Dedalus Diggle had barely counted to 94 in his mind when the coin that hung around his neck began to burn hot again against his skin. Startled, he yelped softly, jumping a few inches into the air and nearly losing his hat in the process. The easily excitable man hopped about and breathed deeply for a moment, a hand on his pounding heart.
Mundungus Fletcher shushed him, gesturing past the thick hedgerows that hid them and to the road that lay beyond. “Quiet! There might still be people coming at any moment,” he warned Dedalus. “They could hear us.”
“The coin burned early,” Dedalus explained quietly, patting it through his dark robes. “It just caught me by surprise, that’s all—gave me quite a scare.”
Mundungus blinked bloodshot eyes at the small man. “You must be counting too slowly, then,” he told him.
“I am not! I’m counting 1-crocodile, 2-crocodile, just like everyone else.”
“Maybe you’re saying it too slowly.”
“I am not!” Dedalus exclaimed, more loudly than he had intended.
Unnoticed by the two guards, Bellatrix Lestrange’s fingers gave a sudden twitch against the ground. The movement from the woman lying facedown at their feet was hidden by the long grass.
Even so, Dung shushed Dedalus more fervently this time, his spittle flying through his clenched teeth and into the air. “You’re really no good at this whole stealth thing, are you,” he commented in a whisper, shaking his head at the small man. “In my line of work—”
“Not being quiet enough means the difference between a good haul and a trip to the Auror Department, I know,” Dedalus finished solemnly. “Good thing that you have Kingsley there at the Ministry to bail you out every time you get caught.”
“He said after the last time that he couldn’t ever do that again,” Mundungus sighed. “They’re starting to get suspicious. It’s no big problem, though. Now I just have to be careful not to get caught on a big job.”
Dedalus shook his head ruefully at the thief, letting him know that he disapproved of his questionable activities. After Remus and Bill Weasley had set off down the road impersonating the Lestrange couple, Dedalus and Dung had crouched quietly behind the hedgerows and watched several more groups of Death Eaters pass them unharmed. Dedalus could see that Mundungus’s fingers itched for his wand, but he was careful to make sure that Dung never made good on his urge to curse them, or else their position would be discovered.
They both held their breath as two sets of heavy footsteps trampled past, accompanied by two low, grunting voices. “Probably Crabbe and Goyle,” Dung whispered with a grin.
The count rose to 120 without any further interruptions. “I think we can relax now,” Dedalus told Mundungus. “Nobody else is coming. Everyone who’s expected at the meeting has already passed us.”
“You think we’ll be able to see whether or not Remus and the others got in okay from here?” Dung asked, looking through the trees in the direction of the main house.
Bellatrix’s ears pricked up. The familiar name sent ripples of alarm through her mind, and one by one her senses lurched clumsily into consciousness. Remus Lupin, she thought groggily.
“Yeah, we might be able to watch them go in through the trees - they thin out a bit over there,” Dedalus said. He turned his back on the captives and led Dung a little ways away from the hedges and into the forest, where they could see through the trees and onto the vast lawn that stretched from here to the main house. Illuminated dimly by the moonlight, several robed, hooded figures traveled on the path which the truck carrying the Inside Men had followed up to the white mansion.
Bellatrix heard the guards’ footsteps crunching in the grass, moving away from her. Her mind, magically powerful and amplified by her practice of the Dark Arts, fought to shake off the effects of the Stunning spell until she could wiggle her fingers and toes without difficulty. They’re here, she realized with a jolt of horror as her mind cleared. Remus Lupin and Dumbledore’s bloody Order of the Phoenix are here.
Without breaking the silence, Bellatrix called firmly for her wand. Neither guard, their backs turned, noticed the faint clatter of wood on wood that sounded as the summoned wand rose from the pile of Death Eaters’ wands that lay on the ground a few meters away. Dedalus and Dung had stripped them from their captives and discarded them there without a second glance.
When Bella’s wand was in her hand, she revived the man lying next to her and discreetly clamped a hand down on his large nose and twisted mouth, all with only the tiniest movements.
“Shush,” she hissed, barely breathing. “Get your wand.”
