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Fics begun in 2003 (post-OOTP)

Chapter Thirty-five

THRILL OF THE HUNT

September 15

“It’s not that bad,” Harry told Ron. His shirt fit closely, but Harry was still growing accustomed to clothing in his own size. With the waistcoat and vest added, he felt more encumbered than he would have liked.

“It’s that bad, all right!” Ron moaned. “What are these things, trousers or pants?”

“I think Dumbledore called them breeches,” Harry said.

“Do you want to hear what I call them?” Ron fumed.

“I’ll take a pass,” Harry laughed.

Ron’s voice went shrill. “They’re having us on, you know – the goblins are going to have a right laugh over us!” Harry just shook his head. “You’re telling me that they actually dress like this?” Ron went on.

“Someone’s never opened his eyes at Gringotts,” Hermione said from behind them. Harry stood up quickly from the Common Room sofa. He smoothed his hair, but stopped as soon as he gave it a thought – it was futile, he knew.

“At least you’re only wearing a smart version of what the goblins wear to work,” Hermione went on. She wore a long dark dress with a lace collar. It looked heavy and it was exceptionally full.

“Would a cooling charm help?” Harry asked.

Hermione smiled broadly. “That would be brilliant, Harry!” He quickly obliged.

Ginny came stumbling down from the girls’ dormitory; a pair of third-year girls gave her as wide a berth as they could manage. She had the look of someone experiencing the morning after the night before, and Ron began to glare well before she reached the base of the stairs. She walked past Hermione, then Ron and then Harry without any more acknowledgement than a rude grunt, and then stopped dead just beyond Harry. “What in the bloody hell are you wearing?” she croaked.

“Language, Ginny!” Hermione protested.

“What were you doing last night?” Ron demanded in return; Hermione gave Ron a solid thwack on the arm.

“Working on a special project for Professor Flitwick, as if you care,” Ginny snapped back.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ron fired off.

Harry cut in. “We’re off to meet with the goblins,” he reminded Ginny.

“Ah, the goblins,” Ginny muttered. She squinted in the direction of Harry’s neck; Harry took a half-step back. “Your ascot… it’s completely wrong,” she said.

“My… what?” Harry said.

“Ascot… ascot,” Ginny said impatiently. “You don’t know what’s wrapped around your neck?”

Hermione gave Ron an appraising look. “Ginny’s right,” she agreed. “Here, let me help you with it.” Ron gurgled as Hermione twisted his ascot tight.

“Neville had one with his robes for the Yule Ball. He couldn’t manage it either,” Ginny said.

Ginny had her troubles with the ascot, as well; she was on her second try when Harry cleared his throat and asked, “Do you remember what we spoke about at the Lovegoods?”

Ginny’s hand twitched and the ascot came loose again. “How could I forget?” she said quietly.

“It wasn’t you,” Harry told her. “I’m sure of it.”

Ginny started again with trembling hands. “You’re sure I didn’t let the dream happen? How can you be sure of it?” she asked.

“A lot has happened in the last month,” Harry said. “I can’t explain, but it wasn’t you. I, er, just thought you should know.”

Ginny pulled harder on the ascot than was necessary; Harry stumbled forward. “You can’t explain, or you won’t explain?” she asked coldly.

Harry frowned. “I thought you should know; it’s one less thing to worry about.”

“I’ll be worried about it until Voldemort’s dead and gone,” Ginny said. “I’ll probably be worried about it for the rest of my life.” Harry looked around the Common Room to see if anyone else was within earshot; Ginny pulled hard on the ascot, and Harry faced her again.

“It was me, Ginny,” Harry said. “I know it was me.”

Ginny pursed her lips, and finished spreading the sides of the fabric. She undid the top button of his shirt and carefully tucked the ascot into place. “Do you have a pin?” she asked.

Harry was confused. “A pin?”

“A stick pin – do you have one?” Ginny repeated. “It’s to keep the ends in place.”

He looked at her blankly. “No… should I?”

“It’s always good when you can pin things down,” she said absently. She smoothed the ends by moving her hands against his chest and she took her time doing it. He began to feel distinctly uncomfortable, and he was painfully aware that Ron and Hermione were both watching.

“What’s this about?” he whispered forcefully.

Ginny let her hands drop. Her tone was curious, and he couldn’t figure what she was feeling. “Thank you for letting me know, Harry,” she said. “I was getting tired of hiding myself away, you know – always making sure to stay clear of you.”

“Erm… either McGonagall or Dumbledore will be coming for us,” Harry said quickly. “I don’t think you want to be seen…”

Ginny ran her hands through her hair. “That bad, eh? I suppose the Great Hall’s out, then…”

“I could call for a house-elf –” Harry murmured. With a high-pitched pop, a house-elf appeared no more than a foot from him; he was so startled that he nearly fell.

“Esteemed apprentice Master Harry sir!” the house-elf squeaked. “Why do you call for a lowly house-elf in the presence of… of… students? We is not to be seen, Master Harry sir! We is… eek! She-Who-Knits!

Hermione buried her face in her hands, and Ron’s eyes widened before he started to laugh. “‘She-Who-Knits’?” he chortled. “Oh, that’s rich!”

“Hermione… I… I’m so sorry…” Ginny giggled.

“Good morning, Spat,” Harry said angrily. “I don’t appreciate having my friend’s feelings hurt.”

Spat’s eyes bugged and he quickly ducked his head. “Spat was impertinent,” he said quickly. “Spat apologises to Master Harry sir.”

“You’ve hurt Hermione, not me,” Harry snapped. “If you’re going to make your apologies, then you speak to her.”

Spat fidgeted nearly to the point of trembling. “We is not to be seen and we is not to speak, Master Harry sir! You are the Headmaster’s esteemed apprentice so we speaks to you, and we speaks to the professors!”

“Harry, please stop,” Hermione said softly. Spat stared at her for a long moment, and then returned his eyes to the floor. She walked toward the house-elf, who nearly convulsed as a result.

No hats, Miss…” Spat cried.

“No more hats, I promise you,” Hermione told him.

“She… the Miss is having Spat on,” Spat said nervously.

“I never meant to hurt any of you!” Hermione assured him. “I don’t believe that any of you should be enslaved – it’s plainly wrong – but it’s clear I went about things badly. I’m truly sorry.”

Spat gasped. “The Miss mustn’t apologise to Spat! The Miss acts like Master Harry sir, and Master Harry sir shouldn’t act as Master Harry sir does!”

“If I caused you pain, Spat, then I should apologise,” Hermione insisted. “Again, I’m so sorry.”

The sound of a clearing throat at the portrait hole drew everyone’s attention. “Pardon, but am I to understand that the elves refer to one of my students as ‘She-Who-Knits’?” Dumbledore asked.

Spat threw himself to the floor. “H-H-Headmaster s-sir… Sp-Sp-Spat f-followed the will of t-the –”

“I am disappointed,” Dumbledore said, and Spat responded as though he’d been struck. “I shall speak with the Taaimmainen this afternoon. In the meantime, please refrain from using that name; it is derogatory.” He turned to Hermione. “And as for you, Miss Granger… I take it that this is in reference to your penchant for making elf-sized headwear?”

Hermione blushed fiercely. “Yes, Headmaster. I’ve not done it this year, I swear.”

“You are a curious sort of rebel,” Dumbledore said with a twinkle in his eyes. “I trust that you will be more diplomatic in your efforts today?”

“Of course, Headmaster!” Hermione said immediately.

Dumbledore looked at his curious watch from several angles. “Minister Fudge has somehow become aware of your pending visit with Fliptrask and his colleagues. He is most anxious to meet with the three of you before you depart,” he said. “That is why I am ten minutes late in arriving here –”

A terrified squeak came from the stairs to the boys’ dormitories. Two young students peered over the railing; their shock at seeing the Headmaster in their Common Room was clear.

Dumbledore gave a friendly wave, and began again. “That is why I am ten minutes late in arriving here, which will in turn require that you make your way to the waiting carriage immediately. A pity, wouldn’t you agree?” Ron appeared lost until after Harry and Hermione both smirked.

The Headmaster turned to Ginny. “Miss Weasley, you look a fright. Might I suggest that a lie-in is in order? Young elf, please fetch some light breakfast and take it to Miss Weasley in the fifth-year dormitory… some of Professor Detheridge’s coffee appears in order, as well. Go on – off with you both!” Spat disappeared and Ginny trundled toward the stairs with her head ducked. Harry, Hermione and Ron followed Dumbledore through the portrait hole and toward a small staircase that none of the three students could recall ever seeing before.

