The kitchen of Number 12, Grimmauld Place was packed with Order members and Aurors. Kingsley stood in front of them at the head of the long stone table, with Remus and Tonks next to him. He waited until the talk drained away and everyone was quiet before saying, “Listen up, now—these are your assignments.”
“As ambush decoys: Bill Weasley, and Aurors Cicero, Aldridge, and Hayman,” Tonks said, meeting each pair of eyes in turn. “You will be led by Remus, Kingsley, and I.”
“As guards, Mundungus and Dedalus,” Remus said. “You will be part of the ambush as well.”
“As Inside Men,” Kingsley continued, “Aurors Sheldon, Edwards, Channing, Emerson, and Sinton.” Here Kingsley nodded at his best friend from his days back in Auror School, Richard Sinton. “You will be led by Severus Snape, who will greet you at the main entrance when the truck pulls in.”
“It is essential for this mission that you retain your status as unidentified members of the Order of the Phoenix,” Remus said to the Inside Men. “Kingsley, Dora, and I would be recognized instantly if not disguised—but nobody knows your faces.”
Tonks elbowed Remus in the side. “I keep telling you to stop calling me that,” she muttered. “Dora is bearable in most cases, but not from you.”
Remus chuckled and squeezed Tonks’s hand affectionately before continuing, “And finally, as the backup: Ron, Hermione, Fred, George, Sturgis Podmore, and Hestia Jones. You lot will be led by Arthur Weasley.”
“So is everyone clear as to which group they are part of?” Kingsley asked. He looked around the room and was met by nods and calls of assent. “Then please assemble into your groups now.”
When the shuffling and rearranging had subsided, Remus waved his wand. The stack of papers that rested on the table in front of him distributed itself among the people in the room. “These are the plans we are using tonight,” he said. “They were written exclusively by Harry Potter, with the help of Ron and Hermione.”
There was some scattered applause around the table, mostly from the Aurors, who had never met Harry Potter and were still slightly in awe at the thought of him. After much begging from Kingsley and Tonks, his name was what finally convinced most of them to join the mission in the end. Molly Weasley smiled proudly at her youngest son and Hermione. Both of them acknowledged the praise with shy smiles (and a bright red blush, in Ron’s case).
“As you read, you’ll notice that under each phase of the plan you will see a number,” Kingsley said. “This represents the approximate time from start time that you will launch the corresponding actions. Once inside Malfoy Manor, we will not be able to maintain communications with each other, so it is up to you to keep track.”
“Memorize the numbers now,” Tonks added. “We’re leaving all these papers here—there will be no chance of these plans being left back at Malfoy Manor. In any case, Death Eaters will not give you time to consult your parchment before starting an attack.”
She waved her wand, and two dozen gold coins suspended on thin chains flew out of a large purple bag at her feet and landed on the stone table. She slid one to each member of the Order as Remus said, “In case you lose track of the time, these coins are charmed to burn hot every hundred counts from activation so you can adjust your own count accordingly. Wear them under your clothing. We will activate them from the moment the wards are lifted.”
“They double as—illegally created—Portkeys,” Tonks said. “Even with the physical wards down, we can’t Apparate within Malfoy Manor limits, so if you’re injured, activate them and they’ll take you back here.” She looked to Molly, who nodded back, her trembling lips firmly pressed together. “Molly and the Healers will be ready with Healing stuff in case of any injuries.”
Kingsley, Remus, and Tonks waited while the rest of the Order fastened their coins around their necks and read over the plans. Finally, when it seemed like everyone was finished, Kingsley asked, “Any questions? Anyone unclear as to what their assignments are?”
Nobody said a word.
“Once we begin, there is no going back,” Remus warned. “With this mission, we are risking the exposure of one of our most valuable resources. If this mission fails, this resource is compromised and we will never have another chance in which we have such an advantage over them.”
“Stick to the plan, but don’t forget what our main objective is,” Tonks added. “If you have a chance to kill Voldemort, Merlin knows you’d better take it.”
Kingsley adjusted his hat and drew himself to full height. “Alright, it’s time to go,” he said. “You all know your starting positions. Good luck and Merlin help us succeed.”
The delivery truck bounced and rattled across the coarse road that led up to the Malfoy Manor. Evidently the Malfoys didn’t expect many vehicles to come up this way. Aurors Emerson, Channing, and Sheldon sat in the back on benches that lined the sides of the lorry. Emerson fiddled with his thumbs, as he did whenever he was trying to focus himself for a mission. Every now and then, he met the eyes of the other Aurors, and saw with relief that they looked just as unnerved as he felt.
