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Stories begun in 2006 (post-HBP)

Author Notes:

This is the final, edited, complete version of Harry Potter and the Last Horcrux.  Chapters 1 through 14 were completely written prior to publication of Deathly Hallows in 2008; chapters 15 through 19 and the alternate ending were in draft or outline form at that time.

FOURTEEN
Things Worse Than Death

August 3, 1998     King George VI Hospital, Greater London, England

“Harry...? Harry...? Can you hear me? If you can hear me, I need you to wiggle the fingers on your right hand. Can you do that for me?

He wasn't sure if his right hand moved or not, but he managed to get a word out. It sounded like, “Urgl,” which wasn't at all what he'd intended to say.

“I don't know what that means, Harry. Try again.”

“Wrgl. Wrtr. Water,” he said.

“Not just yet, young man. Let's see how you fare with sitting up.”

His head felt like it moved more than his body did, but eventually up and down were fixed in place and he decided to open his eyes.

“You are still alive... no thanks to your own efforts,” Madam Pomfrey told him.

He looked around the room very slowly. He wasn't at Hogwarts, and he wasn't at St. Mungo's. He was in a perfectly ordinary hospital room.

“Wrrr am I?” he asked.

“You're in hospital. Hogwarts will require major repair and St. Mungo's may have to be torn down entirely, so we've made arrangements through the Minister,” Madam Pomfrey told him.

“Wuhhh day is it?” he managed.

“It's August the third. You've been out for three days this time,” she said.

“Potions?” he asked.

She said, “You're already game for them...?  Even braver than I thought, aren't you?”

He let out a half-snort-half-laugh and said, “Nothin' better to do.”

Another healer brought over a tray with several glass beakers that held horrors that he preferred not to think about. Madam Pomfrey put her hand on the first beaker, and then stopped. She stammered, “Harry... Mr. Potter... no words can properly express... what you've done... oh, sod it. Thank you. There, now it's on to the potions."

August 6, 1998     King George VI Hospital, Greater London, England

“I'm sorry, but Mr. Potter is still refusing visitors,” he heard one of the nurses tell someone in the corridor.

“Madam, I am here on official business of the Crown,” someone returned.

Harry sighed and called out, “Let him in.”

An owlish looking man with a valise entered the room. He said briskly, “My name is Herbert Mallory, sir. I am employed by the Royal Household in the Lord Chamberlain's Office. You are Harry James Potter, born 31 July 1980 at Godric's Hollow in Wales, is that correct?”

“Erm, that's right,” Harry said.

Mr. Mallory gave him a thorough once-over and said, “No offence is intended, but I'm having a hard time squaring you and the award which you are to be granted. Nonetheless, on behalf of the Lord Chamberlain and Her Majesty, I extend the gratitude of the United Kingdom for your service. Due to your... unusual circumstances, there can be no formal investiture at this time.”

“Look, Mister... Mallory, is it...? I don't mean to be a bother, but I've had a rough go of it, and I haven't any idea what you're talking about,” Harry told him.

Mr. Mallory was shocked; he said, “Good heavens, man! No one's told you, not even someone from that, er, particular part of Her Majesty's Government?”

“I've been a bit of a recluse,” Harry said irritably.

“Yes... well... understandable, I'm sure,” said Mr. Mallory.

“So, again – not to be a bother – but could you start from the beginning?” Harry asked.

Mr. Mallory took a paper from his valise and said, “Yes, quite... ahem... For acts of the greatest heroism and the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of great danger, The Right Honourable Edward M. Lowell, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with the consent of Her Majesty Margaret the First, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth and Defender of the Faith, awards to Harry James Potter the George Cross, on this day, the fifth of August, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and ninety-eight. Now, it is my understanding that you may wish to receive this award under a pseudonym?”

Harry was overwhelmed; he managed to say, “I'm sorry... under a what?”

“I understand that you may use a different name and propers in, ahem, the world within which most of the Queen's subjects live? The Prime Minister is willing to award the Cross under the name of your choosing,” Mr. Mallory explained.

“Ahh, right. Yeah, I expect I'll be using the other name and such from now on. Harry Potter's a bit too easy to locate,” Harry said.

“And the name...?” Mr. Mallory pressed.

