Chapter Twenty-One – The Allies

The atmosphere in the Isiame City was changing. The restlessness of the wizarding world was brimming over the mountaintops, coursing down the slopes like a dust avalanche and spreading through the streets and into stone dwellings. Apprehension, excitement and a diffuse malaise electrified the air. Harry scarcely met the people of the city — he did his best to avoid them, as a matter of fact — but whenever he ran across one of them as he left or entered Eunice's house, he could feel on his skin the tight smiles and the knowing looks.

He knew they wondered at his absence at Sao's practical lessons. Those were slowly turning into combat training, and Harry, who was still convinced he could not master his power enough to fool the Isiames much longer, was keen on avoiding awkward situations. It would be a great way to make them stop thinking of him as a war leader, he thought moodily. But he needed their trust.

He had had no news of Ron and Luna. The contrary would have been surprising: Tonks was too professional to send a message to an undercover Auror when they were both working against their own Ministry. Yet the lack of information frustrated him, adding to the general tension.

Five days after he had cast his Patronus to warn Hogwarts about Ron and Luna's recovery, he stepped into Eunice's room at dawn, as usual, to find her sitting at her desk and poring over the Daily Prophet.

"I wouldn't read that if I were you," he said as he closed the door with his heel. "Pile of rubbish."

"I have seen the birth of that pile of rubbish, two hundred years ago," answered Eunice serenely. "Rubbish it may well be, but the truth often leaks from between the lines. You just need a little practice to see it."

Harry crossed over to the small desk, hooked one foot around the leg of a stool that had been pushed against the wall, and dragged it over to him to sit next to the governess. The strangeness of seeing venerable Eunice reading a wizarding newspaper notwithstanding, he caught himself wishing he could have it from her when she was done, and feed himself with some news from over the mountains.

However she seemed to have something else entirely in mind. He bit down his mounting impatience and asked, as she expected, "So what truth is leaking from it?"

Eunice leant back and shot at him an odd little smile from the corner of her thin, lined mouth.

"Here," she said, and extended her open hand over the newspaper. "See how it leaks."

Harry stared down at the tiny printing surrounding a black-and-white photograph of a grim-looking Rufus Scrimgeour, speaking at a lectern. His mouth moved slowly and reluctantly as though he was chewing out the words rather than speaking them. For a few seconds, nothing happened.

Then Harry felt confused, uncertain. Something was wrong, but he could not put his finger on it. He should look into the matter; but his instinct told him dangerous powers were at work, he might lose more than just his job if he poked into business that wasn't his—

All of sudden the vague concern vanished. Harry's head filled up with bitterness. He hated how powerless he was, how much of a pawn he had become. He hated it. He hated them.

Wait. This isn't me, Harry realised suddenly in alarm. This isn't ME.

There was an explosion, and the back of Harry's head hit something with a force that sent bells ringing into his ears.

He opened his eyes to find himself sprawled on the floor at the far end of the room, his head against the wall, pain throbbing from a spot at the back of his head; there was an acrid scent in his nostrils. His wand was gripped tightly in his right hand. Eunice still sat at her desk but her hand was no longer hovering over the Daily Prophet — it was outstretched towards Harry, the last two fingers folded and the other three spread wide, in the Isiame cursing gesture.

And there was a hole in the wall beside her head, which, along with the sharp smell, was characteristic of a Blasting spell.

Harry looked down at his smoking wand and winced.

"I did not expect wizarding magic," Eunice said in her usual light, matter-of-fact manner. "Otherwise, your reaction was appropriate."

Harry straightened up and brought his free hand up to the back of his skull. A lump as large as an egg was already forming; he flinched when his fingers brushed against the tender skin.

"You pushed these feelings inside my head," he said. His voice sounded tight to his own ears. "But they weren't yours."

"No, indeed. I first managed to extract the feelings of the journalist typing down the words he heard — he was male, that much I can tell. Young, spotty, anxious and cowardly, but sharper than most of his colleagues."

"You can do that?"

"Of course, although few can do it as easily and completely as I can." Eunice watched Harry closely as he scrambled to his feet, put his wand away and walked back to his stool. He was pretty sure she saw how wary he was — he was not trying to hide it.

"I have a little gift in the matter," she went on. "And I have had centuries to hone it. People always put a bit of themselves into the words they're writing. The vocabulary, the phrasing, the punctuation. They tell me a lot about the author. Emotions are there, captured by the words."

"Leaking from between the lines," Harry muttered. "But the second set of thoughts—"

"Mr Scrimgeour's thoughts, as I reckon you have guessed. The journalist was quoting him. He was thinking back of the moments he had spent in the same room as Mr Scrimgeour. During these few minutes when they breathed in the same air, he watched Mr Scrimgeour's thoughts swirl inside his mind and speak through his moves, voice, and eyes, even though he did not know what they meant at the time. Also, we have the picture. It helps."

Harry looked down at the Minister's picture. The way the former Auror's thin mouth was shut tight when he wasn't speaking, the way his gnarled hands gripped the sides of the lectern, the way he glared at his audience, everything about him was eerily consistent with the bitter thoughts that had invaded Harry's mind.

"Extracting Mr Scrimgeour's emotions from the journalist's is a bit of a trick," said Eunice. "It's highly dangerous. I have to let myself be filled with the journalist's thoughts, until I can no longer tell whether I am he or myself. Then, and then only, do I have access to an upper level. If I want to go back to my own mind I need something, an anchor of some sort, a thought that tells me I truly am Eunice of the Isiames and not a young wizard suffering from acne."

