The characters and canon situations in the following story belong solely to JK Rowling, Scholastic and WB. I am not making any money from the publishing or writing of this story.
Beta Credit: bunnyhops; recent rewrite of this chapter made possible by CoquetteKitten.
Hermione walked quickly towards the staircase leading to the headmaster’s office, her heavy book bag bumping against her side awkwardly. At some point after she’d received her summons, she’d wrapped an arm around the bag in an attempt to keep it from swinging quite so wildly (and of course she’d been at the opposite end of the castle when the note had popped out of thin air and dropped into her lap). Now, as the staircase and her destination loomed in sight, she finally unclenched the taut muscles of her aching arm. Shaking it out, she uttered the password to Professor Dumbledore’s inner sanctum. Perhaps it hadn’t been such a good idea after all to pack so much extra reading material into her bag this morning, but her plan had been to sneak away from the boys after their last class and find a sunny reading spot near the lake.
Just outside the half-opened door, she paused. What on earth was so important that Professor Dumbledore himself had sent a summons – and in the middle of the school day, no less! No one, not even Harry (and not even in the midst of the war) had ever been summoned in such a way before. The headmaster must have been awaiting her arrival, because he called out for her to enter.
“Ah, Miss Granger! Please, please – come in, won’t you?” He was twinkling at her in his most engaging way, and as usual it completely disarmed Hermione. His kind, gentlemanly manner always made her think of an elderly uncle – her favorite sort of relative, who waited to hear your answer when he asked how you had been, and seemed fascinated by all your ramblings. The briefest of thoughts crossed her mind, and for an instant she conjured up a mental image of him as a young, courtly wizard. The idea made her blush. Fortunately, Professor Dumbledore was occupied with pulling out a chair for her, and missed this.
“Here we are, my dear – sit, sit! And we shall have tea. Would you be so kind as to pour for us? Oh, look, they’ve sent up my favorite cake. Lovely.” He fussed over the tea tray and then sat down in a chair by her side.
Hermione served the tea and cake, and there was silence except for the sounds of sipping and forks clinking against china plates. It was uncomfortable on her part; here she was, having been instructed to drop what she’d been doing and run to this meeting without knowing the reason for doing so. The fact that the headmaster had been so cheery, and had offered refreshments seemed to weigh in favor of a pleasant reason, but Hermione guessed that Dumbledore would have been equally cheery and served tea had he arranged a meeting with Death Eaters during the height of the war.
When she could stand it no longer (it had to have been ten agonizing minutes by now!), she addressed the headmaster. “Sir, is there something wrong? I only mean that you must have a reason for my being here, taking up your time.”
“Patience, Miss Granger!” More twinkling. “We await the arrival of your head of house, who should be just coming up the staircase now. Ah, Minerva! Impeccable timing as always.”
Professor McGonagall swept into the cluttered space, greeting Hermione in the familiar way she’d adopted in the past year, but her eyes stayed fixed on the girl’s face for longer than strictly necessary. Hermione, whose life revolved around keen observation, made a mental note of it. That, and the excessive twinkling coming from the headmaster. She wondered what would make Professor McGonagall slightly nervous and also cause Dumbledore to feel the need to do the elderly uncle flirting thing.
“Have a seat, please, Minerva. Miss Granger and I were just enjoying a cup of some very nice Oolong. You must have some. Perhaps I could impose on you to refill my cup as well, my dear?”
McGonagall sat down in a chair to Hermione’s other side and took the cup proffered by the girl. How curious, thought Hermione, that we’re sitting in a line. No direct eye contact at all. The headmaster was speaking again in between sips of tea.
“Excellent. What excellent tea! A gift from an old friend . . . let’s see, where did he procure it? Some place in the Orient, of course . . .”
What was he on about? Really – the tea? Hermione was becoming more curious about the nature of this meeting by the second. Now Professor McGonagall was filling in the silence that hovered at the edges of Dumbledore’s inanity. “Once again I must congratulate you on your success at Hogwarts, my dear. You lived up to each of my high expectations of you. I look forward to following your career. Have you given thought to what-”
Here the head of Gryffindor house was cut off by the sound of a throat being cleared. Oddly, it didn’t quite fit the voices of either person beside her (and if Hermione hadn’t been trying to figure out exactly what was going on at the moment, she would have noticed). Both of them jumped slightly, and McGonagall quickly rerouted her conversation.
