebolt began to chide him.

“My name is John Black now.  Remember that,” Harry hissed.

Lytton looked Harry directly in the eyes, and Harry suddenly felt like prey before a predator; he asked, “Mr. Black, let me be blunt.  Are these people likely to view you as an ally of the Minister, whether or not you remove yourself from the field?  Do they realise that you're far more closely connected to the rest of the world than the Minister's other allies and advisers?  If the answer to this lies outside their sphere of influence, do you honestly believe you won't be blamed?  I can remind you of your oath to the Crown, if it will help?”

Harry clenched his fists beneath the table and bit out, “Fine.  Dobby?”

Harry's excitable friend appeared at his side in a trice.  “Harry Potter does like to have Dobby travel great distances!” the house-elf huffed.

Harry laughed, “Yes, I live to inconvenience you.  The Minister and his friend here have been asking about the Department of Mysteries –”

Dobby's eyes bulged more than usual as he took in the rest of the room.  He bowed low; “Dobby is at Mister Minister's service, of course, and that of the Muggle gentleman representing the Royal Household!”

“Their government doesn't work that way any more, remember?” Harry said.

“Begging Harry Potter's pardon, but is not all of the Muggle government people responsible to Her Royal Highness...?” Dobby returned cautiously.

“Mr. Lytton's probably reports to the Prime Minister, or to someone else who reports to the Prime Minister,” Harry told him.

The house-elf's ears drooped; he said, “Oh, Dobby remembers now... the Mister Lowell who likes so much to be on the telly.”

Lytton, who hadn't so much as flinched when Dobby made his appearance, snorted, “That's him, all right.”

Dobby pressed on, “But Mister Minister swears to the Royal Household still.  The three ministers before, they did not swear and there was minister things they could not do because they did not swear.  The Department headmasters, the last time they swears is when Grogan Stump was Mister Minister.  The Croaker man, he did swear because the Mister Chief Unspeakable, he is compelled to swear... but there is not being anyone in the Royal Household to accept his swear, so it doesn't be counting.”

Shacklebolt shook his head slowly and said, “Dobby... are you saying that the Department of Mysteries is directly accountable to the Queen?”

Dobby said hesitantly, “Dobby... is not sure what being directly accountable means.  Dobby is saying that Mister Chief Unspeakable has to do what the Queen says.  He swears, but the Royal Household must accept his swear for it to take hold.”

Harry patted Dobby on the shoulder and asked, “Can you pop back to the Cloister and bring us the books that you were reading on this?”

“Dobby will do that,” the house-elf said as he popped away.

Shacklebolt was wide-eyed; “The books he was reading?  He was reading?” he spluttered.

“You have a problem with him reading?” Harry snapped.

Shacklebolt began, “I suppose at least kitchen house-elves learn a bit of it - enough to manage the larder, at least - but many people would say that –”

“Is it illegal?” Harry cut him off sharply.

Shacklebolt said hesitantly, “Illegal...? I don't believe it's ever been addressed as a matter of law...”

“Well, that's good, isn't it?  I only found out by accident that Dobby likes to read and I'm not about to cut him off.  It's incredibly helpful: he covers topics I don't favour and things I haven't the time for.  Don't let his speaking fool you,  he's brilliant.  If Hedgerow, Newbury, Collins, Greengrass – any of that sort –  don't like it...?  Well, that's their bad luck, isn't it?  Dobby's free, besides, so anything they brew up shan't apply to him,” Harry fired back.

“It hasn't been established that a house elf is allowed to be free under the law.  You're taking a chance with Dobby's safety by flouting that,” Shacklebolt said.

“This is a very secure room, Minister.  Rita Skeeter is dead.  I live mostly apart from British magical society.  Dobby won't be an issue unless you decide to make him one.  Did you ask me here to pick a fight?  Remember, I want nothing to do with any of this sort of thing,” Harry warned him.

“Is that so?  You're the one who brought the goblin issue to me,” Shacklebolt pointed out.

Harry snapped, “That was because I had hoped you could do something about Ragnok bankrupting the refugees, and so I could get Dirk Cresswell's advice.  You're going to have a three or four percent revenue increase as a result.  Believe me, I have better things to do with my time – far more important things.”

“Yes, you've been keeping interesting company of late.  I suspected it was Twing's doing at first, or maybe the Icelanders, but you are definitely your own man,” Shacklebolt said.

“What, now you're spying on me?” growled Harry.

