Dear Readers,

Thank you for your patience. I took a temporary break to catch up on other writing that I was behind on.

Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter

Chapter 12 Picked Out of a Hat

Harry was not exactly surprised when right after dinner Professor McGonagall approached him. "Potter, come with me. Professor Dumbledore would like to see you."

Harry gave Hermione and Ron a hasty goodbye. Ron waved absentmindedly, busy basking in the congratulations of the rest of the Gryffindors. He seemed oblivious that half of the accolades were actually sympathetic condolences.

"Uh, Professor?" asked Harry hesitantly, "Did Professor Dumbledore say what he wanted to talk to me about?"

"No, Potter. I was just asked to bring you to his office." She looked at him suspiciously. "How is Quidditch training going?"

"We've been working hard, Professor," Harry reassured her. He must know about all the rumors of impending defeat.

They walked in silence for a while, then Professor McGonagall asked, "How do you think Ron Weasley is going to work out as Keeper?"

"Pretty well, Professor McGonagall. He's not the same as Wood, if that is what you are asking, but he's getting better every day. We all are."

The transfiguration teacher paused and went on hesitantly, "Ms. Wells approached me with an accusation of favoritism yesterday. She said that if Ronald Weasley made the team it would only because his brothers were on the team and because he is your friend."

"Ron made the team fair and square, Professor. Tenobia Wells is a good player; one of the best overall players I've ever seen. She could play almost any position but I think Ron has the edge in playing Keeper. Also, it is a matter of time. The only way we are going to pull this off is if we coordinate together. Ron is the best person now. If there was more time, perhaps it would be different."

McGonagall nodded, "I told her that the team would not stoop to nepotism but I know the value of friendship."

"Besides, it isn't as if she didn't exactly make the team," continued Harry, "A team member told me," Harry stopped himself from mentioning Alicia by name in case McGonagall decided that school work was more important than Quidditch, "that it might be necessary to put more time into studying for exams later in the year and we might need a substitute."

McGonagall looked at him, "Well I'm glad to hear that someone is thinking about learning something," she said sourly. "If that is the case, then why isn't she on the team roster?"

"Well, if she is not going to play in the first game, so there's no point in providing the Slytherins with another house elf, just in case, is there?"

Harry wasn't sure what Professor McGonagall would do. She was awfully strict about things sometimes.

"She didn't even agree to take the bet in the first place. It wouldn't be fair to make her," Harry put in.

"I see," the professor's lips twitched and Harry breathed an inward sigh of relief. "But it is not going to

matter anyway because Gryffindor is going to win," she said it with such finality, that Harry didn't dare voice his opinion that the outcome of the game was still very much in doubt.

They arrived at the gargoyle guarding the entrance to Dumbledore's private office.

"Chocolate hogs," said McGonagall and the gargoyle sprung aside revealing a spiral escalator. To his surprise McGonagall did not accompany him, but said, "Well I'm glad we got that cleared up anyway," She gestured to the entrance and turned and walked away.

Harry entered Dumbledore's circular office. There were the usual cabinets and shelves filled with curious objects and the portraits of past headmasters and headmistresses dozing on the walls. Dumbledore was seated behind his desk. He looked up when Harry walked in.

"Ah, yes, Potter, thank you for coming. Please sit while I finish this letter."

Harry sat down and listened to the sound of Dumbledore's quill scratching the parchment as he considered why the headmaster might have asked to see him. Harry noticed the Sorting Hat sitting next to Dumbledore's elbow along with a large stack of correspondence. Harry looked around for Faux, but the phoenix's perch was empty.

"Thank you for waiting, Harry," said Dumbledore, blowing on the ink to dry it before carefully folding it.

He set the parchment aside and gazed at Harry over his half moon spectacles. Harry made himself sit still under the wizard' penetrating stare.

"Is this about Professor Trelawney?" Harry asked, shifting in his chair.

"In part. Since you bring it up, let's start with that. Professor Trelawney informed me that you are deliberately using a device to interfere with required class work. When Sirius wrote to me about sending you a dream catcher for your birthday, I was under the impression that you understood that it is not meant for continuous use."

"Is it dangerous, sir?" Harry asked feeling a bit alarmed.

"The mind is an amazing thing. Even wizards who devote their lives to its study cannot know all its workings. Exactly what part dreams play in the ordering of our minds we don't know. When Sirius told me about your nightmares and guessed that you were having trouble sleeping, we thought a few nights peace would do you some good, but continual use of the dream catcher might prevent your mind from processing what you have experience and dealing with it."

