They were well hidden, their tangled limbs barely visible within the exposed roots of the ancient apple tree. The first thing Ron saw as he approached the orchard was his sister's hair; it shone like a blazing beacon in the early afternoon sun. They'd been missing for some time, but, in those sultry summer days after the battle, that wasn't unusual.
Ron tried to step back from the scene, to be dispassionate. It wasn't easy; she was, after all, his sister. Harry was lying on his back on the grass; one leg was straight, the other bent upwards, his foot flat on the grass. Ginny was on top of him, straddling his bent leg. She had her hands around his head and her face was pressed into his. Her hair had fallen around their heads, partly screening those grisly details from Ron. However, when Harry's hands, which had been scampering down her spine, scuttled further down to squeeze her backside, Ron looked despairingly up into the trees.
They seemed to be completely unaware of his presence. He wondered whether to step on a twig. He needed to do something—anything—to make them stop, but interrupting them was dangerous.
Ron was fed up with walking in on his best friend and his sister snogging, but he wasn't stupid enough to confront Ginny about. Instead, he had tried speaking to Harry about their behaviour. He'd collared Harry the previous day, when they were leaving their Auror training session.
'It's as if every minute you two aren't snogging is a minute wasted,' he'd protested. 'It's not pleasant to watch, I don't see why I should have to...'
Harry had looked at him coolly and had interrupted Ron's carefully thought out, and entirely reasonable, request with a single word, 'Lavender.'
'But…' Ron had begun, crushed and embarrassed. He'd tried to think of a witty reply; he had failed, and so had simply lapsed into a sullen silence while gathering his thoughts.
'We're not forcing you to watch, Ron. If you don't like it, keep away from us, or help us get some privacy. We don't really get much time together. You know what our Auror training schedule is like, and Ginny is often helping George in the shop,' Harry had pleaded. Ron had known there and then, as they'd walked through the Atrium on their way out of the Ministry, he would simply have to suffer.
He'd protested, he'd said 'Please, Harry; it wasn't as though me and Lavender were thrashing around like eels at every opportunity.'
'Hah!' Harry had said, scornfully raising his eyebrows. To his horror Ron realised that was exactly what they had done. The more he remembered that episode, those months of madness, the more his insides squirmed. Lavender! In public! With Harry watching; with Hermione watching! What had he been thinking? Even now, a day after that conversation, his intestines seemed to be writhing up to strangle him, to prevent those embarrassing thoughts from haunting him.
'I am ver' glad zat I did not have any bruzzers trying to protect my virtue, Bill,' said Fleur loudly. Bill merely growled. Ron's embarrassment about Lavender fled as he looked over his shoulder. Bill and Fleur were climbing the hill to the orchard. They too were looking for Harry and Ginny.
Ron considered tiptoeing away, allowing Bill to find them, but that treacherous thought lasted no longer than it took to think it. Hermione wasn't beside him, but after seven years the mere fact that she wasn't physically present wasn't enough to stop her scolding him. 'We've got to warn them, Ron!' He could hear her clearly, in his head and in his heart.
Hermione; he missed her so much. He wished that—when they'd arrived back from Australia—her parents hadn't insisted that she spend the summer with them, away from the magical world. He should be lying under a different tree, enjoying himself with Hermione, not mooching around on his own trying to ignore his best friend and his baby sister as they attempted to eat each other's faces. Ron sighed, and did the right thing.
'Hello, you two, Mum's sent everyone out to find you. She said to tell you that lunch is ready,' he spoke loudly, failing to keep the annoyance from his voice. His words gave them the opportunity to break apart before Bill saw them. Harry and Ginny separated with a smacking sound, two sighs, and a shared snigger. Bill heard the noises and moved forward rapidly. They were still smugly untangling themselves from each other when he arrived.
'Harry,' Bill growled.
'It's time to eat,' said Ginny brightly. 'We know, Bill, Ron's just told us. There was no need for you to come to tell us, too.'
