Harry Potter and the Forests of Valbonë
Chapter Twenty Eight

Inside and crouching by the fire, Harry's host was far better illuminated than he had been out in the snow. He resembled a man in his late thirties, with long dark hair that curled toward the ends and perhaps three days worth of facial hair that clung to his jaw and cheeks. His eyes were deep set and ringed with dark shadows while the rest of his skin was very pale and dry, almost like parchment. The man-eagle glanced up from the fire, to catch Harry's gaze. Then he reached out a hand, snatched up Sternley and threw him across the room. Harry caught him with deft fingers and, at the behest of a hand-signal from the strange man, placed the Sorting Hat on his head.

'You should be cautious,' came Sternley's voice in Harry's mind and Harry nodded almost imperceptibly.

'What is he?' asked Harry. 'An animagus like McGonagall?'

'I'm not sure,' admitted the hat. 'He's no animagus, his eyes didn't change colour.'

'And here I thought you knew everything,' joked Harry, his tone far more frivolous than he felt. 'My world view has been shattered.'

Sternley ignored the jibe, choosing not to respond. The man-eagle finally removed the kettle from the fire and poured a stream of scalding water into two cups. There must have been something already in the cups, for they turned brown. He lifted one in each hand and rose, offering one to Harry, which he took.

They stood for a moment in an awkward truce, Harry not sure whether he should drink and the man-eagle clearly expecting him to do so. Finally his host sat down in the arm chair opposite and his face cracked into a wide smile.

"Come, come," he said, beckoning Harry to sit down. "Sit, drink. If I wanted you dead, I'd have cut your throat in the snow. It's not poison."

"You can talk!" exclaimed Sternley angrily. "For the last two days I've been here you could have spoken to me."

"You didn't speak either," said the man-eagle, shrugging.

Sternley fell quiet, apparently conceding this point

Harry, for his part, considered and accepted Vocerr's point. It would have been simple work for that sharp, hooked beak to slice through his exposed flesh, it didn't make any sense to subsequently bring him inside and poison him. So he sat gratefully in the comfy armchair before the fire and took a sip of the drink, which was both delicious and warming.

"And to answer your question," continued the man-eagle. "I am a Zana. They call me Vocerr."

Harry merely blinked in response. Vocerr had just read his mind. Or at least, he suspected he had; he was almost certain that he and Sternley hadn't been speaking out loud. The Zana grinned at him, then drained his cup and leapt to his feet. Harry half rose, expecting to have to defend himself, but Vocerr flapped his hands, urging him to sit.

"I'll be right back," he assured them and disappeared out into the blizzard.

"Keep your sword handy," hissed Sternley, the moment Vocerr was outside. "You might need to fight."

Harry's mouth suddenly became dry and his throat seemed to closed up as he struggled for the words.

"Harry?"

"It's broken," he managed eventually and felt his face flush bright red.

At Sternley's silence, Harry's embarrassment completely overwhelmed him and he sank back deeper into the chair, wishing that it would just swallow him up. He'd managed to destroy one of the few remaining artifacts of the founding fathers. It hadn't even been his after all, he'd stolen it.

Sternley seemed utterly lost for words and Harry could feel the dismay emanating from his friend.

"Vocerr did something, his talons destroyed it," he said quickly, then sighed. "I'm sorry Sternley. Please don't hate me."

At these words the hat seemed to pull himself together. He shook his brim and his voice slipped into a confident, relaxed tone.

"No use crying over spilled milk," he said firmly. "Or broken swords for that matter. They can always be reforged."

Harry nodded in agreement, though it didn't make him feel any better.

"So what now?" he asked, ostensibly to take his mind off the sword.

"Hmm," responded Sternley thoughtfully. "Something has been eating at me about this Vocerr. As though there's some connection I haven't made—"

Vocerr chose this moment to return, striding nonchalantly into the room and dropping the other half of Gryffindor's sword on to a small table between their chairs. He resumed his old seat and grinned over at Harry.

"Sorry, I just had to go and tell the storm to shut up a bit," he said, as though this sort of thing was common practice.

