Chapter 142 – The King's Champion

The distrust among the different groups that were prepared to stand for Harry asserted itself almost immediately.

Nitrocris spoke to Harry about strengthening the wards, and adding her magic to the stones at Hogwarts, but the Headmaster expressed his concern about anyone doing anything at all to the wards right now. It was clear from the briefings with the Ministry that Madam Bones seemed to assume the Ministry, likely through Head Auror Maxwell Darmut, would be in charge of matters. Members of the Order of the Phoenix had been summoned to the castle, and were clearly looking to the Headmaster for direction; the lingering mutual suspicion between the Ministry and the Order was obvious. Asgeir Brand had spoken to Harry and Albus privately, reminding them that the Winter Lands had broken relations with the Ministry of Magic and were prepared to fight for Harry, not the Ministry.

And Nitrocris was just the first of a number of powerful witches and wizards from other countries who began to arrive at Hogwarts, many offering some assistance or support specific to their special skills. While the Winter Lands might have been unique in having a pre-existing grudge against the Ministry, the other private citizens and foreign wizards felt no particular obligation toward the Ministry, either. They were clearly all here for Harry, and the offers were mainly directed toward him.

Harry asked for a small, private meeting with just him, Severus and the Headmaster first thing in the morning, to talk this all through.

Albus was delighted with the suggestion, and looked at Harry with warm approval.

"Ah, my boys, we are indeed confronted here with challenges. My research into prior wizard kingships has shown me that the king has always been the one who leads whatever battle is to be fought. Times were simpler then; roles were clearer, battles were smaller. Simply looking to tradition to guidance, Harry would be the one to lead his army against the forces of Dark."

Harry looked appalled, and Severus looked furious. Before either could get worked up and divert the meeting into a ranting discourse, Albus continued.

"That is clearly not what is needed right now. These times are completely different, and this situation is unique. The coming battle is not a straightforward single engagement. For sure, there is going to be a traditional battle. Harry's visions confirm as much, as does all the evidence of the numbers of witches, wizards and other creatures massing not too far north of Hogwarts to attack it. That battle is going to be large, and messy and important."

He looked pointedly at the two younger wizards sitting around the table with him. "But that battle pales in comparison to the very specific battle that will be fought when Harry and Voldemort face each other. That is the most important confrontation. Nothing can interfere with or impair Harry's battle with Voldemort. That will change the destiny of our world."

Albus was sure in his heart that the Ministry was necessary for the large battle, as were the Winter Lands warriors, Order members and at least some of the foreign guests. Most troubling, especially in light of its assumptions as to leadership, the Ministry did not understand or appreciate how the larger battle differed from the personal one.

"Headmaster, I don't see how we are going to get everyone to cooperate, unless it's me leading," Harry offered nervously, receiving a glare from Severus. "The Ministry doesn't see the big picture. I don't think we can safely leave this to them." That insight earned a nod from Albus, and grudging approval from Severus.

Harry continued, "You would be the obvious next choice, sir, but you've explained that the Minister of Magic is reluctant to appear to be relying too heavily on input from the Hogwart's Headmaster. The Order of the Phoenix is seen as your organization, so I can't imagine that there is any way the Ministry would agree to cede any leadership role to someone from the Order. Severus, I would trust you with this role implicitly, but I need you with me."

Severus nodded at that, warmed by the vote of confidence from the younger man. But the Order, at least, did understand the significance of the personal battle, that having been its main focus for nearly 20 years.

Albus steepled his fingers before him, and seemed to be studying them. "The Wizarding World has one chance to do this right, to save itself from the nightmare of the reign of Lord Voldemort. We cannot allow this upcoming battle to be lost because of political infighting and disorganized forces. I have been thinking of how we might get past the politics of the situation and create unity for our forces. Lord Brand gave me something for you, actually, that might help with this challenge."

Albus walked over to his desk and collected a large parcel wrapped in heavy, crude cloth and tied with twine.

"One of the women in the main Winter Land's compound made this, and asked Lord Brand to present it to you," he said, handing over the parcel.

Anxiously, Harry tore the wrapper open. Inside was a large cloth of deep red (the blatant Gryffindor-ishness earning a sneer from Severus), with a Royal White Stag embroidered in the center in white, shot with silver. He smiled in appreciation as he said "Wicked!"

"A flag," Severus guessed.

"Yes, or a banner. In the past, the flag was the symbol of the state or the king, and men followed it in battle as they followed their king. I think this can place the focus on Harry in the traditional battle while allowing him to focus on the more important personal battle."

Severus quirked his eyebrow. "But there is still the substantial issue of finding one suitable person to carry this banner and lead this mob."

"Actually, I have a few ideas. The mob, as you put it, needs a coordinator more than a leader. A champion, rather than a general, for Harry. Each of the larger groups already has its own leaders and structure, after all. Who are individuals who hold positions of respect in more than one of the groups fighting for the Light, fighting for Harry? Someone Harry knows at least somewhat and trusts? Someone also known to and trusted by the Ministry, the Order, and the broader magical world? You know Kingsley Shacklebolt. He is a trusted Ministry employee, a former auror, and an Order member. At least a few of the Winter Lands warriors have come to know him. Excellent choice, but he is not well known internationally. Sirius Black is a former auror, an Order member, and he was at the Calling, so he is known to some beyond our borders. The Winter Lands warriors adore him. However, his history with the Ministry is a negative, unfortunately, despite your best efforts, Harry, and frankly, his ability to coordinate a large group in battle is quite untested."