'What were you doing with my sister, Harry?' asked Bill, refusing to be deflected.
'The same thing that I was doing with him, Bill,' said Ginny. She twisted around and kissed Harry again.
She prolonged the kiss until Bill said, 'Stop that, now.'
Even then she waited a few more seconds before obeying, and when she turned to face Bill her eyes were narrowed and full of fire. Harry had a hand on Ginny's shoulder and was staring at Bill with the expression Ron recognised as "I know what I'm doing, don't try to stop me". Facing either Harry or Ginny when they looked like that was dangerous; facing both of them was simply crazy. He was astonished at his oldest brother's foolishness.
'That was me kissing Harry,' Ginny informed Bill, smiling sweetly. 'Do you want another demonstration?'
'Yes, please,' said Harry.
Ginny, Ron and Fleur laughed. Bill remained stony faced.
'Harry,' Bill began again.
'There are two of us here, Bill,' said Ginny.
'Ginny's only sixteen, Harry,' Bill began, ignoring his sister. 'She's young, impressionable.'
Ron snorted in disbelief; so did Harry.
'She was alongside me, fighting Death Eaters in the Ministry, when she was fourteen, Bill,' said Harry mildly. 'I'm not forcing her to do anything; I wouldn't, and I couldn't.'
'Harry is right, Bill,' she confirmed. 'Just get it into that thick skull of yours that Harry is my boyfriend. Mum couldn't stop us, not that she's tried, so you certainly can't. Harry is eighteen at the end of next month; I'm seventeen less than two weeks later. That will make me an adult! And then we can go wherever we want and do whatever we want.'
'Ginny…' Bill persevered.
'How old were you when you snogged your first impressionable sixteen-year-old?' she interrupted angrily. 'And how old were you when you snogged your last impressionable seventeen-year-old … or were you already eighteen by then, Fleur?'
'That's different,' said Bill.
'Different? Why is it different? Are there different rules for you?' Ginny blazed. 'What about Monica what's-her-name? Or Valerie Trotter, or…'
'Enough,' Bill said. 'That was years ago, Fleur is different, special, the one.'
'Ginny is different, special, the one,' said Harry. Ginny beamed and for a second, the tempest abated. But it was merely the eye of the storm.
'It's none of your business what I do, Bill,' Ginny raged. 'Don't you dare try to lecture me. Fleur was probably only ten when you were snogging over-developed Monica. One day, I will have to tell you all about her Fleur.'
'Owls,' said Ron, pointing into the sky and grateful for the opportunity to change the subject. 'Lets go down to the house and see who they are for. And eat, I'm starving,' he added unnecessarily.
Ron sat on his bed. Harry and Ginny were sitting side by side on his bedroom floor, underneath the window. They were rereading Harry's Gringotts' letters. Lunch had been eaten in a tense fug, which Mrs Weasley had noticed instantly. Bill had been surprisingly subdued after Ginny's mention of Monica, but had continued to glare at Harry and Ginny. The meal had been short sentences and limited conversation.
As he could barely remember Monica, Ron wasn't certain why Bill was so annoyed. Nevertheless the girl was obviously a weak point in Bill's defences, and Ginny had found it. Not for the first time Ron decided not to annoy his little sister.
'What do you think, Ron?' Harry asked, waving the two letters.
'You could ask Bill,' Ron suggested. 'He works for Gringotts, he'll probably know exactly what it all means.'
'No,' said Ginny, in a voice that would brook no argument. 'If you ask him to help, Harry, he'll attach conditions.'
'I wish Hermione was here, so we could ask her,' said Harry.
'Not as much as I do,' said Ron with feeling.
'You've got me,' Ginny reminded them, sounding slightly annoyed. She leaned sideways, nudging Harry's upper arm with her shoulder.
'Huh!' Ron shrugged dismissively.
Harry, however, grinned and slipped an arm around Ginny. 'Even better,' he said. Ginny slid her arm around his waist and hugged him.
