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Dealing with Destiny

Chapter Text

The gray mist subsided.

He was standing in a clearing.

This was more disconcerting than one might think at first pass.

It wasn’t so much the fact that he was standing in a clearing that troubled him. Rather, he was concerned by the lack of any recollection of—of anything—from before the moment when the gray mist began to subside. For instance, he was fairly certain most people had a general idea of who they were, even if all their name meant was, for example, ‘Goat-that-is-this-goat’.

Of course, now that he thought of it, he had nothing to support this certainty.

…He was grinding his teeth. Better not to think about the things everybody else seemed to have that he inexplicably lacked, else he’d kill something for no better reason than to have an outlet for the horrible burning roiling thing pummeling his chest and stomach from the inside. Something else he was fairly certain about was the danger inherent in killing things just to make himself feel better. If he was going to kill something, it was only proper that it had offended him somehow, but he was fairly certain that hating the moss for being lush and green and glowing under his feet (for instance) just didn’t count.

That there was a proper place and time for killing things, but that doing so with extreme prejudice was inherently dangerous, were added to his mental list of unsubstantiated certainties.

Come to that, he had no idea how he knew that thinking about the unfairness of the world would see him incinerating perfectly-innocent-in-regards-to-himself plant-life—which, for all he knew, could have started life as a Viceroy of the Grimmauld Empire…

…He tacked his understanding of the ruthless immensity that was the Grimmauld Empire and its dwindling but correspondingly brutal Monarchy on the end of the list.

He looked about. Directly behind him, the trunk of an enormous oak tree gnarled up from a veritable knoll of mossy roots, out into branches that twisted and crooked and arched over the entire clearing to interlock with the marginally smaller trees on the opposite border. Following the mighty dome of branches, his gaze found the base of the opposite border and, in the center of the clearing, a large still pool bounded by rocks.

How convenient.

How positively coincidental.

He made his way—warily, always warily—to the lip of the pool and looked down at the reflection on its smooth, emerald surface. He supposed the color was the result of the sunlight filtering through the dense foliage above.

That fancy went to its eternal rest when he noticed the translucent statue of a fully armored knight astride a likewise arrayed warhorse that was lying at the bottom. The attitude of startlement shared by horse and rider—communicated by the horse’s slay-legged, near sitting posture and the knight’s backward tilt showing that he had his whole weight on the bit—suggested an unsuccessfully aborted full charge.

With its last gasp, the fancy suggested tactfully that perhaps he shouldn’t drink from this particular pool unless he wanted to spend the rest of his life with a glass jaw—not to mention fragile hands and delicate digestion.

Here then was the reason that the water was so very clean—no seed, spore or scion of pond weeds or scum that managed to arrive here could hope to sprout in water like that, and no sensible frog would consent to muddle it. The sand on the bottom was probably grains of green glass.

He knelt carefully at the edge of the pool, giving himself a stable base from which to avoid becoming a glass figure. Then he focused on the still, shining surface of the water.

The reflection of a young man looked back at him.

The first thing he noticed was the crown; a tarnished but finely-made circlet—well, all right, the word was ‘tiara’, but he’d be damned if he called anything sitting on his head by a name that had distaff connotations. Colors were naturally distorted, but the young man was obviously dark-haired and eyed, and starkly pale-skinned in contrast. Here was a face to inspire sculptors to the representation of pubescent Greek gods —a high forehead; level dark brows; direct long-lashed eyes, not too deep-hewn nor protruding; a straight, pointed nose with the mildest of aristocratic bumps; high, defined cheekbones; slightly hollowed cheeks; good lips. He turned his head, comparing the position of the nicely-sized ears relative to a symmetrical jaw that was neither too ruggedly square, nor girlishly soft. All this was framed by neat, glossy waves of dark hair trimmed even with a set of broad, square shoulders.

Apparently, he was extremely handsome. Fair hair and blue eyes were the ideal (irksome), but that could be managed with illusions. Why, he even had two beauty spots on the right side! The one on his cheek was particularly advantageous, as it would have a swath of the fashionable classes believing him to be 'gallant', and would impress many a Taoist sage with his 'precocious renown'. The one at his temple would bend adherents of mianxiang to his 'perpetual luck and powerful authority', although—he smiled thinly--'I'm hiding a pimple'* should be hidden in very sophisticated company.

And none of them were categorically wrong, he thought with some smugness, as the crown indicated that he really was some kind of aristocrat.

He sat up and carefully edged back before attempting to stand. Now, if only I could find someone to tell me which rank, he thought. He could do something with information like that…

…… He froze. Between his first look at his own reflection and his musings on which strata of the ruling classes he might belong to, something about the clearing had changed. Not the light; not the smell—damp and green and decay and growth; not the sound of the breeze rustling the upper stories or the occasional click of some insect or call of a distant bird; not the pleasant cool of the shaded glade. It was something else—deeper and higher than audible sound, brighter than visible light, and as for touch…well, it was as if the stimulus had bypassed his skin entirely and was drumming on his bones, causing a strange, painless ache that wasn’t so much uncomfortable as un-ignorable.

The change had been fixed—the something was holding to the new pattern.

It was also directly behind him.

With careful nonchalance, he looked first to one side, then over his other shoulder. He appeared, he knew, for all the world as if he’d only just heard some noise to alert him.

An old man was standing in the shadow of the great oak’s trunk. The man stared back at him from under wild gray brows, eyes so large and pale in his leathery face that it was unnerving.

Well, more unnerving. The old man’s silent arrival and unswerving attention were quite unnerving enough.

The old man appeared to reach a decision. He bowed politely, a free man to a sovereign (though not necessarily his sovereign). “I wondered if I’d be seeing you again, Your Majesty,” he said in a soft voice.

The King—or monarch at any rate; he was quite sure there were a few nations where the ruling princes or dukes were styled ‘Your Majesty’—bowed back at the correct angle for a sovereign acknowledging an elder male of uncertain rank, wealth, nationality, occupation, education, culture, magical affinity and secret society affiliations. Privately, he doubted that anyone had ever executed a bow so perfectly void of assumptions, but it was tremendously unwise to go basing things on appearances, particularly in magical places.

It felt…like he was a green branch being bent against the natural curve of its grain. In other circumstances (i.e. if he had a better idea of where—figuratively and literally—where he stood in the world) the King suspected that he would have sketched a bow to the correct degree for a sovereign acknowledging an individual whose entire identity was of no importance whatsoever. Even now, when everything from reclaiming his own identity to his continued existence in a humanoid shape might depend on his being extra polite, he found he wanted to make clear to the world at large that he was much too strong to care who he offended.

The King smiled around gritted teeth. “I’m afraid you have—…” His throat constricted around the phrase ‘the advantage of me’. ‘I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name,’ wasn’t going to come up, either. ‘I’m sorry, I seem to have forgotten my name’ thrust crampons into the walls beneath his frozen voice-box and whirled a grappling-hook meaningfully.

The old man cocked his head to the side. After treating the King to another searching, owl-ish look, he said “My name, Sire, is Garrick of House Ollivander.”

The House of Ollivander—Makers of fine magical items. Practically a guild unto themselves. There it was again—that remote knowledge, floating free of any cohesive memories.

The old man—Ollivander, they all go by Ollivander—nodded. “You recognize my family name, but not my personal name. You also do not recognize me, although we have met. I think,” Ollivander raised a large-knuckled hand and tapped thoughtfully at his wrinkled mouth, “Yyy-ess I believe it would be prudent if Your Majesty accompanied me back to my cart for tea. A low tea, of coursedear me, yes, that should be quite correct.”

“…’Correct’, Master Ollivander?” ‘Master’ was easy enough—he could acknowledge a master of a trade without choking on the honorific, at least.

Ollivander gave him a wry smile. “I was just making my way back when the Forest saw fit to place the Green Glass Pool in my path—a pool which resides, typically, on the exact opposite edge of the Deep Woods. One learns to take a hint, or the Enchanted Forest can turn rather—blunt.

“…Blunt?”

“As an ogre’s club.”

“Ah.” Ogre’s ClubHeavy. Hard. Sometimes with iron spikes in. This time, the unfounded knowledge was chased by an informed decision—Do as the Forest suggests, before it sees fit to demand.

Chapter Text

The King could not remember the last time he had eaten, but that wasn’t unexpected—there were, after all, a great many things he couldn’t remember doing. While Ollivander unfolded, unrolled, untwisted and retightened various spindly bits and bobs, the King amused himself by inspecting the contents of the goat cart Ollivander had parked in the Outer Forest.

By way of letting him look, the old man had seized a roll of quilted fabric from under a mess of raw materials and hauled it out with more effort than appeared necessary.

That had been the King’s only warning before Ollivander unfurled it with a snap, revealing several times more fabric than an ordinary roll that size ought to hold. The lining was composed entirely of pockets, and these were filled with Ollivander’s finished wares.

There were so many examples of Ollivander’s work that it seemed rather hard on the goat (if the cart was enchanted, it wasn’t in a form the King could detect.) While he spotted a pair of wooden candlesticks inlaid with what looked to be gold and a flute embedded with chips of pearl, most of the articles were made entirely of wood. The vast majority were rod-like—wands and staves, crooks, scepters, and marottes. However, there were also ladles and dowsing rods, two sets of oars, and a bread peel. There were even a few wooden practice swords, and a lance. The King was impressed despite himself. The items themselves reeked of magic—such was the intended result with channel-type objects.  That aside, it took potent complex magic combined with inspired craftsmanship to create something that would contain and nullify Ollivander’s merchandise. Yes indeed, the Ollivanders certainly knew their trades.

“Your Majesty.”

The King turned to find that the spindly bits and bobs had become two gangling wicker chairs and spidery table. He sat in the chair Ollivander offered him. He was rather more cautious about it than was probably polite, because the old man said “No fear there, Sire. Both design and construction are my own. I can personally guarantee that these chairs are strong enough to hold half a giant, if he sits carefully.”

The table was circular wickerwork set atop an apparatus of hinges and many legs. The legs seemed to be made up of successively smaller hollow rods, with small knobs at the bottom of each outer dowel. The whole effect was…quixotic, but the King decided not to comment. He was beginning to recognize Garrick Ollivander’s style—wooden, whittled, and woven—and the chair was surprisingly stable, with only a very little magic involved. Probably in the finish, the King thought, judging by the paper-thin feel of the enchantment under his backside. For conditioning and preservation—not unlike a lotion.

The King gave himself a tiny shake. The deluge of knowledge without experience was giving him a headache. He kept rifling for memories to justify his conclusions, and when he turned up empty-handed his brain kept digging. It was futile and exhausting.

The back of the King’s neck prickled, and he looked up to find Ollivander watching him expectantly with a plain cloth in his hands. With the true showmanship of a seasoned shop boy (the King really didn’t want to know how he recognized the pageantry of sales clerking—it seemed to him the sort of thing a king should expect, not notice.) the old man whisked the cloth onto the tabletop where it settled elegantly. There Ollivander paused (for impact) and cocked an impish, bushy eyebrow at his audience.

The King studied the tablecloth. Plain as it was, it was finely made. The hems were completely invisible, at least on the top side. The fabric itself had been tightly and evenly woven from a mid-weight material (linen, if he was any judge), and—

And a whiff of magic made him sit forward. He closed his eyes, and the real pattern jumped out at him.

It was a doubleweave—two physical warps and one physical weft, all in the same dull beige. But in between the warps--like veins of gold in a bed of quartz—was a second weft that was pure magic. It was, perhaps, the inverse of a brocade, with the structural cloth surrounding and concealing the artwork. Here was an entire still-life tapestry nestled between two layers of thread and tied in by a third. The picture wasn’t stable—when he tried to focus his mind on what he took for a bunch of grapes, each individual fruit was suddenly a tiny dark icon: a fat round bottle, a barrel, a jam pot with dedicated spoon and, yes, a miniature cluster of grapes. A whole field-dressed stag twisted in his mind’s eye, each cut of meat encompassing all the dishes that could be made from it: dry roasts and pot roasts, steaks and stews, puddings and pies, stocks and gravies. Within each kernel of a sheaf of wheat, he saw the myriad forms that grain would take on its way from field to plate: cracked grains, porridges, pastas, breads, biscuits, scones, pastries, cakes, cookies, dumplings, crackers, and everything in between.

He opened his eyes before the images of fish strung by the gills, or the eggs piled in their basket, or the apples spilling from a barrel or the garlic bulbs in their neat braid could facet themselves into potentialities. His head hurt.

So did his stomach. Unlike the emptiness in his skull, however, he had a pretty good idea of how to address nutritional deprivation. “Very good,” the King acknowledged to Ollivander. “How does it work?”

The old man positively smirked as he rested the fingers of one hand on the tablecloth and tapped out a smart rhythm. Tap-tap Tap-tap Tap, Tap, Tap-ta-ta-tap-Tap Tap.

And quite suddenly, the table was covered with Afternoon Tea. There were savory scones, sweet scones, clotted cream, lemon curd, elderberry preserves, cucumber sandwiches, curried chicken sandwiches, and egg salad sandwiches. There were biscuits and cookies, a large cheesy tart, and no less than three tea pots with accompanying pitchers of milk, sugar bowls and even a small plate of lemon slices. The tableware gleamed in white porcelain and silver.

The King looked at Ollivander, who finally smiled with his whole mouth. “One of the arts of House Ollivander,” he explained. “The original design is said to have been a restitution from the North Wind to an ancestor of my mother’s. This,” he tapped affectionately on the tablecloth, “is a birthday gift from my great-niece. We think that she will be skilled enough to work decorative patterns into the outer layers, but her adaptation of the enchantment is already quite the achievement. Now, milk or lemon?”

There was not much talk for a while after that—it was not polite to talk with food in one’s mouth, and the King refused to stop putting food in his mouth. Ollivander busied himself with filling his guest’s plate before his own, though he made a careful show of sampling a bit of everything before the King put his fork into it, so the order of operations went something like this:

While facing the honored guest, prepare guest’s tea. Set guest’s tea before him. Prepare the exact same cup of tea for oneself, who will henceforth be called ‘server’. Drink from said cup of tea, so that guest may be assured that the tea, at least, is not poisoned. After a “tempering period”, the polite guest will take a sip from his or her own cup, complement server, and quickly finish the cup before it goes any colder. Use what remains of the “tempering period” to serve and sample the first course, a second cup of tea, etc. Remember: Punctuality is the politeness of princes. Slow deliberate movements are the manners of monarchs.  ~Excerpt from Ceremony: A Practical Primer for the Colloquial Protocols of the Provinces Propinquant to the Mountains of Morning, by Philippe DeMontmorency

The King chose not to question Ollivander’s exhaustive knowledge of royal etiquette, any more than he chose to question how the man knew his tastes better than the King did—he’d clipped the second sugar cube in half, by pity’s sake, and the King hadn’t understood until he inhaled the scent of the first cup that one cube would have been insufficient, two overpowering.

Ollivander knew the occupational hazards of monarchs. In retrospect, it wasn’t surprising. Magical artisans must rub knees with royalty frequently—while precious metal and gem fruiting trees weren’t precisely rare, those that grew enchanted weapons and musical instruments were. Since enchanted weapons and musical instruments weren’t rare at all, it followed that someone must have been commissioned to make them. The sort of people who needed, could afford and, in some places, were legally allowed to possess weapons of any kind were usually at least esquired (or married into a family that was).

But Ollivander also knew how the King liked his tea. Therefore—once upon a time—the King must have ‘trusted’ Ollivander far enough to share a meal with him.

In between eating and watching the old man’s hands, the King watched Ollivander watch him. Those great, silvery eyes missed very little, he was afraid—and in more sense than one.

That apprehension was proven correct when the old man took a sip from his Lapsang Souchong, swallowed, and sighed. “I can think of no formula by which to say this tactfully—indeed, I very much doubt the rules cover this situation. Therefore, forgive my bluntness but—how much do you remember, Your Majesty?”

“I—” the King started, and faltered. “Precious little.”

Ollivander put his head to the side, again reminding the King of a very large, under-feathered owl. “Please elaborate, Sire. I’m afraid I won’t be much help until I can ascertain the extent of your difficulty.”

The King felt his shoulders twitch—a bit of a tell, there. “I know things, but I don’t recall where or from whom I learned them. I know that reading magic is an uncommon skill, but I have no memory of acquiring it. I know the rules concerned with quests and the obtaining of magical items, but I can’t remember when—or if—I ever embarked. I could recite to you the Saga of the Black Emperor—with appendix verses, if you like—but I don’t think I’d recognize a portrait of Dowager Empress Walburga III.” He took a breath, then plunged on. “My head starts to hurt when I try to remember,” the King admitted. “I don’t think what I’m trying to remember is actually there.”

Ollivander nodded, then hesitated. “You were looking into the Green Glass Pool, Your Majesty…for quite some time.”

