When the count rose to 700 there was still no sign out on the front lawn that Voldemort had even received Bellatrix’s warning. The Battle of the Backups raged on.
All in all, it seemed that the outnumbered Death Eaters were tiring. Rodolphus Lestrange had never gotten up from Arthur Weasley’s blow, and with Dolohov still immobile the Death Eaters were fighting two to one.
Sturgis sported a dozen shallow cuts on his upper body and Arthur’s forehead was slick with sweat droplets as they continued to struggle to control Bellatrix. Ron and Hermione fought back-to-back, Hermione supporting the redhead. Ron’s limbs were still shaking violently from the Cruciatus Curse. Dedalus and Mundungus battled Mulciber, who had a nasty red welt around his neck.
Fred was the first to see them coming.
“Oi, Dad!” he hollered. “At the gate!”
Arthur turned towards his son, followed quickly by the rest of the Order members. They followed Fred’s line of sight towards the gates, where a dozen masked figures cloaked in black were gathering and getting ready to march through.
“Bloody hell, we’re finished,” Hermione heard Ron mutter weakly near her ear.
She whipped around to glare at her best friend. “Are you mad? We’re not giving up!” she cried. “You know this is our only chance! We can’t give up!”
Hermione aimed her wand down the slope of the front lawn and, with a blast of magical force, wrenched the old iron gates free of the ivy and grass that entangled them. The rusted hinges creaked in protest— with the magical wards to protect Malfoy Manor, the gates had not actually needed to close in centuries.
“Hey, what are you doing?” George yelled at Hermione. He threw a haphazard curse at Nott as the Death Eater tried to go for her turned back.
Hermione ignored them, trickles of sweat rolling down her temples and disappearing into her hairline above her ears. Her left hand found Ron’s and she crushed his fingers, straining in concentration. Below them, the heavy gates began to swing closed.
Bellatrix swore colorfully when she saw what Hermione was doing. “Hurry, you fools!” she shrieked at the new Death Eaters, who were still settling into some sort of battle formation beyond the entrance. “Run!”
The cloaked reinforcements obeyed immediately, barreling down the path towards them. The space between the closing gates was disappearing with every passing second. Five, then six new Death Eaters slipped through. Hermione dropped to her knees with the effort, dragging Ron down to the ground with her.
Another Death Eater leaped for the opening in the last second before the heavy iron gates slammed shut on his leg. The sound of snapping bone and his howl of pain echoed across the grounds.
With another wave of her wand, Hermione drew the heavy bolt across the closed gates, shutting the remaining seven Death Eaters out. Then she collapsed limply onto all fours, panting and trembling. Those reinforcements could still get to them through the forest, but it would be a much longer and more difficult path. They would have to fight the belligerent foliage that surrounded the main house along the way. Hermione had just bought them—and the Order members inside—time.
“Hermione,” Ron said urgently. He bent down to gather her close to his chest, shaking her gently by the shoulders. He didn’t spare a single glance at the six new Death Eaters who were running up the grass towards them, already shooting curses. “Are you okay? Do you want me to send you back?”
Hermione’s cheeks were pale and her breaths came shallow. “No, I just—I just need to rest,” she gasped out. “The gates, they were so…I didn’t expect them to be so heavy.” She gave a weak laugh, startling a chuckle of relief out of the redhead.
“Yeah, well, that was bloody brilliant. Only you would think of that.” Ron paused, chewing his lip. “Harry would be proud.”
Hermione grinned as Fred and George stepped in front of them, protecting them from the new Death Eaters. It was a few moments before she could draw the strength to stand, and when she did, it was only because Ron had given her his hand and pulled her upright.
The battle was not going well for the Order backups. With the arrival of the new reinforcements, the Order was now outnumbered at least two to one on the front lawn, and these new Death Eaters were fresh and alert. Slowly but surely, the masked and cloaked Death Eaters pushed the Order members back towards the entrance of Malfoy Manor.
“Push through! Blast the filth away!” Mulciber roared. “Now!”
“Fall back!” Sturgis yelled out as he took care of the staggering Nott once and for all. He looked to Arthur, pleading. “We can’t fight them! There are too many! Fall back so we can draw strength from the attack!”