“Approaching the entrance,” Sinton said from the driver’s seat—he had learned how to drive specifically for missions that required it. Because of this ability, he was now considered a Transportation Specialist for the Auror Department.
Emerson could hear Edwards, who was riding shotgun, tapping his fingernails against his armrest as the truck continued to lurch forward. But before he could complain that the noise was irritating him, the truck screeched to a sudden halt and Emerson was thrown forward off of his bench. He slid along the floor of the truck and barely managed to brace himself with his arms before he collided with the divider that separated the back of the truck from the cab where Sinton and Edwards sat. From the groans and curses that issued from across the back of the lorry, Channing and Sheldon had met with a similar fate. Emerson could no longer see them over the top of the pile of boxes between them—which were, luckily, anchored to the floor of the lorry by magic.
“Sorry about that,” Sinton called back to them, sounding disconcerted.
Channing was the first of them to recover and stand back up. “What the hell was that?” he snapped, rubbing a sore elbow. “I thought you said you knew how to drive this thing, Richard.”
“I do,” Sinton replied, pumping the gas pedal repeatedly. The engine roared, but the truck did not move.
“Well, then, drive already!” Edwards said. “I don’t want to stay here any longer than we must. Half of our group—the decoys and the backup—are stuck out in the open until we can get in.”
“I’m driving, but it’s not moving,” Sinton replied, gritting his teeth. He threw the gears into reverse and backed up twenty or so feet along the road which they came. “Brace yourselves,” he told the three Aurors in the back, then threw the truck back into forward drive and hit the gas pedal. The truck zoomed forward, and then slammed to another screeching halt. This time, Emerson had been ready. He was jostled only a little bit against the metal divide.
“What’s going on?” Sheldon asked. “Why can’t we get through? We can’t meet Severus Snape unless we get to the door.”
Sinton shook his head and peered through the windshield of the lorry at the seemingly clear road in front of them. “Merlin and Morgana,” he cursed,
I don’t know.”
Hidden behind the hedgerows that lined the road, Ron and Hermione peeked through the brush. They could just see the back of the truck as it stopped, backed up, and then raced forward again only to stop again. “What in the world are they doing?” Hermione hissed. “Backup can’t get in until Snape has the wards lowered for the Aurors.”
“Yes, the wards,” Kingsley replied in a low voice. “That’s why the truck can’t get in yet. We have to be patient.”
“There’s no time left to be patient,” Remus said urgently, his extra-sensitive werewolf ears pricked to the wind. “We must proceed; they’re starting to come now. I can hear them.”
“Who is it?” Ron asked.
Remus cocked his head back towards the direction that the lorry had come from. He listened for a moment, shuffling along behind the bushes and beckoning for the rest of the hidden Aurors and Order members to follow him. Everyone there for the ambush—the decoys, the guards Dung and Dedalus Diggle, and Ron and Hermione, who would join the rest of the backup later as they infiltrated the grounds from different points—skulked along towards him. When they were positioned sufficiently far away from the truck so that the approaching Death Eaters would not see the lorry stuck in the road, Remus whispered, “It sounds like Rowle and Dolohov.”
Indeed, now Hermione could also hear two slow, deep voices speaking to one another down the path. “Wands at the ready,” she breathed, and Kingsley and Tonks obeyed, drawing their wands.
As the two Death Eaters passed their hiding spot, two identical Stunning Spells clipped through the hedges. One hit Dolohov on the neck; the other hit Rowle in the stomach. Both men crumpled to the ground instantly.
Remus waved his wand and an opening appeared in the thick hedges. Kingsley and Tonks reached out to drag the limp bodies of the two Death Eaters through, and then hurried to take the robes and masks from them. Ron helped Kingsley don his disguise as Remus helped Tonks. Dolohov’s robes swamped Tonks’s small frame, so with a few waves of his wand Remus added invisible matter that increased her height and girth under the cloth. After Hermione made the final inspection and gave a nod of approval, the new Rowle and Dolohov stepped through the opening in the hedges. Tonks as Dolohov gave a little wave back to Remus before setting down the road. Ahead she could see that the truck had now pulled through, leaving the road clear.
The wards had been lifted.