The King waited.

“Am I to assume—that is—Did you recognize the face in the Pool?”

The King made himself shake his head ‘no’.

“Did you—… Did you feel that it should have been another face?”

What an odd question. And disturbing. “No. Have I…had another face?”

Well…” Ollivander seemed to be having real trouble. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. I’m afraid it comes down to how we define identity—and again, I doubt there’s a precedent for Your Majesty’s situation. Sire…by what name to call yourself?

There was a very long, taut pause as the King forced his throat to work. “I don’t—I do not know any name but the honors you have addressed me with.” The words came out as hard and cold and sharp as ice.

Rather surprisingly, Ollivander neither started nor cringed at the King’s tone—he simply nodded, and took another sip of tea.

“I have known Your Majesty by two names,” the old man said, choosing his words. “The first I am forbidden to utter, as one who occasionally falls under the laws of your domain. There is a Taboo.”

Taboo—in magical terms, a geas curse that has been anchored to a word, topic, or practice rather than a specific person or group of people. A lasting Taboo typically has a second anchor, that being the geographical location where the intended recipients of the geas reside or pass through.

“I see. And the punishment for violating the Taboo?”

Ollivander looked at him, his great silver eyes half-lidded and sardonic. “Death, naturally.”

Yes, of course, but what manner of death?”

“Various, but a common thread is that the targets are in no condition to violate the Taboo a second time—or ever speak again, for that matter. I’m afraid that, by the time it was discovered, it had rather cut down on the number of people who actually knew that name. As for the other name,” the old man continued pointedly, when the King opened his mouth to inquire further, “that name, I refuse to utter. You will find that many will not speak it out of fear. I do not speak it, because it is the epitome of an alias—a stage name, if you will.” For the first time, the King saw a glint of something truly dangerous in the old man’s eyes. “Do you know, Your Majesty, that during my career I have received four hundred eighty-one requests to authenticate silver lime wands? In addition, I have been offered ninety-four alleged silver lime wands for purchase and resale. Of those five hundred seventy-five wands, three hundred seventy-six were dyed twigs from miscellaneous species, and I saw the same aspen wand eight times. Ridiculous. I finally bought that wand—well, the core was completely dead, as often happens with unicorn hair that’s been passed from hand to hand, and this one had seen so many dishonorable hands. I replaced the core with phoenix feather, planed off the stain, and the very next month I sold that wand to young Filius of Flitwick, an apprentice enchanter. Filius is now the Archchancellor of the Order of the Silver Spears.”

Silver Spears—Secret Society of Duellists. Bloodthirsty morons. Anyone without an aspen spear, wand, or lance; at least six feet in height; a rank above baronet; and male genitalia need not apply.

Perhaps the King’s lack of reaction gave his thoughts away, because Ollivander grinned. “Filius inherited his physique from an ancestral goblin. Furthermore, he has recently taken on a Crown Princess as his apprentice.”

Ah.” It suddenly became much more significant that a bunch of vandals like the Silver Spears called this Enchanter Filius ‘Archchancellor’. How galling for the Spears, to be outmatched by a man four feet high and training a girl to be his successor—one that by any customary measure should have been studying needlework and memorizing the appropriate levels of screaming for abduction by giant, dragon, and troll.

And yet—

There was something about these thoughts—not the malicious pleasure he felt at the Spears’ humiliation, that felt quite right—but the disregard for traditional roles… The King was reminded of the feeling he’d had when he chose to bow politely to Ollivander—as if he was a green branch being forced out of its accustomed bend. Behind the logic that said there was nothing to stop a skilled enchanter of small stature from squaring off against a noble knight, nor a princess from studying magic if she possessed the aptitude—somewhere in his mind, the King was perturbed.

Suddenly, Ollivander set his cup down with a sharp clink, startling the King out of his thoughts. “Your Majesty, I would like to propose a test.”

The King tilted his head noncommittally.

“Take off the diadem.”

“…And what, precisely, do you think will happen?”

“I cannot say, but I notice a marked difference in your behavior, one that the memory loss would not necessarily account for. Therefore, I wonder if the Crown of Wisdom is not responsiblefor the difference, that is.”

The King considered, idly folding his tea without clinking his spoon against the thin china. He didn’t trust Ollivander—not really—but it was a theory worth exploring. In fact, it occurred to the King that if Ollivander suspected the crown of affecting his behavior, then it might in fact be the crown causing the amnesia. Furthermore, it would be good to have an observer, since he might not notice inconsistencies in his own behavior, even if he could actually remember what his own behavior had been like.

Not a tiara, a diadem, was his last, smug thought before he lifted the circlet off his brow.

The circlet was not an inch off his head when the rage that he’d somehow known was there crashed in, full force. The frustration head-ache that had been lurking in the background; the anxiety and disorientation; the fear bloomed into blinding pain at the front of his skull.

The silver band slipped from his fingers and dropped back onto his hair.

Calm reason reasserted itself, forcing back the tide of anger-agony. Shakily, the King adjusted the diadem as his vision cleared.

As usual, Ollivander was watching him intently. Unusually, there was a pinch of concern between his eyebrows and around his mouth. “I do apologize—that looked to be quite unpleasant. Some tea, I think, before we continue. Do you care for jasmine?” When the King nodded, the old man tapped the tablecloth and a fresh pot appeared.

As he watched and graded Ollivander’s methodical hosting, the King felt his breathing slow. The sweat that had popped out on his temples and palms was chilly.

“That,” Ollivander said as he prepared his own cup, “was more what I’d expect from an amnesiac. The Crown of Wisdom—Ravenclaw’s Diadem, some call it—is an artifact of the Royal Line of the Enchanted Forest,” he explained, “said to have come to the line in the dowry of Queen Rowena of Ravenclaw, who was, incidentally, an early patron of House Ollivander. Some say she crafted the diadem herself, and I personally am inclined to believe it. However, it is called the Crown of Wisdom because it is believed to enhance mental acuity by subduing disruptive emotional faculties—a belief which, I think we can now agree, has some credence.”

The King waited for Ollivander to take a sip, then took his own. Now that he could think again, he knew that without the diadem’s influence he would probably resent his own dependency on it far more than he did. Well—in actuality, he did resent it that much—he hated it. The diadem was suppressing—cooling, blowing away, drawing off—the hate, and making space for practical considerations. “And what,” he said slowly, in a tone that brooked no more side-slipping, “did you mean when you alluded to differences in my behavior?”

This time, Ollivander’s smile was less sardonic, but much sadder. “When last we met, Your Majesty was not inclined to follow advice, or to meaningful civility.”

“'Meaningful'?”

“Genuine politeness. Basic fairness. Lack of presumption. To be frank, Sire, your style was to observe the niceties, but purposefully neglect the essentials.”

“I see.” And he did, because wasn’t that exactly what he’d thought himself? That he would have liked to turn a bow into something worse than an insult, just to show that he knew the code, but only followed it to make sure they knew that he knew. The King smirked, without humor. “Well then, since reason dictates that I find myself in this position as a result of not following sound advice or offering sincere respect, may I respectfully illicit some advice from you, Master Ollivander?”

The artisan stared at the King. The King stared back. He was, to his own surprise, utterly and completely in earnest.

Just as abruptly as he had decided that Afternoon Tea was just the thing to do after finding an Enchanted King in a plot of Enchanted Forest which shouldn’t have been where it was, Ollivander nodded. “I advise that Your Majesty go east, to the Mountains of Morning, and seek out the dragon Dumbledore.”

Dumbledore—philosopher. Magician. Dragon. An impression came to the King then, rising out of the brackish mire of resentment into the cool light of the diadem’s influence. Slowly, the idea coalesced into yellow-green scales with a strange, red-orange iridescence; slit pupil-ed, reptilian eyes that made him think of the play of colors in a peacock’s tail assessing him from one side, then the other, from under horny brow-ridges, then siting along a long, scaly muzzle; a single, shattered horn planted between wide equine nostrils. There was a feeling, too—that every backhanded compliment, every half-said ill-wish, every petty revenge and act of sabotage was observed and noted by a mind that was quickly learning to understand him better than he understood himself.

Despite his best efforts, the King’s expression must have changed.

Ollivander nodded. “I suspected the idea would not appeal to Your Majesty. None-the-less, let me give you my reasons: There are few people alive today with any useful knowledge of Your Majesty’s situation, and none, dead or alive, with so complete an understanding of it as Dumbledore. Furthermore, Dumbledore is both outside the power of the Taboo, and unlikely to use his unique position against Your Majesty—at least, so long as Your Majesty behaves himself,” the old man amended. His tone was nearly as severe as when he’d been rambling about counterfeit wands.

King could understand why. Dragons are very big on politeness. A newcomer is always expected to make the first move—this is in order to give them one, obligatory chance to convince the dragon that they are either too polite or too important to eat. However, since most dragons rank even very illustrious humans only slightly above cows and well below cats, it’s best to rely on politeness. “Dumbledore is particularly easy to offend, then?”

“On the contrary—he will let most personal insults pass, but he misses little. Even a whiff of dark magic would influence his impression of you, if and how he sees fit to help you. However, he is…” Here Ollivander seemed to be searching for, rather than choosing, a word. “He is particularly lenient with the ignorant, so long as that ignorance is not willful.” Ollivander looked the King in the eye. “Dumbledore knows Your Majesty’s name, and unlike myself, he can communicate openly about it without—ah, repercussions. He can help you, if only by giving you some of your identity back. That is my advice for Your Majesty at this juncture.”

Slightly indignant (in the unlit corners of his mind, shadows roiled) the King took a breath to demand further explanation, paused, and exhaled.

He knew what phrases like ‘at this juncture’ meant as well as anybody else.

This is a Quest. You must get through this part first, because telling you more might disqualify you from a true Conquest.

The King looked up to find the position of the sun, then down at the moss covering the roots and boles of the trees. “You said the Mountains of Morning are to the east of here?”

Chapter Text

Ollivander spent the rest of the meal orienting the King and describing some landmarks to look out for in dragon country, then gestured him back to the trove of magical artifacts. After a good minute’s contemplative tapping at his mouth, the old man bent and slid a wand from the selection. A frisson of excitement came into his bearing as he passed it, two-handed, to the King, saying, “Vine and a tail feather from the phoenix known as Prometheia, a shade less than twelve inches. Unusually Springy. Try.”

As the King took the wand by its dark, double-helix grip, an image came to him: His hand looked very small and pale as he folded it around the handle. By contrast the wand seemed very long, striped brown and golden with a rippling grain along its length, but it felt right in his grasp—

Unlike the ungainly stick he was holding now. He looked sidelong at its maker. “I’ve done this before, haven’t I? That wand—it was yew, wasn’t it? And just to be clear, I haven’t any way to pay you that I know of. In any case, this wand is all wrong.”

Ollivander raised an eyebrow. “You reacted to Dumbledore’s name in a similar fashion. How curious. Perhaps some memories are of a different kind than others. Well then, let’s see…ah, and why not? Hawthorne and a quill from the Cretean gryphon Glaucus—a personal friend of my father. Twelve and three-quarter inches. Rigid.”

And, “Weeping Cherry and a heartstring bequeathed to me by the dragon Roxim. Thirteen inches. Whip-like.”

And “Hickory and a flight feather from the wing of Fionnuala, the daughter of King Lir cursed with her brothers to be a swan for nine-hundred years. Nine and a half inches. Extremely Robust. Hmm. No.”

And on, and on.

“Not to worry, Your Majesty,” Ollivander assured him. “We will find something you suit. I’ll not send you into the mountains unarmed. If none of the wands respond, then we will search among the staffs. Ah, here. Yew and unicorn hair—from…oh, one of the pool guardians, probably. Ten and a quarter inches. Knotty.”

 

The King was thinking fondly of shoving the next wand through one of Ollivander’s eyes when the old man passed it to him, and something familiar—a pressure, or warmth—seemed to expand in the bones of his right arm.

It was a little like the way he’d known of Ollivander’s presence near the Green Glass Pool, but there was a different timbre to it. In any case, Ollivander had felt like something drumming on the outside of his bones, not thrumming through his marrow. It was also different from the wand of yew—though the King couldn’t characterize how—but it felt no less right.

Ollivander sighed, but the old man was beaming as he said, “I should have guessed. Birch and a shard of horn from the Guardian of the Living Spring. Thirteen and a half inches. Rather limber. Bathsheba is a horned serpent,” he explained in response to the King’s raised eyebrow. “one who is—ah, disposed to be generous, if and when a supplicant actually manages to find her spring. She’s a great believer in second chances—which makes it quite imperative that the location of the Spring remain a secret. If one meets their demise,” the old man continued when the enquirious eyebrow remained aloft, “or is otherwise rendered inanimate, it is essential that someone earns their retrieval from death. We really don’t need more than one case like poor Sisyphus.” Ollivander sighed again, this time through a frown. “One really can’t blame her, under the circumstances. The bodies are often extremely pathetic by the time they are delivered to the Spring. Or the poor sods lugging the enchanted coffins are, at any rate.”

The enquirious eyebrow came down. “Re-eally.”

“Mmm, yes. Or statues of unreasonably fragile materials, and enchanting them to be impervious is quite ill-advised,” Ollivander mused, missing the King’s less than enthusiastic tone.

Layered spells can meld or tangle. An Impervious Charm felted with—say, a Glass Statue Metamorphosis could well become a Glass-Statue-Impervious-to-Reversal Curse.

Distantly, the King was grateful that the conversation had turned so rapidly away from decomposing corpses. Something in his stomach had flared its hood at the thought of death and everything associated with it—disease and pain, weakness and dependency, abandonment and defeat and endings. The Crown of Wisdom was certainly good at fulfilling its function, he noted again.

“But enough about Bathsheba,” Ollivander proclaimed, breaking out of his reverie and jerking the King out of his own. “Your Majesty has been chosen by a wand. Now, do you recall the key to the banquet spell?”

As a matter of fact, the King did remember the rhythm, proving that he wasn’t naturally a forgetful man, nor inattentive. (This was bittersweet comfort, in light of the circumstances—generally, forgetful seekers were treated more kindly than willful ones.)

The reason for Ollivander’s question became evident after the King had replicated the key, when the old man retrieved one of the linen napkins that had appeared with the china and cutlery and presented it to the King. Finally, the craftsman dug around in the cart until he found a canteen, then helped the King tie it over his hip. In the process, they discovered a pocket in the lining of the King’s rich but water stained cloak that solved the problem of where to store the birch wand.

It was this discovery that prompted the King to really consider his attire. For the first time, he noticed how mismatched his clothing was—his pants were threadbare and slightly too short, although this was hidden inside tall dark boots which, though sturdy and well-fitting, were mildewed and cracked with age. The shirt hidden beneath the cloak was crisp and new, and far too large. The King found, when he studied it, that the cloak was both richer and more dilapidated than he’d thought. The thing was heavy-weight burgundy velvet. Though now badly stained and going bald in places, it was covered with an intricate diamond lattice and fruiting vine pattern achieved by mixing the pile-on-pile and ciselè techniques. There were even the last vestiges of some sort of virtue clinging to the outer side of the fabric—Probably to repel water, if I had to guess.

The upshot was that a casual observer at a little distance would see a fine handsome garment, while a close observer who knew the sheer amount of work he was looking at would see a damn near priceless garment, stains and bald spots included.

The irony was almost obscene.

Ollivander was less interested in the cloak—he had eyes only for the cloak-pin. This pin—when the King managed to stop goggling at the nerve of whoever had commissioned the cloak--turned out to be a masterpiece of gold and rubies. The jeweler had taken great pains to represent a scarlet lily.

“My cousin Gervasius’ work, unless I am much mistaken,” Ollivander opined cheerfully. “I’ll have to tell him I saw it. Well well, any questions, Sire? You remember what I said—but of course you do; you were always very bright…”

‘You’. Not ‘Your Majesty’. And the King realized that—somewhere in the course of fitting him for travel—the old man must have slipped a little in time. He wondered as the artisan bowed a farewell (more salesclerk to valued costumer than free man to sovereign) who the bright boy Ollivander was remembering had been.

A prince? But princes are called Your Highness, and lords’ heirs are called Young Master.

A deserving youth, then, or a long-lost heir as yet unrecognized?

And what, the King wondered as he bowed in return, then turned his back on the afternoon sun, what had that bright boy thought he was going to find, the day he set out with the yew wand?

More to the point, what was he heading for now?

Well first, the sacred grove Ollivander pointed me at. “Be polite to the trees,” was it? And second, the King thought with grim humor, Where There Be Dragons.

 

Ollivander had almost finished collapsing the table when the goat came wandering back from its grazing spot further out of the trees.

“So,” it said between bites, “that was You-Know-Who, was it? Any idea why the birch wand chose him? My grand-nanny said his first wand was yew.”