“Black,” Harry said; “John James Black, with the same birthday and birthplace.”

Mr. Mallory took out a fountain pen and made a note. “John... James... Black – very good, sir. We will reissue all of the documentation accordingly. Will you be here for long?”

“Another two or three days, I expect,” said Harry.

Mr. Mallory said, “I believe we can accommodate that. I'll have the Cross and paperwork back to you before you depart. There is a small annuity associated with the Cross, Mr... ahem, Mr. Black. The Lord Chamberlain's Office will make arrangements with the... other branch of government in respect to that matter. I understand that the Office of the Prime Minister is also awarding you recompense of some sort, but they'll sort that on their own. There is one more rather delicate matter... I do regret having to trouble you with this.”

“I'll manage,” Harry said blandly.

Mr. Mallory removed a second page from his valise. “As you say, sir... for acts of the greatest heroism and the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of great danger, The Right Honourable Edward M. Lowell, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with the consent of Her Majesty Margaret the First, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth and Defender of the Faith, posthumously awards to Hermione Jean Granger the George Cross, on this day, the fifth of August, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and ninety-eight. Mr. Potter... we weren't certain what to do with Miss Granger's Cross.  Someone has gone through a great deal of trouble to eliminate any references to her immediate family.  We were hoping that you might assist us in resolving the matter.”

“Oh, God...” Harry whispered.

“Ahem... Mr. Potter, we can address this at your leisure. As I said, I didn't wish to trouble you,” Mr. Mallory said quickly.

Harry waved him off. “It's... it's all right. Her parents are all she had. They moved to Canada for the duration. Are you able to get in contact with our Minister?”

“Both the Lord Chamberlain's Office and the Office of the Prime Minister are able to make that contact,” Mr. Mallory said stiffly.

“The Minister should be able to find them, or at least he'll know who can take care of it,” Harry said.

“Would you prefer to deliver the Cross to them yourself?” Mr. Mallory asked gently.

“No,” Harry said.

Mr. Mallory placed the papers back into his valise. He made for the door but stopped short. “Mr. Black? They say you ended the London War. If that's truly the case, then Her Majesty and Mr. Lowell aren't the only ones who are deeply grateful. Thank you, young man... thank you so very much,” he said. With a tip of his hat, he left.

Harry waited until the door closed, and then he bitterly wept for quite some time.

August 9, 1998     King George VI Hospital, Greater London, England

“Thank you, Madam Pomfrey, for everything,” Harry said.

The stern old healer gave him a tentative embrace and said, “I think that after all we've been through together, 'Poppy' will do nicely.”

“I'll try my best,” Harry chuckled.

“I do hope we'll see you from time to time?” Madam Pomfrey said.

“We'll see what comes, right?” Harry said evenly.

“You've quite a crowd waiting to see you home,” she told him.

“A crowd? I'd rather not have a crowd,” he said.

She smiled and said, “Some of them are rather insistent – Mrs. Weasley, for one.”

Harry gave a small smile. “She and Arthur are here?” he asked.

She said, “My considered opinion is that you really shouldn't suffer through more than one or two people at a time. Would you like to see Molly and Arthur?”

“Just for a moment,” Harry said.

His first impression was that the two elder Weasleys looked very old. He realised that while he'd been in hospital, they had buried two of their sons.

Mrs. Weasley shuffled forward and then pulled him into a hug that felt to Harry like she was drowning and he was the last life saver in sight. She mumbled something into his shoulder, and his shirt quickly grew damp. Mr. Weasley patted him on the other shoulder but couldn't manage to get a word out.

“We tried to save them,” Harry said. His voice cracked as he spoke the words.

“We know that, Harry,” Mr. Weasley said; “Bill, Charlie, Percy, Ron and Ginny all made it through this. As much as it hurts to lose them... whole families came to an end in this war, and in the last one as well. Kingsley tells us that Fred destroyed one of those foul things – is that true?”

Harry's shoulders slumped and Mrs. Weasley pulled back from him. He said, “He was trying to keep Hufflepuff's Cup from Voldemort. It was stuck to his hand and there was no getting it off. He went through the Veil rather than give it up.”

Mrs. Weasley cried, “My brave boy... what did he say? What was the last thing he said?”

