A/N: Love to signofthetimes, CB and reviewers.
As many of you will have guessed, this story is probably going to go over a hundred chapters. I tried to fit everything in but decided I'd rather do it right and run long than cut out stuff that we need (or is cool :]).
Bellatrix felt as if she was holding things together fairly well, all told, until the mist cleared to reveal no fewer than a dozen full-sized dragons standing before them, and her daughter facing them. Bellatrix gasped and started forward involuntarily until she felt a hand on her wrist. She turned and saw Molly Weasley looking at her nervously. The woman caught her eye and lifted her chin defiantly and Bellatrix forced herself to stay still and do likewise.
The first of the dragons was a huge and ancient matriarch, a Ukrainian Ironbelly covered in scars. The dragon hissed, steam spilling from her nose and mouth, and spread her great white wings. Hermione stood still, her magic rising about her like a tide, moving her hair gently in the self-created breeze, and Bellatrix felt the incredible force of it, how very much it was.
The dragon drew back her head and breathed. Flames as green as emeralds poured out in a smooth stream and bathed Hermione, who stood in the middle, untouched. Laughing, her mother noticed, and made a tiny noise of sheer horror, laughing. A plump warm hand clasped her own and she squeezed, hardly noticing or caring that it was the Weasley woman's.
Hermione raised her wand and flicked. The flames moved. Hooded figures rose, hands clawed, and then a city etched in green which flamed and fell, and a castle, and a dozen snakes. Their story, told in fire and magic.
The dragon shrieked and the others joined her. Approval? Anger? Bellatrix didn't know. Hermione was still smiling, but now tears were running down her cheeks. She nodded her head, lips moving, and then simply stepped into the fire. Bellatrix tried to move and couldn't, because the Weasley woman tightened on her. And Hermione was not in danger. Her magic moved with her, and grew, until it felt like they were bathing in it, magic and fire both.
The dragon rose on her hind legs and cocked her head. Hermione held out her right hand, her wand hand, shaking and palsied now. The dragon did not hesitate. Her head darted down quicker even than Nagini's and closed on it.
Bellatrix opened her mouth and felt the Weasley woman close on her jaw, hard. She debated biting down and didn't, too scared for the girl. Hermione gave no evidence of pain or even surprise. She was still smiling, but tears were rolling down her cheeks.
A tremendous blast of magical energy rose and ripped through the crowd. One of the Romanians fainted, and even Bellatrix's knees started to unhinge for a second. The magic invaded, demanded, forced. It was the rawest thing she had ever felt. A high strangled gasp tried to sound and died inside her. The magic simply took everything away and left nothing, left one feeling scoured, seared, burnt away.
The dragon's mouth opened and Hermione withdrew her hand. Blood was pattering down her arm but she was laughing and weeping. 'Yes' she said clearly 'yes, yes yes.'
Then she collapsed, eyes rolling, magic seeming to ooze from her everywhere, so much that Bellatrix felt frozen in place, unable to move. The dragon leant over and nosed the girl carefully, screeching. After a heartbeat Hermione sat up, casually touching the dragon's snout. The dragon permitted it, and then the two were stepping away from one another. Hermione turned and made it back to the group. She stumbled and then finally went limp against the boy. But when she spoke, the words were clear.
'Old Mother is ready now. We can go.'
Back on the ship, Bellatrix looked at her daughter's hand. Two neat puncture holes, sealed already by the sheer heat of the matriarch's mouth. Hermione went to the bed at once and laid down, eyes barely focused. Bellatrix crawled in beside her and held the girl to herself. She was so, so warm. Hot, but her flesh was smooth and pale. The heat was coming from within. The ship ground a bit on the hard-packed gravel and then ascended effortlessly, so well-designed that it hardly bothered the people within.
'Girl, are you... what was it like?'
Hermione shook her head. 'It was big' she said in a lost little voice 'and it was in my head. It was like...imagine a mountain, Mother, if it spoke. Like that. I was afraid but it was a good afraid.'
Bellatrix could feel the girl's heart beating like a mouse's. Hermione's eyes were bright and her voice was distant but very firm. She was well but she was not really there.
'I should go topside and check on things.' Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes too bright, like a fever. Bellatrix had a sudden suspicion and decided to be direct.
