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Let Perpetual Light by teh tarik
Chapter 1: A Funeral
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A/N: This story is a Christmas gift to the lovely Isobel / The Misfit / apondinabluebox. Isobel, Merry belated Christmas and a very Happy New Year! I'm so glad to have you as a friend, and it's been a pleasure beta-reading some of your amazing stories. I hope you enjoy this little story of mine, which you inspired, and which I cut out from my NaNo novel. :)
THE DEATHLY CHILDREN
Chapter One: A Funeral
December 15th, 1945
There you are, I have said those words, incriminated you. And there we have it, history, a fresh page created with your name on it and mine, too. Deny as you will, as you are so talented in doing. Does your slate sparkle? Has the history of your doing been whitewashed? You have quite the flair for secrets, for cleanly cutting your life (and the lives of others) into even pieces that never see the likes of each other. If I didn't know you as well as I do, I would be compelled to confess how much I admire you for this.
I suppose that one of us has to take the role of the victor; that is the nature of all duels. Or was this different from all the other duels we’ve been through, from all the other practices that I subjected you to (you were never comfortable with them, but always you capitulate, something which never fails to amuse me each time I think of them). I know as well as you do whether your victory was deserved. If the conquered is, in fact, the victor. If we were both striving for defeat and I lost.
I’m intrigued, old friend. So much has passed in the empty years since that summer long ago: your whole life and mine, separate, forked like a serpent’s tongue. And yet all forks have a single, stout root that they cannot leave behind.
I want to know when it all began. Did I lose much earlier on, years ago? Was I lost the moment I set foot into that pretty little village of yours? That place which you so despised --didn’t you tell me so yourself, wasn’t there a time when you voiced all your bitterness to me, laid yourself bare so I didn’t have to bother learning how to read you in all your absurdity because how easy you were, how you talked, how you complained incessantly and encumbered me with all the minutiae of your insignificant life? I was your brother. Your brother, ha! I was more a brother than that brother of yours, and yet I was less, far less. I am the coward now, am I? The one who fled, the one who betrayed his friend, who ran from all his abject deeds, true colours revealed, who went on to slip his bindings over the world, seize power, muzzle the whole continent. You made that promise, too, don’t you remember. I took our dreams with me, I did it for us, for all our hallowed ambition – and you betrayed us, Dumbledore, you stopped us you and your weak heart you arrogant self-righteous – I’ll wager with my soul that you’ve never gone back to that village, not since you took up your precious teaching job, not to visit the girl’s grave, or your mother’s, not to associate yourself with your history.
Be careful, old friend. I know things that you don't. I haven’t been in here long, in my own dear little prison, in the highest tower where I used to observe all the prisoners, mine, prisoners I took and tormented, and in the end I didn’t care whether their blood was magical or not. I’ve seen things here lately. I’m not going mad anytime soon; keep your hair on. I won’t be let off the hook so easily. Madness, ha! Madness is easy; give it to me! But no, not so easily – you’ve seen to that.
The Three, you and I, we lusted after them, sought to make them ours, promised greatness in their name. I yield to you because they want me to; I am a servant of them, Albus. As are you.
The First of the Three is yours. Wield it as you will, as I know you will, for the best interests of humanity, for the greater good of this small, feeble world. You never won it from me and you know this fully, you know, yet it is yours, was yours the moment I closed my hands over it and felt the rejection in its wooden touch, felt it scour me through and through for some trace of you lingering in my flesh. So I am a vessel in the end, nothing more.
I leave you to your thoughts now; I'm sure they are many and that they will be plaguing you even as I write this, even as you read, pacing back and forth in your quaint little office. Tonight, I wish you peace; as for all the other the nights of your life – I cannot say the same. I am not that generous, old friend.
P.S. Aberforth did not kill the girl.
* * *
It is an acceptable day for an open casket funeral: the sky is grey-skinned, the film of clouds too thin to suggest any real threat of rain. There is a stiff pressure in the air, a weight that is most fitting for such a solemn affair, and if one tilts one’s head in a certain manner, the sky appears lopsided, falling in a fat grey slope onto the birch-lined cemetery of the village of Godric’s Hollow.
For the deceased, Kendra Dumbledore, there is no need to worry about getting rained upon.
Not that she will mind even if it does happen, or so Albus Dumbledore, son of the deceased, reasons. His mother has been laid with care within the crimped satin lining of the casket. Her arms are folded over her waist, the angles of her elbows measured with precision and her skirt has been arranged and starched into a stiff fan below her hips.
Albus is standing beside the casket. Behind him, is the open grave and the marble headstone already inscribed with the name and dates, and in front are several rows of empty chairs arranged in a semicircle. After two hectic days of organising the entire affair, dealing with the funerary services and replying to the countless owls bringing condolences, not daring to rest for fear that he would be choked by those brooding thoughts of his, Albus finds himself idle, an hour before the memorial service commences. His fingers rest on the edge of the casket, hovering above the corner of Kendra Dumbledore’s elbow, and though his posture is relaxed and his manner serene, his eyes are dull, glassed over and seeing nothing.
There has been more than one death; he is all too conscious of this.
There is his mother, lost at last after all her efforts to keep their family intact, to preserve that which had long been wrecked. The second death is something more selfish, something he is ashamed of. Always, he is aware of it. It lingers all around him. Death, this small village with its simple inhabitants and its insufferably quaint disposition and the vastness of the outside world compressed into the periphery of this place, just beyond reach. This is the end for him.
The sound of footsteps jolts him out of his reverie; the colour in his eyes sharpens and the frown on his face disappears. Bathilda Bagshot, prominent magical historian and archivist, author and founder of many noted academic journals in the wizarding world, as well as neighbour and family friend to the Dumbledores, is walking toward him, gripping the handle of a glossy ebony cane to support her slightly beetled back.
"Madam Bagshot," Albus inclines his head in greeting. He gestures toward the empty chairs. "Please, have a seat."
"I came early to see if you were managing well on your own, Albus.” Despite the uncomfortable warmth of early summer, Bathilda is wearing heavy black woollen robes buttoned up from her chin and falling in thick, lustreless folds to her toes. Sitting at a slant on the old woman’s grey-flecked head is a large hat with a ribbon encircling the brim, piled high with black tulips and stuffed beady-eyed crows.
“I am perfectly fine, Madam Bagshot,” Albus responds politely, hands clasped behind his back. His level tone does not betray the faint smudge of irritation scudding through the limpid colour of his eyes. So preoccupied had he been in his thoughts that he had failed to foresee his old neighbour’s early arrival. Of course she would be early. She has been fussing about their house ever since Kendra’s sudden death, something which has bothered Albus more rather than alleviated the situation. And now his precious moment of peace has been stolen.
“Have you seen Aberforth by any chance?” he asks.
“I have.” Bathilda lowers herself onto a chair in the front row, the one directly facing the casket. “He was heading toward the fields, perhaps to tend to those goats which he’s so fond of.”
Of course. Aberforth Dumbledore, second son of the deceased and brother of Albus, has earned himself the reputation of being the local oddity in the village: scruffy, rough, sullen and with the tendency to spend entire days in the fields with a herd of goats, their mother despaired of him sometimes when she had still been alive, that a son like Aberforth continued to draw unwanted attention to the Dumbledore family.
Albus’ forehead furrows ever so lightly, but within a moment, his expression is wiped clean of any trace of bother and the muscles around his eyes wilt into that pleasant smile, which he is so well-known for in the village. Quite the striking opposite of his brother, the village folk would say.
