THE CANTERBURY HANDFASTING

PROLOGUE IN AZKABAN

Azkaban was not guarded by Dementors anymore since the day Voldemort's return had been made known to the wizarding world at large, but it was still a fearsome prison. Its walls, built of huge blocks of granite and twenty feet thick, were impervious to any sound coming from outside, and the cell doors had been spelled to completely block noises from within the building. The inmates, all of them in solitary confinement, never saw a living soul. Meals appeared in their cells at regular intervals, and for the first few days they managed to keep count of them and thus maintain a sense of how long they'd been imprisoned – the cells were windowless and flooded with a faint, unchanging twilight – but after two or three weeks every single of them gave up those attempts as futile. If you'd been sentenced to spending a few years of your life in Azkaban, you needed all your energy to retain your sanity. Day-counting was a useless waste thereof.

And it was cold. So cold that after a mere couple of hours the idea of warmth turned into a tantalizing dream, never to become real again. The cells were small, only about six feet by nine; light exercise was possible, but if you overdid it you started sweating, which allowed the everlasting chill to get an even deeper and more tenacious grip on the marrow of your bones.

Lucius Malfoy had been a prisoner in Azkaban for little less than two years. Not that he was aware of how long his confinement had lasted – after resisting the mind-numbing effect of the leaden solitude, cold and silence for about a month, he had finally given in. Sometimes he was sure he'd gone crazy. Keeping his mind wrapped around what he thought might be sanity was easier when he was awake. He was able to think rationally while not asleep, to persuade himself that Narcissa would have found a way to keep herself and Draco safe, that Bellatrix would have helped because her love for her sister was still stronger than her fanaticism. His thoughts went round in circles, hungry animals on the prowl, but there was no food for them, and they had soon started gnawing at themselves.

His dreams were haunted by screams and blood and death. And by fear, by a terrible dread so strong and so much more real than any of his wakeful moments.

He had failed his mission at the Ministry of Magic. Knowing that his Dark Master was going to punish Lucius for the disappointment he had caused him, and that this time punishment meant death or torture so severe that he'd probably end up permanently at St. Mungo's, Lucius had decided that letting himself be captured was the better option.

It had been a choice made within a mere second, nothing like his usual careful planning and plotting. Lucius was unsure if, had he had more time to ponder the alternatives, he would have considered the possibility of his money, influence and excellent connections failing to secure him a prolonged sojourn at the Ministry's own holding cells. Because that was what he had banked on. Erroneously, as he had soon been forced to recognize.

He'd been transferred to Azkaban a mere five days after his capture, which had been followed by a short, devastating trial. Since the day the cell door had closed behind him, he'd been as good as buried alive.

He'd done a lot of thinking in his isolation. He wished they'd given him something to write, he'd have liked to keep a diary, to monitor his own thought processes and watch himself slowly changing his mind about convictions he'd believed to be unshakeable for his whole life. He found that he didn't care a lot anymore about pureblood supremacy. He recognized that he'd been a fool to join Voldemort. He had followed in his father's footsteps back then, without really questioning a decision that had been his only in form. He had to admit though, that in the beginning the idea of emerging from his father's almighty shadow by rising through the Death Eaters' ranks more quickly than his old man had had a certain twisted logic to it. And once he'd received his Dark Mark there really had been no way out anymore. He'd been married by then, and later on his wife had been pregnant. The consequences of even attempting to free himself would have been too terrifying.

Not so now. Lucius was sure that either Voldemort had already taken his revenge on Draco and Narcissa, or that his wife and son had been able to escape the Dark Lord's wrath. In either case, Lucius didn't have much to lose anymore. He was… free, in a way. When he came to this point in his reflections, Lucius had to stop himself from continuing to think, because the idea of being free while imprisoned between these walls surely was a sign of madness. And Lucius feared nothing more than madness, for it meant the loss of the last thing that remained his: control over himself.

When the door of his cell swung back and two men entered the narrow space, Lucius jumped up from his cot and recoiled in horror. Convinced that he'd finally lost the battle and lost his mind, he closed his eyes and hid his face in his hands.

The door closed with an almost inaudible clank, and he finally dared open his eyes. One of the men had gone, but the other was still there, looking at him with an expression of curiosity mingled with disgust. 'Malfoy,' he said. 'Long time, no see.'

'Scrim-' The syllable came out as a harsh croak, and Lucius had to clear his throat a few times before he was able to speak. 'Scrimgeour,' he said finally. 'Are we to share a cell? Has Azkaban run out of space?'

The Minister smiled a somewhat strained smile. 'Not if I can avoid it. I have come here to propose a deal, Malfoy. Sit down.'

Eyebrows rising, Lucius silently went to sit on the cot.

'I have been Minister for Magic for almost as long as you've been here, Malfoy.'

'Ah. How very interesting. And how long would that be?' Obviously he had not succeeded in keeping his face as expressionless as he'd intended, Lucius thought, because Scrimgeour's face was lit by an ugly smile.

'Difficult to keep track of time in here, is it, Malfoy?'

'I thought you had come to propose a deal, Minister. It is never wise to anger one's counterpart in such cases.'

