~ ~ ~
"Griselda Marchbanks is a friend of my gran's."
"What's she like, Neville?" asked Hermione at once. "Is she strict?"
"Bit like Gran, really," said Neville in a subdued voice.
--From Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 31
"For a full account of Madam Marchbanks' s alleged links to subversive goblin groups, turn to page seventeen."
--From The Daily Prophet, 9 September 1995 // (OoP, Chapter 15)
"I do not trust her. "
The entire senior committee of the Goblin Council of Lawspeakers is present, but it is Findruk who makes this announcement. Of course. Of all the Council members, he is the least reasonable. And as usual, he has been doing most of the talking, even though he has yet to explain why I have been summoned before them. He has merely been railing against my lover.
"No, I do not trust her," he repeats, "and I have never trusted her."
I would say as a means of disparagement that he would not trust his own brother, were it not that in that case, he would be wise. He would have been a fool to trust his brother, for that brother was as duplicitous towards goblins as he was towards any of wizardkind.
So I will say only that it is no surprise that Findruk does not trust her. He would not trust even himself. It is wise to be suspicious in this world, I know that as well as any goblin. But there are limits, and Findruk surpasses them.
"You do not need to trust her, Findruk," I remind him. "The lovers of female goblins are not for males to question."
He grimaces. "To speak what is known, Vala, is to throw away words as a wizard throws away gold," he says, as if he is offering something original instead of repeating an adage that every goblin child learns in the nursery. He does not wish to acknowledge that however much he may disapprove, neither he nor the entire Council can stop me from taking any lover I choose.
Not even if the lover I choose is a human. As she is. My lover is called Griselda Marchbanks, and she is both a human and a witch.
"Griselda" is not what all goblins call her, of course. To many of my people, she is, as we say in Gobbledygook, a haga-maga -- a witch-bitch. Or a wand-stealer. A greens-eater. A short-finger. Goblins have many mocking names for humans, and through the years, they have given them all to Griselda. And some of her people have used their own such names for me.
But such things matter little to either of us. Though we have both plighted our troth to one another, we do not try to live in each other's worlds. So we do not care what we are called by outsiders, whether goblin or human.
What Griselda and I share is between we two alone.
Our union did not come easily, of course. We first met in the Year of the 84th Treaty, or in human terms, 1895. In that year, goblins and magical humans tried yet again (for the eighty-fourth time in the modern era, to be exact) to find a way to live together, if not in mutual understanding, then at least in mutual financial benefit.
One result of the treaty was the creation of the "Goblin Liaison Office" as part of the humans' Ministry of Magic. No doubt I do not need to explain that we goblins were sceptical of the efficacy of this new office; we feared it would be simply another excuse for wizardkind to exploit goblin skills, and history has proven us not incorrect. Many goblin-made treasures remain in human hands, and we are still kept from the secrets of wand-lore.
But our concerns were not fully justified, either. In the century since the founding of the GLO, progress has been made on both sides, and no one, goblin nor human, can deny that Griselda and I have played a part in bringing about the changes.
For we two were among the first from our respective peoples to be assigned to the Goblin Liaison Office. We were both very young, in the first years of our governmental careers, and of course we were merely assistants, for neither the humans nor the goblins would have agreed to have the GLO staffed by beginners. We both had duties in other offices as well, Griselda in education and I in domestic logistics.
There was nothing in our first meeting to suggest to me the then-inconceivable notion that I would make this human female my life partner.
At that time, I knew few humans personally, and those I had seen, I thought hideously ugly. Griselda was no exception: she had those stubby human fingers and tiny, smashed-looking ears; her nose was a mere dot on her face. Like most females of the time, goblin and human, she had long hair, but she wore it tightly fastened behind her head, as though ashamed of it.
But she had large eyes, which goblins find attractive, and she was also short for a human, only a few inches taller than Gonorak, the main goblin minister to the GLO. She told me later that her small stature was one of the reasons for her assignment; it was known by her superiors in the Ministry that goblins do not like to be towered over.
We approached each other carefully on that first day, using the restrained greeting that was then standard for goblin-human interaction. We paused several feet from one another and inclined our heads.
"Good morning," she said. "I am Griselda Marchbanks."
"I am Vala," I replied, and Griselda went up in my estimation when she did not enquire whether I had a second name (for many humans in that period, even those in diplomatic service, were unaware that goblins take only one name).
"Vala," she repeated, and smiled. "A good omen."
I was instantly on my guard. Was she laughing at me? "You find my name amusing?" I snapped.
She shook her head. "Not at all. I find it satisfying. In one of the old human languages, 'vala' means 'wand-carrier.'"
I was impressed in spite of myself. As a rule, goblins value history, and I was pleased to find a human who was not ignorant of it.
"In Gobbledygook as well," I told her, for it is important to return the gift of information with a similar gift. "In my tongue, 'Vala' means 'holder of the magic staff.'"