She had a slight smile. "It is not your average Isiamic spell-casting."

"And you said my reaction was appropriate," Harry repeated. "Because you attacked me, right?"

"My mind against yours. Thoughts thrown into your brain like a Trojan horse. However, I did not make it too subtle: I did not disguise the thoughts as your own. You did catch on a lot faster than I expected, though."

Harry snorted humourlessly and felt again the lump at the back of his head with his fingers.

"Did you understand what Mr Scrimgeour was feeling, Harry?" murmured Eunice.

"Yes." Harry stared down at the Minister's disgusted expression again. "He's acting on behalf of the Unspeakables, but he doesn't like it."

"Precisely. Mr Scrimgeour's thoughts fit with a lot of small, disturbing details I had noticed without understanding them over the past few months: there is division inside the Ministry of Magic, something I had not dared hope before today. The Aurors' association with our enemies sounds most unwilling; and reluctant allies are worse than declared adversaries.

"There is more to it, though. Had you not rejected me so fast, you would have heard two names filling the Minister's mind. Two faces. His only hope. He clings to these two names so dearly, they sprang readily at me when I first investigated this article."

The old governess cocked her head to one side, watching Harry intently.

"One is me," Harry guessed.

"A good surprise," agreed Eunice. "It was my impression that you were abandoned by all your former friends, but it seems some of them would like to see you overcome our enemies. I don't know of the other one, though. Who is Gawain Robards?"

Harry did not blink. "The man who succeeded Scrimgeour as Head Auror."

"Your superior," Eunice said.

"My boss, yes."

The old Isiame leant back in her chair, looking up at Harry with such intensity he found himself preparing to another mental attack. Defiance tightened the silence.

"Are you in contact with—"

"How did you think I managed to investigate about you?" snapped Harry. "By asking for a vacation? I was on a mission for him. The wolves in Frog's End. I gave him a wrong trail to keep him busy, and I kept up my own work."

Eunice did not move. Her expression did not change at all.

After a few seconds of silence, Harry found it hard to hold her gaze. He averted his eyes and stared down at the newspaper instead, but there was no escaping the feeling of discomfort that made itself sharper and sharper, making him want to squirm on his stool. Eunice was friendly to him. For five days now, she had mentored him cautiously, teaching him the inside workings of the Isiame City, the alliances Sao cultivated, the many sides of the Isiame powers. She risked everything helping him. And here he was — lying. Again.

Isolating himself. Again.

Discomfort turned to shame, guilt, and weariness. He was alone, desperately alone, because he knew how much each faction hated one another — and he could not let go of either facet of himself: the wizard, and the Isiame… But Eunice was not so hostile. She wanted peace. She was as close to an ally as he could wish in his hopeless situation.

And here he was, lying to push her away.

Harry looked up from the Daily Prophet and met Eunice's eyes again. He felt his lips stretching into a stiff smile.

"So I suppose that was strike two," he said.

The eerie stillness in Eunice's eyes was suddenly broken, and she smiled back at him, something fierce in her expression that Harry had never seen before.

"You have talent, Harry Potter," she said, her voice low and vibrant. "And you guard your thoughts well."

Harry shrugged. He felt stiffness in his shoulders and neck, as though he'd sat too straight for too long. "Yeah, well, I've lived through a few attempts to butt into my head and feed me emotions," he muttered, rubbing at the back of his neck with one hand.

"Stiff neck?" asked Eunice. When he nodded, she leant forward and went on in that same low, hard voice he did not know, "Mental struggles can lead to that sort of manifestations. You may pay close attention to them when you deal with Isiames — if you feel cramps you should not be feeling, it might just be that your mind suffered an intrusion without you noticing."

A chill went up Harry's spine. Staying among Isiames, at least half of whom were following Sao's lead, while he claimed to be something he wasn't was starting to make him edgy. He tightened his lips together and answered Eunice with a nod, which she returned, something like grim approval etched in the lines of her face.

"I will speak no further of Gawain Robards, Harry Potter," she said. "Think of what is at stake and make your own decisions — and know that, should you fail to make the right ones, the wizarding and Isiame worlds will dissolve in the bloodiest war we've known in a millennium."

"The bloodiest war in a millennium," Daphne said, enunciating the words as though wanting to nail them to the wall. "Well, she's not afraid of big words."

"Wizards would put up a fight," Harry pointed out. "They outnumber you."

"Yeah, if you count only Isiames. But we would have Dementors on our side — maybe even werewolves, if we could use the moon's influence."

Harry blinked and looked over at her from the windowsill where he sat, scrutinizing the night — as he always did, every evening before going to sleep, since his return. "Dementors," he repeated, pensively. "Of course. That's what the whole emotions-projecting stuff reminded me of. I couldn't place it…"

"Me neither, until today." Daphne ripped her left boot from her foot, threw it across the room and dropped onto the bed with a sigh. "I thought I knew all there was to know about babysitting, but the Queen's taking the game to a whole new level. When I decided to give her a bath, that wretched kid tried to make me cry. Nearly succeeded, too. She threw despair at me, and it was just like that time when a Dementor searched my carriage in the Hogwarts Express, in second year. Awful brat."

An icy feeling of foreboding seeped into Harry's chest, and he thought for a fleeting moment he could feel cold, clammy fingers closing upon his throat.

I want the doggy.

"That bad, uh?" he muttered, his teeth clenched on the disturbing memories.