“No,” Arthur hollered back. “We can’t let them get by! We’re not even at 800 yet—they’re not ready!”
Ron and Hermione stumbled in to help their friends in a hopeless defense of the Malfoy Manor entrance. They were almost upon the great stairs that led up to the dais in front of the mahogany doors. The Order members were retreating whether they wanted to or not, but every inch of ground was given painfully.
“Go! Go! Go!” Bellatrix was terrifying in the heat of battle, her white face glowing demonic in the moonlight as she lashed with her wand. The Death Eaters rallied around her, bearing down on the Order members at the base of the steps. “Push through!” she screamed. “We don’t have time! My Lord, I am coming!”
A large Death Eater, still masked, raised his wand arm perpendicular to his body. A mass of orange light gathered at his wand tip. “Aehinsa!” he yelled, and snapped his wand arm forward, elbow first.
The light hurled towards them with unimaginable momentum. Nobody had time even to blink before Hermione could hear Arthur and Sturgis yell out in agony as the magic slashed them.
“What the bloody hell was that?” George shouted.
Ron shook a trembling Arthur by the shoulders. “Dad! Where are you hurt?”
When the Order ranks fell apart, Bellatrix pushed easily through the chaos and up the stairs. “Leave them!” she ordered once more as the masked Death Eaters raised their wands to finish them off. “They’ll get what’s coming to them. The immediate danger is inside.” The Death Eaters stared at her, not understanding. “Go!” she snarled, pointing her wand at the doors. They flew open. “Protect my Lord!”
The masked and cloaked Death Eaters poured through the doors of Malfoy Manor. Bellatrix turned back and, with her wand, plucked the bodies of her husband, Nott, and Dolohov from the grass. She deposited them gently just inside the front hall. Then, with a swish of her robes, she turned in and the heavy doors slammed shut behind her.
Working quickly, Richard Sinton and the other Aurors had taken all of the boxes from the back of the truck to the upstairs room and set up the Potions stuff under Severus Snape’s instruction by the time the coin under his shirt had announced the 400th count.
“We’re done,” Snape said after surveying the shelves of brand new glittering glass vials and a strange contraption of thin, twisting tubes that the Aurors had also brought in and set up. “We have ten minutes before we are due downstairs. I trust you know your orders?”
All five of the Aurors nodded. After their job was finished, Snape was supposed to guide them to the uppermost floor of the Malfoy Manor. Starting there, they would scour the entire building for anyone who was by chance not at the meeting and Stupefy and tie them up so that they could not come to Voldemort’s aid once the attack begun. Snape led the way back to the house elf staircases, and they began to climb.
After climbing three stories up on the staircase, there was a loud creak, and then a mighty crack as old wood gave in under the Auror Sheldon’s weight. The big man cursed quietly—his left foot had crashed through the brittle wood of the landing up past his knee.
“Haul him up,” Snape ordered. “We have to keep going, or we run the risk of not having enough time to take care of every room.”
Channing and Sinton grabbed Sheldon under his arms and, grunting, hauled him back up over the edge of the hole in the floor that he had created. “Reparo,” Channing said, and the wood in the floor began to fix itself. When Snape looked at him impatiently, he explained, “Someone could really hurt themselves.”
“Nobody ever uses these stairs but the house elves,” Snape replied, continuing on. The staircase was so low that he now had to stoop to avoid banging his head.
When they emerged on the top floor of the house, the count had risen to 500. The tall hallway was dark and quiet. There was no sign of life in any of the rooms that opened off of the main corridor. Thick carpet muffled the sound of their footsteps as Snape and the Aurors split up and each checked a doorway.
“Supposedly there is no one in residence on the next two levels, either,” Snape said when the six men had met up again, finding nothing on the top floor. “But we must check—one never knows what secret weapons the Dark Lord may keep in here in case of attack.”
The Aurors found nothing but a boggart and a haunted chest of drawers on the next two levels. Continuing downwards, they soon found themselves back on the floor where they had set up the Potions lab.
“How high up are we now?” Sinton asked.
“Fourth floor,” Snape replied as the coin burned the 600th count. “Be warned—the Dark Lord keeps his prisoners on this floor. They are harmless, most of them incapacitated from abuse, but we cannot waste time freeing them. If our mission succeeds, they will go free. If, Merlin forbid, our mission does not succeed, they will not be further punished for trying to escape.”
