"There you go!" said Ron quickly, before Hermione could carry on. "If it wasn't Dumbledore, explain how Dobby knew we were in the cellar, Hermione?""I can't -- but can you explain how Dumbledore sent him to us if he's lying in a tomb at Hogwarts?"
"I dunno, it could've been his ghost!"
"Dumbledore wouldn't come back as a ghost," said Harry. There was little about Dumbledore he was sure of now, but he knew that much. "He would have gone on."
"What d'you mean, 'gone on'?" asked Ron, but before Harry could say any more, a voice behind them said, "'Arry?"
Fleur had come out of the cottage, her long silver hair flying in the breeze.
"'Arry, Grip'ook would like to speak to you. 'E eez in ze smallest bedroom, 'e says 'e does not want to be over'eard."
Her dislike of the goblin sending her to deliver messages was clear; she looked irritable as she walked back around the house.
Griphook was waiting for them, as Fleur had said, in the tiniest of the cottage's three bedrooms, in which Hermione and Luna slept by night. He had drawn the red cotton curtains against the bright, cloudy sky, which gave the room a fiery glow at odds with the rest of the airy, light cottage.
"I have reached my decision, Harry Potter," said the goblin, who was sitting cross-legged in a low chair, drumming its arms with his spindly fingers. "Though the goblins of Gringotts will consider it base treachery, I have decided to help you --"
"That's great!" said Harry, relief surging through him. "Griphook, thank you, we're really --"
"-- in return," said the goblin firmly, "for payment."
Slightly taken aback, Harry hesitated.
"How much do you want? I've got gold."
"Not gold," said Griphook. "I have gold."
His black eyes glittered; there were no whites to his eyes.
"I want the sword. The sword of Godric Gryffindor."
Harry's spirits plummeted.
"You can't have that," he said. "I'm sorry."
"Then," said the goblin softly, "we have a problem."
"We can give you something else," said Ron eagerly. "I'll bet the Lestranges have got loads of stuff, you can take your pick once we get into the vault."
He had said the wrong thing. Griphook flushed angrily.
"I am not a thief, boy! I am not trying to procure treasures to which I have no right!"
"The sword's ours --"
"it is not," said the goblin.
"We're Gryffindors, and it was Godric Gryffindor's --"
"And before it was Gryffindor's, whose was it?" demanded the goblin, sitting up straight.
"No one's," said Ron. "It was made for him, wasn't it?"
"No!" cried the goblin, bristling with anger as he pointed a long finger at Ron. "Wizarding arrogance again! That sword was Ragnuk the First's, taken from him by Godric Gryffindor! It is a , a masterpiece of goblinwork! It belongs with the gobl___. The sword is the price of my hire, take it or leave it!"
Griphook glared at them. Harry glanced at the other ____, then said, "We need to discuss this, Griphook, if that's all right. Could you give us a few minutes?"
The goblin nodded, looking sour.
Downstairs in the empty sitting room, Harry walked to the fireplace, brow furrowed, trying to think what to do. Behind him, Ron said, "He's having a laugh. We can't let him have that sword."
"It is true?" Harry asked Hermione. "Was the sword stolen by Gryffindor?"
"I don't know," she said hopelessly. "Wizarding history often skates over what the wizards have done to other magical races, but there's no account that I know of that says Gryffindor stole the sword."
"It'll be one of those goblin stories," said Ron, "about how the wizards are always trying to get one over on them. I suppose we should think ourselves lucky he hasn't asked for one of our wands."
"Goblins have got good reason to dislike wizards, Ron." said Hermione. "They've been treated brutally in the past."
"Goblins aren't exactly fluffy little bunnies, though, are they?" said Ron. "They've killed plenty of us. They've fought dirty too."
"But arguing with Griphook about whose race is most underhanded and violent isn't going to make him more likely to help us, is it?"
There was a pause while they tried to think of a way around the problem. Harry looked out of the window at Dobby's grave. Luna was arranging sea lavender in a jam jar beside the headstone.
"Okay," said Ron, and Harry turned back to face him, "how's this? We tell Griphook we need the sword until we get inside the and then he can have it. There's a fake in these, isn't there? We switch them, and give him the fake."
"Ron, he'd know the difference better than we would!" said Hermione. "He's the only one who realized there had been a swap!"
"Yeah, but we could _ca_per before he realizes --"
He quailed beneath the look Hermione was giving him.
"That," she said quietly, "is despicable. Ask for his help, then double-cross him? And you wonder why goblins don't like wizards, Ron?"
Ron's ears had turned red.
"All right, all right! It was the only thing I could think of! What's your solution, then?" "We need to offer him something else, something just as valuable."