Both Harry and Severus had looked at one another as Sirius' name was mentioned. Even Harry, who loved his godfather dearly, could not imagine the man coordinating or guiding a force in battle.

"However, I do have one other person in mind. A former auror who still takes special assignments for the Ministry, original Order supporter well-known to and respected by its members but never formally a member, was at the Calling, and has recent experience in dealing with a large number of witches and wizards from around the world," Albus concluded, waiting to see if either would supply the name.

When there was no immediate response, he added "Augusta Longbottom."

Severus looked surprised, but Harry looked thoughtful. "Do you think that Mrs. Longbottom would be willing to do this?" he asked.

"Yes, Harry, I'm quite sure she will agree to do this. Augusta and I spoke when she was planning the program she ran here. She seemed to have been very moved by the Calling. That made her aware of her place in the wizarding world, and she took it quite seriously. Now that Neville is nearly grown, she is aware that her life will go on, and she'll have time to do other things. I think she will embrace this."

The Headmaster leaned back in his chair, reminiscing. "She was a very good auror, years ago. Even as a junior auror, she played a big role in the Ministry's efforts to stop Grindelwald, actually. The duel that everyone remembers fell to just me, but there was much work that preceded the duel. I relied on her then, and I think you can rely on her now."

Severus had a difficult time imagining the little old witch in the role Albus envisioned for her, but ultimately, he had to agree: he and Harry had to focus on one specific battle and they really needed to leave attention to the big battle in others' hands. If the others participating were happy to work with Augusta, who was he to quibble?

Harry nodded, having come to a decision. "Headmaster, I would like to speak with Mrs. Longbottom, to discuss what I need and see if she will be willing to be my champion. Can you arrange for that, as soon as she is in the castle?"

"Of course, of course, dear boy. I don't believe she has arrived yet, but as soon as she does, I will contact you."

"And I would like to meet after lunch today with the people I will be relying on," Harry continued. "We can see what the ravens have to say today, and start coordinating right away. I'd like to include Hermione, Ron, Draco and Neville, along with Mrs. Longbottom. Do you think she'd mind?"

Albus smiled. "I'm sure Augusta will be thrilled to find Neville in the group. I will invite them all to join us after lunch."

It occurred to Severus that Augusta would be horrified to find Draco Malfoy in the group, but wisely kept that observation to himself.

The usual routines in the castle were abandoned that day, because it was clear to one and all that something momentous was about to happen.

Classes were still held, mainly to keep the younger students occupied and out of mischief. But most of those classes were led by parents and others who had returned to Hogwarts, as the professors and some of the older students were needed elsewhere.

The greenhouses became a hive of activity. Plants were being harvested from the greenhouses for use in potions, and all but the lower three years of students in Potions were engaged in using those plants to brew a variety of potions and salves that would be needed to address any injuries that might occur in a battle.

Severus, having entrusted his classes to several former students, completely surprised everyone by specifically asking for Fred and George Weasley to help him in some private brewing.

Hagrid conscripted Mr. Filch, a few of the Winter Lands warriors and other men in the castle, and several house elves, to assist him with some construction projects behind the farthest greenhouses. A few of the Winter Lands warriors ventured into the field beyond the wards to find the large trebuchets that were disillusioned there, and drag them into ditches just outside the walls of the castle.

Pharaoh Nitrocris, accompanied by the Headmaster, Neville Longbottom, and a dozen Winter Land warriors, set out for the ancient stone wall that surrounded the grounds of Hogwarts. Many of the wards began there, and were deeply rooted into the ground. Albus had been concerned that the wards would not recognize Nitrocris, and not allow her to add any magic to them, but the wards accepted her contributions immediately. She also cast special spells on the stones themselves, to strengthen and preserve them. With great patience, and ignoring the biting cold, she worked her way completely around the wall.

Augusta Longbottom arrived with a group of wizards from the Ministry, and was pleased to see several of the men and women she recognized from the Calling and from the classes she ran the year before already in the castle. A house elf discreetly directed her to go to the Headmaster's office as soon as she was settled.

Harry had been similarly alerted that Mrs. Longbottom had arrived, and he arrived just as she was accepting a cup of tea from the Headmaster.

Albus stood as Harry entered, and Mrs. Longbottom followed suit, assuming that was the protocol followed when Harry entered a room. Harry looked a bit disconcerted, although he quickly strode across the room and kissed her cheek in greeting. "Mrs. Longbottom, lovely to see you again," he murmured, directing her back to her seat. The Headmaster moved away from his chair, reporting that he had to send an owl.

Harry took his seat and wondered exactly how one was supposed to broach this subject. Having nothing to serve as a pattern for this, he decided to just plow ahead.