“So can we skip this level, then?” Emerson asked.
“No. This floor also houses those of the Dark Lord’s servants who are particularly fond of torturing his prisoners as recreation,” Snape said grimly. “Although they should all be at the meeting by now, we cannot take chances. Check every room and enter carefully now, in pairs.”
“And you must work here on this floor, alongside prisoners and their torturers?” Sheldon asked, frowning.
Snape shook his head, an impassive expression on his face. “My workroom is on the first floor, where the Dark Lord may keep my work under close surveillance. The room you were just in serves only as my storeroom.”
Sinton and Edwards crept to the end of the hall to start there. As they approached the last doorway, Edwards put a finger to his lips and a hand on Sinton’s arm to stop him. Both men listened closely. They could hear small whimpers, muffled by the thick wood of the door, coming from the other side of the wall.
Sinton readied his wand and put his hand on the doorknob. With his wand hand he lifted three fingers and then lowered them again one by one. Edwards flanked the doorway on the other side, ready to run in after him.
On the last count, Sinton flung the door open and burst in. He skidded to a stop.
A young woman and a small blonde child were huddled together in the large bed in the middle of the room, crying. Unlike the prisoners that Snape had described, they seemed relatively alive and healthy. The child—a girl of no more than five, Sinton guessed—was the source of the whimpers, while the woman—her mother, the Auror guessed again—held her close and cried silent tears into her hair. When she heard the two men enter, she gripped her child even closer to her chest and brought up her wand arm.
“So, you’ve finally come to kill us, have you,” the woman said, her eyes hard as she glared at Sinton and Edwards. Despite the tears still coursing down her cheeks, she lifted her chin proudly.
“No—” Edwards started cautiously, his own wand still leveled on her.
“Don’t lie! I would be glad to die and get away from this vile, horrid place, but my daughter deserves a chance to live and I will fight you for it,” the woman snarled, her voice shrill. With one arm, she shoved the little girl onto the pillows behind her, shielding her with her own body. “She didn’t choose to join you. My husband did, and stupidly, I agreed. It’s our own bloody fault.”
“We’re not here to kill you,” Sinton said, his voice soothing. “We’re Aurors.”
The woman glared at him, her wand arm shaking. “Prove it. Lower your wands. Let me see your badge.”
Sinton lowered his wand arm slightly, and with a concerned sidelong glance, Edwards followed suit. “We don’t have our badges on us,” Edwards said. “You’re just going to have to take our word for it. You’re not in a position to argue.”
“What’s your name?” Sinton asked. “Are you being held as a prisoner here?”
“She said her husband works for You-Know-Who,” Edwards murmured in his partner’s ear. Subtly he aimed his wand behind him at the doorway and shot out a stream of red sparks to call for help from the other Aurors and Snape, just in case.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Sinton replied as the woman drew a breath to speak.
“My name is Megan Erickson,” she announced. “My husband, daughter, and I are not official prisoners, but we are being held here against our will.”
Sinton frowned. “Have you been hurt or abused?”
Megan Erickson lifted her chin. “Not physically,” she answered coldly.
Alerted to trouble by the red sparks, the Aurors Emerson, Sheldon, and Channing filled the doorway behind them. Snape lingered further back, out of Megan’s line of sight. He knew that she would recognize him as one in the Dark Lord’s service, and they didn’t have time to explain. “She’s innocent,” he whispered to the nearest Auror, who then passed the information up. “They’re both harmless, she and her husband. But they’re stuck here like the rest of the prisoners are. Tie them up.”
“We have to tie you two up,” Sinton said to her, “and your husband, too, if he is not at the meeting.” At Megan’s shocked look, he quickly explained, “If all goes well, you will be free in a matter of hours. But if not, you cannot appear to have helped us, or you will be punished for it.”
Megan narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “My husband is at the meeting. It is an important one. What exactly are you trying to do here?”
“If we succeed, you will know. If we do not, it’ll be better that you don’t know,” Edwards told her kindly. “Now lie back and relax, and hold your daughter’s hand. She mustn’t make too much noise.”