'Those seers said you'd bring forth a living child, didn't they?'
'You aren't pregnant?'
'No, Mother. I took a test last night.'
'All right. Stay below.'
'I was young once. I want you to stay in bed. Your magic is too unstable now for...things.'
Hermione looked ready to argue but then subsided. 'It's hard.'
'Would you go check on things?'
'I'm warding you in.'
Hermione laid back, shaking slightly. She was beginning to sweat as if a high fever were breaking. Her voice started to slur a little from exhaustion. 'Potion?'
'Yes. Yes, all right.'
Hermione swallowed it and laid back, eyes slipping closed. Bellatrix stood up and covered her and then went to check on things. As she came from below decks she caught sight of the flight of dragons behind them, easily keeping pace. The Ironbelly was closest. Bellatrix narrowed her eyes.
Protect her, damn you, dragon. You and I, we're just alike.
The dragon caught her eye and screeched, as if in agreement, so Bellatrix went to find her sisters or someone, and only realised later that she'd let Molly Weasley restrain her.
The ships set down at Durmstrang just before dinner, and Lucius Malfoy was glad. He had taken a quick doze in one of the bunks and woken quite refreshed, yawning into his hand before he rose, donned his robes and then went to find the others.
Draco was bent over some maps, head down, and George poking from the collar of his tunic, seemingly reading the map along with Draco, hissing from time to time as if musing aloud. 'Hello, Father.'
'Draco, George. How far to Durmstrang?'
Draco stood up, spine popping. 'About an hour. We're going slowly because we want to get the dragons used to following us.'
'They're quite splendid, I thought.'
George hissed excitedly, head jerking in a snaky sort of nod. Lucius couldn't help it. He stroked the little fellow's chin and laughed, musing on the essential weirdness of having a family member with scales. Two, counting Nagini.
'George likes them. I do too, I suppose, though I might have lived happily without seeing that one bite Hermione.'
'My thoughts precisely.'
Draco indicated the map. 'We'll be in Britain by noon tomorrow.'
Lucius touched his son's shoulder carefully. 'How do you feel, Draco?'
'Like this is a bad dream and soon I shall wake up. I shan't, but it's a very soothing idea at the moment.'
Lucius kept his hold on the lad. 'That bad, Draco?'
'Yes and no. I am glad for all that has happened. But the notion of having to fight again is making me ill.'
'It must be very hard.'
'It is. Someone needs to, though. Better me than Hermione or Viktor. I've said as much to him. Viktor.'
'How do you mean, Draco?'
Draco spread his hands. 'It's something we both share, Father. History will remember us both as butchers.' He said it very matter-of-factly, like he was remarking on a slight drizzle or overly-salted peas for dinner.
'I should hope not, Draco.'
'Not yourself, I hope. Me, though, it's too late for me.'
'Draco, you are fifteen.'
'I was. Now I'm ninety-two, give or take a few years. Look, see this map?' He pointed to the topmost. Dense rings covered the surface of Britain, and as Draco tapped it with his wand some of them turned red.
'Those are Wizarding enclaves, scale of 200 to one on the map. See the problem, Father?'
'Some of them overlap.'
'What do you plan to do?'
Draco sat down, shaking his head slowly as if to deny what he was about to say. 'Be brutal, Father. Really brutal. We have to break their backs as rapidly as possible, and the only way to do that is to destroy their will to fight.'
'How will you do that?'
'Our point of ingress is Sunderland, you know that. He'll send everything he has against us there, and it will be a slaughter, that goes without saying. I am hoping we will capture some of them alive. Then we can disseminate pictures of them in captivity and that might help demoralise the population somewhat, but...'
'We know those people. Some of them will be my friends from First-year.'
'I have thought of that.'
'And you know, it doesn't bother me very much. I mean, it does, but I'm sleeping quite well all told. That is what bothers me, really. How easy it is once one is used to it.'
'I have felt that way that well.'
Lucius sat down. George slithered from Draco to him and wrapped about his wrist, yawning, needle fangs on full display. Then he slitted his eyes with pleasure and settled in for a long nap.
'Mmm hmm. Do you remember the day Hogwarts fell?'