“Geraldine talked too much,” Ollivander retorted, but without much heat. “So do you, when you forget yourself.”

The goat, whose name was Gerome, snorted. “Pot calling the kettle black, there. What was all that about Filius and the Silver Spears? And did he really have to know all about Bathsheba’s spring?”

The old man cocked an eyebrow but didn’t look up from his work. “If I’d told him all I could about Bathsheba’s spring, I’d have had to drop Aberforth’s name.”

Gerome snorted again. “You wouldn’t. You know as well as I do that Aberforth would rip You-Know-Who’s head off as soon as look at him, then burn your workshop to the ground for giving him another wand.” The goat chewed thoughtfully for a moment, then added, “And then apologize. In his way, you know… If you were still alive to apologize too, after he was done razing everything. And you didn’t answer my question. Why birch? Bathsheba’s horn speaks for itself—literally, sometimes.” When the craftsman merely continued breaking down the second chair, Gerome changed tactics. “If you tell me, I’ll cough up the gold to pay for it, so you don’t get an earful from Grandpa Geraint for giving away your wares again,” he wheedled.

That gave Ollivander pause. Protection from the censure of his father’s portrait was not to be taken lightly. “That young man” he said slowly, “…is newer—in many ways—than he was at eleven. He no longer has the same experiences—therefore, he no longer has the same justifications for his more unsavory habits. What we do… what people choose to do…is what we are.”

Gerome stared toward the east. Though the trees were fairly sparse here, at the edge of the Outer Forest, he had lost sight of King some time ago. “So what you’re saying is—what you’re saying is…” Suddenly, the goat brightened, ears flicking up. “—that birches are tastier?”

Chapter Text

Two days later, the King crossed out of the Outer Forest and into the Mountains of Morning.

He’d slept the first night in the sacred grove Ollivander had recommended. The next day, he’d skirted an invisible castle that hadn’t been there when he looked—er, felt back--and bartered lodging with a hag in return for steak tartare, courtesy of the napkin. (He hadn’t actually slept, but a sleepless night under a well-fed man-eater’s roof was worth more than a sleepless night out in the rain with hungry wolves and nightshades.) The following morning he’d threatened a troll with an involuntary sex-change—he could have pulled it off, too, if she hadn’t decided she ‘didn’t really want a new man-skin dress, anyway’. That evening he’d found a burrow under one of the strange mounds that populated the Outer Forest. A quick spell had told him that the mound was made of jasper, and that the burrow had once been home to a family of chimeras. It had amused the King to no end to imagine people—monsters, lions, dark druids and errant knights—carefully sidestepping his shelter for fear of the fell beasts that might be lurking within. (And were they wrong, really?)

Then, late the next morning, the trees suddenly fell away. Just in front of him, the vibrant carpet of moss gave way abruptly to dry, grey rock. It was as if the moss had been sheared away by the scissors of an overenthusiastic giant tailor. On the eastern side of the boundary, thin grass and scrubby bushes grew wherever dirt had collected in low spots, cracks and corners.

The King observed this all with skepticism. It was how a person might describe a tree line, provided one had never been nearer than two miles from an actual tree line.

He turned around to see if he could find the jasper mound, and in doing so stepped backward up the rocky slope.

He almost stumbled. The air was suddenly, shockingly empty. Thin—No, that’s not right. I’m not having any trouble breathing—but something was missing.

Magic.

The Mountains of Morning may have been home to many magical creatures, but the mountains themselves weren’t magical. Whereas, the Forest is—well, Enchanted. Behind him, the King could now feel the shifting thrumming mass of the forest’s magic, and suddenly realized that his knees were locked against the very real probability of their giving way.

This was the exact opposite of his bones filling up on the inside. Magic that had been in his bones, in his veins and nerves and muscles, was draining away.

He hadn’t noticed it in the forest, because it was the forest.

And then the weakness was subsiding—no, that wasn’t right, either. He was merely adjusting to the lack of energy supporting him, inside and out.

To being just flesh, blood, and bone, he mused, feeling more vulnerable than he had facing down a fashion-conscious troll*.

Almost without his consent, the King felt his hand reach inside his cloak in search of the wand. The bones of his right arm filled, and now he could tell where that power was coming from. It was his power—more a network of tributaries than a river, but all flowing from a common source somewhere in his brain. The energy pooling in his arm seemed to have been siphoned there by the outlet represented by the wand.

Somewhat reassured, the King looked around. He was indeed high enough here that he could just make out the flat top of the jasper mound directly behind him, proving that the magical fields in the Forest hadn’t buggered the Four-Point Spell he’d used in absence of the sun. Yes, he was still heading due east. Now for the tricky bit.

Dragons don’t generally make paths. However, clever dragons had been known to post signs on the paths made by heroes, villains, and other earthbound travelers. ‘Road washed out. Use alternate route’, or ‘This way to the Cave of the Dragon [insert name here]’ pointing a quarter turn off the right direction were pretty good indicators of a dragon who just wanted to be left alone. Correct signage suggested someone who either enjoyed the challenge of prying their meals out of crushed plate armor or believed strongly in iron supplements. Signs that pointed to the domains of easily annoyed or notorious dragons, off unexpected escarpments, through a fairy arch, or smack into a colony of rock snakes presaged a dragon with a genuine mean streak.

The marker that the King located after a few hours’ walk north north-east (as per Ollivander’s instructions) made him very nervous. It might have fit one or all of those categories, or none of them.

For Directions to the Cave of the Dragon Dumbledore

Please Inquire at the Lair of the Rock Snake

 The gloriously embellished cursive had been chiseled deeply onto a rough stone obelisk of the native grey rock. Not even the most talented dwarven mason could have managed it by hand, and dwarves hated crafting by magic as a general rule. The obelisk itself had been planted at a sharp angle, so that it appeared to lie almost flat against the slope.

Wondering why anyone who could magic letters into a stone would do such a slipshod job of grounding it, the King leaned around to check the next side. He discovered that the east face bore the same message in very Gothic Latin. The west side carried a translation into rather rustic Greek, while the north side, in the shadow of the tilted spire—

The King blinked, then smiled with grim humor. The north side had been inlaid with gold or new brass in the traditional presentation of Gobbledegook, which reminded him strongly of molten icicles. Or stalactites, more likely. A small brass bell was anchored to the obelisk above the translation. Below both bell and inscription, worn steps led down into a large, dark, recently occupied den.

The bell, he saw, was meant to be rung by a long chain attached to the clapper. Near the end of this chain—around goblin and dwarf head-height, he realized—was a metal tag with a last, helpful inscription:

Stand to the Side.

Beneath that, someone had scratched:

Be Very Polite.

The King considered these suggestions, drew his wand, and then swung the chain, keeping well to the side.

The Rock Snake came out of its burrow at chest-height, jaws agape, fangs extended, and quite a bit faster than anyone standing directly in front of the stairs could have coped with.

“Sir or Madam,” the King began, as the matte black serpent whirled and coiled itself for another strike, “I apologize for intruding upon you in this fashion. I hope I have not inconvenienced you in any way. Never the less, I offer you greetings and good fortune in whatever endeavors—”

“Enough!” the snake spat in human speech. “Spare me your empty pleasantries!”

This surprised the King. Talking rock snakes—well, rock snakes that could speak in a way normal humans understood—ran counter to the phantom knowledge. The serpent’s words even lacked that sibilance the King associated with Parseltongue…

That’s right—I’m a Parselmouth. How in seven hells does someone forget that they’re a Parselmouth?

“Well?!” the Rock Snake snarled. “State your business, before I invent some for you!” To make its point, it opened its mouth. Beads of venom hung from the tip of each knife-like fang. One drop fell. The dust sizzled where it landed.

“I have come seeking the dragon Dumbledore,” the King explained quickly, feeling it best to get that out in the open before satisfying his curiosity about the Rock Snake itself. “The marker says to apply at...” He blinked. ‘The Rock Snake’? That didn’t make sense. It looked like a rock snake, if you weren’t familiar with the species. Rock snakes weren’t solitary creatures—they lived and attacked in colonies, often numbering ten or more. They also never grew to be as large as this snake, which continued to glare at him out of black eyes full of sullen menace.

Speaking of eyes—rock snakes had dull red eyes, not glittering black ones.

The King looked at those eyes, and then at the space around the serpent. There was more there than there should have been, including a lot of strange magic.

“I—beg your pardon?” he apologized, when he realized that the snake had snarled something while he was thinking.

“Who wants to know?” the snake repeated, still glaring—however, one cannot speak with one’s fangs extended and dripping without risking punctures wounds to the lower jaw.

“…The King of the Enchanted Forest, apparently.”

Snakes don’t have eyelids. It said a lot for the King’s suspicions that this one tried to blink.

The King sketched an ironic bow. “I don’t suppose you could tell me the name of the reigning monarch? Ollivander was quite sure that Dumbledore was the only person who could tell me without dying messily, but as his associate—”

The air rippled in the space around the snake, about at the level one would expect to find shoulders on a dragon.

“Nice try,” the not-quite-a-rock-snake said, contempt dripping from his words. “But I’m not that old, and neither are you. Also, Dumbledore doesn’t just drop information like that into a conversation.” As it—he?—spoke, something happened to the serpent’s face. Snake faces are not designed to look as if one would like to say more, but has decided against it. Neither are snakes designed for shrugging, but this creature managed that, too. “The King of the Forest of Secrets hasn’t been seen in fifty years.”

“Princess Rose of Linderwall wasn’t seen for a century,” the King noted, still trying to sense the real shape of the thing he was speaking too. “and Princess Rosannon of Meriambee wasn’t seen for thirty years.”

“Princesses,” the snake—creature—insisted. “Princesses vanish for decades on end. Kings and princes get turned to stone, or run mad trying to avert prophecies, or get turned into frogs, or get stolen from the cradle only to—”

“Oh?” Dragons…something about dragons, and shadows. “What about King Arthur, then? ‘The Once and Future King’, and all that…” Dragons, dragons… The King’s eyes widened, and he laughed, shaking his head. “I should have known. It’s a dragon spell. Now, what are you, really?” He let his mind focus just so.

When he looked again, he could see—not the true shape, but the shape of a distortion in the light which prevented his eyes from seeing properly. He could also see the creature’s shadow, which he hadn’t been allowed to think about before. In the past-noon sun, a squashed profile of a creature with bat-like wings and ears, a serpentine body and a dragon-like head was now quite obvious. There was no evidence of either hind- or forelegs.

“An amphiptere,” the King said, sounding faintly disappointed even to his own ears. “I suppose that hole is too small, and dragons aren’t venomous. They don’t need to be.” He shook his head when the creature unfurled his wings, clearly offended. “It doesn’t matter. Sir, the sign above your entrance says to apply at the Lair of the Rock Snake for directions to Dumbledore’s Cave. Are you meant to be the Rock Snake, or is this Dumbledore’s idea of a practical joke?”

Slowly, the amphiptere folded his wings. Now that he knew what to look for, the King could see how a draconian frown fitted imperfectly on a snake’s face. Dragon illusions dealt with the complexities of shadows by keeping the eye off them—they dealt with facial expressions by betting that an observer wouldn’t know the difference.

That,” said the amphiptere, “depends on why you want to talk to Dumbledore.”

“Because, a wandmaker named Garrick of Ollivander advised me to.” The King grit his teeth, but it hurt less to admit his predicament each time he did. “He said—he said Dumbledore can tell me what happened to me. He said that Dumbledore can tell me my name,” he finished in an undertone.

 

The amphiptere must have blinked again, because the illusion of the Rock Snake did that strange twitch around the eye area. Then the creature seemed to settle back, though he didn’t quite release the striking pose that amphipteres and rock snakes apparently shared.

“I am, as you put it, ‘meant to be the Rock Snake’,” confirmed the amphiptere. “And I am meant to give faithful direction to the Cave of Dumbledore, provided that the applicant has come seeking advice or help, and not—”

“Where do you send the challengers?” the King interrupted, genuinely curious.

The winged serpent paused, eyes glittering. “The same place I send the thieves, and the people with truly infantile problems.”

“Which is…?”

“The same place I’m going to send you, because Dumbledore isn’t home.” Something that the King thought might be schadenfreude had come into the amphiptere’s bearing. “McGonagall is Dumbledore’s friend—he tells her things—and she usually deals with whatever he doesn’t have time for. Besides, her princess can be useful, for a change. They can set you up until Dumbledore gets back,” he insisted, seeing the King’s dubious expression. “There’s an off chance McGonagall can get your memory sorted out on her own, if you keep off her nerves and don’t offend her precious princess,” he finished acidly.

“…I see. I’d still like to know where to find Dumbledore’s Cave, just in case.”

“It’s really quite simple, provided you’re not a complete dunderhead,” the amphiptere replied with airy contempt. “In fact, it’s even easier to get to from McGonagall’s Cave.” Some of the condescension left the creature’s tone as he eyed the King speculatively. “But you followed directions, didn’t you? And you worked out the illusion on me—so you’re not as much of a dunderhead as I usually have to deal with.” Just enough of one to lose all your memories, went unsaid, but it was there none-the-less.

Much obliged,” said the King, coldly. “McGonagall’s Cave then, if you please.”

The amphiptere smiled, genuinely gratified by its own unpleasantness. “Turn around, and head straight south until you come to a pass. It’s called the Pass of Silver Ice, but you shouldn’t need to worry about that ‘til the winter. You’ll see a barely legible sign about halfway up the trail—you’d think it had been painted with a last burst of strength, in the writer’s own blood. Ignore it—just follow the path until you reach a narrow ledge sloping down. There are—…No. If you know about dragon illusions, you can work that one out for yourself. Just keep following the path. From there, it swings south-east around a boulder. You can see McGonagall’s Cave from there—you’d be hard put to miss it on a bad day, and there’s a sign in any case. Dumbledore’s Cave is straight up the mountain from there, but you’d do better to ask after the indoor route. Is that all?”

“Just one more question,” said the King. “Why are you the gatekeeper here? And why are you pretending to be ‘the Rock Snake’?”

That,” the amphiptere replied, in a cold, dead tone, “is none of your concern. Be on your way, seeker.” With that, the winged serpent plunged back into its lair with such force that the obelisk shook, jangling the bell. “…Tell McGonagall that Snape sent you,” came a muffled, sulky recommendation.

The King waited a moment, puzzling at the amphiptere’s abrupt retreat.  Then he turned south and cast the Four-Point Spell.

Just as he was stowing his wand, a cloud passed under the high sun. In the dimmer light, the stark foreshortened shadow of the obelisk appeared to fade a little. Observing this, the King froze. Then he cursed.

He’d been feeling so pleased that he’d figured out the illusion on his own.

The marker was a sundial. The shape had reminded him of shadows.

Damn you, Dumbledore.

 

Sure enough, the King located a large crevice that seemed to get quite a bit of foot traffic, just out of sight of Snape’s obelisk to the south. An hour or so’s brisk hike later, he paused to read a battered sign hung on a scrubby tree—he was too curious to resist, and anyway he couldn’t sense any enchantment that would take if he simply read the words.

Road Washed Out

Use Alternate Route

The letters were quite messy, and painted in an alarming shade of red. Still, the message itself made the King chuckle—evidently Snape enjoyed giving McGonagall grief by sending knights and thieves her way.

Although, he considered as he continued passed the sign, he seemed to reserve actual dislike for McGonagall’s captive princess. So, perhaps his real aim was to inconvenience her.

In that case, he wasn’t sure he blamed the amphiptere.

Princesses—Weepy. Noisy. Generally more trouble than they’re worth…Unless, of course, one is in need of an heir, or half a kingdom, he amended, thinking of the standard reward for rescuing a dragon’s princess. He wondered why dragons were so fond of keeping them around—surely creatures whose diet included everything up to and including knights in full plate armor didn’t really need cooks, and he couldn’t see how a classical princess’ education could produce a decent housekeeper.

He also wondered if he would even be having these thoughts if the Diadem of Ravenclaw wasn’t a factor—they made him uneasy. Wasn’t the entire function of a princess to be rescued? But in that case, it didn’t make sense that a princess should find knights inconvenient—unless, of course, she’s holding out for a prince. At least, that was what he’d learned…somewhere…

He was still brooding on this when he discovered what Snape meant by ‘narrow ledge’.

‘Narrow’ was, in the King’s opinion, a gross understatement. The ledge was six inches wide in some places, so that a man might shuffle and skid down it with his chest pressed flat against the cliff, finding handholds where he could—provided, of course, that he wasn’t put off by the pair of two-foot gaps right at the top.