Antonin Dolohov’s shadowy eyes flickered blearily towards the silhouettes of the guards in the trees, and then around to his fallen comrades, and he nodded. His wand extracted itself from the pile and glided towards him easily.
Neither guard turned around until Bella was already on her feet and the first curse had struck the tree trunk between them.
“Merciful Merlin!” Dedalus squeaked, drawing his wand and immediately throwing up a shield in front of himself and Mundungus. The thief swore more colorfully, leaping behind a tree trunk just in time to escape a second beam of light that whipped its way through the brush towards him.
“Crucio!” Bellatrix snarled. Firing curse after curse, she advanced on the two guards.
From behind his tree, Mundungus shouted hexes and swore intermittently, confusing the still-disoriented Dolohov. The Death Eater’s eyes widened as small, sharp brambles from the hedges behind him seemed to snake out towards him. He backed away but took no more than two or three steps before he stumbled backwards over the large body of Thorfinn Rowle and toppled onto the unconscious man. Dolohov howled as the brambles engulfed them and scratched long, shallow gashes across his face, neck and arms.
Bellatrix was keeping Dedalus busy. They dueled, beams of multi-colored light springing back and forth between their wands.
Dedalus leaped away, his quick feet serving him well. “Oratis tempera!”The wind picked up, blowing Bella’s wild hair back from her bony face as she began to mutter something under her breath. Dedalus had never heard the incantation before, and it made him frightened. “Dissori sam—”he interrupted, but the woman ducked and the spell shot over Bellatrix’s head.
Far in the distance, thunder rumbled. “Dissori samire ignitia!” Bellatrix shrieked, her eyes wide and triumphant. She raised her wand arm towards the cloudless sky, pointing it directly above her, and the building air pressure around them sent waves of shock through the ground. For a tense moment Dedalus could only watch in horror and fascination. What was she doing? This was unnatural, and it had the feel of the Dark Arts.
Then the sky split open and ignited the tip of her wand with lightning.
A fork of electricity crackled and snapped, connecting Bellatrix’s wand to the heavens. She slung her wand arm down, bearing the short strand of lightning like a whip and bringing it down upon the ground between them. The earth shuddered and quaked, nearly throwing Dedalus to his knees. The small man fought to regain his balance as Mundungus barreled out into the open to help support him.
“Stupef—” Dung began.
The pseudo-lightning of Bellatrix’s wand swung a wide arc above their heads and above Dedalus’s shield spell, setting flame to all the treetops. Dead branches caught fire and crumbled, crashing to the ground and igniting the bushes that grew there. One falling branch clipped Dung painfully on the shoulder and he swore and lashed at Bellatrix with his wand through the curtains of thick smoke that were now rising from the coarse foliage that grew low to the ground. The forest burned like a beacon on the south end of Malfoy Manor.
Dedalus and Mundungus looked around in horror. If the quake hadn’t alerted Voldemort to the Order’s presence, they were surely discovered now.
“Diffindo,” they heard Dolohov shout as he struggled to free himself from the brambles. “Diffindo!”
“Ennervate! Ennervate! Ennervate!” Bellatrix said, reviving the remaining stunned Death Eaters lying on the ground. They all groaned and rolled over, scrubbing at their eyes and coughing as they breathed in air thick with fumes. Dedalus and Mundungus fought their way through the trees towards the Death Eaters.
“Where are the little rats?” Dolohov growled, wiping his bleeding face with the arm of his robes. “I’ll finish them off! Avada Kedavra!”
He threw three reckless bolts of green light through the smoke in the general direction of the place where he had last seen the guards. Luckily, Dedalus and Dung had since then blundered out of the trees and back into the clearing, nearly blinded in the smoke. Mundungus howled as he brought his foot down on the pile of discarded Death Eater wands and slipped, losing his balance. Bolts of green whipped past him when Dolohov turned his aim towards the new noise.
“Stop it,” Bellatrix snapped at Dolohov while she hauled her husband to his feet. She brushed dust and dirt off of his robes briskly. “They’re not important right now—we’ll kill them later. They’re only the guards. There are more of them inside!”
