I throw down my quill and flex my aching fingers. I’ve written four double-sided scrolls of parchment and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Dumbledore pauses expectantly, and I dutifully pick up my quill to keep on making notes.
Remus and Isobel went to bed hours ago. Sitting opposite of me, James is still on his first scroll. If anything he looks bored. Git. He’s always been that way, conservative with note taking in lessons too, but what if we miss some really important detail that could come in useful? The stakes are so much higher than losing marks on some test.
So far, Dumbledore’s gone through a brief (ha!) history of each of the four goblin families we’ll be tracking down. None of them sound particularly pleasant and they all seem to hate just about everyone—even each other and especially humans.
I finish copying down the last details of the Gorfang family, a particularly violent and distrusting generation, and feel overwhelmed by the things that I still need to learn and research before we go. The task was starting to seem impossible.
“Okay, I think that’s enough on the families for now. James you’re familiar with them already are you not?” James nods tiredly, and for the first time I feel quite comforted that he’ll be there. At least he knows about goblins and he’s spoken to them. Dumbledore turns to me. “Lily, I realise you don’t have long, but I strongly suggest you research them as much as possible before you set off.”
“When are we leaving, professor?’
“In exactly two weeks from now, on the morning of the 2nd of November.”
“And we’re going to the Black Forest?” I ask in confirmation, even though I already know that was what he said.
“Ah, yes, about that. We need to discuss the particulars of the visit.” Dumbledore looks meaningfully at James who seems to understand; he swiftly closes the door firmly and casts some sort of charm around the entrance.
Meanwhile, Dumbledore does his own spell that is also unfamiliar to me. I watch, baffled, but they offer no explanation. Why bother doing security charms half way through the meeting?
“There is something you need to know about this journey and I fear it will not be to your liking.” Dumbledore pauses and I wait with a sick feeing in my stomach. What could possibly make it worse than it already is?
“What is it?” asks James gruffly, looking as though he’s expecting the worst, probably mirroring my own expression.
“You are going to the Black Forest, but it is only a gateway to your final destination,” Dumbledore says clearly. “My informant tells me the goblins are not in the Black Forest; they are within the Strip, which for the time being is hidden in that area.”
“The Strip,” I repeat, my voice strangely high pitched.“We’re going to the Strip?” I ask breathlessly. I’m sure my face looks like a kid’s on Christmas.
“Yes, is that a problem?”
“No, no, no, not at all,” I say quickly, shaking my head.
Dumbledore looks at me shrewdly, and James seems to be suppressing a smile even as he looks at Dumbledore. The git knows what this means to me, I’ve always been fascinated with the place since Kettleburn told us about it in third year. The Strip was only the finest endangered magical animal sanctuary on the planet. It was internationally funded and a magical engineering marvel. I couldn’t believe it—I was actually going to the Strip!
I spent months researching it for my Care of Magical Creatures NEWT coursework. I probably overdid it a bit actually, but it was so darn interesting! It existed on its own plane and spanned 500 by 100 miles (thus the name). It was home to over 100 different species of endangered magical creatures and had special areas devoted to each, equipped with their perfect living environments. Supposedly, there was a desert for the nundu and mountainous regions for the giants, woodland for leprechauns etc. It was incredible, I spent months finding out every single detail I could about it and it still defied belief.
I had always wanted to go, but as Kettleburn had kindly informed me (“It’s not a petting zoo, dearie”), getting a visitors’ permit for the Strip was next to impossible, as most creatures had high black market value and the place was a goldmine for poachers. In fact, I’d read it was extremely fortified and the guards were somewhat ruthless towards trespassers, and with that thought, my good mood evaporated.
“The Strip,” Dumbledore says after my slight freak-out, “is run by the International Magical Co-operation and is an area of inaccessible land reserved for the care and protection of endangered magical creatures.” I nod impatiently, since I knew all of this already. “My informant has told me that several dozen goblins have emigrated there, presumably to use it as a safe haven.” Dumbledore pauses and takes in our faces. “There is no doubt that these are the families we are looking for, you must therefore find them within the Strip, and convince them to join us, or at the very least, to stay neutral.”