'Your cousin asked whether I would have given one of her friends to be punished should she not cease trying to resist my taking her to the classroom. I said yes because it was the truth.'
'Was it hard to change?'
Lucius considered. 'Painful and awkward, more than anything. I have come to see that nearly everything I have ever believed is not merely untrue but malignant. That was quite difficult.'
Draco nodded, brow creasing slightly. 'Imagine it was.'
'And now I see that everything I have worked for has hurt you and it is...unspeakable, honestly. Draco, I am so sorry.'
Draco shook his head. 'No need. You did this before, remember?' He smiled to soften his words and stood up, stretching, before he sat back down.
'I mean it.'
'I know. I was with them when the troops brought Dachev and Romanov in.'
'An ugly scene, I don't doubt.'
'Horrifying. Anu was covered in blood from where one of the other conspirators had tried to go for a wand and one of the wolves cut him, and the others were bound and Silenced. We knew what was going to happen to them and so did they but they tried to be brave until they saw Uncle and then one of them wet himself and the others started to cry.'
Lucius made a sympathetic sound and gently touched the back of the lad's neck. 'How awful.'
'Not for us. I told them...I told Hermione and Viktor to do it. They asked for opinions and I said...we had to make an example. That's his logic, Father. The Dark Lord's.'
'That's sense in this situation. We can't afford a war abroad and one at home as well, Draco.'
'I wished that made it easier, Father.'
'As do I.'
'Aunt Lyudmilla was there as well. I felt sorriest for her.'
'Her sister is sharing exile with Madame Morreau, isn't she?'
'She is. Seems a nice lady. The man tried to appeal to Aunt Lyudmilla and she shoved him away. She didn't shove her sister but the look on her face...' Draco trailed off again as if he was seeing it in his mind.
Lucius kept rubbing the back of his neck. 'More nightmares.'
'Rather. She said her whole loyalty was to the tsar and if her sister should have guilty knowledge than she ought to die too.'
'Astute move on her part. She needs to make sure no taint of traitor hangs about the heir.' Ivan was whom Lucius meant, who was safely tucked away in Albania chasing goats and playing in the sunlight.
'Yes, of course. Still an ugly business. Hopefully there will be news once we land.'
'Do you need anything, Draco?'
Lucius sat down with his son and the family snake and then planned their moves from there.
Draco himself was thoughtful. He disembarked at Durmstrang to a sea of former schoolmates, ranged in ranks from smallest to biggest, and all of them eager to see the start of a historic venture. Draco followed his cousins down the gangplank as the men of Durmstrang brought their heels together ringingly.
'Your Majesties' said Uncle Des from his place at the front of the ranks 'welcome to Durmstrang.'
Draco had very little time to think. He found himself duly embraced and then passing through the crowd. A hushed whisper rose like the hum from a hive of bees.
Inside the Hall the students marched to their tables in exact formation, precise as aurors. Cups had been placed at every seat, and the students raised them as elves brought the same to the Imperial family ranged about the dais.
'To our honoured dead!'
Draco drained his cup in a single hard gulp, determined to unsee. About the tables empty places were filling in, absent faces coming clear, silent voices joining in the school song. He heard Sem Smits' clear tenor and shy Galea's deep basso-profundo. Pieter de Vries rose from his hovering wheeled chair and walked, limbs melted back onto bodies, scars vanished, time turned back.
Draco didn't know he was crying until Viktor leant over and squeezed his shoulder. 'I miss them too.'
On his other side Anu quickly slid a hand into his and squeezed for a second. 'Maxims Taub was always nice to me. He could draw funny pictures, too.'
Draco nodded, trying not to sob aloud. He had led them to their deaths from this place, and it seemed right to him that they should come to join the others, even briefly. His teeth ached with the hurt of it, and the rightness of it, too.
Uncle Des waited until the song was finished. Then he dropped his voice and bent to Draco's ear.
'Let them see you, lad. They will understand. I promise you that.'
'Do you have a scroll with all the names, Uncle?'
'Have your elf bring it. Please.'
It was a beautiful scroll. Draco unwound it reverently and set it on the small podium the elf had also brought him.