The small staircase wound endlessly downward. Just when Harry suspected that they were nearing the centre of the earth, Dumbledore opened a partially concealed door that opened into the corridor that led to the first floor classrooms. Harry looked to his left; Fudge, Percy Weasley and a knot of Aurors waited at the base of the main stairs in the entry hall. Before Ron could turn, Harry nudged him after Dumbledore. They exited into the courtyard and moved briskly down the walk and then along a path until they reached a waiting Thestral-drawn carriage.

"This is where I take my leave," Dumbledore said. "Unlike Cornelius, I have every confidence in the three of you."

"Er... we won't do anything daft, Headmaster," Ron offered.

Dumbledore gave a soft chuckle; "Provided that you avoid apocalyptic errors, all shall be fine in the end," he returned. He held out his hand to Hermione and ushered her into the carriage, then stepped aside for Ron and Harry to join her.

Harry was surprised to see Fliptrask awaiting them in the carriage. He seemed to flow across the bench, his corpulent belly sagging against his legs. The goblin's dress was similar to Harry's, but more adorned – a splash of gold here; encrusted jewels there. "Greetings," he rumbled. "My presence here should be an indication to you of the importance of this event – both the hunt itself and the fact that we are allowing you to see it. Consider yourselves unduly privileged." He roughly extended a hand to Ron. "You are Mister Potter's guest. What are you called?"

"Ron Weasley, sir," Ron squeaked. "Erm… I didn't catch your... um... name?"

"I am Fliptrask," the goblin said. "The Trust Department at Gringotts is mine. You are a brother to William Weasley." Ron nodded quickly, and Fliptrask managed something vaguely resembling a smirk. "William Weasley is well regarded by most at Gringotts… he wagers well," he added.

All three students had remained standing; Fliptrask motioned with his hand, and they took their seats. The goblin knocked three times on the side of the carriage compartment and they began to move swiftly. Harry had been so caught unaware by Fliptrask that he hadn't paid any mind to the man seated to the goblin's right. The man was quite old – easily as old as Dumbledore or Croaker, he figured. He was dressed in goblin finery, but also wore a rather flamboyant cloak; Gilderoy Lockhart came unbidden to Harry's mind. His hair was long and pure white, and tied into a ponytail similar to Bill Weasley. He had an absurd moustache – it shot to the left and right like daggers, but curled upward at the tips – and a goatee. There was an ornate sword at his side. He sat there almost primly and took in Harry with a disinterested look.

The man's eyes moved to Hermione and lingered. Harry thrust forward his hand. "Good morning, I'm Harry Potter. And you are...?"

The man's voice was much younger than the rest of him. He spoke with an accent that Harry thought to be French, though it wasn't nearly so sharp as Fleur Delacour's. "I know of you, Monsieur Potter," the man said. "I represent the Ministére de Magie before the International Conference of Wizards. I am the greatest living expert on the art of the duel. I have been a confidant of rulers, advisor to mages, acolyte of the greatest alchemist of the age, defender of the crown, and saviour of all wizards – not once, but twice. I, Monsieur, am your humble servant… Alexandre, Marquis de Maupassant." He leaned forward on the bench and gave a very formal half-bow.

Ron coughed furiously and Harry muttered, "Bloody hell!" under his breath. Hermione put her hand to her face, and unsuccessfully stifled a snort.

The Marquis's brow lifted. "What is this, ma chère? I am not familiar to you? Impossible!"

Hermione's cheeks coloured. "No! Er... not at all, Marquis. Harry is… something of a fan, you might say."

The Marquis beamed at Harry. "A fan? This is so? Did my very good friend Albus gift you with my humble book?" Hermione snorted again under her breath.

"It came from my godfather's library, actually," Harry said. "It's probably not the newest edition; it's rather old."

The Marquis laughed loudly. "But of course it is old, Monsieur Potter! It is old, and the Marquis is old - we are both, ehh... antiques."

Fliptrask let out a low rumbling laugh at that. "The Marquis has been a friend of goblins for many years," he said. "The Smith Guild belonged to my grandsire when the Marquis first assisted us. The gratitude of a goblin is as long lasting as his vengeance." He stared pointedly at Harry, and added, "Remember that, Mister Potter."

The Marquis put on a mock frown. "But why are you so serious, my friend?" he asked Fliptrask. "Monsieur Potter and his charming companion and their guest are ready for celebration, not lectures! Come; let us turn to more pleasant things." He leaned forward and asked Harry very seriously, "Tell me, my young friend… what little tricks have you picked up from the book?" He broke into a broad smile, and Harry couldn't help but laugh; the man's certainly as full of himself as Lockhart, he thought.

"Harry cast catadromarius stranguria on someone. I'm curious as to your thoughts on that," Hermione said flatly.

The Marquis's eyebrows waggled. "My, my, my... Monsieur Potter! You've been a naughty young man, yes? And what dishonour led to that spell, I am wondering?"

Harry's throat tightened and he felt his face heat up. "I, erm, thought that someone had cast a Cutting Curse on Hermione here," he said.

"A Cutting Curse, you say? A Cutting Curse? You are, ehh, near to the end of your studies?" The Marquis toyed with the end of his moustache. "This is a grievous curse, true, but this splendid young lady could surely defend herself?"

"With what? Protego won't stop it, right?" Ron asked sourly.

The Marquis slowly shook his head. "No, no, Monsieur Weasley, not against a wizard of skill. Protego, this is your defence?" He pressed the back of his hand against his forehead. "Oh, Albus... my old friend Albus... has your head grown as soft as your robes?"

"Hermione didn't have a wand," Harry said.

The Marquis's face froze, and then his eyes narrowed and his nose flared. "Someone attacked this charming young woman –?"

"My name is Hermione Granger, Marquis," Hermione cut in.

The Marquis nodded. "Enchanté, Mademoiselle Granger," he said, and then began again, "Someone attacked the fair Mademoiselle Granger with a Cutting Curse when she was without wand? The attacker, he knew this?"

"He had to know it," Ron grumbled. "Rotten ferret… all he had to do was open his eyes."

The Marquis drew himself up as if to render judgment. "Catadromarius stranguria is no trifle, Monsieur Potter, but any man who would attack a woman unable to offer a defence... this man, he is a mere brute. This man lacks honour, my young friends. This man, he deserves his fate. So, tell me... was it effective?"

"Made me cross my legs, I'll tell you," Ron muttered.

"Malfoy didn't cast a Cutting Curse," Hermione pointed out. "Harry thought that he did, but he didn't. If he'd taken a moment before casting, Harry would have realised that."

"Ahh, I see – the fair Mlle. Granger, she belongs to, ehh, how you say… Raven's Claw?" the Marquis said. "Monsieur Potter, he is of course the Gryffindor, the lion. I am thinking that most times Monsieur Potter knows when to pounce, yes? I am thinking that this moment which you seek, it may as easily have meant your death, Mlle. Granger? I am thinking that in the duel there is no opportunity to, ehh, suffer the doubt?"

"I'm not a Ravenclaw," Hermione said briskly.

"Hermione's a Gryffindor, just like Ron and me," Harry added.

The Marquis bowed his head slightly. "I offer my humblest apologies, Mlle. Granger. It is only that you were thinking like the Raven's Claw – like my very good friend Filius. I had to teach him to be the lion. I do not criticise, dear young lady; the lion and the raven, they are good together I think."

"The intelligence of Ravenclaw and the courage of Gryffindor are a worthy combination, Miss Granger," Fliptrask said. "Instead we too often encounter the docile Hufflepuff and the crafty Slytherin united. We goblins see more than most wizards know, Mister Potter – much more."

"Um… Fliptrask, sir… how far are we going?" Ron asked.

The goblin smiled, which Harry found just a bit frightening – it was all sharp-looking teeth and it reminded him of Winky. "If you refer to me as `sir' when we are amongst the clans, Mister Weasley, you will cause a stir. This carriage is efficient. We will arrive in twenty minutes."

 


 

“No one said anything about horses,” Ron protested.

Harry stood his ground. “You’ve ridden flying horses, Ron – invisible flying horses that feed on blood.”

“That was an emergency,” Ron glowered, “and these are… they’re… well, they’re horses – that’s what they are!”

