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Shield of Witches

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Unwyn Maddox is worried. The Knights of Avalon are still clustered at Hogwarts' gates, and, after a fortnight with no ability to resupply, food is starting to run low. Escape is now impossible; Maddox suspects that it's the handiwork of Averill, who was always good at wards and better at hurting others. Even if they could find a way to flee without being captured, most of the children have nowhere else to go; England is at war with itself, witch hunts are rising, and the Knights of Avalon will not stop until everyone they deem impure has left England in one way or another.

With that in mind, he really has only two (equally horrible) options: surrender (and watch half the school's current population be killed where they stand if they're lucky) or fight (and inevitably lose, then watch Hogwarts become a slaughterhouse).  Either way, Hogwarts will fall and most of its students will die. Maddox cannot allow that to happen on his watch; he is the headmaster. It's his duty to protect these children, not to watch them die.

For once, the portraits are silent. Maddox frowns. "Why have you forsaken me?" he shouts as his anger and fear and unease of the past two weeks comes out in a rush. "The one time I need guidance, you're silent! Do you want this castle to fall? For years, you've been picking apart every move I make to keep this castle safe, and the one time I falter, you do not deign to offer assistance or even to gloat! Why-"

"Mister Maddox, you will wake the children," Mary Benbow chides. Her portrait captures every inch of the scathing glare that she would be shooting him in person if she was still alive, and Maddox suddenly gets to urge to duck his head like he's an errant schoolboy again. "There is little we can do now. You have made your predicament; see it through to the end."

"I don't know what to do," Maddox admits. "I don't know what I can do."

"You know what you must do," a dark-haired man dressed in fashions hundreds of years out of date replies. "You just need the courage to accept it. The time for uncertainty is past; it is time to fight."

"How?" Maddox asks. "Even if we fight, we don't have enough power to keep the Knights from taking the castle, and then-"

"Taking the castle and holding the castle are two very different things," Benbow, always witty and rarely helpful, points out.

"Bravery can be found in subterfuge just as easily as it can be found in a more direct approach," the man, much less cryptic in his advice, adds. Maddox pauses.

"Do you mean-" Maddox shakes his head. Knowing Benbow, she definitely does mean that, and she's not exactly wrong about it being his best option at this point. "How?"

"Answers can always be found if one looks hard enough," Benbow replies; the man helpfully points to the seal of Hogwarts on the office's back wall. Maddox takes off the seal to find a thick book. It takes him only a moment to decode the messy scrawl on the first page (years of grading papers by students who can barely write their own names have given him enough practice in almost-cryptography), and its contents give him more hope than he ought to have.

"I can do this," Maddox says, just loud enough to make himself believe it. "I can do this." Before he can be distracted further, he starts to lay out a plan.

***

Maddox isn't sure whether it's a good or horribly bad sign that Bridget Heffernan doesn't even blink when told of their new, more or less completely idiotic plan. On one hand, she's always bluntly told him when he's been an idiot before; on the other hand, Hogwarts is under an (as of yet) impenetrable siege, the Knights show no signs of leaving, and Heffernan is likely just as desperate as he is.

"I'm with you," she says as if she couldn't dream of anything else, and some small part of Maddox sighs in relief. "What do you need?" Her wand, nine and a half inches of ash and unicorn hair that have saved his life more than once, is already in her hand.

"Get the castle on our side." Maddox hands her a few pages of vague and incomplete notes on Hogwarts' existing internal defenses. "Find somewhere for those in danger to hide. Make the castle even more confusing if that's possible." Heffernan nods once and walks off, already muttering under her breath about doors and walls and ventilation. Maddox does not stop to listen; Heffernan has a tendency to think out loud, and he's never been sure if knowing what she was saying would help in actually understanding her. In any case, he needs to talk to one more person in private before telling the rest of the school how they will survive this mess.

Law Selwyn is, as Maddox expected, on the battlements, watching the camp at the gates with some wariness. He has relatives among the Knights of Avalon, Maddox knows - several uncles, some cousins, and a (half?) brother who have never met a muggle in their lives but want to kill them anyways. It's not a unique situation, Maddox knows as well, but he still wonders what Law must think of this siege, how he will react to what Maddox is about to say.

"We'll need to surrender soon," Law says as Maddox walks up beside him. It's as close as he will get to a greeting at this point.

"I know," Maddox replies.

"The children will die if we surrender," Law says. "Many of them. Most of them, maybe, depending on how far they go."

"The children will die if we hold firm," Maddox counters. "We can't eat ideals."

"I don't want to watch them be slaughtered in the one place in magical Britain considered safe."

"We might be able to win this."

"How?" Maddox tells him, and Law starts laughing. It's not a promising sign. "I didn't know hell had frozen over, Maddox. Then again, it's you. I shouldn't have expected anything less."