Harry couldn't help himself; he couldn't even think of it without a dark bit of laughter. He snorted and said, “Honestly, you don't want to know.”

She said, “What's this? You're the third person who won't tell me.”

After he composed his thoughts, he told her, “You wouldn't approve of the language; let's just say that he told Voldemort exactly what he thought of him. It was... so completely Fred. I don't know what else to say about it.”

“That will do, dear,” Mrs. Weasley sniffed.

“Harry, I don't know what plans you may have...” Mr. Weasley began.

Mrs. Weasley took over, “There's a room for you at the house we'll be living in. It's time for you to come home.”
“I'm sorry, but I can't do that,” Harry said.

“Why, what do you mean? Of course you will,” Mrs. Weasley insisted.

Harry said, “I was afraid this would happen. Look... I'm not exactly right in the head after what happened. I need to be on my own for a while.”

“But that's exactly why you need to come home: so you can be looked after!” Mrs. Weasley protested.

“Thank you, but I'll still have to say no,” Harry said with a tightness in his voice.

“You know that you're welcome, of course,” said Mr. Weasley.

“I do, and I really appreciate it. You just... you don't know what happened there,” Harry said.

“I'm... oh Harry, Hermione was a wonderful, wonderful girl.  Of course you were very close – the two of you and Ron,” Mrs. Weasley said.

Harry couldn't hold it back any more. He said, “And there it is: that's why I can't come with you right now. I don't need to hear that day after day after day. She's dead, Mrs. Weasley.  You say that we were close, but you don't know the half of it. We weren't just close. We were together, completely together. I was... well, I would have asked her to marry me when this was finished – that's how close we were. She's dead and she shouldn't be dead, because she should have been in the Shetlands.  She wasn't supposed to be there!

Mrs. Weasley's mouth sat open in shock. Mr. Weasley cleared his throat and said, “Clearly we didn't realise things had reached that point between the two of you. I suppose that after half a year spent together – and under those conditions, no less...”

“You should still come home with us,” Mrs. Weasley said in a hollow voice.

The door came open and Ron burst in. “Are you all ready, then? I figure you must be bursting to get out of here,” he said.

Harry's fists clenched and his breathing quickened. “I don't want to see you, not now,” he said.

“What's this?” Ron said.

“You were supposed to keep her away. It was a simple thing, but could you manage that one thing, that one bloody thing for me? No, of course not!” Harry snarled.

“Keeping her from anything that she wanted to do was like fighting against a force of nature, and you know it,” Ron fired back.

“SHE WASN'T SUPPOSED TO BE THERE, AND NOW SHE'S DEAD!” Harry shouted at him.

Ron bowed his head and said, “I hear you, Harry... God knows, I hear you. I haven't been able to put it out of my mind for a minute.”

Harry reached toward the tray next to the bed and grabbed the first thing he could find: a tissue box. He hurled it at Ron's head and growled, “GET OUT!”

“Easy there, Harry...” Mr. Weasley said.

Gudrun popped her head in just then. “What is happening in here?” she asked.

Harry lost it the moment that he saw her. He raged, “YOU! IT'S A LOT MORE YOUR FAULT THAN RON'S! I KNOW HOW HERMIONE LEARNT THOSE SPELLS! SHE AND GINNY WERE THE ONES DOING A RITUAL THAT NIGHT, WEREN'T THEY? YOU KNEW IT!  YOU KNEW IT ALL ALONG, AND YOU DAMN WELL KNEW SHE WASN'T TO BE ANYWHERE NEAR THE MINISTRY! YOU COULD AS WELL HAVE PUT A WAND TO HER HEAD!”

“That's out of line!” Ron barked.

“I... I... I don't know what to...” Gudrun stammered.

Harry threw over the tray entirely, then grabbed a metal bedpan and threw it at Gudrun's head. “GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT!” he screamed. The blood rushed from his head and everything in the room shook.

Madam Pomfrey bustled in and demanded, “What is going on here? What have you done to my patient?”

“He's gone spare, that's what's happened!” Ron said.

“Out with all of you – out, I say! Mr. Potter will be leaving when I say he's to leave, and not a moment sooner. Good day to you!” Madam Pomfrey huffed.