“I was hoping that he would be early today. This isn’t an occasion that he is exempt from.”
“Oh, don’t be too hard on him, Albus. He’ll be here soon. Your mother’s passing would have affected him hard. You’re both so young, far too young.”
She sighs and Albus shuffles his feet uncomfortably. It is early summer, but already the heat burrows beneath his clothes, soaking into his skin like a damp itch. Bathilda turns her head, scanning something in the distance.
“Your sister –,” Bathilda trails off, frowning.
“As of now, she is perfectly at rest,” comes the terse reply. “I’ve brewed her a Soothing Solution. A rather potent one, I must say. Mother’s sudden passing has left her distraught and she really shouldn’t be in such an excitable state, given her frail health.”
“Understandable, my dear boy. Bless her poor soul.”
It isn’t so much a Soothing Solution as it is a powerful Sleeping Draught. Kendra had been quite an extraordinary Potioneer when she was alive, endlessly brewing and inventing new recipes for draughts and calming potions and other remedies for her daughter (though no concoction could completely cure here, that much was accepted). Now, however, Albus has assumed these duties, though his potions have been a touch stronger. Always, he dreads administering those potions to her, his sister, Ariana, knowing how much trouble she used to give their mother. But so far, Ariana has accepted all her many medicines obediently. She drinks every drop without fuss, the liquid sliding down her throat in languid gulps, her expression unchanging, curiously unreactive to the bitter taste of the potions.
“If I may ask you something, Madam Bagshot–,”
“‘Bathilda’ will do, dear boy. As I have told you many times.”
"I was wondering if, during the time Aberforth and I were away at Hogwarts, – if something happened before the accident that might have contributed to its occurrence."
“I’m sorry, my dear,” the old woman wheezes, “but I’m not certain I understand you correctly.”
"When Aberforth and I were away at school, Mother wrote to us less and less. It really wasn’t like her at all. She stopped replying my letters as the end of the term drew near. It was a rather strange turn in her behaviour. I was wondering if this had anything to do with – with her accident."
"Do you mean to imply," Bathilda enunciates each syllable slowly, a sparse eyebrow inching up her forehead, "that the accident was not an accident at all?"
"On the contrary, I am completely convinced that it was an accident, nothing more. I’m merely curious to find out if, if at all, that there was a possibility that such an incident could have been easily averted," Albus answers levelly.
Bathilda’s expression softens. She fastens a quavering hand around Albus' arm, just above his elbow, in what he supposes must be a consoling gesture. "You mustn't think this way, Albus. It has happened, and it is nobody's fault. Such events cannot be foreseen."
"I can assure you, Madam Bagshot, that I do not blame myself, or Aberforth, or Ariana or anyone else." Embarrassment makes his reply curt. He glances around. No sign of Aberforth or anyone else. It's just him, an old neighbour and a dead mother. "It’s just – I know my mother. She took great care of Ariana; she always has been an extremely rigorous and very careful person.”
The rumour that Albus has been circulating since Kendra’s death is that the entire fault lay with the foundations of a weak wall in the house. An ordinary misaimed spell was all it took for the brickwork to disintegrate and the wall to collapse over the unfortunate woman. The lie becomes easier and more convincing with each telling, and it is a story that requires a great deal of recounting, to friends and acquaintances and to inquiring officials from the Ministry. Of course, there is no need to mention Ariana at all.
Sympathy begins to build in Bathilda's eyes, and her mouth twists in painful uncertainty; he sees her neck curve and head dip gently. He sees her looking at him and seeing a grieving child, a lost boy, too young to survive the world on his own. The old irritation rises in him. He can do without hers or any other person’s pity.
"What I mean is," Albus attempts to clarify, "did anything happen to my mother in the months before the accident, something that perhaps affected her ability to take care of – of Ariana, or perhaps she has been ill and her health might have been negatively affected – "
"I'm afraid I didn’t notice anything. Your mother has always been reserved; even though we were cordial to each other, she rarely confided in me."
Albus nods and looks away. “She has always disliked speaking of herself. Such was her nature.”
He pretends to busy himself, straightening out the chairs, though he has spent the whole morning aligning and realigning them, pacing in between the rows, grinding on his lip until it swells in his mouth, and he can feel the tender skin on the verge of rupturing.
"There was something," Bathilda begins again and Albus stops. "There was a time, I suppose, I can’t remember but your mother –,” her voice tapers off.
But the old woman’s eyes become clouded, as though a dusty veil has dropped down over the clean grey of her irises. Her jaw remains open, half the sentence still stuck between her teeth, but the words are forgotten. She must be getting old.
"You were saying?" he tries again.
She seems to jolt out of her trance, but there is a vagueness in her features that Albus has never seen before. She shakes her head.
"Oh dear, it's so hot in these robes." Her ribbed, crinkly fingers scratch at her sleeves and dig at the tight collar squeezing around her throat. "I wasn't saying anything, dear boy."
The sudden change in her makes him uneasy but he shrugs and moves away from her, glad that her interest in conversation has waned. The attendees will begin to arrive soon. There will be many, many more condolences that he will have to accept, many more mourners towards whom he will have to feign graciousness and tolerate petty conversation with. He drifts back toward the open coffin.
How many times he has stared down at his dead mother since his return he has lost count. There had always been something very sculpted in the way Kendra carried herself through life: her rigid posture, the taut thin rod of her neck rising above her narrow shoulders to the stilted planes of her face. Now – no, she still looks like that, Albus admits to himself, how stiff she looks, laid in the casket, almost as though she is aware and feeling awfully self-conscious about where she is. Fanciful thinking, of course. Kendra is dead. Kendra’s eyelashes are like curved spikes, so dark that he wonders if someone had inked them, made them thicker. Her lips are the same colour as the surrounding flesh, and they have sunken into the rest of her face, giving her the appearance of being mouthless, a pleat of skin where the lips should be. And yet for the harshness of her appearance, his mother had been the most patient person he’d ever known, sitting for hours with Ariana, feeding her, cajoling her, and the rest of her hours were spent brewing remedies for her daughter.
Now she is gone, but Ariana remains, and so does he.
From behind comes the crackle of dried leaves and twigs being trod upon. Aberforth has arrived at last to attend their mother’s funeral. In the distance, at the entrance of the cemetery, the first of the guests are beginning to totter toward the chairs, shaky from Apparition.
“What do you want me to do?” Aberforth mumbles. He is shorter than Albus, but broader, and his shoulders are pulled in close to his neck, white sleeves rolled all the way to his elbows and tacked with Ariana’s clips; the two must have been together, no doubt. A vest has been carelessly thrown over his shoulder and blades of brown grass fleck his hair.
Albus regards his brother coolly. “I’ve seen to everything. All you need to do is sit down and stay for the duration of the service.”
Aberforth scowls but says nothing, nods at Bathilda before proceeding to sit down heavily on a chair a good distance away from the old woman. She sighs. “I hope your brother will be fine.”
“He will be.” Albus looks down at his mother once more.
This will be the last time. Afterward, he will not glance at her during the service, not when the lid is drawn over the casket, not ever again. When he finally pulls his gaze away from his mother’s still form, there is an odd silence in his chest. His mind is empty of death or grief or the future that no longer matters.
Albus Dumbledore straightens up, dusts his robes down and smiles his usual warm smile, allowing the gratitude to reach his eyes as he steps forward to greet the first of the guests, to thank them for coming to mourn with him the tragic and untimely loss of Kendra Dumbledore as well as the death of his very own life.