Harry’s horse – an Arabian mare, the Marquis had said – nuzzled him, and he stroked its neck. “I don’t see all the fuss,” he said. “They seem fine to me.”

“You obviously haven’t ridden one of these before,” Ron snapped. His horse – an Arabian of a different sort – snorted and nudged him with her head. “Geroff!” he shouted.

Harry laughed, “Spiders, horses… what else makes you shriek like a little girl, I wonder?” Ron growled at him, but Harry continued to stroke his horse until she gave a contented shudder. “Can’t be harder than managing a broom, I figure,” he said.

“Oi, you ever ride a broom that goes one way when you want to go another?” Ron countered. His horse snatched her own reins out of Ron’s hand and whinnied at him. “Give that back, you thief!” Ron demanded.

Hermione came through the gate into the paddock alongside a goblin in a scarlet coat. Harry was pleased to see Professor Flitwick strolling behind them.

Harry quickly waved. “Hello, er… Filius! Why didn’t you tell me that you’d be here?”

Flitwick grinned. “Hullo, Harry! You didn’t enquire, did you? Ah… it’s a glorious day for this. Good morning, Mr. Weasley!”

Ron snatched back the reins from his horse. “Good morning, Professor,” he said flatly.

Hermione’s dress had been replaced by a crisply tailored version of the coat and breeches that Harry and Ron wore. “Oooh, aren’t you gorgeous?” she cried out happily and made straight toward Ron.

Ron turned brilliantly red. “Um… Hermione… I… uh…”

Hermione brushed him aside and ran her fingers through the mane of Ron’s horse. “I’ve never seen a colour quite like this! Remarkable…”

Ron began to cough and Harry quickly jumped in. “I thought you didn’t care for horses,” he said.

Hermione’s shoulders rose, Harry noticed. “I don’t care for Thestrals,” she said without looking his way. “They’re hardly the same thing.”

The scarlet-coated goblin drew up beside Hermione. “Her name is Lojaali, young witch. She is an Akhal-Teke – they are from the Turkish highlands and very special horses indeed. She comes from the Johtaja’s personal stable.” The goblin eyed Ron closely, and added, “You are in need of a larger horse than this, young wizard.”

Larger? This one looks ruddy huge to me!” Ron squeaked.

“Nonsense,” Hermione chided him. “Harry could get by with her, but certainly not you.”

The Marquis slowly rode out of the stable. He was perched atop a horse that looked to Harry to be powerful but old. Two goblins on much smaller brown horses flanked him as he entered the paddock. A third goblin led a strong-looking black horse. “Ah, Monsieur Weasley!” the Marquis called. “They have found a horse for you, I think!”

Ron’s eyes saucered. “Er… I’m feeling attached to this one, right?” he squeaked.

“Surely not!” the Marquis laughed. “A knight errant must ride the proper sort of horse, yes? It is a proud stallion for you, sir! Stop this foolishness and claim your steed!”

Harry nudged Ron. “Make like you’re approaching Buckbeak, mate. Don’t show fear – show him respect,” he whispered.

Ron let out an audible gulp that everyone politely ignored. He approached the horse half-wincing. “Here, boy… what’s your name, boy?” Ron managed.

“Painajainen, according to the High Tongue,” the goblin holding the horse’s reins said. “In your tongue, this is Nightmare.”

“Smashing,” Ron murmured.

The scarlet-coated goblin moved in front of the stallion and gave a hand signal; the horse went stock still. He took the reins from the groomsman and nodded. “Guess I’ll just, erm, climb aboard then…” Ron muttered. The groomsman gave Ron a foothold; Nightmare never budged an inch as Ron dragged himself up and over.

The goblin in scarlet turned to Hermione. “I apologise that you must remain with the trailing group, young witch.”

Hermione nodded demurely. “I understand, Master Gralnor,” she said. “I take no offence.”

The goblin caught Harry’s eye and bowed slightly. “I am Gralnor, Master of the Hunt,” he said. “Mister Potter, you are offered a hunt button. You and your guest may ride with the hunting party… or you may accompany the young witch in the trailing group, if you desire.”

Harry nodded curtly. He thought it odd that the goblin addressed him by name, but not Hermione. “May I ask, Gralnor… are women not allowed?” he said.

Master Gralnor’s expression went sour. “We leave such distinctions to humans. The young witch must trail because she confuses the crups.”

Harry raised an eyebrow. “Er… the crups?”

“Yes, the crups,” Master Gralnor returned. “Some of the crups initially mistook the young witch for a Muggle – this was not anticipated. She shall ride, but she must not disrupt the hunt proper.”

Hermione mounted the golden Arabian in one practiced motion. “It’s been too long since I’ve done this,” she said brightly. “Thank you, Master Gralnor.” The goblin tipped his cap to her.

Ron sat in the saddle as though he might accidentally break eggs. He said, “I’ll stay back with Hermione.” Sure, so she can keep you from going arse-over-teakettle, Harry thought; he held back a smirk and merely nodded.

“I’ll take that button you mentioned,” Harry said to Master Gralnor.

“Affix this to your lapel,” Master Gralnor said. He handed Harry a small gold medallion with someone called St. Hubert depicted upon it, and added, “Your decision is correct. Fliptrask wishes that you join him at the front.” Master Gralnor gave Harry a slight boost, and Harry mounted his horse with considerably more grace than Ron.

“I shall remain with the trailing group as well, for I must go gently with these old bones,” the Marquis said. “Rest assured that Monsieur Weasley will ride his steed with grace when I have finished with him!”

Harry managed to guide his horse toward Hermione, who had turned away from Ron and the Marquis with one hand stifling a laugh. “What have I gotten myself into?” he whispered to her urgently.

“It’s organised like a fox hunt,” Hermione whispered back, “but I can’t imagine we’re to be hunting foxes.”

“Suppose I don’t know a single thing about a fox hunt?” Harry returned quietly.

“I’m not on solid ground, myself – not fond of the idea, honestly,” Hermione admitted. “All I can tell you for certain is that we’re meant to chase something. The hunting party follows the crups. Who knows what the crups will be following?” She shuddered.

Harry had a horrible thought for a moment, and he gave voice to it. “Erm… I’m sure they wouldn’t take us, you know… Muggle hunting…?”

“Of course they wouldn’t!” Hermione snapped. “It’s certainly not the sort of hunt I imagined, but even if they were inclined to hunt Muggles – and I sincerely doubt that – it would not only be bad business but bad form. They do know that I’m Muggle-born, Harry!”

“Move aside for the quarry!” Master Gralnor called out. Hermione’s horse moved to one side, and Harry managed to hold his horse still. A cart drawn by two of the small brown horses rumbled past, bearing a stack of cages. The ferret-like creatures inside mewled and hissed until they caught sight of the goblins and wizards, and then launched as one into long strings of the vilest obscenities Harry had ever heard.

“Jarveys!” Hermione exclaimed.

Harry’s nose wrinkled at the shouting. “Well… they make it easy to root for the crups, eh? Good riddance!” Hermione didn’t smile, but she didn’t scowl at the thought either.

The area at the front of the large barn began to fill with goblins and their mounts. The Marquis used the time to lead Ron around the paddock in a sort of abbreviated tuition; Hermione nodded in agreement frequently, and Harry began to pay close attention to the instructions. Then she nudged Harry and led him through a few paces.

“When did you learn all of this?” Harry asked.

“I had a horse when I was younger,” Hermione said. “It was something I was good at – riding, I mean… but it was two hours’ drive to the stable and I know it was costly, so we let it go.”

“I could keep horses in St. Ebb, you know,” Harry said impulsively. “There’s a stable inside the tower walls, and… what?”

Hermione frowned at him rather severely, which he hadn’t expected at all. “You should ride quite a lot before you even consider taking on horses,” she said.

“I thought you might like to ride, that’s all,” Harry mumbled.

“That’s madness, Harry!” Hermione protested. “You’d outfit a stable so that I could ride a few times each year? You’ve no idea of the expense!”

Harry shrugged. “I could have the stable cleaned up, buy the best horses, hire the right sort of help, and never notice the expense,” he said.

Hermione moved to ride away from him. “That’s not something Harry Potter would say,” she said coldly.

Harry manoeuvred in front of her. “What? I’m supposed to feel guilty because I have money?” he snapped.

