Title: The Alchemist's Gambit
Character: Roland Peverell [OC]
Disclaimer: JKR owns. I only play. You do not sue.
Length: 2500 words
Summary: No one knew how the Black Death outbreak began in the 14th century. Nobody thought to ask the Peverells.
Beta: imadra_blue and pikacharma
Note: Written for a contest at hogwarts_elite. The prompt was to write a fic set before the Statute of Secrecy went into effect in the wizarding world. First place winner. The Dark Tower reference is completely intentional. A lot of the history for this was procured with the aid of Google, so please forgive any glaring inaccuracies.
Concrit: Always welcome and appreciated.
"You say you were sent to make clear the king's intentions," said Burdock Muldoon, Chief of the Wizards' Council.
Lord William Montacute assented with a sharp jerk of his head. "The king would have your service."
Roland urged his quill to fly faster. The King of England, approaching the feared and hated Wizards' Council for their service? This scrivener's dull evening looked about to get very interesting.
"And how," asked Muldoon, "does the king wish to have us serve him? You know better than I that his bishops would have us all in chains if they could but catch us."
Montacute grunted. "The king's advisors have not been told of his plans. I alone know his will in this matter."
Like a bird of prey, Roland's quill hovered above the parchment during the pause that followed.
"The king would charge us with a secret errand," murmured Muldoon, his beard twitching. "The way he charged you with Mortimer's arrest, Lord Montacute? He wishes to use the Wizards' Council as a cat's paw?"
"That is so," said Montacute. He was clearly trying hard to keep his voice even.
Roland had an idea that his Majesty King Edward III was not without humour, for it was the day of Roger Mortimer's execution. Like the rest of the king's court, Montacute should have been there. Instead, he was here, delivering the king's message, and probably terrified that he'd depart as a toad. Muggles were so delightfully ignorant.
"What mouse must we catch for his Majesty? Or is it, perhaps, a rat?"
A fraying map of England and the continent hung on the wall of Muldoon's meeting-room. It showed wizard populations and the names of their central authorities, but the borders were those of Muggle states. Montacute stepped to the map and pointed at France. "The mouse," he said. His long fingernail tapped delicately on Scotland's border. "The rat."
"Surely you jest," said Muldoon, frowning. Roland's quill slowed in its labour, and he prodded it with his wand, furious with himself for becoming distracted. Luckily, Muldoon was not paying any attention to the scrivener's efforts. He walked closer to Montacute, whose shoulders tensed visibly at the wizard's proximity. "The king knows that we shall take no part in your wars. He knows it well, for I told him so myself."
"Mayhap the king has decided that you must change your words, and your mind," said Montacute. He had gone very pale. "No one tells the king of England--"
Muldoon held up a gnarled hand. "We fear you not, good sir, and it is but by the Council's good will that these lands are still ruled by you Muggles."
Montacute flinched as though slapped. Roland wondered if he would be foolish enough to try and press any further, but when their visitor spoke again, his voice was silky. "Isn't it true, Master Muldoon, that should France overpower us, your Council would be dissolved?"
"Nonsense," said Muldoon, but Roland knew it was anything but.
The Paris Council had sent several highly interesting letters by owl-post, letters that informed the London Council that should there be another war between England and France, in the event of a French victory, wizards of the London Council were bound to surrender their cloaks of office. It was a part of some covenant made almost two centuries ago. But how could Montacute possibly know this?
"Be that as it may," said Montacute, his tone conciliatory, "his Majesty is prepared to grant your people land, in return for your aid. All the lands where your kind now dwell would be your own land, free of the king's taxes, and for a trifle! Land, Master Muldoon."
Roland's amazement was mirrored on Muldoon's face. Wizarding folk had never owned the lands they lived on and cultivated; there was an unspoken covenant between the Council and the Crown that the wizards would be left alone so long as they paid their taxes on time. But it made wizarding authorities wholly dependent on England, because of the covenant between the English and the French. Land would mean freedom. No more deferring to the Muggles.
Muldoon regarded Montacute with shrewd cat's eyes. "You speak of a great reward for a mere trifle, but it is no trifle that you ask for. Mayhap the king has not told you, but our laws forbid us from joining your wars, Lord Montacute. We may aid the wounded and the ailing, but we may not fight -- neither in battle nor on parchment."