'This letter is easy enough to understand, I think,' said Harry, waving the first of his two letters. 'There are various valuable items which belonged to my parents, and which were stored in Gringotts until I came of age. Because I was "unavailable" on my seventeenth birthday, it has taken the goblins a long time to release them. The remainder of the "goods and chattels" of the House of Potter are now in my vault.'
'What's a chattel?' Ron asked.
'Anything portable that belongs to Harry,' said Ginny.
'Like you?' Ron asked grinning at his sister. She glared at him.
'Like jewellery, the motorbike, clothes,' she said. 'Anything except land and houses, I'm not sure if it includes pets. If it does, Ron, then I suppose you could be considered to be Hermione's chattel.'
'Okay, so I've got a lot more stuff in my vault than I had before,' said Harry hastily. 'But, what does this other letter mean?' He laid the second sheet of parchment flat on the floor. Ron slid off his bed and joined them on the floor as they again reread it.
Dear Mr Potter
As per the bequest of the late Sirius Black, last male descendant of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, all goods and chattels belonging to the estate of Mr Black were recently transferred to your vault. The Black family vault is not, however empty. The coat remains, awaiting the true heir to the Noble and Most Ancient House.
As is required under these circumstances, Gringotts will honour Merlin's Agreement. As you are the sole beneficiary of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, you must find an heir who can pass the test of blood. As per the Agreement, this duty must be carried out before the expiration of the knights' number of months from the death of the last male member of the Noble and Most Ancient House. If you fail to find a new heir, or if none of your chosen champions pass the test before the expiration of this date, then the contents of the inner vault, the Noble and Most Ancient vault, will become the property of Gringotts, as was promised under the Agreement.
Note that, because you had not reached your majority when you vanished, and because of the consequent disturbance to the bank caused by your assault on the vault of the Noble House of Lestrange, only ten days remain until the contents of the vault of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black reverts to the bank. This is your final notification.
'We've got ten days to do what, exactly?' asked Ron. 'This is typical shifty goblin-talk. They're up to something, Harry. You've got to find the heir and pass the test, or else the Goblins will get the contents of Sirius's vault.'
'Not Sirius's vault,' said Harry. 'The inner vault, the Noble and Most Ancient vault, whatever that is.'
'There's something in the titles, Harry,' said Ginny. She slid sideways and turned to her boyfriend, 'Look at the words they use. It's "the House of Potter", but the Lestranges are a "Noble House", and the Blacks are a "Noble and Most Ancient House".'
'Yeah, but what does that mean?' asked Ron. 'I bet Hermione would know. I'll walk down into the village and phone her.'
'How long is a "knight's number" of months?' wondered Harry. 'You could ask her about that, too.'
'We can work that out, Harry,' said Ginny gently. She hesitated and caught his green eyes with her gaze before continuing. 'We know when Sirius died, it was the day we broke into the Ministry, more than two years ago, just after the exams.'
'So, a "knight's number" is twenty-five, because my time is up in ten days,' Harry nodded. 'You're right, Ginny. So are you, Ron. The goblins are up to something, but what? I think I'd better go to Gringotts now, and visit the Black vault. I'd better go and take a look at this coat. It must be significant. Sirius left me everything, so perhaps I am the true heir to the House of Black.'
'The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black,' Ginny corrected. 'I don't like the sound of this "test of blood", Harry. You're not going without me. We can walk into the village, Ron can phone Hermione, and then we'll go to Diagon Alley together.'
Hermione had been excited, but unable to help. She was certain that there was something in A History of Magic, but her books were locked in her school trunk and she'd promised her father that she wouldn't use them. The only thing the phone call had accomplished was to make Ron miss her even more.