"Fortunately she has the attention span of a caterpillar," Daphne said wryly. "She giggled and lifted the pressure after maybe two seconds. But yeah, Dementors… They were created as Isiame weapons. I asked Lydia — you know, our neighbour. They're vessels made out of negative emotions that could be projected onto the enemy. Then their makers lost control of them, something like a thousand years ago, and they started breeding."

"But Isiames could regain control of them?"

"I bet you anything it's part of Sao's plan, anyway."

Harry fell silent. He was starting to realise how far the conflict between Isiames and wizards reached. The werewolves ransacking Hogsmeade was just a foretaste of the ravages Isiames could cause to wizarding villages — and if Sao truly could control Dementors, then the wizards were at risk of finding themselves at a serious disadvantage.

A random, completely unrelated thought came to interrupt his musings — Daphne had spoken about Lydia, their neighbour.

They — he and Daphne — had a neighbour?

Harry threw a circular look around the room that served as their home, with the feeling he was seeing it for the first time. Daphne had started decorating it with comfortable, second-hand furniture that suited his tastes surprisingly well. He who had never paused to think about the way his own apartment was furnished, back in London, found himself appreciative of the thick curtains, the faded carpet and the couple of low armchairs huddling across from the bed. His things piled up on a bandy-legged bedside table. The pillows were mismatched and fluffy, with threadbare pillowcases.

The whole sight was that of a joyous, careless and welcoming mess. It felt like home.

And for the first time, he thought about after — after the war, after the plots, after the scheming and the manoeuvring. Once Isiames would be a peaceful, hidden but lively nation, and wizards would be ready to be pacific neighbours.

Maybe, he mused, surprising himself with the thought — maybe he ought to take Daphne out properly after all this.

She caught his gaze; out of instinct he tried to compose his features into a neutral mask, but her face softened in a sudden, unexpected way that made him suspect she knew exactly what he was thinking.

Then she had a crooked smile.

"Once this is all over, Potter, I'll take you out for a night. I haven't had a proper night out in ages," she drawled, ostentatiously tossing her hair to one side.

Harry smiled back at her.

The moment stretched between them like a silk thread, fragile and tense. Then silver flashed outside the window Harry leant against — something that would be mistaken by anyone who wasn't expecting it as a reflection of starlight against the snowy slopes. Harry caught it out of the corner of his eye and started, whipping his head to stare out into the night.

When he looked at Daphne again, she was straightening up and her face was closed up again.

"Work?" she asked briefly.

He nodded. Her mouth twisted into the wary, sardonic smile she often had for him.

"Be back tomorrow night," she said. "We run with the pack."

"I remember," he said sharply. His thoughts were taking him to the silvery light that simmered behind an asperity of the mountains, now invisible from the city. He had already thrown his cloak over his shoulders and opened the door when Daphne's voice carried to him into the night.

"Be careful."

He did not reply, but again, cold foreboding tightened his chest.

Outside reigned one of these still winter nights, with a black empty sky that gave a vertiginous feeling to anyone looking too deeply into it. The stars, tiny and dead, emphasized the blackness instead of piercing it, and inhuman cold seeped from the sky and settled over the earth. Walking through that night, Harry felt like an intruder, a foreign body — too warm, too alive, too gesticulating. There was not a soul in sight, the windows were blind and the houses silent. He quickened his steps.

The enormous, shaggy form of a werewolf-shaped Patronus crouched on the frozen path, well away from the city. As it saw Harry draw closer it opened its jaws and spoke in Tonks's voice:

"We hit a wall. Need you now. Hagrid's hut."

The werewolf dissolved, leaving Harry in the dark.

It did not last long. Sudden moonlight bathed the mountain and reflected off the long snowy slopes, spreading over the world a long, blue, dead luminescence. Harry looked up to see the moon that had just come out of a string of cloud; it was almost full.

We run with the pack tomorrow night.

Harry shrugged into his wolf form as easily as he would slip into a coat. He would have to be back at dawn.

He did not leave the wolf's warm fur until he was at the very edge of the Forbidden Forest, and by then, the influence of the Isiame city had receded and he no longer suffered from the cold. Hagrid's hut sat, squat, dark and utterly lifeless, at a few feet from the last rank of sycamore trees. The shutters were all tightly closed and the chimney did not let through the slightest wisp of smoke.

Harry slid from tree to tree, his wand out and ready, his eyes locked onto Hagrid's front door. His footsteps were muffled in the thick layer of snow covering the ground. He was starting to suspect Tonks had been coerced into sending the message to lure him out, when the door opened a fraction and someone peered out at him.

"Is that you, Harry?" said an absent, dreamy voice he had not heard in over a year. "I thought I saw the trees move. We're all here, come in!"

The door swung wide open and Harry had to lift an arm against the torrents of light that rushed out. Someone took his hand and gently tugged to lead him inside; he took a blind step forward, tripped against something hard and almost fell face-first onto the floor.

When he recovered his balance he found himself in the middle of a furnace: the hut was flooded with the light of a great roaring fire and of hundreds of candles hovering in mid-air between the hams, strings of sausage and plucked chicken that hung from the beams. Hagrid's coats and jackets had been used to mask the windows, blocking the light that might have filtered out by the cracks between the shutters. A Fanning Charm cast its own bluish glow near the ceiling, squeaking feebly as its ghostly blades spun and spun, sucking in the smoke generated by the fires.

All this light, almost too bright to bear, fell upon a heap of swords gathered in the middle of the hut.