Her smile broadened; she was only mildly ugly then. "You see? Our peoples have shared much through the ages; our languages tell us so. One day, perhaps we will once again share wand lore."
I could feel my mouth drop open. Share wand-lore? It was what all goblins wanted, of course -- and still want. It is simple justice. But humans do not agree even today, and in the Year of the 84th Treaty, none of them -- not even the most progressive -- believed in that cause.
The senior members of the Council of Lawspeakers continue to regard me solemnly.
"We are not interested in challenging your choice of lovers, Vala," says Borgun. He is a goblin-rights activist and far more sensible than Findruk. "You have been with Madam Marchbanks for many years, and you know that goblins respect her. But we are concerned about the way that the humans are now making use of your connection with her."
I am baffled. "What do you mean, Borgun? Of what 'use' are you speaking?"
"You recognise this, I am sure?" Findruk leans forward to rattle a sheaf of paper in my face. It is the Daily Prophet newspaper.
I do not deign to reply. Of course I recognise it, as he well knows.
"It is today's edition. You will listen," he commands, and then reads aloud, "'Wizengamot elders Griselda Marchbanks and Tiberius Ogden have resigned in protest at the introduction of the post of Inquisitor to Hogwarts. "Hogwarts is a school, not an outpost of Cornelius Fudge's office," said Madam Marchbanks.'"
He breaks off to glare at me. "Griselda Marchbanks," he repeats, as if somehow I missed the name.
"I may be more than a century old, Findruk, but there is nothing wrong with my goblin ears," I say. "What is your point?"
Findruk's long nose is quivering in outrage; he has always boasted a perfect specimen of the ideal proboscis. "My point? My point? It is the humans' point that matters. I have not finished reading. Listen: 'For a full account of Madam Marchbanks' s alleged links to subversive goblin groups, turn to page seventeen.' Do you understand what is happening here, Vala? The humans are about to begin one of their ridiculous wars, and they plan to use your. . .lover" (oh, how he spits the word) "and her goblin relationships as a way to fight each other. Goblins will be involved and maligned, when we want no part of their petty disputes!"
"We will be involved regardless, Findruk," I say. Few goblins know this better than I. Griselda has been talking at length of the coming war. "What threatens the humans threatens all magical beings. Like it or not, we can no longer isolate ourselves from the rest of the magical world. That day is past."
"You speak truth, Vala," Borgun says, "and most of us on the Council agree: we cannot remain untouched by the coming wizarding war."
"But we do not want to be made unwitting pawns in it," says Galfa. Her grandmother, my good old friend Rogan, had once been Chief Voice on the Council of Lawspeakers. I am pleased to see her genetic tradition continue through her granddaughter. "We would prefer to control our participation for maximum benefit and minimum loss to goblin interests."
Which is only sensible.
"Of course," I say. "So where does Griselda come in?"
"We are not interested in taking philosophical sides in human affairs," says Borgun. "But from the point of view of finance, it will be to our advantage if the humans can defeat the person at the heart of the war, the one whose name the wizards foolishly refuse to utter. Lord Voldemort. He appears to have no regard for any magical beings other than a very few of his own kind. He will ally himself with goblins only as long as we are of use to him; then he will betray us. Of this I am certain."
Galfa nods and taps the newspaper with her fingertips. I can see traces of her grandmother in her elegant long hands.
"It is clear that the Ministry's hostility to Hogwarts school will help Voldemort's cause," she says. "As we see in this article, prejudice against goblins will be used to distract attention from the fact that your Madam Marchbanks is right in what she says about this 'Inquisitor' position." She takes up the paper and reads, "'This is a further disgusting attempt to discredit Albus Dumbledore'."
"I do not trust Dumbledore," says Findruk.
"Dumbledore is the best hope for defeating Voldemort," says Ugluk, speaking for the first time. He is an old goblin, older than I, and has known many humans, including Griselda. "He must be allowed to work freely. I fear Griselda Marchbanks made a mistake in resigning from the Wizengamot. She has left her enemies -- and Dumbledore's -- a clear field."
"I do not interfere in Griselda's personal decisions," I say.
"Nor are we asking you to," says Borgun. "But we hope you will talk with her, first, to gather some information, and second, to see if she is willing to do us a service."
"What information? What service?" I ask. I make no commitments, either for her or for myself. But there is no harm in listening.
"Over the years, as you know, she has done goblins several good turns by engaging in some informal diplomacy with the Goblin Liaison Office," Ugluk explains. "We wish to know if her resignation from the Wizengamot will compromise her connection to the GLO. And second, we would ask that she use her position at Hogwarts to serve as a channel of communication between goblins and Albus Dumbledore. Now that he is in hiding, we may find it difficult to contact him."
