Everyone in the tent froze in their tracks. Attacked? It could not even compute. Who would be attacking? Then the confusion faded leaving only frantic terror. Fred and George practically leaped to the opening of the tent dragging a near hysterical Ginny along. Harry, Ron, and Hermione raced after them.
Upon exiting the tent, the group was caught up in a flurry of wizards. Black cloaks cast shadows across the sky illuminated by menacing firelight. Shrieks and chatter filled the air creating a wall of sound. The campground was a churning mass if wizards through which it was impossible to navigate. Harry watched as the two red and bushy brown heads bobbed up and down a few yards ahead. Three sobbing witches smashed into his side, causing Harry to tumble sideways.
"Hey, watch where you're going!" Harry quickly turned in the general direction he had been going, but the telltale hair of his friends were long out of sight. He sighed, and weaved in and out of the scrambling people until he found himself alone in the forest separating the campsite from the Quidditch field. It was like walking into a Void. The light and sound were sucked away leaving only darkness and silence.
"Um, hello?" Harry called out. The oppressive silence was the opposite of the chaos that had defined the campsite, so he could clearly hear a man's voice shout, "Morsmordre!"
A jet of green light illuminated the sky and morphed into the morbid shape of a skull eating a serpent. Harry's instincts kicked in as he reached for his wand and found...nothing.
"What?! Where did it go?" Harry frantically searched all of his pockets, hoping it was a mistake. That his wand was right there and he jut missed it.
"Looking for this?" A friendly sounding voice pierced the darkness. Harry whipped around to see the grinning face of Milo Emerson emerge from the Void. In his hand was a very familiar stick of wood.
"My wand! Where did you find it?" Harry reached gratefully for his wand.
"It was on the ground just over there." Milo pointed to a spot in the trees not five yards away. Harry opened his mouth to respond when from their other side a sound like stampeding elephants came crashing through the trees. Milo whipped around to the sudden noise, brandishing Harry's wand.
"Freeze! Lower your wands!" Milo turned to Harry with an apologetic grimace which faded into a look of aloof curiosity as he turned to the "attackers" and slowly lowered the arm still holding Harry's wand.
One man stepped forward from the group. He looked slightly crazed and more than a bit disheveled. He alternated pointing his wand between the two boys.
"Which one of you conjured it? Tell me!"
Harry glanced over at Milo, unsure what to do. He didn't know why, but Milo projected an aura of calm authority, not unlike Dumbledore, and it felt logical to turn to him in this situation. It was odd. Milo really wasn't much older than him... anyway, Harry didn't get an answer. Milo was glaring intensely at the leader with a look Harry couldn't quite place. He shrugged off his companion's curious behavior and returned his gaze to the man.
"Um, are you talking about that big green skull thing?" Other members of the group looked surprised. Was he supposed to know what it was? "I heard a voice shout an incantation somewhere over in the bushes."
The leader of the group looked suspicious. "How do we know you didn't do it? Show us your wand!"
These questions were a bit irritating. What were they trying to accomplish? It was too much like Second Year all over again, with everyone out to prove Harry was the "Heir of Slytherin".
"I lost my wand until a minute ago when Milo found it. He was about to give it back to me when you lot showed up." Harry hoped the residual frustration he felt (from years of pent up anger) wasn't too obvious in his voice. He didn't want to risk the wrath of a Ministry official.
"Hmm." The man redirected his attention to Milo. "Hand it over." Milo hesitantly glanced at Harry as if asking permission, and then placed the wand gently into the man's outstretched hand.
"Priori Incantatem," the man pointed his own wand at Harry's. First a red smokey light appeared out of the tip followed by a hazy green skull and snake.
"I didn't do it! I swear! Please bel-"
"Really, Mr. Crouch. Do you honestly think Harry Potter, the boy who defeated Voldemort in the first place, would conjure the Dark Mark? Of all people, him? Seriously."
Harry whipped around to stare open-mouthed at Milo. He wasn't quite sure who this Mr. Crouch was, but he seemed important, and Milo just...chastised him! Harry was impressed, but on the inside he was also face-palming his head. Why would you be so stupid? Keep your head down! Despite Harry's internal conflict between praise and frustration, he had to admit that any kid-and Milo was just a kid-who could hold his own against an irritating Ministry worker had a lot of nerve.
"Who are you to lecture me about suspicion? You are no more than a child yourself!"