There were dozens of them; rapiers and broadswords, sharp and chipped, whole and broken. A few were rusted, most were gleaming as though they had just been pulled out of the smithy. Every sword ever hidden in Hogwarts seemed piled up on the floor of Hagrid's hut, and the atmosphere had a metallic, bellicose smell to it.

"They wouldn't come anywhere else," Luna commented. "This is neutral ground."

Harry tore his eyes from the mountain of blades and looked at her enquiringly. She was thinner than he remembered, but otherwise she was disturbingly like… Luna Lovegood. As though she had just come back from a short vacation, rather than out of a year-long coma.

Ron, Tonks, Romilda and McGonagall leant against the wall, looking down at the swords. Professor Parletoo lay in Hagrid's bed, waxed-faced and breathing a little too fast. He tried to smile at Harry but even that seemed to require tremendous efforts.

As for Hagrid, he was in the remote corner of his hut, struggling to rest against the wall the gigantic oak table that usually stood in the middle of the room. Due to the lack of space it could not stand on its four feet, and it seemed absolutely averse to being put in a vertical position.

"Effing thing," Hagrid growled, catching the table as it toppled over once more.

"So what do you think, Harry?" asked Luna in a bright voice, as though exhibiting her latest work of art.

"Something is escaping us," Professor McGonagall said irritably. "None of the swords fit either description; and they all feel… familiar… unlike anything that would have belonged to the Third Kind. And yet the lost swords are here, I'm sure they are."

Harry stared, puzzled, at the gleaming heap of metal. "How can you be sure?" he asked.

He felt at once that he had touched a sensitive spot. McGonagall's lips went thinner than ever, Tonks let out a growl of frustration and Romilda and Ron sagged a little against the wall of the hut, as though in weariness.

"We didn't exactly comb the castle stone by stone, Harry," said Tonks. "Professor McGonagall used old enchantments built into the walls of the castle, to gather round all weapons ever used in the defence of Hogwarts."

"That was no garden-party, I assure you," McGonagall said through gritted teeth. "The enchantments may be triggered only if war is threatening to crash down upon Hogwarts. I had to persuade everyone from the suits of armour to the ghosts, portraits, centaurs, merpeople and — Merlin help me — trees, that Hogwarts should prepare to war. Not to mention the fact that the other teachers had to be notified, and the students warned. Only then was the castle ready to receive the weapons that might defend it."

"And when that was done, we had to sort out the swords from the other rubbish," said Ron. "You should've seen the stuff that flew out of the dungeons and Room of Requirement — arrows, stones, catapults, spiky stuff I couldn't even name… Then we had to find a location away from the patrolling ghosts and portraits," he completed in a groan.

"We thought the Third Kind sword would like to be in a place near the Forest," Luna interjected. "This is why it's neutral ground, see?"

"And now we can't find them," Romilda concluded, sounding completely disheartened. "At least one of the two swords was used to defend Hogwarts, that's what Eric de Pallas's portrait told me — a sword crafted for defensive purposes! It should be there. It should have answered the enchantment. And we can't find it."

"At any rate we cannot reach further," said McGonagall. "Either Pallas's sword is there, or it's lost."

She stared hard at Harry. "And for our sake I hope it is there, Potter; because now Hogwarts is getting ready for a war."

"It has to be there," Harry breathed, staring into the swords. The new hope that had arisen in his chest when he had seen Tonks's Patronus was now mingling with anxiety. They were seven of them, and they had not found the swords — how could he help?

He took a step forward; he could feel the others' eyes glued to the back of his neck. The first sword he pulled from the heap was very familiar.

"Gryffindor's," he murmured.

"The first weapon to answer the call," said McGonagall's voice, somewhere behind him.

Harry stared for a second at the rubies of the hilt. The sword felt right in his hand — its weight was perfectly balanced, its edge sharp as ever, the hard metal giving a feeling of solidity against his palm. It wanted to be used.

He set it aside and went back to the search.

"Waste of time," spat out Tonks as he cautiously picked up a broken blade by its point. "We looked at all of them, all—"

"Hush," said Ron unexpectedly. "Harry might find it. I agree with Luna on that, it's exactly the kind of stuff that happens to him."

Harry glanced up at Luna, who gave him a kind smile.

"Ron and I were thinking the swords might be hiding from us," she said. "And that they would recognise you, and come to you."

There was a small snort from behind Harry, and Ron coughed uneasily. "Well, I didn't voice it quite like—"

"Shhh, Ron," Luna whispered.

A heavy silence settled in the hut as seven people watched Harry with redoubled intensity. The too-bright light bounced off the innumerable edges and facets of the forged iron, forcing Harry to squint, and the acrid smell from the fire was stinging his nose. He cast away one sword after the other with increasing discomfort. No sword matched the memory he had.

"Okay, this makes no sense," Tonks said brutally after several long, silent, painful minutes. "Stop that, Harry. I don't know — I just don't know why we spent so much time on that lead, it takes us nowhere. Those swords could be anywhere, and even if we found them, what would they tell us? What could they possibly—"

"Something happened," Harry murmured, and she fell quiet as abruptly as if he had yelled at her. "Something happened with those swords. At my parents' death, they were supposed to go back to their makers. They didn't. My parents did something to the swords before they died. They broke the sequence."

A log gave a loud crack, sparks firing from a slit in the coiling bark. Harry knelt before the pile of swords that towered over his head. The argument he had repeated to himself over and over again, hoping against reason it would lead him somewhere, curiously made more sense right now — now when his hopes were thinning every minute — than it had ever had.