For all Harry knew of Vocerr it could well be normal for him to go and talk to weather. Although, Harry frowned and craned around in his seat, the winds appeared to have tailed off, thick beams sunlight was gleaming through the windows and doorway, where before it'd been a wall of impenetrable snow.

"I'm afraid you rather irritated him," continued Vocerr, pouring himself another cup of the delicious drink. "He thought he'd gotten you. Even I suspected I might have the wrong man." He paused and gave Harry the once over again. "You are a little small for a hero," he remarked thoughtfully.

Harry frowned and said nothing, while Vocerr stared intently at him for a moment, then the Zana leapt up and threw his hands up in the air.

"I haven't offered you anything to eat!" he cried, as though his own skills as host were deplorable. "I've only got sausages, I'm afraid."

In this moment, Harry realised two things; firstly, he hadn't eaten since Valbonë and secondly, that he was absolutely starving. He'd begun salivating at the mention of sausages and it was all he could manage to nod his head vigorously. The Zana laughed in delight, produced an enormous quantity of long thick sausages wrapped up in brown paper from a chest in the corner of the room and descended upon the fire, toasting fork in hand.

"I always forget how much the trial exhausts them," he cried, flapping his arms around even more and nearly hitting Harry in the face with the sausages. "How hungry they get! How cold!"

Harry didn't quite know what to say to this, so he waited quietly for Vocerr while he cooked the sausages. In what seemed like half the normal time, he was happily munching away, savouring the sharp, spicy taste while Vocerr cooked, talked and flailed his arms around.

"You're the third one in the last two centuries," he was saying, as though Harry ought to have any idea what he was talking about. "I used to get four a week. Four! I can't afford that many sausages!"

At this proclamation, he looked up at Harry, who was half way through his fifth sausage.

"You don't talk much, do you?" asked the Zana, frowning slightly.

Harry shrugged.

"You're not still smarting from the beating I gave you? I'm sorry I attacked," he said with a wry smile. "Also for breaking your sword. But these things are rarely simple."

Harry didn't know what quite to make of any of this, though he did appreciate the apology and the sausages.

"I needed your help," continued the Zana. "Needed to fetch you here."

"For future reference, asking works just as well," Harry pointed out, then snapped his jaw shut.

However Vocerr seemed to take no offence, indeed, seemed rather pleased that Harry had finally deigned to speak.

"Would you have come if your friend were not in danger?" he asked. "Would you help if I did not break the sword?"

Harry frowned, partially because he wasn't sure if Vocerr was threatening him, or blackmailing him, but also because he though it was probably right. There wasn't any way that he would have come here if the bird had merely asked and he didn't much want to help it either.

"So what is it that you want then?" he asked and took another large bite out of a sausage.

"I have a snake in the nest," spat the Zana, suddenly sounding angry and appearing restless.

Harry looked around in astonishment.

"I don't see any snakes," he said. "Unless you're referring to me or Sternley."

"Not my house," snapped Vocerr irritably, as though Harry were being deliberately stupid. How was he supposed to know what Vocerr called his house?

"He means Albania," supplied Sternley, his tone clearly indicating that he'd just come to the conclusion. Harry felt his features fold into a frown.

"I don't understand."

"You don't need to understand," replied Vocerr, grinning broadly. He held out another sausage. "You just need to act."

"Act?" asked Harry, with a hollow laugh. "I don't even know what you're asking me to do. And why should I help you, anyway? Not after everything you've done."

He took the sausage anyway.

"I will reforge the sword," replied the Zana. "It is your duty to protect it."

The simple words were spoken with a such a quiet conviction that they rang through Harry's head like a gong.

And he was right, after all. Harry had stolen a priceless magical artifact and borne it across the continent. The sword was an integral part of Hogwart's history. It had belonged to a founder! He couldn't imagine facing anyone from Hogwarts if he returned without it. Especially not Snape or Dumbledore.

"He has a point, Harry," replied Sternley, his voice level.

But Harry could sense the excitement within the hat, the intrigue and the the thirst for adventure. Harry decided then that he'd clearly been a bad influence on Hogwart's sorting hat.

