Hello everyone! Thought I'd disappeared off the face of the earth, didn't you? Well, not exactly; I've just been doing loads of uni stuff, and haven't really had the time to do anythng proper writing-wise - although, you'll be glad to hear, I am picking it back up again! Sorry, guys, for the reeeally long wait. This is a nice long chapter, though, with lots of stuff happening, so hopefully it will make up a bit for my disappearance. You even getto meet my villains, and yes! here is the Lord of the Rings!
Chapter Four - A Shift in Power
"I thought the King had already been swayed."
"The King has already been swayed," said the other, a bite of impatience snagging in the haughty voice. "And there's hardly any 'swaying' to be done with an Imperius curse as good as mine."
"Then why are we here?"
The other man sighed, his eyes raised to the heavens as though in plea to someone above to cure the stupidity of his companion. "Because the lords of the council need to be convinced."
"And that can't be done through the Imperius curse because…?"
The other man turned on his companion, teeth gritted against his anger at the other's apparent idiocy. "Ever tried to keep the Imperius curse on more than five people before? No? Well, it's hard, and there just happen to be twenty lords in the council, which is rather a lot to curse, in case you were unaware." A sneer warped Hartly's mouth. He eyes looked the other up and down in open distain. "Mind you, a rat is a bit of a stretch for you, isn't it, Wormtail?"
Wormtail stared at his companion in the darkness. If he had been a man of greater courage and power, he might have stood up for himself. But the Dark Lord had selected him for this duty purely as an assistant to Hartly. His wizarding skills were little better than those of a Squib, and, as any Squib would know, it is always considered best to not argue with those who are capable of cursing you in less time than it takes to form the very idea of doing it. To be allowed to come on a mission of such great importance was, of course, a high honour, and he would take any insults from Hartly with careful grace. There would be handsome payment come the end of this, he knew, so Hartly was a bearable grievance.
"Why can't Smith do it, then?"
Hartly sighed. "It is not practical to Imperius everyone within wands' reach, Wormtail. Surely even this small concept is not beyond your pathetic little brain?"
Wormtail said nothing. He drew his cloak tighter about himself as his feet found their way over the scrub. The night poked chilly fingers through his clothing, and the moon toyed annoyingly with them, offering them glimpses of their path before darting behind cloud cover. God, he hated this place with a passion. It was like going back to the Dark Ages, kings, courts and peasants blundering their way through their meaningless lives. He hardly dared think it, but he actually missedthe Ministry trying to poke its nose into the business of the Death Eaters. And their location in this God-forsaken place did not exactly ease him…
The land dipped away from them jauntily and they followed its deep swell down and round, finally finding a well-beaten horse track to tread. Wormtail wondered at the wisdom of walking such a conspicuous path, but reasoned silently with himself that most normal human beings would not be out at this hour so deep into the morning and with the cold so bitter. And who would ever see them in this patchy moonlight? But this town that now sprawled in quaint tranquillity beneath them was a problem to him not because of the people in it, but because of those charged with its defence. They were no longer in the lands of the young king, but those of the Elf, and they had already almost been apprehended by his guard when they had attacked that farm two weeks ago. It was a real issue to him, and Wormtail voiced as much to his taller companion as the other drew his wand. He saw Hartly's lip curl in another contemptuous sneer as the man snorted. "You are a pathetic weed, Wormtail. Draw your wand."
The smaller man sighed inwardly, glancing behind them as he withdrew his wand from beneath the cloak.
Hartly's lips remained curled as they walked to the outskirts of the settlement, but in a slightly different manner, and a light entered his eyes that only ever glowed in them on nights such as this. Wormtail found it deeply unnerving, but he raised his silver hand all the same, pointing his wand above their heads with a damning conviction the sleeping people of Fallsot knew nothing of. "Morsmordre!"
The Dark Mark plumed into existence above their heads like a giant clouded spectre, the gaping jaws of the skull disgorging the serpent into the air in a silent promise of death. Hartly stared at it for a moment. "And now, Wormtail," he all but whispered, the teeth he flashed in the manic grin shining pale green in the light of the image, "we go to work." The wizard's wand furled viciously in the air as the bellowed incantation was cast, and the teeth in his now laughing mouth suddenly blistered Hell red as Fallsot lost its peace forever in a moment.
Legolas' eyes focused in the darkness. He stared blankly at the complete black, fingers entwined with a steel grip in his sheets. Any trace of tiredness escaped him completely in that moment, and an inexplicable fear rampaged through him like a spooked horse. And all that spooked horse knew was that something was wrong. Very, very wrong.