* * *
Ariana wakes in the middle of the night. There is nobody else in the room. This is odd; her small room, the topmost of the house, is always cluttered with people.
There is a scream sticking to the back of her throat, a harsh, gnarled sound, trying to tear itself loose and prise open her lips to waken her mother and her brothers, the whole accursed village, if need be. She peels off the blanket. It is much too hot; the back of her neck and the pits of her underarms are moist and the mildewy smell of sweat is strong in her nostrils. Just who was it who had laid an extra covering on her? It could have been anyone. She imagines Kendra, Albus and Aberforth slipping up to her, one by one, each with a blanket, trying to wrap her up like a parcel, suffocate her in a sheath of her own body heat.
Aberforth for all his strength and surliness is the gentlest. There is great care in the way he folds the blanket around her, and sometimes she can feel the prickly calluses on his palms when his hands brush against hers accidentally. It irritates Ariana, how tender he is in his roughness. Kendra on the other hand is brusque, tucking the edges of the blanket beneath Ariana’s body, and always, before she walks out, she will lay a hand on Ariana’s forehead. There is always a query in the pressure of her palm, as though her mother is trying to feel for some essence of Ariana that remains intact deep within the confines of her brain. And she will detect nothing because Ariana will not show her anything.
Lastly, Albus, who does everything for her because he feels it is his duty to do so. He will enter her room and stare at her for a minute or so; once, she had pretended to be asleep when he came in, hearing his footfalls come to an end at her bed. Even with her eyes shut, she felt the density of his stare bearing down on her, pinning her to the sheets, and she knew that he knew that she wasn’t asleep. Albus will simply lay the blanket down and pull it right up to her chin. Nothing more, nothing less. And then he’ll leave, and with his departure, he will have carved out some essential component of the balance of the room so Ariana always feels hollowed out and breathless.
Ariana swings her legs off the edge of the high white mattress, one hand gripping the brass bedstead. The floor is warm beneath her soles, as though people have been pacing back and forth barefoot all day, their body heat leaching into the wood. She pries a shutter of the window open. A draught of cool air brushes against her cheeks. So silent, so still is the village of Godric’s Hollow at night with all its inhabitants shuttered in and locked away.
She closes her eyes. The world is never still. Her thoughts are always filled with burning and every inch of her pulsates with the memory of pain and flames eating at her, slivers of the sun itself. But when she slides trembling fingers beneath her thin nightdress to feel her arms, her neck, her stomach, there are no wounds, so scars, no raw peeled flesh. Her fingertips are unfamiliar on her skin.
The memories of fire are nothing compared to the burn of magic in her living arteries. And yes, she has magic in her; it is useless to think otherwise. The magic is bitter, scalding; it tunnels deeper into her as though it is a live insidious thing, making its way to her heart. She can feel the strength of it and she is afraid. Her bones are kindling.
It is Albus, of course. She hadn’t heard him coming in. Kendra and Aberforth she can hear from miles away, but Albus’ movements are so soft and smooth that he fits into whatever place she finds him in. Now, he stands at the doorframe, cotton nightshirt swelling in the breeze from the open window, a wistful smile softening the lower half of his face. The upper half, untouched by that curious fluke of his lips, remains sharp.
“Trouble sleeping?” he says, quietly.
He fixes a strange, shrewd look at her. “Mother is gone, Ariana. You know this.”
She doesn’t answer right away. She can never speak properly with Albus scrutinising her like this, drilling his awful blue eyes into her soul. Sometimes she thinks that he knows her with a terrible precision, every interstice of her thoughts; he sees her and is unimpressed, bored. Other times, he seems blind, staring through her as though she is a ghost.
“Mother is not here. What did I do?” She runs a hand through her hair, pulling through the knotty strands. Mother brushes her hair every night, long strokes of the comb starting from the top of her head and sweeping down to the ends of her hair grazing her shoulder blades. She misses the cold ivory teeth of the comb, their teasing bite on the surface of her scalp.
Albus rests his hand on her cheek and tilts her face upward and she is forced to meet that gaze of his. For once, she decides to be brave and does not look away; instead, she bites on her lip, stoppering the breath in her lungs, hoping desperately.
“It’s time for your potion,” he says, and the moment breaks. There is nothing between them any longer. Albus seems unaffected. “It will help you sleep. I’ll bring it up in a moment. Close the window.”
She closes it. The room is still and strange. The air is unbalanced and the magic flickers uneasily in the marrow of her being. She has decided: she will not sleep tonight, potion or not.
A/N: Thank you for reading; I would really appreciate if you could tell me what you thought of this first chapter; it's different from anything I've attempted to write so far and I'm rather nervous about this. Thank you!
Chapter 2: The Women in the Walls
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THE DEATHLY CHILDREN
Chapter Two: The Women in the Walls
July 24th, 1899
Dear Master Thimble,
I must confess that I received your letter with much surprise and pleasure; it has been some time since I’ve corresponded with someone as fascinated as I am on the subject of magical relics and their origins. These days, everyone seems more preoccupied with the modernity of the times, the latest developments in Muggle technology – awful things, those sooty Muggle cities, growing and sprawling and stacking up and swallowing all our little peaceful villages. Goodness, what is the world coming to, I must ask. Hardly a soul cares as much for the richness of our magical history; a sad state of affairs, indeed!
Your sources are most accurate; they’ve directed you to the right person as I do possess quite a sizable (and private) library of magical texts and documents. I was a bit of an acquirer during my younger years, you see.
The information you are seeking is sparse; very few texts from those times were adequately preserved, but happily, I have indeed come across the old Peverell legends: that of the three brothers and their fabled creations, the Deathly Hallows. It is unknown if these artefacts were, in fact, real, and not mere fabrications of humankind, oral tales passed down the generations and enshrined in legend over time. It is up to you to draw your own conclusions, I suppose. One of the things I adore about history is the complete unreliability of it, the irrelevance of any measure of objectivity.
The Deathly Hallows were an arcane set of objects – extraordinarily powerful, and forged by extraordinarily potent magic. Legend has it that magic was different in those days of yore; people wielded magic differently, channelled it in ways which are no longer well-understood in these modern times. Of the mythical Hallows, there are three: the first is a cloak that supposedly grants its wearer complete invisibility, the second is a stone that summons the dead from the grave, and the third and most coveted is a wand hewn from the branch of an ancient elder tree, imbued with the very power of the earth. Wands were new in those days, you see. They were good for channelling power, for concentrating spells, for tapping into reserves of magic buried too deeply within ourselves to access and put to use.
I can tell you little else about these mysteries, except perhaps this: there is an old saying that accompanies the legend, a strange and somewhat nonsensical one: ‘Death is the Harnesser of the Hallows.’ Or a variation of it: ‘All is Harnessed in Death.’ Make of this what you will.
You might also be interested to know, if you aren’t already aware of it, but the village where I reside, Godric’s Hollow – a simply delightful place during the summertime – is believed to be the final resting place of one Ignotus Peverell, youngest of the three brothers and one of the famed creators of the Hallows himself (the Cloak of Invisibility). Then again, it is still unknown if the Hallows are indeed real, or if they are merely products of mankind’s enthrallment with things far greater than their very selves.
I have enclosed several texts for your perusal; I especially recommend The Mythos of Death by Callisthenes Copperfield, which is a fairly rare text. I believe there are less than five copies in the left in the world, but since you’ve been such a delightful correspondent, I will gladly loan it along with several others to you. I would appreciate their return by summer’s end, preferably in the same condition as I have sent them. My books are dreadfully precious to me and these days, my personal library is my sole comfort; if you’ll excuse me, I fear I’m becoming maudlin.