“Of course, you must be wondering what you’re doing here. Albus, would you mind . . .?”
“Indeed! Miss Granger, I hope you will forgive the ramblings of,” here he paused to set down his teacup, “an old man. Aaah, but tea does make everything just a bit better, don’t you agree? And now for the purpose of this meeting.” The headmaster got up and went to his desk, where he picked up a hinged box made of dark wood. He returned to his chair and placed it before her. “This is for you,” he said reverently.
Up close, the box proved to be both old and ornate, its entire surface carved with runes in bas-relief worn smooth in places. Hermione leaned forward to better appreciate it. “It’s beautiful. May I . . .?” She reached for it hesitantly, waiting for the headmaster’s nod of permission before lifting its lid. “OH.”
Inside was a scroll of singular beauty tied with a silk ribbon. Hermione’s love for all things paper or parchment filled her with a sudden desire to know what sorts of things were written on it; she leaned yet closer and in doing so caught a trace of a captivating fragrance. Mesmerized, she picked up the scroll and raised it to her face. “OH.”
The headmaster cleared his throat and said in a formal manner, “Hermione Jean Granger, do you accept this . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ”
But she was lost in a fog of scent, and she didn’t hear another word of what he said. “Yes,” she answered without hesitation when he’d finally stopped speaking. After several more deep inhales, she broke away from it long enough to meet the headmaster’s gaze. “Yes! Thank you very much for the . . . errrrrrr . . . whatever it is.”
“Didn’t you hear what-” He looked between her and Professor McGonagall and a spot behind them, an odd expression on his face. Had it been anyone else other than the headmaster, Hermione would have described that look as shifty. “But you do accept it?”
“Albus,” Professor McGonagall began, only to be silenced by a stern glance from the headmaster.
“Absolutely.” Hermione had never been so sure of anything in her life, especially when the scroll responded to her acceptance with a pulse of magic that was pure and light and every bit as complex as its fragrance. “But what is it?”
“A war-stake, my dear. For you.”
“I’m afraid I have no idea what that is, sir.” If her tone was apologetic, it was because she didn’t often find herself in a situation where she was completely ignorant, even in the wizarding world.
“Well, it’s yours now that you’ve accepted it.” Professor McGonagall’s response might have been sharp had she not been speaking in a tone as soft and reverent as the headmaster’s had been when he first presented the box to Hermione.
If a war-stake was something that evoked reverence in both Albus Dumbledore and Minerva McGonagall, Hermione wanted to know more immediately. “How haven’t I read about them? May I assume that’s because they’re a pure-blood thing, Professors?” Its magic was dancing over her skin now.
The headmaster beamed at her. “Well done, Miss Granger! That’s correct. The war-stake is an ancient tradition dating back to a time when magic was at its most elemental. We have no data supporting the existence of Muggleborns at that point in history, and so many scholars of magic believe that there simply weren’t any. Magic seems to have been contained within specific families, many of whom are still extant. In fact, some of your peers come from these families.”
None of that was new to Hermione, but she realized the headmaster was building a base on which to raise his explanation. He was very good at it, and that made any redundancy rather enjoyable. “Yes, sir.”
“These families built alliances with each other. They fought side by side in wars, both in the magic and Muggle worlds. Some alliances were short-term, while others were formed permanently. Many times the nature of these agreements between families had more to do with their Covenants than any specific situation.”
“I beg your pardon, but what is a Covenant, sir?”
The headmaster beamed at her. “Excellent question! It was the result of a very secret, very potent magical binding done at the inception of a new magical family in ancient times. Of course, one wasn’t done at every wedding, but they did occur when an extremely powerful wizard bound himself to an equally powerful witch.”
“That doesn’t exactly answer my question.”
“No,” he agreed after a moment’s pause, “I suppose it doesn’t. Very well; perhaps we should begin with the original nature of Magic versus what it has become – and if that is our topic of research, then the proper query would be what is magic?”
Without hesitation she answered, “The force we harness for charms and the like.”
“But what is it?” His eyes gleamed. “And where did it come from?”
Hermione shook her head. The History of Magic curriculum had glossed over the dawn of the wizarding world in one prosy paragraph. “I,” she hesitated, the next words almost physically painful to utter, “don’t know.”
