Chapter 10 : Confrontations
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The wind howled around Ron’s ears and he took back every time he had stepped out of his front door and cursed the savagery of an English summer. That just meant a jacket in May, a hood or a brolly close to hand even in June, shorts left folded in drawers to come out for maybe one day a year and then banished until the ice age broke.
It was all inconsequential compared to the weather in the moorland of Dartmoor.
At least it wasn’t raining. That was all he could say for the situation as they clambered up the side of one of the more vicious peaks in the middle of nowhere, and he tried to not get blown back down the hill. At least it meant his footing was steady.
And at least he could be granted the petty, petty satisfaction of watching Hermione struggle more than him with the climb. He had to keep his fitness up, after all - she didn’t, and he’d already had to slow his pace so she didn’t get left behind.
Then she slipped and went down on one knee with a muttered curse, and instinctively he turned to her, instinctively he extended a hand to help her back up, and instinctively she took it.
Their eyes met for a heartbeat as she rose, but he pulled back before she could, turning away almost savagely and trudging on.
“So you picked somewhere nice and accessible, then?” he said, bitter words fighting away unpleasant emotions.
“Some of Godric Gryffindor’s most significant deeds from before Hogwarts happened in these hills,” she said, just as snippy. “His slaying of a rampaging Cornish Green, his evasion of the Elven Hunt -”
He looked back at her, incredulous. “The Elven Hunt? What did they do, chase him with desserts until he ate them all and exploded?”
Hermione’s expression pinched. “Elves have changed a lot over the last thousand years, Ron.”
“I’ll bloody say. Clearly you should be teaching them about their savage ancestors if you want to fire them up. Get them some inspiration to be something more than providers of truly excellent scones.” He scowled. “Or might that make them too liberated?”
“This is hardly the time, Ron.”
“Oh? We’re marching through the middle of bloody nowhere with still miles more to go. I think this is the perfect time for a conversation.” He didn’t, not at all, but if they were going to be stuck together out here he was determined to make it as unpleasant an experience for her as it was for him.
Ron wasn’t used to holding the moral high ground, but she was the one who’d broken up with him via newspaper. He wasn’t entirely sure what to do now he had this ground; wasn’t sure if berating her was what one was supposed to do, or if that would lose him his advantage and land him back in the doghouse.
At least that would be familiar.
She gave a humourless laugh. “Oh, now you want a conversation?” He didn’t look at her - he didn’t need to. He could just imagine the tilt of her head, the flash of her eyes. “I thought you were too busy for those? That you had to be somewhere else, or you couldn’t let yourself be distracted by an emotional discussion?”
I didn’t sound that self-absorbed. Did I? He scowled. “So what have you been working on with Malcolm?” He wasn’t above a low blow.
“The Department of Mysteries want to hire some House Elves for a project,” she said, drawing level with him on the climb. “So they wanted me to liaise with the Unions.”
He watched her out of the corner of his eyes. “And that’s all that’s going on with you?” He didn’t even try to not sound incredulous.
Ron stopped, whirling to face her. The wind was whipping her hair, making it wilder than ever, and she faltered as his baleful gaze landed upon her. “You’re lying,” he said, jabbing an accusing finger. “If it weren’t, you’d have been indignant at me even asking.”
She hesitated, and his gut did the loop-the-loop thing she’d made it do a hundred times before, for better or worse. “If you must know, he’s asked me out to dinner.”
He opened his mouth, ready for some cutting retort - but none came, and Ron just turned on his heel, returning to clambering up the tor. His arm came up to block the worst of the wind, and to hide his expression from her.
“So I guess you’re pretty lucky Harry didn’t cancel his Clarion subscription, huh?” He couldn’t fight the bitterness now, but it came this time from his own genuine pain - instead of the petty desire to inflict hurt back upon her. “Otherwise I might have been under the impression we were still together!”
“We’re ‘not as close’ as we used to be, or something? I don’t know, I didn’t memorise it, it was just a lousy article,” Ron lied. “But it made it clear, didn’t it? Since you couldn’t tell me face to face?”
He could almost hear her jaw drop. “Couldn’t tell you face to face? What do you think the past three months have been about, Ron? Though I guess that’s the point, isn’t it, you don’t listen!”
Ron didn’t stop. The anger made progress easier, became something to burn away in the climb other than energy. “Well, now I got the point! Loud and clear! Along with half of Britain! Happy now?”