"They had the swords," he went on, louder this time, speaking to a stone-still audience. "They received them when they were fifteen. They were supposed to be enemies, Wizard Knight against Isiame Knight. But instead of killing each other, they got married. And the swords vanished, Martin started investigating into the Third Kind, the Third Kind woke up, the balance was broken…"

"Lily had the other sword?" McGonagall's voice was blank. "Lily Evans?"

Harry stared around the cabin, thinking furiously. Romilda was right, the Wizard Knight's sword must have been called up by McGonagall's enchantment; however, in Harry's imagination, both swords had vanished together — and he had always assumed they had been hidden together. After all, the Wizard Knight had married his Isiame counterpart. It would make sense if the two swords had been, likewise, linked together.

So if one was there, the other might be, too.

But where?

He vaguely heard the others talking over his head, arguing heatedly in worried voices; he did not listen, busy following the fragile thread of his thoughts. Then he caught Luna's absentminded accents in the background; a trigger was pulled.

Were the swords in neutral territory?

He cast another circular look around him. The hut of the Keeper of Keys and Grounds of Hogwarts. Not a belligerent character, but a Hogwarts partisan through and through…

The wind whistled around the door.

He had tripped when he had walked in.

He sprang to his feet so fast that his shoulder rammed into Ron's chest; thrown off-balance, Ron tried to hold on to both Tonks and Romilda, and the noisy fall of the three of them among Hagrid's wooden crates brought the argument to an abrupt end. Harry barely registered what was happening. Loud swearing rang behind him as he opened the door of the hut and crouched down, hands extended blindly in the pitch-black night, feeling the snow on the slick stone steps.

A hilt found itself under his fingers where there was only air a second before. His brain filled with nothing but the sound of blood beating loudly, dully, and fast, Harry pulled a long heavy sword from the doorstep of the Keeper of Keys.

When light fell upon the sword, there were eight sharp intakes of breath.

On one side, it was a wide-bladed sword with the broad golden hilt of Middle-Aged knights. A single emerald shone venomously on the hilt, and the blade was decorated with long sinuous lines that coiled and twisted in the shape of smoky wisps.

Harry turned it over.

The sword suddenly looked slimmer. Darker, more severe, the hilt was soberly decorated with lines of braided silver. The blade itself was carved with perfect pentagons.

Harry weighted the sword in his hand. It was heavy, a lot more than it should be, and felt wrong, dangerous, and powerful. He was having trouble keeping it upright and had to rest the tip on the floor between his feet.

"I did look on tha' threshold, Professor McGonagall, I did," Hagrid said in an uncertain voice. "I — I swept the grounds all around me house, I did! That thing wasn't there!"

"We all walked in without problem," said Luna. "Only Harry tripped over it. It wouldn't show itself to anyone else."

"For good reason," Ron interrupted, from the floor where he struggled to put back in the crates several unidentified things of vegetal nature that Hagrid stored there. "Ugly thing."

"If you can't think of anything smart to say, Weasley, silence is greatly recommended," said McGonagall. "So it appears you were right, Potter. Mystery's solved. The swords are both there, reunited in one. They were dragged out of their hiding place because the Wizard half responded to the Defence Enchantment, and they would not come inside the hut because of the Third Kind half. Now are your parents truly responsible for melting the swords into one…?"

"The blade," Romilda suddenly said. "Look at the blade!"

Harry peered down at the sword. Both sides of the blade were darkened with what he thought at first to be grime, covering the markings. He frowned, and raised the sword closer to his eyes.

"It's not dirt. It's writing, isn't it? Someone wrote all over the sword!"

Now he could see them, the tiny characters etched into the iron, covering the blade from side to side. They were so small and so close together he could hardly make out the words…

"My name is James Potter and I have been given this sword and the duty— Damnit, I can't read the rest, it's too small," said Romilda, who was closest. "Turn it over? Harry?"

Numbly, Harry complied. The emerald shimmered sullenly again.

"Here it is too! My name is Lily Evans and I have been given— I really can't make out the rest, but with the proper tools I bet I could decipher it all!" Romilda said excitedly. "Would you lend it to me, Harry?"


He looked up to see seven startled faces staring back at him; he wasn't sure they were as surprised as he was by his own answer. He fumbled with the two-faced sword, trying to find words to explain the abrupt certainty that had filled him as soon as his fingers had closed on the hilt.

"The sword is mine. I have to keep it," he said lamely.

"Okay," said Romilda, raising her hands in a soothing gesture.

"Not okay!"

It was Ron who had spoken, this time. Having finally untangled himself from Hagrid's wooden crates and their dubious contents, he stood with his feet slightly apart, pale, thin and gangly, a suspicious expression on his features as he glared down at the sword.

"Why d'you have to keep it?" he demanded. "Is it that you have good reasons, then it would be nice to share, because we've been working our pants off gathering up all this junk—" He had a broad gesture encompassing the dozens of swords spread over the floor. "—Or is it that the sword won't let you? Because I don't like this thing. If it starts having its own mind about who should own it, I say we get rid of it before it gets nasty."

"You can't get rid of it," Harry countered, and again, he spoke with a certainty he did not completely understand. "See, old Isiame weapons have been found for centuries by people who weren't Isiames themselves — Muggles, and sometimes wizards. These people were made guardians of the city as soon as they touched the weapon, and when they died, it went back to the Isiames. I've seen the old weapons in their city; they're useless now. Anyone can handle them. But this… this sword has power whereas its guardian is dead—"

"So when you touched it, you became a guardian yourself?" Ron had gone paler still. "And it could've happened to any of us, if we'd found the damn thing?"