After a long while, when the Weasleys were gone and the room was quiet and the only sounds were the whirring of the air vents and the slow rocking of Madam Pomfrey's conjured chair, he said, “I can't go back to it, you know? I have to go away.”

“I understand why you can't go to the Weasleys' home, but I'm more than a little concerned about you being entirely alone. Set me at ease: tell me why you think that you'll be all right on your own, why you think that you'll be safe.” Madam Pomfrey said.

Harry said, “I'll never be Harry Potter again, I can't be. Be honest with me, now. Do you think I'll ever be able to set foot in the magical world again without stirring everyone up?”

“In a generation or two, perhaps,” Madam Pomfrey admitted.

“I don't want to be that, and especially not now. I don't want to be used, I don't want to be in politics, I don't want to be chatted up – none of it,” said Harry.

“Where will you go?” Madam Pomfrey asked him.

“I'm not sure, honestly.  I'll be sure to give the Ministry a mail drop, or at least Hogwarts,” he said.

She said, “If you need anything, Harry, anything at all... I consider myself to be your personal healer. After all, who else would put up with your nonsense?”

“Thank you,” he said honestly.

She nodded and told him, “I think it might be best if Mr. Black were to take the stairs and apparate from the rooftop, don't you?”

A few minutes later, Harry found himself somewhere quite unexpected.  A few moments after that, he decided it was where he wanted to be - that he had found his home for now.

September 22, 1998     John O' Groats, Caithness, Scotland

Harry sat on the veranda and watched the sea go by. The sky was churning, the wind was blowing, and a mist was falling. It suited him perfectly, he thought.

“Mr. Black? Mr. Black?” Mrs. McLaren, the property agent, called out.

“I'm back here,” he loudly returned.

She came around the side of the cottage and said, “Ahh, there yeh are.” She was wearing oversized wellies along with her work-a-day clothing.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

She said, “Well, there's the matter of how long yer plannin' ta stay. A good number of the cottages are boarded up 'round about October, all exceptin' the year-round sorts.”

“Do you think the owners would sell this place to me?” he asked.

“Sell to yeh? Well, I don' rightly know... sort of an investment fer 'em... not that I can't find others fer yeh, if you're thinkin' of winterin' over,” Mrs. McLaren fretted.

“I can pay in cash,” Harry said.

“ 'Struth? That might carry the day,” she said. “Yer stayin', then?”

“That's my plan for now, at least.  If they won't sell, then perhaps I'll build.  That might be for the best, anyway," he said.

She said, “Well, yeh decided ta stay around the good'uns. We take care of those what be deservin' it in John O' Groats, I tell yeh. I'll set yeh ta meet my brother Robbie. He were in the service, too – yeh might find somethin' akin, see? Nothin' else, he might put yeh ta work... not that it's needed when yeh can pay Sterling fer a cottage. Now, yeh come by the Brown Bottle on Saturday evenin'? Take care, Mr. Black.”

“It's John, not Mr. Black – just John, that's all,” he said.

“Good ta hear, John,” she said.

He cracked open a book that he'd borrowed from Hogwarts via Poppy Pomfrey, and read and rocked and relaxed. He was nearly asleep when he heard a peculiar whump! nearby; his wand was in his hand before his eyes were open.

He called out, “Dobby! Is that you?”

“Good afternoon, Harry,” came a voice from behind him. Gudrun Stefánsdóttir stood along his beach front, along with a very, very old woman.

“You're not welcome here. Leave,” he said coldly.

“You may go, child. I shall be fine on my own,” the old woman said. Gudrun nodded and promptly disappeared into the earth.

“Who are you?” Harry demanded.

“I am known as many things, but the name given by my parents is Sigurrós Gísladóttir. I am the faúra-gaggja of the Healing Order of Halla,” the woman said.

“What do you want with me?” he said harshly.

“I wish to discuss a number of things,” she said; “May I have entry to your home?”

Harry dropped his book hard onto the seat of his rocking chair and opened the door from the veranda into the cottage. “Come in, don't come in, whatever,” he said.

Gísladóttir was surprisingly spry; she was inside his sitting room and seated before he returned with a freshly warmed kettle. “Tea?” he asked.

“What sort of tea do you offer me?” she asked in return.