* * *
Liberation, at last.
Gellert Grindelwald is standing at the beginnings of a great plain; it unfurls from his toes like a dream, a shock of space, mile after mile of pale grass swarming to the far sky. The morning is slate-coloured and cool on his skin; in a few hours, the sun will be hot enough to drain the air of any moisture and the grass will crackle and blanch in the heat. Freedom is empty. It is not enough, but for now, it is a start.
This is a day Gellert has been waiting for, perhaps ever since he’d set foot into Durmstrang Institute of Magic, that wretched excuse of a school. The administrative fools running the place have managed to get something right for once.
The corners of his mouth twitch, rearranging his features into a very subtle sneer, at the thought of his former teachers parading up and down the stony hallways, of the dullness and utter mundaneness of his schoolmates. Had it really been a whole week since Headmaster Hedlund had sent for him? Gellert had known at once the reason for the summons: Averin, a second-year student, had been confined to the hospital wing for nearly a week now; his parents had been notified and they had arrived at the school demanding justice against the perpetrator, and while nobody had dared inform on Gellert, all the evidence pointed to his involvement.
Unfazed, Gellert had gone willingly to the headmaster’s office and sat down, head dipped in deference to Hedlund’s harsh expression, listening without interrupting.
“Too far, Master Grindelwald; you’ve gone far too far! Your reckless and irresponsible actions have left Master Averin fighting for his life in the hospital wing. We have no choice but to hereby dismiss you permanently from the Institute,” Hedlund stated, baldly, but not without a sliver of regret. Gellert had been a talented student.
He was only half-listening to Hedlund; his thoughts were on Averin, dangling upside down from such a precise height that Gellert was face to face with the younger boy’s inverted features. Averin’s eyes had been dilating, his cheeks swelling with red, and his mouth stretched open, tongue flicking back and forth. A bead of blood trickled across his front teeth, staining them scarlet, and out the corner of his lips, crawling up his cheek and toward his eye, a tear going the wrong way. Averin couldn’t speak or make a sound.
“For all your talents, you seem to be unable to bring them to good use, and your presence here has become a menace to your fellow students,” Hedlund continued.
Gellert nodded, almost sympathetically. “I understand.”
The headmaster seemed astonished at his submissive and excessively courteous manner. Gellert had not always been so calm and civilised during his years at school. “You have nothing to say about this?”
“If you would like me to show some remorse, I will gladly do so.”
“I would like to see you exhibit some sincerity for once, Master Grindelwald.”
Gellert’s eyes lit up at his teacher’s irritation. “That is not something I have learned at your school.”
“We require you to turn in your wand.” Hedlund straightened up and rose from his seat; he was a tall man, and he used his height to look down at Gellert, to encroach upon the boy and make the latter shrink into himself. “It will need to be snapped, of course. You will not be allowed to perform magic until your Ministry deems you ready and responsible enough to apply for the acquisition of a new wand.”
He could have refused. He could have walked away, straight out of the school and never returned, and not one of the teachers could have prevented him from doing so. In fact, he could tell that Hedlund was half-expecting him to do just that from the clenched white of the man’s knuckles at the edge of the desk. That wouldn’t do at all.
Gellert reached into his robes and his hand closed around the ridged handle of his wand. He drew it out and examined it, savouring the way it seemed to melt into his grip, as though the wood was seamed into his flesh. Eleven inches, olive, unicorn hair. If he uttered the words, twigs would split and fork from the tip, sprouting leaves, like a living branch. Biblical tales spoke of sacred olive branches, symbols of peace borne aloft in the beaks of white birds.
He held the wand out toward the headmaster who started, his jaw unhinging slightly in disbelief, but at the very last minute, just before the latter could take it, Gellert jerked back, his grin widening. Very serenely, without taking his eyes off Hedlund, he twirled the wand twice between his fingers before snapping it into two. The crack was sharp in his ears and even sharper in his head, a fracture in his thoughts.
“That has been taken care of, Headmaster,” he said, cheerfully. Both halves of the wand clattered to the floor, and then without a backward glance at Hedlund, he walked out of the office.
If anyone asks, he will tell the truth: that he has sloughed off his school like an antiquated skin, one that no longer fits the contours of his body, or the swelling proportions of both his intellect and his imagination.
Gellert throws himself onto the ground and pulls off his boots, flexing his toes against the prickly grass. This vast field annoys him – this unexciting stretch of it. If given the choice, he would have chosen a landscape with a little more heterogeneity to it. But this place, in its expansiveness, is also anonymous: an ideal spot for latching on to a Portkey unsanctioned by the Ministry.
From behind comes the unmistakable snap of Apparition, disrupting the lull of the morning. He jumps to his feet. An old wizard is hobbling toward him, tatty robes hanging just above his ankles. Brown leather sandals are strapped to his feet, and his toes are large and knobbly and capped with rough yellow nails, protruding beyond the soles.
“Master Grindelwald,” the old wizard raises a hand.
“Bartolomew,” Gellert greets him with a ridiculous flourish and a half-curtsy, as he is always inclined to do when beset by boredom, before straightening. “I trust that you’ve made the arrangements?”
In response, Bartolomew bends over, his bones squeaking woodenly, and pulls the left sandal off his foot before tossing it toward Gellert, who catches it gingerly.
“Had to be done this way,” Bartolomew shrugs, his face cracking into a leer and revealing stained gums and teeth like broken shingles. Grey stubble covers his jaw and climbs all the way to the back of his ears. “All the Ministries are tracking Portkey spells very carefully.”
A stale odour rises from the piece of footwear in Gellert’s hands. Bartolomew shifts, rubbing his left foot against his right calf to alleviate the itch induced by the coarse blades of grass. His robes part a little at the front, and peeping out of an inner pocket is what appears to be the sleek handle of a wand.
The old wizard notices Gellert staring. “Pretty thing, eh?” he says. “Made by Gregorovitch. Nine inches, oak, Kneazle hair. The only good thing I own.”
For a moment, Gellert contemplates stealing it from the old man. He needs a wand badly. But oak! Oak is stolid and lustreless and stupid, for making furniture, not for being crafted into an instrument of power.
Wands have been plaguing his dreams for some nights now, ever since he had come across the story tucked within the pages of a musty old book in the Durmstrang library: a grand, fanciful story it was, and it had been nigh impossible to tease apart the strands of fiction from history, myth from fact. Fragments of the tale slip through his dreams at night like pieces of glimmering glass in sunlight. There had been a tree, an ancient elder tree, its roots sinking into a huge boulder rising from the middle of a shallow pool, black and still beneath the sunless gloom of the leaves. The rock is glossy with damp and the roots are inextricable from the stone; they curve over the surface of the boulder like stout, grappling fingers. Gellert has seen himself climbing the tree, his bare feet slipping over the slick wood, making his way to the crown, to the topmost branches where the new leaves are budding, fingernail-sized and of the palest green; he sees himself snapping off a twig, and in his hand the wood becomes cold as a bone, sentient, appraising his touch, the strength of the magic streaming through his blood –
A flare of blue distracts Gellert from his thoughts and he blinks. Bartolomew’s sandal is haloed in bright light. The Portkey has been activated.
“Well,” Bartolomew says, stepping backward. There is a curious expression on his face, one of scrutiny, possibly theorising on Gellert’s age and why he needs an illegal Portkey to such a distant land. He isn’t the first person to look at Gellert, to wonder at the boy’s origins, and his easy manner, and perpetual solitariness. “Farewell, then.”