Harry didn't say anything. He had found it a great comfort to go to sleep and not have to worry about nightmares.

"I am going to forbid you to use the dream catcher for the time being."

"But sir, if Professor Trelawney hears about my dreams, everyone is going to think I'm crazy."

"No more so than anybody else. I know certain members of my staff do not put much trust in the Divining Arts, but interpreting dreams can give you useful insight into understanding yourself."

"I don't have a problem understanding my dreams. What happened last year is enough to give anyone nightmares. I'd rather not keep dreaming about it, okay?" his voice was rising.

"It might even interfere with your sleep and make you irritable," Dumbledore said mildly.

"I'm not irritable," said Harry angrily.

"I am also aware of the special nature of some of your dreams. It might be unwise to avoid them."

Harry wrapped his arms around himself in an effort to keep a hold on himself and stop shouting. He took a deep breath before speaking. "It is especially those dreams, that I don't want to blab to everyone in class," said Harry in forced calm.

Dumbledore was quite a moment then he said thoughtfully, "Well, I can see your point. It would be better not to let Voldemort's supporters know we have a source of information about his plans."

Harry swallowed hard, "Voldemort's supporters, sir? Do you think there is another Death Eater at Hogwarts?"

"Probably not a Death Eater and probably not in Hogwarts. But a rumor has a way of getting around and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Voldermort had some eyes and ears in Hogsmead. It would only take someone who could be intimidated to pass information along."

Dumbledore looked thoughtful again. Then he turned his eyes back to Harry and watched him for a moment. "Harry, can you tell when your dreams are more than just dreams?"

"I think so," Harry admitted reluctantly, "Maybe."

Dumbledore regarded him shrewdly, "Have you had one of those dreams recently?"

Harry nodded. "I'm not sure, but it seemed familiar like I'd been there before. It seemed to be in the same place as the dream last summer: this spooky mansion. I can't shake the feeling that I've seen it before, but I can't seem to remember."

Dumbledore prodded Harry with questions and Harry tried to remember details. Harry was reluctant to tell the old wizard that he suspected the disguised wizard was Snape.

"Severus is not a Death Eater," Dumbledore said flatly, "What makes you so sure it was more than just a dream? Is it possible that you were influenced by your lesson?"

Harry had to admit that there was no proof that the disguised wizard was Snape. Only a feeling.

"Do you think that it was all just made up then?" Harry asked uncertainly.

Dumbledore was quiet for a time then he nodded, "No I do believe that you are telling me about events that have actually happened. This confirms what my sources have told me. Did you hear anything that might indicate what plans Voldemort might have?"

"No, only that he said, 'Dumbledore can't be everywhere,'. Do you think Voldemort's going to try and kill the Minister of Magic again?"

"I don't know," Dumbledore looked very grave. "I'm not even sure the accident involved the MOM car was anything more than an accident. I tried to urge Minister Fudge to take precautions but of course he refused, saying that I was alarming people for nothing. I sent word by Arthur Weasley to certain Ministry members to keep watch. We were never able to prove anything about the accident but Alister Moody doesn't believe in coincidences and frankly I'm suspicious too."

Since the accident, however, Cornelius Fudge has become convinced that it was an attack although he perversely refuses to consider that Voldemort might be the source. Lately he has been hiring body guards. I've heard he's been using McNair for occasions when he can't use Dementors."

"But McNair is a Death Eater!" Harry gasped.

"I have told him," said Dumbledore, "But there is no proof apart from your story which Fudge refuses to believe. In fact, he takes the fact that there have been no further incidents, as proof that McNair is trustworthy. He no longer answers my owls."

"But with McNair as a body guard, Fudge won't stand a chance!" said Harry.

"Exactly. Which is why I suspect that Fudge is not Voldemort's target. Why should he want to kill Fudge? Fudge with his blind refusal to accept Voldemort's return and is playing right into the Dark Lord's hands. Wasting precious time while Voldemort gathers strength. Fudges's assassination might shake the wizarding world by showing Voldemort can strike at the heart of our government with impunity but", Dumbledore watched Harry over his half moon glasses, "I suspect that you are his target. It is you that he has tried to kill over and over."

"Sir, years ago I asked you why Voldemort wanted to kill me. How could I possibly threaten him?" Harry asked.