"Mrs. Longbottom, I appreciate your coming up to see me. The Headmaster offered to extend the invitation to keep this more private, as we didn't know who might be with you when you got the message." The old lady looked very interested at all this intrigue.

Harry outlined what he expected at the coming battle, and explained his dilemma: "Unlike historical battles where the King and his troops engaged directly against the challenger and their troops, this is more segmented. Voldemort will be sending an assortment of his followers and various creatures to attack the castle." To her questioning look, he added "We've gotten information from the Ministry that they've located fields within a few miles of Hogwarts on which they are camping. There are wizards in most of the camps, but lots of other creatures who have apparently aligned themselves with him."

"While that will be an important battle, we also know that the main event, as it were, will be a singular battle between me and Voldemort."

He waited to see if she questioned that, but Mrs. Longbottom just nodded in understanding. "I was never a member of the Order of the Phoenix, young man, but I am aware of the prophesy, and can see that such a confrontation would be likely. And given the events of the last year, I have to agree that the madman likely wants to resolve this now."

Harry smiled and nodded, acknowledging her understanding.

"Anyway, the Headmaster did some research into this King thing, to see how historical battles of this sort were handled. The old battles were all straightforward, and this one will not be. We have the Ministry, and they've invited foreign governments to send their own aurors to help out, so they'll be responsible for them. But we also have the Winter Lands warriors, who will not be led by the Ministry. We have the Order of the Phoenix, who are suspicious of the Ministry given the Ministry's suspicion of them. We have a number of people who were at the Calling, some here individually and some with their own people, maybe not so antagonistic toward our Ministry but they are here for me, not the Ministry. We have good, powerful groups ready to defend Hogwarts and stand against Voldemort's forces, but they are not a cohesive force, and we need to maintain some order and coordination. Normally the King would lead the forces, but I have to be preparing for my battle against Voldemort. I cannot allow anything to distract me from that."

He took a deep breath; asking for something was always difficult for him, given the Dursleys, but this was huge. But, still, he had to do it.

"I have a banner, actually, a woman in the Winter Lands made it for me. I need a champion, someone who will stand in for me to provide guidance and order as the different groups take the field to fight under that banner. Someone respected by all the groups involved, who can keep them all focused. I am hoping, Mrs. Longbottom, that you would be willing to be my champion."

Harry was not as good as Hermione at reading the emotions that flickered across the old woman's face; he figured that Hermione probably could have given each emotion a specific name. Harry was just able to register that she was upset, and he had no idea what was wrong. Had this been a terrible miscalculation on his part?

"Ma'am, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. This is a presumptuous request, and I understand if you are not willing to . . ." he stammered quickly.

"Merlin's Beard, young man, I'm not upset with you," Mrs. Longbottom cut him off, reaching out to pat his arm. "I'm beyond honored that you'd even think to ask me! But this is an honor, really, that I would have expected someone . . closer . . . to you to assume."

Still not entirely sure what the problem was, Harry thought back to the conversation he and Severus had had with the Headmaster about his champion. Watching his puzzled expression, Mrs. Longbottom finally pressed on.

"Frankly, Mr. Potter, I would have expected you to ask Professor Snape to stand for you in this situation. Or perhaps the Headmaster, or even your godfather." She was not declining the request, but curious as to how such an honor fell to her.

"Well, the Headmaster is the face of the Order to the Ministry, so that's a problem, and Sirius, well, he's not one I'd want to put in charge of something like this. And I need Severus with me, focused on helping me prepare for my battle. You were the person I knew who is also known to and respected by all the other participants. I think you are one person they'd all be willing to listen to, if it comes to that."

"In that case, Mr. Potter, I accept your invitation to be your champion. It is my honor to be of assistance," Mrs. Longbottom offered in her formal, clipped way.

In that way that the Headmaster had of knowing when he was needed, he opened the door to his office at that moment, and beamed at the news that Mrs. Longbottom had agreed to Harry's request.

"Run along, then, Harry. I will bring your Champion up to date on what we are doing, and prepare her for the meeting you had requested for right after lunch."

Harry realized as he left the Headmaster's office that he really did not have anywhere else to be right now. There was a great deal of activity going on, but nothing that really demanded his personal attention. On the one hand, he had a feeling that he ought to be preparing, but on the other hand, the time for the battle was drawing near and thus the time for preparation had ended. Still a bit unsettled, he rode the stairs down from the tower and began walking back to the dungeons, figuring he would wait for the pre-lunch visit from the ravens in his rooms. But along the way, he realized the ravens were already with him, offering their commentary on the sights he passed as he walked. People scurrying about with their own preparations for the coming battle saw him and stopped to chat. He had words of thanks and encouragement for all he encountered, and as he slowly made his way along, Harry realized he was becoming calmer. Everything was running smoothly and coming together. He sensed that the ravens were pleased by what they were seeing. The calmness slowly gave way to a feeling of confidence.

Harry had gotten no farther than the vestibule of the Great Hall when the ravens stopped just observing the activity in the castle to offer some specific communications about what was to happen. Fortunately, Seamus was nearby when Harry seemed to disconnect from his surroundings, and he shepherded his friend to the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall, slightly early for lunch but starting to fill with early arrivals. Seamus was not entirely sure what was happening, and sat with Harry to make sure he was alright, trusting that others would be along soon and know what to do.