Lytton slapped his hand on the tabletop.  “Mr. Black, are you just a simple citizen of the Empire?  Are you a Muggle, to borrow your lot's term?” he asked; when Harry didn't respond, he went on, “It's true, of course, that you've gone to great lengths to give that impression.  You're living in an ordinary home in an ordinary village in an ordinary part of Scotland – any farther from the centres of power for your lot, and you'd be under water.  Of course, there's an ordinary George Cross and the stole of the Royal Victorian Order set atop your mantle.  Then there's the matter of that dangerous little stick you keep holstered up your right sleeve... but far be it from me to suggest that there's anything about you that might bear occasional notice by the authorities?”

Harry rolled his eyes; he said, “I'm not stupid – I understand why the Minister wants to keep an eye on me, I just don't agree with him.  To answer your question, I'm a citizen of the United Kingdom.  That makes me the Queen's subject and not the Minister for Magic's subject.  I see the Ministry's authority as no different than, say, the Home Office's authority.  Are you aware that every other magical parliament in Western Europe is at least partly elected?  Every other head of magical government has some accountability to the general government.  As a matter of law, the Ministry for Magic of England and Scotland declares that it can overrule the government of the United Kingdom on any matter – anything at all – concerning any citizen who happens to have magical abilities.  So what do you say, Mr. Lytton: should a British citizen be subjected to the laws of dictators without any legal recourse outside of the dictatorship that set the laws in the first place –”

“I'll take a lot from you, but that's out of line,” Shacklebolt stopped him.

Harry returned calmly, “Minister, you're a good man – maybe the best to hold the office in hundreds of years – but you could suspend the Wizengamot tomorrow, and the pure-blood’s only options would be to fight you or ask you to change your mind.  You're a lord with a fiefdom, which might make at least a bit of sense if this was the year sixteen ninety-nine.”

Shacklebolt visibly settled himself before he said, “You've changed.”

Harry couldn't help but chuckle at that.  He said, “People keep telling me that.  You're right, I have changed.  I won't be anyone's pawn.  I won't take anything on faith when it comes to the wizarding world, especially in Britain.  One old man – one deluded old man – was able to appoint himself my guardian, decide where to place me, and keep dozens of teachers, constables, barristers, judges and independent visitors from remembering my treatment long enough to do anything about it.  You know how it was between the Ministry and me.  Sure, I have your favour today, but tomorrow...?  Sorry, Minister.  No matter how good a man you are, I'm not about to trust the rest of those in-bred fools to decide how I should live, who I should associate with, what fields I should study, or what truths I should know.  All I want from you and yours is to be left alone.  I think I've earned that.”

“I'd be more comfortable with that if I had some idea of what you're doing,” Shacklebolt ventured.

“Get used to disappointment, Shack,” Harry said.

Shacklebolt laughed at that, to Harry's surprise.  He began, “You have some very good friends, you know?  I pressed Bill Weasley for at least some hints –”

“– Bill doesn't know,” Harry cut in.

Shacklebolt went on, “He didn't see fit to tell me that; instead, he threatened me with an Arabic curse that's best left forgotten.  Young Mr. Longbottom informed me that I remain the Minister for Magic at your sufferance, and that he was happy to explain that to you should I continue to press –”

“That's madness!  Even if it was true, I'd never act on it.  That would make me as bad as... as bad as... them!  One person shouldn't have that kind of power.  Dumbledore did, and look what happened,” Harry insisted.  Shacklebolt opened his mouth to speak, but stopped himself. 

Dobby made a well-timed return just then, laden with three ancient tomes and two scrolls packed away into leather tubes.  “Dobby begs pardon from the gentlemen, but returns with all the writings that speak of the Department of Mysteries and their swears to the Royal Household.  Dobby has marked important passages for Mister Minister.  Mister Head Unspeakable is to be Her Majesty's liege-man through Mister Lord Chamberlain, but if Mister Lord Chamberlain is not having the magic to accept the swearing, then one of Mister Lord Chamberlain's men will do,” the house elf announced.

“Imagine that: this Croaker fellow's a working stiff like the rest of us,” Lytton said.

Harry pointed out, “A Squib can accept a magical oath; it doesn't have to be a wizard.  You just need someone placed in the Lord Chamberlain's Office who has the Right To Know.”

Shacklebolt slowly began to grin; “Herbert Mallory,” he said.

Harry tried to place the name; “Mallory...  Mallory?  The fussy bloke who came around about the George Cross?”

“Fussy, you say?  All right, I'll grant you that, but he's an absolute stickler for protocol.  I can't imagine he would take kindly to people who set out to avoid fealty oaths,” Shacklebolt said.

“And this oath?  It'll tie their hands?” Lytton asked.

Shacklebolt said, “That depends on the wording, of course, but there's a fair chance that it will.”