“It's a pouchong tea from Taiwan, bitter at first but a little sweet on the second taste. I take it with nothing, but I suppose you could add a bit of sugar,” he said.

“I have only had the black tea that Englishmen seem to favour, the sort that requires cream and sugar. Your pouchong tea sounds adventurous to these old ears. I will gladly take a cup of it,” she said.

He slowly sipped at his tea, hoping that it would settle his anger from seeing Gudrun again. Gísladóttir seemed content to drink slowly, and Harry had recently taken a liking to silence.

At length, the old woman said, “Your dislike for Healer Stefánsdóttir is clear, but she is concerned for your well-being.  She returned to us with her concerns and presented an idea, a startling idea.  Having lived twenty decades, I tell you that I am not often startled.  I can tell you know that my initial examination of you supports this idea of hers.”

Harry's brow rose; “Your examination?” he asked.

The old woman's mouth curled into the barest of smiles and she said, “Not all mages are wand-wavers.  Now, I offer to you a hypothesis as to why you survived on the thirty-first of July.  When your young lady was struck by Skí-maðr, you surely expected to join her, did you not?”

He was startled by the abrupt question, but after a bit of thought, he said, “The bond between us was supposed to let us share a curse. If you share a Killing Curse, then you should be dead... at least, that's what we thought.”

“In nearly all instances, you would surely be correct in that thinking. There were many magical connections at work on that day, however, and those must be unravelled to find the true cause,” she said.

“I'm listening,” he said.

She began, “Firstly, you and the young lady were bound by this spell, this excratio pensare that Healer Stefánsdóttir explained to us in some detail. Secondly, you were bound by a ritual that the young lady and her friend performed. This was a Norse ritual of protection, one that was apparently known to one of the early leaders of the English.

"Healer Stefánsdóttir believes that your mother used this same ritual for your protection when you were but a babe, and that this saved you from the curse by Skí-maðr at that time. Thirdly, you were both connected in some way to these... how shall I say...? The soul anchors that Skí-maðr created – it is those of which I speak.

“So, young man, how does this Killing Curse work – this curse of which Skí-maðr was so fond? Do you have an understanding of it?”

He said, “Basically, the wizard casting the spell uses his will to force the life out of the victim.”

She said, “At a high level this is true, but more must be understood.  It saddens me to say this, but the death curse is one of very few things common to magical societies across the world.  For my people, it is ensconced in ritual.  For the English and those of like mind, it is performed as a spell.  In China, it is distilled into potion form and typically dispersed as an aerosol. 

“The magical construct behind all of these is as one.  Death curses break the connection between the body and the insubstantial self: that which most people call the soul. It is true that a strong desire to kill must be present at the time of invocation, but it is the breaking of the connection that is of the most importance.  If this is the case, and Skí-maðr broke the connection between your young lady's body and soul, then what would happen to her soul?”

“It's just gone, isn't it? Some people say that it's destroyed, others say it moves on to, you know... wherever souls go, I guess,” he answered.

“Let us accept that a portion of what makes a magical person different than the rest of humanity resides in the soul. In the particular case of your young lady, what would happen to her soul?” Gísladóttir clarified.

Harry's brows rose. He said, “She was connected to me... are you saying that it came to me?”

“A horse not led follows the first path that it sees. The young lady's insubstantial self – her essence – would have followed the existing magical bond, and so it would have passed from her to you,” she said.

“But then what?” he asked.

“As I said, a horse not led follows the first path that it sees. If something can be made to come in, then it can be made to go out again,” she said.

Now his brows furrowed. “Isn't that where it should have killed me, then? Why didn't I follow her out?” he wondered aloud.

She said, “Ahh, yes – and that is where we must consider the third party to this exercise: the soul anchor that was housed within you. It was expelled, yes?”

“We're certain of that much. It hurt. A lot,” he said.

She asked, “Do you know the game of Croquet? It is an Englishman's game, correct?”

“Erm... yeah, I suppose it is. I've seen it before, but I've never played,” he said.

She said, “It has been many a year since I have seen the game, but I do recall a few things about it. If one's ball hits that of another player, then one has an option whereby his ball may be placed side by side with the struck ball. Do you know of what I speak?”