I scrunch my brow in confusion. “But how do we get into the Strip? Isn’t it supposed to be impenetrable?”
“Ah, yes, about that. My informant will meet you on the evening of the 5th of November at the Gutennacht Inn. He will show you a way into the sanctuary.”
“Does he work there? Is he a guard?” I ask curiously, unsure of how else he should know the way in.
The professor hesitates. “He has a vested interest in the Strip, let’s put it like that,” says Dumbledore delicately.
"Vested interest?” What on earth does that mean? I open my mouth to ask further when James asks another question. “You said there was news we wouldn’t like?”
“When in the Strip, all magic is monitored closely for poacher activity, and you have no permits to be there. If you are caught by the guards, you could be seriously charged on suspicion of being poachers and face considerable prison sentences.” Dumbledore pauses and looks at us seriously over his glasses. “As far as I am aware, Voldemort does not know where the goblins have gone, and I would like to keep it that way for as long as possible. This means you must not be traced by Death Eaters as you enter the Strip. In addition to this, if you are detected by the guards once in the Strip, standard policy dictates the Office of International Magical Co-operation should be notified. I’m sorry to say that we have reason to suspect that Death Eater spies have infiltrated that particular office. This means you must not cause a magical disturbance when in the Strip.”
It takes a few minutes for Dumbledore’s words to sink in, and then I’m sure I must have heard wrong or misunderstood. It was too absurd.
“So, what you’re saying is that we can’t use magic in the Strip?” I ask, completely dumbstruck. For the first time this evening James looks just as staggered. Our eyes meet across the table and I can see the same unease in his expression that must be reflected in mine. He recollects himself and looks down at his notes.
I’ve been completely dependent on magic since I was 17. I’ve used it for literally everything. It defined me. With my wand, I am a powerful witch, without it I’m a weak, small slip of a girl. The idea of being without magic is...terrifying.
I look at James for a second time, but he seemed to be avoiding me again. I look at Dumbledore instead.
“What if we need to defend ourselves? What if there are Death Eaters or dangerous creatures?”
“That will be your judgement, just be aware that as soon as you cast a spell, guards will descend at once. Magic is monitored very closely in the Strip. Even the slightest spell could set off the alarm.”
I nod in understanding. I had read all about the monitoring system years ago. James finds his voice and speaks up
“What about getting to Germany? Can’t we just apparate?”
“International apparition is discouraged. Germany still has immigration wards and you cannot apply for a magical visa as they are being monitored. Lily, first thing tomorrow, or today in fact,”Dumbledore says, glancing at the clock and noticing it was 2.30am, “you must apply for a work related visa to Germany. Remember, you must both get to the Black Forest without arousing suspicion.”
Dumbledore wavers for a moment before continuing. “I know this is difficult and dangerous,” his voice is grave as he speaks, “but as soon as I knew this mission had to go ahead, I was hoping the two of you would step forward. Lily, it wasn’t just so you could provide the visa, but because of your extensive knowledge and expertise about the Strip.”
I blink in surprise and Dumbledore smiles warmly, before pulling out one extremely long and tightly coiled piece of parchment and handing it to me wordlessly. I recognise it immediately and I know James does too. I can’t count the number of times he complained I was poring over it instead of getting into mischief with him. “The Strip: a Comprehensive Study by Lily Evans, 7th Year Gryffindor” is lettered neatly at the top.
“It was an outstanding piece of work,” said Dumbledore, his tone sincere. “20,000 words, I believe, 15,000 over the requirement!”
I smile a little in pleasure and embarrassment, and Dumbledore turns to James.
“James, I wanted you on this mission because of your familiarity with goblins certainly, but also because of their familiarity with your family. Your father was an excellent ambassador for goblin-human co-operation and was respected greatly for all he did in support of goblin rights. As his son, this will extend to you also,” Dumbledore explains. James nods wordlessly in understanding but looks grim.
The headmaster looks at both of us a little sternly. “I understand your relationship is a little strained of late, but I would like you to bury the hatchet, so to speak, and work together. I am not exaggerating when I say the fate of the Wizarding World may well depend on your ability to do so.” There’s a beat of silence, and I feel a little like a naughty child being told off.