“You were rich – truly rich – before you had Galleons to flaunt,” Hermione shot back. “I’m not impressed by wealth.”

Flaunt? What are you on about?” Harry demanded.

“I don’t want to argue with you; I won’t be a distraction,” Hermione insisted, and with a slight move of the reins the golden Akhal circled away from him.

Harry gritted his teeth. “I’d buy Ron a new broom every day if he asked,” he called after her. “If you want all the books at Flourish and Blotts, they’re yours! What else am I supposed to do with it? I finally have something to give, and you accuse me of flaunting it?”

A series of emotions played across Hermione’s face, and Harry could read each argument and counterargument within her. He’d noticed that tendency about her long before Snape’s meddling, but it stood in sharper relief now. “See how you feel about horses after riding,” she said evenly. “Now try a few small jumps; you’ll need them to keep with the hunting party.”

By the time that Gralnor began to form up the riders into groups, Harry’s irritation with Hermione had faded and he was reasonably certain that he could take his horse over small obstacles without sending himself to the turf. Ron was sitting with more confidence; the Marquis clapped him on the shoulder as he passed. Harry saw the Marquis slip his wand out briefly and flick it toward Ron; there was a very subtle change in the way that Ron’s breeches clung to the saddle.

“A Sticking Charm – should have thought of that,” Hermione sniggered. “Ron will be fine, you know? Don’t pay attention to his horse’s name; he’s a Friesian – a real pussycat.”

“Maybe I should be riding one of those,” Harry said.

“You’ll be fine; just stay within yourself,” Hermione assured him. “Your horse seems to fancy you, anyway – what’s her name?”

“Salamaa,” Gralnor called out. Harry’s horse shuddered at the sound of her name, and advanced more or less on her own until she lined up just behind the assembled hunting party.

Flitwick rode up beside him, atop one of the compact brown horses that the goblins obviously favoured. “I imagine you’ve had little opportunity to ride, Harry,” he said. “We used to teach horsemanship at Hogwarts, in the days when Muggles still used horse and carriage. Then again, duelling with swords was once part of the Defence curriculum. The times change and we change with them – begrudgingly in some cases.”

“Dumbledore suggested that you might be here,” Harry said.

“I am closely connected to the world of goblins,” Flitwick returned. “Albus knows this well. I was surprised that he did not consult with me in detail about this, but the Headmaster is quite capable of choosing his own counsel.”

“You could have spoken to me,” Harry said.

“You could have done the same,” Flitwick pointed out. “Albus is your master; you are his apprentice. I shall not interfere in that. In any case, learning to select your own counsel is a part of taking one’s place in the world. Perhaps next time you will choose me, if appropriate? Perhaps you will not; I shan’t take offence either way.”

Harry let out a frustrated sigh. “But that’s so… so…”

“Passive? Meek?” Flitwick laughed merrily. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand, Harry, not on first consideration. Ravenclaws understand that the artistry of flight lies in knowing when to steer and when to let the broom do as it will.”

Harry didn’t hear Fliptrask ride up behind him; he was startled to hear the goblin address Flitwick: “I offer the blessings of the clan, kinsman.”

“I offer my fealty in return, within the bounds of my obligations and any claims upon me,” Flitwick answered.

Harry gaped at Flitwick. “Kinsman?”

“Filius and I share an ancestor – a great-grandsire,” Fliptrask said before Flitwick could respond; “Did you think that your professor achieved the perfect stature merely by accident?” Flitwick’s peals of laughter were the counterpoint to Fliptrask’s gruff yowls. Flitwick then said something in what Harry presumed to be Gobbledegook and then clasped Fliptrask’s forearm in a very formal way. Fliptrask responded in kind and broke into a toothy smile.

Flitwick saw the lost look in Harry’s eyes, and explained, “I was wishing him luck, Harry – it’s a tradition of the hunt. ‘May you be predator and not prey’, the saying goes.”

“Luck that I shall not require today,” Fliptrask added. “This is no hunt - it is a ritual, it is all trappings. That is enough for most of my brothers and sisters now. Someday when the wind is light and the moon is high, you will join me, Mister Potter. You will see what it is to truly hunt.”

Flitwick looked past Fliptrask into the distance. “Good heavens. Is that… is the Johtaja coming today?”

Fliptrask brought his horse around without appearing to make a single movement. “It is the Volvar, Filius. The Volvar’s plans are her own – we are her instruments,” he said evenly.

Harry remembered the term ‘volvar’ from the book that Covelli and Dumbledore had provided; a volvar was a religious leader, some sort of high priestess. The goblin that approached the assembled trailing group was obviously important – dressed in very fine robes and attended by several other goblins.

“The Volvar has come here?” Flitwick asked. “I must say that she looks like the Johtaja.” The professor was unnerved, and Harry didn’t find that helpful at all.

“You have met the Volvar, Filius,” Fliptrask said. “The Volvar was merely Johtaja then.”

Flitwick’s eyebrows exploded upward. “Good heavens!”

“She is both Volvar and Johtaja now,” Fliptrask said quietly. “Gretella went to the next life ten days past. It has not been told to the clans yet.”

“She’s now both, you say? Has that ever happened before, even for a short time?” Flitwick asked in an urgent whisper. Fliptrask didn’t answer.

Harry struggled to recall the word ‘johtaja’. By the time that he did, the Volvar had drawn up to the Marquis, who was flanked by Ron and Hermione. A johtaja was a political leader of some sort; the book had been quite murky on that point.

“She is acquainted with the Marquis, of course,” Fliptrask said. “There are few of our age who are not.” Flitwick nodded fervently.

The Volvar nodded to the Marquis, and uttered a greeting of some sort in Gobbledegook. The Marquis returned the nod, and said, “Madame Johtaja, I am your humble servant – Alexandre, Marquis de Maupassant. This is most unexpected, yes?”

“I expected it entirely,” the Volvar returned. “The hunt has been blessed by your gifts to us, and in return we offer blessing to you. Our kinsmen across the sea had thought you too infirm to journey from your lands.”

“Fate is fickle, Madame,” the Marquis said gravely. “There is yet one more hunt before me – one more pledge to fulfil – and there is enough life in these bones for one more great adventure.”

The Volvar raised her hand, palm open. “May you have cool days and clear skies and the protection of the earth and the winds,” she intoned. “May the dreamtime be restful and may your conscience be clear. So is the will of the clans.” The goblins began to mutter anxiously.

The Marquis doffed his hat and bowed deeply. “You grant me undeserved honour… Madame Volvar. I accept the will of the clans.” The muttering was punctuated by shrill voices now. The Volvar’s eyes turned to Hermione, and the Marquis began, “I would be pleased to introduce –”

“The witchling is not one of yours, Marquis,” the Volvar cut him off. “She is known to us. The Guilds would gladly have her, and perhaps that shall be her path one day.” She raised a hand toward Hermione and said, “Greetings, Saattaja.” Hermione looked around to see who the goblin was addressing.

A goblin bigger and more corpulent than Fliptrask came riding from behind Harry. “What is this outrage?” he growled.

“My word…” Flitwick whispered; he was ashen.

Fliptrask nudged Harry and muttered, “It is Grishtok. The Guilds are his.” Finally Harry felt as though he was on some sort of solid ground. The Guilds were at the heart of goblin culture, according to the book he had read. There was a banking guild that operated Gringotts, a smithing guild that produced weapons and metalwork, a mining guild, and so forth. Harry figured that this Grishtok was two or more rungs higher on the goblin ladder than Fliptrask, but Fliptrask was very matter-of-fact – not at all intimidated.

The Volvar withdrew a scroll from within her robes and presented it to Grishtok. “From Gretella, with our compliments,” she said.

“Did I hear correctly? Did she say ‘saattaja’?” Flitwick asked urgently.

“Yes,” growled Fliptrask even as he waved the professor off.

Grishtok opened the scroll, glanced at it, and thrust it back at the Volvar. "Irregular," he accused as though delivering a curse.

“Valid,” the Volvar returned.

“Indeed,” Grishtok said, teeth bared.

“Announce it,” the Volvar said calmly.

Grishtok let out a hostile snarl, and then shouted, “Volvar Gretella is no more! The choosing stone has selected Kolmetoista to follow! Kolmetoista is now Johtaja and Volvar!” He virtually spat the last of it.

The balance of the goblins present seemed to be in shock. Fliptrask summoned a false smile, even as he fumed, “She dishonoured Grishtok – the clans may not be pleased.”