The ravens seemed pleased with what they'd seen as they accompanied Harry through the castle, and he felt their approval. They showed Harry a number of hostile groups making their way to Hogwarts intent on attacking it, and instead of showing him the various battles that were about to occur, they managed to give Harry an overwhelming sense that the defenses were completely able to contain what was to come. Death Eaters and other adherents to Voldemort's agenda were joined by trolls, Inferi, and all manner of slithering, growling and screeching Dark creatures pressing onward, and Harry felt no fear. Their attacks would fail. He knew it.

As the ravens began to quiet, going back to their role of observers, Harry became aware that he and Seamus were now seated amid the usual larger group of Gryffindors, with Hermione on his other side, and Ron and the twins seated opposite, all looking at Harry with concern. Harry smiled has he got his focus back.

"Hi, guys," Harry offered with a sheepish grin. "Sorry about that."

"Are you alright, Harry?" Hermione immediately demanded.

Harry had always been rather circumspect about sharing his interactions with the ravens with others, but he suddenly felt it was the right thing to be more forthcoming.

"I'm fine, Mione, really. Thanks, Seamus, for getting me in here. It was the ravens. They've been around all morning, and I was figuring I could get back to the dungeons faster than I did. It was an odd visit today. Not so much images of a battle, but a really strong feeling, amazingly strong, that we're ready for whatever is going to happen."

Dean and a few others overheard that. There was a vague awareness among Gryffindors that something was going on with Harry when he zoned out every once in a while, but he usually looked upset when they saw this happen before. It was the references to the ravens that really caught their attention; like others who had gotten caught up in the incident with the Eye of Odin two years ago, they knew what that might mean. Dean's eyes lit up. "The ravens are pleased?" he asked.

Harry thought for a second and then nodded. "I usually get visions of events unfolding, and sometimes they've spoken to me about things. But this is the first time they made me feel something. I've felt calmer this morning than I have in so long, and it almost seems like their visit just now was about making me confident that we're on the right path, with good preparations."

Hermione looked a bit scandalized that this information had been shared so publicly. She'd gotten her note about the meeting after lunch, and would have expected this sort of information to be shared there. But Harry did seem rather calculated about what he was doing, so she held her tongue.

The meal popped onto the tables right then and attention was directed to eating and sharing news of what everyone had been doing all morning. When the meal ended, a small group made its way off to a meeting up in Harry's offices, and as soon as they were out of earshot, Hermione raised the question that had been on her mind throughout the meal: why did Harry speak so publically about the ravens and what they communicated to him?

"I think the time is right for others to know that the ravens are here, and that they are pleased with what everyone is doing to prepare. Won't that make everyone more confident? It's really helped me. Why not give everyone a boost, get them feeling ready for what's coming?" Harry was certainly right with his reference to "everyone." His fellow Gryffindors were already whispering the news to their friends in other Houses, and it was just a matter of an hour or so that everyone in the castle would have heard.

Ron and Neville seemed to be concerned because Hermione was concerned, but Draco eyed Harry thoughtfully, and nodded. "Smart move, there, Potter. People are likely to believe what they hear passed along like this, more than an official announcement."

Harry's office was getting crowded as the small group of students arrived. Harry methodically made his way around the room welcoming everyone personally while the others found seats. When the last guest arrived and was welcomed, Harry stood by the fireplace to speak to them. He'd been vaguely worried about what, exactly, he was going to say, but the ravens were assuring him he was ready and would do just fine. With a deep breath, he started.

"I am so grateful to each of you here today, and for all the others who have come to Hogwarts today to help us end the menace of Lord Voldemort." He ignored the few snorts of concern that Harry dared to speak his name, and continued. "I think everyone here knows the others, but just in case, let me introduce you all."

Harry worked his way around the room, naming all the attendees and sharing a brief statement of their role. Most of this was common knowledge to all, but there were a few surprises. Arthur Weasley was representing the Order, which caused the Ministry representatives Bones' and Darmut's eyebrows to arch, while the Headmaster was representing Hogwarts. Asgeir Brand had gotten very wary looks from others when they arrived, but heads nodded in appreciation when he was introduced and the role of the Winter Lands warriors explained. The numerous individuals who had met Harry at the Calling were introduced and allowed to describe how they proposed to contribute, an interesting exercise as several seemed to have no idea what they could contribute. Probably only Albus Dumbledore did not roll his or her eyes when Harry introduced Dobby as a valuable and brave ally, whose contributions would be shared with all in a moment.

There had been some curious looks directed at the four Hogwarts students who had arrived with Harry, which were not entirely dissipated by his explanation. "Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley, Neville Longbottom and Draco Malfoy been working with me on all manner of things related to what will happen today. We've been working as a group, and together I think we've accomplished more than any one of us could have done on our own. As the day unfolds, I want to know that people who know me and have shared so many of the experiences along the way are right nearby, assessing developments and thinking about what is coming. Many of you here have also been part of all the preparations, and I don't mean to diminish the value of everyone's contributions, but I trust this team to look at things the way I look at them."