What had Snape said? ‘If you know about dragon illusions, you can work that one out for yourself.’ And, when he started searching for magic, the King understood. He wondered what a wizard had been doing in the Mountains of Morning. Dragons did not get on with wizards’ staffs, and therefore not with wizards, either. As far as he knew, wizards were banned from the Mountains of Morning, but this wizarding illusion was extremely old. Perhaps it had been set in a time when relations between wizards and dragons were not so fraught—or, at a stretch, before dragons became so common in the Mountains.

Whatever the case, the King was not interested in the possibility of sliding down the ledge, even if it might get him to the bottom faster—it might just as easily get him to the bottom of the cliff. So, he applied a mid-strength Sticking Charm to his hands and the soles of his boots, then crabbed cautiously down the slope, testing the ledge’s strength with every step he took.

It isn’t fun to discover that one has a problem with heights just when one has reached the top of a ladder. It’s no more fun to discover it when stepping on what the naked eye perceives as forty feet of empty air.

The King was rather nauseous by the time he found himself at the boulder Snape had described. Here the path became mercifully wider and stopped hanging off the side of the mountain.

He got around the boulder, then halted to collect himself. Breathing slowly and shakily with his hands on his knees, the King looked down the path.

What he saw almost made him forget about the ledge.

As the amphiptere had said, a large signpost was staked about a hundred feet to the south-east of his place by the boulder. It read:

Welcome to the Cave of the Dragon McGonagall

Pull Handle to Ring Bell

Salespersons Enter at Their Own Risk

Beneath the neat, no-nonsense black copperplate, the same person who had painted the misleading detour sign had squashed:

Absolutely No Wizards or Rescuers.

This Means You.

                                                                                                                             ,in the same evocative red.

About a hundred yards away, around a large cave entrance, the world turned suddenly, jarringly green.

Everything the King had seen so far of the Mountains of Morning had been dry, and brittle, and rocky. The mountainside around McGonnagal’s Cave was still rocky, but crevices and shelves in the grey stone were peopled with wind-beaten pines; spindly birches, aspens, and poplars; and spreading junipers, none much taller than the King himself. There were even a few stubborn spruces, and one or two very hardy little oaks. As he got closer, the King saw lichens and moss crowding the rocks in the shelter of the trees. Tiny alpine flowers spilled from cracks.

Even at a distance of two-hundred feet, it felt like the Forest.

That meant something, the King knew, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember what, except that for some reason the Forest had declared this one secluded outcrop Sovereign Territory. He worried about how McGonagall felt about that. What if the amphiptere had lied to put him in the path of her displeasure?

He had reached the sign. Reading the words again, the King paused, and found himself actually smiling. As far as he knew, he wasn’t a wizard. Neither was he a peddler, and he wasn’t particularly keen on hero-ing. Finally, if McGonagall was miffed by the landscaping around her door she, as a card-carrying fire-breather, could have easily gotten rid of it.

The rest of the walk up to the mouth of the cave was…quite pleasant, actually. Stepping into the miniature Forest was like coming in out of the cold—immediately he felt his energy rise as the magic started soaked into his skin. Small birds twittered and flitted in the young trees, and the King wondered where the surface water to sustain the birds was. With a little twinge of injured pride, he realized that this disconnected little patch of woods felt livelier and healthier than all the miles he’d trekked in both the Outer Forest and the Deep Woods. He also realized that he’d encountered a hag, a troll, and evidence of chimeras—but no elves, no wondrous birds, and not one unicorn.

He also hadn’t seen any young trees.

There was a tarnished brass handle sticking out of a hole in the stone next to the cave entrance. It was about waist height for him, and the King realized anew that concessions were being made to peoples of smaller statures. He hesitated a moment—wishing he could have his wand out and ready without appearing to issue a challenge—then gave the handle a tug. Somewhere inside the cave, a bell rang.

“Well, it’s about time,” came a voice from inside the cave. The King frowned in puzzlement. It hadn’t been a draconic voice, but it also didn’t sound like a princess—at least, not a human one. He heard footsteps coming toward the mouth of the cave, and the same voice continued, “I was starting to get worried, but I figured—”

The speaker came out of the cave, took a look at the King, and broke off in midsentence. “Oh, no. Not another one!” he said. “Merlin’s Saggy----!" What followed was a string of exasperated exclamatory phrases that jangled painfully against the King’s phantom sense of propriety even more than the young man saying them did.

The young man in question had just sauntered out of a dragon’s cave wearing a blue gingham apron, a kerchief over his hair, and an plain golden circlet around his forehead. The egg-sized ruby and silver pommel of a sword poked up jauntily past the strings of the apron, which were long enough to be tied sensibly at the front in a messy double-knotted bow. One of the apron’s multiple pockets sported a wooden spoon and the handle of what felt unmistakably like a magic wand. The clothes beneath the apron could have belonged to a kitchen boy or a page.

The youth himself was—not tall, exactly, but he wasn’t comparatively short, either. The King hadn’t thought of Ollivander as short, and this boy was taller than the artisan. His fair-skinned arms—bared to the elbow due to rolled-up sleeves—were more sinewy than bony. Jet black curls stuck out around the edges of the kerchief, and startling green eyes glittered from behind round spectacles.

He was such a bizarre amalgam of noble squire, sorcerer’s apprentice, and ornery cabin boy that the King was momentarily speechless. Perhaps fortunately, the young man was too busy cursing the stars individually and by name to notice.

Well?” the boy in the apron demanded finally. There was a distinct growl to his tone. One of his hands was clenched into a fist—the other grasped the pommel of the sword.  “Are you going to stand there like a lump, or are you going to tell me what you want? Although I think I already know.”

“Excuse me.” The King pulled himself together and bowed the same completely nuance-less bow he’d met Ollivander with, but he couldn’t hide his genuine uncertainty. “I think there’s been a mistake. I’m looking for the dragon McGonagall—”

“I’ll bet you are. Well, you can’t have her. I handle the knights and princes.”

“…I beg your pardon?” The King said, blinking. This situation was making less sense by the minute, and the phantom sense of how things ought to be was still jangling uncomfortably—over the youth, over his clothes and language, over how he seemed to be protecting a dragon

I handle the knights,” the young man repeated forcefully. “I don’t need or want to be rescued, so it would be silly for someone to get hurt fighting McGonagall when I intend to stay here no matter who wins, and McGonagall has enough to do without people interrupting her to fight for no reason.”

“But you see, I’m not a knight, or a prince. I—”

It seemed he’d said the wrong thing. The wand was suddenly in the young man’s hand, the youth having moved into a fencer's lunge faster than the King would have thought possible.

Slowly, with great attention for the wand now menacing his throat, the King raised his hands, palms open and empty, to shoulder level.

“Right. First things first,” said the strange-and-suddenly-very-dangerous youth. “Who are you?”

“That’s…rather the trouble, you see,” replied the King slowly, deliberately keeping his voice level and calm as he stared back into flashing green eyes. They suddenly reminded him of dragons--green, glowing, and glaring. “I’m the King of the Enchanted Forest, I'm told, but I can’t—I don’t know who I am.” It was unexpectedly easy to say it this time—possibly because the phantom sensibilities had gone dead silent when the tip of the wand brushed his jugular.

This was not, at least, the wrong thing to say. The youth raised his eyebrows. “And?”

And…that’s why I’m looking for Dumbledore. An artisan named Garrick of Ollivander told me to seek him out, but an amphiptere disguised as a massive rock snake and calling himself ‘Snape’ told me he’s away. He advised me to ask for assistance from McGonagall and her princess.” He glanced furtively over the youth’s head, into the darkness of the cave, but he couldn’t see anyone else coming out, and he couldn’t hear anyone approaching.

“Snape…” the young man murmured. A wry expression settled on his face. “I’ll bet that’s not all he said.”

“…Well, yes and no. No, he didn’t say much more, but the way he phrased things was…unflattering. To her highness the princess, at least.”

“That sounds like Snape, alright,” the youth sighed, and stood back in a single motion that simultaneously removed his wand from the vicinity of the King’s neck. “You’d better come in, Your Majesty. McGonagall’s away as well, but I'll see what I can do for you. My name’s Harry, by the way,” he threw over his shoulder as he walked back into the cave, gesturing for the King to follow. A long, untidy black horsetail ran down ‘Harry’s’ back between his shoulder blades. It was tied with a scarlet ribbon that looked suspiciously like satin.

“Please understand…” the King said cautiously as he fell into step behind the youth, “I ask out of ignorance rather than any disrespect, but…are you perhaps a servant to McGonagall’s captive?” It was the only thing that made sense, from what ‘Harry’ had said about 'seeing what he could do' for the King. The idea that the presence of this combative young man was suffered by a dragon—and vice versa—struck the now much quieter phantom sensibilities in the wrong order, but the King couldn’t formulate any other scenario.

“No. Typical of bloody Snape—look, it’s a really long and complicated story, but I’m McGonagall’s princess, alright?”

 

*Contrary to popular opinion, no troll ever ate anyone. As silica-based organisms, trolls eat rocks--subsequently, their digestion is set up to deal with rock, not protein. Trolls do, on occasion, masticate non-silica substances like people, but this is not at all the same thing. No, no, any troll that chooses--for reasons other than self defense, territorial depute, or pure accident--to maim or kill humans and other protein-based people do so for aesthetic reasons. Kid gloves, for example. Or, an interesting chunky necklace with lots of teeth and eye-sockets. Or the right shade of red for that mural you were planning of the Dissolution of the Men's Auxiliary (The Right Honorable Wicked Stepmothers' Traveling, Drinking, and Debating Society needed to come up with something wicked fast, and spiking the casks meant for the Evil Uncles with enough arsenic to kill a legion seemed like a good idea at the time. Not only was the result a literal bloody mess, but half the wicked stepmothers turned in their cards afterward. They'd signed up traveling, drinking, and debating, not murder!).

Chapter Text

‘Harry’ led the King down a short entrance hall, then turned into a vaulted…kitchen. “Take a seat, Your Majesty,” Harry offered, indicating three mismatched chairs pulled up to an extremely solid-looking scrubbed wooden table. “It’s more comfortable in here than the banquet caves that the dragons use for audiences, at least for human-sized people. Just let me get some tea ready. D’you like Rooibos?”

Making a polite noise (he had no notion what Rooibos was, but doubted it was dangerous), the King turned some of his attention to examining the room, while keeping most of it on ‘Harry’.

The room—cavern?—was oddly proportioned. Oh, there were the usual utilities—a black stove, a stone sink, tall cabinets, work counters—lining the outside wall. Heavy looking, brightly polished copper pots and pans hung on the wall beneath more cabinets. There were also four identical step-stools ranged beneath the counters, stove, and sink, because everything was rather over-sized—by human standards, anyway. A giant wouldn’t be able to function, although a dragon could probably manage if they were lying down. Beyond the kitchen and dining area was a high empty space with glowing orbs embedded at intervals into the ceiling and walls, and—

—and this is ridiculous. Dragons don’t cook…do they? But here the phantom knowledge failed him, and the King had the painful feeling that this information wasn’t missing—he’d never learned it to begin with.

‘Harry’—and the King had trouble believing that this peculiar youth was simply ‘Harry’—made quick work of preparing tea. This looked to be in part because he’d started before the King arrived. There were three places already set at the table, and the kettle began to whistle within moments of them entering the kitchen. Had ‘Harry’ been expecting other visitors? That made sense, with what he’d said before he’d caught sight of the King.

It was also in part because ‘Harry’ was clearly some sort of enchanter.

Accio teacup,” the youth said almost lazily, not even looking as another cup whizzed out of an open cabinet and catching it in the same hand that still held his wand. Meanwhile his other hand was measuring spoonfuls of ‘Rooibos’ into a large teapot which the King strongly suspected of being silver-mounted Imperial jade. “Accio saucer.” He caught the saucer between his ringer-finger and pinkie, still without apparently looking. “Sorry about that bit earlier—you wouldn’t believe the trouble I get from princes, and I thought you were a prince. It’s the crown.”

“Princes—and knights—come to rescue…you?

Mmm, mostly. A few come to kill me.”

“… …Why?

“Long story, remember? And some just come to challenge McGonagall. Or they come to challenge Albus—sorry, I mean Dumbledore—but Snape runs interference and they wind up challenging McGonagall anyway. It’s not all bad—I’ve made some good sparing mates that way—but it’s really annoying when new ones arrive unexpectedly just when I’ve got the thread of a tricky bit of spell-theory, or whatever.”

“I…see,” rejoined the King, in that tone of voice which meant he really didn’t. “And, who did you think I was when you, ah—” He couldn’t think of a neutral way to say, ‘threatened to puncture my larynx with a dull stick’.

“You could have been any number of things.” ‘Harry’ finished pouring boiling water from the kettle into the priceless imperial teapot, stowed his wand, lifted the priceless imperial teapot with one hand and the new cup and saucer in the other, and walked over to set them on the table. “There. Five minutes should do it.” However, he didn’t sit—instead, he bustled back to the stove and stepped up onto the stool there to open the warming oven attached to the chimney. He mumbled something that the King thought might have been “Sorry Ron”, then pulled out a pan. The pungent smell of chocolate preceded him as he came back to the table. “Alright,” he said, and pulled out one of the other chairs. He dragged the battered tin mug that was currently in front of the King across the table, and pushed the new cup and saucer into its place. “Now, why do you want to see Dumbledore? Start at the beginning.”

Says the man who explains everything with ‘It’s a long story’, thought the King, but he didn’t let it show on his face. Instead, he told of his regaining consciousness near the Green Glass Pool, his time with Ollivander, and his journey through the Enchanted Forest. He told Harry about the way crossing out of the Forest and into the Mountains had affected him, and even found himself venting his frustration at the visual riddle Dumbledore had set up around Snape.

Harry let him talk, pouring tea and serving out squares of the warm chocolate-butternut teacake he had evidently been meaning to feed to ‘Ron’. Only when the King had finished describing his observations of the little Forest outside McGonagall’s entrance did Harry put down his own mug and hold up a hand.

“Alright. I remember what happened next, but, just to clarify—you haven’t had a wash in about three days?”

The King scowled.  Now that he’d had time to get used to the idea of—of Harry, he was somewhat offended by the young man’s casual treatment. Was he not, after all, a King? “No, I have not.”

“And you don’t have any other clothes.”

That’s correct.

Oh, don’t get all high and mighty on me, Your Majesty. I’ve dealt with too many morons in crowns to start bowing and scraping. Snape told you I’d set you up, so I’m setting you up.” Suddenly brisk, Harry put down his mug and stood. “I’ll heat the water first, then we’ll see about some clothes for you. Come on. I can start dinner while you’re in the bath.”

The King followed Harry to the other side of the kitchen, the old resentment coming to a simmer in the shadows where the diadem couldn’t reach. He paused when Harry stopped to pick up a bucket of soapsuds—was this twit expecting him to bathe in old mop water?—and became even more peevish when the youth disappeared a moment later by turning and, apparently, walking through a solid stone buttress. Following, the King discovered a narrow, human-sized door carved into the side of the buttress in such a way that it was almost impossible to see from any distance.

He hurried up a short flight of stairs to find himself in a suit of three small connecting caves. A glance told him that the rooms—dwarf work, from the even look of the stone—were furnished very comfortably in a mixture of styles and periods.

Aguamenti Substantia,” came Harry’s voice from behind a floral screen in a near corner, and the King wandered behind it to find the young man holding his wand over a large wooden tub. Water gushed from the end of the wand, filling the tub quite rapidly. When it was about half-full, Harry placed the tip of the wand just under the surface of the water.

Relashio.” The water in the tub began to boil. Harry turned in time to see the King’s consternated expression at this blatant misapplication of a Revulsion Jinx, and shrugged. “What? It works. It’ll need a bit of time to cool down, though. Come over here, will you? We need to find you some clothes for after.”

The King followed, dubiously, to the wardrobe next to the bed. Harry wasn’t precisely short, but he was slender, and there was still a marked difference between his height and the King’s. The King sincerely doubted that Harry would have anything large enough to fit him.

So it was with vindication that the King watched Harry open one of the wardrobe’s two doors, and glimpsed an array of serviceable linen, wool, and leather garments: shirts and breeches, hose, tunics, jerkins, and pants in browns, rusts, and grays. Nothing looked as if it would fit the King.

So it was, also, that Harry surprised the King when he let out a laugh. “No, no. Not for me, this time. Maybe a bit of flash—he seems like the type for it.” He closed the wardrobe door and waited, casting a look of pure mischief over his shoulder. Then he threw both doors wide.

The King stared. He’d known something magical was coming when Harry had smirked at him in that Ollivander way, but he hadn’t expected this. Where there had been simple linens and wools, now there hung a stunning collection of satins and velvets and brocades. There were hose and tights, houppelandes, doublets, and tabards. There were scalloped sleeves and embroidered collars. Some of the tops were trimmed in fur. Some were lined with it.