I do not bother to explain that Griselda has no position at Hogwarts itself. She is Governor of the Wizarding Examination Authority, which is separate from the school. These details will not interest the Council of Lawspeakers. What matters is that Griselda probably does have access to Albus Dumbledore, and that access might indeed be valuable to goblins. Similarly, access to goblins might be valuable to Albus Dumbledore and the humans. It sounds an even exchange. Quid pro quo, as the humans say.
"I will speak to her," I agree.
Now, speech, as any thoughtful being knows, is a dangerous thing. Words are as powerful as money, a fact that too many goblins and humans alike ignore to their peril. With speech comes knowledge, persuasion, conversation, even understanding. Not to mention lies.
One risks much when one agrees to speak to another sentient creature, for even the most vigilant of us may reveal more than we intend when we find a sympathetic ear. The coin of self is precious currency, not to be squandered. I have always spent mine judiciously.
Nonetheless, it would not be incorrect to say that it was speech that led me to break an unspoken goblin taboo: I sought carnal knowledge of a human, and in some ways, it was conversation that first led me to her bed.
In the beginning, curiosity drove our talks. Our races knew little about one another in those days. Centuries of wizardly perfidy and greed had made goblins deeply suspicious of human motives, and initially, I was wary of Griselda Marchbanks's attempts to draw me into discussion.
But I wondered about her, with her round face and short nose and her seemingly boundless energy and dedication. If we had even a few moments between diplomatic sessions, she would pore over educational materials related to wizarding schooling.
Then one day, I saw that she was reading a history of the "Goblin Rebellions" -- the one written by Gilbunk Knatchbull.
I confronted her. "You dare to insult me and all the goblin race by reading that pack of infamous lies? Nothing but untruths on every deceitful page!"
The book was legendary among goblins: in it, all the wizarding attempts to enslave us and drive us from our homes are presented as self-defence, or worse, as kindly attempts to "educate" and "improve" us. I could barely speak for rage. I should have known better, I thought, than to believe she might be different.
She was genuinely shocked -- or at least, she appeared to be. At that time I still found it difficult to read human facial expressions. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't know. This is the only history we have."
"It is lies! Propaganda and lies! Your kind knows nothing about us. Nothing."
"Teach me, then," she said.
I was disarmed. I had expected her to fight me, to argue, or perhaps even to grovel apologetically, as her people sometimes did as a way of placating us before betraying us.
But she simply asked me to teach her.
In the end, we taught each other, although one hundred years ago, I did not believe that I had anything to learn from humans. Griselda showed me otherwise. She helped me see that while there are indeed many duplicitous and greedy humans, there are also many just and admirable ones with useful and reasonable ideas.
And it is not as if goblins are without fault. We have more than a few of those who, as we say in my tongue, are "imperfectly forged." Like Findruk.
Griselda asked endless questions in the early days, and unlike many of her kind, she was not merely interested in goblin treasure. She was interested in us, in goblins. . .how we thought, how we lived.
"You are the first goblin woman I have met," she told me.
"Female," I corrected. "I am a female. 'Woman' is a human term."
"Female, then. I was very pleased to learn that there would be a female in the treaty delegation. I have never heard of any in the forging or banking trades."
"Of course not. Such work is not for females."
Her brows and lips drew together in an odd fashion; I later learnt that this expression signals consternation or sympathy.
"They do not believe you smart enough or strong enough?" she demanded in anger. "It is the same with us --"
"No. Female goblins do not wish to work in underground bank vaults or in fiery furnaces. Why would we? Our strengths are in diplomacy and logistics."
"Domestic arrangements," I explained.
"But that is the same problem we face! Human women, that is. We must fight for spaces in public life and government, we are told our place is to be angels in the home -- "
"No," I repeated; I remember that I felt a flash of irritation at her obtuseness; in those days, I had not yet admitted that I had obtuseness of my own. And I was not surprised to hear that her race devalued its females; it was what I would have expected. "No. To make the domestic arrangements -- it is a position of power."
"Oh. Well, what are they? The arrangements, I mean. Do females perform household chores, do all the cooking and the cleaning for the males?"
I had no idea what she was talking about. "You speak nonsense. Females do not serve males, and males do not serve females. We live apart, males and females, in our own domiciles. We come together only in public spaces, in our guildhalls and Council chambers. I have never been inside the home of a male, nor he in mine."
Griselda tilted her head, and her strange light-coloured eyes sharpened. "But then how do you . . .procreate? Produce children?"
I learnt later that such a question was considered quite indelicate and inappropriate for a woman to ask in the human year of 1895, but then, Griselda has never allowed herself to be restrained by foolish proprieties. For myself, I thought it strange that a grown woman should be so ignorant of the mechanisms of reproduction, but at that time, I simply wrote it off as one of the oddities of humans.