“Of course professor,” says James a little coldly. I look at him in surprise, but he continues to avoid eye contact with me completely. I nod quickly in affirmation.
Dumbledore sighs impatiently, “In that case, Lily, I would like you to learn more about the goblin families before you leave by utilising the Potter Manor, which has an excellent library devoted largely to goblin history.”
“Okay,” I say “I mean, assuming that’s fine with you,” I add a little awkwardly to James, who finally looks at me. I’m taken back by how cold and unfriendly his gaze is.
“That’s fine,” he says curtly, turning back to Dumbledore.
“That’s settled then. If you have any problems, contact me in the usual way. If not, I will see you on the eve of your mission,” says Dumbledore, getting to his feet and making his way to the door. He stops with his hand on the doorknob. “One last thing.” He looks over at me “Lily, you are not to discuss the particulars of the mission with anyone, not even amongst those in the Order. Do you understand?”
“Yes, of course,” I say, feeling a little wrong-footed as Dumbledore leaves. Why bother hiding it from the Order? And why warn me against it rather than James? Does he think I’m a blabbermouth?
“It’s not you,” says James without looking at me (big surprise), seemingly reading my thoughts. He’s torn a bit of his parchment and is scribbling something on to it. “It’s because I’ve been here longer, and I already know the rules,” he justifies matter of factly, and holds the parchment out to me. Written down is a very familiar address.
“Your address?” I ask bemused, does he think I’ve forgotten it?
“Actually, it’s my mother’s address,” he corrects, and I remember he’s living with Isobel now. “I’ll tell her to expect a visitor.”
I take the parchment from him wordlessly and my fingers brush against his for the shortest time. I notice him cringe away from my touch, and his hand ball into a fist. He’s repulsed by me, I realise. Avoiding any further contact whatsoever, I nod at him curtly and leave the room.
**Eight hours later
I surreptitiously creep along the corridor and rap sharply on the polished wooden door, just underneath the lopsided sign stating, ‘Neil Flintwood – Editor’ I feel my heartbeat take on a disjointed rhythm against my ribcage.
“Come in,” calls the loutish voice. Swallowing slightly and smoothingdown the pretty skirt that I would never ordinarily wear, I twist the doorknob with a sweaty hand, and put on my most winning smile.
“Neil, hello,” I greet, injecting a false amount of warmth into my tone. Neil looks understandably suspicious. I don’t think I’ve ever been this friendly with him, like ever. Shit, tone it down. “Do you have a minute?” I ask pleasantly.
“Okay sweetheart.” I suppress the urge to make a face—he knows I hate being called that.
“Listen, you know I’ve got that feature on goblins in a few months,” I begin and Neil stares at me uninterestedly. “Well, I’d like to do it properly, you know, go abroad and do my own research.” I try to make myself sound enthusiastic.
“No can do. Freema’s already booked the next slot.”
Shit. I stare at him in horror. “Are – are you sure?”
“Yes,” he answers, looking at me as though I’m a moron. Double shit. I feel a cold sweat break out on the back of my neck. So much rests on this, so many people are depending on me.
“What if I get her to swap with me?” I ask desperately.
Neil shakes his head dismissively. “It’s too late; her projects already been sent to the boss for approval,” he drones, completely unconcerned. He looks at the door pointedly, and I know he’s willing me to leave but a last ditch idea has just occurred to me.
“What if I do it for free?” Neil looks at me incredulously. “I’m serious, what if I agree to do it without getting paid?” I propose in a winning voice
“Are you completely off your rocker?”
I’m getting a bit desperate now. “Neil, I really, really need to do this research. Please let me go,” I beg moving closer to his desk, my voice taking on an irritating needy quality.
Neil looks at me as though I’ve gone insane.
In the end, Neil had to threaten calling security to make me leave. Five minutes later, I’m sitting at my desk with my head in my hands feeling thoroughly miserable. I am full of dread at the thought of going back to HQ and having to tell them I couldn’t do it, that I’d failed at the very first hurdle. I imagine Dumbledore’s disappointment, Isobel’s smug face.