“They won’t be able to get in,” Dolohov rasped, coughing. He held up the collar of his robes with one hand to shield his nose from the smoke while he helped a groaning Mulciber up with the other. “The house is shielded.”
“Can’t you feel it? The wards are down!” Bellatrix snarled at him, kicking a lethargic Travers into motion. She had long since gotten used to the oppressive feeling of the air that usually surrounded Malfoy Manor—she normally did not even feel the power of Voldemort’s wards. But now that it was not there, she knew that something was wrong. “Somehow they got my Lord to lower the shields so they could get in.”
“What’s going on? Where’s my wand?” Mulciber roared, clutching Dolohov by the scruff of his robes with a meaty fist.
Dolohov scrambled to retrieve it, but Bella grabbed his arm through his torn robes. His skin was slick with blood droplets. “We have to get into the Manor and raise the alarm!” she screeched. “Go! Now!”
Bellatrix blasted a clear way through the hedges and practically threw Dolohov through. He bumbled out onto the road and disappeared. With another wave of her wand—the pseudo-lightning had since then faded away—Bellatrix sent the remaining Death Eaters’ wands soaring through the air towards their respective owners. She deflected a few more curses that Dedalus had blindly thrown in the direction of her voice. “Follow me!” she cried to them, and led the way.
“Petrificus Totalus!” Dung’s lucky hex caught Travers in the back just as he was about to run through the hedges after her. The Death Eater stiffened and fell, but his friends didn’t notice and continued on without him.
Dedalus and Dung stumbled forward over Travers’s body and felt for the opening in the hedges with their hands. They burst through, scrubbing watering eyes. “We have to go after them,” Dedalus squeaked. “We have to stop them.” The count had only risen to 250. There was still over 10 minutes to go before the attack was due to begin.
Mundungus cursed with his most colorful vocabulary yet as he and Dedalus barreled down the road after the Death Eaters.
Ron rounded the corner of Malfoy Manor, headed for the long stretch of lawn in front of the main entrance. In the distance, the southern forest through which he and Hermione had come now glowered with a dull orange pulse.
“Mione!” he hissed, throwing out an arm to stop her. He heard her small exclamation of surprise before he found her Disillusioned wrist and wrapped his hand around it. “Look,” he said, guiding it in the direction that he wanted her to look. “What’s going on over there?”
Hermione drew in a sharp breath. “That looks like fire,” she whispered., her voice concerned. “Mr. Weasley?”
“What is it?” Arthur’s voice came from several steps behind them. Then, “Oh,” he said as he caught sight of the burning forest. He swore softly. “Isn’t that where you two just came from? That’s where Dedalus and Dung are supposed to be now, right?”
There was no time to answer. A dark-robed, shadowy figure burst through the archway of the open gates, racing up the lawn towards the main entrance and towards the Disillusioned backup fighters. Ron and Hermione stood rooted to the spot, not knowing if this man was Dedalus, or Mundungus, or someone different altogether. Ron didn’t notice that he was still grasping tightly to Hermione’s arm until he heard her tiny murmur of pain.
He eased up his grip immediately. “Sorry,” he said sheepishly.
“It’s alright, Ron,” Hermione replied, a small smile curling her lips despite the worry she felt. “Should we go down to meet them, Mr. Weasley?” she asked Arthur.
Before Arthur could order them to do anything, a low murmur sounded near his left ear. Fred—or George—panted, sounding out of breath. “He’s not one of ours, Dad,” he said quickly. “He’s a Death Eater, but I couldn’t tell who. His face was all cut up—”
Arthur reached out to grab the collar of the twin’s robes. “Don’t you two dare move another inch without consulting me, do you understand me?” he interrupted his son fiercely, sounding exactly like his wife Molly Weasley. “I don’t want you going near them unless it’s absolutely necessary. What if he’d seen you?”
“I was one of the fastest runners on the Gryffindor Quidditch team,” the twin replied. The figure was quickly approaching them, stumbling up the gently sloping lawn. His face was now visible, and Arthur identified him as Antonin Dolohov, looking battered and worse for the wear. The coin around Arthur’s neck burned as the count rose to 300. “Well? Are we going to stop him, or are we just going to let him saunter up to Malfoy Manor unchallenged?” the twin demanded.