As they left the Leaky Cauldron and stepped through the brick arch, Ron surveyed the scene with the cautious eyes of a trainee Auror. Diagon Alley was slowly returning to normal. Businesses were re-opening, the beggars were gone and the shops selling Dark Magic artefacts had all been closed down. In Knockturn Alley, Borgin and Burkes remained, but with its stock much depleted after an Auror raid.
Goblins still scampered across the scaffolding criss-crossing the main entrance to Gringotts. The dragon-damaged bank was, however, open for business. The two liveried Goblins standing outside the bank placed their hands on their daggers as Harry, Ginny and Ron approached. Ron watched them uneasily, keeping his hand close to his wand. Harry ignored them, took Ginny's hand, and walked unconcernedly through the doors.
A hush fell as Harry, Ginny, and Ron walked into Gringotts. The ornate hall had been repaired; there was no sign of where the dragon had broken free, but the atmosphere crackled with tension the moment they entered.
Ron watched as, undeterred by the almost malignant mood within the place, Harry walked up to speak to one of the goblins. He and Ginny stood back while Harry unconcernedly conducted his business.
'I would like to visit my vault,' said Harry, producing the key. 'And I'd also like to visit the Black family vault.'
'Do you have the keys for the Black vault?' the goblin asked, showing two rows of sharp pointed teeth in what might possibly have been a smile. 'You cannot enter the Black vault without a key, Mr Potter.'
'I have the key to my own vault,' said Harry, producing it, and looking thoughtfully at the goblin. 'As all of my godfather's belongings have been transferred to my vault, and the key was his, I assume that it is there. Am I wrong?'
The goblin scowled, 'Follow me,' he said, rather reluctantly. He led them through the door into the vaults and whistled for a cart.
'I've never been down here, Harry,' said Ginny conversationally and the cart hurtled down a slick limestone tunnel. 'Mum or Dad never took me when they visited the vault of the Noble House of Weasley.'
'The Weasleys are not Noble; they are not even a House,' the goblin snapped dismissively.
Ginny caught Harry's eye and winked. 'Thanks for letting me know. What, exactly, does make a family a House, or Noble, or Most Ancient?' Ginny asked.
The goblin scowled, and said nothing more. They travelled in silence until the cart screeched to a halt outside Harry's vault. When they disembarked, Harry handed the goblin his key.
'Oh,' said Ginny in a subdued voice as the vault door swung open. Ron kicked himself for not preparing his sister for the sight. Harry's vault contained even more money than the last time Ron had seen it. He watched Ginny look worriedly at the piles of Galleons, then at Harry.
The expression of worry about his wealth vanished, and she smiled. Ron followed her gaze, and realised why. Harry was ignoring the gold and was staring excitedly at what appeared to be a pile of junk. It was obvious that the money wasn't important to Harry.
The item which had caught Harry's eye was a portrait of a very elderly couple. The picture frame was blackened and burnt, and there was a wide scorch mark across much of the canvas. The elderly couple were peering out from either side of the blackened portrait and waving excitedly at him.
'Hello?' said Harry cautiously. 'I'm Harry Potter.'
'We'd guessed,' the woman said, smiling as she wiped tears from her eyes. 'You look so much like our James, but, you have your mother's eyes. I'm your grandmother, Harry, and this is your grandfather.'
'It's a pleasure to meet you, Harry,' the man said. We've been locked away in a vault ever since the explosion. We were hanging in the study when poor James's house was destroyed.'
Harry reached out gently touched the painting.
'Careful,' Harry's grandfather said. 'We're not in very good condition.'
Harry hastily withdrew his hand. 'Can you be restored?' he asked, his voice a concerned whisper.
Ron saw Harry's shoulders begin to shake. Ginny stepped forward to comfort her boyfriend and Ron turned away to give them some privacy.
'I certainly hope so,' Harry's grandfather said. 'Now, who is this young lady, Harry?'
'This is Ginny, my girlfriend, Ginny Weasley,' said Harry as he regained his composure. 'I've seen you before. You're in some of the photographs, from Mum and Dad's wedding, but they're just photographs … you're a painting … I can talk to you! There is so much I want to ask you, I don't know where to start.'