"The same way you do, I imagine," I told her. As different as I knew humans and goblins to be, it still had never occurred to me that we spawned our young in such opposite ways. I was naïve, I admit that now. But truly, what goblin could possibly have imagined the truth of human copulation and childbirth? It was as foreign a process to us as our process was to Griselda.
"We identify a physically compatible male and female," I explained. "That is one of the activities of domestic logistics, the department in which I work. The couple are then summoned to the joining house. They engage in brief sexual intercourse just before the female lays her egg. Then the male coats it with his sexual excretion, the egg is kept dark and warm, it hatches, and then the young is taken to the hatchling centre to be raised until it is of age. The parents return to their separate homes. Is this not what happens with humans?"
Griselda drew a deep breath. "Not exactly," she said.
At the end of an incredulous hour, we both had a reasonable understanding of how the other race reproduced itself, and I considered it a triumph of goblin/human diplomacy that neither of us betrayed any disgust.
About a year went by before we had a chance for another private conversation. After an initial period of activity following the 84th treaty, goblin/human interaction again subsided. Although we settled one or two fairly simple diplomatic issues, mostly involving bank security and the serving of goblins in the restaurants of Diagon Alley, it was clear that the larger problems of wand use and treasure ownership were going to require years of negotiation. So enthusiasm waned a bit on both sides, resulting in the reduction in the number of diplomatic meetings, and I saw little of Griselda Marchbanks.
It was late in human year 1897 when goblins had our next large conference with members of the GLO. Griselda was among the human delegation, and I was surprised to find that I was pleased to see her. It was an odd sensation, for I was not then used to feeling regard for humans. After the meeting, she spoke to me.
"Vala, I ask leave to renew our acquaintance," she said, using the formal diplomatic greeting.
"Granted," I replied, and waited. She had initiated the contact, and so protocol dictated that the next words be hers. But I confess that I was eager to hear them.
"I have something to tell you," she said, "and I was wondering if perhaps you would like to be my guest at Madam Lida's Tea Room? We could talk there."
"Goblins do not drink tea," I said, and what appeared to be a shadow of disappointment flitted across her face. I continued, "But after our treaty work of two years ago, Madam Lida's now carries glayva, a peat-based beverage we goblins are fond of. I would be happy to accompany you."
"Excellent!" she beamed, seeming genuinely glad.
We were soon seated and served; I think the proprietors hoped we would leave quickly. We were receiving stares from the human patrons, some merely curious, some openly hostile. I could tell that Griselda was annoyed, though she did her best to ignore them.
I, on the other hand, had no compunction about staring right back; I offer no politeness to the impolite. As I hoped, the humans were discomfited and soon found interest in their teapots and cakes once again; Griselda and I were left alone.
"I have some news," she said. "I am to be promoted -- to full-time examiner for the Wizarding Examination Authority. I will be in charge of this year's O.W.L. testing at Hogwarts," she continued, "and then I will work with the N.E.W.T. director to conduct a full-scale curricular review."
I knew her well enough by this time to recognise the pride in her voice. "I offer my congratulations," I said. I was pleased for her.
"Thank you." Then her expression changed. "But it means that I will no longer be attached to the GLO. I will not have time for a second position. I wanted to let you know."
I tried to tell myself that her departure from GLO meant nothing to me -- surely another human would take her place, and it was not as if goblins could tell one human from another (or so we told ourselves). But the fact was, I felt a strong sense of disappointment.
"That is. . .unfortunate," I said. "I have learnt much from our talks. I will be sorry to lose this source of information."
"Well, you see. . ." she said, trailing off and taking up the piece of cloth that humans spread upon their laps while eating. She twisted it in her hands, and this nervous behaviour was so unlike Griselda that I was immediately on my guard.
"You see," she said again, "I was hoping we would not have to lose our talks. That is, well, I enjoy your company, Vala, and I thought perhaps we could continue to meet occasionally. . .as friends."
"I do not have human friends," I said sharply, before I could stop myself. She drew back, hurt, and I felt remorse. I had not intended to be harsh, but her words had unsettled me -- not so much the request itself, but my response to it: I was astonished to realise how much I wanted to accept her offer. I was accustomed to distrusting humans, not admiring them, and this new and unexpected feeling had caused me to become defensive.
As a result, I had wounded Griselda, and I hastened to repair the damage.
"I do not have human friends," I repeated, more neutrally, "but I enjoy your company as well, Griselda Marchbanks. I would be honoured to continue our acquaintance."
"Honour" was not a word I used often -- and never before, in my remembrance, had I applied it to humans. But it was not inappropriate for Griselda.
We met for drinks another time or two, and then, the following summer, she invited to me to her home. I was sensible to the compliment, and I was, I admit it, quite curious to see a human dwelling.
She lived in a cottage on the edge of a wizarding village. I Apparated directly into her walled garden; I had no to be gawked at by curious neighbours. The day was warm, and she had thrown her casements wide, so that sunlight streamed into her little sitting room.