He began to ride toward the smiling Volvar and the angry Guild leader and the confused trailing party, but Flitwick stopped him, asking, “What are you going to do?”

“Congratulate my kinswoman; you should do the same,” Fliptrask rumbled.

Harry in turn stopped Flitwick. “Professor, what’s a ‘saattaja’?” he asked. “I’m sure that word wasn’t in the book Dumbledore gave us.”

Flitwick frowned, which was something Harry couldn’t recall seeing more than a handful of times. “A saattaja is a soror mystica – a mystical companion. I shall offer my congratulations and then the Volvar will explain to me why she has addressed one of my students in that way,” the professor said with a hint of steel in his voice, “and Fliptrask surely knows more than he’s letting on.” Flitwick brushed his heels against his horse and made toward the growing crowd.

Harry followed at a much slower pace. By the time he arrived Flitwick was snarling in Gobbledegook, Fliptrask was snapping in return, and the Volvar was pointedly ignoring the both of them. She spotted Harry and stopped finger-combing her horse’s mane. “I bid you welcome, Chosen One,” she called out. “I trust you understand the honour bestowed upon you through your invitation today, and the clans are honoured in return by your presence.” The phrase ‘Chosen One’ created a stir amongst her attendants.

Ron looked bewildered, and Harry figured that he probably looked the same; for her part, Hermione was locked in a rapid-fire conversation with the Marquis. Harry had no idea what to say, and he was beginning to regret the time wasted on the Headmaster’s book about goblin culture. “I suppose I’ve been chosen in a way, erm, Your Honour… but I imagine we don’t mean the same thing?” he said at last.

The Volvar rode forward until she was close enough to reach for Harry’s hand. He realised that she was reaching for his forearm in the same way that he’d seen Flitwick reach for Fliptrask, so he responded as closely as he could remember. She nodded appreciatively, and he let out a breath. “I am Kolmetoista,” she said. “The clans are mine, and the temple falls to my sisters and to me. You will please address me as Volvar, wizardling.”

Harry nodded in agreement. “I am honoured, Volvar; so are Hermione and Ron, I’m sure –”

“All three of you are chosen – and another, we see – but you are the Chosen One,” the Volvar said.

Harry said quickly, “Yes, well… is that why you called Hermione a… a ‘saattaja’? And chosen by whom? For what? I don’t know –?”

The Volvar smiled; unlike Fliptrask or the other goblins he’d seen, Harry saw nothing threatening in her smile. “But you shall, Chosen One, in the fullness of time,” she said. “The Saattaja understands.” Hermione was watching closely, brows raised and eyes wide; it certainly didn’t appear that she understood whatever it was that she was supposed to understand.

“The crups grow anxious,” Grishtok snarled.

“The crups will wait,” the Volvar said airily. “You wish to say something, Chosen One?”

Harry forced himself not to fidget. “Don’t hold up the hunt on my account, Volvar,” he allowed. “That wouldn’t be fair to everyone else.”

Grishtok relaxed in his saddle. “Agreed,” he said. “You ride with us at the front, wizard.”

The Volvar cast a shrewd glance at Harry, before she announced, “I ride with Saattaja. We do not want to ‘hold up’ the hunt, after all.” Harry didn’t need to take in any emotions not his own; he imagined that everyone could feel the chill between the two goblin leaders.

Grishtok motioned to Harry and rode away. Harry followed, but watched over his shoulder as the Volvar rode to Hermione. Hermione gave a modest bow, which drew gasps from the Volvar’s attendants and a rumbling murmur from amongst the trailing party. Her horse suddenly chose to bow as well, which very nearly sent Hermione tumbling forward over the horse’s head before she regained her balance. Harry heard Ron make a choice exclamation and saw the Marquis politely stifle laughter before his horse picked up speed of its own accord.

After the jarveys were released, followed a few minutes later by the crups, the hunt proved itself to be almost achingly slow. For animals intended to track jarveys, the crups seemed indiscriminate; they would go haring off after rabbits or even the occasional fox. Each time the hunting party would begin a calculated advance, and each time the party would slow again and allow Master Gralnor and the crup handlers to regroup. The riding was sedate for the most part, although they had forded a stream or two and crossed a ravine.

Harry felt good about his performance on horseback, and it was a smashing day – cool enough to be comfortable in coat and breeches but remarkably sunny for September. The goblins spent more time in conversation than attending to the hunt, he thought. They spoke in Gobbledegook, so Harry had asked Flitwick whether they were actually conducting business. Flitwick had answered that there was less business being conducted than he might expect. Harry asked whether Flitwick might translate some of the goings-on; Flitwick responded that Harry would learn more by watching who spoke to whom than by knowing what was said.

More than two hours passed without any of the goblins speaking to him; he felt pointedly avoided. He figured that he had learned a little, at least. There were clearly two sorts of goblins. One sort struck him as the Gringotts variety of goblin – more slightly built, perhaps a bit fussy. The other sort brought Professor Binns’ goblin rebellion lectures to life – stout, aggressive, exuding a feeling of power. Grishtok was clearly of the second variety. Fliptrask seemed to be as well, rather unlike his Gringotts colleagues. Flitwick struck Harry as a twice-removed product of the first sort.

Harry was frustrated but proud of himself for holding it in. Fliptrask unexpectedly circled away from his position close to Master Gralnor and rode beside Harry. “How do you fare in the saddle, Mister Potter?” he asked.

“Well, I’ve managed to keep from falling off,” Harry said, and several goblins joined Fliptrask in what Harry took to be polite laughter.

“Filius says that horses are no longer kept at the school,” Fliptrask said with clear disapproval. “You would not have ridden before – not with your particular Muggles. Your first ride exceeds expectations.”

“Thank you,” Harry said. “Can I ask a question?”

Fliptrask smiled and bared his teeth. The hunting party slowed from a crawl to a halt. “You can and you may ask,” he said.

“I appreciate being here, I understand that it’s an honour… erm… it’s a brilliant day to be doing this… but what’s all this about?” Harry asked as calmly as he could manage. “Why was I invited here?”

The surrounding party went completely silent. Harry sat perfectly still in the saddle – if he’d just somehow angered most of the important goblins in Britain, he decided it was best to let them upbraid him for it. Grishtok, the Guild leader, pulled out a pocket watch that at a glance seemed nearly as complicated and outlandish as the one Dumbledore carried. “Over two hours, Fliptrask,” he said. “Two Galleons to you.”

“We remain one hundred and eight Galleons net to your favour, Grishtok,” Fliptrask returned.

“As it should be,” Grishtok grunted. The goblin rode forward very slowly, his gaze unwavering and thoroughly frightening. Harry felt like a goose facing Christmas.

“For over two hours, wizard, we have talked around you, ignored you, behaved as if you meant nothing,” Grishtok said, “and you have done nothing, said nothing. Why do you show such weakness?”

“Weakness? I didn’t want to offend anyone,” Harry said. “Mostly I was just watching, like Filius suggested. This is all new to me – there’s a lot to learn.”

Grishtok’s eyes narrowed. “To learn?

“Well… yes! I mean, we all read a book before coming, but it wasn’t very complete –” Harry began.

“What book is this?” Grishtok demanded.

“I know of the book in question, Grishtok,” Flitwick offered. “It offers a reasonably fair-minded interpretation of goblin culture, but Harry is correct – it is rather spotty.”

“You did not wish to offend us – why should that matter?” Grishtok snarled.

“Why would I want to offend you? I’m a guest here – that would be terribly rude of me!” Harry blurted out. “This makes no sense! Am I supposed to be rude?”

Grishtok returned in a low voice, “We are mere goblins, wizard – why care whether or not you offend?”

Harry was bewildered, and he tried to keep it from his voice. “I wouldn’t be rude to anyone who invited me to visit. Look, I admit I’m probably on best behaviour here – most all of you here are surely very important, and I’d rather not have the end of the world on my head!”

“We are mere goblins,” Grishtok repeated.

“Gringotts is the only bank in Britain for wizards, isn’t it?” Harry said. “You make the Galleons and Sickles and Knuts, for Merlin’s sake! Gringotts goes away and so does wizarding Britain, I figure. Explain to me how you’re not important?”

Grishtok’s gaze sharpened even further. “It would be best if you kept that opinion from your Minister for Magic,” he said slowly.