'That,' Scrimgeour said, 'strongly depends on what one has to offer.' He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall opposite Lucius. 'Well, aren't you curious to hear what I have come to offer you?'

'I trust you shall be telling me in your own time. Considering that you went to the trouble of coming here, I rather suspect that whatever you think I may be able to offer you is of significant interest to you.' Lucius crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall, mimicking Scrimgeour's position, although he didn't like having to look up at the Minister.

'Still fond of playing cat and mouse, are you?

'The cat's part does suit me rather well, yes.'

'Even that of a trapped cat with no claws?'

Lucius inspected his fingernails. They were long, dirty and broken. 'Don't forget the teeth. And I do have a few lives left.'

'All of which you'll spend in Azkaban, unless you agree to the deal.'

'To continue with the same, though rather trite metaphor: You don't seriously expect me to agree before you have let the cat out of the bag, do you?'

Scrimgeour snorted. 'Am I wrong in assuming that your vault at Gringott's contains a rather negligible part of your fortune?'

'One hundred and fifty thousand galleons are hardly a sum a… public employee could call negligible.'

'Certainly not. But I presume that substantial sum isn't all you have got.'

Lucius merely shrugged.

'How much would your freedom be worth to you?'

'That depends on how you define freedom. Living in poverty and under house arrest certainly doesn't qualify. It would be better than rotting in this cell, mind you, but the price I'd be ready to pay would scarcely be worth mentioning.'

'So…' Scrimgeour pushed himself off the wall and began to pace the narrow space. 'What would you be ready to pay a substantial sum for?'

The thrill of conducting this negotiation by far outweighed Lucius's desire for freedom. A freedom that was illusory at best, he was sure. 'Oh, I don't know, really. I would have to give the matter some careful thought.' He crossed his legs and smiled up at the Minister.

'I don't have time to play games, Malfoy. Name the price for your freedom.'

'Your definition of the term, if you please, Minister.'

Scrimgeour's shoulders sagged. He was standing with his back towards Lucius. 'Destruction of all the ministry files concerning you, and the possibility to prove your loyalties during the imminent battle against He Who Must Not Be Named.'

'Is your situation that desperate?'

The Minister turned slowly to face his opponent. 'I have to leave the country as soon as possible. Whoever wins is sure to turn against me. Although I am as good as certain that Potter is going to win.'

'Thanks for the hint,' Lucius said dryly. 'Very useful information indeed, since you're offering me the possibility to prove my, er, loyalties. It would be a little embarrassing, wouldn't it, to choose the wrong side. By the way, how exactly do you mean to provide me with that possibility?'

'A portkey, to be activated at my command, which will be keyed to Potter and his friends.'

'At your command? You don't seem to be on such excellent terms with the Order of the Phoenix to know when they'll be preparing for battle.'

'I have my spies, Malfoy.'

Lucius nodded slowly. 'Nymphadora?'

'Whoever. Well, do you accept the deal?'

'How much do you want?'

'Three hundred thousand galleons, to be transferred to an account of my choice.'

It was a large sum, but one he could afford to lose if it bought his freedom. 'How am I to know you kept your part of the deal?'

'A very reasonable question, Malfoy.' Scrimgeour dug in his pockets and produced a tiny wad of parchment. 'Restoreo!' The wad grew into an impressive stack of files. 'Sign the transfer order, and I'll burn them here, before your eyes.'

'You could have made copies. I'm no fool, Scrimgeour.'

With an impatient shake of his head, the Minister again pointed his wand at the files. 'Revelo duplico!' Nothing happened. 'Satisfied?'

Lucius shrugged. 'It's not as if I'd mind the loss of my money while in here. I therefore choose to believe you. What about the portkey?'

'I will leave it with you once you sign this magical contract.' Scrimgeour pulled a roll of parchment and a second wand from his sleeve. 'Yours, by any chance?'

Having trouble to suppress a moan of longing, Lucius merely nodded.

'It will be activated, both as a portkey and as a functioning wand, at my command. Well?'

Lucius bowed his head. 'I agree to the deal.'

NEWS FROM THE WIZARDING WORLD

St. Mungo's, 5 May 1998

Dear mum and dad,

I'm still a bit weak and can't write for too long, but I just wanted you to know that it's over, we've won and I'm alive and almost well. Please don't fret, I'm going to write more tomorrow or the day after.

Kisses and hugs

Hermione

ooo

St. Mungo's, 7 May 1998

Dear mum and dad,

I was sure you'd worry yourselves to death in spite of my short letter, so I sent Arthur. I hope he didn't ask too many questions about the DVD, stereo etc., although maybe the hairdryer interested him even more. Anyway, I wanted you to hear from him in person that the battle had gone well for our side.

Maybe you won't believe me, but when we were out there on the grounds and finally facing the enemy, I stopped being afraid. It was better than the constant state of alert we had been under for almost a year. I knew I was able to fight Death Eaters, because I'd already done it once, and that had been Voldemort's elite. There were more of them during the battle, but he'd already lost some of the most dangerous ones, and I had the feeling that many of those fighting us weren't all that keen. Not that it was easy, but everybody on our side was so determined to fight and win. And we did.