“Of course not.” Her voice was treacherously quiet, like it was when she was really upset, upset beyond her own anger, and he had to fight the instinct to look at her - to reach out for her, to comfort her. “You think that this is what I wanted? That after all we’ve been through, I wanted it to end like this?”
He didn’t answer, just kept peering up the hillside, as if through the gloomy skies and whipping wind he could find something to get him out of this situation.
“...but I didn’t mean the article to be a... a surprise,” she said, and to his astonishment he found himself wishing she would stop talking. It wasn’t as if she was going to say anything that would change their circumstances. “I didn’t mean that, I really didn’t. Ron, I’m... sorry.”
That did stop him; usually he was the one in that position, and to hear her giving an apology when he felt he damn well deserved one was enough to make him hesitate.
But he had been right. It didn’t really change anything.
Then he spotted the heavy stone at the top of the next rise. “...I think we’re almost there.”
She was beside him, all words abandoned, for which he could only be grateful. He didn’t want to wonder whether this was her trying to forget it all, or if she really was that distracted. “That looks like it.”
“When did you do this?” He picked up the pace again, a surge of energy found now he was so close to the end. “And why couldn’t we just apparate in?”
“Three months after Voldemort died,” she said. “You were helping George out at the time... we didn’t keep it a secret because we didn’t want you to know, it just seemed like such an inconsequential thing when -”
“Can you do me a favour? Just one?” Ron lifted a finger. “Cut out the justifications and apologies. Just answer my questions.”
She flinched guiltily. “I warded up the immediate area. We couldn’t apparate there directly, and I did what I could to make it tough to apparate in close; I couldn’t guarantee we wouldn’t be splinched. That’s why we had to hike in. I tried to make the place as secure as possible, but don’t worry; I can get through my own protection wards now I’m here.”
They reached the top of the rise, and Ron could see the outcropping of rock wasn’t just slabs of huge, heavy stone - it was a natural archway and, beyond it, he could see the darkness of a cavernous passageway working into the depths of the ridge.
He frowned. “Did you make this?”
“It was here when we found it - or, when we went looking for it. Gryffindor hid out here for two days while evading the hunt. The way the legends recorded the event made me think there might have been some natural magic in the area that he used to hide himself. I think I was right.” Hermione drew her wand. “Let me go first.”
Ron drew his own and took the flanking position he usually assumed for Harry in the field. “Is there anything I should keep an eye out for?”
Hermione pursed her lips as she paused at the entrance to the cave. “Movement.”
Ron scowled. “Should there be something moving out here?”
“Lumos.” She lifted her wand instead of talking, to show the cavernous passageway carrying on deeper than the light could show. “I’ll need to deactivate these wards so we can pass.”
He couldn’t see anything, and silently kicked himself for not having checked. He knew why he hadn’t, of course - it was nothing to do with obliviousness or laziness, but rather, an automatic trust of her memory and capabilities which had left him focusing on potential other, more physical threats.
He didn’t like that thoughtless trust so much any more.
After a few seconds she lowered her wand and nodded. “We should be fine now. Come on.”
He followed her deeper in, ears straining. It was times like this that his senses played tricks on him; that the slightest drip of water would sound like a footstep, like the crunch of stone underfoot would sound like someone moving the rocks above them.
But he was as confident as he could be that they were alone down there. Alone, and silent.
The cave wasn’t particularly deep or long, but they didn’t need to go far before it had twisted around enough that he couldn’t see daylight, and the only illumination came from the tips of their wands.
Then they turned the next corner, and the light of his wand met solid rock as the passageway came to an abrupt end. Ron flicked his wand up and down, saw the ledge carved smooth at about waist height, and then his breath caught at the glint of metal.
“You just... left it lying there on the rock?”
Hermione gave him a look of faint amusement. “What else would we do? Lock it in a box? If anyone’s got this far, a box isn’t going to do anything.”
“I mean it seems a bit...” Ron looked down at the hefty, cold steel of the sword of Godric Gryffindor. “Inauspicious.”
“I don’t think I ever heard you use that word before.” She quirked an eyebrow. “Only you would reserve it for a sword. You are such a boy.”
“Nope; I’m all man,” Ron said, smirking at her - then he remembered where he was, and where they were, and he looked back at the sword. “Is it safe to touch?”
She nodded, and he reached down to grasp the hilt. The smooth leather was familiar, and the weight as he hefted the weapon comfortable. Ron hardly knew anything about swords, but even he knew the blade was beyond perfect. Just the slightest swing wasn’t like he was moving a weapon, he was moving a limb.