Dumbledore sighed and looked pained. "Even if that reasons did not exist, Voldemort still has plenty of reasons to seek your death. His followers might view his repeated failures as a sign that Voldemort is not as all-powerful as they thought. It is fear that keeps his followers, supporters and even his enemies in line. By merely continuing to exist, you defy him and all his Dark Arts and show there is hope for others who may oppose him."

"I guess I already knew that. I guess I just hadn't thought about it quite that way before," sighed Harry.

"I really wish I knew what they were planning. Or even what they had tried and failed. Do you have any idea as to what it could have been?"

"No, nothing happened that could have been an attempt at murder unless they planned to start the riot at Gringots and do me in during the confusion. But that is risky. How would they know I'd be there anyway. The crowd broke up as soon as the Magical Law Enforcement squad arrived."

"I agree it doesn't seem a good way to plan a murder. The last dream you had on Privet Drive, you said they were talking about poisoning someone or possibly not poisoning someone. I wish I knew what that was about."

"I rather wish I know myself," said Harry hoping his voice didn't shake.

Dumbledore sighed again, "Well the only think we can do is to try to keep you safe. So for now, you should stay on Hogwarts' grounds. I don't want you going to Hogsmead for the time being. You are to do your homework for Professor Trelawney's class and are to cease using the dream catcher. If you have a dream that you suspect it a True Dream, do not report it to Professor Trelawney but to me."

Harry nodded glumly. He should have expected it.

"I also wish to talk to you about the matter of the Quidditch bet." Dumbledore looked even less friendly and Harry resisted the urge to squirm in his seat. "I cannot help but be aware of a sort of tension between Gryffindor and Slytherin Houses. Perhaps a friendly game of Quidditch is the best way to clear the air. However, I do not approve of betting," he said sternly.

Harry nodded, "Madam Hooch already told me."

"If members of my staff were not involved, I might consider forbidding the wager. However since you have engaged in a magically binding contract, there is little I can do. The consequences of trying to break a magical contract are usually worse than merely paying off the lost bet. I would have thought that you understood that when you were forced to compete in the Tri-Wizard Tournament even though you did not submit your name."

Harry nodded again feeling terrible about disappointing Dumbledore, "I'm sorry sir."

The headmaster sighed, "Well there's nothing I can do about it now, except to go through with it. I'm going to give you the same warning I gave Malfoy. Do not attempt to cheat or trick; magical contracts will hold you to your terms and there is little I can do to save you from whatever horrible consequences manifest themselves as a result of trying to cheat. For your own safety, you must make sure that every member of your team understands that this is to be a clean game."

"Yes, sir," Harry agreed, "I'll make sure everyone knows."

The headmaster continued to gaze at him and Harry wondered if he was dismissed or not. He glanced around the room and saw that a few of the portraits had woken up and were looking at him sleepily.

He had just decided it was time to leave when Dumbledore said, "Wait a moment, Harry. I have something for you."

The twinkle was back in his eyes. The headmaster reached beside him and picked up the Sorting Hat and handed it to Harry. Harry blinked at it in surprise. Did the headmaster want him to try it on?

"You know of course, that the Sorting Hat is a magical device used to sort students into their houses. It has been doing this for about a thousand years. The cloth from which it was made is even older. There is a great deal about its workings that I do not know. From time to time, the Hat will ask to see a student or even to be given to one for a short period of time."

Harry stared at the hat. Looked at Dumbledore and then tentatively place it on his head.

He heard inside his head the vague mumbling voice of the hat, "Ah yes, Potter. I wanted to see you," it said and then went silent.

"Uh see me about what?" Harry asked. But there was no further communications from the hat. After a bit he took off again. "It just said it wanted to see me," Harry told Dumbledore, puzzled, "but it wouldn't say what about."

Dumbledore nodded, "yes, that was all it would tell me. When I was a student at Hogwarts a long time ago, it asked to see me as well. Never told me what it was all about then either. You must go and take it back to your room until it asks to be returned. Maybe it will tell you more than it told me." His eyes twinkled more than ever. "It is probably a good idea not to tell too many people about it, Dumbledore cautioned, "keep it safe."

Dumbledore rose from his desk, picked up the not dried parchment, and folded it into an envelope.

"Well that is all, Potter," he said dismissing Harry.

Picking up the Sorting Hat, Harry left to take it back to Gryffindor tower.