Harry started to stand up; “Well, that's great, isn't it?  You won't be needing me after all...”

“I'll need your help pulling this off, Harry,” Shacklebolt told him.

“Rubbish!  You're the Minister for Magic, you don't need my help.  Press this Mallory chap a bit, give him some rules to send Croaker, and Bob's your uncle – it's finished,” Harry scoffed.

Lytton said, “You don't give yourself much credit, do you?  We were nowhere after a month of debriefing every supposed expert in your Ministry, and you set us right in ten minutes.  It doesn't fit your profile, in truth; you weren't much of a student.”

“It wasn't in my best interests to stand out... still isn't, in fact,” Harry deflected him.

“Ron Weasley said that I should ask you to help us for a limited amount of time, and promise that I'll not ask again... three months, say?” Shacklebolt proposed.

Harry harrumphed at that; “He said that, did he?  I have commitments, Shack, serious ones – plans have been made, schedules set, Galleons spent.”

“Well... he said I should ask for two weeks, actually,” admitted Shacklebolt.

Harry cracked a small smile.  “That's more like it,” he allowed.

“Two months, then?”

“Don't push it.” 

January 31, 1999      Inn of the Healing order of Halla, due north of Skaftafell, Iceland

He waved his hand absently and the door opened; without looking, he said, “Hello, Siggy. How are you?”

“How is it that you always know when I am at your door?” she asked.

He chuckled and said, “The same way you always know when I want to talk to you: it's magic.”

“Indeed it is magic at its most profound, magic rarely mastered by all but the most experienced of mages. I am pleased that you have returned to us. You wished to speak with me,” she said.

“I've been thinking a lot about revenge lately,” he admitted.

She said, “That is a troubling topic. Will you allow me entry?”

As soon as she took a seat, he told her, “The goblins did some really awful things during the war and I kept finding more and more evidence, so I went to see Kingsley Shacklebolt in London. We met with the Vice-Minister for Trade at the Norwegian Ministry, and some others as well. I've made some... erm... arrangements with a friend of mine in Denmark. Something has to be done about it, Siggy. I can't let this stand."

Madam Gisladottir gave a knowing nod. “You fear that you are acting in anger, that you are taking revenge. Understand that the underground ones – goblins, dwarves, nissens, chupacabras – all of these are bankers or miners, and often both of these things. All live in closely knit groups: goblin clans, dwarven burrows, chupacabra clutches, nissen houses. There is no accusing one without accusing all, no means of justice that roots out a single culprit,” she said.

Harry sighed, “If enough people find out about the things the goblins did, the things they're still doing... they're already starting to hide away, I think, but that won't be enough. Honestly, it could be the end for every one of them. I know that should bother me, but honestly it doesn't.”

“They have wronged you personally?” she asked.

He said, “They're responsible for what happened to Ron Weasley. It's obvious they were on Voldemort's side in the war and good people died because of it. They made a war profit on the refugees when they left, and another when they came back. They've blocked most wizards who oppose them from emptying their vaults – or even banned them completely from Gringotts, like me. I think they see this as a way to have a rebellion and win it without even being caught out. Every wizard who did this much for Voldemort either died in battle or was tried and convicted. Most of those have been executed – I'm not comfortable with the way the Ministry went about that, but it's true that there's been rotten luck with keeping Death Eaters in prison. My point is: why should it be any different for the goblins?”

She was silent for a long time, something that he had learned to accept if not entirely tolerate. Finally, she offered, “Perhaps in addition to asking what will happen if the goblins are punished, you should ask what will happen if they are not punished? The difference between the two in cost and consequences should help you to decide what is just and what is not.”

“I don't have the right to do that. I'm not a judge. I'm not an Auror. I don't have a place in the government. Someone else is supposed to decide what's justice and what isn't,” he insisted.

She said, “If you are not the one to decide this, then who is the one? Do you believe anyone given the same information will act more fairly? Few English would shed a tear over the fate of a goblin. Your shared history is one of constant tension interrupted by open war every five to ten decades. Most mages in Europe are of the same mind as the English with respect to goblins.”

“Are you telling me to go through with this?” he asked her.

“I am telling you to seek advice, consider alternatives, come to a decision, and act upon the decision. If this leads to punishment for the goblins, then so be it,” she returned.

He let out a long breath and then said, “You're right, of course.  Well, then, I'm off to Copenhagen in the morning.”

“You will be meeting with young Mr. Twing?” Siggy confirmed.

Harry nodded; “He's something of an indispensable man right now, isn't he?  A few days with he and Ginny, and then to London.  The next week or two are going to be very interesting...”

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