"His Majesty asks not to break any laws, only for neighbourly aid. Should you help England turn the tides of its wars..." Montacute trailed off and stroked his beard with a look of significance.
"But you are not even at war with France," muttered Roland. To his horror, it came out loud enough for the quill, which obediently scribbled down every word. Flushing deeply, Roland made the ink disappear.
"Be quiet, Peverell," snapped Muldoon, but he turned to Montacute and said, "The scrivener speaks true. France defeated England six years ago, and there's been no war since."
Gazing at the map on the wall, Montacute uttered four words that would permanently alter the course of Roland Peverell's life, though the scrivener didn't know it yet.
"That may soon change."
Roland sat with his back propped against a flat standing-stone and watched the desert horizon shimmer. The answer was somewhere in that transparent ebb and flow, he was certain, but what was it?
Three years had passed since his Majesty Edward III had sent Lord William Montacute for the wizards' aid. Three years since Burdock Muldoon had agreed to the king's terms. On the day after Roger Mortimer's execution, Muldoon had ordered Roland to send owls to the members of the Wizard's Council.
Roland hadn't slept since Montacute's departure, but he barely felt it, too young to be incapacitated by a mere night's sleeplessness. Muldoon's words -- "aid the wounded and the ailing" -- kept swimming through his mind, tugging at an idea that had lain buried deep ever since he'd last read his ancestor's notes about a deadly ailment caused by impossibly small creatures, the Pusilli.
The infestation had started in a place called Ashdod, and occurred thereafter in Greece, Egypt, Ethiopia, and even as far as modern France. It had exacted a terrible toll on those lands; some of the Muggles died within days of affliction. His ancestor had merely observed the creatures, but Roland's thinking reached further.
What would be the quickest, easiest way to destroy an army? Make the soldiers ill. Give them an affliction the Muggle doctors could not cure.
If Roland could find a way to bring these Pusilli back to England and use them against the Scots and the French, it would be a notable enough accomplishment to gain him his alchemist's permit. The permit was the reason Roland had entered Council service, after all. He had no wish to remain a lowly scrivener. Here was his chance.
"Master Muldoon," said Roland. "I believe I may have an answer to the king's request."
Eight Council meetings and three years later, here he sat, surrounded by Chinese desert-dust, with nought but a cageful of black rats for company.
He knew that one rat carried the Pusilli: he could not see them, but he had taken some of the rat's blood and cast Engorgio. The Pusilli were long, colourless things that thrashed wildly in the sand and died within an hour. Roland had an idea that they could only thrive at their natural size.
For three weeks now, Roland had been waiting for one of the other rats to sicken, but to no avail. The creatures had only grown fatter on the meat he shared with them.
"Mayhap the rats can't succumb to the ailment," murmured Roland. "Mayhap they are merely the messengers, like the good Lord Montacute."
The horizon shimmered at him, though Roland did not know whether it was with assent or scorn.
He could eat the infested rat and see if it made him ill. He had already concocted a potion to kill the Pusilli -- after all, what use was a terrible ailment as a weapon if your own army did not have the proper medicine? In his heart, Roland knew that he would not sicken: whatever these Pusilli carried in their impossibly small bodies was only deadly to Muggles, not wizarding folk. That much his ancestor's records agreed on. Roland did not wish to test his idea on innocent Muggles who weren't enemy soldiers, however.
Beside him, the low-burning fire suddenly flared to green life. In the cage, several of the rats screamed with fear as Burdock Muldoon's head appeared in the flames.
"Peverell," said Muldoon, his voice distorted as though coming from a well.
"Master Muldoon," said Roland. "I am but a week away from success." He knew that he'd already achieved success, but Muldoon would not believe him without evidence.
"Never mind your rats," said Muldoon. "The king has won a great victory in Scotland. It has made him decide that he no longer needs our aid. The covenant's been broken."
Long after Muldoon's head disappeared from the flames, Roland sat gazing at the fire. The orange glow of the embers shifted with the wind, forming shapes and patterns Roland wished he could understand. He had been so certain that he would return to England in possession of a permit to practise alchemy. That he would begin to learn the secret properties of things like the dying embers of a wanderer's fire. That he would be given access to books that unlocked the mysteries of the words upon his father's tomb. All his life, he had only wanted to be an alchemist, and everything he had done until this day had been a step along that road.