He found Ron and Hermione in the corner of the common room. Hermione was coaching Ron with his charms homework.

"Ron, it's more like this-sort of a sideways movement. But if you go too far it turns too blue and then becomes so sensitive even a passing beetle will set it off."

Ron waved his wand at a clear shard on the table in front of him and pronounced, "Aegis Barrierius".

The glass took on a turquoise color. Harry sat down and a thin wailing came from the crystal. Hermione tapped it with her wand and the noise stopped.

"Well that's progress, of a sort," said Ron, "What's up?"

Harry looked around the common room. But in spite of the noise from Ron's attempts to make a ward, the few people in the common room seemed intent on their own business.

"McGonagall got me after dinner. She said Dumbledore wanted to see me. He forbade me to use the dream catcher again so I'm going to have to do my work for Trelawney," he sighed.

Hermione snorted. She had a low opinion of Divinations and an even lower opinion of the way Harry and Ron usually did their homework by just making it all up.

"He also warned me about trying to cheat with the binding spell on the Quidditch bet."

"He's right, it could be very dangerous. Professor Bins said that there was this guy who thought he could get of things by pushing this rock up a hill but the spell backfired on him so that every time he thought he was just about to make it, the rock would roll back down again."

"Why didn't he just stop trying to roll the rock?" asked Ron.

"That's the point. The curse wouldn't let him. He had to keep trying forever," Hermione shuddered.

"Yeah, well it is the Slyterins who are going to have to worry about it if they try to jinx a broom," said Ron.

"And…"Harry took another look around to make sure no one was watching, "he gave me this."

Harry pulled the lapel of his robes open and showed them. They gasped.

"Harry, that's to Sorting Hat!"

"Shh…" cautioned Harry. "I know."

"But why did Dumbledore give you that?" asked Hermione.

Harry explained what Dumbledore had said. They each took a turn trying on the hat, but the hat refused to say anything more to any of them. Harry went upstairs and put the hat in his trunk. Then he dug out his own glass shard and book bag and joined Hermione and Ron.

Over the weekend Harry tried the Sorting Hat on several times, but other than some vague humming, the hat had nothing to say to him, except once when Harry was wondering if it was all some sort of mistake and if he should return the hat to the headmaster.

Dumbledore told him that Harry should keep him until the hat asked to be returned. Then the hat refused to give Harry the slightest clue on why it had asked to see him in the first place. Harry continued to put it on every now and then but no matter how many times he asked, the hat still refused to tell him.

On Sunday evening, when Harry was again listening to the hat mumble a few snatches of song when a voice spoke, "The Great Harry Potter is called!"

Harry jumped but in the next instant he realized that the squeaky voice didn't belong to the Sorting Hat.

"Dobby! Don't do that!" gasped Harry turning around to see the house elf's goggled-eyed face.

"Forgive poor Dobby for disturbing Harry Potter," said Dobby bowing obsequiously, "I shouldn't have disturbed your meditations, but Miss Granger asked me to come and get you."

The little figure looked so mortified at having to bother him that Harry quickly tried to reassure him that he wasn't interrupting anything.

"But you were communing with the illustrious headmaster's Sorting Hat."

"Not really," admitted Harry ruefully. A sudden thought occurred to him, "Dobby, do you know anything about the Sorting Hat? It asked to see me, but it won't explain anything."

Dobby looked impressed.

"Sorting Hat is very powerful magic. Dobby is no knowing why Hat asked to see you but it is great honor. Harry Potter is very great person," the diminutive elf began bowing reverently. Harry begged him to stop, which the elf reluctantly did.

"Dobby what did you want to see me about?"

The elf spring to his feet, face aglow. "Oh yes, Miss Granger says 'come to the kitchen' she has found a way to help my Winky!"

He pranced around the room as Harry pulled a robe over his pajamas. Ron was already waiting in the common room.

"Do you think we should get the invisibility cloak?" asked Harry.

"Dobby will make sure Ron and Harry are not being seen," Dobby assured them

"And Ginny agreed to play lookout," Ron added.

"Are you sure you don't want to trade places and you stay?" Ginny offered.

Ron shook his head. "The only way I can get into more trouble if we are caught is if I let get caught instead of me."

"Well good luck, then," she waived as they followed Dobby out the portrait hole.

He led them unerringly to the kitchen entrance. A large painting of a bowl of fruit protected it. Dobby reached up and tickled a pear. It giggled and turned into a doorknob which opened easily to admit them.

