Helena had participated in fights in both her lives. She was intimately familiar with the way fear sharpened the senses. Time would slow, her eyes tracking fast-moving projectiles with ease, her attention snagging on small details. Strength would flood her limbs. Her magic would crackle with the restrained fury of a dragon preparing to spit fire. And when she cast, it would sing.
But for all her experience fighting, she’d never been on the receiving end of a military attack.
The patrons of The Three Broomsticks froze when she shouted for them to flee. It was quiet as the grave for one heart-stopping second, then the candles died. Someone’s mug crashed to the floor unseen in the sudden gloom, and chaos erupted.
A bear of a man launched himself across the room, grabbed a handful of floo powder, and disappeared with a panicked shout. More adults jostled after him, pushing and shoving to get to the fireplace. Others stayed back, calling for their loved ones, trying to make sure they didn’t leave anyone behind. A Ravenclaw girl screeched about their inability to floo into Hogwarts, growing louder and more shrill as her words went ignored. A pair of third years, small and skinny and baby-faced, huddled together in their booth, crying.
Helena headed towards the front door, ruthlessly elbowing her way through the flailing crowd. A hand on her shoulder stopped her right as she reached for the handle.
“What are you doing?” said Sirius, shouting to be heard.
She jabbed her finger at the large window to the left of the door where they could see people fleeing from the first flashes of spellfire. A boy, no older than five, was cowering behind a wooden barrel on the other side of the street, no parent in sight to save him.
“There are kids out there!”
Sirius pointed out the same window towards the sky which was blackened by a swarm of wraithlike creatures in gossamer cloaks.
“Those are dementors!”
Sirius’s fingers spasmed on her shoulder. He swallowed thickly. His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat as he clenched his jaw tight. His eyes were wide and glassy with pain, the dementors’ hooks already speared fast in his brain.
“Okay,” he said, resolute, and gestured for her to lead the way. “Then let’s have some fun,” he added facetiously.
Helena thought about trying to convince him to stay behind, but in all the ways that mattered, Sirius was the most stubborn son of a bitch she’d ever met. If he said he was following her into battle, he was following her into battle.
She reached up to squeeze the hand on her shoulder, nodded at the rest of the Gryffindors who had finally managed to push their way through the crowd, then yanked the door open and sprinted outside.
A cold blast of air embraced her as she ran to the middle of the street, burning her lungs as she inhaled. The dementors were spreading out over the town, more than a hundred strong, blotting out the overcast midday sun. What light did make it past them was dim, like a solar eclipse had cast the village into hazy twilight.
Helena could hear a woman screaming. Not Harry! Please…Have mercy…Have mercy! And she recognized that voice now, knew how it laughed, how it lilted when it grew impassioned, knew how it sounded when Lily wasn’t begging for her son’s life.
A clock with a mother of pearl face. Two golden spokes marked Bellona Farnese and Marcus Gaunt fallen like broken bodies, her own lonely spoke pointing straight towards LOST. Abandoned equipment, struggle marks dragged through the mud, a vine swaying in the current. The crushing guilt of I was asleep!
Helena sucked in another bitingly cold breath and shoved those memories aside. She pictured Ron and Hermione with their arms thrown around one another. They smiled at her. The war won’t ever touch us. You’ll make sure of it.
They were with her till the end of the line. Always.
She let that thought wrap around her, then roared, “EXPECTO PATRONUM!”
Prongs burst from her wand, a towering twelve-point stag in his prime glowing silver bright like the moon. He paused for one beat, then lowered his antlers and charged down the street. Pulsing waves of power spread across the village in his wake, driving the dementors back. Immediately the air around them warmed, and despair lost its grip on her heart.
“Lady Magic on high,” Sirius whispered, watching in awe as her patronus tore through the swarm.
Helena watched with him, panting, before she regained her senses.
She ducked into the alley beside The Three Broomsticks and turned to look at the others who had followed her, only slightly surprised to see every Gryffindor in their year with her, even Pettigrew, all looking to her for direction.
Right then, she prayed to Merlin she got this right.
“Remus, I need you to run to Hogwarts and get help,” she said. As a werewolf, he would be faster than the rest of them no matter the time of month. She hoped that would be fast enough. “Don’t engage in any fights if you can help it.”
He nodded and took off at a dead sprint without pause. She looked at the rest of them, trying to figure out what to do in the few seconds they had. A concussive bang shook the ground while she was deliberating, and she had her answer.
“Wormtail, go back into The Three Broomsticks and get kids away from the windows. Get them under tables or behind the bar. And try to get that floo line organized!”