'Last year I came to you and asked your help. The men of Durmstrang did not disappoint. Many of them paid with their lives. I would like to remember them now, if no one objects.'
No one did. The men of Durmstrang regarded him with wise, sad eyes older than they ought to have been.
'Those who served, or knew the dead, step forward. If you've memories, share them. Please. I feel them with us tonight, don't you? We should greet them by name.'
'Zoltan Nagy, sixteen, Hungarian.'
'He could juggle' said one of the veterans who'd answered the summons. 'And he loved a girl called Jola.'
'Matias Armundsen, fifteen, Norwegian.'
'He gave me his last clean pair of socks.' Said another veteran. After that the stories spilt out, the funny, the poignant, the mildly off-colour. Nearly everyone had a story to share, a bit of the past to bring to life for them.
A Firstie stood after the name Oni Salo was called. 'He was my big brother' quavered the boy, visibly afraid. 'I miss him every day. He was the best big brother in the world. He let me use his racing broom sometimes. It's mine now. But not the same because my brother is dead.' Then he burst into tears and Paavo stumped over to comfort him.
When Hans Espe's name was called, Paavo straightened. 'I own him my life. When I was hit he pulled me over the wall. He died to save a girl none of us knew. Wish to God I could thank him now.'
Another veteran stood forward. 'I loved him. He loved me. We were going to—I don't care who knows about it. I love Hans and now's he dead.' Saalo's little brother gently squirmed free of Paavo to comfort the crying older lad.
It took until after midnight but that was all right. Draco found himself seeking out his uncle before he retired with his wife for the night.
'Thank you, Uncle.'
'Not at all. You did most of it.'
Draco breathed out of his mouth. 'We had to give them their due. When this is all over, I will want to erect a monument to them.'
Uncle Des looked into the fire. 'When I was...a bit older than yourself, I used to fight and then ask myself how it was I lived when men better than myself did not.'
'What did you conclude?'
'I concluded that there was some pattern I could not quite puzzle out. So I stopped questioning it and decided to make myself worthy of it. Of them. So that's my advice to you, lad. Earn it.'
Uncle Des looked into the fire with him and sighed from deep in his chest. 'Wish I knew.'
Arthur Weasley was dressed in his best robes on this day of days. Family beside him, he processed with the others to the place where they would all embark. The men of Durmstrang were seeing them off, and were good enough to cheer as the exiled British appeared. Arthur waved and smiled to cover the queasy nervousness that was making him feel lightheaded and a little weepy. Home. They were finally going home.
Minerva bustled up to him. 'Arthur, thank goodness. The ghost fleet is almost ready.'
Minerva gestured at a cluster of white-painted ships hanging above them. 'They're fakes. Those are ships the Swedes had meant to scuttle. That's part of Dimnes fleet.'
'What good will they do, if they're as bad as all that?'
Minerva smiled grimly. 'It is not the ship but the cargo. Should they opt to cooperate.'
Arthur meant to ask whom when he heard them, his skin prickling. Dragons. He felt the shadow pass over them and then there they were, a dozen or more of all kinds of dragons, the white matriarch leading.
The tsarina stood serene as they approached. The matriarch rose on her back legs and screeched and the girl smiled warmly at her as to an old friend. The dragon seemed not to mind very much; the two studied one another and then the girl dipped as if to curtsey and turned.
'They've agreed, Professor. Old Mother says we're losing the sun.'
'Yes, but we're literally losing the sun. It's hard to explain what she saw but I think...It's time to go.'
Arthur sucked in a breath. Beside him Molly did likewise and touched Ginny's hair. 'Sweetheart, perhaps-'
'We're going together, Mama, remember? For Ion.' A team of mages, led by Minerva McGongall, was closing in and carefully adjusting the wards on the ghost fleet.
The schoolboys were cheering them again. One was shoved forth and started to sing in a high, sweet soprano he would not have for very long. Arthur felt his eyes prickle as he heard what the lad was singing.
'Hail, Britannia, proud and free
Land of wizard's liberty
Hail Britainnia proud and brave
Britons never will be slaves'
The exiles took it up, and then the others. Moody-Feathering stood with Emmeline Vance, who was Eugenia, and they raised their voices as well. Malfoy senior and junior and Narcissa, all the Lestranges, his enemies and now his comrades, joined together to celebrate the land they had lost. Then it was time to embark and they did, to win back their country or die trying.