It was rather more crowded with plush, heavy furniture and leafy plants and small tables that any goblin's home would be, but it was nonetheless comfortable. She served me glayva and small chunks of raw beef; I appreciated the effort.
Our talk at first was professional -- I told her something of the latest goblin-GLO activities, and she waxed enthusiastic about her recently-concluded examinations, particularly the performance of one Albus Dumbledore, the most gifted student, no, the most gifted wizard of any age, that she had ever seen.
Eventually we turned to more personal matters. She enquired after my work with domestic logistics, and I explained that we had just finished a series of matchings; the joinings would take place within the month, as soon as the females were fertile.
Griselda was interested. "Your breeding intrigues me," she said.
"As your human process intrigues me," I replied politely, although in truth, "revolts me" would have been more accurate. All that blood and pain, to say nothing of lengthy penetration by males. For goblins, that process takes about thirty seconds.
"I hope you will forgive my inquisitiveness," Griselda continued, "but do goblins experience any physical pleasure in their acts of reproduction?"
What a strange question it seemed. "No. Why would we?"
"Well, humans do. Or at least, they can. The sexual act can be quite pleasurable. Physical contact, that is."
I began to understand. "Are you speaking of carnal pleasure? Taking enjoyment from the bodies of others, and they from yours?"
"Yes, that's it."
"Of course we have carnal pleasures. But they have nothing to do with reproduction. If one had to produce young every time one experienced a carnal union, the world would be overrun with offspring. Do you mean to tell me that every time a human couple copulates, a child is produced?" The more I thought about this, the more impossible it seemed.
"No, not every time. But the possibility is always there when a man has intercourse with a woman of childbearing age."
Horrors. The prospect of a world overpopulated with humans was too difficult to contemplate. I struggled to understand. "Then am I to assume that human beings rarely experience carnal pleasure?" Surely they wouldn't want to take the risk of constantly reproducing themselves.
Griselda smiled. "Oh, no, there is no dearth of carnal pleasure to be had, even with the chance of unwanted consequences. People are encouraged to be celibate until marriage and to exercise restraint within marriage, but I can't say it always happens." She cocked her head. "Do goblins marry?"
This human practice, at least, was one with which I was familiar. All goblins in the diplomatic service were aware of it. "A legal union, you mean? For the purposes of exchanging property? No, we do not."
"Property, yes, but many people also marry for love," said Griselda.
"Love is a human concept," I told her, "and not one that makes sense to goblins. We often feel regard, respect, loyalty. . .but love, we do not know."
"I wonder if that is strictly true," she said, looking at me speculatively. "The things you describe -- loyalty, regard. . .these can be the basis of love. Do you feel passion for other goblins, along with regard and all the rest of it?"
"Of a sort." I thought about our feelings: that sudden pulsing of the blood, that heightened awareness one often experiences when in the presence of a person to whom one is physically attracted. . .I suppose one could call those feelings "passion." "Yes, we do," I said.
"Then I think it is very likely that goblins feel love, no matter what you might call it."
Such an idea was new to me. Even merely a year ago, I would have scoffed at Griselda's suggestion and probably told her in no uncertain terms that she was not only mistaken, but offensive.
But times had changed. I had changed. So I replied only, "I will think over what you have said. You seem to have given the topic some thought. Are you an expert among humans, on the subject of love?"
Griselda burst out laughing, and it was a measure of how well we had come to know each other that I did not assume she was mocking me.
"Merlin's beard, no!" she said. Then her mood turned pensive, and she toyed with her teacup. "I would like to know love," she said finally. "I haven't, not yet. Oh, I love my parents, of course, but that is different. I mean romantic love."
"Then you are not married? You have not procreated?"
She chuckled, though I did not understand what I had said that was humorous. "No, I have not, nor do I plan to. My work is important to me, and I do not wish to give it up. Women are expected to," she added, seeing my confusion.
At that moment, I found myself more interested in the sort of person she might love than in humans' attitudes toward women.
"How does one find romantic love?" I asked her.
"It's mysterious," she said. "No one knows quite why or how it occurs, why someone falls in love with one person and not another. It just seems to happen. But tell me about goblins -- if you don't think you fall in love, and you don't marry and don't combine sexual pleasure with reproduction and don't live among males, then how do you find. . .ah, partners for your pleasures? Or do you?"
"Do we find romantic partners? Yes. But surely you can't think that females find them among males?"
"Of course not. Males seek their pleasures among males, and females among females. It's only natural."
"Not to us. Women are not thought to have much physical desire at all, and certainly not for other women."
Griselda sounded not judgmental, but sad, and suddenly I knew that she had felt such desire herself. I didn't know how I knew, but I was as sure of it as I was sure that the vaults of Gringotts were unbreachable. In my mind, the fact was beyond dispute: Griselda Marchbanks had romantic feelings for females.
The notion did not displease me.