Harry laughed. “If Fudge can’t come up with that on his own, then he’s not very bright, is he?”

Fliptrask caught Grishtok’s eye, and the Guild leader gave a curt nod. “Mister Potter,” Fliptrask said, “many wizards would have declined our invitation outright. Of those accepting, most would come on account of their wealth and our hand in it. Why are you here? Are you here because your master desires it be so? Why are you different?”

Harry took a long breath to settle himself rather than snap back at his hosts. “Voldemort is out there,” he answered at last, provoking a number of anxious hisses that only served to stir him up. “Some day, he’ll come calling. He’s already sought out the giants and the werewolves. I don’t know if he’ll offer you the world or try to kill you all, but he’ll come. He’ll come because you’re treated like you don’t matter, and he’ll try to use that –”

“You think it wrong, wizard – the way we are treated?” asked a very old goblin from behind Grishtok.

“Beings are better than beasts, wizards are better than beings and Muggles, purebloods are better than Muggle-borns… sometimes I think wizards only know how to look down on everyone else,” Harry said. “You know, History of Magic is one goblin rebellion after the next, and I guess I see why that’s so. So yes, I think it’s wrong.” He hesitated for a moment, and then added, “The Ministry probably deserves a rebellion right now.”

Amidst a symphony of mutters and whispers, Grishtok’s voice cut through. “You have just committed treason, young Potter,” he said with a hint of pleasure.

Harry shrugged. “Really? Oh well, I’m used to being in trouble with the Ministry.”

Grishtok crossed his arms and stared at Harry for the longest time. “Fliptrask,” he barked into the silence, “another fifty Galleons to you. Do not make a habit of this.” For his part, Fliptrask winced.

“Will someone answer my question now?” Harry advanced.

“Acceptable,” Grishtok said. “We control the money, as you say. You are the money, to a great degree. If you favour us, the possibilities are interesting.”

“And then there are the Muggles…” Fliptrask muttered.

“Yes, yes, Fliptrask has his ideas about wider interests,” Grishtok said dismissively. “The Gringotts directorship will not consent beyond current arrangements with the Muggle bank.”

“Why not?” Harry asked. “It’s done all right for me, hasn’t it? I mean, the Potter Trust wouldn’t be nearly as big if it weren’t for all the stock shares and properties and what-not. I’d have to look – and I don’t pretend to understand all of it – but Fliptrask here has to be responsible for a lot of the money I have… with everybody around me, er, dying all the time, he’s had to manage everything – and did a fine job of it, too, according to Ted… um, Ted Tonks, that is… my solicitor…” Harry trailed off as Fliptrask began to growl at him.

This is accurate?” Grishtok barked.

Before Fliptrask could answer, Harry added, “That’s the reason my money’s still in Gringotts. I thought about pulling everything, see, but I didn’t… Gringotts has done right by me. Well… that and Ted did say I might crush the whole wizarding economy, or something of the kind.”

Grishtok grew noticeably reddish. “Fliptrask! Another fifty galleons to you!”

Fliptrask rubbed his hands together nervously. “Unnecessary, Grishtok,” he muttered.

“Honour satisfied, Fliptrask,” Grishtok fired back. “You would do well to wager and lose – VERY SOON. GRALNOR! Do something with your worthless crups!

Harry’s horse startled and backed away a pace as Master Gralnor squeaked at the crup handlers. Grishtok took several growling, gnashing breaths, then spun to face Harry. He shuddered as though he was shaking away his mood, and then flashed a faint but notable smile. Harry found his arm pulled into the ceremonial shake before he could react.

“Some of your forebears favoured us in times of need as the Marquis de Maupassant has done. You do honour to your line. We will do business, Harry, son of James Potter, and we shall both prosper of it,” the Guild leader said solemnly.

Harry was startled. “Th-thank you, Grishtok,” he managed.

Grishtok stroked his chin. “It… could be… that the Johtaja is correct. Perhaps we shall soon hunt together, as she maintains? We shall feast after this embarrassment of a hunt, then, and we will talk of suitable prey.”

“Err… sounds smashing… looking forward to it…” Harry stammered. His hand didn’t twitch in Grishtok’s grasp, which felt like an achievement. The goblin let go of Harry’s arm, inclined his head in a way that suggested a bow, and rode off to light into Master Gralnor over the pace of the hunt, the colour of the crups, and a host of other things beyond the huntsman’s control. Fliptrask stayed where he was, with an icy glare directed at Harry.

Flitwick came aside Harry and pumped his hand furiously. “Good show, Harry – good show!” he said in a forceful whisper. “You’ve accomplished decades of advancement in goblin-wizarding relations just now!”

Fliptrask snorted, “Hardly! Mister Potter has just advanced his own relations with Grishtok – at my expense.”

“I didn’t set out to make him angry,” Harry said quickly. “I thought he should know I’m pleased with Gringotts, that’s all – that I appreciate what you’ve done. “I’m sorry if I’ve managed to get you into trouble –”

Fliptrask waggled his finger at Harry. “Thank the gods Grishtok has gone! If you were to offer me apology in his presence, then he would now be indebted to me and my time at Gringotts would grow short – do you understand?”

“No, I don’t understand!” Harry fired back. “Have you been wagering on me – is that it?”

Of course there are wagers – do you know nothing of our ways…? Filius… you explained nothing?” Fliptrask slowly lowered his head into his hands. “I have arranged my own doom,” he muttered.

“You were warned, Fliptrask,” Flitwick laughed. “The larger the stage, the better Harry performs. It seems you disregarded my advice, in which case it was a wasteful use of your time to seek me out. As for the rest, Harry is Albus Dumbledore’s apprentice and not mine.”

Fliptrask shook his head. “Grishtok avoids wizards – he loathes them. He rose entirely through the Smithy; not a day was willingly spent at Gringotts. Mister Potter is known to have a short temper, and you know the depths of Grishtok’s rudeness today…”

Harry was tired of being talked around; his jaw tightened. “Never wager against me,” he snapped.

Fliptrask’s glare became more calculating. “Point taken,” he said. “You will not speak favourably of me for the rest of this day.” With that he rode in Grishtok’s general direction.

Flitwick chuckled softly. “Don’t take him seriously, Harry. Fliptrask is far more secure within Gringotts than he let on. I’d be quite surprised if the Guild of Finance doesn’t pass to his control, and it’s possible that you may have just sped the process along.”

“But why –?” Harry began.

“Goblins are unaccustomed to having their standing altered so publicly,” Flitwick explained, “and quite unaccustomed to having it positively altered by a wizard. When Fliptrask regains his composure, he’ll recognise what you’ve done for him. Then he’ll have to determine how best he can take advantage of the opportunity.”

Harry shook his head. “What a waste of time! Why don’t they just decide what needs to be done, and do it?”

Flitwick laughed merrily. “Oh, Harry – out of the mouths of babes! I mean no disrespect, of course, but only a young man such as you could say such a thing!” Before Harry could protest, he held up a hand and went on, “You were not raised as a wizard. There are times that this is a tremendous advantage – now, for example – and times when you may be hampered by it. Tell me, do you think that the Ministry for Magic functions more as you have just witnessed, or as the ideal that you have described?”

Harry had seen enough of Fudge and Percy Weasley to know the answer, but he was cut off by a round of furious barking from the crups. The handlers and Master Gralnor raced after them, followed closely by Grishtok and Fliptrask, and then the remainder of the hunting party.

“Off we go!” Flitwick cried and they joined the pursuit.

The crups led a spirited chase that led through a dense patch of forest and into a meadow beyond. They stopped at the edge of the trees for a few moments, yipping and circling, and then tore across the open space.

“GRALNOR! We are not chasing jarveys – what are they after?” Grishtok bellowed for all to hear. Harry figured that Grishtok was right; the crups had never run so hard, and he hadn’t heard a single insult from the jarveys for more than an hour.

Gralnor had dismounted and was huddled with his handlers and a handful of the crups. “The crups have pursued something similar to the quarry, Grishtok,” the Hunt Master announced.

“Similar? In what way?” Grishtok demanded.

Fliptrask left his saddle more gracefully than his bulk suggested and joined the handlers on the ground. Harry was sure that the goblin sniffed at the earth more than once. “Here,” Fliptrask announced after several minutes. “They were drawn by two animals. One has tracks like a jarvey, but smaller. The other looks to be a fox.” He drew Gralnor’s attention to a patch of dirt. “A fox chasing a ferret, perhaps?”