The woman considered for a moment. “I suppose it cannot be worse than what has already been done to us,” Megan finally said, looking down her nose at the men regally. “If you are indeed Aurors, I wish you the best of luck in whatever you are trying to do tonight. But if you are not, Merlin will see to it that you die a painful death.” Then she took her daughter’s hand and lay down on the bed. The little girl was whimpering again, but Megan shushed her.
Ropes slid around the two small bodies on the bed and Megan held onto her daughter’s fingers tightly, whispering, “Merlin will protect us, Merlin will protect us,” over and over in a soft mantra.
“I am sorry this had to happen,” Sinton said to Megan, smiling apologetically. “You will be freed soon.”
“We have to move on,” Snape whispered to Emerson, who said it aloud. The coins underneath their collars burned the 700th count. The Aurors withdrew from the room and left woman and child bound to the bed, feeling distinctly unsettled.
Snape led the way down the hall back towards the staircase. “This floor is clear. We’ve bound the prisoners and taken care of Marcus Draper, the Dark Lord’s spymaster, who was up all night taking reports and was just now sleeping, and Augustus Flint, who’s too ill with dragonfever to attend the meeting.”
“Two eliminated from the field, fourteen yet unaccounted for,” Sinton murmured. “You’re certain that we are to expect nobody else?”
“Don’t forget that if all goes well, seven more are eliminated by Kingsley’s team,” Emerson put in as they descended the staircase. “They will have seven less allies in the building than they suppose when the attack begins. This should be easy.” The most superstitious of the Aurors knocked gently on the wooden walls of the staircase.
The third floor yielded nothing of interest, and the second floor nothing but a few strange Dark objects, which the Aurors gave a wide berth. They gathered at the top of the main staircase, ready to descend to the final floor to join the attack. “The count has almost reached 800,” Snape began.
“Shh!” Sinton said suddenly. All the Aurors froze. “Do you hear that?”
Down the hall, there was a commotion outside the main entrance. Sinton and the other Aurors could hear several voices shouting. Then, with a sharp crack, the heavy wooden doors slammed open.
Someone screamed, “Go! Protect my Lord!”
All the color drained from Severus Snape’s sallow face as he recognized the voice. “Something went wrong. Bellatrix was outside, and now she’s coming in,” he said. “Downstairs, quickly—if we don’t cut her off from the attack, we are finished.” Without waiting for a reply, he whipped around and led the five men storming down the main staircase. In front of them, they could hear the dull roar as a flock of ten or so new masked Death Eaters stampeded through the entrance hall.
“Hurry!” Snape bellowed. The galleon under his shirt seared, heralding the arrival of the 800th count.
Snape and the Aurors practically tumbled down the carpeted stairs, but they were too late. By the time they reached the ground floor of Malfoy Manor, they could see nothing but the tail ends of the new Death Eaters’ black cloaks as the reinforcements stormed into the Dark Lord’s meeting hall. Then, behind them, there was movement and the main doors slammed closed. The Aurors whipped towards the noise.
Bellatrix Lestrange set down the three bodies she had levitated to safety, smiling as she caught sight of the Aurors’ horror-struck expressions. “Oh, hello there, lovelies,” she cooed, pocketing her wand. “Having fun tonight?”
Snape stepped forward through the crowd of Aurors, his wand raised. “Don’t move, Bella.”
Bellatrix looked up at him, and her eyes filled.
“Oh, Severus,” Bellatrix said in a small voice, tangling a lock of hair haphazardly around the fingers of her left hand. Her wand arm twitched toward the pockets of her dress, but she did not draw. Nothing on her face spoke of anger or surprise, only sadness. “I always knew it would come to this someday. You’re so good…I knew you’d never obey. Oh, how did I know?” she mourned. “As soon as I set eyes on you - such a scrawny, shifty little boy, weren’t you?”
The five Aurors at the Potions Master’s back stepped slowly away as Bellatrix approached Snape. Snape did not bat an eyelash. “Go,” he told the Aurors in a low voice. “Leave her to me—you’ll be of no help here. Go help your comrades.”
The Aurors backed away, but did not obey. They stared, entranced and terrified, at the woman who had locked eyes with their guide.