“Alas, the curriculum update of 1911, the goal of which was to make the Hogwarts curriculum more Muggleborn-friendly.” He shook some cake crumbs from his beard. “It trimmed a good deal of content specific to the early pure-blood families from the textbooks.” He sighed. “How much shorter our meeting would be if you were but seven decades older!”
Professor McGonagall made an impatient noise just as Hermione shifted in her chair.
The headmaster seemed to realize he was losing his audience, for he began speaking in a far more businesslike manner. “You spoke of harnessing magic just now, and that was a very apt description of our relationship with it. It has become very much a means to an end, much like the Thestral that pulls the carriage from the railway platform to Hogwarts. This, however, is not how it once was. Long ago, magic was far more than the catalyst for our spells, but the metaphysical equal of the witches and wizards with which it partnered.”
Hermione frowned as she considered the possibility of such a thing.
The headmaster continued, “Magic was drawn to those with an affinity to it; they, in turn, flocked together, forming the very first wizarding communities. Perhaps it was due to a simpler mindset or lack of accumulated knowledge, but early magic-folk didn’t question the fact that magic did as much on its own as it did when they bid it help them, and that it could perform acts of incredible polarity without hesitation – healing and torture, for instance. As time went by, people began to recognize magic as less of an individual force than a . . . a . . well, a multiplicity.”
Her frown deepened, a furrow creasing her brow. “Do you mean more than one magic?”
“Long ago, yes. Magic was not one but many.”
“Many . . . magics,” she echoed skeptically.
“Surely you can agree that there are different types of magic, Miss Granger,” he pressed, “why, here at Hogwarts we teach more than one classification of it!”
“You mean the subcategory of Dark magic.”
He nodded. “The delineation between Dark and Light magics proves the validity of the multiplicity theory.” He eyed his teacup wistfully but, at another noise from Professor McGonagall, went on, “But there were far, far more than two kinds of magic in the beginning. There was lightest light, darkest dark, and everything in between – and quite often an incredibly strong bond would develop between a certain kind of magic and a wizard or witch.”
“That’s very interesting, professor,” she began – and she really did mean it – only to be interrupted.
“Sometimes,” he looked at her over the tops of his spectacles in a meaningful way, “a certain magic would choose to bond with an entire family.”
“It sounds very much as though you’re saying the magic was sentient.” Such an idea had never occurred to Hermione before. She weighed it against her formidable education and wrinkled her nose in distaste. “That seems a bit farfetched, sir.”
“But surely metaphysical forces can be sentient; you need look no further than Hogwarts’s own population of ghosts and a poltergeist to prove such a point!”
“I suppose,” she conceded with reluctance. “But there’d be proof of this.”
“And there you have it!” he crowed triumphantly as if he’d explained anything at all.
Nonplussed, Hermione gave an inward groan, hiding her mounting confusion in a short study of the elegant scroll in her hands. All she’d wanted to know was what a Covenant was . . . She glanced out of the corner of her eyes to Professor McGonagall with a pleading expression.
The professor looked as if she was trying to bite back a smirk. Finally she came to the rescue. ‘What my esteemed but long-winded colleague is trying to say, Hermione, is that a Covenant was the result of one of those ancient unions between a certain magic and a powerful wizarding family, usually at the family’s inception.”
“And since a covenant, by definition, is an oath or promise,” Hermione lifted the war-stake triumphantly in the air, “This is a facsimile of an ancient marriage contract – or covenant.” She quirked an accusatory eyebrow in the headmaster’s direction.
He looked rather frustrated. “Surely our explanations-”
But Professor McGonagall had, apparently, decided to take matters into her own hands. “For Godric’s sake, have another piece of cake, Albus.” She turned to Hermione. “No, Hermione!” She appeared to be grinding her teeth. “Forget the scroll for a moment; we’ll get to it in a moment. The Covenants of the remaining pure-blood families are the last form of sentient magic in our world. Each one is unique and known only by its family, lending its power and individual gifts to prosper those it favors.”
“So the Covenant is the bond between the magic and the pure-blood family. Thank you for the clarification.” She just managed to keep from shooting a dirty look at the headmaster. Then, torn between wanting the answer to her original question and craving more of this secret portion of history, she raised her hand, barely waiting for the professor to acknowledge her. “Gifts?”