“That makes no sense,” Grishtok snorted from his mount.

“It is not a ferret,” Gralnor said. “I say a rodent of some sort, less than one foot in length.”

“Not a rabbit,” Fliptrask said.

“Agreed,” Gralnor nodded.

“This is not a pursuit,” Fliptrask said. “These animals were running together.”

“Nonsense,” Grishtok declared. “Why would a fox and a – what, a rat? – run together? For that matter, why would the crups be drawn off again? I question the training of these animals, Gralnor. They should be attracted to magic, not haring off after simple forest creatures.”

Harry snapped to attention. “A rat? Did you say a rat?”

“You have something to contribute, Potter?” Grishtok barked.

Harry’s hands shook. “If it’s a rat, it’ll have a silver forepaw,” he snarled.

When Harry drew his wand, two goblins rode in front of Grishtok, but the Guild leader waved them off. “A rat with a false limb?” he scoffed.

Flitwick’s wand seemed to appear from nowhere. “Harry… I thought Mr. Pettigrew to have died as a result of his scuffle with Mr. Weasley,” he said.

“Ron said he disappeared; there wasn’t a trace of him found,” Harry returned. He looked up to see Ron and the Marquis de Maupassant approaching from the trailing party, along with a trio of goblins.

“We may be dealing with a rat Animagus, Grishtok,” Flitwick said. “Harry’s conclusion is reasonable.”

“A rat might have slipped the wards surrounding the hunting grounds,” Master Gralnor allowed, “but not a fox.”

The Marquis halted beside Fliptrask. “What is this? We are no longer hunting the jarveys?” he asked.

“Mr. Potter believes we may face an intruder,” Fliptrask said.

“Young Potter sees Animagi scurrying through the underbrush,” Grishtok huffed.

“Bloody hell… did you see Wormtail?” Ron blurted out.

“The crups were chasing a rat,” Harry said.

“Monsieur Grishtok, you have protective wards in place, yes?” the Marquis asked.

“Gralnor says that something the size of a rat might have passed through the wards,” Grishtok allowed. “There is a fox with the rat – if it is a rat at all – and a fox could not have entered.”

The Marquis twirled his moustache. “These wards, they are… ehh… permanent?”

“The lodge is permanently warded,” Master Gralnor explained, “but the hunting ground is only warded for the hunt. Anti-Muggle charms were cast last Monday and the wards were placed on Thursday.”

“Then the fox, she could have come onto the grounds before the wards were cast,” the Marquis concluded. “Most of the animal magicks, they can be held for many days. The fox, she could… ehh… forage?”

Grishtok’s brow furrowed. “This rat Animagus is a known danger, is that correct?”

Flitwick nodded furiously. “Peter Pettigrew is a known associate of Voldemort,” he said, “and anyone in his company is surely a Death Eater.”

“The wizards would be here for Mister Potter,” Fliptrask said.

“They could also be here for Miss Granger or Mr. Weasley,” Flitwick added.

Grishtok bared his teeth. “Unacceptable,” he growled. “These are goblin lands. The hunt is a sacred thing. The wizards and the witch are guests. If these things are here, they profane the hunt. If they would do harm in this place, then they have no honour.”

Harry slipped from his horse to look at the tracks for himself. Two of the crups were moving in circles a few feet away. One broke off, licked at Harry’s hand, gave a long whimper, and then returned to the circling.

Harry slowly edged toward the two crups. “Pettigrew! We know you’re here!” he shouted out. “If you show yourself right now, you might live! If you don’t, we’ll let the crups have you!” From the corner of his eye, he saw Fliptrask, Flitwick and the Marquis carefully fan out.

Ron made the barest of gestures to catch Harry’s attention; he directed his eyes just beyond the crups and his eyebrows rose slightly. The nose and shining forepaw of a rat were barely visible within a thick tuft of grass. Harry gave a hint of a nod and then carefully signalled Flitwick. The Marquis also caught the nod; he produced a wand from somewhere and his lips moved though he said nothing aloud. The thick grass rustled and the rat took on dishevelled human form, which sent the goblins into a rage and the crups into a panic.

Pettigrew instantly directed his metal hand at Harry. “Stay back,” he bellowed, “unless you fancy your Chosen One in pieces!”

“If I give the order, you die,” Grishtok snarled in return.

“And young Harry will meet his parents sooner than any of you would like,” Pettigrew said. “We have a stalemate, don’t we?”

“I don’t recall you as delusional, Peter,” Flitwick said. “Surely you don’t believe that you’ll be allowed to go free?”

Harry felt no fear, only mounting anger. “You’ve forgotten with whom you’re dealing,” he said coldly.

Pettigrew’s face twitched. “I can be useful to you, Harry,” he said nervously.

“My parents are dead because of you,” Harry snapped, “and only Merlin knows how many others!” Sweat formed on his brow and he felt a familiar draft. He realised what was happening, if not why, and he wanted it to overtake him. He wanted to tear Pettigrew apart with his bare hands.

Pettigrew’s eyes widened. “C-call the Aurors, P-Professor Flitwick,” he said. When Flitwick didn’t move, he squeaked, “G-go on, call them!

“I don’t think so,” Harry hissed.

Pettigrew took a halting step backward. “You’re going to k-kill me? I t-thought you were your m-mother’s son!”

“She wouldn’t see you dead after what you’ve done? I doubt that,” Harry sneered.

The rumble of horses at a full gallop sounded behind Harry. “Grishtok! GRISHTOK! A wizard has the Volvar, Grishtok!” someone called out.

“The fox!” Fliptrask shouted.

Heads turned out of simple reflex and Pettigrew was gone. The two crups who had been circling yipped and tore off across the meadow. Harry jumped onto his horse, Salamaa, and raced after the crups. As he reached the far side of the meadow, he saw Pettigrew return to human form and race into the dense forest beyond. The crups hesitated for a moment before they followed. Salamaa showed no sign of slowing and Harry pulled hard on the reins. He was completely unprepared for the rapid stop that resulted; he nearly somersaulted over Salamaa’s head and barely managed to instead tumble forward and to the side.

He was still face-down when another horse halted beside him; a few moments later, the rider rolled him over and offered a hand up. “Now we shall hunt,” Fliptrask said, flashing his unnerving toothy smile. The goblin held an enormous dark sword in his other hand in a fashion that hinted he knew well how to use it.

The forest was thick and tall. Harry cast a quick spell to quiet his footfalls and Fliptrask was unnaturally silent as he passed through spaces that seemed half as wide as his belly. The trees were oddly quiet besides – there were no bird calls, no movement of animals, no branches rustling in the breeze. It seemed to Harry as though centaurs and spiders should inhabit the shadows.

Fliptrask placed his hand on Harry’s forearm; Harry managed to bite back a shout. The goblin motioned ahead and whispered, “He’s nearly to the far side… must be changing back and forth.”

“Where do the wards end?” Harry asked.

“Just beyond the trees,” Fliptrask said. “We can’t overtake him.”

“Can you keep a secret?” Harry demanded.

Fliptrask scowled at him. “That is a ridiculous question. The Trust Department at Gringotts is mine.”

Harry weighed his options for an instant, then reached out and grabbed Fliptrask by the arm. “Hold on tightly,” he muttered and then popped.

They reappeared just outside the forest. Fliptrask stumbled hard, barely missing the edge of his own sword in the process. Something grabbed Harry from behind. He wrested himself free and turned to face Pettigrew, an extended silver hand, and the dangerous end of his own wand.

“I won’t hurt you,” Pettigrew insisted. “I… I can’t do it… but I can stun you – AAAAGGH!” A black blur whipped past Harry’s left arm with no more than an inch to spare and Pettigrew’s silver hand lay on the ground in a growing pool of blood.

Your head is next!” Fliptrask shouted. Pettigrew staggered to one side and in an instant became a rat scurrying through the grass. The goblin bustled past Harry and chased the thin red trail Pettigrew left, his sword crashing into the ground again and again. A flash of blue raced across the field as the rat slipped through the wards and Fliptrask was thrown backward. Pettigrew reappeared, pale and shaking. He tossed Harry’s wand into the grass and squeezed the stump of his right arm, and disappeared without a sound. Harry reached out his hand and summoned his wand; it bounced in the grass for a moment, and then shot through the wards and into his grasp.