“So scrawny, so lanky,” Bellatrix whispered, her crazed eyes now wide and teasing, as they always were when she was at the height of her manipulation. “So nervous, so young. Nothing at all to grab onto, but I knew you all the same, didn’t I? Didn’t I?” The air around them hummed with tension. Bellatrix cooed. “Oh, don’t you remember me, Sevvy-poo? I was your Bella-dear.”
“Enough!” Snape snarled, his wand arm shaking. “Enough of your lies—after tonight, nobody will ever hear your forked tongue utter another word. Raise your wand and duel me, Bella!”
The woman looked nothing but more delighted at Snape’s response. She raised her hands high above her head in surrender and waved them, twisting her entire body towards him in a snake-like dance. The Potions Master touched his wand against her prone, white throat, but did not utter a spell.
“Oh, here I am, Severus,” she shrieked, giggling at him behind fluttering eyelashes. “Take me! Kill me! Take me now and I am yours again!”
The Aurors watched in horror as Snape hesitated, his wand arm frozen in place. Bellatrix nodded knowingly and peered at him from under heavy, half-shut eyelids. “Ah, you can’t do it, can you? You won’t kill your Bella-dear.”
Her smug smile dropped and her face became sad again. Her voice lilted like a mournful storyteller and though she breathed her words into the Potions Master’s face, she watched her audience, the five Aurors, in delight. “You were such a young genius, Sevvy. Tortured and confused, and with an unfortunate penchant for Mudbloods, but we helped you with that, didn’t we? We slaked your thirst for her. Me and Cissy and even little Rabastan—turns out he wasn’t so little after all, what fun.” She grinned lewdly. “You were a virtuoso at our art, Severus, you know. They were saying that you could even be the next Gellert Grindelwald—”
Richard Sinton growled low in his throat. His wand was halfway out of the pocket of his Russian robes.
“No! Stop! Get out of here!” Severus snarled at the Aurors. The sounds of magical battle drifted down the quiet hall from the meeting room. “I can take care of her on my own! Need I remind you that you are needed elsewhere?”
“We can’t leave him. He’s going to die,” Edwards breathed in awe, but Sinton’s anger had passed as quickly as it had come. The unsettling exchange between Bellatrix and the Potions Master was not his assignment—he had come here to kill the Dark Lord. The battle in the meeting room was more important. Whatever else had happened, Snape had gotten them inside and now the Lestrange woman was his concern alone. Evidently they had some unfinished business to settle.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Sinton replied to Edwards, and led the way. The Aurors backed cautiously down the hall away from them, their wands raised. They never turned their backs on the two dark figures locked in an embrace in the entrance hall.
“Don’t worry about them, Severus. I won’t hurt them yet,” Bellatrix whispered, coming even closer to him despite the wand tip pressed coldly against her flesh. “Your little jaunt is already over. Our Lord—my Lord—has powers you know not of. How foolish of you, to throw all of your genius away. Come back to us, Sevvy,” she coaxed. “Come back to me.”
“I am done with you, Bella-dear,” Snape said evenly, tightening his grip on his wand. Only his curling lip revealed his disgust at the old pet name. “As I am done with your Lord.” The wand tip dug into her neck.
“You won’t do it,” she breathed. Her hands found his collar, and she gripped him to her, her eyes searching for weakness and for confusion. “I trust you, Sevvy,” she said, soothing. “I’ve known you. Severus the genius, the virtuoso of the Dark Arts—you’ve always loved me. You won’t leave me.”
The Potions Master bent closer to her, trembling like he was sixteen again and nervous to hold her, but his whisper in her ear was harsh, like he was twenty-two and confident that his place was elsewhere. “A genius knows better than to love you, Bella. You could never take the place of the woman I truly loved.”
“Severus, please…” Snape’s eyes were cold but Bellatrix didn’t move away, hopeful even when the Avada Kedavra lit through her face with a sickly green glow. The woman crumpled to the ground, stiff and motionless, her hands still twined in the Potions Master’s shirt. Snape pried himself free just as the front doors slammed open once more, revealing a ragged Arthur Weasley and the Order members that he commanded.
Silently they stepped around Bellatrix Lestrange’s fallen body and headed down the corridor to aid the battle in the meeting room.
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