Harry was grinning. He was also petting one of the wardrobe doors. “Poor old girl doesn’t get much chance to splash out with me, so she really pounces at opportunities.” The clawed feet of the wardrobe kneaded the sheepskin rug with satisfaction. “You can hang your cloak up over there”—Harry pointed to a set of hooks to their right— “And you can pick what you like after washing. Now, put your cloak up, bring your wand, and I'll show you a couple more things.”

The King was so startled by the mention of the birch wand—he knew he hadn’t made a move for it or shown Harry where he kept it—that he did as he was told without argument and followed Harry back behind the floral screen.

“Soap for your hair over here, and this stuff next to it is what the princesses call ‘conditioner’,” Harry explained. “It’s basically a potion, so don’t use it if you dye your hair. Soap for the rest of you is over here, loofah and back scrubber here. Towels on this rack here. Oh and, one more thing.”

Harry picked up the bucket of soap suds and dashed it over the King’s head.

The King gasped. His nose flooded with the scents of cold, soap, and lemon. Shocked and dripping, he stared mutely at Harry. For his part, Harry seemed to be observing him intently.

Then Harry smiled, sheepishly. “Sorry about that, but I had to check. Only a few of the princes want to kill me, but all of the wizards and a good many of the sorcerers do. The bath water is ready now. You can use the bucket to rinse with.”

Chapter Text

The Diadem of Ravenclaw was very, very good at fulfilling its function.

For instance, it kept the King from acting on the impulse to yank Harry’s feet out from under him as he started down the stairs back to the kitchen.

But oh, how he wanted to.

However, since many things appeared to hinge on his not physically or verbally savaging McGonagall’s… ‘princess’, the King turned his attention to getting out of his soaking, soapy, lemony-scented clothes and into the warm bath. (He meant to keep the circlet on as long as possible.)

It was when he was taking off his shirt that he noticed the chain around his neck for the first time.

He’d just finished untying the strained cord that kept the collar of the over-sized shirt bunched up around his neck, and the chain caught on the scratchy fabric as he prepared to shake himself free of the arms. The King paused, then fished around in the front of the shirt until he located the pendant and pulled it out to look.

The pendant, he discovered, was a large golden locket. It was oval, about the size of a chicken’s egg, and decorated with an ornate ‘S’ shape made up of tiny, faceted green gems embedded in the surface of the front door. It was also surprisingly light in the palm of his hand, and the same temperature as his skin. Perhaps this, along with the distracting mass of the bunched-up collar and the coarse weave of the shirt, partly excused the fact that the King hadn’t known he was wearing it.

He tried to open it. The little doors wouldn’t budge.

He tried harder. Nothing happened, though ordinary metal of that thickness should have bent or broken under the force he was exerting on it.

He picked up his wand where it lay next to the wash basin and pointed it at the clasp. “Alohamora.” Nothing. “Aberto.” Nothing. “Open Sesame!” Nothing—which said something about the quality of the enchantments protecting the locket, because that spell tended to not only open doors, but take them apart.

Well, alright, that was foolish. The King thought for a moment, then sighed, and let the locket fall back to his chest. Like the diadem, the locket’s properties were worked into the very metal it was formed of—that would make reading them tricky in any circumstances, but dissecting them while enveloped in the shrill thrum of the young Forest when he was already acclimated to the locket’s magic would be nigh impossible. It wouldn’t surprise him if some of those properties involved nullifiers, like the spells on Ollivander’s quilted roll. Pity I didn’t spot this while he was around. Ollivander probably knows exactly what it is.

He took his bath, reasoning that a little soap and water couldn’t hurt an object as Imperturbable as the locket, and the diadem was likely the same.

Washing his hair was not pleasant, but he got the job done. He avoided the ‘conditioner’—Imperturbable or not, he didn’t need to mess with the diadem’s magical mechanics by putting a layer of potion between it and his skull. He replaced the diadem atop his hastily rung-out locks, and got on with washing the rest of himself.

Saving the whole crown consideration, it was a very pleasant bath—enough so that the King could almost forgive Harry for dumping cold soapy water over his head. It was worth noting, he mused, that the youth had specifically prepared the means of assuaging the discomforts of a dousing with wash-water first, so that both warm bath and dry clothes were ready and waiting by the time they were needed. Harry had even dried the floor with a quick spell before heading off to make dinner.

The King had to take the diadem off one more time when he dried himself. When he was sufficiently recovered, he made his way to the open wardrobe, which started waving its doors enthusiastically when he approached.

In the end, he chose a knee length doublet of Tyrian purple* silk with silver embroidery and an embattled hem over black hose. By the time he was finished securing the lacings of a pair of fine leather boots he’d found in under the hangers, the wardrobe had scrunched the fleece rug into a series of folds beneath it with its contented kneading. The mirror (a pitted, humble affair if you didn’t realize how much a piece of tin-and-mercury backed glass that size must have cost even without being enchanted) was grumbling under its frame about how Harry could look if he tried, but did that boy ever listen? Nooo...

Really—the King thought as he studied his reflection—with the golden locket visible on his chest, the drabbest thing about his attire now was the tarnished crown. He thought for a moment, then retrieved his wand from the boot top he’d chosen to house it in, (fine as it was, the doublet was not constructed with pockets of any sort in mind). He hesitated—leery of what would happen if the spell somehow disrupted the Diadem’s effects—then pointed his wand at the circlet. Better to experiment now than when the dragons inevitably tossed him out to continue his Quest. “Scourgify.”

Nothing happened. The Diadem remained discolored. Evidently, it had been Imperturbed—and before anyone thought to clean it. The King sighed, then headed downstairs.

Harry was standing on the stool in front of the stove when the King padded back into the kitchen, so the King was a little startled when Harry called “Find everything alright then, Your Majesty?” without looking up from the massive pot he was tending.

“Ah—Yes…” Come on. Do it for your name. “…Thank you.”

“Mm-hm. Dotty’s outdone herself. Is that pendant one of her’s, or did you bring it with you?”

The King approached the table warily. Harry still had not turned around. As the King sat, he tried to detect any Supersensory Charms, and came up blank. “Dotty?”

“The wardrobe. Deodatia*. Dotty for short.

“It is—was—human?

No! No, no—but magical objects tend to gain personality over time, see? And Dotty’s really, really old. She’s probably been around longer than Al—Dumbledore. Mi—McGonagall thinks so, anyway. I hope you like stew. We can have some more of that teacake for dessert, but if you want wine then I suggest you use that handy napkin Master Ollivander leant you.”

“I understand,” the King responded, not really paying attention as he was now attempting that twist of perception required for dealing with dragon magic. Nothing. “Excuse me, but when did you say McGonagall would return? And Dumbledore?”

“I didn’t say—you hadn’t passed the wash-water test yet. But now you have, so I suppose it’s alright. McGonagall should be back by next Thursday, at the latest. Dumbledore was supposed to be gone until the Frost Giants agree to some reasonable terms, but I’ve got a bet going with Slughorn’s princess that he’ll be winging in two days behind McGonagall. Damn—I’m going to have to forfeit that bet.”

Frost Giants—Their magic workers deal mostly in shape-changing and illusions. ‘Devourers’. Perennially warlike. “I don’t understand.”

“I plan to send a message north to Dumbledore as soon as my owl can take it, to tell him you’re here. It won’t be fair to Li Sue if my letter influences him to come back faster—it’d be as bad as cheating.”

“No, I meant— Surely Dumbledore considers the Frost Giants a threat?”

“Sure he does, but they’re due to retreat any day now as it is. Frost Giants can’t fight worth a damn in mud, and mud is exactly what they’ll be fighting in as their armor thaws—not to mention, they’re about to run very short of armaments. We know it, they know it, and they know we know it. So they’ll bluster and howl all the way back to Jotunnheim, and just before they get there they’ll be met by a contingent of dragons and Mountain giants demanding they set a date for next fall’s incursions. And then when fall arrives they’ll come howling and blustering back. They’ll either break the cease-fire or sneak behind enemy lines a few weeks late, but they do that every year, so no one’s really—”

“Do you mean to say that this type of stalemate is— intrinsic on both sides?” the King cut in, incredulous.

“Well, yeah? The Frost Giants don’t want to win—they’d run out of stuff to pillage, and have no one to admire their shiny new gear. And they have very strong ideas about home invasion—only a rogue Frost Giant will enter a home they haven’t been invited into, or smash a barn to get at the food-stores. The way they see it, anything outside is theirs for the taking, but stuff that’s under a roof is off limits. Only a Fire Giant would stoop to that. Of course, their seidir can get tricksy, to put it their way, but that’s lawyers for you. Do you like garam masala? …Should I take your expression as a no?”

“I have no notion of what garam masala even is.” No charms. No dragon spells. No wizard magic, no magic I can feel at all. How is he reading my facial expressions? How?! “Is there any point in asking why, being in such an overwhelmingly advantageous position, the contingent from the Mountains wouldn’t do better to demand surrender?”

“Garam masala is a ground spice mix. There are all different sorts, but the one I’ve got is common for the North Indies. I think you’d recognize… cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cumin, cardamom, and black pepper. Oh, and garlic. The rest is stuff I’ve only seen in Snape’s hoard.” A hint of slyness came into Harry’s tone as he said, “I’m told it’s a favorite of their Emperor. Right, Mughlai Rabbit Stew it is. And there's always a point when dragons choose to solve a problem by any means other than eating it.” The young man made a satisfied noise and pulled the wooden spoon from his apron, then used it to stir the contents of the pot, which had begun to hiss. “Oh, you wanted an actual explanation? Sorry—dragons tend to answer questions very literally. It rubs off on you.”

At that point, the King realized that his mouth was open. His temples were throbbing with frustration.

Not only had he just realized that while he had heard of those flavors, he didn’t understand their meaning (food preparation was something that happened to other people).

Not only could he not dredge up a single piece of phantom knowledge to corroborate Harry’s explanation of Frost Giant etiquette.

He still hadn’t figured out how the young man was watching him, even though Harry hadn’t looked his way once!

The King snapped his mouth shut and grit his teeth.

Fortunately, Harry chose that moment to explain the dragons’ tactics, still idly stirring. “At one time or another, different factions have taken steps to exterminate or contain the Thursar. But every single time, the solution has been worse than the problem. Spring floods were so severe that farmers in the river valleys couldn’t plant, and lost half their good soil in the bargain. Summers were so hot that the crops fried, or else got so wet that they rotted. Wells and rivers went dry, but sea-ports flooded. Plagues of insects and diseases got worse. Some types of plants didn’t set fruit or seed. Trees died. Human communities got tetchy and started burning their grandmothers alive.” He tapped another pot sitting on the back of the stove with his wand. This pot rose and tipped itself gently over the one Harry had been tending, so that a stream of steaming liquid fell neatly into the main pot. "The Frost Giants aren’t just taking advantage of the cold season—they’re part of it.

“There’s at least one sweet old Thurs who’s been visiting the Castle of Oslett in the middle of the summer for as long as anyone can remember—it gets unbearably muggy there at that time of year, and they have mosquitoes the size of bats. But an ancient Frost Giant always comes calling for the very hottest weeks, and the whole country sort of congregates at the castle to escape the heat—not to mention the bugs. It’s practically a national holiday, except the Frost Giant doesn’t keep to dates or moon phases—but when the Dog Days start to get really bad, everyone expects their 'Old Gent’ to show up, and he does.” Harry picked up a lid and placed it on the pot.

As he bent down and poked up the fire in the stove, he continued, “The arrangement in Oslett is an extreme case, but we really do need the Frost Giants to keep things balanced. And the Frost Giants need to raid. Those times they were contained in Jotunnheim instead of killed? It amounted to the same thing—come winter they got restless and started killing each other. Newton of Scamander—yes, that Scamander—wrote that it’s built into their physiology somehow. It’s not just about food. One of the attempts made to keep them in Jotunnheim involved supplying them with Cauldrons of Plenty. Their blood rises as the light changes, and they get restless and quarrelsome. So, the Mountains of Morning allow the Frost Giants to spread out into the south every year, on the condition that we know when they’re coming, more or less. The Frost Giants get to run about nipping early buds and suppressing plagues and graffitiing windows and making life bloody inconvenient. When they’ve overstayed their welcome the Mountains of Morning and a few other magical territories herd them back to Jotunnheim and make them agree to stay there until the next autumn. Nobody gets exactly what they want, but everybody gets what they need.” The youth stepped down from the stool and turned, stretching. “There—that can simmer until dusk. I’ll add the spices then.” Finally, the youth looked directly at the King. “You never answered my question. Where did that necklace come from? It looks like a locket from here.”

After the rambling lecture on the politics of winter, it took the King a second to reorient. When he did, he drew the heavy gold pendant away from his chest to look at it. “I have to believe it came with me,” he explained. “I found it under my shirt. I don’t know what it is, or what it does. I haven’t been able to get it open, and it’s Imperturbed two ways from Sunday.”

Frowning, Harry came around the table, stowing his wand as he did so. He kicked the chair diagonal from the King’s out from the table and sat, gazing thoughtfully at the pendant. “It’s pretty big. You didn’t notice it at all?”

“The shirt is very crisp,” the King pointed out dryly. “It’s not as heavy as it looks, and it’s not cold at all, even on the front side.”

“Alright, alright. So it’s probably magicked to be inconspicuous, or something,” Harry replied in a placating tone. He continued to frown at the locket. “Though why anyone would make something that big and flashy and ever think it could be inconspicuous is beyond me. Funny—I feel like I’ve seen that symbol before.”

“On the contrary, it can be quite logical to conceal an object’s magical signature. There must be at least one class of nullifier involved in the working, or I would have been able to tell it was there, especially after I left the Forest,” the King went on. “Then again, I didn’t really understand the Diadem’s effects until I took it off…” Here, he hesitated. If the locket was another relic of the Enchanted Forest, the King didn’t relish the idea of removing it from his person any more than the idea of removing the Diadem—not with that painful, gut-wrenching turmoil prowling in the shadows. He chose not to say that it could be an attribute of the locket to go unnoticed by the person wearing it—such enchantments were rarely meant as a boon to the wearer—or to suggest an observational test similar to the one he had performed with Ollivander.

Harry stretched his right hand across the table, palm up. “May I? I’m completely acclimated to the little Forest. If the problem is that you’re too used to the locket’s energy, maybe I’ll be able to tell.” When the King hesitated, the youth added, “You don’t have to take it off. Just lean forward a bit. Here.” Harry stood and leaned over the table until the King could easily place the pendant in the youth’s palm without slipping the chain over his head.

Reluctantly, the King raised the locket higher and dropped it into Harry’s hand.

“Augh!” Instantly, Harry gasped and jerked away, eyes wide behind his spectacles.

Startled, the King let the locket fall back into place on his chest. “What is it?” he asked, standing from his seat.

“It’s fucking freezing, is what,” Harry grumbled, pulling out his wand as he made for the pump at the sink. “And heavy. Andnever mind. You’re definitely acclimated to it.” For a moment, the young man was silent while he tapped at the pump, the handle of which worked at each tap, spewing bursts of water onto his cold-burned right hand. “Or it’s acclimated to you,” he continued thoughtfully, once again giving the King the impression that the young man was observing him while staring in the opposite direction.

All at once, Harry was away from the sink and beside the King.

“Excuse me,” said the youth, and the back of his left hand was pressed against the King’s brow before the King could jerk back.

As it happened, the King didn’t jerk back—he had enough presence of mind to remember the half-pulled chair just behind his legs. He had just enough presence of mind not to strike out at McGonagall’s princess. (The Diadem was very, very good.) Instead, he froze.

Through the shock of surprise, the King felt an odd, raised texture on the back of Harry’s hand against the skin of his forehead.

“Well, your temperature seems normal enough,” Harry concluded after a tense moment, taking his hand away, “Sorry—just wanted to make sure you weren’t dying without notice. Or dead. There’s just no stopping some people…Your-Majesty-you-just-went-white-as-a-sheet-sit-down-now.”

The King sat. Distantly, he realized that Harry was hovering at his side.

“What do you need?” the youth was saying. “Water? Smelling salts? Food? Something to hurl into?”

In an instant, the fear that had bloomed in the King’s stomach at the thought of death—of being dead and not even knowing it—was exchanged for fury.

“I need you to step away from me,” he spat at the hovering young man. “I need you not to touch me without my express permission.” This felt right, good—hadn’t this boy been disrespectful enough? Wasn’t it proper to reprimand such uncouth treatment of his betters? “I need to not be spied upon!”

But Harry had moved away at the first demand, practically leaping toward the counters. “Accio saucepan!” One of the bright copper pots detached from the wall and sailed into the youth’s hands, who turned and skidded the pot across the table into the King’s reach. By the time the third demand was out, Harry had already turned toward the tall cupboard that seemed perpetually open. He paused with his wand raised. “Sorry?” the youth said, looking at the King in bafflement tinged with fear. “Who’s spying on what?”