That would get him out of the way.
“Everybody else partner up and spread out! We need to get those fires put out. If you see any children, get them inside!”
Grim determination lined their youthful faces as they followed her orders without question. Alice and Lily ran towards the blast, James and Sirius towards a group of terrified fourth years sheltering in another alley, and Dorcas and Marlene charged straight at a cluster of Death Eaters torturing an old man at the top of the street.
It was only then that Helena realized she’d somehow left herself without a partner, but she didn’t have time to rectify that error. The battle had lulled when she expelled the dementors, but it was picking back up with a vengeance now.
A squadron of Death Eaters was marching onto the main street, nine in total attacking in a standard triad formation. There were three groups of three, each trio standing in a small “V” to make up one larger “V”. It was a powerful configuration, with designated defenders protecting the offensive, and the Death Eaters were taking full advantage of the arrangement, fearlessly carving a swath of destruction up the road.
Helena watched them for one second, long enough to see them send a wave of fire at the town’s grocery, then she leapt into the fray. Her wand swept through a series of practiced motions, rapidly firing off a bone breaker, two different blasting curses, and a ground alteration that would send stone spikes shooting up beneath her opponent’s feet—all aimed at one defender.
He fell to one of the spikes, screaming behind his skull mask as stone punctured his thigh.
Helena had the entire squadron’s attention now. Their bone masks turned on her, eerily expressionless.
There was a stark difference between battling a group and the single combat fighting she’d been practicing. She was almost entirely on the defensive, dancing between curses, evading and shielding with minimal forward advancement. She abandoned spell chains as soon as she began them, only one or two hexes in before she was forced to shield or dodge again. In the back of her mind, she made a note to practice chains with more powerful opening casts, but most of her attention was focussed on surviving.
And all the while she could feel her patronus slowly draining her energy.
She swerved around a sizzling purple curse and slashed her wand in an upward diagonal, releasing an easily blocked cutting curse, then twisted her wrist in a small circle and jabbed her arm at the squadron, superheating the air between them. The three closest Death Eaters collapsed screaming as their masks melted on their faces.
Helena didn’t stop to revel in her success, her wand continuing smoothly down in another cleaving curse. But before she could complete the motion, three spells came at her simultaneously, the vivid red of the cruciatus, an unknown sickening yellow, and a bright green Avada Kedavra.
There was no way to dodge them all, not at this range with the spells coming from different directions. So she redirected her wand, desperately crying out, “Ferro clypeus!”
If she’d had a moment longer, it would have worked. But the steel wall was too thin. It dented when the Killing Curse hit, warped as the cruciatus smashed into it a fraction of a second later, and splintered apart with the impact of the yellow curse.
Metal shards cut shallow wounds into her face and arms. A larger piece stabbed through her left bicep, almost exactly where the basilisk fang had pierced her in her previous life.
Don’t pull it out! Some part of her mind screamed at her.
She would have ignored that inner voice, was already reaching to yank the shard out, but another hex landed a foot to her right, blasting her off her feet. Her thigh was burning. She threw up the strongest shield she could muster, glanced at it, and was nearly sick when she saw a chunk of her leg slowly dissolving before her eyes. The yellow curse, something flesh-eating—the steel shield hadn’t absorbed all of its power.
A quick finite halted the spell’s progression, but Helena couldn’t heal this. And no amount of adrenalin could suppress the scalding agony ripping apart her nerves. It took her several precious seconds to stop shaking. When she finally tore her eyes away, shakily beginning to scoot towards better shelter, she realized no one was firing on her.
The squadron of Death Eaters, half of whom had fallen to her wand, had backed away, fanning out to block off a circle around her. And at their center, staring at her with intense curiosity, was their malevolent leader.
Voldemort was shockingly human. His features, though waxy and exaggerated, were still those of a normal man, with a nose and thick brows and prominent cheekbones. His eyes glowed red, but his pupils were round. Salt and pepper hair covered his head. The only serpentine thing about him was his tall, willowy build.
“Helena Gaunt,” he greeted her with a sharp smile as she scrambled back to her feet, his voice high and cold as ever. “It’s nice to finally meet you, cousin.”
Helena startled and shook her head in denial. “We’re not cousins.”
Real battles don’t stop for two enemies to have a conversation. But as far as Helena could tell, this one had. There were skirmishes further up the street, but everything around her was still, like the world was holding its breath.
She was back in front of The Three Broomsticks. Honeydukes across the street, Zonkos beside it, right where most of the Hogwarts students were hiding. She could spot some of the braver ones situated closer to the street, wands at the ready, listening keenly.