They were indeed losing the sun. As they travelled it first grew fat and bright and then began to fade. By noon a deep twilight had descended on them, and when land was finally sighted it was so dark that Tamm had ordered the lanterns lit.
And it was cold, so cold that they had all donned heavy shearling coats borrowed from Durmstrang and thick hats and mittens. The ghost fleet was at the front of their lines, disillusioned to match the rest. The rigging was clinking with ice and the decks were slick. It was so, so cold.
The sentinel was sighted just after six o'clock. A sailor shouted and the cry went up.
'Enemy on our starboard flank! Battle stations!'
Tamm's voice might have cracked but it never wavered. 'Fire a shot across their bow.'
A team of aurors formed up into a diamond and one did the three count. At three they fired as one and a bright arc of magic shot across the bow of the enemy ship. It turned as if to flee and Tamm took a deep, shuddery breath. 'AFTER THEM, MEN!'
The fleet wheeled sharply and then pursued the sentinel ship, an ancient, shuddering sloop that listed weirdly to port as it flew. The rest of the fleet seemed to come from nowhere, and then suddenly they were fighting.
Arthur had the confused impression that everything happened at the same time, which of course it had. The ship was dipping and whirling to fight, knots of Cairene wardsetters and mages hammering the enemy charms whilst strengthening their own, orders shouted in a multitude of tongues.
The British fleet was a paltry thing, limping old merchant ships, a motley collection of pleasure skiffs and smaller boats, manned by scared-looking teenagers and old men in moth-eaten aurors' robes. The Imperial fleet focused on the centre of their line and began to close the gap.
Arthur would never be quite sure when he knew something was terribly, fatally wrong. The British line shattered under one concentrated thrust from the Imperial navy, and turned as one to flee. They pursued, drums beating a tempo like the pounding of their own hearts.
Abruptly the fleet stopped fighting and seemed to hover, completely surrounded. The Imperial fleet stopped as well, and Tamm hailed them. The ships were translation charmed but the others probably were not, so the lad's voice had the odd, slight buzz of a charm as he shouted.
'*BRITISH FLEET, THIS IS THE ZHIVKA. SURRENDER TO US AND WE WILL SPARE YOU.*'
The British fleet seemed to consider as a tense moment passed. Then the first ship adjusted their ropes somehow and the sails went slack. A cheer rose from the Imperial navy as they saw the flags ascending.
'*ZHIVKA, THIS IS THE HERCULES. WE SURRENDER. PLEASE DON'T KILL US.*'
Tamm paused, hand to his chin. '*Something is wrong here. Do you feel it?*'
He never got an answer from them. Instead, the sky, which could hardly have grown darker did, and the darkness seemed thicker, more oppressive, and then the chill turned to a hideous knifing iciness. Someone screamed and then it was everywhere as Dementors seemed to spill from everywhere, hundreds of them, perhaps thousands.
*'SHIT, WHAT IS—OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD NO NO NO NO-*'
'ASCEND, ASCEND! IMPERIAL FLEET, ASCEND AND RETREAT NOW!'
It did them little good. The Dementors were everywhere, malign presence blighting everything they touched. The Imperial Fleet was protected for the moment but the wards were slipping, aurors and sailors frozen with horror as the screams of the doomed British fleet reached their ears.
It was a cold, smooth voice Arthur Weasley didn't recognise at first. Youngish, bland, terrible in the cool glee that dripped from every cut-glass syllable. He bent and vomited bile as it went on.
'*DID YOU LIKE THE SHOW? I MADE IT JUST FOR YOU, MALFOY.*'
Malfoy Jr raised his wand to his throat. '*WETHERELL, YOU SADISTIC FUCKER! THOSE WERE BRITONS, YOU SON OF A WHORE!*'
'*A FEIGNED RETREAT IS NEVER AS CONVINCING AS A REAL ONE. THE DARK LORD PLANNED THIS HIMSELF AS A WELCOME PARTY FOR YOU.*'
'*DAMN YOU TO HELL!*'
'*DO YOU KNOW WHERE WE ARE? WE'RE OVER LEEDS, AT THE MOMENT.*'
Arthur blanched and looked over the side. He could see, through the haze the Dementors had created, a bank of muggle lights. It was probably true, then. A small group of Death Eaters on magic carpets shimmered behind a heavy ward, just out of their range. Aurors wielding whips of flame stood by on brooms, driving the Dementors toward their prey.