His feet made nothing of the stone floor, and he practically flew through the open doors onto his balcony. The night air hit his bare chest like a hammer in its urgency to convey to him the wrongs of the night ... and there it was, twisted in the sharp cold of the wind as it pushed the knowledge at him, like the air could not bare to carry the smell of scorching housing. Nothing smelt like that. It caught in his nose like poison in his gut, and Legolas' entire being stiffened with evil realisation at the glow of acrid red to the east.
Even as Legolas' alarm cries shattered the peace and frightened every soul within the citadel into violent wake, and afterwards when the men hauled unnerved horses from their stalls and he and his Captain bellowed instructions, the terrified screams of the dying could not be drowned out in Legolas' ears nor, did he think, could they ever be.
"So … how many hours left of this, do you think?"
Harry would have shrugged his answer to Ron's hushed question had he been brave enough. As it was, he hardly dared breathe. Madam Malkin shuffled around her store room, irritation pulsing from her like radiation similar to that he imagined would be used in a nuclear warhead as she moved boxes to get at what she wanted.
"No idea. Not too long, I hope. I'm starving."
"Don't think I'll eat between now and the wedding, anything to avoid coming back here-"
There was a crash, and the friends raised their brows at each other as thinly veiled swearing quickly followed. This was the fifth time they had brought their robes back after being goaded by both Mrs Weasley and Fleur's mother, Johanna. The two witches seemed to have formed a great bond in their planning of the wedding – the Mighty Wedding Pact of Hell, Fred and George had dubbed it – and it could be breached by no measure of pleading or persuasion. "What we say, goes," Mrs Weasley had stated and, in this case, it was Harry and Ron's dress robes that were doing the 'going'.
"I think we can scrap all ideas of eating," Harry muttered as a box of thimbles expelled its contents all over the floor. He watched a blue one role past his feet and under the near-by dresser. "She's going to kill us before long."
They both smiled pleasantly at the stout witch as she re-entered the room. Her narrowed eyes and distinctly sour mouth-set quickly advised them that smiling at her was not advisable. Madam Malkin heaved herself up her slightly off-tilt stool to stand with her head level with Harry's shoulder, mumbling around the dozen or so pins in her lips about boys and how inconsiderate they were to her when they grew so tall, and draped a fold of dark green cloth over his chest that shimmered delicately in the somewhat dimmed room. The colour was the main reason they were back. Cut could be changed fairly easily, and Madam Malkin had not minded too much the first time. Her attitude to the colour change was a little off, but she quickly shrugged it off and tailored them new dress robes. Though she was being paid for every trip back, she clearly felt insulted; as Hermione had so astutely put it, it was like employing an artist and then telling them how to paint.
The women's gowns were ivory, or so they had been told - the boys had not actually been permitted to see them. They were somewhat confused as to why the dresses should be such a closely guarded secret, but they never challenged this; every time a man entered the room, the women fell silent, not even pretending to talk about something else. In the end the silence became so oppressive the offending boy would leave the room as soon as possible. Despite this, everything to do with the men's clothing for the day was the complete business of the women, and Harry and Ron knew they would be made to stand before them when they got back to The Burrow like a pair of convicts before the court. Before submitting themselves to the jury, they had every plan in mind to take advantage of their temporary freedom, which consisted mainly of going to Fred and George's joke shop and stocking up on things to wind the girls up.
It was a gruelling further two hours before the pair emerged from the shop with their new robes, both of them sporting a number of red marks where a pin had pierced skin, though they had hardly dared suck in air as a show of discomfort lest Madam Malkin chose to ram the offending pin right through. Diagon Alley, however, was little better to Madam Malkin's. As the Ministry posters blared down on them Harry tried vainly to avoid looking at the boarded-up visages of an uncomfortably high number of shops, and it did not help that every face they had passed all morning had been dour and miserable. Hang on –
Harry's hand caught Ron in the chest, his fingertips curling into Ron's flesh slightly. Ron's brow furrowed at the other's odd behaviour. "Harry, what-"
Harry cast his friend an unnerved glance. The hair rose at the nape of his neck as he said: "There's no-one else here."
Ron's mouth opened slightly, the sudden realisation smoothing his face.
The silence of the normally thronging street pressed on them with what felt like all the weight of the world, and fear waved its gripping claws at their senses. Harry suppressed the urge to spin round to look behind him, instead listening desperately to the dark silence, he and Ron simultaneously slipping their wands from their belts and keeping them guarded and ready by their legs. The sheer weight of the air felt like enough to suffocate them as they stood, trying so desperately to drink in the pressing danger … and the ripple Harry sensed gave him a mere split-second to ram Ron out of the way as the aimed curse missed them by inches and blasted open a boarded-up shop front.