“No?” Voldemort’s smile turned mocking.
“No, there aren’t any Gaunts in Britain—”
“They died off years ago. Yes, I know,” he smirked cruelly. “I admit I took great pleasure in killing them. An illustrious line, in whose veins runs the blood of Salazar Slytherin himself. They’d become a disgrace to our heritage. But the American branch has done great things, I hear, and now you’ve returned home. You cannot honestly tell me you traveled all the way to Scotland without knowing about our connection, can you Helena? Or perhaps you did, and this is simply fate smiling upon me.”
Helena listened to his speech with a detached sense of horror, bile souring the back of her tongue. She’d always known Voldemort was descended from Slytherin, but the Gaunts? They had a fraught past, but they were her family.
She didn’t know anything about their history before Gormlaith Gaunt tracked her niece, Isolt Sayre, to Massachusetts, dragging her illegitimate ten-year-old son with her. As the story went, Gormlaith had set out to murder her niece and died in pursuit of her malicious goal. The son was raised by his much more sane aunt, establishing the Gaunts as a formidable family in the upper echelons of American society, which naturally came with its own black marks over the years. But she’d never guessed that in the distant past they’d been Slytherins.
Dear Merlin, she was related to Voldemort.
Something petty and vindictive curled in her stomach. It wasn’t wise to antagonize him, but she wanted to get under Voldemort’s skin the way this news had gotten under hers. And she knew just how to manage it.
“The only cousin I’m aware of on this side of the pond is a Tom Riddle. So tell me, Tom, what’s a half-blood doing leading a pureblood crusade?”
Voldemort’s eyes flashed dangerously, but he remained surprisingly calm in the face of her jab. More than calm, he looked triumphant.
“I own them. I am their master,” he said with obvious relish. “And when you join me, Helena, I will make you their queen.”
Helena sucked in a sharp breath at the implication. “Never. I will never join you.”
He cocked his head, examining her with hungry, covetous eyes. “I will have you,” he said, implacable and sure.
The words whether you are willing or not went unspoken, but she heard them nonetheless.
They’d been slowly circling each other as they spoke. Helena limping, streaked with dirt and her own blood. Voldemort, clean and hale and smug. She threw the first curse, the best answer she could give to his terrifying presumption.
Voldemort turned on a dime, sidestepping and firing back, meeting her blow for blow.
It was worse than fighting nine Death Eaters at once. Every movement he made was precise, calculated to disrupt her rhythm. His spell choice was unpredictable, powered with the force of a raging bull slamming against her defenses. He apparated more swiftly than most people could jump, practically a ghost on the field for all her ability to land a hit. And the way he called out instructions as they fought…
“Dueling is a symphony, Cousin! A dance! You don’t need to gather power for each spell. Build it towards a crescendo. Let your magic flow through the chain like water! Your movement and intent will drive the effect.”
He was toying with her. And worse, his advice was good.
Helena didn’t know how long they fought, with Voldemort treating her like some kind of child performing a new trick for its betters. Her arm ached. Her leg cramped every time she put too much weight on it. Black spots dotted her vision, and she knew with a kind of cold certainty that she wouldn’t last much longer.
Salvation came not a moment too soon.
She could have wept when she saw the teachers storming into town, Dumbledore a bright spot of fuchsia in the lead. Aurors in red robes popped into existence, attacking the remaining Death Eaters with prejudice. More patroni, a silver hare and a striped cat and a great phoenix, joined her stag in the sky, driving off the dementors for good.
Voldemort snarled, half-turned to face Dumbledore, and Helena seized her chance. With the last dregs of her energy, she exploded the ground at his feet. Voldemort was able to shield in time, but the concussive force knocked him back several steps. And the resultant spray of crushed cobblestones and dirt provided the perfect cover for Helena to make her escape.
She dove into the nearest alley, scrambling to hide behind a stack of old crates. She could hear Voldemort’s screams of rage, then the sounds of renewed battle as Dumbledore—it had to be Dumbledore—confronted him.
Helena slid down the wall as her legs gave out, breathing hard.
She reached for the wound on her leg, tried to gently shift fabric aside so she could see it. But her hand was shaking too hard. She lifted it up before her eyes, stared at her trembling fingers. Blinked.
Oh, she thought fuzzily as blackness began to creep over her vision, I’m about to pass out.
She heard someone frantically calling her name, but she couldn’t muster the energy to respond. Everything was fading, and she was so tired. She could close her eyes for just a second, just a moment, and then she would call back.
When Helena regained consciousness several hours later, she was in the hospital wing, and there were a lot of adults arguing very, very loudly.