The Headmaster looked particularly pleased at that, which calmed a few concerns. Mrs. Longbottom had looked a bit nonplussed by Draco's presence, but she noted the support he clearly had from the Weasley family and pushed her worries aside.

Severus and Mrs. Longbottom were the final two people to be introduced. "Before I describe how Mrs. Longbottom and Professor Snape are going to participate, I need to explain something. There are two things that are going to happen in the battle today: there will be a big, important battle between us and the forces aligned with Voldemort. Obviously – we know there are five camps north of here, populated with Death Eaters and all manner of dark creatures. You are all critical to that battle. There will also be a personal battle, between me and Voldemort. This battle was predicted in a prophesy before I was even born, so it's not part of this King thing, but I am the one who has to kill him. I have to concentrate all my efforts on my fight with Voldemort, and I need my bondmate with me, to help me in that task. I have asked Mrs. Augusta Longbottom to stand as my Champion in the bigger battle, coordinating all the efforts to achieve victory over Voldemort's forces."

There was a murmur of comments at that last statement, but Harry wasn't quite finished. "Before I ask Mrs. Longbottom to lead the discussion, I want you all to know something about what we know about our opponents and how we come to know it. Right around the time of the Calling, I became aware that I had two magical familiars, two ravens." Harry ignored the even louder murmur that greeted that statement. "They spoke to me, but they did not seem to be conveying anything of consequence. But eventually, they started showing me images, which I now know represented the world that Voldemort wanted to create. When Voldemort sent out his spell, it was the ravens who encouraged me to send out my counterspell, the one that woke you all. The ravens came back to me soon after the muggles awoke. This time, I understood a bit more about what they were doing, so we paid close attention to the images they showed me. I involved my bondmate immediately in evaluating the messages, and recently, I got Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley, Neville Longbottom and Draco Malfoy involved. The messages helped us thwart a couple of muggle attacks. Most recently, the images were of an attack by wizards. We got some assistance from the Ministry of Magic to sort through some of the details, and were finally able to pinpoint the locations of the camps from which Voldemort's forces are preparing to attack. I also want to share the latest I've gotten from the ravens. No images today, but they were with me as I walked through the castle earlier today, and they conveyed a strong feeling of confidence. I think we are ready."

Mrs. Longbottom took over the meeting at that point, first leading the group through a discussion of the things already done and in place. Severus took the floor to describe what was going to trigger the attack: He had secured a number of magical forsythia plants from the Winter Lands and Dobby had planted them in the camps occupied by the Dark army. "Magical forsythia do not tolerate being moved even in optimal conditions. Dobby used a mild warming charm to keep them alive for a couple of days, and that charm has now been removed. The plants are dying as we speak. When those plants die, they create areas of great darkness. Our intent was to cause the attack to begin as a consequence of panic, not at a time of Voldemort's choosing. I would not rule out that some in the camps might see this as an omen of a bad outcome and they might desert the army."

Harry nodded at Dobby, to prompt him to speak. He nervously stood, hands behind him and struggling to look up at the people in the room. Taking a deep breath, he finally began. "Mrs. Longbottom, madam, and esteemed others, Dobby was at the camps just before coming to this meeting." Eyebrows went up among a number of attendees at that statement. "The bad wizards and the other things in those camps were terrified when the darkness happened. Most of them grabbed weapons and ran as fast as they could, but the bad wizards did not know what direction to go, and some ran the wrong way. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was just gathering the bad wizards and pointing them in the direction of Hogwarts, when I came back here."

Asgeir Brand told of the hundreds of Winter Lands warriors armed with their longbows and maces, and prepared to work the disillusioned trebuchets placed outside the walls. Their ammunition consisted of boulders and large stones, including many that Severus and the Weasley twins had laced with a variety of flash powders that would blast bright lights and sparkles when the boulders hit ground and other stones laced with Instant Darkness Powder, to create impenetrable darkness when they landed.

Auror Darmut spoke for the Ministry, about the most recent reports from the reconnaissance done of the camps, with an estimate of the numbers and types of creatures who were expected to be part of the coming attack. There was a camp populated exclusively by about 20 Giants, and a few hundred wizards scattered in the other camps with all manner of dark creatures, a nundu, and an enormous pile of corpses, awaiting the charms that would mobilize them all as Inferi. There were also reports that most of the dementors in Britain were nearby, ready to join in the battle.

Albus Dumbledore spoke on the status of Hogwart's defenses. He reported that the merpeople in the lake had promised to sabotage any efforts to use the lake to support an attack, whether ships arriving from other places to bring reinforcements, or the wizards and creatures using boats as they prepared to attack now. The centaurs in the Forbidden Forest had agreed to drive out any who tried to use the cover of the forest to begin an attack. With a gracious nod to the Pharaoh, he described her contributions to the wards and protections on the castle.

One of the foreign wizards who had been at the Calling asked nervously about the dementors, worried that those engaged in other fights might lose their focus in order to cast the Patronus charm. "Do the wards here protect against them?" he wanted to know.