“BLAST AND DAMNATION!” Fliptrask bellowed as he crawled to his feet. His blazing eyes suddenly grew even wider. “The Volvar! I cannot fail twice!

Harry slipped off his waistcoat and used it to pick up Pettigrew’s silver hand. “You didn’t fail,” he said firmly. “Hang on – and mind your sword.” With another pop, Harry and Fliptrask piled into the ground just behind a crowd of goblins gathered in a circle.

A kneeling wild-eyed wizard who Harry didn’t recognise held the Volvar tight, one arm around her waist and the other holding his wand buried into the side of her neck. Hermione stood there, her lip bloodied and left eye blackening, with her wand aimed at the wizard’s head. Several of the Volvar’s attendants brandished swords, and Flitwick, Ron and the Marquis brandished their wands.

You bring me Potter, I tell you!” the wizard howled. “Potter and me, we get out of here and the goblin lives! Cross me and the goblin’s dead!

“I’m here,” Harry called out. “We had to deal with your friend first.” The crowd parted for him and he stepped into the circle. He tossed open his waistcoat and the bloodied hand tumbled out. The goblins let out a collective hiss. Fliptrask made his way to the fore and made a show of wiping his sword with a cloth.

You get me out of here, Potter! Set me free or it dies!” shouted the wizard.

Harry went to Hermione’s side. He put his hand to her cheek and asked, “Did he do this to you?”

She nodded. Her eyes were like dark flames. “I won’t let you set him free,” she said hoarsely.

“Of course not,” Harry acknowledged.

The wizard seemed very close to madness. “Potter! I’m not making a joke! It dies!”

Harry shook his head. “Do you honestly think that this is going to work?”

It dies!” the wizard gibbered.

Harry made quick eye contact with the Volvar. The corner of her mouth curled upward, and then she stomped hard on the wizard’s foot. He loosed his hold for just a moment, and she slammed her elbow into his stomach. As the Volvar rolled free, the goblins shrieked and closed in.

The wizard levelled his wand and his lips began to move, but a loud, high voice called out, “SECTUMSEMPRA!” A flash of purple rent the wizard from shoulder to hip and he crumpled to the ground.

The goblins stopped in their tracks and simply stared at Hermione as she dashed forward and began to kick the fallen wizard in the side. “Did you think I wouldn’t fight back? I won’t be hurt again, do you hear? Never again! NEVER AGAIN!” she shouted with each kick.

Harry was so startled that Hermione managed several more kicks before he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her back. “Let me go!” she screamed.

“It’s over, Hermione,” Harry said. “It’s over now.”

“Did you hear him, calling the Volvar ‘it’? That’s how they are! He thinks she’s a beast! He… he thinks I’m a beast!” Hermione clawed at Harry’s arms. “I’ll show him a bloody beast! Let me go!

The Volvar took Hermione’s hand. “The danger is past, Saattaja,” she said quietly. “I am safe. Your Chosen One is safe. Justice will be done.”

Hermione seemed to become boneless in Harry’s arms. “You could have been killed,” she said haltingly to the Volvar. “I wasn’t paying any mind to the surroundings, and –”

“Do you see my attendants, young one?” the Volvar asked. “The wizard was upon us before they could draw their swords. You are not responsible for my safety, though I honour your concern. We will speak of your anger, Saattaja. I will know what has been done to you.” She held up her hand. “A moment, please.”

Grishtok stood with one foot atop the fallen wizard’s chest. “This creature has befouled our lands and our hunt. What say you… Johtaja?”

The Volvar removed her ornate robes and spit on her hands. “You speak the truth, Grishtok,” she said. “Its crimes are punishable by death.”

The wizard stirred. “No… t-the M-Ministry…” he gurgled.

“I see no Ministry here,” Grishtok growled.

“These lands are not part of the world of wizards,” the Volvar agreed.

The wizard’s entire body trembled; it was clear to Harry that he was dying. “The D-Dark Lord w-will come for you –”

Grishtok pressed down his foot. “And we will be waiting,” he hissed. Blood gurgled in the wizard’s throat.

Fliptrask knelt before Grishtok at the Guild leader’s beckon, and the Volvar nodded. “Fliptrask, son of Martok, carry out the will of the clans,” Grishtok commanded.

“Reclaim our lands and our hunt, kinsman,” the Volvar added. Fliptrask stood and his massive black sword struck true before the wizard could react. Harry flinched. Ron looked near to spewing up, and Flitwick and the Marquis seemed sombre. Hermione wore a satisfied expression, and that chilled Harry even more than the goblins’ cries.

“The hunt is concluded,” Grishtok announced. “To the reception, and then to the feast!” The announcement was well received, and Master Gralnor and his handlers set about rounding up the crups and caging the jarveys. The Volvar spirited Hermione away before Harry took notice, and he instead found himself in the company of Ron, Flitwick and the Marquis.

“We’re supposed to eat after that?” Ron whispered forcefully.

“We’ll have to eat something, like it or not,” Harry said. “We can’t afford to offend anyone, not now – not after I managed to get the most important goblin in Britain attacked.”

The Marquis cleared his throat. “I do not see the failure, Monsieur Potter,” he said. “Mlle. Granger, she has earned the confidences of Madame Volvar… the confidences of the Guild and the clans fall to you… Madame Volvar, she is saying that the goblins will not go to Voldemort, and Grishtok, he is agreeing… the feast, it is an opportunity for our gallant knight errant, Monsieur Weasley… there is no failure to see.”

“I quite agree,” Flitwick said fervently. “You have powerful allies now, Harry – more powerful than the wizarding community recognises. If we didn’t live in interesting times before…” He shook his head and smiled.

“Do we need to let Dumbledore know what’s happened?” Harry asked Flitwick.

“There is no need,” Flitwick concluded after a few thoughtful moments. “Albus cannot come here, so it can wait until the morrow.”

“Then we eat,” the Marquis said. “I shall have much to discuss on the morrow with my good friend Albus… much indeed. Come, Monsieur Weasley – I shall, ehh, educate you in the ways of fine cutlery.”

Flitwick followed the Marquis and Ron slowly, and Harry remained with him. The professor said nothing for several minutes as they walked, and Harry found that he was grateful for the silence.

“Harry… about Miss Granger…” Flitwick said at last.

“I know… I know…” Harry muttered.

“That was far from a normal response,” Flitwick said gently. “She had ample time to consider spells, and she made a disturbingly dark choice. Albus has allowed that Miss Granger had a difficult experience at the hands of the Death Eaters, but this raises a legitimate safety concern.”

“She’s not a danger,” Harry said flatly.

“Oh, I don’t believe Miss Granger will begin slicing open her colleagues,” Flitwick assured him, “but consider the NEWT tuition for Defence as an example. The practical aspects are rather combative, frankly – particularly in the hands of a legitimate instructor such as Marcus. What if - ?”

“I’ll speak to Dumbledore,” Harry said. “Professor Detheridge needs to know…”

Flitwick’s brow tufted. “What is it that he needs to know, Harry?”

Harry shook his head. “It’s for Hermione to tell, not me.”

“Fair enough,” Flitwick said. “You’re a good and loyal friend to her, and I will respect that. Now then… let’s not keep Grishtok waiting. There’s quite a lot to build on, in my opinion… that is, of course, if you’re interested in my opinion.”

“I need to keep proper counsel,” Harry said. “What do you think I should do next?”

Flitwick began to put five hundred years of goblin history into context as they walked toward the large manor house at the centre of the hunting ground. As they finally neared the portcullis, Harry asked Flitwick, “Will you please look in on Hermione? I mean, I can’t imagine the Volvar would do anything harmful…”

“I remain concerned about her insistence on referring to Miss Granger as a saattaja,” Flitwick said. “I promise you that I will see to her welfare while we remain here. She is, I believe, in good hands elsewhere.”

“Oh, I forgot! Salamaa!” Harry blurted out.

“Pardon?” Flitwick laughed.

“The horse! I left Salamaa in the meadow –” Harry began.

“Gralnor and the others have taken care of her,” Flitwick assured him. “You’ve had rather enough to be going on about, don’t you think? Now then, we haven’t much time… there will be a rite performed prior to the meal; it’s a rather ancient rite, and usually reserved to the temples. I am not aware whether Professor Binns includes Baldor the Brutal in his lesson plan, but it is important that you know…”

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