"We wouldn't have found it, Ron," said Luna. "The sword was waiting for Harry! It chose him!"

But Ron did not seem to hear. He stared at the sword with a kind of horrified fascination, his hands coiling into fists at his sides. "We should destroy it. Right now. It wants to enslave you, Harry! To turn you against — against us! Against Hogwarts! How can we destroy it, Professor?" He turned frantic eyes towards McGonagall, a pleading note in his voice.

"I'm not sure we can, Weasley," said McGonagall. She, too, was observing the sword closely. "Merging the two swords into one and writing on the blade took great magical skill. No doubt the authors did not go to so much trouble to see their work destroyed. They wanted it to be found."

A shadow fell upon the Headmistress's lined face. There was sadness and pity in the gaze she levelled on Harry, such as he had never seen from his old Professor; he dearly wished she would not look at him this way.

"Those poor children," she whispered.

Tonks detached herself from the wall she leant against. "Let's admit Harry's parents made this double sword," she said slowly. "Let's imagine they left it for Harry to find. They didn't make it easy for him, did they?"

There was a sound like a foghorn when Hagrid blew his nose. "That sounds just like 'em," he said in a raucous voice, sniffing now and then. "We found it only because Hogwarts is ready for a war, didn'we? Maybe we was allowed to use the sword only if there was war?"

"Yeah, but what should we use it for?"

At Tonks's question, everyone turned to Harry in expectant silence.

He had a small, forced smile, to reassure allies and friends.

"I'll think of something," he said. To illustrate his words, his mind already elsewhere, he snapped his fingers once.

The flames of the dozens of candles were instantly snuffed out. There was a rushing sound, and on the tip of Harry's index finger a ball of white light blossomed, as cold and pure as the lights that hovered in the corridors of Isiame City.

"How did you do that?" Tonks breathed, eyes wide open. "That — that wasn't magic!"

Harry stared at the ball of light. It illuminated effortlessly the least corners of Hagrid's hut while revolving on itself, a perfect, alien thing. It was the first time he had succeeded in making one.

"I've been able to do weird stuff lately," he said, staring into the light, his voice low and hoarse. "Ever since it all began. You knew that."

"I…" Tonks licked her lips. Harry hated to see the fright on her face. "I'd never seen it before."

"It's never been that easy," he confessed. The light pulsed on the tip of his finger. With a tiny effort of will he sent it upwards, to hover between the beams supporting the roof.

The sword buzzed quietly against his thigh.

Hagrid cleared his throat in a great barking noise, making everyone jump. "Well, thank yeh for the light, Harry," he said gruffly. "I'll clean up the mess and fix dinner now, alrigh'?"

"I'll handle the dinner part," Romilda said very fast. Harry thought he saw her shudder a bit at the thought of Hagrid's cooking. "I've brought enough to make a soup for eight. I even brought Butterbeer."

"And I'll, I'll get the sausages!" added Ron, catching on Romilda's pleading glances.

There was a chorus of approval and everyone started moving at once, picking up the swords and pushing them in heaps against the walls, moving the furniture back to its original position, and generally busying themselves and taking care not to look up at the ball of white light.

Harry and his sword had been relegated in a corner near Hagrid's bed. He sat on the bed, studying the sword with its markings he couldn't decipher, and with the gentle buzzing that he felt into his bones.

"Mr Potter," said a thread of a voice.

Harry started and wheeled about. He'd almost sat on Professor Parletoo's feet, whom he had completely forgotten. A year of coma, which had left Ron and Luna apparently unscathed, had ravaged the former Head Healer. The sheet outlined his skeletal legs, stretched out like that of a recumbent statue. His long hands rested on top of the quilt like broken toys that would have been tossed there and forgotten. If it was not for the rising and falling of his chest, a little too fast to be reassuring, and for the blue eyes shining in a thin, pale face, he might have been dead.

"I've been filled in with recent events," the Healer whispered. "Did I understand right…? You gained… new powers. Powers similar to those creatures'."

"I—" Harry cleared his throat. "I never said it was their power, Professor. I am a wizard."

"It is Professor McGonagall's guess. She recognised you, a few weeks ago, in the creature who killed Fenrir Greyback in Hogsmeade. You may be one of their own, which would surprise me, as my medical examinations never suggested such a thing; at the very least though, you aren't fully a wizard. You have powers we know not."

"This is the first time I've been able to produce that simple spell, Professor," said Harry through clenched teeth. "If I had such powers, why weren't they revealed before now?"

At this, the half-corpse's face was suddenly illuminated by a broad, triumphant smile. His thin voice lowered to something barely audible, and Harry had to lean forward to hear the next words:

"And this, my dear, is the greatest discovery of my whole career… I've been thinking about it ever since I was awoken, I might even have been thinking about it all along while I was unconscious. I might not live long enough to publish it, so listen closely: the key to it all, the secret, the reason you are… what you are, is that you were brain-damaged."

The revelation probably did not have on Harry the effect the old man expected; meeting his former patient's blank look, he elaborated, sounding a little vexed:

"For centuries, wizards have been bickering about the place where the magic resides in the body. Is it the heart? Head? Soul? The Horcrux experiment proved it probably was not the soul, but the debate is still open. For expediency's sake, let's say it's in the brain. I am probably wrong in calling it so, but — this is not the subject.