"Our wards are ancient and extremely powerful," Albus began. "But, no, the wards will not repel dementors. We will need to use the Patronus charm for that. We have many here in the castle, including students, former students, and others who are capable of casting the charm, and we do have a team organizing those who can assist to do so from within the wards, so they are protected from other forms of attack. I also want to point out, this castle is not a private residence. Our wards are not forged in the blood of a family, nor is there a family connection among all those known to the wards. Do not be shocked if some small number of attackers find a way in. There are floos, and I cannot rule out that some might have allies within our walls, or find some way to trick their way in. I am confident we will not see failure of the wards, or a massive breach, but unfortunately, I am also rather confident that the protection will not be absolute."

Conversations were starting all over the room, and Mrs. Longbottom quickly quieted the room so they could proceed with an orderly discussion and be sure all roles were understood. "Well, that is why we are all here, to provide the protection within the wards, as well as to defeat the larger army. We have a room full of people quite capable of that, and they represent many more of similar skill. Is there anything else, Mr. Potter, before you head off?"

Harry thought, and realized he hadn't mentioned the Black Wyrms. Likely Hermione would think to do that but better safe than sorry, so no one was shocked if they appeared. "Actually, yes, one more thing. Among those fighting this battle with us are a group of Black Wyrms from the Winter Lands. I've asked that they remain outside the wards, but their sudden appearance can be frightening, so I want our allies made aware that they might appear."

Looks of confusion appeared on most of the faces in the room, at least all those not in the castle when the Wyrms interceded in the last attack by the muggles. "Harry, if you and Professor Snape have to be elsewhere, I'd be happy to explain about them," Hermione offered. Severus took Harry's elbow and started directing him out of the room as he nodded his thanks to her.

After Harry left his office, Hermione recounted the results of the appearance of the Black Wyrms when the muggles had tried to attack the castle, and the description given by her parents of a starling murmuration. Albus gave the wizard explanation for the muggle term for the phenomenon, and the looks of confusion that had greeted Hermione's explanation were replaced by knowing nods around the room. Apparently, wizard parents around the world cast those spells on starlings to entertain their little ones. It took a few minutes for the knowing nods to be replaced by looks of concern – creatures big enough to be mistaken for the mass movement of thousands of birds had to exceedingly big.

Mrs. Longbottom reviewed the responsibilities of all the people in the room for organizing their own teams and those who would work with them. Auror Darmut excused himself immediately after confirming his understanding, as he had the largest number of people who would be participating in the battle under his leadership. Wizarding governments around the world had sent representatives to support the British Ministry. Not huge numbers of representatives from any one country but most sent at least a few of their aurors.

Lord Brand was next to leave, and to the surprise of several, about half of the foreign wizards stood to join him.

A small wizard, an aboriginal Australian not more than half the height of the Winter Lands leader, with brown skin and wild brown hair, bowed slightly to Harry. "I and my people have strong magic as well as skills with weapons that will complement the weapons of our northern allies. Our boomerangs and spears are unlikely to have been seen by many of your opponents, and we can add magical defenses to these brave men." The witch standing next to him, an older woman in a sari with grey streaks through her long black hair, nodded. "I have no weapons to offer, but I believe my magic will provide effective defenses for these brave men, especially since I come from afar and most of our foes are unlikely to be familiar with my spells. This is how I believe I can best support you, Lord Potter."

A soft murmur of agreement went through the group that had stood to leave with Lord Brand. The Indian witch had apparently articulated a sentiment shared by many – the Winter Lands warriors were willing to meet some of the strongest witches and wizards in the world relying on their physical weapons and skills alone. These brave foreigners wanted to add magical strength to what the warriors were going to do. Mrs. Longbottom offered a rare smile and nodded as she thanked them.

Arthur Weasley stood next. "The Order is aligned with Harry Potter and will stay in the castle, close to him, to keep any Death Eaters or others who get into Hogwarts, from interfering with what Harry must do." Mrs. Longbottom nodded at him, and then looked at Albus, wondering if any of that intruded on what he felt was his "territory." Albus smiled at Arthur as he left.

"I am relieved, indeed, that I can entrust the Order with the defensive responsibilities they are assuming," Albus began. "We at Hogwarts will monitor our wards and provide intelligence to you, Augusta, and whatever supplies and provisions the others working here might require. I imagine that Harry has instructed Dobby to support you directly, if he comes upon information you need, but I will speak to the other house elves here as well, to enlist their assistance."

Mrs. Longbottom noticed that her son and his friends did not react to the intention to involve house elves in this matter, something she might have been inclined to smile at. Neville had scant exposure to the creatures, as she had none, but some of her friends had one or two. She assumed that the Weasley boy had no contact with them, given the Weasleys' circumstances, and of course, Miss Granger came from the muggle world and had no history with them. But even the Malfoy boy seemed to accept that the house elves could help, and goodness knows, the Malfoys had lots and lots of house elves. Most curious.

There were still several witches and wizards seated in the office, looking awkward and perhaps a bit embarrassed.

One of them spoke up. "I'm not sure what I can do. I felt strongly that I needed to be here, but now that I'm here, I don't see how I can contribute."