Gellert does not deign to reply. The old man is a contact, nothing more. If, by some unlikely circumstance he needs a quick, unauthorised Portkey in the future, he will know how to reach Bartolomew. Gellert does not forget people.
The Portkey grows more and more blinding until his vision is completely swallowed in blazing blue. The flatlands and the sky vanish, brightening into pure light and then his feet lift off the ground; his hands become stuck fast around the rough strap of the Portkey-sandal and it whirls him away, slashing through magnitudes of time and space, quicker than the passing of a thought in his eyes.
* * *
Magic is a strange force, a current that once flowed through Ariana’s body as organically as blood, and all her life she has been aware of it – of the tiny leaping movements beneath her skin, pulses of hummingbird energy jolting from heart to head to limb. Her fingertips prickle with possibility; they are extraordinarily sensitive, as though her nails have been filed too deeply into the soft flesh. Ariana’s magic has always been wholesome, clean, lively.
That was before the two Muggle boys, – Stebbins and Unsworth, they were called, – scrambled through the hole in the hedge, into the back garden of the Dumbledores’ old house in the village of Mould-on-the-Wold.
Something she cannot forget: how the leaves had been falling off the trees in flakes of brown, red, and orange, crisp beneath her tread. On that day the boys came, there had been a breeze rummaging through the fallen leaves, sweeping them into a spin of colour. How pretty it had been, how very much she longed to be part of that autumn flush crackling around her so exuberantly. A strange shiver passed beneath her skin, and before she knew it, the leaves abandoned their dizzying spirals and flew toward her, swirling around and sticking to her body and nestling in her hair, ignoring the pull of the wind; the force of her inadvertent magic was far stronger than any common gust of air.
The two boys must have been watching through the hedge: her radiating her accidental magic, wearing the fiery tatters of leaves – a strange, unearthly creature indeed, something that both frightened and intrigued them. Fear made them hostile.
“How are you doing that?” Stebbins demanded, making her jump.
She whirled around to face them, trying and failing to shake off the rind of leaves stuck to her body.
“I didn't do anything,” she told them, warily. Muggle boys were not supposed to see magic; that much she knew.
“Is it magic?” Unsworth asked in a hushed voice.
“Are you a witch?” Stebbins added.
“It isn't and I’m not,” Ariana snapped. She gathered up her skirt and tugged a cluster of leaves from her hair and dress and crushed her fist around them. But before she could leave, Stebbins caught hold of her wrist. He was a rough boy, a whole head taller than her, with strong hands. Unsworth moved to block her way. Unsworth was a small and weedy-looking boy with a hard mouth like a piece of twisted iron, and enormous protruding eyes, constantly darting in all directions.
At first they pleaded with her, urged her to show them more tricks, to pick up pebbles with her eyes, to light fires with her fingertips, to make rain fall with the sound of her voice.
“I can’t do it. Let me alone,” she said stubbornly, but they grew more and more demanding, and Stebbins’ hand tightened around her wrist, until she could feel her arm beginning to bruise. A burst of anger billowed through her thoughts and seemed to surge down her legs, and with one tremendous jolt, she tore away from Stebbins’ grip. Her feet took off, crunching through the ground toward the direction of the house but she had not gone two steps when escape was foiled by a sly indentation in the ground catching at her feet, sending her sprawling. A stone bit at her knee and earth grains wedged between her teeth.
The boys caught her as she jumped up, rubbed dirt from her cheeks and the wrinkles from her dress. “Alright, I’ll show you,” she nearly shouted, even though she knew she shouldn’t, and that calling for Mother was a far more sensible thing to do.
Unsworth and Stebbins fell back a step, their faces alight with greedy curiosity. She did not know how to light a fire with her fingers. But she tried, anyway.
Fire, she thought, but nothing came.
Burn, she tried again. Still nothing. Every word associated with fire that she knew of, she tried, but to no avail. Her magic did not work in such a pedestrian manner, was not subject to her beck and call. The wind whistled blandly around her. Her hand was held out, palm turned skyward, in a dreadfully foolish manner.
The Muggle boys glanced around. "Hurry up," Unsworth snarled. The muscles around Stebbins’ neck began to bunch.
She looked around her. The colour of fire was all around, in the dead leaves on the ground, hanging on the bald boughs, in the afternoon light angling downward, lancing thinly through her eyes no matter which way she turned. She bit the inside of her cheek, so hard that the taste of blood broke through the soft, gummy flesh and stung her mouth.
It worked this time: the magic, the fire. Light, heat, movement, and blood uncoiled like a striking snake from some deep vault within her, inundating her arteries and rushing about her body. Some of it left her; she felt it. A tiny flame leapt into life at the toe of Stebbins’ shoe and he kicked at it and danced away. The flame caught the edge of a dried leaf and grew larger and larger. It tongued at the ground, flammable with its dead leaf carpet. The wind stirred the flames up and a burnt smell filled the air.
Unsworth smiled. "So you’re a witch after all, then."
“I’ve done it. Now go away.”
Unsworth took a step toward her, Stebbins at his heels. “Don’t you know? Witches burn. Like kindling.”
He seized her by the elbow, Stebbins grabbing her other arm, and together they shoved her into the fire.
* * *
In the quiet of her room, Ariana reaches under her impossibly high bed and extracts a small chest, which her father, Percival Dumbledore, had carved for her out of oak wood. On the cover, he had engraved a strange jagged sigil. She had never been able to read it before, but now as she looks at the chest with a growing sense of indifference, the meaning of the rune is clear to her. Treasure, it says. Ariana, my treasure, it implies. Father had been skilled in woodwork, mediocre at runes, and downright terrible in conveying sentiment of any sort.
According to Mother, Father had worked at this box during the years he spent festering in an Azkaban cell, whittling away at the crude floral patterns on the sides. She runs her finger absently along the grooves and bulges in the wood, noting the unevenness in the carvings, how Father’s hands must have trembled as he worked. The box is not finished. She cannot remember on which birthday Mother had passed it to her, saying Father was gone, Father was in a better place now, Father would not be able to finish this box, his last gift to her, Ariana.
She tips the contents out. An odd assortment of objects clatter to the floor: a set of crooked yellow sheep’s bones, a number of wooden figurines and straw-stuffed dolls with pinecone heads, and several glass marbles with warped streaks of brilliant blue. The marbles roll as far away from her as possible, to the other end of the room. They remind her of eyeballs. Eyeballs that perhaps belong to Albus and Aberforth. Such knifelike eyes her brothers have; they look at her and they can cut her out of her skin, peel her apart until there is nothing left of her, nothing but that throbbing core of ruined magic. And yet. And yet they do not see. How blind they are, how very blind.
The sheep’s bones are knobbly and hard in her hands; she lifts a fistful of them up to chin-level, blows on them, and lets them fall. They make an odd pattern on the floor, and she studies it, her finger drawing imaginary lines on the ground, connecting one bone to the other.
She frowns. It is getting harder to concentrate these days. The people – the people are in her room again. They grow bolder each day, and lately they have begun pressing closer and closer to her, peering over her shoulder, trying to make out what she does with her bone dice and her patterns and her dolls.