'There will be plenty of time for that, Harry,' his grandmother said. 'You weren't expecting to find us here, were you? That's obvious. Did you come here for gold? We've left you plenty. Or, is it something else? Your mother's jewellery is in that box over there, if you're looking for an engagement ring.'
'Behave yourself, Esmeralda,' Harry's grandfather said. 'Don't drive the boy away. We've just found him.'
'James was Harry's age when he brought his girl home to meet us,' Harry's grandmother protested.
'It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr and Mrs Potter. I can see that I'm going to have to have a long talk with you, too' said Ginny. 'My brother, Ron and I are here to help Harry find the key to another vault.'
'It's over there.' Harry's grandmother pointed to the opposite corner of the vault. The goblins brought it in last week, they put it right in the corner, covered it in an old invisibility cloak…'
'But not a decent one, like mine,' interrupted Harry's grandfather. 'Do you still have it, my old cloak?'
'Yes, it's saved my life several times,' said Harry.
'And … as I was about to say before Laurence interrupted me … they then stacked all of those sickles on top of it. Then they brought all that junk in, and put it over there,' continued Esmeralda Potter.
Ron, who had been watching the goblin, saw his face drop. Ron looked across at the stacks of Sickles, and then at the untidy pile, which appeared to consist of posters, clothes, an electric guitar and a collection of motorcycle magazines.
'Thank you … Granny,' said Harry. He walked towards the Sickles, but first halted in front of the junk pile. 'This must be Sirius's stuff,' he said.
'That's what we thought,' Laurence Potter said. 'I was certain I recognised a lot of it, particularly the motorcycle stuff. That must mean that he's dead, too. Does it?'
'Yes, I'm sorry,' Harry nodded. He picked up one of the motorcycle magazines and, lost in memories of his godfather, began to flick through it.
'You poor boy,' said Harry's grandmother. 'And poor Sirius, too. He was a troubled soul from a troubled family, but such a good friend to James.'
Harry stared at the magazine, and hastily dropped it. Ron caught the merest glimpse of the topless girl sitting astride a bike as the magazine fell. Ginny, who'd been standing next to Harry, chuckled, grabbed Harry's shoulder and stood on tiptoe. Ron didn't hear what she whispered in his ear but, whatever it was it made Harry blush and Ginny laugh.
Harry was still blushing as he stepped forwards. He knocked over the stacks of Sickles, sending them skittering across the floor. Reaching into the corner, he felt around for the invisibility cloak, pulled at it, and retrieved an ancient and rusty iron key from within its folds.
'I'll be back,' Harry told the painting. 'I'll get you out, get you restored, and take you home with me.'
'We've waited for almost seventeen years to see you again, Harry,' said Laurence Potter. 'A few more days won't hurt us. Take care of yourself.'
Harry strode up to the goblin, the key in his hand. 'Is this the key I need? Is this the key for the Black vault?' he asked.
'Yes,' said the goblin begrudgingly.
'Then take us to the vault,' Harry ordered. He grabbed a handful of galleons and thrust them into his pocket before closing and locking the door.
The ride was stomach churning. They passed through the chamber containing the Lestrange vault and plummeted even deeper into the earth. The cart finally came to rest at a set of buffers in a small and dimly lit cave. The goblin stepped out and stamped three times on a gold disc set into the floor. The disc slowly began to spin. Stepping aside, the goblin watched as the disc rose into the air, revealing a stone spiral staircase leading even further down. Light shone up through the hole.
The goblin silently led them down the stairs. The staircase was inside a central pillar which formed the hub of a circular chamber with a vaulted roof. As they descended, arched windows in the pillar allowed them to see into the chamber. The chamber roof, like the Hogwarts Great Hall, showed the sky far above.