"Do we have a better option?" Maddox knows they don't; if they did, he wouldn't be swaying Law into what amounts to suicide.

"You have a point there," Law admits. "What do you require of me?"

***

There's a third-year Hufflepuff they call Anne. She doesn't have a last name, and Anne is probably not her original given name, either, but that doesn't really matter right now. What does matter is that, somehow (Maddox thinks probably through a Squib or blood traitor ancestor from the Slytherin line), Anne is a parselmouth, and a nearly unreadable page of scribbles mentions a "living armory" that requires parseltongue to open.

Once they set out looking for it specifically and with the help of a bored Grey Lady, the trapdoor in a first floor classroom is relatively easy to locate. Thankfully, Slytherin (or, at least, the author who Maddox assumes to be Slytherin; why can't the "greatest founder" write legibly?) didn't set a specific passphrase, so it's the work of minutes for Anne to slip into parselmouth and the section of floor to swing open, revealing a descending staircase. A long walk and a few more parseltongue phrases later, they have reached the famed Chamber of Secrets and Law is swearing.

"Why snakes?" He asks no one in particular.

"We're in a chamber designed by the man who made his House mascot a serpent and which requires parseltongue to enter," Maddox says. "What would  you expect?"

"It's always snakes," Law says. "Why couldn't it be insects or fish or rabbits or-" The book opens by itself and turns to a page Maddox hasn't gotten to yet. For once, the handwriting is clear, and Maddox laughs. "You must be kidding, Maddox."

"I don't think I am, Law."

"They bite on command," Anne says, the adder in her lap doing the serpentine equivalent of purring. "Should I inform Professor Lennox?" Maddox nods and goes to find her; she might be a bit reckless (considering the fact that she's missing an eye and three fingers, a lot reckless) but Morwen Lennox has forgotten more about magical creatures then he's ever known, and her favorites are the dangerous ones.

***

When the Knights of Avalon walk into Hogwarts, the castle is quiet. The students are sitting completely silently in the Great Hall, hands on the table, eyes never leaving where Maddox stands near the front of the room. Admittedly, they're probably staring because Law is holding a wand to his throat, but the students are still quieter than they are even during exams, and it's more than a little unsettling.

The first Knight through the door looks the part of the monster he is: well over six feet tall, powerfully built, and wild-eyed. Law almost relaxes when he recognizes him; Aldebaran Black is certainly strong and a terrible person, but he's the easily led kind of terrible. Considering the worth the Knights generally give taking Hogwarts, he had expected they would assign someone else to lead the siege, someone smarter, someone like…

"Dearest nephew," Uther Selwyn says cheerfully, "I see you've brought me a gift!" Maddox spends a worrying few seconds without air as Law forces himself to smile. He was on their side, as any proper Selwyn would be; he had betrayed someone who irrationally trusted him and sent his favorite students into a bloodbath. This was his place. This was his life. "Now, where's the rest of the filth?"

"Not where you'll find them." Heffernan juts out her chin in a perfect picture of petulance and doesn't even whimper when hit with the Cruciatus.

"Some of them thought to escape by going through the Forbidden Forest." Law tries to sound like he doesn't care; it's harder than it ought to be. "Suffice to say, there isn't much left of them. As for the others, there have been some… disappearances in the past few days. I have no idea where they could have gone." That, at least, is a truth; Heffernan deliberately hadn't told him where the muggleborns had disappeared to.

"They're still on the grounds," Averill says. "The wards-"

"You wards couldn't hold a determined hamster, third," Heffernan says confidently. Averill rolls his eyes and casts another curse.

"She's lying," Averill says as if he knows. "The filth is still here. I'm sure of it. What are you standing around for? Search the castle!" Several of the Knights roll their eyes at being bossed around by a twenty-year-old as they begin their search. Law watches them go and wonders how many of them will come back alive.

"Now," Uther says cheerfully, "why don't we show you why you should have left with the rest of the filth?" Heffernan grits her teeth in a smile and waits for the curse everyone knows is coming; she can take whatever these men throw at her when she knows they'll all be dead within a week.

***

During their search of the castle, one of the Knights falls through a staircase. Rigel Black is seventeen, less than a year out of Hogwarts, and not attentive enough to notice the missing step's slight shimmer. He's dead before he can realize his mistake. His companions carefully avoid that step as they head towards what they think is the Gryffindor tower.

That night, when his nephew's body is found and six other Knights don't return, Aldebaran aims a curse at Maddox's back; it shatters the wall above his head. Maddox takes a moment to remind himself to breathe and reconsiders the intelligence of their plan. Unfortunately, it's still their best option, so he'll just have to watch his back carefully for the next few days.