There are three of them now, the outlines of their faces pulsing in the surface of the walls, slowly becoming visible; they press forward through brick and plaster and the wall bulges with their emerging bodies. They sink into the stone and rise out of it again like waves, and they stare curiously at Ariana, crouching low on the floor, front teeth gnawing tracks into the skinny peaks of her knees. The first of them is an old Crone, craggy as a tortoise, draped in black sackcloth. Her balding head is sunk deep into a black cowl, which casts a perpetual shadow over her eyes. The hands that protrude from the sleeves are curled and crippled by arthritis, and her back is buckling over itself; she seems more akin to a gargoyle, an ancient thing made of stone rather than a living person. The Crone reaches to the floor and pats about until her fingers close on the spilt marbles. She picks two and thrusts them onto her face, where her eyes are. There is a brilliant glint of blue, and Ariana knows what the Crone has done; those marbles do look like eyeballs, after all.
The second person, standing in the corner of the room is frightfully tall, with her head grazing the high attic roof. She is clutching a crooked staff, slivers of wood hanging in shreds along its length. The splinters dig into her palm but she does not bleed. Her face is gaunt, starved and socketed and the rest of her seems incomplete, various parts of her body blurring and blackening into ill-defined patches, which appear more as errors in the eye of the beholder rather than actual flaws on the woman’s body. She reminds Ariana of Mother. Indeed, in her absent-mindedness, Ariana sometimes addresses this woman as Mother.
The third person is disembodied. Her face is clear as glass and nearly featureless, and the rest of her is formless, a cloud drifting in the stagnant air of Ariana's attic bedroom. Glass Girl is the name that Ariana has bestowed upon this third person. For some reason, she cannot bear the sight of the faceless girl, and whenever the latter flits too close, a harsh, piercing sound shrills through Ariana's ears, and sets the volatile magic in her blood on an edge.
Ariana first saw these three when those Muggle boys set her on fire, made her magic burn in the flame of its own making, turning it against her. The world had gone white, and in the blind and incandescent world of pain, she descried the shapes of these women, standing and watching, and somehow she had called to them, called to them with words that crumbled like ash in her mouth; every breath that left her was charred. They heard her and they had come, just before her thoughts closed in on themselves and the pain left her, momentarily.
They have stayed with her since. They have also remained utterly useless to her in any way.
"What are you drawing today, dear one?" the Crone asks, shambling over to Ariana.
"Nothing you could ever understand."
“Are you so sure about that, dear one?”
"You are a conceited little girl," the tall woman, the one who resembles Kendra Dumbledore, cuts in. "Do you think your magic is so great? It has turned against you, made you into an invalid and a cripple. A burden on your beloved Albus."
"Be quiet, Mother," Ariana says, frowning. "I'm trying to concentrate."
"I'm not your Mother."
She carries on tracing those strange lines on the floor, completely absorbed by her sheep bone constellation. When she is sure of the patterns, she presses her fingernail into the stone floor and scratches in the lines on the floor. Thin white scratch-lines cross and mesh on the floor. Her fingernail breaks, so she uses a different one. When that breaks as well, she uses yet another, and then another. By the end of the process, the pale scratches connecting the points of the odd constellation of bones form a strange mark, a sigil of some sort. I come, the sign says. Her fingertips are pink and raw. Some of them are bleeding.
"Ariana," a voice comes from outside the door. Albus.
"You've locked it, Ariana."
"You can still come in.”
She hears the murmur of an incantation, and the snap of the lock giving way.
Ariana looks up from where she is crouching on the floor. She smiles at her brother, a rare smile that slips on so naturally, almost a note of happiness, – the closest she will ever get to happiness, undoubtedly. She gestures at the ground. “Look at this.”
Albus bends down to examine the sign. "That's a pretty drawing, Ariana," he says carefully, though his eyes are not on the floor, but on her sore fingers in her lap.
"It most certainly is not a drawing," she says, indignantly, "It’s a sign. Someone's coming. Someone new."
"Signs? Signs are superstition. It is best not to read signs into everyday things." Albus’ voice is gentle but there is a faint note of amusement in his voice.
Ariana looks around her room, but everyone is quiet, sunk into the walls save for their unblinking eyes, watching the scene before them. They really are a worthless lot, especially as she is the only one able to see them.
Albus holds out his hand. Sitting in the centre of his palm is a vial of grey liquid. “Today’s potion.”
She shakes her head. “It won’t work.”
“It will reduce the frequency of your episodes. I’ve made some recent calculations and changed a few things in Mother’s recipe. Drink the potion, Ariana.”
Her episodes. She has to smile at the euphemism. She tries to imagine herself in episodes, a series of herself halted in various stages of movement. But somehow, she can only see herself in pieces: her head separating from her neck, her neck detaching from the trunk of her body in a solitary column, the arms and legs unlatching at the joints, and finally, her hands and feet and toes and fingers, breaking off and floating aimlessly, mid-air. Episodes of Ariana Dumbledore. Episode One: The Head of Ariana Dumbledore. Episode Two: The Neck of Ariana Dumbledore. And so on and so forth.
She takes the vial from Albus and shakes it. The contents appear to be more gaseous rather than liquid; so light and gauzy is the substance, swirling with the movement of her wrist.
Mother would always remind her how these “episodes” should not be taken lightly. They had become increasingly frequent over the last few months, and accordingly, Mother had grown more and more preoccupied with trying to find something to alleviate them, to quash them and send her insubordinate magic back into those cryptic reservoirs that cannot contain them.
Albus is tracing the corner of the newly-scratched rune on the floor with his shoe, looking mildly interested. One of the bones is knocked askew by his heel.
I come, says the rune on the floor again, insistent.
Outside, a cloud seems to jolt and give way and a thorn of late afternoon sunlight falls in through the windows, stabbing at the centre of the sigil. Bright light sets her off. Something in her ignites, flames through her bloodstream and pulls down blinding luminous shutters over her eyes. The vial of potion shatters; the glass crunches within her fist, and the liquid splashes on her dress, staining the bodice a silvery, shining grey.
She slumps to the ground, her voice jumbling in her throat but it hurts to speak, to call for help, to scream. Nevertheless, she screams, and the sound scalds the lining of her mouth. Albus is on her in a flash. She hears his choked cry, calling Aberforth’s name, and the resulting pounding of boots up the narrow attic stairs. Aberforth pins her down on her side, and Albus’ steely grip fastens around her lashing ankles. Both of them are speaking. Both of them are unintelligible to her, as she is to them. So she shuts her eyes and her ears to her brothers, and instead, turns her frenzied thoughts to the women in the walls. The Crone and the one who looks like Mother flitter around her, hovering behind her brothers, tutting and sighing. Glass Girl keeps her distance.
“My dear one, surely you’re a bit too old to throw another tantrum?” the Crone says, marble-eyed.
“You should always take your medicine,” the tall Mother chimes in. Her face is cold with disapproval. “Medicine will take away the tantrums.”
Glass Girl opens her mouth and wrings out a shriek from her pale throat, a taunting mimicry of Ariana’s condition. Even in the midst of her pain, Ariana finds the strength to hiss a fierce go away toward the Glass Girl, who obeys and wafts back toward the walls like a stray vapour.
The episode passes. It always does. Ariana is ragdoll-limp on the floor. Tears collect beneath her eyelids but she does not let them fall, and they melt back into her eyes. The sides of mouth are glazed with dried spit.
“Are you hurt, Ariana?” Aberforth’s voice is coarse with concern as he lifts her into a sitting position. She leans heavily against him and does not answer.
“I’ll fetch another vial of potion. And some essence of Murtlap for your hands,” Albus says. Always the sensible one, she thinks, bitterly. He leaves and she hears the unevenness in his step, the imprint of his fear on the floorboards. When he returns, it is with yet another vial of potion. He has forgotten the essence of Murtlap.