Stopping at the window, and looking down, they could see that the floor of the chamber was divided into twenty five marble segments. Twenty four of them alternated between black and white. The twenty-fifth segment was a bright royal blue.
When they reached the bottom of the stairs they entered the chamber through an arch. Directly ahead was the single blue segment. A pathway of the same blue surrounded the pillar. Standing in the blue circle, they stared out into the chamber. At the end of each segment, spaced equidistantly around the circular wall, were twenty five ancient oak doors.
'I can go no further,' the goblin said. 'These are the Noble and Most Ancient Vaults, Mr Potter. The magic here is Merlin's magic. You may only approach the vault whose key you hold, you may only enter the vault whose key you hold, and the inner door will open only to one who has passed the test of blood. I must tell you this much, I will tell you no more.'
Harry looked around the vast and echoing room. A shield hung above every door. Directly ahead, above the blue segment, the shield was blue with three gold crowns one above the other. Harry looked at the adjoining shields. They were unfamiliar, so he walked clockwise, passing segment after segment.
'Wow,' said Ron.
'Impressive,' agreed Ginny.
Black marble alternated with white. Every shield was different. The tenth shield after the blue segment caught Harry's attention. It was a black shield with a white chevron, there were two five pointed stars above the chevron and a sword below it. They all recognised it immediately. He took Ginny's hand and led her along the white segment towards the door. Ron followed cautiously behind.
They halted a few feet from the door and looked down. In front of the door, inset into the white marble was the name "Brunor le Noir".
'Brunor the Black, and the Black family crest,' observed Ginny. 'This certainly looks like the right place, Harry.'
Ron looked at the adjacent segments. To the left was "Blubrhys", and beyond him "Bedwyr". To the right were "Lucan" and then "Palimodes".
'Here goes,' said Harry. He inserted the key in the lock and turned it. The door swung noiselessly open, revealing a large and almost empty chamber.
There was a second door directly ahead, above it there was another shield. This one, however, was different to the one hanging on the outer door. The chevron and the stars were missing. The only thing painted on the black shield above the inner door was a white sword. Like the outer shield, the sword point was uppermost, but unlike the other, a white fist was clenched firmly around the sword's hilt.
There was no lock on the inner door, simply a black iron ring. Harry pulled it experimentally, but the door didn't budge.
The vault itself was almost empty. The only thing in it, hanging lopsidedly on a T-shaped stand, was a shabby piece of chainmail.
'This is weird,' said Ron. His voice echoed around the chamber.
'That must be it,' said Ginny. 'It's a hauberk, a coat of mail.'
'You're right, Ginny,' Harry agreed. He hugged her. 'There's nothing else here, and the letter said "the coat". It doesn't look like much, does it? What do you think I'm supposed to do with it? Should I try it on for size?'
'Not until we've checked it for Dark Magic, Harry,' said Ron, drawing his wand. Harry did the same.
'Do you know what you're doing, Ron?' Ginny asked.
'Or course,' Ron assured her. 'Detecting dangerous curses and Dark Magic was one of the first things they taught us.'
Ginny stepped back and watched the two trainee Aurors at work.
'Safe?' Ron asked.
'Safe,' Harry confirmed. He lifted the mail coat from the stand.
'Blimey,' said Harry. The links flowed over his arms, like cloth with a desperate urge to reach the ground. 'It's heavier and more awkward than I expected.' He struggled to open it and, after a couple of failed attempts discovered the way to put it on. He lifted it above his head, found the sleeve holes, and let it fall. It rested on his shoulders for a moment, and then, despite the fact that his arms were still raised, it fell to the floor.
'What?' Harry looked down at the untidy pile on the floor. He lifted it and examined the neck, shoulders and arms.
'It's not torn or broken, it can't have fallen off.
'It did,' said Ginny. 'For a fraction of a second it looked like it was much too big for you. It must be magical.'
'A chainmail coat that's enchanted not to fit?' said Ron, puzzled. 'What's the point in that? What do we do now, Harry?'