“Let’s get out of here,” Hermione said. “We’re going to have to put together somewhere else safe for it. The only reason to take it from here is so I can keep an eye on it properly.”
“So you can?” He quirked an eyebrow. “If the people who attacked Harry are after it, then surely it makes more sense for this to be in the hands of the Auror. Not the... what is your job title, anyway?”
“Liaisons Manager,” she said, snippy that he’d forgotten, though he hadn’t. “And Harry’s an Auror too, and that didn’t do him much good.”
“The difference is,” said Ron, finding it difficult to take his eyes off the sword as they turned and trooped back towards the cave entrance, “he wasn’t expecting it. He’s got Ginny to worry about, and a wedding. I can take care of myself.”
“We should take it to Hogwarts.”
“Ah, Hogwarts, that impenetrable fortress - oh, no, wait, didn’t someone rob the place last week? Someone very likely behind all of this? And we still don’t even know how, so we can’t protect against it?”
“Then if they had the resources to break into Hogwarts, I’m quite sure they have the resources to beat one Auror.”
“And the resources to beat one Liaison Manager’s paltry charms.”
“Paltry?” The sunlight, gloomy as it was, hit her face as they trooped up the passageway to show her utter indignation. “This is about more than scoring cheap points, Ron, it’s -”
Then a shadow fell across them and Ron whirled around, wand whipping up to the entranceway. A man stood there, tall and burly, his face like it had been etched from the stone itself with a particularly virulent chisel.
“It’s over,” he said, his voice gravelly. “We’ll be taking the sword now, Mister Weasley, Miss Granger. We thank you for your work in recovering it; it’s saved us a lot of time.”
Ron’s lip curled. “Who the hell are -”
“Burke!” Hermione’s voice caught. “You - I should have known I couldn’t trust you!”
Ron leant in. “Who is this guy?”
“I apologise for the deception, Miss Granger. It was accidental, I assure you; we had no idea you would actually lead us to the sword. But I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.” Burke extended a hand.
“Still don’t know who you are. But you can go right to hell,” Ron snorted.
“You think I’m actually going to hand the sword over?” Hermione’s eyes flashed dangerously. “To a criminal like you?”
“Does this mean you’re going to tell me who he is, yet?”
“A criminal?” Burke snorted. “You’ve got it all wrong, Miss Granger. Everything I’ve done has been on the authority of the Department of Mysteries. Including coming here and claiming the sword.”
“Oh!” Ron waggled his wand at him. “You’re an Unspeakable. Right. Well, that makes everything different. You can go right to unspeakable hell if you think you can - Stupefy!”
Burke hadn’t seen it coming, had clearly expected more righteous ranting, and Ron’s Stun hit him in the shoulder, sending him reeling back. But it had been a quick flash of magic, so brief that it only staggered him - and then two, three more figures joined him at the mouth of the cave.
“Yeah.” Burke rolled his stiff shoulder. “I didn’t come alone, and I will hurt you if I have to.”
Then their wands flashed, and Ron threw himself sideways, tackling Hermione to the ground as he did so. Holding his wand and the sword meant he couldn’t catch himself well, and his elbows bashed hard on rock, but even while being thrown to one side she was hurling curses at the four Unspeakables. They were holding steady at the mouth of the cave, able to take cover and shoot back.
Whereas the two of them had very little by way of shelter.
Ron flicked his wand to throw up a swift, unsteady Shield Spell. “We’re in trouble.”
“I noticed,” she hissed, rolling to a kneeling position - but instead of lifting her wand, she lifted a hand to cup around her mouth. “Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
He stared. “What are you - they’re right there!”
But she didn’t answer, just kept throwing spells, and he pressed himself against the wall of the cave, forced to focus on protecting them both. Normally he liked to take cover so he could concentrate his magic on the purely offensive, but he knew his combat reflexes had to be better than Hermione’s. He still knew the glint in an enemy’s eye, the twitch of their wand, the flicker of their expression which meant he needed to defend himself. His experience was better suited to protecting them than fighting back.
And all of his experience told him they couldn’t just cower in the cave being shot at. They were tactically outmatched and outnumbered. He looked wildly at Hermione. “It’s time for you to have one of your brilliant ideas!”
Then there was a chirping, high pitched sound from the mouth of the cave, beyond the Unspeakables - and one of them gave a panicked yelp, before he was hurled forwards and upwards by an unseen force. He crashed into the roof of the cave, then landed heavily and didn’t move.
Hermione’s smile was bright in the darkness. “I had one five minutes ago.”