It is late when I arrive at the cottage, which is now as much a home to me as my own. Griselda has been watching for me.
"How annoyed are you?" she asks. After all these years, she well knows how a session with the Council of Lawspeakers can sometimes get on my nerves. "Scale of one to ten?"
"Eight point five," I say.
"Findruk. Of course." I lower myself into a chair. "Plus a few other things."
She must hear a change in my tone, because her brow clouds, and she touches my shoulder as she crosses to sit down opposite me. "Tell me," she says.
"They think that you erred in resigning from the Wizengamot," I explain. Both Griselda and I appreciate directness in speech. "Your enemies will now have a freer rein in the Ministry. They also fear that our relationship will be used to discredit both you and any goblin who associates with you."
Griselda gives a bark of laughter. "Worried about tarnishing your reputation, are you, V? Well, if you're going to insist on consorting with dangerous old witches like me, you have no one but yourself to blame."
"It is you I blame," I say. "For allowing me to sit here for nearly ten minutes without offering me a glayva."
"Another insult to the goblin race?" Her eyes twinkle with mischief.
"One among many," I say. For old times' sake, I try to scowl at her, but fail.
She laughs again and Summons both bottle and glass. "There you are, my love," she says. "As for the Council of Lawspeakers, you may tell them that I believe my resignation will give me more power, not less. The Wizengamot is merely a puppet organization these days, or close to it. It is becoming more and more dangerous for Ministry personnel to publicly support Harry Potter or even to speak out against Death Eater atrocities; the Ministry is infiltrated with spies. Amelia and I are able to accomplish less and less -- our Wizengamot rulings have been overturned more than once, even in the face of clear evidence, and I am certain it was only a matter of time until I would have been forced off the court anyway. I can do much more to support Potter and Hogwarts if I go underground for a bit. And that means. . ."
She stretches out her hand towards me, and I reach to take it. "That means that I can do more for goblins, too. Not through the GLO, no. . .because that office is compromised as well; you should let Ugluk and the others know that GLO is merely a façade now. But in other ways."
"Thank you," I tell her. "But you know my people -- they have already thought of a way for you to help them." She laughs, and I continue, "They would like to know if you will serve as a liaison between goblins and Albus; they aren't sure they will be able to contact him now that he has been removed from Hogwarts."
Griselda raises a sardonic eyebrow. "Well, as to that, I doubt that Albus 'was removed.' I'm sure that he removed himself; he would never have left Hogwarts if he had not wanted to. But he will be glad to keep channels of communication open with goblins, and I will be glad to assist in the process. I can contact Albus whenever necessary."
I am not surprised; I expected that she would know how to reach him. I do not believe many wizards are fully aware of it, but Griselda is quite a power behind the scenes of her world.
"I will notify the Council," I say, and squeeze her hand. "Thank you."
She squeezes back, and we speak no more of war or politics on this night.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It seems inevitable, now, that Griselda and I would have become lovers, but it seemed anything but inevitable then: it seemed impossible. A goblin and a human?
I cannot say that such a thing had never happened before (the physical natures of sentient creatures being what they are), but I had never personally known of an example. Not only did each species usually find the other physically unappealing, but many people on both sides believed such mingling of the races to be morally unacceptable as well.
Yet as our acquaintance went on, I found it harder and harder to remember why I had found Griselda unattractive. By the time I finished valuing her intelligence and humour and openness to understanding goblins and others not like herself, I quite forgot her stubby fingers and her nearly non-existent nose. I came to take aesthetic pleasure in her thick, glossy hair and the slope of her slender shoulders. I liked the way the skin around her eyes crinkled when she laughed, and though I would never have dreamt of confessing such a thing, I even wondered what she might look like without her clothes.
I admit, the first time I had this thought, I was shocked at myself. What sane goblin would want to see such a sight? Was I becoming a degenerate? Such things were known to happen. Findruk's duplicitous brother, for instance, had been rumoured to bugger grindylows.
But then I called myself to account for being too judgmental. Through Griselda I had learnt that goblin prejudices could sometimes be as unreasoning as human ones. We had suffered more from human injustice than they had suffered from us, that is true, but it is also true that goblins could profit from being less dismissive of humans.
And I realised that I had no desire to dismiss Griselda.
Nor was Griselda in any hurry to dismiss me.
One evening, a few years after we first met, she invited me to dinner at her home. We had long since grown accustomed to each other's food: the scent of her cooked meat no longer sickened me, while she knew exactly the proportions in which I liked my raw beef and wild mushrooms. And we both enjoyed fruit for the course she called "afters."