Malfoy Jr's hands were shaking but his voice was as normal as it could be. '*WHAT OF IT, MCNAIR?*'
'*RETREAT AND I SHAN'T LOOSE THE DEMENTORS ON THOSE MUGGLES. PERHAPS. YOU'VE FIVE MINUTES TO DECIDE, NO MORE.*'
When the tsarina called him into the huddle, Arthur could feel the flex and plash of her magic against his own, raging like the sea. Her body was warm with it, cheeks flushed. A little perspiration ran from her hairline to drip on the floor.
'They'll help us, I think. They don't like them. I need Old Mother.'
'Remember what Barty did at Malfoy Manor?'
Arthur opened his mouth to ask but Molly touched his arm gently. 'What can we do, dear?*'
The girl listed what she would need. Arthur kissed his wife goodbye and waited, hoping against hope it would work.
On the flagship of the ghost fleet, the pops began as nearly five hundred people crowded the deck. Wardsetters and mages gathered round the periphery, staves raised above their heads. The others crowded the deck and joined hands.
In the very centre the tsarina stood stock still. She aimed her wand at the deck below herself and closed her eyes. Her magic pulsed powerfully about herself and then spread out, engulfing the ship in that beautiful, terrifying glow.
The people on the deck all focused their magic as one and a tremendous surge of magical energy burst forth, and the tsarina finally raised her wand and cried out. The magic was so powerful that for a second Arthur thought he could see her bones, her whole being lit up from within by the power she was channeling into the aether.
The sky flared brilliantly white, as if, for a second, the sun had returned to Britain. The magic was spreading, and with it a sense of...peace. Calm. Love and happiness. The magic was Molly, the smell of Bill's head as an infant, the cool of a summer evening at the Burrow, bathing in the sea, family dinners, bonfires...it was everything good, every first kiss, every good mark, every kind word, every gentle touch, everything they were fighting for all at once. It was intoxicating. The ice was melting on the rigging.
The Dementors felt it too. The whole hideous mass of them quivered obscenely, like some rotted but still-living organ, and the swarm began to separate as some of them moved to follow the bait.
Arthur felt them pass overhead as the remaining Death Eaters, safe behind their wards, screamed directions to the minders who, with whips of flame, were trying to corral the Dementors. They managed only to break the swarm, the larger part flying after the decoy ships and the smaller turning and oozing nauseously toward them, sticking on the wards, which began to wither under the reeking, sickly magic which dribbled from their foul forms.
Arthur saw Tamm reach over and grab Malfoy Jr's arm. 'We can't stay here!'
'We're going to try to draw them off!'
'ALL SHIPS, DESCEND AND HARD TO PORT! WE HAVE TO DRAW THEM OFF!'
The ship bucked under Arthur and lost thirty metres of air in less than a second, leaving the deck tangled with shocked people who'd lost their footing. Arthur got shakily to his feet and helped his children up after even as the ship banked hard to the left. Behind them a stream of Dementors followed in eager silence. Dimnes fleet's sails could be seen, barely, on the horizon and then they were gone.
Aurors found their marks and began to fire. The Dementors followed inexorably until they didn't, which is to say, with easier pickings to be found further below, they abruptly changed course and streamed down toward the undefended people, muggle and magical, of Leeds.
Arthur opened his mouth in horror too huge for words. Malfoy Jr raised his own wand to his throat. His eyes were blank, despairing pools.
'PREPARE FOR BOMBARDMENT.' He lowered the wand and said, almost conversationally 'It's the only way.'
His wife sounded ill. 'Hundreds will be killed.'
'Thousands. Anu, tell the ships to follow them, we need to concentrate our fire. God forgive me.'
The ships wheeled and swooped after the Dementors. Below them, the screaming had started.
'BOMBARDIERS, FIRE AT WILL.'