I know I can't lie to you, and I would feel compelled to tell you the truth sooner or later, and so I prefer to tell you right now: it's something of a miracle that I'm still alive. The battle had only just started, and I'd stunned and bound one of the Death Eaters but obviously forgotten that there was nobody there to guard my back. I don't remember anymore what made me turn round (maybe I heard some tiny noise), but when I did, there was Rodolphus Lestrange (he was wearing a mask of course, but we found out later), raising his wand. It was such a strange feeling, knowing that I'd be dead within a few seconds. I knew he would cast the curse if I so much as tried to point my wand at him. Ron was lying on the ground (he'd been stunned previously by the one I'd just finished) and Harry was fighting another Death Eater, so he couldn't come to my rescue.

And then, out of thin air, there suddenly was Lucius Malfoy. I clearly remember thinking 'How on earth did he get out of Azkaban?' and I almost laughed, because it was all so stupid and senseless. I was as good as dead anyway, so why did he waste his time on me? And then he killed Lestrange, who seemed to be as surprised as I was and didn't react fast enough. Plus, he obviously had no idea that Malfoy was on our side.

Malfoy stayed with Harry, Ron and me, and (although I hate to admit it) without him and Professor Snape we would have had a much harder time winning the battle. They are both in custody at the Ministry right now, the trial will take place next week, and I've already received a letter from the Ministry asking me to testify.

Speaking of the Ministry (you really ought to subscribe to the Daily Prophet, by the way, keeping up with our news would be so much easier): Minister Scrimgeour has obviously left the country, and nobody knows his whereabouts. I don't know what people celebrated more: Voldemort being gone for good, or Scrimgeour having left. Anyway, we'll have a new Minister soon, and I do hope he or she will do a better job than Scrimgeour or Fudge.

I'll write again soon. Please keep your fingers crossed for McGonagall to allow us to take our N.E.W.T.s this year, if maybe a bit later than usual. I've been studying so much, I'd hate to wait another year when there's so much I could be doing already.

Kisses and hugs

Hermione

ooo

Hogwarts, 20 May 1998

Dear mum and dad,

Thanks for sending Crookshanks. He was terribly grumpy (you know how much he hates having to stay in the basket) but Dobby brought him some lovely fish and a bit of cream, and now he's sitting on my desk, purring and trying to catch the quill (Crookshanks, not Dobby).

The trial took place the day before yesterday. It was a very emotional affair, because Dumbledore had apparently left McGonagall a pensieve (you remember, I told you about it, it's a magical basin to keep memories in) together with some instructions, and he'd spelled it to produce a three-dimensional image of him testifying that Professor Snape was innocent. The Order members had known that of course since March, but for the others it was a surprise, and almost everybody in the audience started crying when they saw that image, because it looked so very real. I had to fake a few tears, because Harry would never have forgiven me otherwise. I wonder how long it will take him to understand to which degree the old man used and manipulated him. But I suppose that even someone as brave as Harry can only take so much at a time, and what with Sirius dead (he still hasn't got over it) and having to commit a murder in order to save us all (I copied heaps of legal texts for him in order to make him understand it was self defence, but he didn't even want to look at them) I guess he has enough on his plate. Realizing that he has been Dumbledore's puppet till the last moment would probably drive him mad, and so it's all for the best.

I had to testify in Malfoy's favour and of course I said what my conscience dictated me to say – the man looks horrible, even though he probably tried his best to look his old self. He pleaded that he'd already spent two years in Azkaban for the break-in at the Ministry, during which he'd been the only one not to attack or harm any of us (which is true, unfortunately) and that he'd changed sides – since he'd been in prison, nobody was able to prove that he had done so at the last minute – and helped us win the battle. That was also true, and I had to confirm it. You ought to have seen Ron's face, I thought he'd murder me. I never liked Malfoy, but I have to say I pitied him when I saw him like that. Arthur confirmed what I'd already suspected, i.e. that Azkaban prisoners are totally cut off from the world outside, so just imagine what it must have been like to be set free (though nobody seemed to know exactly how and why) and find out that his wife had been killed by Voldemort himself. I felt sorry for him when he approached Draco after the trial (Draco had come to get Professor Snape) and Draco would have hexed him, if it hadn't been for Professor Snape who held him back.

There are rumours that Professor McGonagall is to become the next Minister for Magic. I wish it was true, because I just know she'd do a really good job. With her as Minister, I might rethink my career plans. I wouldn't have dreamed of working for the Ministry under Fudge or Scrimgeour, but I'm sure McGonagall would start a lot of reforms, and I'd like to be a part of that.

Oh, I almost forgot something important: We're to receive our Orders of Merlin on 30 May (the new Minister's first official act, and a perfect piece of political tactics, I wonder who came up with the idea, hopefully not Pompous Percy) and you'll get your invitations by owl. I suggest that you dress as you would for a similar Muggle ceremony, that ought to be ok.

Oh, and something else: We're allowed to sit our N.E.W.T.s in August, isn't that wonderful?

See you next weekend at the ceremony!

Kisses and hugs

Hermione