Ron Weasley answered her. "I assume you met Harry at the Calling?" he asked.

She nodded, nervously.

"Well, one thing that's guided a lot of the work we've done with Harry is that you have to trust that magic brought you here for a reason. It might not be obvious. The people who trotted out of here right away have it easy – they saw their role right off. But you are here for a reason, and you just have to keep your eyes open, and be prepared. Something will happen, and you'll know."

Hermione was properly impressed with Ron's insights, and smiled at him approvingly.

Neville looked thoughtful, and added "You would not have felt compelled to be here unless magic saw an important role for you to play."

Draco had wondered why that little group had been sitting there so quietly for so long, and not that long ago he would have been the first to howl at them in ridicule. That was before he became part of a group that spent long hours going over visions of complete blackness, only to finally discover there was a message in the visions after all. Those visions had a purpose, and he'd have to agree that if magic wanted this group here, it presumably had a purpose, too. But time was wasting.

"Mrs. Longbottom, what else do you think we need here, then?" he asked. "We've gotten most of the defenders all sorted out and on their assignments. Is there anything else you think we should be putting in place?"

The old lady pursed her lips. "Well, young man, I have been thinking about this. The house elf has told us that the camps have emptied and the Dark forces are coming. It would be helpful to be able to get information about their actions as they near here, what they plan to do and such. I imagine we can station people up in the towers to watch their approach, and see what they are doing."

Albus nodded as he stroked his beard. "I will certainly have people in all the towers watching and reporting in, and I will monitor the wards as usual. But that will be as the Dark forces are right here, not much in advance. We would be best served by intelligence at an earlier point in time."

Neville had an idea. "Could we send anyone out on a broom, with a strong obscuration charm, to see what's happening a mile or so before they get here?"

The group started to go back and forth on that, assessing risks versus what might be learned, when two of the wizards who had not figured out why they had come to Hogwarts, suddenly thought they knew why they were there.

"I'm an animagus," one offered. "My animal form is a starling. I can fly out over the Dark army and I won't be noticed."

The other chimed in, "Me too, but my animal form is a hedgehog. Not as flexible in terms of getting around but I can sit in an out-of-the-way place and watch what happens, and report that."

Mrs. Longbottom was very pleased with those offers, and those two wizards were asked to work with the Hogwarts' staff for placement and communication particulars.

"But it would still be very helpful to have some insight into what the leadership is telling them to do," Albus thought out loud. "Once the army began to move, there are no more house elves with them, so Dobby and the others can't help us."

Hermione's eyes lit up. "I have an idea. I might be able to find someone who has an animagus form that would be very helpful." She stood up to leave. "I'll be back in a little bit, to confirm if we have a solution for that."

As Hermione excused herself, Mrs. Longbottom confirmed arrangements for a group to cast the Patronus charm to push back the dementors believed to be approaching, and Ron and Draco were tasked with helping the Headmaster get groups of students and others in the castle positioned in the best locations from which to send out Patronuses.

It was all coming together.

XXXXXXXXXX

Hermione was pretty sure she had seen several reporters from the Daily Prophet loitering in the corridor outside the Great Hall, ostensibly seeking shelter within the wards of Hogwarts but more likely planning on covering whatever was going on. She wasn't looking for just any reporter – the one she wanted to see was found trying to press her ear against the door to the Ministry Annex to get a sense of what was happening.

Rita Skeeter did not look pleased when Hermione firmly took her by the elbow, took the charmed notebook and Quik-Quote pen from her hand and led her off to a private alcove at the end of the corridor.

"Rita, we need your help. We need someone with an animagus form that will enable them to travel along with the leadership of the attacking army, get some details on their plans for the attack, and then report back here. This would mean stowing away somewhere near Lord Voldemort, listening to his directions to whomever is working with him, and then coming back to report on this to me. Your animagus form is one of the smallest I've ever heard of, and as you aren't registered, I don't imagine anyone would suspect that a small beetle clinging to a cloak was a spy."

Rita's mind was spinning with the possibilities. Hermione could see how desperately she wanted some sort of exclusive insight or knowledge of the battle to come, and also how reluctant she was to actually get involved like this. Hermione was quite certain the ego would prevail, but it was interesting to watch the other woman's facial expressions change as she thought this through.

Of course, Hermione had thought it through as she walked down from the tower, and she had some more to offer. Leaning in more closely, she whispered urgently.

"Look, you do this for us, you'll have quite a story for your newspaper. I realize that your animagus form is something of an issue. The penalties for being an unregistered animagus are severe – I believe there is a term in Azkaban involved. Plus, you use your animagus form to get into places unseen, so there's a professional benefit to you in having that particular form that nobody, including the Ministry, knows about. The Ministry of Magic recognized that there might be instances where a particularly sensitive situation might exist, where someone does not feel comfortable placing their registration with the Ministry, and they have agreed that Harry Potter can hold those kinds of registrations. If you want to complete the registration, and avoid the problems attendant with not registering, I'll speak to Harry about agreeing to hold yours. I'm sure he'll agree."

Rita saw some amazing possibilities. "I want an exclusive . . . " she began, only to be cut short by Hermione.