He sighed, “Yeah, my cousin thought that was the best part of the game. He put his foot on his own ball and smacked it with the mallet, and that other ball would just fly across the lawn.  If he could hit someone with it, all the better.”

“Indeed, that is how I remember it,” she said.

“Is this going somewhere?” he asked her.

She nodded and went on, “Let us substitute the essence of your young lady for your ball, and the soul anchor of Skí-maðr as the other. Your young lady comes to a stop against the soul anchor. Your foot, which we shall call the bonding spell in this case, comes down upon your young lady. The mallet is applied, and...?”

“The horcrux comes out, and then...” he trailed off.

Gísladóttir asked, “May I be permitted to employ some diagnostic runes upon you? I will swear whatever oath you like that I will do you know harm. As you may know, such oaths are already imposed upon me as a healer.” Harry hesitated, but agreed.

She bade him lie down on the sofa, and then placed several rune-stones on or around him. “Healer Stefánsdóttir performed this same examination upon you some weeks ago,” she explained, “but I expect to see a different result.”

“I remember this one. She was looking for the horcrux,” he said.

She said, “Yes, that is correct. One moment... there. Healer Stefánsdóttir was correct: I, too, have never seen a result such as this. What is the quality of light around you? Describe to me what you see.”

“There's a white light all around me, but it's even brighter above my eyes. Last time it was grey up there. Hermione said it was actually black, from the horcrux,” he reported.

“It is such a brilliant white that I can scarcely look upon it,” she said. “The soul anchor is most certainly gone. It has been replaced. You are at once the luckiest and unluckiest person I have met in all of my years upon this Earth.”

Harry began to say, “Replaced? Are you saying that...?” but the words nearly died in his mouth.

“Your young lady has not left you. She is to be found right there,” Gísladóttir said, as she tapped upon his scar for emphasis.

“She's a horcrux? Voldemort split her soul in two?” Harry gasped.

Gísladóttir smiled and shook her head; she said, “Certainly not. One cannot divide the indivisible, no more than one can destroy the indestructible. If Skí-maðr truly divided that which he thought was his soul, then he had already given up his soul entirely. He had ceased to be human, or even to be alive in the sense that you and I would understand. The ritual associated with the term 'horcrux' can be found in Magyar lore, though it has been closely protected.  It is a derivation of a derivation of a derivation, and my most learned colleague says that it was of Egyptian origin.  Skí-maðr may have been told that he was dividing his soul, and may even have believed this.  This ritual allows a mage to copy his essence and place it in a repository.  I would not recommend this to anyone, as a copy is never the equal of its original. Having considered this in some depth, I believe that Skí-maðr made several copies of his essence and bound those copies to himself.  The bindings would be enough to keep his essence tethered to this world, just as the binding with you was enough to keep your young lady in this world.”

Harry was sitting bolt upright in great interest.  He said, “You've come to this in a few weeks?  Dumbledore must have been studying this for fifteen years.  Why was he so wrong?”

Gísladóttir seemed to struggle internally before she answered, “The Magyar ritual does not account for the making of more than one essential copy at any given time.  As to whether he bound himself by ritual or spell to these copies, I do not know for certain; it is a reasoned guess, nothing more.  The making of multiple copies and the act of binding, these things would introduce powerful variables to the known ritual.  I have indeed wondered how the Supreme Mugwump would have concluded that the making of a horcrux actually divided the indivisible.  My conclusion is that he did not have a proper translation of the ritual or sufficient grasp of the original language.  He did not understand the subtleties – the difference between elvalaszt and kettevalaszt would be one of these.  I believe that he interpreted the severing of the connection between the mage and his essential copy as a fracturing of the essence proper.”

“You could be right about that.  He wouldn't have asked anyone else's opinion, that's for certain,” Harry said flatly.

There was another lengthy silence before she continued, “The Supreme Mugwump is a topic of conversation for another time.  One of those essential copies resided within you – within the rune of protection on your forehead, to be precise – because the ritual of protection performed by your mother prevented that copy from being absorbed into your own essence. Now, recall that your young lady performed the same ritual of protection; Healer Stefánsdóttir tells that your friend also joined into the ritual, but from the role of sister rather than lover –”

“I knew it!  I was right!  What in the hell were they thinking?” Harry blurted out.