"What is it that you need me to do?" asked Harry, turning a stony expression upon Vocerr.

"Kill the snake," said the Zana, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Or drive him from these lands."

"Then you'll fix the sword?"

"You have my word."

"Alright, I'll do it," Harry agreed and the Zana leapt to his feet, all smiles and bustling energy.

"You'll be needing something then!" he cried.

He leapt to his feet and launched himself across the room, a half second later he was nearly upside down in an impossibly large chest, throwing all sorts of things out an onto the floor. He remained this way for several minutes, occasionally shouting for joy, before realising he hadn't found what it was that he was looking for and cursing angrily. Eventually he let out an exuberant cry of delight, straightened up and hurled something large and heavy across the room, right at Harry's face.

Instinctively, Harry reached out and caught it with both hands, even still it almost crushed him to the arm chair it was so enormous and weighty. It took him a good ten seconds to work out exactly what it was; an enormous sword in a brown leather sheath.

It perhaps would have been the right size for a fully grown man to wield with one hand, but even then he'd have to be tall and broad to do so. Harry was none of these things and he stared at the sword in blank puzzlement.

"It's a little big Vocerr," he said.

Vocerr looked at him forlornly. Even his endless enthusiasm couldn't argue with the fact that it was only about a foot and half shorter than Harry was tall.

"I did say you were short," admitted the Zana, eventually.

Harry ignored the insult and examined the blade ever so slightly. It was as different from Gryffindor's sword as it was possible for a sword to be. Rather than a straight blade with a crossguard and pommel, it was long and curved, with no crossgaurd to speak of. Instead, the weapon's ebony grip was flush with the blade and inlaid with beautiful patterns of silver. At the very end of the weapon the pommel was large, curved and was even more intricately worked with silver. A single amber jewel was set into centre of it.

He blinked as the design suddenly coalesced in his mind. He was looking into the face of an eagle.

He glanced up at Vocerr in surprise, who grinned broadly back at him.

"You like my sword?" he asked. "That blade was forged for me the day I was born. Here, come."

Harry stepped forward and Vocerr took the sword from him. He produced a belt that too had come out of the chest, from the look of it, Harry thought that this too would be far too big for him. But Vocerr didn't strap it around his waist, instead he looped it over Harry's shoulder and across his chest, buckling it through one of Harry's belt loops at his side.

He hung the sword from the belt across Harry's back, fastening the scabbard in two places so that Harry could draw it over the shoulder with his right hand. He adjusted Harry's wolf-skin cloak on his shoulders, just as Ksheta had done and then looked him up and down.

"A proper little warrior," he said, beaming.

Harry wasn't sure whether to take this as an insult or a compliment. He wasn't sure he liked being called a 'little' anything.

"I would have you stay the night and rest," continued Vocerr, turning away and beginning to pull more things from the chest. "But some things must be done with haste!"

He threw a few things into a bag and then flapped his hands at Harry, half chasing him through the front door of his house. At first Harry heeded his agitated dismissal, but a question abruptly occurred to him and he turned back to Vocerr.

"If you can reforge a broken, magical sword and best me so easily, why can't you deal with the snake? What is it that I can do that you can't?"

Vocerr looked at him as though he were stupid and then grinned once more.

"You climbed up here with Ksheta?" he asked.

"I did."

The Zana nodded.

"She always brings the cute ones." He smiled. "What did she say when you reached the summit."

"She said," began Harry, wracking his brain. "She said she cannot go any further. That there were old laws."

Vocerr nodded again.

"There are old laws that we Zana are bound by. Long ago, I was sent to this summit and trapped here. Not by walls or rope or steel, but by my Oath. I must remain here or become an Oathbreaker." He shuddered, as though this might just be the worst thing in the world. "This is my domain, until I am released from it. Just as the mountainside is Ksheta's."

Harry nodded, finished his final sausage and stepped out of the door.

"One last question," he said, looking back at Vocerr. "Why me?"

"You have knowledge of this snake," replied the Zana. "You have faced it before and walked away a champion. You must face it again."

Harry swallowed and nodded.

Because that could surely only mean one thing.

He would have to face a basilisk again.