You!” the King snarled. “You’ve been…observing me somehow, all the time I’ve been in this room! While your back was turned!”

“Oh. That.” The disconcerted expression on Harry’s face shifted into surprise, then hesitant amusement. He rubbed the back of his neck, smirking awkwardly. “That’s not spying. Sorry, I just—...Look. Check out the bottom of that saucepan. Your Majesty.”

Narrowing his eyes to convey his distrust (he hadn’t missed that obsequious little addendum), the King took the copper pot by its handle and flipped it over.

His hazy, rose-hued reflection blinked back at him from the polished flat surface of the bottom of the pot. Slowly, the King turned his gaze back to the numerous, very shiny pieces of cookware lining the cavern wall between the counters and the hanging cupboards, surveyed them for a moment, then raised the enquirious eyebrow at Harry.

Harry shrugged. “I told you, didn’t I? Most of the real trouble I get here comes from wizards and sorcerers. It doesn’t help with some types of invisibility, but most magic workers get overconfident when they can’t find magical traps or detection spells. They just don't take plain ordinary physics into account, and the fact that they’re so convinced that I can't tell they’re here gives me an edge.” He rubbed the back of his neck again. “But if I don’t keep an eye on the—on the pans, I could be the one surprised. It’s gotten so I don’t even think about doing it. I’m sorry if it unnerved you.”

“I—Yes. I see,” The King said, reluctant approval having overtaken the anger. “That’s—fairly clever.”

A grin lit Harry’s features. “My friends and I worked it out when we were younger. McGonagall was a little put out—I think she’d rather we had some kind of magical warding to keep people well and truly out. Dumbledore went into fits when we showed him, though. He was chuckling for days.

He would, the King thought sourly as he settled back into his chair.

Harry was watching him. “You’re looking better. Accio saucepan. Would you mind telling me what that was about? Only, I can’t figure out how to avoid it unless I know what happened.”

The King scowled, but he couldn’t fault the logic. “It would appear that I am… strongly averse to the topic of—of Death. The idea of…of someone not knowing that they are dead…” To admit unease due to the youth’s uncanny speed and sudden movements seemed too much to bear at the moment.

But Harry was nodding emphatically. “Right. Got it. I’ll try to avoid mentioning stuff like that in the future. How about some more tea? I’ve got some Monkey-Picked White*. Actually, how about Darjeeling White, since we're doing Mughlai…”

Chapter Text

As Harry went about setting the ‘Darjeeling White’ to steep, he kept up a running monologue on one Princess Parvati’s advice concerning the preparation of the various brews of Northern India. In what was becoming an irksome pattern, the youth seemed to be able to tell when the King did not recognize a reference, and kept launching into winding explanations. On the one hand, the accounts of trade routes and political alliances were intriguing, and spared the King from having to scour his desolate mind for conversation topics. On the other, it was disturbing how well Harry appeared to be able to read the King, who prided himself on his ability to convey only what he wished to.

“If the skirmishes are just for forms sake, why did Dumbledore go north at all?” the King asked as Harry took his first sip.

Harry pulled a face, rolled his eyes, and swallowed. “And let Fudge turn it into a real war with his stupid opinions? Not likely. All the adult dragons are required to take a turn on the front lines every year, except for the elderly and those with particular disabilities—respiratory problems are a huge disadvantage in a dragon versus Frost Giant situation,” he explained. “Dumbledore’s ancient, but he’s not particularly infirm. And Fudge is—funny about giants. Any giants. I think he sees them as very large humans. You’ll know what that means, if—well, I suppose its when you meet the sod, you being the King of the Forest of Secrets. My friend Hermione calls it a superiority complex. In Fudge’s mind, giants are inferior, but the thought of being beaten by one is all the scarier for that. He even takes it out on the Mountain—” the youth broke off. His eyes lost focus, and he tilted his head to the side as though he were listening.

The King put down his teacup as quietly as he could manage and waited. He made a mental note to see if the wardrobe could do sleeve pockets—his wand suddenly felt much too far away in his boot top.

Then, a little bit of tension drained out of Harry’s posture. It came as a shock to the King, who had been wondering at the youth’s cavalier behavior, to discover that there had been tension there at all.

The subsequent shock was more visceral, and proved the wisdom of the King in putting his teacup down.  If he hadn’t, he would have dropped it in his lap when the white owl wafted soundlessly over his shoulder to land on the table with something furry and dead under its talons.

“Hey, girl,” Harry greeted the bird happily, reaching out to stroke her starkly barred wings. “Found tomorrow’s dinner, have you?”

The snowy owl bobbed and ruffled in a self-congratulatory way, then hopped off what the King now identified as a rabbit and presented one of her legs to Harry. The King could just make out a message tube nestled in the thick feathers of the owl’s lower leg.

“Oh, good,” the youth said, moving rapidly to unbuckle the straps of the tube and tap a little scroll out onto his palm, seemingly untroubled by the vicious beak worrying his earlobe. He unrolled the message and held it flat as he read without sitting back. Briefly, the owl moved on to a tendril of black hair in front of his ear, then maneuvered around the glasses to get at an eyebrow.

Conscious of his dignity, the King forced his face and posture into ‘Polite Interest’. Under no circumstances is it regal to crane over a table in an attempt to read someone else’s letter upside-down—not the craning part, at any rate.

Harry sat back with a sigh and let the letter spring back into a roll. “Bossy, Hermione,” he said under his breath, beaming. Then he looked up at the King, and let out a guffaw.

The King blinked. It was like watching a compressed spring in a clockwork mechanism jump back into its unloaded shape. The little tension that had eased out of the youth’s shoulders when the owl arrived had been a natural give in the mechanism compared to this.

Harry flicked the little scroll across the table, still grinning. “Go on, then.”

Face twitching as it tried to express annoyance against his better judgement, the King smoothed out the scroll. Then Harry chuckled, and the King glowered as he started to read the tiny, neat scrawl:

 

 

Harry,

We are alright, but we’ll be arriving late tomorrow morning instead of this evening like we planned.

Ron and I stopped to visit Ginny, but a particularly stup stubborn prince arrived just as we were leaving. Ron got upset when he wouldn’t go away. He finally went down and dumped the prince out of the saddle into the mud. Unfortunately, the prince’s steed ran off. Honestly, why can’t royalty pick a well-trained horse over a ‘fiery charger’, just once? Then we had to spend another half-hour while Ginny worked a ritual to call it back, and another half waiting for it.

Then the prince finally believed us that Ginny isn’t a princess, but then he got it into his head that she’s a wicked fire-witch, tempting men into the bog and such like (he wouldn’t listen when I told him that there isn’t an actual bog anywhere in the Smoking Swamp). That got Ron really upset. He burned the prince’s lance, melted his sword and shield, and threatened to melt his codp armor while it was still on him. That finally made him go away, but from the direction he was going we might have to deal with him again if he makes it to the Mountains. I’m in two minds concerning his chances of that. On one hand, he’s incredibly stubborn, and not a bad fighter. On the other, he doesn’t listen very well at all.

If we leave now we’ll be flying in the dark, and the weather doesn’t look promising. We’ll stay the night at Ginny’s and start again in the morning.

Love,

Hermione

P.S. Ron says to eat the cake. We can make another one. And he says to remind him to thank Dean for showing you the stirrup trick. And to tell Cho-hime to shortlist the chattiest princesses. He says that way, this prince and his bride could talk over each other for the rest of their lives and leave the rest of us in peace. And I wish Ron would stop adding things just after I think he’s finished a sentence.

P.P.S. Don’t send Hedwig back to us tonight, even if she thinks she can make it. We’re fine.

 

Hermione and Ron. The one who psychoanalyzes dragons, and the one for whom the chocolate and butternut cake was intended. This Ron had ‘burned’ and ‘melted’ a prince’s accoutrements? And ‘flying’—what did that entail? Who, or what, was Cho-hime? His mind abuzz with inquiries, the King offered the scroll back to Harry, but the young man waved it away.

Instead, Harry drained his teacup in two hasty gulps, then took out his wand and rested the tip on the rim of the cup. “Aguamenti Minima.” When the cup was full he placed it in front of the snowy owl, who made a strange chirring noise and dipped her beak into the cup as Harry picked up the dead rabbit and headed for the counters.

The King regarded the owl. Here was a safe gambit—it was related to his own quest, rather than the compound mystery that was his host and the acquaintances of his host. “This is your owl, that you mentioned earlier?”

“That’s right. Your Majesty, may I present Her Majesty King Hedwig. Hedwig—the King of the Forest of Secrets, formerly known as the Enchanted Forest. I’d introduce him by name, but he can’t remember what it is at the moment.”

‘Her Majesty King Hedwig’ swiveled her head to stare solemnly at the King, then disregarded him in favor of the teacup.

From where he now stood dressing the rabbit with a small, deadly looking knife at one side of the sink, Harry chuckled. “Don’t mind it—Owls have that in common with dragons. And cats, of course.”

In fact, the King wasn’t irked by the owl’s swift dismissal, nor by Harry’s comment about his name—he was too busy pondering the bizarre nomenclature on display. ‘King’ and ‘Her Majesty’ simply did not go together in his mind, but then—Oh. The phantom knowledge finally produced a useful bit of information. “Oh, I see. You were referencing dragon conventions.”

Harry shrugged. “Partly. I was eleven, and experiencing culture shock. ‘King Hedwig of Poland’ is a woman king in the saga of a world without magic. McGonagall gave it to me as a birthday present—in hindsight, I think she was trying to inoculate me against some of the comments on my suitability as a dragon’s princess. Hedwig was also a present for that birthday.”

The King opened his mouth, realized that what was about to come out was “You’ve been here since you were eleven?” and closed it again. He had to remember that he hadn’t come here to explore the practices of captive taking among the dragons (although he was quickly realizing that, past their particular brand of magic and how to survive an encounter with one, the King didn’t know much at all about dragons).

Thankfully, when he opened his mouth again, “Would you mind if I wrote that missive to Dumbledore now, so that your owl can take it tonight?” was what came out.

Harry actually turned around on his stool in order to look directly at the King. “You can write the letter if you want, but Hedwig’s not flying further than two miles from here for at least a day. No, Madam,” he addressed the owl sharply, who was mantling her wings indignantly. “It was risky just sending you to check on Ron and Hermione. Speaking of that, you promised you’d only go as far as the Lodestone Slope. The Smoking Swamp is way further than we agreed. Yes, fine, go and sulk,” he snapped when Hedwig took flight for the top of the tall cabinet. He glowered down at the King from the stool. “Don’t give her any messages—not one. In the first place, they probably won’t get there anyway. In the second, I will kick your ass out if you do, royal or not. My owl, my rules. Are we clear, Your Majesty?” And despite the glasses and the kerchief and the gingham apron—though possibly helped along by the bloody hunting knife he waved expressively as he spoke—the youth looked so startlingly fierce that the King found himself nodding in a way that would be termed ‘meek’ if he wasn’t a king.

“Right. There’s parchment and ink in the chest of drawers under the mirror in my rooms. You can use the table in here to write on,” Harry grumbled as he turned back to finish his task.

The King returned from his foray upstairs to the princess’ suit for stationary to find the young man and the snowy owl in approximately the same positions he’d left them in—Harry grimly wrapping cuts of rabbit meat in thick paper*; the owl perched on top of the tall cabinet and angled so as to convey maximum indifference. Giving a mental shrug, the King settled down to compose a letter to Dumbledore:

 

 

To Whom it May Concern,   My Dear Sir,

Upon the advice of one Garrick of House Ollivander, given freely to me some three days ago within the outer part of the Enchanted Forest, I have come to seek counsel at your domain in the Mountains of Morning. However, during my sojourn I was directed by the amphiptere Snape (The Rock Snake) to petition for assistance at the caves of McGonagall. Having arrived at her abode I have found McGonagall too absent, but have been adequately margin essentially hosted thorou hosted in the essentials thoughtfu most thoughtfully hosted by one Harry, who claims to be McGonagall’s princess.

While Harry has intimated that he expects your return next week, I none-the-less—

 

Harry was calling the owl down, proffering the rabbit’s organs and skin in a wide shallow bowl.

The King looked up briefly to see the owl leap from the cabinet.

Then he was diving instinctively for the wand in his boot as magic—a chaotic blaze of greens, golds and lilac—engulfed the bird.

In the same instant, Harry lunged across the room and caught the glowing mass as it fell screaming out of the air.

When the glow faded enough to see the shape underneath, the King realized that in place of a large, brown-speckled owl, the youth was cuddling a small, brown-speckled cat. Its dense fur stood on end with fright, and its pupils were huge black disks in enormous golden orbs. Green and pale purple sparks trailed after the young man’s hand as he ran it down the petrified creature’s back.

“…alright, you’re alright,” Harry was repeating shakily as he stroked the cat’s magic-charged fur. “It wasn’t that far, anyway. You’re alright, Hedwig. You’d have landed on your feet, see? You’re alright. Come on, your dinner’s ready. S’all alright, you’re alright…”

Still hunched from the retrieval of his wand, the King watched through the legs of the table as Harry slowly lowered himself into a crouch, then relaxed his grip on the cat. It was another long moment before the cat relinquished her grip on the youth. When she finally consented to hop the rest of the way to the floor, blood was welling from a set of punctures in Harry’s forearm. The youth didn’t appear to notice—he simply popped back up and grabbed the bowl of offal that had made it to the table somewhere between the light show and the catching.

“Here,” Harry told the cat as he knelt and scooted the bowl under the table, then came up again for the teacup of water. “You drink the rest of this. Remember, cats need more water than owls. So you see, no one’s taking any messages north tonight,” he continued with forced cheeriness as he stood. However, his crooked smile grew more genuine when he got a look at the King’s expression. “Alright, shoot.”

“What manner of magical travesty was that?” the King burst out, nearly overcome with confusion and curiosity. Grisly sounds emerged from under the table as the owl-turned-cat distracted itself from its recent upset with an activity common to all predators.

“It’s what happens when a queen dowager commissions an incompetent quack to create a winged lion for her favorite addlepated eldest son. Something to do with a local prophecy,” Harry explained in a growl as he returned to the sink to start cleaning up after the butchering. “Scourgify. Rightful heirs and legendary beasts, and such.”

“A winged—ah. I understand. Experimental trials.” The King hesitated, then asked, “ But…why not simply adapt a flying spell—”

“When I say ‘incompetent quack’, I suppose I mean ‘mediocre magician with delusions of grandeur but enough brains to string out a commission for as long as possible’. According to Rubeus—he’s the one who gave me Hedwig—this Magician Gilderoy nitwit has written loads of books about all the things he’s supposedly done. Only, no one can work out how he could have managed any of those feats if he couldn’t even keep good notes on this one set of experiments. Rubeus got called in to deal with the laboratory when the favorite son embraced life as a frog—”

The King looked up sharply from the blotchy mess of his first draft--the splatters must have occurred when he had dived for his wand. “What?”

“—You heard me. Not a bad chap, Rubeus says. Really, really weird, but nice enough. Gilderoy had done a runner— he’s the reason the ex-crown prince now resides in the royal lily pond. The middle prince woke up to a feathery cub making biscuits on his scalp a couple years later, so that’s over with for a generation or so.”

 “Fine. Wonderful. Huzzah. Now, if we could return to the original topic? Have I got this right? This—spell—on your owl is…Never mind.” The King had a distressing premonition that if he started asking about the tangled magical working itself, his questions would never stop. In any event, he just had to keep reminding himself that it wasn’t his business—contacting Dumbledore was. “You said that this transformation will last a day?”

At the King’s sarcastic opening, Harry had twitched an eyebrow and smirked. At the rest, however, he looked thoughtful. “Based on the current cycling of the enchantment, at least a day. Finish the water, Hedwig. Look, how’s this? You finish that cup, and I’ll give you some cream before bedtime.”

“Mrrrrt?” the cat trilled from under the table.

“On my honor as a dragon’s princess,” Harry sighed, apparently in response. When delicate lapping noises could be heard from the floor, the young man called the same battered mug he’d used before out of the cupboard and returned to his seat, where he poured himself a second cup of tea. However, he shook his head at the first taste. “Cold and bitter. Bother. That’s why I like Rooibos—it never gets too strong.”

The lapping noises desisted. A moment later, the white cat sprang into Harry’s lap and settled, purring. The youth smiled fondly down at the creature, the quarrel between them forgotten.

“’Current cycling?” the King inquired, eyeing the cat speculatively. Even as close as he was, the magic was unreadable. ‘Unstable’ didn’t even begin to cover the structure of this enchantment, and every time he thought he’d sensed a component, it vanished into the mess before he could analyze it.