Gísladóttir said blandly, “May I finish?  The same protections that would block Skí-maðr out of your essence and entrap his copy within the rune scar would also serve to keep the young lady in. And there you have it: she has unintentionally replaced the soul anchor with herself.”

Harry felt the panic rise within him and he couldn't hold it at bay. He babbled, “Charming!  And what am I supposed to do with that? If Voldemort's body was any example, I certainly can't make a new one for her, and even if I could, how would she get from here to there? Do I kill someone and let her possess the body? Is she trapped there until I die? Is that it: do I have to kill myself now? What am I supposed to do?”

“This I do not know. I believe that you will know of it when the time comes,” the ancient healer said.

Harry went on, “Oh, that's so helpful! Hermione's stuck in my head! I'm supposed to just walk around like a normal bloke for the next hundred years pretending it's all right?”

“We will make available to you everything that we know on the subject. I suggest that you visit the Inn of the Healing Order as our guest. There is no room filled with grœð at Hekla - we would never presume to do such a thing - but it does commune with us when asked. If you wish to commune with grœð a second time, then we will make it so,” she said.

“What good would that do?” he asked.

She said, “Perhaps the young lady would be freed to move on? Perhaps you would receive the solution, or the path that leads to it? Perhaps nothing would happen at all. I believe that what ever you would experience, it would be favourable.

“In addition to this, we owe you a boon. You emptied that horrible Room within your Ministry. You were asked what you sought, and you chose to let life freely live – to let justice go out into the world as it belongs. This is an act beyond our ability to repay, but we will do as best we can. What would you ask of us? You do not need to answer now.  In fact, this may not be the proper time at all.”

Harry sat back for several minutes, and to his surprise Gísladóttir patiently waited. At long last, he asked, “I don't know if you've met Ron Weasley...?”

“I met the young man during his healing. He and Healer Stefánsdóttir have grown rather attached,” she answered.

“Does she still feel that way? I'm sure about him, but what about her?” he asked.

“She does, I fear. It is troubling to many of our sisters and brothers in healing,” she said.

“Set her free, then. Let them have each other. That's my boon,” he said.

Gísladóttir peered at him with her rheumy eyes as though she was trying to read the contents of his soul. “Why do you ask this? I saw your anger when Healer Stefánsdóttir arrived. I was told that you have broken off contact completely with young Mr. Weasley.”

He wrung his hands and said uneasily, “I'll patch things up with Ron, eventually.  Her...?  I don't know, I suppose that depends on what happens to Hermione.  Look... if Ron and Gudrun... if the two of them can have something special... well, I can't stand in the way of that.  If I can make that happen for them, then it's the right thing to do. I guess I'm just a fool, but there you are.”

“What if I told you that the elders had already agreed to release Healer Stefánsdóttir from her oaths of service?” she asked.

Harry shrugged. “There's nothing I really need, then,” he said.

“Do you wish to be our guest in Iceland?” she asked him.

There was no hesitation on his part. “Yes,” he said.

October 31, 1998     Inn of the Healing Order of Halla, due north of Skaftafell, Iceland

“This isn't my favourite day, you know? Nothing good's ever come of this day,” Harry said to one of the attendants as his eyes took in the huge wood-hewn ritual room.

Madam Gísladóttir, the faúra-gaggja, arrived just then with six women in tow, all of them closer to her age than his. She clasped Harry's hands and said, “I know this has been a day of ill omen for you, but it is also the time when the veil between living and dead is at its thinnest. As I know what you hope for, I felt that this would be for the best.”

“Thank you for that,” he said.

“We will not allow you to be harmed, though the faúra-gaggja thinks it unlikely in any event,” one of the women said.

Another asked, “Is it true that you were the one to free the grœð from the Englishmen?”

“I did that. It wasn't right.  They didn't own it; it's not something to be controlled,” he said.

“You are a truly honourable man,” she returned, and gave a formal bow to him.

“There are three who asked to be present today. It is in your hands as to whether this will be so,” Gísladóttir said. She directed his attention to the left of the room. Magnus, Ron and Gudrun were all standing there.

“I need a moment,” Harry said to the seven women. Once he was dismissed, he crossed the room.