“What the -”
The shapes that appeared at the threshold were impossibly small, impossibly shaped - and yet Ron recognised them at once. That was the problem.
They were House Elves.
Four of them, to be precise, and the two subordinates of Burke’s left standing rounded on them with a mixture of determination and confusion - and, Ron fancied, a touch of fear at such a peculiar and yet powerful spectacle. But their wands whipped up, and the Elves waved their hands, and then the air was thick with magic again.
Then Burke whirled around, scowling, and Ron realised he’d let himself be so distracted by the appearance of their reinforcements that he wasn’t ready, not nearly ready enough, and a spell danced at the tip of the Unspeakable’s wand -
- crashing into Hermione’s gut and sending her toppling to the ground.
Fear twisted in Ron’s belly, sick and instinctive. He hadn’t heard Burke utter vocals, hadn’t recognised the flash of light as anything in particular, had no idea what the lunatic had done, how badly he’d hurt her...
He was at her side in seconds, wand coming to where she’d been hit, the words of a healing charm already on the tip of his tongue. But her eyelids were flickering, and she was stirring even as he got there, her voice a low moan.
“I’m okay - just a Disorientation -”
It was a Summoning spell, and a powerful one, and in his distraction Ron fumbled at the hilt - but to no avail, as the sword was yanked from his hands, flying across the distance and landing neatly in Burke’s grasp.
“Oh no - oh, no you don’t -” But Ron’s curse at the Unspeakable went wild, and Burke was running, hurtling for the cave entrance where his two colleagues were at least holding their own against the Elves.
“Abner! Abner, he can’t get away with it!” Hermione was shouting, and as she did, one of the House Elves broke past the fight at the cave entrance and hurled himself bodily at Burke.
He was so small he couldn’t be much of a contest for the man - but he latched onto Burke’s wrist, and the impact staggered him. They stood in the cave entrance, scrambling and fighting, and Ron bolted for them, brandishing his wand and trying to get a clear shot.
Then the two of them fell, and the sword fell with them. Burke landed nearest, hurling Abner as he did so, and the House Elf flew through the air to crash heavily into the cave wall. The Unspeakable rolled, scrabbling forward for the sword, and Ron lunged.
Their hands both landed on it at the same time, and Ron fought to get a firm grip - with the sword he could keep Burke at bay, and then these Elves could help fight them off and then -
Burke’s fist hit him like a jackhammer, knocking him down and knocking the sword from his grasp. The world spun around him, light and dark flashing from the gloom of the cave and the spells - of the House Elves, of the Unspeakables who had been recovering their higher ground and were now keeping Hermione, too, on the defensive, and then a figure rose before him - Burke, tall, burly Burke, holding the Sword of Gryffindor.
But he didn’t attack. Didn’t Stun him, didn’t stab him. Just turned on his heel, and bolted for the cave entrance.
“No!” But Hermione’s curse went wide, and Ron fumbled for his wand to no avail, he couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t get the words together -
“You will not defy the Mistress!”
That was Abner, his little form getting to his feet, and he lifted his hand. Ron didn’t see what happened - just saw Burke jerk with surprise, come to a halt, look around wildly.
“The sword -”
“Where is it -”
“Stupefy! Stupefy, you stupid -”
“It’s gone! Abort! Get out of here!”
Then the cheering and jeering of House Elves, the sound of retreating footsteps, and then Hermione was looking down at him, her hair drifting down into his face. She smelled, even down here, after all this, crisp and clear and like a summer’s day with a book - as if that made any sense, but she’d never made sense, and that was why he -
“I’m okay,” he mumbled, trying to sit up, but that brought their faces uncomfortably close together, and she jerked back. “Merlin, he hits like the Hogwarts Express - what happened?”
“I don’t...” Hermione looked around. The Unspeakables were gone, the four House Elves coming up to them, tiny, hunched over figures of horrendous magical power. “Abner, what did you do?”
“Abner is sorry, Mistress Hermione -”
“You’re free, Abner, you know you don’t have to call me ‘Mistress’; you’re here because you chose to be, because you’ve been paid to be...”
“Can we reassert his individuality when I know what the hell is going on?” Ron rubbed his pounding temples.
“Abner was told to stop him from getting away with the sword,” said Abner. He looked old for an elf, stooped over, but Ron reckoned he struggled to tell a House Elf’s age anyway. “So... Abner did. Without thinking, Mistress - just tried to stop him from having it...”
“He doesn’t know for sure what he did?” Ron squinted.