“That’s the best way we have to describe it. She’s a cat for a while, then she reverts without warning to owl form. Then, after about the same amount of time she spent as a cat, the spell takes effect again. So we’ll see how long she stays a cat this time, and if it’s a day or more then it’s safe to say she’ll be an owl for a day or more. If not, then we wait for the next cycle, or the next.”

“But McGonagall and Dumbledore might be on their way back by then,” the King objected.

Harry shrugged. “Then she’ll meet them mid flight. That, or you being here will be a welcome-home surprise. It’s too much risk to do it any other way—the cat-to-owl shift is annoying, but the owl-to-cat shift is dangerous.”

“Why?”

In a distinctly owl-like contortion, the cat craned its puffy white head around backward to stare at the King. Rock snakes just weren’t designed for shrugging or looking reticent. However, cats and owls alike were created with Incredulity in mind.

“Well…” Harry said, then cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Let me put it this way. She looks damn silly falling on her face when her front paws suddenly become wings, but she could look as good as dead when she’s falling a few hundred feet onto bare rock…”

Though he kept his expression unchanged, the King could feel his face heating up halfway through this explanation.

It wasn’t just the fact that the answer was so obvious, given a modicum of thought—hadn’t he just witnessed it, earlier? It was the fact that Harry was embarrassed for him, and was trying to be kind. The King almost preferred Snape’s withering censure—one could distract oneself from feeling stupid if the person commenting on one’s stupidity was an ass about it...

“It’s not necessarily a problem, hunting-wise,” the youth hurried on, clearly trying to barge past the awkwardness. “Snowy owls are mostly ground-dwelling—they like to fly low, and cats are good at landing on their feet so long as it’s not too far a fall. It plays absolute havoc with everything else, though. Migration, for example. Even if she could migrate, what would be the point? Snowy’s migrate in order to mate, but wild owls eat cats. What happens if the cycle shortens and her mate mistakes her for breakfast? What would happen to the eggs? Would there be eggs, or would they be downy kittens with beaks instead of teeth, and wings instead of fore-paws? If they were kittens, how the hell is an owl’s reproductive system supposed to cope with pregnancy, let alone live birth? It’s the whole bird and fish problem, except she’s the bird and the fish—cat. You know what I mean.” Harry fidgeted in his chair, stroking the cat-owl with absent-minded vigor. For her part, the cat-owl had screwed up her eyes, flattened her ears, and started to purr in a way that suggested she was putting up with this solely to indulge her disturbed caretaker.

The King watched the youth fret as he attempted to rein in his own painful curiosity. “But how is this—” He indicated the cat-owl, finally giving in—“this transformation constructed? Surely the spell could be reversed if—” But Harry was shaking his head.

“Just about all the best magicians on both sides of the mountains has gotten a look at Hedwig at one time or another. They all came up with the same conclusion as McGonagall, and when I got the hang of analyzing spells I knew they were right. It’s all mangled and fused. Best guess says that Gilderoy went farther than planned with the initial metamorphosis, then kept adding different spells for permanence and reversal to try and nudge it to the middle where he wanted it. Idiot couldn’t even follow scientific procedure when he was experimenting, or maybe he just didn’t care.” Harry looked wretched. “He certainly didn’t care about the budgerigars. Turning a seed-eater into a creature that has to eat meat to survive…He might as well have starved them to death. It amounted to the same thing.”

The King considered this information, then discarded it as irrelevant to the problem at hand. “So the spell is a—let me see—a permanently impermanent feline metamorphosis?”

“That sounds about right.”

“Have you considered moving it?”

“You mean, transferring the whole spell, intact, onto someone else? Yes, but the only person who really deserves it is the guy who cast it, and the only people it wouldn’t harm somehow are cats.”

The King blinked, taken aback. He hadn’t considered that there were ‘people’ for whom the spell would amount to a net neutral. “Then why not transfer it to a cat?”

Harry looked at the King.

The King felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck—the play of color in a peacock’s tail; a mind that was rapidly learning to understand him better than he did.

After a moment, the youth seemed to shrug off whatever he’d been thinking, and answered calmly, “It has to do with the feline constitution in general. In the first place, what cat would agree to help an owl stay an owl? In the second, cats are cats—they’re even more conscious of their dignity than most dragons. Oh, they might listen to their humans, but only as a special favor, or because an argument would be too much of a bother at the moment. Two out of ten can be motivated by food or warmth or praise, but even they would be liable to slither out of the spell the moment it so much as itched—we think that’s why Gilderoy was transforming birds into cats, instead of the other way ‘round. And if there’s one thing we really need to avoid, it’s leaving unattached bits of magic lying about. You don’t really think all the donkey’s-ears rocket and giantizing clover patches and invisible dusk-blooming choke-vines just grew that way, do you?”

Slowly, the King nodded. As usual, Harry’s explanation was creating more questions than answers (Cats can ‘slither out’ of spells? What do you mean, they didn’t just grow that way—hadn’t they?). However, the Dumbledore-ish glint in the youth’s eyes had worried the King a little. He wondered what his line of inquiry might have already given away.

Chapter Text

The bed in the princess’ suite of McGonagall’s cave was extremely comfortable, the King conceded.

This might not have been worth noting, except that the bed in question managed this feat of excellence while being completely mundane.

(Incidentally it was also, so far as the King was capable of discerning, devoid of legumes.)

He further conceded that the stew Harry had slopped into two bowls for supper had been surprisingly palatable, once his senses accepted that none of the odd flavors present were indicative of poison.

The wardrobe—or Dotty, as Harry insisted on calling it—had produced a fine silk nightshirt that even had a padded pocket at the front to store his wand closer to hand while he slept.

No, what rattled the King’s sense of propriety as he lay back against the bolster was Harry’s sleeping arrangements.

It was customary to give up one’s bed to a guest, particularly if one’s guest was of higher rank.

Sleeping across the doorsill of the suite with a bucket of wash water in handy reach was not.

“I’m not much good at conjuration,” Harry said when he caught the King side-eyeing the bundle of heavy quilts he was folding into a sort of cot. “The Water-making Spell is dead useful, so I practice it all the time, but I’m pants at the rest. And I’ve slept on worse. Anyway, I only use the bed when McGonagall’s home, or I’ve got someone else to watch my back. No Hedwig, you go sleep with the King. You show up too much in the dark.” When the cat-owl made a complaining noise, he replied, “So you want to sleep under the cloak, then?”

At that, the creature leapt to the foot of the bed and curled into a pale loaf, her back turned firmly on the King. Despite the slight upon the person of his guest, Harry nodded. “I’m going to put the light out, Your Majesty. Oh--if you need the chamber pot, it’s behind the screen. Just follow the stars. They—well, you’ll see. Spratsphizzle.”

As the last syllable of the trigger word was spoken, the light that had been emanating softly from the walls and floor of the cavern itself died, plunging the rooms into darkness. After a moment of utter blindness, the King could see irregular points of light to his left. After an instant of confusion, he realized that he was looking at an exacting replica of the night sky—right down to the color and brightness of individual stars. If he had his bearings, the Pole Star was to the North. As was the screen behind which the tub and chamber pot resided.

“Your Majesty?” Harry’s voice came quietly through the dark.

“Yes?”

“Try to avoid going east, okay? It’s just—I’m down here on the floor in the dark for a reason. If you step on me in the middle of the night, there’s a lot more liable to happen than you taking a tumble down the stairs. And if I dowse you again, you’ll have to fill the bath for yourself.”

 

Mmm-rRRRr.”

The low warning growl from the foot of the bed was accompanied by the feeling of something sweeping back and forth across the top of the blankets—The cat’s tail, the King thought, waking instantly from the shallow sleep of the wary in strange environs.

“Yes. I know. At least one wizard, by the feel.” The King heard Harry whisper.

The cat-owl hissed.

“Just one? Are you sure?” Harry hissed back. “But why would a wizard smell like...Oh, bugger. Him?” 

As the cat mewed quietly in affirmation, the King sat up, inadvertently rustling the bedclothes.

“Stay still, Your Majesty. You’re quite safe, I promise. It’s fine if you take your wand out, but shield spells only, understand? No lights. Yes, Hedwig, I know he’s in the kitchen. Be quiet, both of you.”

After a tense moment of dead silence, the King detected the sound of fabric brushing across stone—someone was moving up the spiral stairs to the princess’ suite, moving with a confidence that a person—at least, a typical human person—on stairs both dark and unfamiliar shouldn’t possess.

Then there was a surprised grunt followed quickly by a yelp of terror, a heavy thud and multiple resounding clatters as articles of wood and metal made contact with the floor. Under the cover of frantic scuffling, the King threw off the covers and slithered to the floor, keeping the bed between his person and the altercation near the entrance. He waited there with the birch wand in hand until an unfamiliar voice cried “Ah-hah!”

“COVER YOUR EYES!” Harry bellowed from the darkness as wizard magic began to build in the vicinity of the door.

The King slammed his eyes closed and pressed his face against the skirt of the bed. He detected a burst of harsh yellow light in his peripheral vision even so.

Squinting and prepared to duck away, the King peered around the foot of the bedstead.

A blond young man in flowing black and silver robes stood in the middle of the sitting room, holding the staff that was the source of the piercing beams. He was angled away from the King, but his posture spoke for itself as he tried to recover the confidence he’d lost while falling headlong into the room. His fine silks looked distinctly rumpled, and he held his long staff of dark polished wood as if he would like to brandish it imperiously with one hand. Unfortunately, he only managed the hunched, two-handed blocking stance of a man who couldn’t stomach even the idea of being hit again.

To be fair, the wizard had reason for concern. Harry stood just this side of the doorway, workaday ship’s-boy clothes no more rumpled than usual, wand in his right hand, sword in his left, and radiating the same casually proficient menace the King had sensed at the cave entrance. Well—not quite. I was vermin in his eyes, but not the kind you stamp on.

The kerchief, circlet, and apron were missing, but Harry had evidently slept with his spectacles on.

And his shoes.

And his sword belt.

Meaning he went to bed fully dressed and fully armed. The King wondered, now, how he’d missed that.

“What kind of time do you call this for a house visit, Draco?” Harry addressed the wizard with familiar contempt. “Your namesakes would be ashamed at such rudeness. Well, more ashamed—I don’t suppose you have any idea what Lucius was thinking, calling you that? Or was it Narcissa?” The youth clicked his tongue. “Remind me to have a few words with her about your upbringing.”

A derisive yowl of agreement issued from under the bed, making the King flinch. So did the wizard, but apparently he felt that keeping his eyes on Harry was the larger priority.

“Stay down there, Majesty,” the youth said in the same unconcerned tone, shooting a glance toward the bed as if in response to the cat, but looking directly into the King’s eyes. “I suppose the real question is how you got into the Mountains without getting eaten,” Harry continued, shifting two steps so that he was directly between this Wizard Draco and the exit. Watching the youth, the King’s eye was caught by the blue light dancing off the blade. “Care to share?”

Apparently, the wizard had forgotten some of his fear in outrage (though he continued to keep his staff between himself and Harry—so perhaps it was that the fear was feeding the outrage). “Pah! Wizards go where they wish, answering to no one!” he said, and the King could hear the sneer in the wizard’s cultured (if rather grandiose) tone.

If he hadn’t minded missing what came next, the King would have rolled his eyes. Translation: ‘Afraid? ME? I’m not afraid! You’re the one who’s supposed to be afraid! (WHY AREN’T YOU AFRAID???)’

“Exactly,” Harry replied with exaggerated patience, as if dealing with a particularly dim child. “That’s why dragons don’t bother trying to reason with wizards. If they meet wizards in dragon country, they eat them. Simple as that. They don’t usually suffer the mannerless, dragons. Let’s see. Vincent and Gregory aren’t here—smart of you. You keep them around for intimidation. Or is it for meat shields? I never could decide which it was. They’re very good at being visible, but ‘stealth’ just isn’t in their vocabularies. Then again, ‘vocabulary’ isn’t in their vocabularies, is it? …This is where you defend your friends’ good points, Draco—oh, I’m sorry. I meant, your goons’ good points.” The youth adopted a look of intense thought. “I guess the ability to recognize the parts where they’re supposed to laugh might count as a good point. Could be awkward, goons who don’t hyuk on cue.” Then all the playful insult left Harry’s face and voice and bearing as he said, “But trying to catch me alone and unaware—not smart. Not smart at all, Draco.”

From his perspective, the King saw the flinch in the wizard’s legs as Harry stepped forward.

He also saw how Harry’s movement canted slightly to the left.

At that, the King was sure that he was missing something. He tried to catalogue the mixed messages:

One—the wizard was afraid, and did not want to risk getting within Harry’s reach.

Two—Harry was clearly baiting the wizard. He’d blocked the door, but was slowly relinquishing that advantage in favor of—what, precisely? Though the King could practically feel the furious indignation coming off him, the wizard wasn’t moving either to attack or retreat—but that was just it, wasn’t it? There was one exit, guarded by Harry. Retreat and attack lay in the same general direction—indeed, retreat required attack.

Three—Why would someone that angry fail to attack, if attack is what the situation requires?

Because he doesn’t actually think he can succeed. Not without taking damage—and this man is obviously terrified of pain.

And here was Harry, first blocking the door, then moving slowly, slowly when the King knew him to be viper quick if he wished to be, setting up for a maneuver that required some forward motion on Draco’s part. He wondered if Draco could see this, or if the knowledge had got lost somewhere in the tangle of I’m afraid-but fear is weak-I’m not weak-so I’m not afraid-YOU’RE afraid.

“You really think you’ve got me, don’t you?” said the wizard at length. The vocal sneer was even more pronounced this time.

Well. Whatever Harry was angling for, he was going to get it any minute now. Now, as to what that was—the King peered around the foot of the bed again.

Ah. He’d forgotten about the wash water. There it was, nearly hidden behind the jumbled blankets to the right of the door. Yes, that would be it.

Almost at the moment of the King’s realization, the wizard finally acted. He angled the bottom of his staff, still ablaze with oily light, toward the youth in front of the door. “Serpensortia!”

Sparks exploded from the butt of the staff. A large pale brown snake materialized from the sparks, and immediately prepared to strike at the youth as the wizard hurled himself at the door.

“Accio bucket!” Harry yelled as he lunged further right, but the King didn’t look toward the splash and clatter, or the subsequent shrieking. Instead, he focused on the snake that was spitting with terror and fury, and getting set for another try at Harry.

“Peaccce, new one,” the King called in Parsletongue. “Come to me, and no harm shhhall befall you.”

Hissing plaintively about everything from the temperature (“Cold!”) to the time (“Night!”) to the quality of the wizard-made light (“ssstrange”) to the vibrations ricocheting around the caves, the snake dropped and slithered behind the floral screen. It intended to take a sheltered route toward the Speaker who promised safety. Content with this arrangement, the King turned his attention back to the conflict at the door—

Just in time to meet the pale blue eyes of the wizard’s disembodied head as it sank beneath the soggy hood of his robe. The blue eyes registered surprise before they disappeared into the pile of black and silver silk, followed by an ever-shrinking blond crown and last of all, the dripping end of a pale wispy beard.

Suddenly intensely glad that he was not, after all, a wizard, the King rose to his feet and moved to the wall to meet the snake. The tawny serpent was slithering hesitantly along the join between the wall and the floor, still protesting the climate it found itself in. Stopping in easy hissing distance, the King frowned at the snake. The phantom knowledge was failing him again. Though he could infer from its behavior and upset that it was venomous, timid, and meant for a warmer climate, he did not recognize the species at all. “What are you?” he asked, knowing it was a long shot. “From what placcce did you come?”

The snake did not understand. It told him so, by carrying on in what was essentially the wail of the newly born. “Too cold! Bright night! Sssstrange! Too cold!”

The King sighed and raised his wand. The Snake Summons was actually a conjuring incantation—technically, this brown snake had not been anywhere (it had been everywhere) until the wizard brought it into being here. For all the King knew, it might not be a natural species at all, but a reflection of Draco’s vicious cornered terror. He didn’t know where or if he could send it to a proper habitat. In any event, it was a conjuration, and probably wouldn’t last unless the wizard had both the ability and the intention to make it so. Reasoning thus, he told it, “I’m going to sssend you back to where you were ssummoned from. You will not sssuffer anymore.” He waved the birch wand over the serpent. “Vipera Evanesca.”

The conjuration vanished without trace. Content with the result, the King turned back to the scene in front of the door.

Harry was squatting beside the staff, studying it intently with his eyes and probably his magic but making no move to touch it. The King noted with some interest that the youth had stowed his wand but kept the sword out. So close to the still-glowing staff it was more obvious than ever that the blade didn’t actually cast light. Magically speaking, however, it glowed a blue-white that stood out against and even rivaled the yellow light of the staff.

At his approach, the youth looked up, a crease forming between his eyebrows. “Draco saw you, didn’t he?”