And now, a Muggle king thought himself beyond a covenant made with wizards. Because of a Muggle ruler's flight of fancy, Roland would return home empty-handed, disgraced. His permit looked as unreachable as it had on the day he had left Hogwarts six years ago. Bile rose in his throat.
"No longer needs our aid, does he," muttered Roland to his rats.
He remembered, with sudden clarity, a page in his ancestor's notes:
Those were the words across the top of the page. Below, there was a sketch showing a map with arrows across the Asian plains, terminating deep in the continent of Europe.
"We'll see about that," said Roland, smiling grimly at the rats.
He crouched beside the cage. The rats did not skitter as they once had; they'd come to know him as the one who fed them. They did clamour as he Apparated to the nearby town, and then they dashed, half-crazed, out of the cage when Roland opened the door.
He watched them disappear into the murk alongside a stream flowing into the town and nodded, satisfied.
The year was 1333.
The summer of 1348 brought more rain than the previous six summers combined. Rivers refused to keep their boundaries. Roads were nigh unusable. Grain rotted in the fields. The Muggles would face a harsh winter if this went on, but Roland Peverell cared little for the Muggles, and so he'd spoken against altering the weather at the Wizards' Council meeting.
"They care nothing for our world," he had said. "So why must we always come to their aid unbidden? Let them come to us. Let them offer us something in exchange for our trouble."
"But it's no trouble, Roland," his wife had said at dinner that evening. "Weather charms are so simple, even a child could perform them."
"It's too much trouble if it's done for the Muggles," said Roland. Then, seeing a frown mar Susanna's faultless features, he conceded, "If it gets especially difficult for them, I shall convince the Council to share our food. But they do not deserve our magic, my love."
Roland had spoken to no one of what he had done in China fifteen years ago. The only one who had known about the true nature of his expedition -- Burdock Muldoon -- was dead. He had been replaced as Chief of Council by Elfrida Clagg, who cared far more for magical creatures than she did for Muggles. Even the good Lord William Montacute was dead, though that one had never known of Roland's expedition in the first place.
Over the past few years, Roland had listened with horror to reports of the "black death" ravaging the Eurasian lands, but tendrils of pride crept into his dismay, and lingered there still. He, Roland Peverell -- even now a mere apprentice to the Alchemists' Guild -- had cast the Muggle world into discord. It was a dear price for the Muggles to pay for one king's faithlessness, but it was a testament to the continued power of the magical world.
The most common form of the ailment produced painful dark swellings where the Pusilli-infested rat fleas bit. These swellings covered the body entirely and brought agonising death within weeks. Another breed of the Pusilli entered the breathing passages, causing the victim to spit up blood; this tainted blood was enough to infest other Muggles. The rarest form of the plague attacked the victim's blood, bringing death within a day.
Roland could have stopped the plague's spread. He could have made a mountain of gold selling the potion that killed the Pusilli. Instead, he watched, and waited for the plague to arrive in England.
When it did, its spread was worst in cities, where the Muggles lived in close quarters with the rats. The ailment struck blindly, without regard for money or class. The Muggles were dying, and ruined crops were no longer important: all of a sudden, there weren't enough mouths to feed or enough hands to reap the crops.
And when the king fell to the plague, he called in the Wizards' Council. He had only been afflicted for a day, but already the black swellings rose from his body, making him look half-dead.
"Save me," rasped the king. "You possess magic. You must--" He subsided into a fit of coughing that did not end for several minutes.
Roland Peverell stood over the king's bed with an inward smile. It had been easy to convince Elfrida to let him run this errand; she'd been too busy trying to communicate with a troll. When the king stopped coughing, Roland reached into his pocket and drew out a stoppered bottle containing the Pusilli-killing potion.
"Eighteen years ago, you promised us land," said Roland. "We would have that land now, in exchange for this remedy."
The king, left with no choice, called for a man to draw up a new covenant. Roland watched him sign and seal it, surrendered the antidote, and Disapparated before the duplicitous Muggles could do anything but stare.
Within a week's time, the king rode to war again, and troubled the Wizards' Council no more.
And so it was that the wizards of England gained independence from the Crown long before the Muggles did the same.