"You see, Mr Potter, every man is granted a share of skill, intelligence, imagination, compassion, and so on. They all possess those things in varying degrees, according to their brain capacity. Wizards have something more: a share of magic, which may be very different from an individual to the next. These creatures, these Third Kind people — they have something more still. I haven't found a name for it yet, but it's there, in their brain, sharing the room with other gifts from nature.

"No wizard could accommodate a share of that power — there wouldn't be enough room, see? Their own… brain… is already filled up to full capacity with their own natural gifts. Such power needs a lot of space, space a fully-fledged wizard cannot offer."

The manic grin was back now on the wax mask.

"But you have been brain-damaged."

Harry found his voice at last. "At the Hogwarts battle," he said, following the line of Parletoo's reasoning. "The four Cruciatus curses."

"Precisely," whispered the old Healer. "The four curses did worse than damaging your nerves; they obliterated a part of your brain, the part that feels and understands pain and touch. Nature abhors a vacuum. There was a power in the Forest where you found shelter, an ancient power that was trapped into the trees and soil. It rushed into you, protected your brain against worse damages from the Cruciatus, and settled there."

Parletoo had another wild smile.

"You should have died," he said with visible, intense satisfaction. "The Curses should have eaten your brain until there was little left of you — no magic, no reason, no youth; the Longbottoms were living proof of that. But no. Out of luck, extraordinary luck, you were in a secret place where there was power just waiting to be used. Begging to find someone to use them."

Harry shook his head. "I was led into the core of the Forest, sir. I was attracted to the place, and I was accepted by the trees. The same trees that murdered the Death Eaters. It was all before the… power took hold of me. There was little luck involved."

"Took hold of you." Parletoo closed his eyes, his gaunt face shining with a thin layer of sweat. "You were… predisposed, no doubt. When your reason, your magic, your identity were threatened by the Curses, your subconscious guided you to the only place in the world where you could be saved. A place where you were accepted because you were your mother's son, your mother, who owned the Third Kind sword."

"My subconscious guided me."

"Or someone else's," said Parletoo in a single expelled breath. His electric blue eyes shot wide open again, and he looked down at the sword in Harry's hands. "Yes, of course. Your parents were remarkable wizards, I think. They might have planted into your young brain this… injunction, before they died. Then they designed the weapon that would help canalise this new power, should you ever need it. It is… a wild hypothesis… I need to look into it…"

"How can you know all this, Professor?" Harry asked, interrupting Parletoo's muttering. "How can you know that's what happened — the damage to my brain, the power filling in the spot? And why do you think the sword helps canalise the power?"

"When you picked up the sword, you've been able to control the power for the first time, you just told me so," said Parletoo. Both men glanced up to the white source of life pulsing between blackened beams. "That sword is part-wizard, part-Third Kind, obviously. The share of power you got in the Forest, in replacement for the share of humanity you lost, wasn't large enough to enable you to use it consciously. The sword might bring you just the quantity of power needed to control yours. That would be my guess."

"It's all guesses then," said Harry roughly.

Parletoo had a small, shrewd smile.

"In terms of magical Healing, Mr Potter, my guesses usually are pretty accurate."

"What are you two whispering about?" said Romilda's panting voice.

Harry's head whipped about and found the Three Broomsticks waitress standing before him, her sleeves rolled up above her elbows and an apron tied around her waist. Behind her, the room had been cleaned and the table was set for seven. He felt mildly guilty for sitting around while they all worked.

"Just catching up, Miss Vane," said Parletoo with a thin smile. "I'll rest a bit now, Mr Potter. Then tomorrow, we can discuss this again."

"Sure," Harry said hastily. Rising from the bed, he joined Romilda and the others around the table, taking with him the sword that he could not bring himself to leave.

Dinner was short and silent. Most people were too tired to speak, and Harry had the feeling they wanted to get out of the white light as fast as possible — although they were too intent on not hurting his feelings to ask him to put it out. Professor McGonagall answered Tonks's questions about the way Hogwarts was preparing to war; indeed, the enchantment she had used to bring forth the swords had set other spells in motion, and the castle was now ready for an assault. Pupils, teachers and visitors were locked in until the state of war was lifted.

"I calculated I might have a week before I am revoked as Headmistress, for 'accidentally' triggering the enchantments," she calmly added to her audience's stupefaction.

"What?" said Romilda and Hagrid at the same time.

"Parents have noticed their letters no longer reached their children," McGonagall elaborated. "They alerted the Ministry, who could only record that Hogwarts was getting ready for a magical assault. They are powerless in lifting the enchantment. The spells might be broken only if Hogwarts itself deems it is no longer at war; and if I, as the Headmistress, decide not to interfere with the process, it might take a long time before Hogwarts no longer feels threatened."

She played a little with what was left of her soup, which had gone cold in her plate.

"The Howlers are exploding just outside the boundaries of the school, but I hear them from my desk."

Tonks shot a furtive look at Harry, who met her eyes steadily.

"War is coming to Hogwarts," he said to the silent table. "In a few days. Less, maybe. It'll be attacked on two fronts, and it'll have to stand fast, because otherwise I don't know what will become of us."

"It will stand fast," said Hagrid gruffly. "It always has."

"To Hogwarts," said Romilda.

They all echoed the toast, but Harry could not help notice Minerva McGonagall's too bright eyes as she lifted the glass to her lips.

"Tell me about Hermione, mate," said Ron.