I get up suddenly. There had to be something I could do. It’s 12.30pm and everyone has gone to lunch. The large office is completely empty. I sidle over to Freema’s desk and sit down. Unlike me, she’s taken the time to personalise her workspace with Transfiguration posters and glitzy stationary. Her work was secured with different coloured clips and her letters were organised into piles labelled ‘Answer immediately’ and ‘Not urgent but respond’. I snort, God she reminded me of myself at 17. I rifle through her diary and notice that her days are jam packed. She’s even set herself work for weekends and evenings too. It was no secret she was aiming for a promotion, but looking at the ridiculous amount of work she put in, it just didn’t seem worth it considering the difference in pay was so minimal.
“She’s going to burn out,” I whisper under my breath, recalling how frazzled and stressed she looked of late. A horrible idea enters my head.
The thing about individuals like Freema is that they are predictable; they like order and they like routine. I should know. It was a good thing since that made things much easier. All I had to do was wait in the toilets for her to come in at the usual time.
She doesn’t disappoint.
As she washes her hands, I creep up behind her. She startles when she sees me in the mirror and turns swiftly. Freema’s a small lady, barely reaching 5 feet, and so I have to stoop slightly to maintain eye contact. “Confundo,” I whisper, and her face becomes oddly blank. “You will walk back into the main office and have a very loud and public nervous breakdown. Tell Neil that you can’t cope with the extra work load you are doing, and want to quit your research project. Take some time off too,” I instruct. “Oh – and forget this conversation ever happened,” I add in a rush. I lower my wand and she blinks, suddenly seeming more aware. Wordlessly, Freema leaves for the office.
I apparate into Diagon Alley. I don’t trust myself to witness it without looking guilty and giving myself away, so I buy myself a bagel and a cup of coffee and saunter in to the office 15 minutes later, my heart in my throat.
“Sorry I’m late,” I say breezily making my way to my desk. I notice straight away that something had happened. Everyone looks shell-shocked, and Freema’s desk is bare. Her possessions are strewn across the floor. The cloudy glass partition separating Neil’s office from the main one is shattered.
“What on earth happened?” I ask. I remember the advice I was offered by old friend once ‘You have to believe the lie.’ “Where’s Freema?”
“She’s just had a bit of a... well an episode,” answers one of my co-workers Jack.
“Funny thing, that,” drawls Neil from the corner where he’s repairing the glass partition. “Seems there’s a research slot available if you want it.” He raises his eyebrows, and I wonder briefly if he knows what I’ve done. I don’t know how to react if he’s put two and two together—but then he smiles. I realise he thinks it’s too farfetched even for me. I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse.
I push away the guilt over Freema and try to focus on the positive – I’ve got the visas. Everything else is collateral. Even now, I recognise this type of thinking is dangerous.
I spend the rest of the afternoon sorting out all of the associated paperwork for the trip. By 5.30pm, I finally finish and apparate home feeling exhausted but satisfied that at least one job had ticked off the list. I change into some comfortable clothes and have a quick dinner. I’m far too exhausted to do any research tonight (considering the night before I had been up until the early hours making notes). But as I crawl into bed, I realise with a jolt that we only have thirteen days left until we set off (as today was practically over).
There had been a moment this afternoon, while I was carrying out all of the paperwork that I had received a slight blow. A question on one of the forms was how long the research would take. In the end, I ticked the 3 months box (the longest option) but the thing that troubled me was the fact that I couldn’t actually picture myself coming back at all after completing the mission. It was rather troubling.
“Don’t be stupid, of course you’re coming back,” I say under my breath, feeling oddly comforted by my own words. As though saying it out loud made them more real. “I’m twenty years old, I have years ahead of me yet.”
‘Besides’, says a small voice somewhere in the back of my head. You have thirteen days to put things right’. And with these comforting thoughts, I lull myself to sleep.
The next morning, I wake up with a plan.
A/N Oh dear, I am so embarassed by how long I've taken to update! Hopefully I can make up for it with the next few chapters which are almost ready.
Thankyou to my lovely beta Katie for helping me with this chapter!
As always, please review. You have no idea how much it helps to receive feedback , I thrive off it!!