“1 crocodile, 2 crocodile, 3 crocodile,” Tonks thought to herself. She felt the oppressiveness that crushed her lungs lift from the air around her as the wards on Malfoy Manor relinquished their hold. She didn’t need to tell Kingsley to start counting—she knew by the slight burn of the golden coin on her skin that he had spoken the word to activate the spell. The attack now started at the thousandth count.
Behind the hedgerows, Remus signaled for everyone to be still. “Someone’s coming,” he said again, tipping his head and frowning in concentration. “Two, no, three people—sounds like Travers, Mulciber, and Nott.”
As the Death Eaters approached, the three Aurors Hayman, Cicero, and Aldridge lifted their wands at the ready. The Stunned bodies of the three Death Eaters were dragged next to those of Rowle and Dolohov, and their outer robes and masks stripped off of them. The Aurors put the clothing on with various degrees of revulsion obvious on their faces. They had spent so much of their lives chasing after and trying to eliminate Death Eaters that impersonating them, even to infiltrate their stronghold, seemed altogether disgusting.
“22 crocodile, 23 crocodile, 24 crocodile,” Cicero muttered as he and the two other Aurors headed down the road as Travers, Mulciber, and Nott.
Pricking his ears to the wind once more, Remus cursed to himself. “Great,” he said grimly. “The Lestranges are coming.”
“We can’t take them down,” Hermione ordered softly. “Rodolphus, yes, but it would be possible only if he was not with Bellatrix. Let them by.”
Ron clenched his fists and hissed at her. “Are you mad? Let them by? That’ll spell doom for everything we’ve planned. Sirius was one of the best duelists that I’ve ever seen—and Bellatrix killed him!”
Hermione frowned as she noticed Remus open his mouth to agree with Ron. “You-Know-Who must be able to detect her presence in particular,” she argued, cutting any further opposition off. “Bellatrix always speaks up—she always differentiates herself from the rest of the Death Eaters to prove to him that she is the best of them, the most loyal, and the most loved. If she keeps quiet, he’ll know something is wrong and our cover will be blown.”
“Yeah, but if we don’t take her out now,” Ron breathed, “we’ll have to fight her in there!”
Hermione rolled her eyes, but fell silent as she heard Bellatrix and Rodolphus’s footsteps draw closer on the path. She did not give the order to raise wands, and Ron fiddled with his own wand, wondering if he dared to defy her.
Looking around at the others, Ron gauged whether any of them were ready. Dung and Dedalus, who were under orders to watch the growing pile of Stunned Death Eaters for signs of revival, were not paying attention. Bill Weasley was clearly looking to Remus for instruction, and Remus was wavering.
The footsteps of the Lestranges passed. Time to act was running out.
“Stupefy!” Ron whispered, lashing his wand through the brush. A beam of red light struck Rodolphus in the back of the head, and the dark-haired man dropped. Hermione’s eyes widened as she realized that Ron was going against her orders. She grabbed for his wand arm as he poised to attack again. “Stupefy!”
The beam of the spell, flung off-course by Hermione’s interference, caught Bellatrix across the side of her stomach as she turned around and headed towards the bushes that hid them. She let out a cry and staggered, but did not fall. Snarling, Bellatrix reached for her own wand to raise the alarm, but Bill Weasley was quicker. A second Stunning Spell flew true out of the hedgerows and hit her on one side of her chest. She collapsed into the road next to her husband’s body, her tangled hair spread around her pale face wildly.
Cursing, Remus opened the hedgerows and he and Bill dragged the two Lestranges through. He eyed Ron and Hermione with a steely glare. “Don’t you two ever do that again,” he hissed, rounding on Ron. “I may have agreed with you, but Hermione’s in charge of this phase. You follow the orders you’re given. And Hermione,” the werewolf continued, narrowing his eyes, “never obstruct a spell that your partner is casting! Even if it isn’t what you ordered him to do, the results of your interference will be worse than if things don’t go exactly according to plan. You two should know better!”
Ron and Hermione muttered shamefaced apologies, frightened and unnerved by the amount of ferocity in Remus’s voice. The lines in the werewolf’s face were tense and frowning as he said, “Off with you two now. The count’s at 75 already. Remember, attack starts at a thousand. Go meet with the backup.”
Hermione dared not protest, and she led Ron through the trees and onto the grounds of Malfoy Manor, casting Disillusioning spells on them both on the way. Mundungus helped Bill, who was the taller and larger of the two men, dress as Rodolphus while Dedalus arranged Bellatrix’s robes around Remus. Then the two new Lestranges stepped out of the hedgerows and headed towards the entrance of Malfoy Manor.