The kitchen was sparkling. Elves moved about, wiping gleaming surfaces and polishing shiny utensils.

Hermione, and Winky were waiting for them by the hearth. Winky had been in a dismal state the last time Harry had seen her. Her cheeks seemed to lack the rose glow evident in Dobby's hopeful face and she seemed to have lost some weight but she sat erect on her stool and her eyes looked clear and alert. Her clothes were patched and carelessly worn but they were clean. A house elf bounded up offering them cups of tea and pastries.

"Hello Winky, how are you doing?" asked Harry.

"Winky is better now that she is going to be in family again," Winky answered in her piping voice.

Harry looked at Hermione. "Have you worked out a contract?"

"Yes, it is all here," she showed them a rolled parchment but she didn't look to happy. "Are you sure you want to do this?" she asked Winky, "You really will be better off here at Hogwarts."

"Dobby wishes you would stay," put in the elf eanestly.

"Thank you, but my mind is made up," Winky said, her squeaky voice filled with resolution.

"This is a temporary contract. You can leave at anytime if you are not being treated well. You don't even have to tell Mr. Malfoy anything; you can just go."

Winky nodded, "But I don't have to do I?" she asked.

"No, the choice is up to you, not the Malfoys. Remember Dobby, Professor Dumbledore and us are waiting for you at Hogwarts if you want to come back," Ginny told her.

"And no one will be knowing Winky is not regular house elf?" asked Winky anxiously.

"No one but you and Lucius Malfoy, need ever know. Mr. Malfoy is no more eager to have that known that you are."

Winky nodded reassured.

"Are you sure there are no loop holes Malfoy can use to trap her?" Ron asked. "He's sneaky; I wouldn't put anything past him."

"Well this one is air-tight. If he signs it, it will be binding. I even asked Percy to look it over."

"Percy?" asked Ron, shocked. "He was so enamored with Crouch that he didn't seem to care what happened to Winky."

"Can you think of anyone who would go over a contract looking for loopholes with a much devotion to petty detail?" Hermione countered.

"No," admitted Ron, "Percy just loves to swim in rules, regulations, and legalese."

"You don't have to do it, Winky," urged Hermione again, "If you only gave it a real try, I'm sure you would find being a free elf is better."

"No," Winky said firmly. "I know you are trying to help. You are good to Winky but Winky wants to be respectable again. Give me the contract. Winky will sign now."

Dobby's huge eyes filled with tears which spilled down his face and splashed over his plaid skirt. "Dobby will miss Winky. You must come back to Dobby."

For the first time Winky looked like she might be hesitating, but then her tiny face took on a determined look. "Winky will come and visit Dobby sometimes and Dobby can come to see Winky on his day off," she declared.

They urged her again to reconsider but Winky had made up her mind. She stood and straightened her blouse and smoothed her skirt. "Winky go now. Winky sign."

Dobby reached out and took Winky's hand and gave her a watery smile through the tears that were leaking down his face. "Dobby wants Winky to stay at Hogwarts as free elf, but Dobby wants more that Winky should be happy." His declaration of love was somewhat spoiled when pulled a tie-dyed handkerchief from his pocket and loudly blew his nose.

Winky smiled, "Okay, we go now,"

"Go where?" asked Ron.

"To Hogsmead to sign contract," said Winky. "Arrangements already made. He is waiting, we must go now." She looked at them expectantly.

"You mean Mr. Malfoy is waiting for you in Hogsmead, now?" asked Harry.

"Waiting for you, too," said Dobby, "Harry Potter must go too and Miss Granger and Mr. Weezy."

"What?!" said Ron and Harry.

"The contract must be witnessed," said Hermione miserably. "It is necessary to make sure that the signature is genuine so the contract will be binding on Malfoy. I don't trust him not to try to find some way of deceiving Winky."

"Dobby wants Miss Hermione to witness and Mr. Ron and Mr. Potter," explained Dobby. "Dobby trusts you," he beamed adoringly up at them.

"We can't go to Hogsmead now," said Ron, "We'll get into trouble."

"Harry isn't allowed to leave Hogwarts at all," said Hermione.

"Then I go and sign without having witnesses," declared Winky.

"Please, you must be going, too," begged Dobby tears refilling his eyes, "Dobby must know his Winky is safe."