“He’d have to be blind not to, and his need to cast a light spell suggests the opposite. Speaking of that, the staff is dimming.”

Green eyes flicked back to the staff, still frowning. “Phrazelspitz.” Once more, cool brightness emanated from the stone of the caves. “I was trying to avoid him seeing you, you know. That’s why I told you to stay out of sight.”

“You told me to ‘stay down there’,” the King retorted, “which I did. As to the rest, I apologize for being in his sight line while he was—liquifying. I confess, I don’t think I quite believed in that spell until I saw it in action. But rest assured, the next time someone puts their wish to see you dying in agony into serpent form, I’ll just keep mum, shall I?”

Harry snorted, then appeared to concentrate. “The nexsst time sssomeone putss their wishshsh to ssee me dead in ssserpent form, I’ll talk the sssnake down myssself, thanksss all the sssame.” He acknowledged the King’s mute stare with a shake of his head. “Yes, we've got a whole crowd of Parselmouths here. Look, don’t take it the wrong way—I do appreciate that you thought to help. If almost anyone else had come calling tonight, it wouldn’t be a problem. But this is Draco of the House of Malfoy we’re talking about, who happens to be the sole son and heir to the current Lord Malfoy, Lucius, who happens to be Head Wizard of the Society of Wizards. Also, his mummy’s a sorceress. He’s her only child. You know what that means.”

The King considered this information, then asked, “You mean that he was raised in the middle of a secluded forest at the top of an ivory tower, likely without doors or windows below the seventh or ninth story?”

 “Well, the Brown Forest is technically part of the Great Southern Desert and the tower’s made of bone china. Other than that, exactly. And Lucius has told him all his life that Draco’s going to be Head Wizard someday, and Narcissa can’t bring herself to break it to her precious darling boy that he’s more cut for her style of spell-work than Lucius’. And if Draco has one great talent it’s lying—not just to other people, but to himself. Have a look at this knothole, would you? I don’t recognize the energy sequence. Just don’t touch the staff—Lucius likes leaving nasty surprises laying around, and Draco likes to imitate everything Lucius does.”

“Which one?”

“Third down. Hedwig? You can come out now.”

“mmrrrmmph.” The King glanced up at the muffled meow, and the white cat-owl backed out from under the bed dragging what, when she turned, proved to be a mummified hand, presumably human, clawed around the base of a still-burning candle. A Hand of Glory, the phantom knowledge supplied. That explained why the wizard had been so confident on the stairs. Having brought the leathery gray appendage into the open, the cat spat it out and shook her head, uttering disgusted growls and working her tongue expressively.

“Of course it does,” Harry told her, reaching for the stump end of the ghastly candlestick. “Remind me to read you what goes into making one of these sometime.” Gingerly, he set the Hand upright on the floor. “That was a good job, keeping it out of Draco’s reach. Bad luck he found his staff in the dark, but—well I didn’t actually want to feed him to a dragon in the morning, and it’ll take him some time to pull himself together and get another staff. So it all evens out, I suppose. Did the Hand scorch anything down there?”

The cat-owl mewed. The King could not tell if that mew was negative or affirmative, but Harry nodded, then turned back to the King. When he found the King’s eyes on himself rather than the staff, the youth raised an eyebrow.

The King blinked. That eyebrow was on the fast track to becoming enquirious. He turned his attention back to the knothole in question and made a rapid analysis of the spell stored in the whorl of lacquered dark wood.

He grimaced as the phantom knowledge recognized the pattern. “It’s an annoying little hex based in the Mind Arts, meant to increase the occurrence of parapraxes. The design is fairly archaic—he must have access to someone with a vast working knowledge of petty curses. Draco was supplying the power, but someone else structured the pattern.”

The youth’s shoulders twitched dismissively. “He’s got access to pretty much the entire Society of Wizards and their literature, but it’s also a different staff from the last time I melted him. He could have just revived an old spell structure—I’ve seen him test out spells he doesn’t understand on people before. What are ‘parapraxes’? They sound Greek.”

The King examined the next knothole—the light spell, he discovered—as he explained. “It is Greek. A parapraxis is a minor error—say, a slip of the tongue, or a faulty recollection, or a misspelling—that supposedly reveals what one is really thinking or feeling, perhaps even without being aware of those thoughts. This hex—” He nodded at the staff. “—causes osmosis—that is, it changes the nature of the barrier between the subconscious and the conscious layers in the mind, so that associated ideas switch places unexpectedly.”

“But that’s a terrible curse!”

The horror in Harry’s voice made the King look up in surprise. “Well, it’s certainly rather embarrassing,” the King admitted, perplexed. “And it could certainly cause problems in polite society. But it’s not in the same category as, for example, a wasting curse or a blood malediction. It’s not life-threatening, and has therapeutic value if applied—”

“Not life-threatening! Your Majesty, we are in the Mountains of Morning. A ‘slip of the tongue’ in this polite society can get you roasted and eaten, and they blame the ‘eatee’ on account of rudeness!”

“... …A valid point. What did you do to this Wizard Draco to make him feel you deserve death by dragon fire?”

Harry wrinkled his nose. “Dragon fire isn’t really a problem for dragon’s princesses these days—it’s everything else a brainy, magic-working, two-ton flying lizard can do to someone without even meaning to. But back to Draco—have you ever met a spoiled bully who needed a good reason for hurting people?”

“I’m sure I don’t know.”

“Right. Sorry.” The youth thought for a moment. “Mostly, I’ve… failed to be a good little tool of the Society of Wizards. Called Draco’s bluffs; caught his lies. Foiled Society plans once or twice. Melted Lucius once, Draco a few times over the years. I’ll be the first to admit that his inability to just stay away has its uses, though. I’ve gleaned more about what the Society of Wizards is or isn’t up to from his blathering and from the extra spells he leaves behind than I have from any ten other Society wizards.” Harry shrugged again, eyes thoughtful as they followed the grain of the knothole nearest the end of the staff.

“No death spells that I can find, though I suppose Draco thinks he can just Blast things if he needs to. No thrall curses. Besides that parapraxes hex, this lot looks more like Draco being bored with Mummy’s fussing than a group effort by the Society. After what happened last time, Lucius would have sent at least one of the old geezers along if he was in on it.” Gingerly, the youth tugged at the puddle of gooey black silk beneath the staff. “Basic warding spells—Narcissa’s work…” he muttered. “…Nifty fireproofing spell, I’ll have to tell Hermione …and the usual sword construct—honestly I don’t know why he bothers with that one. I’ve never seen him put himself in arms reach if he could at all avoid it. Not one for the rough-and-tumble, our Draco.” He sheathed the silver-and-ruby sword, and he looked at the King. “Seen everything you want to here? I need to get rid of these before the Saffron Sorceress or Ferret Face Senior can track them. There’ll be trouble enough when Draco gets himself back together without his parents finding their way in here. You can go back to bed if you want.”

The King nodded. With well-practiced movements, Harry twisted the soppy robes around the staff and lifted the whole bundle in one hand, grabbed the Hand of Glory in the other, and stood. “Come on,” he called to the cat-owl as he headed for the stairs. “I need milk to put this thing out. You can wash the taste out of your mouth while I’m at it.”

Realizing that the youth had taken his nod to mean he was going back to sleep—not just that he’d finished examining the melted wizard’s leavings—the King hastily dragged his boots on and hurried to catch up. “How would they find their way in? You meant his parents, I presume, or other members of the Society? Draco didn’t answer any of your questions.”

Already in the kitchen, the youth called, “That was just to frazzle him—Draco lies, remember. I could get him to brag, but usually I just melt him and go through his stuff. I already have a pretty good idea how he got in. Good, he didn’t mess with the food—silly git. He’s got bags of brains, but not one grain of common sense. Wizards, honestly. Still, remind me to check the dishes and cutlery, will you?”

“Mrrrow. Mrrt-mrrt?”

“Yeah, yeah. Hold on a minute.” With much scraping and clinking, Harry pulled a saucer out of the cupboards, examined it critical, then hefted a crockery jug from the table and poured some milk into the saucer before setting it on the floor. Presently lapping sounds could be heard from that location, and the King watched as the youth took the jug and the Hand—which had been set on the table as well—over to the sink and dribbled milk on the burning wick. The flame spat and fizzled, then died.

Leaving the Hand in the sink, Harry took the milk jug to an under-counter cabinet—when he opened it, the King glimpsed an interior lined with stone slabs embedded with magical signs for cold and preservation.

As the King idled at the bottom of the stairs, the youth retrieved the Hand of Glory from the sink, then the robe-wrapped staff from where it had been propped against the back of a chair. Swiftly he turned and made for the doorway to the outer passage. The cat-owl darted after the youth, uttering a small disgruntled sound as she went.

Feeling somewhat disregarded himself, the King hastened after them.

He had not noticed before, but the tunnel between the cave entrance and the kitchen was dimly lit in a similar way to Harry’s rooms—the very stone emitted a dull gray glow, just enough for human eyes to see by. This proved fortunate, for the night in the Young Forest was every bit as overcast and dark as Hermione’s note to Harry had indicated. The low light in the tunnel meant that his eyes were adjusting rapidly to the dark. Never the less, the King wondered if Harry had some reason not to light his wand.

A cat nyaaahed in the underbrush, and a huff of laughter ahead marked where Harry stood. “It’s alright, Your Majesty. There’s nothing bad out here—not yet, anyway. Give us a Lumos, would you? My hands are full.”

One question answered to his satisfaction, the King raised his wand and cast the Wand-Lighting Charm silently. In the bright white light of the birch wand, he saw Harry nod approvingly, then turn and forge off the path into the shrubby trees. Hurrying to keep his guide within sight, the King saw the youth turning his head as he wound through the trees. Abruptly the young man turned again and halted at the base of a rowan a little taller than the various oaks around it.

Harry cut his eyes at the King and held the wizards’ staff out to him. “Hold this for a bit, please. Don’t let it touch anything.”

Careful not to brush his sleeves against the sopping fabric, the King reluctantly accepted the staff in his off-hand, and Harry placed his newly unburdened left palm against one of the rowan’s three trunks. After a moment of complete stillness, the youth stepped back a pace and reverently laid the Hand of Glory on the moss in front of the tree. Stepping back once more, he unsheathed his sword and gently touched the point of the blade to the moss just in front of the Hand.

The King stiffened at the sudden change in the tenor of the Forest vibrations, and braced as the ground shifted under his feet.

The Hand of Glory was sinking into the moss. No, that’s not right, the King realized. The moss—or possibly the earth over which it grew—seemed to be drawing itself out from under the Hand and piling around it’s outline, while clusters of rootlets worked their way methodically about each finger and the thumb. Their placement was ideal, said phantom physiological knowledge, for prying the fingers out of their rigid clawed fist without causing damage. Now the Hand really was sinking into the soil, down and toward the rowan tree, and the King glimpsed one particularly robust rootlet taking custody of the corpse fat taper before the earth flowed back into the hole created by the Hand’s passage. In a matter of seconds, the moss had grown back over the bare patch, though the ground continued to shiver slightly for a minute or two. Then all was still except for the tree, which gave a distinctly smug creak and rustle.

In the light of the birch wand, the King saw Harry smile, and the youth gave the rowan a final thankful pat before turning away. The youth blinked when he found himself face to face with an enquirious look, and huffed, but the smile didn’t fade.

“The Hand is six feet down, just like the rest of the hanged man ought to be. The tree will keep it there until the spirit can let go, then neutralize the rest of the necromancy. Her nature is enough opposed to it that she shouldn’t be hurt in the attempt.”

Thoroughly discontented with this explanation, the eyebrow remained aloft, but the youth just shrugged, sheathed the sword, and forged off in another direction. Being thoroughly discontented, the King followed. Somewhere to the side, the damned cat-owl made a noise that sounded uncomfortably like a feline snicker.

Harry was casting about at the trees again. He jerked to a stop in two open spaces, turning a full circle counter-clockwise in each before haring off into the brush. There was something unfocused—or perhaps, focused on something not entirely visible—in the young man’s expression, and once or twice the King could have sworn a bush leaned out of his path, and one low branch did a truly heroic job of bending itself out of braining height as the youth passed beneath it. (The bushes were thorny, and the branch snapped back into position behind Harry. The King had to resort to wriggling and crouching in order to follow. This soured his temper immensely.)

The youth stopped in a third small clearing, spun widdershins, paused, then slowly turned back deosil. His expression lost some of that strange para-focus, and he seemed to consider each young tree carefully as he went. Finally, he nodded.

“Alright,” Harry said slowly, pointing at the moss in front of his feet. “Plant the staff right here. Then step back behind that little blue oak there.”

Grinding his teeth at being ordered about—Like some mindless hireling— the King rammed the end of the staff into the ground so that the sloppy robes oozed down the staff, then turned and stalked back to the indicated tree, far passed caring if the youth or the cat-owl saw his pique. When he was passed the trunk the King turned, arms folded and glowering, to watch.

Fortunately or not, Harry had attention only for the wizard’s staff. Staring thoughtfully at the staff standing upright in front of him, he stepped back and pulled his sword from its sheath once more. Then he raised the sword so that the point was level with the middle of the staff, hesitated, and threw over his shoulder, “Care to bet on what it is?” He waggled the sword to indicate the staff. “The wood, I mean. The first staff I took off Draco was hawthorn. Ron did for his second, so I don’t know about it, but the last one I got was grapevine. So what do you make of this?”

Distracted from his sulk, the King thought, evaluating his impressions of the edge- and end-grain of the staff, and the spacing of the knotholes. “What is the wager?”

Harry shrugged. “Bragging rights? You don’t have anything I’m willing to take off you, and I don’t have anything I’d care to wager. It’s just fun to guess—we’ll find out in another minute, anyway. So?”

The King rolled his eyes. “Cherry, then. Black or Choke.”

“Almond. Probably Bitter.”

“Nonsense. The end grain—”

“—Can barely be seen under all that lacquer,” Harry interrupted him. “We could both be completely wrong. Now brace yourself. This bit might go… squiggly.” So saying, the youth leaned forward and tapped the staff with the sword.

Later, the King would compare the after-image seared into his mind’s eye to a fountain of lightning.

Rationally, he understood that the sword had sucked all the magic out of the staff and robes, then pushed that energy transformed into the ground underfoot. Once in the ground, some of the magic had surged up into the surrounding trees, but quite a lot was forced back into what had a split-second ago been a pole of magically charged, dead wood.

The thrum of the Forest changed pitch again, and the King felt new rhythms in the marrow of his bones. The trees grew, and he saw it happening with his physical eyes—saw trunks thickening, twigs branching, leaves lengthening.

With tortured cracks, the hard lacquer of the staff split as the wood beneath swelled, sprouted, and scarred over with new bark. Costly black and silver silks were shredded by sharp twigs and hung like lametta on branches that burst into flower with a bright tinkling like hundreds of wind chimes in a gale.

And then, just as with the burying of the Hand of Glory, the Young Forest settled. However, the subtle change in the vibrations remained.

Still standing placidly two paces away from the epicenter of a magical explosion, Harry looked up into the petal-loaded branches above his head and crowed, “Come on, that’s just—were we both wrong, or both right? Must have been the spell residues.”

Cautiously, the King walked up to stand next to the youth. Looking up, he realized what Harry meant. White, cleft-petaled cherry-like flowers with deep pink stamens grew in pairs directly from the branches, the way almond blossoms were supposed to.

Cherry blossoms, the phantom knowledge told him, grow in clusters, each flower on its own thin stem.

“How interesting,” the King said finally. “I suppose the next question is, is it edible? And safe, magically speaking? For all you know, it might produce parapraxes-inducing cherries. Or possibly glow-in-the-mouth almonds,” he added, noting the faint luminescence of the blossoms higher in the tree, where the light of his wand didn’t reach. “Provided it survives, of course. Sheltered or not, the soil here isn’t terribly fertile, or moist.”

“Oh, it will take,” the youth said with finality. “Which means I’ll have to put up another sign. Some of the younger dragons have less sense than your average wizard.”

“Prr-URRRr,” said the cat-owl with emphasis, still keeping well beyond the sphere of light cast by the birch wand. “Nyyaah-mew, MrRRRt. MrrOWw-mm.”

Harry looked toward the sound, then appeared to peer at the King’s chest. “Tomorrow,” he said in a tone of agreement, looking as if he very much wanted to smirk.

The King glanced from where he thought the cat-owl was to the youth, and prayed for patience. “What,” he said, putting as much royal disdain as he felt safe into the words, “did the cat say?”

In another disturbing pattern, his scathing tone just made the youth smirk openly as he said, “Hedwig said, ‘Tomorrow. Right now, the King of the Enchanted Forest really shouldn’t be tromping around the mountains in his dressing gown. People might talk.’”