Harry stifled a sigh. He knew Ron had tried his hardest to avoid questioning him in front of the others; but now that nearly everyone had gone to bed, now that they both sat alone in the guest bedroom Ron occupied, the words were bursting from his best friend's lips — and he could not see how to answer without hurting him.

"What do you know?" he finally asked.

He sat on the windowsill, as he often did lately, his back to the night that stretched on; from there he faced Ron who fidgeted in the depths of the red, sagging armchair he had chosen for himself next to the fireplace.

"Well, our enemies right now are the Unspeakables, right?" Ron started cautiously. "They set the werewolves on Hogsmeade, they were responsible for the Aurors' death and your partner's disappearance, and possibly for Malfoy manor blowing up — can't say I blame them for that one, though, awesome you could escape before it went off, mind… And Hermione was an Unspeakable."

"She was working with them," Harry began, but Ron was already shaking his head.

"Come on, Harry, be serious here," he said hotly. "Hermione killing people? Are you out of your mind?"

"She was part of the team that let the werewolves go after Hogsmeade," Harry insisted. "Maybe she tried to make sure the villagers were protected — I don't know. There was at least one death. Either way, she thought she was preventing a greater danger when she sacrificed Hogsmeade."

Ron's mouth was set in a stubborn line.

"That doesn't sound like her," he said.

"That sounds exactly like her, on the contrary," replied Harry through clenched teeth. "That sounds like something Hermione would do after going crazy with grief and worry. Trying to solve everything by going deeper into the theory, and understanding the mechanisms. She must've lied to herself a lot to go to that depths, I'll give you that."

Harry licked his lips. Between his hands, the sword was buzzing gently again, its point resting on a faded red carpet — even in a guest bedroom, Ron gave in to his penchant for Gryffindor colours. The snow that drifted in front of the narrow window muffled the voice of the exterior world, and right now, he felt separated from the rest of the universe; just him, Ron, and the truth he struggled to explain.

His head felt heavy; one of his old migraines was building up at his temples. He wanted the conversation to be over.

"You know, she never forgave me for putting you in harm's way…"

Ron's face was drained off the little colour it had sustained after his long coma.

"You saying she did that… for me," he said, his voice hollow.

Harry nodded. "Partly, at least. She wanted to wake you up. She didn't trust me, because she didn't think I was myself anymore — and also because I was the reason you were attacked. So she lost herself in her studies, she justified the stuff she was doing even if she hated doing it, and I suppose she no longer knew what was right and wrong, after a while."

He rubbed at his forehead. "She was… very lonely, I suppose."

"Like you," said Ron. Harry glanced at him, surprised.

"Yeah, like me, I guess," he said.

"And you ended up jinxing each other," Ron went on. "You both sound equally fucked up."

"Yeah, well. It's been a rough year," said Harry, starting to feel a little annoyed at Ron's superior looks.

Ron's face went from livid to the colour of a peony. "Mine's been dandy, thanks for asking."

Harry snorted and shook his head in disbelief.

"I don't think I can explain just how…" He sighed noisily, tried again. "Listen. For months I've been in the middle of a goddamn cyclone; I wish I could've had you and Hermione with me, but I didn't. It was my fault I didn't — if I hadn't involved either of you, you'd never have been shot. I know that better than anyone, believe me."

"It's not—"

"And it's been like that since we were kids, isn't it?" Harry went on, his voice rising a little. "You two get involved in whatever mess I'm in, and you get hurt. If you've had enough, fine — I can't ask that much of you. You've done a lot already; you can wait in Hogwarts till it's over. Hermione will recover, it's only a matter of time, and then you'll have your bloody happily ever after."

The silence that followed was thick as tar. Ron's jaw was still set, but he had averted his eyes from Harry's and contemplated the floor instead. Harry rubbed at his temples again.

"How hard was it?" said Ron hoarsely. "Cursing her?"

Harry lowered his eyes to the two-faced sword that rested against his knee, and tested the edge on his thumb. It was blunt.

"About the hardest thing I've done since I first started investigating this case."

Silence hung between them again, for a few seconds; Harry's migraine was developing to atrocious proportions. He had not experienced such a bad one in months.

"It's been bad, Harry," said Ron in a low, defeated voice. "Waking up, learning how horrible it's all turned out, learning that you're hunted down by the whole Ministry — it's not, y'know, being thrown in with people wanted by half of Great Britain that is the worst. It's always been worth it, being on your side. It's more… you, running things on your own, and us there, who can do nothing more to help than look for a sword. It's maddening. Not knowing what's happening, not being able to contact my family because they might be targeted, not knowing where you are, what you're trying to do, and how to help you…"

He ran a hand through his hair, leaving it standing on ends. "In a way, I'm glad Hermione's in St Mungo's. She'll be safe there and I won't have to fight her," he quickly confessed.

"You've done a lot already," Harry repeated. "The sword is a key, Ron — and I'd never have found it on my own."

"What does it mean?"

Harry raised the sword and held it in the air, lying flat on his upturned palms.

"It means," he said, "that the last Isiame and Wizard Knights decided to upset a centuries-old status quo, by making this thing — and by letting me have it. My parents started this war, Ron. And I think they intended me to finish it."

They looked at each other for a long time over the sword. Then Ron had a one-shoulder shrug, a gesture that took Harry years back to the golden age of their friendship; and it was the old Ron, too, who concluded on a matter-of-fact voice, "One hell of a programme. Lucky there are eight of us, ready to save the world."

Harry suddenly smiled. "That's all it takes, right?"