Severus Snape knocked twice curtly on the doorframe before entering the darkened hall where the Dark Lord sat alone, awaiting the arrival of his servants for the meeting. “My Lord,” he said smoothly, bending to the floor to touch his head to the ground in front of Voldemort’s feet. “My shipment of Potions supplies is here from Russia. They cannot enter the grounds until you order the wards be raised.”
The folds of skin on Voldemort’s forehead drew down into a frown. His snake-like slits flared in irritation. “There is a meeting going on, Severus,” he told his Potions-Master. “Surely you are aware that your comrades are on their way and will soon be here. It would displease me greatly if we were interrupted. And there is a trip to London—strictly for pleasure—planned afterwards as well.”
Snape knew that Voldemort was referring to the Lestrange’s weekly Muggle-baiting jaunts in the city, for which all the Death Eaters participating arrived fully masked and cloaked.
The Dark Lord waved a hand to dismiss Snape, but the Potions-Master remained kneeling before him.
“Pardon my insolence, my Lord, but these delivery men are coarse Russian wizards, untrained in anything past the simplest of spells. I use this Potions supply chain often, and have dealt with their kind before. They would not detect a single thing out of place here, nor would they recognize any magic that we perform. I sincerely doubt that they even speak English.” Taking a deep breath, Snape raised his head and looked into Voldemort’s searing red eyes. “They are completely harmless.”
Snape could feel cool tentacles of magical power slipping into the cracks in his mind as the Dark Lord locked his gaze on his face. He relaxed and settled into the lie that he had created before entering the room—images of gruff-looking, unshaven men in strange robes flashed through his mind, carrying boxes and grumbling to each other in a jumbled foreign tone. Snape could see himself shaking hands with the leader of the group of men, nodding and thanking him while the other man replied in slow, broken English. Through his Legilimency, Voldemort was seeing that lie as the truth.
“And why did you arrange for them to arrive today?” the Dark Lord asked slowly as he retracted his power from Snape’s mind and broke the eye contact.
“They were supposed to arrive two days ago,” Snape said, letting a tinge of annoyance seep into his tone. “I suppose they got held up at the border. The Muggle government has been securing it tighter and tighter with each passing year, have they not, my Lord?”
“They have, Severus.” The Dark Lord’s eyes narrowed in amusement. “They believe that it will keep bad things from entering England—or criminals from getting out.” Seconds ticked by in silence, but Snape dared not show his impatience in front of Voldemort, lest he realize that something was amiss. Finally, Voldemort said, “This inconvenience is unacceptable. The company should have predicted the difficulties at the border and arrived on time anyway. I am of a mind to send them away and bid you buy your things from elsewhere, Severus.”
Snape’s heart hammered in his chest. “I am replacing much of my equipment through this shipment,” he said, thinking quickly. “To send this one away and order from elsewhere would cost time. I cannot be of use to my Lord unless I am supplied with the adequate materials immediately.”
Voldemort narrowed his eyes and assaulted Snape’s mind again with Legilimency. The Potions-Master raised his shield just in time, focusing his mind only on the truth of his last statement.
“Very well,” Voldemort said suddenly, breaking off the connection. “I will send them in, but they must use the house elf staircases at the sides of the building. If they make trouble, you understand that they will be disposed of, and you will not be consulted about it.”
“Of course, my Lord,” Snape said, bowing his head to the floor once more. He stopped short at kissing the hems of his robes, as some of the most eager Death Eaters did. “I will accompany them every step of the way, to make sure they do not cause any…trouble. You have my word that they will not be seen or heard.”
Snape backed out of the room as Voldemort waved his wand and muttered the words that would raise most of the physical wards over Malfoy Manor. Almost instantly Snape could feel a heaviness lift from his chest, and then the golden coin that he wore around his neck burned against his skin.
For a few tense minutes, the truck idled in the road.
“Try again,” Edwards urged. “We can’t just be sitting here when they try to come through. They’re going to know something is wrong.”
“If the wards aren’t lifted yet, someone inside hasn’t done their job,” Channing argued. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”
Suddenly the five Aurors all released a sigh of relief as a heavy weight that they had not noticed upon their chests was lifted. It was almost as if the air around them had been pressing down on them discreetly, making it difficult and uncomfortable to breathe until now.