The volley of hexes followed their pounding feet, flinging cobbles in the air with every hit to the street. Glass and splintered wood and stone rained on their heads as a curse hit the building along side them, a gigantic Ministry poster collapsing to the walkway. Voldemort's skull-white face laughed up at Harry silently from the purple sea. His blood chilled as the manic eyes turned to stare right at him, and he realised the terrible truth of what this meant. "Oh my God…"
Another jet of light, barely inches from Ron's face. His answering curse resulted in a sharp yelp from somewhere across the street. "Harry! Focus, will you?!" Again a near-miss, and it was Ron's turn to get Harry out of the way through tackling him to the ground. The heaped masses of brick and wood gave them a temporary shelter, though its advantages were heavily flawed, a thing proven when a curse blasted half of it away.
"Voldemort's taken the Ministry. We've got to leave. Now."
Harry tried to orientate himself, registering the shops around them in fevered panic. And right opposite them, the glass front blasted away, was-
"-Quality Quidditch Supplies. Still got that jar of Instant Darkness Powder?"
Ron rolled over to his side, fishing the glass container from a pocket, the one Fred had given him for emergencies… "Enough to put the entire street out … cover me."
Ron scrambled to his feet, towering over their shelter with the jar held high. Harry wondered vaguely what the surrounding Death Eaters must think, seeing Ron standing with a jar in his hand. He did not think on it for too long as he deflected a curse back to its origin, and then another two from down the street. Most of the jinxes and curses missed, but all that said to Harry was that those surrounding them had poor aim … or they were waiting until their Master arrived… Ron raised the jar over his head and lobbed it into the broken cobbles, the pair of them jumping the rubble shelter and racing into the pluming black. Darkness so complete even wand light could not penetrate it engulfed them. Shouts of alarm erupted from the Death Eaters, and Harry heard the fired jinxes increasing with the desperate hope of hitting something in the blackness. He continued to run until his shins caught on the low window frame, sending fire through his legs and throwing him into an already broken display. Ron swore near him and crashed in a similar fashion, choking as newly-disturbed dust assailed his lungs. Harry found his feet again, hands questing in the darkness for what he knew would be there somewhere - come on, come on, COME ON! … his fingers glanced over something long and smooth. His hand swung back and touched the length of wood again, this time grasping it tight, a grin splitting his face despite their situation.
Ron stumbled, swore, and knocked something down. Something crashed deafeningly, and wood clattered heavily. Then: "Me too!"
Something scrabbled behind them blindly, and Harry had a horrible feeling that the something would be armed and about to fire randomly into the shop. They must have noticed where Harry and Ron had been running, it was only a matter of time…
Harry dropped the broom by his leg, feeling it hover a little low for his liking. Cheap make. He swung a leg over, hoping that the broom he had would not fail him, not when he needed it so desperately. He heard Ron's feet shuffle and then be silent, and knew that he was mounted. "NOW!" Praying that his orientation was right, Harry kicked off. His broom gained speed, a slow breeze wafted in his face through the broken window. I can't believe it! We're getting out, we're-
The tip of his broom smacked into something with a sickening crack, and the next thing Harry knew he was flying in an entirely new and undesired manner. He toppled onto the shattered glass and stone of the street with the Death Eater he had flown into, tasting copper and hearing the pained grunts of the Death Eater as the man snatched hold of Harry's wrist in a grip of iron. He could see the man now in the inky blackness as their dark cover began to weaken, being pulled away by the lifting breeze. He should have known that Diagon Alley would do this to them; the place was like a wind tunnel. Harry could see the blood glistening from the Death Eater's nose and mouth – he had really cracked him one with the broom – could see the wand being raised and knowing that his own was lying beneath him clutched in his crushed hand. The wand pointed at his face, and he knew this was it, battle lost. The wand twisted-
Something screeched down on them, a foot careened into the side of the Death Eater's head and a hand grabbed the scruff of Harry's robes, dragging him to his feet and letting go. Harry cast a fleeting glance at the now unconscious man before grabbing the broom and leaping on over the ground, pulling into the sharpest ascent he could manage as walls rushed to meet him. The clouding darkness released him and he caught up with Ron in clear air, feeling the wonder of being able to see properly as London became a messy sprawl beneath them.
"Thanks for that," he said with a grin.
"Don't mention it – thought you'd have learned by now how to steer without flying into people, though. And to think you were Captain."
Harry looked behind him. What he saw did not shock him. No, he had been expecting it. But that did not mean that the implications of what he saw did not make his previously soaring heart drop like a rock into his stomach. He turned back, crouching lower over what he discovered to be a Sheersweep Cloud Grazer. Sheersweeps were notoriously cheap – highly spoken of by the manufacturers but poor performers. Harry had banned the team from having any Sheersweep model last year. Behind them were flyers on brand new Fire Bolts, the next model up from Harry's own. There was no chance of him outrunning them.