“Stupefy,” Arthur murmured, and a jet of red light shot out to strike Dolohov in the belly. He crumpled over onto the grass, his tattered robes flopping around him.
“Bloody hell, there’s more of them!” Ron exclaimed, pointing towards the gate. “Where are they coming from?” Five more robed Death Eaters came barreling through the hedges towards them, sputtering and coughing.
“They must’ve overpowered the guards,” Hermione murmured.
“On my order,” Arthur said. “Ready?” Sounds of affirmation came from the twins, Sturgis, Hestia, Ron and Hermione. Hermione gently slipped her arm out from under Ron’s hand as they both raised and readied their wands. “NOW!” Arthur whispered.
They raced partway down the slope, meeting the oncoming Death Eaters. “Expelliarmus!” Ron and Hermione shouted together. Two of the Death Eaters’ wands flew into the air while Fred and George bombarded their targets with more innovative and painful hexes.
“Reducto!” Arthur bellowed, blasting a hole through the lawn in front of Thorfinn Rowle. The big Death Eater stumbled, rolling his ankle as the ground gave way in front of him.
There was chaos for precious few seconds until Bellatrix Lestrange figured out that they were being attacked. “They’re Disillusioned!” she cried to her husband. “Let’s force the dirty traitors to show themselves!”
Together the Lestranges cried, “Revelio!” As they swept their wands through the air, the Order members could feel their Disillusionment slipping to the ground. With their targets now revealed, the outnumbered Death Eaters began to fight in earnest.
“Sectumsempra!” Mulciber growled, slashing a hole through one of the twin’s robes and cutting a gash in his leg.
“Expecto Simula—” Nott began to summon his simulacrum—one of the Dark Lord’s inventions, a dark twisted Patronus for the dark twisted soul who could not conjure a true one—to send a warning to Voldemort.
“Don’t you bloody dare!” Ron cried. “Confringo!” The spell would’ve blasted Nott to pieces had the Death Eater not dodged out of the way just in time. As it was, the explosion threw him to the ground with a yell, knocked off balance.
Hermione saw. “Incarcerous!” Ropes slid around the fallen Death Eater’s body and tied Nott’s arms tightly to his sides.
Rowle scrambled up from the ground, placing his weight gingerly on his injured ankle. “Accio wand,” he said hurriedly. He caught his wand in midair and directed it at the back of Sturgis’s head. “Egatus!”
Fred Weasley saw him just in time to deflect the curse. “Protego!” he called. “Confringo!”
There was another explosion. Rowle tumbled to the ground again, clutching his leg, and Hestia, who was battling Rodolphus Lestrange, stumbled from the impact. A moment later a spell from his wand struck her across the side of the body and she rolled over onto her back, convulsing uncontrollably.
Hermione cried out and ran over to her while Ron engaged Rodolphus and drew his efforts away from the two women. Placing a comforting hand on Hestia’s shaking shoulder, Hermione grasped the thin chain around the older woman’s neck and pulled out the gold coin carefully, then touched it to the tip of her wand. “Activia,” she whispered and stepped back. There was a flash of purple light, and then Hestia was gone.
Hermione looked around—George was limping away from Mulciber, his hurt leg dragging and the Death Eater hot on his heels. His twin had snuck up behind Mulciber and looked ready to tackle him.
“Expecto Si—” Mulciber was cut off from summoning his simulacrum as Fred looped an arm around his throat.
Rowle crawled over to Nott with tears of pain, caused by his injured ankle, streaming down his face, and cut through the bonds that tied him. “Diffindo!”
There was a shriek from lower down on the hill, nearer to the gates. “Deprimo!” The ground rumbled between Bellatrix Lestrange and Arthur Weasley as they dueled. They inched around in tight circles, eyeing each other carefully over their raised wands. When Arthur’s eyes flicked briefly over to check on his sons Fred and George, Bellatrix saw an opening.
Arthur roared in pain.