The three humans looked at each other. Then Harry shrugged and turned back to Dobby. He nodded,

"Okay, but how are we going to get there?"

Dobby threw his arms around Harry's knees crying his gratitude, then he embraced Ron and Hermione's knees as well.

So Harry found himself following the two house elves down the corridor to the statue of the hag on the second floor. He tapped the hag's hump with his wand and whispered 'Disendium'.

A passageway just big enough for them to squeeze through opened up and they went down into the secret passageway that led to Hogsmead." As they made their way through the narrow tunnel, Harry began to wish he had brought the invisibility cloak, after all, or even a sweater for that matter as the air became chilled and damp.

It seemed a long time before they reached the trap door that lead up from Honeyduke's Sweet Shop. Dobby gestured and the trap door lifted silently. Harry was reminded that house elves had powerful magic of their own. He just hoped it was powerful enough to help them sneak out and the back into Honeydukes without being discovered.

"Don't worry, Harry Potter, house elves are good at not being noticed when we don't want to be. You stay with Winky and Dobby and you not be noticed too." There was nothing to do but trust the house elves in this matter. Dobby did seem confident as he led them out of the cellar, into the shop and out the door without so much as causing the bells over the door to chime.

Harry looked down the street, "Where is Mr. Malfoy?" he asked.

"My new master is meeting us in the Hogshead," said Winy leading the way.

They came to a pub with dull lights and the sound of rough voices drifting out into the night. Harry had been in The Three Broomsticks on a number of occasions but this pub was different. Madam Rosemerta made sure her place was warm and cheerful and made customers feel welcome. Harry recalled that Hagrid had visited the Hogshead and had told them that they 'get all types there'. That certainly seed to be true as no questions were asked. Hagrid had not told them that it was a far rougher place.

The customers looked up briefly from whatever they were drinking and glared suspiciously at the party as they entered. They sat a scared tables hunched over cards, dice, drinks, and dubious conversations. Most were so wrapped in such nondescript clothing that Harry could not even tell who was human or not. He was quite certain that some of them definitely were not. The bartender leaned over a grimy counter and sniffed at them. Either he had goblin blood in him or had been involved in some terrible accident.

"You here to see Mr. Malfoy?" he grunted.

"Yes," said harry knowing he looked very out of place and sounding very nervous.

"There," Grunted the bartender again and he pointed toward a door leading to a back room.

They looked at each other but it was Winky who took matters into her own hands and stepped off to where the bartender had indicated. The rest of them followed. Harry could feel the eyes of the other patrons sliding off him as they passed. No one said anything.

The back room was dimly lit by a tallow candle stuck into the center of a rough table. At the table, dressed in good quality robes that seemed out of place in the seedy surroundings, was Lucius Malfoy. Next to him sat a hunched cloaked figure drinking from a tankard.

"You have the contract?" Malfoy asked looking at them with thinly veiled contempt.

"Yes," said Hermione setting the roll of parchment onto the table.

Mr. Malfoy picked it up and unrolled it. He read it carefully and then turned and handed it to the man sitting next to him. "I hope you don't mind, but I brought my own exert and witness, so you brats had better not be trying something…unwise."

He motioned them to sit at the table. Winky scrambled up eagerly followed by Dobby. The rest of them followed. Mr. Malfoy looked at Winky critically but studiously ignored the presence of his previous house elf. Dobby in turn seemed not to know whether to cower in fear or to challenge his former master. He too attempted to not acknowledge Malfoy but kept shifting his feet nervously.

"You were previously Crouch's house elf?" Lucius Malfoy asked Winky.

"Yes, sir. Winky will serve master faithfully. Winky is a good elf. Poor master. Now Winky has no family," she squeaked.

"I heard that Bartimous Crouch dismissed you," accused Malfoy.

Winky hung her head in shame. "Winky did everything she could to serve master faithfully. Poor weak Winky not strong enough. Winky in wrong place and wrong time. Winky is a good elf. Winky will serve new master well, you will see…"

"If that is so why don't you perform the ritual to fully bind yourself to my house? Why insist on the temporary contract?" Lucius asked.

"Winky's friends insist, sir. Winky's friends good but Winky needs family. Winky thinking maybe it is a good idea to see if Winky makes a good house elf for Malfoy family before saying ritual. It is a good for you too, sir. To see if Winky is the right elf for you."

After a time, Malfoy nodded, "Perhaps a trial period is best. I wouldn't want to commit to having and inferior house elf."