When I arrived, her cottage was decorated with fragrant pine boughs, and in the corner sat a fir tree with brightly-burning candles on its branches; it was close to the time of that annual "Christmas" celebration that she and so many humans enjoyed. I'd become familiar with the pleasures of Christmas and with human "birthday" celebrations, just as Grisleda had come to understand "Honour Day" as a significant tradition for goblins. (Honour Day commemorates various heroes of the so-called "Goblin Rebellions" -- so-called by humans, that is. For our part, goblins don't see our actions as "rebellions," as if we were somehow enslaved to humans and had to fight our way out of their thrall. To us, the conflicts were wars between equal groups.)
But those thoughts were far from my mind on the evening of Griselda's dinner. For some time, I had sensed us moving towards a change in our friendship -- a deepening, as it were. There was often a tension or spark in the air when we met; I was supremely aware of her body, of her no-longer-unpleasant scent; I actually wondered what it would feel like to run my fingers through her hair or to outline the edges of her tiny ears. Most goblins have sensitive ears, and my first goblin lover could be brought to a state of moaning ecstasy by having her ears massaged.
I found myself with an unseemly curiosity about what it might take to bring Griselda to a similar state -- it would require something uniquely human, no doubt, and it says much about how much I had changed in my estimation of humans (or at least of Griselda) that I was eager to find out what such an act might be.
I had come to believe that she entertained similar thoughts about me. Oh, the signs were subtle, but they were there -- a quickening of her respiration when I approached (I could hear it; goblins' hearing is more acute than humans'), her growing tendency to arrange small, "accidental" touches such as brushes of shoulders and hands. These touches were by no means unpleasant to me, and their frequency had increased of late. I thought -- hoped -- that perhaps she intended to use the occasion of dinner to make a more definitive move in my direction.
And if she did not do so, I was determined to make the move myself.
In the event, I suppose I would say it was more of a mutual coming-together.
"Tell me," I said, after dinner was over, and we were seated in her comfortable armchairs in front of the fire with glass of glayva in my hand, wizard brandy in hers. "Besides killing a tree to bring it into the house and eating oneself sick on flaming blobs of stewed vegetable matter, what else do humans do for this Christmas celebration?"
Griselda chuckled; she knew I had come to be unaccountably fond of that concoction called a "Christmas pudding." We had just had some as the afters of our meal.
"We do many things," she said. "We might give gifts -- " and here she looked at me rather slyly -- "and sometimes we attend balls." There was a pause, and then she said, "In fact, I was wondering if you would care to dance with me tonight."
She was definitely breathing more heavily, and I believe my own respiration might have increased as well.
"I am not a skilled dancer," I said.
"I will teach you," she replied.
She waved her wand to start some music playing (we had long passed the point at which the sight of her wand was contentious between us) and took me by the hand.
The warmth of her arms around me was as intoxicating as the glayva. We circled the room a few times, Griselda using the subtle pressure of her knee and the touch of her hand on my back to guide me. I welcomed the heat of her touch, and when she bent down to bring her lips to mine (how glad I was for our semi-level heights then), I was willing to meet them. I'd heard of the human practice of kissing, but I had no idea how satisfying it could be. Or how arousing.
Eventually we made our way to her sleeping chamber. It was warm, and dimly-lit, and I felt no distaste about removing my clothing or helping Griselda remove hers.
Her body was a revelation. I knew what to expect, at least in theory, for once I had become curious about Griselda, I sought information and had succeeded in seeing a naked human woman in a photograph -- a "French postcard," it was called.
But the reality was something different. Up close, her skin was much paler and smoother than I had expected, not as creased or tough as a goblin's. And her breasts -- I had never seen such a thing outside of forest animals. They looked soft, like something I wanted to touch, and I would later find out to my pleasure (and to hers) that women enjoy just such stroking.
And then there was the hair -- not only on her head, but under her arms and between her thighs. The French postcard had not shown such a thing. "What is that?" I demanded, pointing, forgetting in my surprise that humans often find pointing to be rude. "Why is does your hair not stay on your head where it belongs?"
She laughed. "It does stay where it belongs. For humans, hair belongs here and here as well," she said, indicating. Then, more seriously, she asked, "Does it bother you?"
"No," I answered, though in truth it did, just a little bit. But I knew enough of diplomacy not to say so. And for all I could tell, she might be finding aspects of goblin physiology to be disconcerting, too -- my leathery, breast-free chest, the hairless entry to the vent from which goblins lay eggs. We feel pleasure in that place, too, however, and I knew the same was true for humans. In that, we are alike -- the source of pleasure and of young is the same. Odd, but true, though in that moment, the vagaries of comparative biology were far from my thoughts.
Griselda and I silently studied each for a long minute or two before she smiled and gestured towards her bed. We repaired there, and the next morning found us still under the bedclothes together, our limbs in a warm tangle.
I will not detail the specifics of that sexual encounter or of our many subsequent ones, of course; such intimate moments are private and personal. Suffice it to say that Griselda learnt some of the many benefits of long goblin fingers, and I learnt that human tongues can be remarkably versatile.