Professor McGonagall glared, but explained, “All variations of magical gifts can be traced through families straight back to those ancient times, when a certain kind of magic made a permanent impression on one of their ancestors. However, as witches and wizards began drifting away from a partnership with magic, there were fewer individuals with gifts. It explains why there are far fewer Seers nowadays. Now stop interrupting, Hermione – some of us actually have things to do today!”
Hermione clamped her lips shut and nodded meekly.
“There is very little anyone outside the pure-blood families knows of them, except that their power is so ancient and robust it answers to no individual except by choice,” the professor concluded.
Hermione stole another lungful of the scroll’s fragrance and tried one last time. “I’m extremely grateful to both of you for this lesson, but would someone please tell me the relevance of this war-stake?”
The headmaster set down his plate and fork eagerly. “In the interests of clarity-” here Minerva cleared her throat noisily, and so he added, “and time, let us move forward with vigor. Each pure-blood family enjoys the protection and power of its Covenant, but it also must meet its expectations. Their success and survival depends upon obedience to the Covenant, and as each Covenant is slightly different, so are its expectations and methods of punishment should an individual fall short.”
She couldn’t help herself, despite the risk of diverting the headmaster off course once more. “Expectations? Punishment?”
“Take marriage, for instance,” replied Professor McGonagall, who seemed quite pleased with the interruption this time. “Most require the potential Wives of their Houses to meet certain requirements.”
“That seems awfully archaic!” Hermione was appalled at the idea. “Do you mean that even today, pure-blood wizards obey these Covenants in their personal relationships?”
The headmaster appeared to be amused by the question; his eyes twinkled as he looked from her to the war-stake in her hand. “Absolutely, my dear. The Covenant of the family dictates much.”
Hermione was incensed at the idea that anyone – no matter how unique or powerful – could control such personal parts of another’s life. “You have got to be kidding me! So it doesn’t matter what or even who one wants, it all boils down to what this Covenant says!” She held up the scroll. “And how does this fit in!”
“Oh, I seem to have led you astray, dear girl. The relationship between a pure-blood family and its Covenant is a very elegant, extremely voluntary symbiosis. It flows in their very blood; it is as much a part of them as any vital organ, and they have no desire to fight against it.”
She was at a loss, which happened infrequently to her. “But you just said the families must obey the Covenant, even in matters of personal choice, under threat of punishment.”
“Very nearly almost.” The headmaster refilled his teacup with a wave of his wand, watching his spoon stir in two lumps of sugar. He turned to her. “More tea?”
More tea? When she was so close to finally having her question answered? Hermione shook her head impatiently.
“The families made alliances with sentient forces, yes, that control their destinies. However, there is no malevolence involved. The Covenants, much like the Seers they brought into being long ago, look ahead of the current moment and make decisions based on the wellbeing of their families.”
Hermione considered all the headmaster had told her to that point. It all seemed a bit unlikely until she reminded herself what world she was in. “So, a Covenant is an omniscient and omnipotent metaphysical force, that chooses to partner with a mortal bloodline. ”
“Yes, I think that is as correct a short answer as can be given.” The headmaster rose from his seat. “Well done, Miss Granger!”
But Hermione was more confused than ever. Exactly what was this meeting about? What was this parchment in her hand, and how did it even remotely fit into the history lesson she had just received? “I don’t understand; what does a Covenant have to do with a war-stake, sir?”
The professors exchanged another look over her head; she would have been concerned but for the beautiful scroll in her hands, which had begun to glow slightly. “What’s happening?”
“You really don’t know? You accepted it, and it has claimed you in return. I’m quite sure there was a definitive section on this in Hogwarts: a History,” protested the headmaster.
“If there had been,” Hermione assured him, “I’d know – it’s one of my favorite textbooks. I’ve read it countless times front to back.”
The headmaster sat back down in his seat, looking warily around the room. Hermione had turned her chair so she could keep both eyes on him, and it seemed to be making him uneasy. He turned his gaze back to hers and began again. “A war-stake, my dear, is as old as the ancient Covenants . . . ”
Yes, yes, we’ve established that! Hermione thought impatiently.