“Something’s happened,” Sheldon said, leaning over the low divide between the cab and the back of the truck. “I think they lifted the shields. Give it another go, Richard.”
Sinton shifted the truck into drive hastily and barreled down the road. This time the lorry met with no resistance and they entered through the hedge-lined gates of Malfoy Manor, rattling and bouncing with every inch. Ahead, dim floodlights illuminated the white walls of a grand mansion. Ionic-style columns marched across the front of the main entrance, breaking a perfectly spaced row only to allow for tall, mahogany double doors. A large expanse of lawn stretched between the gates and the front door of the house—leaving nowhere for enemies or invaders to hide.
The Aurors could feel the Galleons on their chains burn hot against their skin as they followed the road towards the house. When the road began to lead off away towards the other side of the grounds, Sinton pulled over onto the lawn. Ahead, he could see a single man coming out of the main doors and approaching the truck. The man beckoned to them with one arm.
Sheldon frowned. “Is that Snape? I thought we were supposed to come up to the main entrance to meet him.”
“I’m getting out. Stay in the truck until I come back to tell you that it’s safe,” Edwards ordered, opening his passenger side door. “If anything goes wrong, I’ll run back, hop in, and Richard can drive us the hell out of here.”
Edwards approached the man cautiously, one hand on the wand in his Russian-style robes. “Severus Snape?” he asked.
“Yes,” Snape replied. “I was told that you have a taste for French cuisine.” That was the code phrase that the Order had given Snape to prove his identity to the Aurors, who had never set eyes on him before.
“I do enjoy it on occasion, though I prefer Italian,” Edwards replied, the proper response to the code phrase, so that Snape could be sure that he was indeed letting the correct men in.
Snape offered his hand to Edwards to shake, and the other man took it. “I’m going to need you to pull your truck up to a side entrance, down the road,” he murmured to him. “We’re going to go through the back staircases—there’s less chance of running into trouble that way.”
Edwards nodded his agreement. “You’ll have to get in the back of the truck and guide us there,” he said.
The truck continued to follow the road as it wound around the grounds, eventually returning back to the main house by a smaller, hidden entrance. The Aurors assumed that it was probably used by house elves, nursemaids, and other household servants. Sinton edged the back of the lorry carefully up towards the wall.
Before the Aurors and Snape could exit, he turned around and warned his partners, “Remember, from now on only speak when you must, and only in Russian.” They had all learned a few quick sentences on the way, courtesy of guides that Kingsley had drawn up for them in advance.
Then each of the five men picked up a box of glass vials from the back of the truck, and led by Snape, Levitated their loads carefully into the house.
“74 crocodile, 75 crocodile, 76 crocodile,” Channing muttered as they ascended the tiny staircases at the back of the house designed for house elves to come and go without disrupting their masters. The old, dry wood creaked ominously below their feet, but it did not give way. Finally, they emerged in an empty hallway and deposited their boxes into a room at the end.
When they arrived back through the door for their next load of boxes, they heard the whispers of voices coming from the patch of lawn beside the truck.
“George? Is that you, son?” the voice of Arthur Weasley said.
Ron grunted in pain as he stumbled and stubbed his toe on a stray rock. “No, Dad, it’s Ron and Hermione. Is everyone else here yet?”
“Fred and Hestia are. We’re waiting on Sturgis and George,” Arthur replied. “They were coming through from the back grounds—they probably had to go all the way around the forest.”
The Aurors continued to shift and Levitate their boxes of Potions supplies out of the back of the truck as if they had noticed and heard nothing out of the ordinary. The Disillusioned backup fighters, infiltrating the grounds from all different points, had gathered and regrouped at the front of the truck to take roll call. Everyone was supposed to arrive by the hundredth count.
Grass rustled underneath the soles of trainers. “We’re here! We’re here!” they heard the voice of George Weasley gasp. “It took a bloody long time cutting Sturgis out of a bush that had grabbed hold of him—”
“Alright everybody, listen up,” Arthur interrupted softly. “We’re heading towards the main entrance now. Make sure to keep Disillusioned and to stay out of sight.” Arthur paused as the coin around his neck burned hot again. “Okay, we’re a hundred counts in,” he continued. “Once at the entrance, be ready to go inside when the attack starts at the thousandth count, to block off any chance of escape. Got it?”
“Got it,” the backup fighters answered, and they set off around the edge of the house.
A/N: I promised more action, and I hope to deliver. What do you think? Too confusing? Too boring? Please let me know!