Magnus took his arm up to the elbow in some sort of warrior's handshake, and Harry did his best to return it without embarrassing himself. “It is good to see you again, Mr. Potter, very good indeed,” the burly Icelander said.

“It's my honour. How did you know about this?” Harry asked him.

Magnus inclined his head toward Gudrun; he said, “Know that Einar, my friend and ally, was the brother of Gudrun. I protect her as though she were my own flesh and blood, and she told me that you would be a guest of the Healing Order. on this day." 

“I see,” Harry said evenly.

“We fought and we won the day.  My people were avenged.  A Guardian of Midgard I may be, but more than this, I am a liege-man of Harry Potter.  So it is, and so shall it be,” said Magnus in a formal tone.

Harry had no idea how to respond; he stumbled, “Erm... okay... I do appreciate that... thank you, obviously...”

Ron drew a deep breath and said, “Look, Harry, I didn't know of any place else to find you, and Kingsley won't give out your location to anyone – which he shouldn't, of course. I just had to thank you for what you did, standing up for Gudrun and me.  That's all.  I don't expect anything from it.”

Gudrun added, “It is the same for me. What you said to the faúra-gaggja was more than we expected or deserved. I thank you for it. I will be released from the Healing Order tomorrow.”

“We're making a start of it in the Faeroes. I think the both of us need a change, at least for now. I suppose that's something you understand,” Ron said.

Harry pursed his lips before he said, “All three of you can stay here. I don't expect there will be much to see.”

“So, is she really... you know...?” Ron asked; he tapped on his own forehead to make the point.

“That's what they tell me,” Harry returned.

A few minutes later, Harry was dressed in a simple white robe and stood at the centre of a circle; the seven healers stood on the circle at equal distances from one another. The only light in the ritual room was within the circle. He couldn't see Ron or Magnus or Gudrun in the darkness. The healers began to chant something that Harry assumed was in Icelandic. It was almost as much a song as a chant, and he found his head was swaying in rhythm with it. He was quickly dizzy in the sort of way that usually indicated a person was about to spew. The light within the circle grew brighter and brighter and then a whitish fog began to build around his feet. Soon, he found himself surrounded by the light and unable to find up or down or forward or back.

What do you want?

He said, “You know what I want, but she's dead.”

What do you want?

He said, “If I have to die to bring her back, then kill me. If she wants to, you know, move on... then let her leave.”

What do you want?

He couldn't answer. He could barely find himself in the light. He was becoming nothing; the only thing he could place was his insubstantial self.

What do you want?

He said, “I just want this to be over. I can't figure out how to live. Is that too much to ask?”

The voice changed, from one to many, from quiet to commanding.  It had a bit of the ugly resonance Harry remembered from Trelawney's true prophecies.

All will be as it should be in its own time.  The time will come after you learn the truth of it, but know you will carry the burden of it unto the end of time. 

“I don't give a damn about 'all' – is she all right?  Will she be all right?” he shouted at it.

The one you seek will be whole again.

With that, the light went away and he was once again on his knees and on his own. 

The clutch of old women looked at him as if he had sprouted an extra head, and even Gísladóttir's brow was sharply raised.  Gudrun was pensive and Magnus was unreadable.  For his part, Ron wore an expression Harry had seen more times than was really healthy – one that said something along the lines of  'I don't know what this is all about, but I've got your back'.

Harry didn't know what this was all about, but he couldn't deny that it had the flavour of prophecy.  The thought that he could be at the centre of another prophecy wasn't merely unpleasant; frankly, it was unacceptable.  He knelt there for quite a while and allowed his mind to work, something that came so much easier since Voldemort's demise. 

The stupid bloody white light did confirm that Hermione was still there, or at least not dead, and that it was at least possible to make her whole again.  He supposed that it could have meant she would be 'made whole' by way of some sort of afterlife, but something about the white light was more forthright than that. 

Prophecies were slippery things, open to a thousand interpretations – they were almost dishonest by design.  The grœð was all about justice, if these Icelanders were in the right.  It said Hermione would be whole again.  It suggested that this would take some time and that he would have to find the truth about something, something that didn't sound very pleasant.  The first thing he needed to do was figure out if anyone else had overheard the... the message, he decided to call it.  He wouldn't allow a latter-day Severus Snape to cock things up from the start.      

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