Hermione raced in, tears running down her cheeks. Her wand lashed again and again on Sirius’s cousin and murderer, forcing Bellatrix to release her hold on the torture curse. In a faraway place in her mind, Hermione registered the burning of the Galleon against her skin. The count had risen only to 400—the backup fighters had ten minutes before the attack begun.
That is, if Voldemort did not notice the fight raging on his front steps before it was time.
“Oh, the little girly wants to play,” Bellatrix giggled, turning her cold gaze on Hermione. “Tell me, Mudblood, how is wee little Potter? Why doesn’t he show his face? Is he…scared?”
“Leave her alone, you vile bitch!” George spat, running unsteadily over to help Sturgis out, who was not having an easy time with Rowle and Nott. Hermione followed and left the struggling Mulciber for Fred to take care of. Arthur Weasley scrambled to his feet again to face Bellatrix, a dark threat in his normally serene eyes.
Then he heard his son cry out.
Ron hollered a string of curse words as Rodolphus Lestrange closed in on him. The Lestrange had nearly thirty years of fighting experience over Ron, who owed more of his knowledge of defense to lessons in Dumbledore’s Army and slapdash Death Eater battles than to his actual Defense classes. Rodolphus, the more experienced dueler, was grinning, a triumphant gleam lighting his hollow eyes as he watched Ron’s strength seep away.
“NO! STOP IT!” Arthur yelled, swinging his wand away from Bellatrix in a great arc. He smashed into Rodolphus with the strength of an invisible spell and knocked him sideways away from Ron, who laid panting and sweating on the ground.
Bellatrix watched with a strange expression on her face as Arthur dropped down to his knees next to his youngest son without a thought except to see if Ron was okay. She raised her wand once more. She wanted to strike them both with Killing Curses—Arthur’s back was turned to her and Ron had clamped his hand up to his own brow bone, over his eyes, so they were helpless—but instead, she aimed her wand above their heads and shouted,
Behind the battle, near the gate through which the path ran, Dedalus Diggle and Mundungus Fletcher hollered out ragged warnings. They were both out of breath from running and smoke inhalation, and they had arrived too late.
All of the fighters turned with various degrees of horror or triumph apparent on their faces to see a ball of light shoot out of Bella’s wand and into the air. It shaped itself into a huge bat made of shining ebon sparks outlined with silver. It swooped over Dolohov’s stunned body, still unmoving on the ground, and towards the entrance of Malfoy Manor.
“NO!” Hermione cried out hoarsely, not even recognizing the sound of her own voice as the coin under her shirt burned the 500th count.
Tonks never took her eyes off of Voldemort through the eye slits in her mask. From her first sight of him, his pale face had glowed ghostly and terrible in the dim light, and the Auror’s heart had climbed up into her throat in fear.
By the time the count had escalated to 500, her neck was sore from craning upwards toward the raised dais at the front of the room where he sat and her limbs were falling asleep from sitting so stiffly in her chair. Tonks dared not speak and even drew minimal breath, lest somebody notice that Antonin Dolohov had become strangely effeminate.
“Now that everyone has arrived,” Voldemort was saying in his high-pitched, chilling voice, “I have good news.”
He continued to speak, something about Muggle leaders and breaching alarm spells, but no matter how important it sounded Tonks couldn’t bring herself to listen. She shivered involuntarily and felt Remus—or the tall cloaked figure seated next to her, which she assumed to be him—place a subtle comforting hand on her arm under the table. How Remus could be sure which of the pseudo-Death Eaters was her, Tonks didn’t know. She was only glad that he had guessed right.
She couldn’t afford the comfort of his hand for very long, though. As Voldemort’s cold gaze swept the room, Tonks had the uneasy thought that his red eyes could see right through the wooden table to their contact. The last thing Tonks needed was to call attention to herself and Remus. Fleetingly disgusted at her own weakness and the danger that it put their entire operation in, Tonks placed her own hand over Remus’s, patted it twice, and then gently slid it off of her arm.
“I have sent my regards to—” Voldemort was saying when Tonks felt a draft raise the hairs on the back of her neck. Something swooped up the table, over the heads of the Death Eaters and up towards the dais.