“ . . . simply because war dates back to the dawn of time. Alliances have always been the backbone of successful armies, and they have been made for reasons too varied to list. However, marriage is certainly one. In the wizarding world, many families have joined alliances simply for the chance to pursue a bespoke witch . . . ”
“Errrr, what’s a bespoke witch?”
“One seemingly made to order for a certain family’s Covenant. It has been proven in several fascinating studies that a pure-blood wizard’s Covenant will actually direct him to his bespoke witch.”
“All right, so alliances made for bespoke witches-”
“Alliances made for the chance to pursue a bespoke witch. Never forget that the witch is never forced to accept pursuit.”
“So, how does the war-stake fit in?”
“At any time in a battle or war, interested parties may make an alliance and cast a war-stake. It is not just a declaration of intent; if accepted by the potential war ally, a war-stake becomes a legally binding agreement between the two parties. If their joint venture is a success, the family who cast the stake in the first place will send it to the bespoke witch. If she accepts it, she becomes the Wife of that House.”
Hermione looked at the parchment scroll in her hand, running her finger along the silky ribbon tied around it. The magic purred under the movements of her fingers. “So that’s what this is. How fascinating! Is it original or a facsimile? Do we know who cast the original stake? To whom was it sent? I have so many questions!”
Professor McGonagall reached across the arm of her chair and touched the young witch’s sleeve lightly, catching her attention. “Hermione, dear, you do realize that war-stakes are still cast? Indeed, many pure-blood wizards cast stakes in this last war. Among the old Houses, it’s still a common practice.”
“You’ve got to be kidding! This last war? What kind of alliances were made to make them binding?”
It was Dumbledore’s turn again. “The sort of alliances necessary to win a war between the forces of good and evil – pure-blood families with powerful Covenants came to our side and cast war-stakes at many points in the war. This was one of them. I accepted this one on behalf of our side; it created a powerful alliance that tipped the scales heavily in our favor.”
The headmaster was looking at the scroll in Hermione’s hands, and her eyes were also drawn to it. It glowed faintly, and the magic still danced along her skin. How romantic, that someone would have a feeling that someone else was The One, and state their intentions in a binding agreement. To offer their lives in exchange for the hope of acceptance!
As these thoughts ran through her head, it occurred to her she might be feeling the influence of the scroll’s magic. Still, the thoughts were appealing to her idealistic Gryffindor mind. She decided that if she were being influenced, then at least the magic felt pure and light. “But to whom was it sent? Surely these kinds of things aren’t passed around like a newspaper, are they?”
Suddenly, the headmaster pinned Hermione with a look that seemed to scream prepare yourself. “It was sent to you for acceptance this morning by the House of Malfoy.”
Professor McGonagall’s hand was on Hermione’s sleeve again in a comforting way. Suddenly comprehension dawned across the young witch’s face.
“I-I-I-” Hermione’s field of vision rapidly narrowed until the scroll in her hands was all she could see, and her ears rang as every fact given by the headmaster and the implications of her impulsive action echoed in her memory. “I accepted it.”
“And it has claimed you,” affirmed the headmaster solemnly.
“I have to leave.” With that, she laid down the war-stake in a manner that was almost reluctant and fled the room. Her footsteps could be heard clattering down the stairs to the castle hall.
Dumbledore furrowed his eyebrows in a decidedly anxious manner.
Professor McGonagall groaned and rolled her eyes. “This was not how it was supposed to go. Albus, when will you learn that not everyone appreciates your ability to see six moves ahead in the game and your predilection for skipping everything in between! You could have explained it all to her before she ever saw that stake, and then she’d have known what she was doing.”
“How was I to know she didn’t know what it was,” he argued. “She’s always known everything else.”
“I have half a mind to hex you as it is; don’t say one word against Hermione!”
“Minerva,” he implored, “she’d already accepted it; there was no turning back. The lesson was for her benefit – she was bound to run, and now she has some basic information to ponder in the meantime. And now you’ll-”
“And now I’ll be the one to do all the actual work,” she finished for him, fuming, “because you’ve no doubt already turned your attention to another puzzle the universe can’t solve without your help!”
There was a quiet snicker from somewhere in the room. Professor McGonagall glared over her shoulder at one hanging tapestry in particular. “If you think this is so amusing, perhaps you two would like to sort it out?” And when there was no answer, she added tartly, “I thought not.”
“Slytherins,” she muttered as she headed toward the door.