"Too many-" Harry plummeted to avoid a hex and fired one back, missing but throwing the attacker off course – he clearly was not as capable a flyer as those he chased, as he took a while to recover. "We can't beat them Ron, I've got a Sheersweep."
"Oh, you are joking -" Ron paused to aim a jinx over his shoulder "-trust you to get the shity one!"
There was one option left to them, and it left absolutely no room for errors. Harry could not afford to question how well he would manage this as Death Eaters began to draw in on them, edging along the side of their flight path to block them in. His eyes fixed on Ron's and he knew that his friend had come to the same conclusion as him by the grim set of the other's mouth. Taking a deep breath and making a panicked prayer, the friends slid from their brooms as one.
There was nothing left. Desolate, scorched land stretched nakedly before him, spanning an agonisingly long distance. Once proud trees stood now as great black splinters pointing brokenly at the boiling sky, the bared skeletons of what were once houses contorted into pained blackened ribs beside them, smoke belching from those that still burned and smouldered. The charred air dragged in bleak sweating swells over the tortured earth. Swifter to move was the horrible tang of burned flesh, and it caught in his throat, his heart. He leaned heavily on his bow, knuckles almost as white as the skin of his face beneath the soot.
Legolas did not answer for a time. He did not want to respond, he couldn't. To do so would leave the way clear for Barrick to give him his ill news. He did not think he could bare any more. And that ill news would be solely his to bare as the ruling lord of these lands. But take it he had to – there were others in this terrible tale, others whose pain was far greater then his ever could be after this horror.
He swallowed, not really wanting to hear the answer to the question he was about to voice. "Any survivors?" It was cracked, weak, a shadow of his normal strength.
There was a heavy silence, before: "No. Not one, my Lord."
A few shallow lungfuls of putrid air. He could believe it. Nothing save a Balrog could have survived this, the flame's ire had been so intense, eating everything without mercy. But fires always have fire-starters… "And what of the ones responsible?"
"Not a blade of bent gra-" Barrick checked himself "-no sign, sir."
Legolas stared at the formerly proud town, once a bustling, flavoursome place of quiet prosperity and success. Of happiness and light after the Darkness that had dominated it for so many years. The passing of Sauron and the ruling of Aragorn had been a new lease of life for this little town, a release. Freedom. Now, it spread before him as a rotting carcass, cruelly slaughtered. This had not been a simple fire, started, say, in a smithy or house. This had been a violent torching – bodies had been found with daggers buried between ribs … and all of these daggers had borne the same symbol: a skull with a serpent emerging from the mouth like some crude attempt at a tongue, right at the pinnacle of the hilt.
"I want them found, Barrick."
Barrick bowed. "It will be done, sir. I have a company ready to depart: all they require is your command."
Legolas did not look at his captain, but gave his head a single nod. Barrick dipped his own briefly, before turning sharply on his heal and heading to his waiting men.
He turned his Elven eyes skywards. The search party would go out, but they would uncover nothing, just like when Asterlie had been found charred blacker than the pits of Moria. The circumstances had been identical, apart for one thing: there had been a survivor. A single man, who was able to do nothing after the horrifying event but sit and stare, rocking himself and murmuring: "white masks, white masks"...
Above the choking smog, the sky stirred restlessly, high clouds contorting themselves into agonised shapes. The land seemed to shudder under his feet with revulsion, and it was a learned fear he could feel running through its veins. A Darkness was rising again in Ithilien, he had sensed it for some time. At first, he had linked it to the passing of Aragorn, as though the land grieved his loss as heavily as those who dwelt upon it. But that had been over a year ago, and Legolas' own restlessness intensified to such a level that he could no longer dismiss what he felt as grief. The hair at the nape of his neck would rise sometimes, inexplicably, like the hackles of a dog afraid of something, but not sure why or what it was it feared. But there was something, and he could feel it now, running icy claws lightly over his skin and making it tingle unnervingly.
There were no reports of anything wrong in the rest of the young king's realm, no incidents like this that he had been alerted to. A small party had been dispatched to the White City to inform the King of this new attack, and Legolas expected to hear something from him soon. Indeed, he would not put it past the young King to come down to Ithilien himself to see what had happened.
But Legolas knew who it was. He had always known from the outset. He carried his eyes upwards beyond the smoke and stared at it, as he had done the turbulent skies above Asterlie. As repulsed as he was, he found it interesting that only the Elves were able to see it, and even then only some. He knew also that it would remain there for as long as the dead stayed where they had died; bitter experience had taught him as much.