"No, no exclusives," Hermione scolded. "This is a big battle, it's absurd to think you could have exclusive rights. Not possible. If you want to use anything that you learn as part of a story, I couldn't stop you, but you need to give careful thought to how much you disclose about what you know, lest awkward questions arise about how you know it."

Hermione was confident that Rita's beetle animagus form was hugely valuable to her to sneak into meetings and get herself positioned to overhear confidential conversations. Goodness knows, she'd been doing that for years, and apparently no one else ever figured her out. Whatever Rita wrote about, she was extremely sure the woman's self-interest in not disclosing her animagus status or form would outweigh her desire to boast.

Hermione was also willing to play a bit dirty. "And, if you help us out here, whether or not you decide to register as an animagus with Harry, I'll promise to keep what I know about your form secret and not share it with the Ministry myself."

Rita always knew she had good reason to dislike this annoying Gryffindor. With ill-disguised annoyance at having been boxed in like this, she agreed. The chit did have a point about needing to be very careful about how she worked whatever she learned into a story, but she was sure she'd figure something out. She would find a way to write block-buster stories, and maybe a book or two, while not giving away her life-long secret, at least until she was ready to share. And whatever was behind this deal with registration, it wouldn't hurt that she was registered with Harry Potter, and it would keep her out of Azkaban, if it ever came to that.

After getting instructions as to where to head and how to contact Hermione upon her return, Rita Skeeter transformed into her beetle form, and with a warming charm from Hermione securely formed around her, she buzzed out an open window.

Hermione reported back as she returned to Harry's office that she expected that she'd be getting reports from someone with a much less detectible animagus form about what was going on with the leaders of the attacking army. No one challenged her for the identity of her source, and she said no more.

Mrs. Longbottom was ready to bring the meeting to an end. "I do believe we are ready. I propose to take this banner down to the Great Hall, and have a house elf hang it in some manner in front of the castle, it that is acceptable to you, Albus."

He nodded. Making this about Harry was the best approach, and he was glad she was going to use the banner in that way.

"I would like Mr. Weasley and Mr. Malfoy here to prepare the teams to send out their Patronuses, to keep the dementors away. Dementors always get everyone so upset, so I think our best strategy is to keep them herded back far enough that most of our people never see them. I will stand outside the castle, near the banner. Neville, will you and Miss Granger join me there? I want to be sure we have ample eyes and ears on the ground out there, so we are always acting on the most current information available."

XXXXXXXXXX

Dobby had followed Harry and Severus out of Harry's office. "Sirs, do you have a task for Dobby?" he asked, clearly not sure that he was welcome to participate in the other meeting.

Severus for once bit back a snarky response, and Harry replied. "Dobby, you can get pretty much anywhere and not attract attention. I'd like you to keep an eye on things, and report to either Professor Snape or Mrs. Longbottom if you see anything that you think they need to know about. Don't be shy, and if it helps when you go to Mrs. Longbottom, you remind her that I asked you to do this, OK?"

His chest puffed out in pride, the little elf apparated away.

Harry and Severus walked in silence to their rooms, each lost in his own thoughts and trusting to the others meeting in his office to cover what needed to be done and assure that they hammered out a plan to accomplish that. Harry was about to don his Basilisk skin coat when Severus interrupted him with the armor he'd worn in the Winter Lands to wear under the coat. Severus got Harry into the various pieces of armor comfortably, and then helped him into the coat. The last step was to secure the hilt with Harry's sword to his belt, and then hurry into his own robes. Before leaving their rooms, still silent, Severus pulled Harry into an embrace, followed by a tender kiss.

"You are ready, Harry, and I am by your side."

The entrance to the Great Hall was a riot of activity by the time Harry and Severus got there. The Ministry had cast some charms to alert their representative as soon as any of the attackers got within a mile of Hogwarts, and the alarm had just been given. A few Giants had been spotted coming toward the castle and they were likely to be arriving within half an hour. There were waves of other creatures and dark wizards following, and given the mist in the air, it was likely that dementors weren't far away either.

The mood was serious, but confident. People knew what they were doing, and going about their jobs in a calm manner. Harry smiled in encouragement and stood aside where he would not impede anyone hurrying outside.

Those not participating in the defense of Hogwarts, including most of the students and children in the castle with their parents, were safely in the common rooms, under the strongest wards. If things went badly awry, resources could be sent to defend them, but the wards would enable the defenders to focus elsewhere until problems arose.

The mist began to clear as a crowd of glowing Patronuses appeared out of tower windows, a riot of horses, rabbits, dogs, a few birds and even an elephant and a white leopard. There was the sound of loud crashes, as Professor McGonagall summoned the statues and suits of armor throughout the castle to come and join in its defense.

It was the calm before the storm. In just minutes, the sounds of the battle would be ringing throughout the building.

[A/N – I am so sorry for disappearing for so long! I have been thinking about this story, but RL conspired to prevent any sitting down to sort it out. My thanks to the many who sent PMs inquiring if all was well, and I hope you like where this is going. I'm thinking likely three chapters left – the battle itself, a near-term aftermath and a longer-term aftermath.]