Albus draws the curtains and sits beside her so she is between both her brothers. All three of them are leaning into each other on the floor, in the dimness of the room. Albus uncorks the vial and holds the rim to her lips. She swallows.
There is a faint rustling beneath the skin, a deep-seated itch as the magic in her twists like a snake at the presence of this intruder in her body, at this new potion meant to subjugate it, – calculated and measured and brewed to perfection thanks to Albus’ cleverness at Potions.
Let be, she instructs herself. Let Albus have his way today.
Just today, another voice slices through her thoughts.
Ariana lays her head on Aberforth’s shoulder, but her hand finds Albus’ own, and their fingers interlock. There are blisters on his palm from the heat her skin had radiated during her fit. There had been blisters and burn marks on Mother’s hands as well.
“I am sorry,” she says to neither of her brothers in particular.
“Do not apologise for nothing,” Albus answers and Aberforth grunts his assent.
The potion swells through her thoughts, cooling the fever of her magic. Some part of her goes to sleep and she is thankful for it.
* * *
The village of Godric’s Hollow, then.
Gellert brushes off the dust clinging to his trousers. He is barefoot, having had no time to collect his boots from where he’d left them in the field before the Portkey whisked him away from the Continent and deposited him here, in the heart of this village.
As expected, there is little to it. Somewhere behind him is the main street: a tidy row of brick shops and bay windows with painted signs creaking over the doorways. The shops are shut now for it is evening, and a cool blue dusk is descending on the village. The cobbled street is rough and familiar beneath the soles of his feet. Gellert is standing before a small, low building: a church with a white steeple rising into the deepening sky.
He makes his way along the lanes lined with sprawling gardens and crooked cottages, coils of smoke unwinding from the chimneys. He is late; his great-aunt would have expected him to arrive a day earlier. Time is a devious creature, stealing past him, though he has to confess that he largely ignores the whole concept of it. Time is only precious when it is malleable, when it can be warped and fashioned to his will. All things that are beyond him are useless. Still, it will not do to turn up at his great-aunt’s home, an empty-handed and late guest; it will do little good to anybody to earn her disfavour so early on in his stay.
He stops and glances around. The cottage garden nearest to him is a beautifully kept one; the flowerbeds are neatly pruned and spilling with colour. They will do. He vaults over the fence easily, selects a handful of pale flowers and begins assembling a small and polite-looking bouquet: nothing too lurid, just whites and light blues and pinks. He does not look over his shoulder. Nobody will catch him trespassing.
Nobody will see him anyway, not when he does not wish himself to be espied by others; he knows himself too well.
The house of his great-aunt is a tall, narrow cottage, through a rose-bowered gateway, past untidy flowerbeds brimming with hollyhocks, marigolds and evening primrose; the walls are whitewashed, and honeysuckle, clematis and more roses scale the trellises beside the front door. The garden is perfumed with the mingling scents of lilac and roses.
Gellert hears footsteps within the house as he approaches the door; his great-aunt must have seen him walk through her gate. The doorknob turns, and the hinges squeak with a trace of rust. His great aunt is an old woman with sharp eyes, a shiny cane and a surprised look on her face, which is turned down toward his bare feet.
Gellert speaks first. “Good evening, Great-aunt Bathilda.”
“Gellert!” Bathilda Bagshot exclaims. “I thought you might have changed your mind about coming after all.”
“If I had, I would not be so disrespectful as not to inform you in advance,” he answers smoothly, and gives her the bouquet. The scent of the flowers is thick and heady, far stronger than the scents of all the flowers growing so abundantly in Bathilda’s own garden.
“Well, I certainly know why your mother used to refer to you as her ‘dear Gellert Giftbearer’. This is most thoughtful of you,” Bathilda laughs. “Do come in.”
“Thank you for inviting me to your home. I hope to be able to repay your hospitality someday.”
Gellert steps across the threshold into Bathilda Bagshot’s house, and it seems as though the house welcomes him, the yellow-lit parlour folding around him warmly as he passes through. But before she shuts the front door, he turns and looks out into the night, to steal a last glance at the darkling street and the ranks of cottages and gardens; the village is silent, swathed in sleep. Already, he feels as though he knows this place intimately, as though he has lived here all his life.
A/N: So I've been in a bit of a slump lately, and I haven't been too well, either. This chapter really shouldn't have taken so long to post up, seeing as I had most of it written by the time queue reopened. And goodness, this feels like an incredibly hefty chapter. I've crammed in a lot in here, and hopefully, just hopefully, it won't be too overwhelming...?
Thank you to everyone who read, reviewed, favourited the first chapter! If not for you lovely lot, I wouldn't be as invested as I am in this story! And thank you for reading this chapter as well; do let me know what you think.
The three women in the walls thing was influenced by the Triple Goddess figure. Clearly I have not much clue where this story is going. :P
Chapter 3: At The Churchyard Again
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THE DEATHLY CHILDREN
Chapter Three: At The Churchyard Again
28th July, 1899
Please, you simply must call me Theophilus. Do let us cast aside such formality once and for all; already, I regard you as a friend and trusted correspondent.
Thank you for your letter and for the books! We are indeed kindred souls in our love for the relics of magic; if it wasn’t for my dreadful condition, I would have Apparated to Godric’s Hollow immediately upon receipt of your letter and paid you a visit, and we would perhaps have whiled away an entire afternoon engaged in pleasant discussion of all the forgotten things of our magical history. But alas! Dragonpox really is a most debilitating disease, and terribly contagious as well. Worse, my condition has been exacerbated by the heat and humidity of the season, and my face is, quite frankly, an unsightly, pustular mess. Not to mention the highly flammable sparks each time I sneeze.
I’m afraid I must beg yet another favour from you – quite unjust of me, certainly, the amount of inconvenience I seem to be inflicting upon you – but would you happen to possess a book or any relevant document chronicling the genealogies of the oldest surviving wizarding families in Britain? I understand that historically, there has been a high concentration of old magical families around Godric’s Hollow. Ancient magical bloodlines is yet another topic, which I enjoy studying during my spare time, and I do have plenty of time now, what with my self-imposed incarceration.
Thank you for your patience, dearest Bathilda! I am eternally indebted to you, and when my complexion clears up and I am cured of this affliction, I shall be paying you that visit, and we shall be having that promised discussion!
* * *
Bathilda Bagshot saw them both, Ariana and Kendra, late one night last winter. That same night, she forgot everything.
Perhaps Mother had been getting careless. But really, Ariana often muses, it was all Bathilda’s fault. Nosy old woman, pretending to potter about her garden under the pretext of harvesting Plangentines, though it was patently clear that she had been trying to catch a glimpse of Ariana as usual; something about having a mad, wretched girl for a neighbour, one without a drop of magic and with an awfully delicate constitution, must have fascinated Bathilda to no end.
That night Ariana had slipped into the kitchen; the floor was cold through the papery soles of her shoes. Kendra was standing at the kitchen table crushing Sopophorous Beans, a pile of thick, earth-clotted Gurdyroots at her side, her face half-curtained by shadow. How thin and stretched Kendra had become, how dark the sleepless blotches staining the skin below her eyes. Over the last few weeks, she had become less and less interested with her books and her Potions recipes. She hardly slept, and she no longer spent hours in the evening writing trailing letters to Albus, always to Albus.
When Ariana sat down at the table, Kendra looked up, startled, and the glinting silver knife in her hand gave an ugly little twitch and the blade skimmed the length of her finger, drawing blood. The red seeped into the dark puddle of Sopophorous Bean juice collecting on the chopping board.