"Brilliant, I'll go and get one of our ancient goblin-made swords and you can gift wrap it."
Silence fell between them again. Harry was sure that the goblin would accept nothing but the sword, even if they had something as valuable to offer him. Yet the sword was their one, indispensable weapon against the Horcruxes.
He closed his eyes for a moment or two and listened to the rush of the sea. The idea that Gryffindor might have stolen the sword was unpleasant to him: He had always been proud to be a Gryffindor; Gryffindor had been the champion of Muggle-borns, the wizard who had clashed with the pureblood-loving Slytherin....
"Maybe he's lying," Harry said, opening his eyes again. "Griphook. Maybe Gryffindor didn't take the sword. How do we know the goblin version of history's right?"
"Does it make a difference?" asked Hermione.
"Changes how I feel about it," said Harry.
He took a deep breath.
"We'll tell him he can have the sword after he's helped us get into that vault -- but we'll be careful to avoid telling him exactly /when/ he can have it."
A grin spread slowly across Ron's face. Hermione, however, looked alarmed.
"Harry, we can't --"
"He can have it," Harry went on, "after we've used it on all of the Horcruxes. I'll make sure he gets it then. I'll keep my word."
"But that could be years!" said Hermione.
"I know that, but /he/ needn't. I won't be lying... really."
Harry met her eyes with a mixture of defiance and shame. He remembered the words that had been engraved over the gateway to Nurmengard: FOR THE GREATER GOOD. He pushed the idea away. What choice did they have?
"I don't like it," said Hermione.
"Nor do I, much," Harry admitted.
"Well, I think it's genius," said Ron, standing up again. "Let's go and tell him."
Back in the smallest bedroom, Harry made the offer, careful to phrase it so as not to give any definite time for the handover of the sword. Hermione frowned at the floor while he was speaking; he felt irritated at her, afraid that she might give the game away. However, Griphook had eyes for nobody but Harry.
"I have your word, Harry Potter, that you will give me the sword of Gryffindor if I help you?"
"Yes," said Harry.
"Then shake," said the goblin, holding out his hand.
Harry took it and shook. He wondered whether those black eyes saw any misgivings in his own. Then Griphook relinquished him, clapped his hands together, and said, "So. We begin!"
It was like planning to break into the Ministry all over again. They settled to work in the smallest bedroom, which was kept, according to Griphook's preference, in semidarkness.
"I have visited the Lestranges' vault only once," Griphook told them, "on the occasion I was told to place inside it the false sword. It is one of the most ancient chambers. The oldest Wizarding families store their treasures at the deepest level, where the vaults are largest and best protected...."
They remained shut in the cupboardlike room for hours at a time. Slowly the days stretched into weeks. There was problem after problem to overcome, not least of which was that their store of Polyjuice Potion was greatly depleted.
"There's really only enough left for one of us," said Hermione, tilting the thick mudlike potion against the lamplight.
"That'll be enough," said Harry, who was examining Griphook's hand-drawn map of the deepest passageways.
The other inhabitants of Shell Cottage could hardly fail to notice that something was going on now that Harry, Ron and Hermione only emerged for mealtimes. Nobody asked questions, although Harry often felt Bill's eyes on the three of them at the table, thoughtful, concerned.
The longer they spent together, the more Harry realized that he did not much like the goblin. Griphook was unexpectedly bloodthirsty, laughed at the idea of pain in lesser creatures and seemed to relish the possibility that they might have to hurt other wizards to reach the Lestranges' vault. Harry could tell that his distaste was shared by the other two, but they did not discuss it. They needed Griphook.
The goblin ate only grudgingly with the rest of them. Even after his legs had mended, he continued to request trays of food in his room, like the still-frail Ollivander, until Bill (following an angry outburst from Fleur) went upstairs to tell him that the arrangement could not continue. Thereafter Griphook joined them at the overcrowded table, although he refused to eat the same food, insisting, instead, on lumps of raw meat, roots, and various fungi.
Harry felt responsible: It was, after all, he who had insisted that the goblin remain at Shell Cottage so that he could question him; his fault that the whole Weasley family had been driven into hiding, that Bill, Fred, George, and Mr. Weasley could no longer work.
"I'm sorry," he told Fleur, one blustery April evening as he helped her prepare dinner. "I never meant you to have to deal with all of this."
She had just set some knives to work, chipping up steaks for Griphook and Bill, who had preferred his meat bloody ever since he had been attacked by Greyback. While the knives sliced behind her, her somewhat irritable expression softened.
"'Arry, you saved my sister's life, I do not forget."
This was not, strictly speaking, true, but Harry decided against reminding her that Gabrielle had never been in real danger.