The next morning, four Knights don't wake up. A close inspection reveals small snakebites on their arms. Aldebaran rages as the Knights, undeterred by the mounting death toll, continue to search the castle. By lunch, another three have collapsed, and Elwyn Prewett has stumbled upon what happened to the other four in Rigel's group, who had walked into one of Lennox's traps. From the carnage left behind, Maddox thinks this particular trap was baited with Rowena's experiments, and it is very clear why those things were labeled weapons; there's little left of the Knights besides their clothes and bones. Elwyn and several of the other younger Knights vomit at their friends' fates; Maddox finds their distress bitterly ironic.

Suffice to say, the search (mostly) ends there.

By the fourth day, only ten Knights are left in fighting condition, with another five hanging onto life by a thread; with the likelihood of reinforcements arriving soon, Maddox figures it's the best chance they have at success. Seven of the ten are preoccupied, extremely lucky underlings; two of the others are Aldebaran and Averill, both of whom are impulsive enough to fall into seemingly obvious traps if given the chance. Unfortunately, that leaves Uther Selwyn, who, unlike most of the others, is actually smart enough to know that the end is coming.

Uther sits in the headmaster's chair at the head table in the Great Hall as if it's a throne - that is, not easily. He'd grown more paranoid than usual as the Knights' numbers dwindled and kept dwindling, and his wand is in hand when Law steps through the door with lunch. Uther relaxes almost immediately when he sees his nephew; he doesn't know that the food is poisoned.

"How are the students?" Uther asks. He doesn't really care.

"They're quiet, uncle," Law replies. He does.

"And?" Law looks at Uther like he's an idiot.

"They're never quiet."

"You think they're plotting something?"

"They're always plotting something. It's just a question of what." Before Uther can ask Law to elaborate on that statement, the wardline tumbles; Averill is dead. Both men shoot to their feet.

"Nephew," Uther snaps, "bring me the blood traitor's head."

"No," Law says.

"What?" Uther blinks; the world is tilting rapidly. It's not supposed to be spinning. Something's wrong.

"I'm not killing my friends, uncle." Uther attempts to take a step forwards but falls to the floor instead. "I'm not letting you kill my friends, either. Or my students. I'm sorry, uncle." Uther closes his eyes.

"So am I." Uther sighs. "Reinforcements are coming in a few hours. Enjoy your victory while it lasts."

"We'll do more than that," Law says as he leaves, "we'll win."

***

To tell the truth, they aren't entirely prepared for reinforcements. They do, however, have the benefit of a few hours' warning and the barrier wards having vanished, and that's all they really needed. They have time to send students who have homes to go to home, organize those willing and able to fight, and evacuate everyone else to the room on the seventh floor that appears only when needed.

"We're getting too old for this," Heffernan mutters under her breath. She and Maddox are sitting behind the battlements right above the main entrance. It's far from the first time.

"Benbow did this well into her one hundred twenties," Maddox says.

"Benbow-" Before Heffernan can finish, the reinforcements arrive. A blasting curse sails towards them; Maddox and Heffernan both dive for cover, waiting for the crennel they're hiding behind to collapse. It doesn't; now that Maddox is looking closely, he can see that none of the curses fired at the battlements are connecting. Maddox and Heffernan share a look.

"Do you think-"

"It's definitely Benbow's work." Heffernan laughs. "She's been dead for over a decade now, and she's still saving our asses. Were those in your little book of secrets?"

"No." Maddox aims at the shadow who seems to be leading this particular attack and who he thinks is Belenus Carrow. "It's a bit out of date. I'll add the battlement wards when I update the book after this is over."

"You may want to just rewrite it." Heffernan checks her musket is loaded before shooting; while not quite as accurate as Benbow's, her aim is still scarily good. "Most of the entries are vague at best, half of it's in archaic English, and the handwriting is awful."

"That's a good idea." There's a distant crash to their left; the walls, apparently, are not warded like the battlements are. "Actually, I might need to do it in any case. Is anyone near the annex?"

"Some of the seventh years, I think." One by one, the Knights start disappearing. "Did we just win?" The battlements erupt in cheers.

"We won!" the students chant. "We won! We won!"

"I think we did," Maddox says; he's unsure whether the Knights actually gave up or if this was a tactical retreat. Only time will tell.

"Shortest war ever," Heffernan says.

"That isn't a bad thing." Their victory was close enough as it is; Maddox doubts they could've managed another week, much less the years of their first war. "Heffernan, start making your warding nonlethal. If you can't do that, destroy it. Hogwarts is a school; I'd rather not keep running a morgue."

"Will do, Unwyn." Heffernan yawns. "After some rest. Get to writing your book. I think we'll need it sooner or later."