That night occurred many decades ago, and Griselda and I have been lovers ever since. Some of my people and hers are not happy about this state of affairs, but, Findruk notwithstanding, we rarely receive overt criticism or ostracism these days.
Such is one benefit of our advanced age -- younger people cannot imagine that old females such as we could possibly be a sexual or romantic reality. Even if we were to tell them that age has not cramped Griselda's agile tongue nor my supple fingers, they would not believe us. And of course, we have no intention of telling them any such thing. Let them discover it for themselves, if they are lucky enough to have long lives.
This is not to say that time has wrought no changes on us. Over the years, Griselda has grown shorter and more wrinkled, so that now she looks more like a goblin than ever. Her beautiful face is seamed over with lovely creases. And I have found that as they age, goblins gain hair in places where it did not grow in their youth. No, neither of us is as we once were, but I do not believe we are very sorry.
Tonight she is weary when she comes to me, and I make her a cup of tea with a dollop of firewhisky. She needs it, for she has just come from administering the O.W.L. examinations at Hogwarts, and I gather that things did not go smoothly.
"Oh, the examinations themselves were fine," she says, sinking into one of the armchairs (one of the human inventions I've been glad to acquire). "Except for the last set, which was interrupted by that impossible. . .that unspeakable 'High Inquisitor.' What a drittasikka," she says in Gobbledygook (we both agree that it is a better word for "shitbag" than in English). "Vala, make no mistake about it, Dolores Umbridge is a serious danger to all the freedom and tolerance that wizard and goblinkind enjoy."
"What has she done now?" I ask.
"She and her goons attacked the Hogwarts gamekeeper, and Minerva. . ." She pauses, and I think I see tears shining in her eyes. "Minerva tried to stop her. . ." Her voice is shaking, and I hold my breath. She loves that young woman, her former protégée, Minerva McGonagall. If anything has happened to her. . .
"They killed her?" If so, better to know at once.
Griselda shakes her head. "No. They Stunned her, Vala. Sent four Stunners directly into her chest without so much as a warning. By all rights, she should have died, but she's too tough. Damned reckless Gryffindor," she sniffs tearfully. Griselda, ever the calm Ravenclaw, has long despaired over Minerva's tendency towards impetuous action. "Poppy had her taken from Hogwarts to St Mungo's, which was wise."
"We will visit her tomorrow," I say. I still do not enjoy going into human institutions, for I am often stared at, but for this occasion, I will put such prejudices aside.
"Thank you, my dear," says Griselda, giving me a watery smile. "Augusta has gone to stay with her tonight, and I have no doubt that Albus will find a way to sneak in as well."
Augusta Longbottom is another long-time friend of Griselda's, and now of mine. I like her. She suffers no fools.
"Albus is coming out of hiding, then?" I ask.
"No, not yet. He'll keep himself invisible as long as there is benefit in it. He sent me a message just last week. It is as I told you, the fact that I am no longer being on the Wizengamot has made it easier for me to work with Albus; the Ministry no longer keeps tabs on my schedule."
"Have you spoken to Umbridge since Minerva's injury?" I ask now. "What did she have to say for herself?"
Griselda's face takes on expression of deep disdain. "That toad," she says, summoning the bottle of whisky to herself and adding some more to her teacup. I suspect there is precious little tea remaining. "Tried to blame Minerva, of course. Said she had no business 'trying to interfere in legitimate Ministry affairs.' I told her pretty sharply that I could teach her a few things about the meaning of 'interference' that she would probably rather not know." She grins suddenly.
"What?" I ask.
"I did have some fun with her, I must say. I rebuffed her every unctuous attempt at friendliness, reminded her just how little control her precious Ministry has over Dumbledore, and pretended to be hard of hearing, so that I could shout all my rudeness and let the students and staff hear me."
I grin back at her. Few things are more frightening than a goblin smile, and she laughs. "Don't I wish Dolores could see you," she says.
"What about Harry Potter? You examined him, didn't you?"
Her grin fades. "Yes. He's a brave boy, and an able one, at least in Charms and Defence, but Merlin save us, Vala, how impossibly young he is. It terrifies me to think that he is our best hope against the Dark Lord."
"Well, he is not our only weapon," I remind her. "Some of the rest of us are rather able, too. And we support your cause, you know."
She takes my hand and brings it to her lips. "I do indeed know."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It is late by the time we take ourselves to bed, and I am glad that neither of us needs to rise early in the morning. We will brave St Mungo's and Umbridge and Voldemort and all the rest of it when the time comes. But first, we will sleep.
We spoon together, our bodies fitting into each other's curves with the ease of almost a full century of habit. Griselda lies warm behind me, her arm around my waist, our fingers entwined.
"All my love to you, Vala," she says, as she does every night we are together. It is the humans' greatest gift, I know.
And as I also do every night, I offer her my greatest goblin gift in return.
"And to you, Griselda, all my trust."