One of the men from the back of the group stepped tentatively forward.
"Um, Mr. Crouch, you do know that this is Milo Emerson, right? The kid who subbed in for Moran on the Irish team. He in essence won the Cup for us."
Crouch glared. "Just what we need. Another Ludo Bagman. Don't be so quick to defend. Mr. Bagman was under suspicion of being a Death Eater himself."
The man who had spoken looked slightly ashamed and melted back into the group. Crouch seemed ready to launch into another lecture when he froze. Something seemed to have grabbed his attention. Harry saw him quickly school his face into a mask of contemplation, and was slightly surprised to hear the next words out of his mouth.
"I suppose there may be some truth to your claims." That was unexpected. Harry fully believed that Milo and himself were in for an interrogation. As it happened, Mr. Crouch turned and addressed his companions. "Watch these two. I will investigate." He stomped haughtily over to the tree-line and soon disappeared into the shadows. There was an ominous rustling and a short shout, when Mr. Crouch suddenly reappeared dragging a sobbing elf.
"Winky!" The name sprang unbidden from Harry's mouth. But this elf, though the same one, looked almost nothing like her past counterpart. Present Winky's eyes were an awful red that matched her flushed and tear-stricken face. Mr. Crouch's face was a similar shade, but this due to the unbridled anger steaming from his ears.
"What were you doing in the bushes, elf?"
The house elf sobbed. "Winky is only wandering after she is being separated from her master at the campsite, sir. Winky's master is telling her to stay, but- I is so sorry Master Crouch! I is-"
"Stop. You have failed me, Winky. I cannot have a disobedient elf in my service." Mr. Crouch looked thoughtful for a moment, his anger simmering into a cool mask of disdain. Slowly, ever so slowly, like a diver underwater and just as far away, Mr. Crouch loosened his tie. His fingers tugged at the knot around his neck and slowly, deliberately, he lifted the tie over his head. With barely a glance at Winky, he threw the tie at her face. To her utmost horror and shame, Winky caught it. "You are free to do as you wish, elf, just get out of my sight."
Winky stood there, petrified. Her face had melted and tears again pooled in the giant orbs passing for eyes. All of the wizards standing there in the clearing shifted uncomfortably. It was never a pleasant experience to release an elf from service, and that unpleasantness was magnified tenfold when watching another take on the task. Their eyes were fixed on the pitiful creature collapsing in the clearing.
Merlin didn't know what to do. Here he was, practically alone, with Harry Potter and a wailing elf. The officials who had come with Crouch were all suddenly interested in their shoes, and after Crouch stalked off back to the forest without looking back to the clearing he had just vacated, the rest milled about slowly, fading into the trees. He turned his attention back to the elf, Winky, was it? She had fallen to the forest floor and was curled up in the fetal position sobig her eyes out. Merlin had seen many sad and pitiful things I his millennia long existence, but this just broke his heart. That such loyalty, devotion, and love could be tossed away like a stray tie was just not right. How would he have felt if Arthur had done that?
Well, it wasn't as if Arthur had made fun of him and criticized him and not trusted him and locked him in the stocks and made him come on all those hunting trips (what was the point of those anyway?) and...well, the list could go on. But at the end of the day, Arthur never took anyone for granted. Heck, he was even fair to George, who he had hated despite him being the best servant Camelot had ever seen. But poor Winky didn't have someone on her side. Someone who would understand her need for love, loyalty, magic...Merlin mentally slapped his head. Of course there was someone who could understand her-him!
All Merlin needed to do was focus; focus on the magic swirling around him and his companions, the magic that links all life together. He could feel the niggling sensation of Winky's thoughts against his, so he reached forth a small tendril of magic.
'Winky,' he thought through their newly connected minds. 'Calm down.'
Across the way, Winky looked up, startled, and her tears slowly trickled to a stop. Her mouth parted to speak, when Merlin interrupted.
'No! Stop! It's just me, and only you can hear. Nod if you understand.' Winky dipped her head to the dirty sack wrapped around her small body. 'Good. Listen, I am Emrys. Do you know what that me...' Winky's eyes grew wide.
'Master Emrys, sir? Is it being you? I is hearing stories, more stories than even Mr. Harry Potter. About your greatness and care for all of Magic, sir. What is you doing out here with the bad, Dark wizards?'
'I have to help Harry defeat those Dark wizards, Winky, but that's going to be a bit hard if you don't stop fawning.'