Voldemort fell quiet immediately as the creature approached to hover near him. It was a sparkling black, bird-like apparition, one of the spells known to the Ministry’s Auror department as “simulacra.” Tonks had never seen one physically in front of her before, but it became quite apparent who had conjured it when it began to speak.
“My Lord,” sounded the voice of Bellatrix Lestrange, shrieking from the simulacrum, “beware the danger! I fight blood traitors outside your doors!” Tonks felt the blood running in her veins turn to ice. Bellatrix was fighting the backups. What had gone wrong? “There are imposters—”
But there was no time left to think. Before the simulacrum could finish the sentence—and before Voldemort or anyone else could understand the message—Tonks was on her feet. “Confringo!” she bellowed, aiming her wand at the Dark Lord’s tall figure at the front of the room. Everyone seated at the table below froze, bewildered, to watch the beam of light ricochet towards him.
With a seething hiss of rage, the Dark Lord scrambled aside and the throne on which he had been sitting exploded in flying chunks of stone.
Then the room erupted into chaos. The battle had begun.
Kingsley and Remus were the first to understand what was happening. They leaped up onto the surface of the table just as they had planned to, standing back-to-back, and Tonks and Bill Weasley hurried to join them. Kingsley was the one facing the dais head-on, and his deep voice boomed as he voiced spells to get past the shields that the Dark Lord had now thrown up around himself.
The three Ministry Aurors fired quick hexes at the real Death Eaters from the ground, immobilizing and silencing several targets each neatly before anyone realized what was happening. The Auror Cicero held up his left hand, two fingers raised for the two Death Eaters that he had already dropped. All the other decoys followed suit, making it easy for them to keep track of each other.
The real Death Eaters were faltering. They had no idea which of their cloaked and masked cohorts was an enemy, and they could not afford the mistake of attacking one of their own. Curses were being thrown at them not only from across the room, but also from above.
Kingsley bellowed in pain as the Dark Lord’s lightning Cruciatus Curse hit him. He collapsed onto Bill, who braced him up from directly behind with his own back, grunting. A masked Death Eater was approaching one of the Aurors on the ground, having figured for certain that he was a decoy and prepared to catch him unawares. Hollering a strangled warning to the Auror, Bill watched as a curse that seemingly came out of nowhere caught the Death Eater straight through the neck.
Remus transferred his attentions to Voldemort while Tonks righted a panting Kingsley. The coin under her robes burned the 600th count. “Where’s Richard?” Kingsley gasped out at her, gesturing to the ceiling. “He should be…up there…”
Tonks cursed as she saw that Remus was struggling with the Dark Lord, who lashed and snapped his wand at them easily, cackling. His shields were splintering under pressure from the decoys, but Remus’s strength was draining away. Streams of sweat rolled down his cheeks out from under his mask.
“Richard probably can’t hear us,” she said to Kingsley urgently. “We started a few minutes early.” She looked around the room. “He’d better catch on quick. We need his help!”
“Watch out!” Kingsley cried the alarm as one of the remaining Death Eaters on the ground—who had lost his wand and mask to the Auror Hayman—tried to strike at Remus from behind and drag him off of the table. The werewolf snarled and, without turning around, kicked out at the twisted face of the man grabbing for his leg. His foot made contact and smashed through bone and cartilage, and the injured man’s roar of agony ripped through the room.
Remus yanked the leg free, maintaining balance, but his concentration on his duel with the Dark Lord had slipped. Smirking in triumph at the fray going on below him and his own deteriorating army, Voldemort wrenched his wand free of Remus’s spells.
“Expecto Simulacrum!” his harsh voice whispered. “Summon help!”
The sparkling form of the Dark Mark sprang forth from his wand, hissed once at the crowd, and then slithered away through the walls.
A/N: Good God, has it been three months already?! I apologize. If it's any consolation, I'm updating on Christmas. Consider this a Christmas gift from me to you. And you know what would be a nice gift to recieve in return? That's right - reviews. Please let me know what you thought of this after so long! =]