“House Elf magic is powerful and instinctive.” Hermione was crouched next to Abner, her voice going reassuring. “It works beyond ways wizards can understand, but the House Elves have been oppressed for so long that even they’ve forgotten the full extent of their own power. Sometimes, if they’re truly stressed, and they try to achieve something it can... backfire.”
Ron frowned at the elves. “Where did these little buggers even come from?”
Hermione tilted her head archly. “Harry hired them. To protect the sword. They’re from the Dartmoor Elven Commune, a community of free elves living in these parts. It’s their ancestral homeland; we’ve helped to reconnect them to their roots. All we ask them to do is to keep an eye on the cave; I wasn’t even sure they’d come if I called for them...”
“Mi- Hermione has charged us with a duty!” Abner squawked indignantly. “We will safeguard the sword! We will defend our Valued Employers when they call for us!”
Ron side-eyed her. “They’re still getting to grips with the whole freedom thing, aren’t they? But if they were watching this place, and if there were wards around this place, then why did we need to come here anyway? Now we’ve just lost the damn sword.”
Hermione scowled. “The sword is only protected against incursions I could anticipate. Even I don’t understand for sure how the Sorting Hat’s magic works in summoning the Sword of Gryffindor, but that means I can’t protect against it. If something happened, if it had already gone missing, it’s possible neither I nor the elves would know unless we came down here!”
Ron scoffed. “But in coming here, we’ve lost it. To save it, Abner’s sent the sword... we don’t know where? Isn’t that great.”
“It’s not his fault!” Hermione snapped as Abner cringed. “If it hadn’t been for him, Burke would have it!”
“Yeah. Burke.” Ron got to his feet, straightening his coat. “Burke, one of your buddies from the Department of Mysteries. How do you fancy he found us here, do you think? He followed us!”
Hermione looked away. “...very likely.”
“So, how do you like your new boyfriend now?”
“Ron! Is that all you can think about at a time like this?” Hermione straightened. “We’ve lost the Sword of Gryffindor and you couldn’t be happier that I’ve been proven wrong about Malcolm, could you?”
“Oh, like it’s going to make a bloody bit of difference to my life.” Ron scowled. “If not him, then it’ll be the next speccy git who comes along, isn’t it?”
She harumphed. “Nice to know you think so highly of me to assume I’d just swan off right away -”
“Well, you almost did, didn’t you?”
She tossed her head angrily. “You haven’t changed, have you, Ron? Fine. That’s fine. We don’t need to work together any more on this, do we? I’ve got to find the Sword of Gryffindor, and that’s going to take work and research, and those aren’t exactly your areas of expertise, are they?” Hermione looked over at Abner. “Thank you for your help, gentlemen. Can you get me out of here quicker?”
“I thought you warded -”
“I didn’t ward against house elf magic.” Hermione waved a hand angrily at Ron. “You can leave him. He needs the fresh air.”
Then the air cracked and twisted and they were gone, leaving him on his own in the dark, empty, gloomy cave.
No sword. No lead. No girl.
“McGonagall is going to kill me,” he grumbled, stumbling back out into the daylight. There were still hours before sunset, he still had his wits about him, and aside from the possibility he was going to get mauled by marauding House Elves, he had to concede that there was no reason why he couldn’t make it out of the apparition ward areas and home of his own accord.
He didn’t need her. And she clearly didn’t need him.
The nearest fist-sized rock suffered his wrath as Ron kicked it hard. It skittered along the ground, down the hill; bounced off a small rise and ricocheted off to the side, behind a bigger rock -
And hit something with a clang.
He ran over, scrambling around the rock - and there it was, lying in the long grass. The Sword of Godric Gryffindor. Not lost, not sent to who-knows-where, not turned to ash by unpredictable House Elf magic, just sent a hundred feet away.
Or, at least, half of it had been, the blade only as long as his forearm before it stopped in an ugly, jagged point, the rest of the metal nowhere in sight. Gingerly Ron picked it up, hefting the hilt - and was briefly distracted by how good it felt in his hand even incomplete.
Could one break goblin craftsmanship? Was that even meant to be possible? His instinct was, of course, to get in touch with Hermione, let her know, continue the...
...but no. She’d probably just take it, then go back to hitting the books, then cut him out of the entire investigation, like she’d wanted to all along. His investigation. It wasn’t as if she’d provided anything helpful about the whole Sorting Hat issue anyway.
No. This was his best lead. Ron smiled. He had something they wanted - and she had nothing.
And her new squeeze was evil.
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