Immediately, Winky's cheeks colored and she looked down. At this point, Harry's brows were furrowed and scrunched together, trying to piece together what on earth was happening with Winky. Well, to an outside observer, it does look as if she is going to explode from changing emotions so quickly, Merlin observed. Making eye contact again with the silent elf, Merlin began again.
'Winky, I know you miss your Master. That's understandable. No matter how badly he treated you, you still loved and respected him as a great wizard, yes?' With Winky's nod, he continued. 'I don't know how much you have heard of me, but I am also missing my Master. He was a complete clotpole, a real idiot, but he was my friend. I know what it is like to lose a friend. So, if you want someone to, I guess, comfort you? You could always serve me?'
Merlin had no idea why that was so hard to get out, even in a mental conversation. Everything sounded unsure. You'd think that after a thousand years (give or take a few centuries) he would know what he was doing. Immortality was not all it was cracked up to be, that's for sure. And there she goes again, crying her eyes out, Merlin thought, when without any warning, Winky threw herself at Merlin, clinging to his legs and muffling her grateful sobs in his now scratched and dirty pants.
"Winky will serve you now, great Master. You is being the bestest and kindest Wizard Master to Winky!"
"Er, Winky, do you want to go wait in my tent, then?" Merlin cursed the Triple Goddess for being so unsure-again!
With a pop, Winky disappeared, leaving tear stains where her bulbous eyes had been. Harry's eyebrows (Merlin had almost forgotten he was still there in the clearing) had now shot up in complete and utter disbelief.
"What in the name of sanity was that?! I have never seen a House Elf get so worked up, so calm, and so worked up again in such a short period of time! And what was that other part? With you being her Master? Ugh! I am so lost. You'd think I would just be used to magic doing whatever, but it's still so bloody confusing!"
Merlin couldn't help it. He laughed.
"Magic will always surprise you. You can never be prepared for it. Just go with the flow, I guess."
"I know that," Harry responded forlornly. "I just wish that I could have some handle on anything that is going on. Since first year it's been sleep through classes by day, defeat Voldemort by night. I've relied on Hermione, you met Hermione, right? The brown haired one? Not any of the redheads. Anyway, I've relied on her practically since day one, but magic hasn't gotten any easier. Life has just gotten harder."
"I know what you mean. When I first started learning Magic, I had so many...chores... to do at the same time that most days I got practically no sleep. When I did sleep, I was accused of being lazy."
"Your guardian accused you of being lazy? But wasn't he teaching you? I am sorry for your loss, by the way. Er, sorry I didn't say that before. I am not the most sensitive."
Merlin waved off his apology. "My guardian, Gaius, was a bit preoccupied with his own job. He was a healer, but not exactly young anymore, so he died a peaceful death at the end of a long and successful life." After a moment he added, "You know, if you are still having trouble when we get to Hogwarts, I could always help you. It's really embarrassing to ask for help, but I know how that can be. We could go at your own pace..."
Harry's face lit up in relief. "Really? Oh, thank Merlin. I never want to ask Hermione because she will yell at me for not doing things before, or asking how I couldn't possibly not know these "simple" things. You are a lifesaver, Milo."
"Harry? Haaaarrrrryyyy? Where are you?" Another group of people came clomping through the woods, calling for Harry.
"You might want to go meet your friends. They are probably worried that you didn't follow them out of the crowd, especially when they saw the Dark Mark." Harry's face darkened a shade at the mention of the green symbol, but he turned towards the approaching noise.
"Yeah, you're right. But I'll see you at school then?"
"I'll meet you in the second to last compartment on the Hogwarts Express. 11:00 September 1st." Merlin smiled at Harry's hopeful face, but then turned to exit the woods the opposite way so Harry could be greeted by his friends.
It was only later that Harry wondered how Milo could have known so much about the journey to Hogwarts if he had never been their himself.
Yeeeaaaahhhh. I'm alive. Kind of. I hope you liked this long-awaited chapter. I am a bit stuck right now, and have been...for a while...so I am going to open this up a bit. I have the basic plotline and points I want to get to, but some of the smaller details I am open (very, very open) to suggestions.
Friends, enemies, Hogwarts House (this is more opinion because I know where I will probably put Merlin), interactions/scenarios you want to see, etc.
So just leave your suggestions or just overall comments in a review or PM if you're feeling shy. I appreciate all of you for sticking with me.