"Winky will work very hard!" assured Winky.

"Even with a temporary contract?" asked Malfoy.

"Oh yes, master will not even be knowing that contract is there. Winky will be just like any other house elf."

"And will anyone else be able to detect that you are not a standard house elf?"

"No, no only you and Winky and witnesses need ever know," Winky said eagerly.

This answer seemed to please Malfoy. "When you are in my house elf, you are to tell no one that you are under contract. That includes them too," said Malfoy glaring at the students.

"You're just afraid to let anyone else find out that you can't get a house elf by normal means," said Hermione.

"Trust me, you don't want me to back up my threat with something other than 'normal means'," Lucius snarled. In spite of themselves, they all shrank away from his baleful stare.

The bartender stuck his ugly face around the door jamb and asked if they needed anything. Mr. Malfoy went over and spoke to him quietly. The bartender nodded once and left. Then the hooded man seated at the table gave a grunt and set the parchment aside.

"Is it all in order?" Lucius Malfoy asked. The man made a notice that Malfoy interpreted as an affirmative because he nodded in satisfaction. "Good let's get it over with."

The bartender reappeared with several flasks, miss-matched glasses, an ink pot and a quill on a tray.

"Anything else, sir?" the misshapen man asked licking his lips nervously as he set the tray on the table.

"That will be all. Leave us," Malfoy commanded and the bartender did.

Winky bounded forward eagerly and with a heave yanked the stopper from the ink bottle. She dipped the quill and practically skipped toward the parchment and laboriously wrote her name at the bottom. Instead of black, the letters glowed as if molten gold. Then she bowed and handed the quill to Mr. Malfoy. Malfoy took it and they watched as he signed his name next to Winky's. The letters of his name glowed too.

He thrust the quill at Harry with a sneer. Hermione pointed to the place where witnesses were to sign and Harry added his glowing name to the parchment, followed by Ron and Hermione's signature. Then Malfoy's companion took the quill and wrote his name. Harry leaned forward trying to read the man's name but instead of English the man had signed with a series of cryptic ruins. Harry looked at Hermione who gave the barest shake of her head.

"Now Winky house elf!" cried Winky happily.

Malfoy's companion grunted and uttered some unintelligible syllables and Malfoy moved to the glasses.

"Not quite," he amended. "It is my witnesses' custom to seal all binding contracts with a drink or the signature is considered incomplete. That is why I asked the bartender to bring something."

Malfoy's witness stood and poured some of the red liquid into the waiting glasses. He then poured some Butterbeer into two small ones for the house elves. He thrust the glasses at them and then croaked, "Drink,"

He and Malfoy raised their glasses and emptied them in on gulp. The house elves drained their tiny glasses. Winky eagerly and Dobby reluctantly.

The students looked at each other for a moment, shrugged and drank. Harry made a face at the bitter taste of the liquid and gulped it down quickly. This was not a taste he wanted to savor. Hermione coughed until Ron thumped her on the back.

Then their names on the parchment flared brightly as if on fire for a second or two and then rapidly faded until they looked like ordinary ink again.

"Done," announced Malfoy, "Let's get out of here. Come elf."

Malfoy and his companion set their glasses down on the table and without a further word turned and left. Winky called a hasty goodbye and scampered after them, a large grin plastered on her face.

Dobby called out worriedly after her. "Remember you don't have to stay!"

Winky gave one last cheerful wave and vanished. Dobby stood staring miserably after her, twisting his hat in his hands. Two large tears spilled from his eyes and splashed down the front of his shirt. Harry bent and laid a hand on his shoulder.

"I don't think there was anything you could have done to stop her. But at least now she has a way out," Hermione said in an attempt to be comforting.

Dobby grabbed Harry's knees again and sobbed loudly. Harry tried to console the elf hoping that his display would not attract unwanted notice.

"I think we'd better go too," said Ron, "This place gives me the creeps."

Dobby blew his nose. Harry wished he would do it quietly. He wanted to leave as unobtrusively as possible. Dobby led the way from the room. The other patrons gave them brief if unpleasant glances and turned back to their own interests. None of them wanted any part in Mr. Malfoy's business.

Harry was worried about getting back to Hogwarts safely, but under Dobby's protection they were able to return to their common room without any further adventures. Chilled and tired, Harry, Ron, and Hermione bid each other good night with the intent on getting between warm sheets as quick as possible.