Kendra put the knife down quietly before dabbing her finger on her skirt. “I think, Ariana, we both need a breath of air. You’ve not been out of the house for weeks now. Put on your coat.”
Outside, the night was windless, but the cold filtered right through the layers of Ariana’s clothes to the cotton chemise she wore underneath. The curve of a moon hung in a gap through the clouds, and all the cottages and gardens of the village were grey in the weak light. Ariana shook her mother’s hand off her arm impatiently, practically leapt out the door and bounded around the garden.
“Ariana,” Kendra called, perhaps asking her to wait, to not stride about in such a reckless manner.
That was when Bathilda showed up, appearing at the hedge dividing her own garden from the Dumbledores’ property, a lantern swaying in her hand. Perhaps it had been the lantern, that swinging shaft of light like a spear, but Ariana’s fit had taken everyone by surprise, herself included.
Out of some non-existent point within her came the hateful burn of her magic. Dimly, she heard the hiss of Kendra’s Silencio! No sound came from her throat when she tried to scream, and instead, the scream turned inward, surged back into her skull where it rang and flared behind her eyes, as her own blood seemed to scald her within her veins.
The fit was an intense but short one, and soon enough Ariana was back on her feet, leaning shakily against Kendra’s tense frame. Bathilda’s lantern was ruined, the light blown out and the glass in shards at her feet. The old woman was appalled, one knotty hand splayed over her mouth.
“I thought – I thought your daughter was unable to perform magic. You told me so yourself,” Bathilda whispered to Kendra, and despite the tremor in her voice, her words were laced with accusation.
Kendra only shook her head wearily; the effort of subduing Ariana had depleted her.
“Have you consulted the Healers? This is clearly a magical condition that’s afflicting her, Kendra; you cannot ignore this.”
The reference to St. Mungo’s caused Kendra to snap to life. “I know best how to treat my own daughter, Bathilda. I’d thank you not to question how I raise her.”
“This cannot go ignored. There are Muggles living among us in the village. Your daughter’s magic is untrained, verging on the uncontrollable. You simply cannot keep her locked away in your house forever!” The old woman turned away abruptly without bidding either Kendra or Ariana goodbye, sweeping off toward her cottage.
“Bathilda,” Kendra called after their neighbour, and the frantic note in her voice must have made the latter stop and turn, one disapproving eyebrow raised. Kendra’s wand slashed through the air and Bathilda stopped short, frozen in her tracks, her eyes so wide-open that they bulged, her lips peeled back mid-gasp. The partial Body-Bind curse had immobilised Bathilda, but still allowed her to remain upright. Kendra, meanwhile, crossed over the hedge in a whirl of skirts. Bathilda’s eyes seemed to widen even further at Kendra’s approach.
“Forgive me, Bathilda,” Kendra whispered, but her words held no genuine contrition. She touched her wand to the side of Bathilda’s forehead. A tendril of silvery smoke rose from beneath the old woman’s temples to coil around the tip of the wand. As Kendra pulled back the wand, it dragged the ribbon of silver right out of Bathilda’s head. She gave the wand a hard swish, and the silvery coil of memory dissolved into the air and vanished.
Bathilda’s form went slack, her arms dropping to her sides. From where she had been standing, Ariana could make out the slightly open mouth, and the sudden aimlessness that had overridden the old woman’s stride and purpose. There was a soft pop right beside her as Kendra Apparated the short distance from where she had been standing in Bathilda’s garden.
“It’s late, Bathilda,” Kendra called out evenly across the hedge. “You ought to go to bed. I’m sure the gardening can wait until morning.”
“Yes, goodness, you’re right, my dear,” Bathilda replied, sounding surprised. “I must have – must have lost track of time, somehow.”
Kendra brought Ariana straight back to her attic bedroom.
“I don’t think I can sleep tonight,” Ariana said, sitting at the edge of her bed. The walls on every side of her rippled.
“You must try,” Kendra replied. She reached down and picked Ariana’s hand off her lap, examining the chewed fingers and the nibbled nails. “I’ll fetch some warm water and some bandages.”
Before Kendra left the room, she smiled. Ariana saw, for the first time, the slow fading of her mother. The strength was seeping out of her, and the hard glint of her dark eyes had become veiled and imprecise. Ariana considered going up to her mother and flicking a stray tuft of hair from the latter’s eyes. The door closed slowly, cutting the smile off Kendra’s face but that little abstract curve of her lips seemed to linger on in the room long after she had left.
“Well, that is the saddest thing I’ve seen all day,” the Crone interjected, her face protruding from the wall like an unsightly growth.
* * *
Aberforth shuffles down the lane winding toward the fields, where the goats are. The animals belong to Bramley, a Muggle farmer, and every summer he comes home from Hogwarts, Aberforth takes a job at Bramley’s farm, working as a caretaker of sorts to the goats. He feeds the goats, brushes their coats, brings them to the water trough out in the scratchy, browning fields, leads them onto the milkstand and cajoles them into passing their heads through the stanchion, cleans out the sheds and in the evenings, shuts them in. It is a job that he has come to enjoy, despite the meagre wage Bramley offers, despite all of Kendra’s former protestations and Albus’ disapproval each time Aberforth leaves the house in the morning, heading toward the edge of the village.
Ariana is resting now, or at least, she is locked away in her bedroom, curtains pulled tightly together, windows clamped to the frames. The summer heat is intolerable to her; the humidity, she complains, is a large, damp hand, squeezing her tightly. Ariana has always had quite the imagination.
The cottage rows grow thin until the houses disappear altogether, and soon, Aberforth reaches the fence tracing the boundary of Bramley’s farm. He stops.
There is a boy sitting on the stile, fair-haired and pale in the afternoon light, someone he has never before laid eyes upon in Godric’s Hollow. He sits right at the edge of the stile, knees wide apart and feet hooked around the lower step, as though he is about to tumble off, though his body remains loose-limbed, showing no signs of strain.
The strange boy does not look up or acknowledge Aberforth as he approaches the stile.
Aberforth scowls at the obstruction. “I need to get over.”
The other boy rests his lazy gaze on Aberforth. The plain Muggle tunic he wears seems to be at odds with the haughty raise of his eyebrow; this stranger exudes a certain variety of recklessness, that which is commonly exhibited by vagrants and wayfarers with no set destination. Yet this boy is no tramp; that much is certain.
“You’re one of the Dumbledore boys.” There is a thickness to his voice, a rough edge to the stop-start of his syllables. A foreigner as well, then, and one who is familiar with Aberforth.
“How do you know us?” he asks, suspicion making the ends of his sentence sharp-tipped.
“Bathilda Bagshot is my great-aunt and your neighbour, I believe. Sometimes she tells me excessively long stories about her wonderful neighbours.” The boy looks away, bored. He does not move from his precarious seat.
Aberforth grits his teeth, clenches his hand in his pocket and makes straight for the stile. He will get over the stile, even if it means barraging into this foreign boy and knocking him off. It will be the latter’s fault, anyway. Something about this boy – how at ease he appears to be, despite being an outsider – he is undaunted by Aberforth’s ungracious demeanour. Resentment rises like an itch around the corners of Aberforth’s mouth, and his lips tighten.
“If you don’t make way –,” he begins, for after all, it is only fair that he deliver a warning. The other boy is taller but slighter in form.
“I saw your sister,” the boy cuts in and Aberforth stops short. “You were walking her around the garden a few nights ago. What is wrong with her?”
“Nothing that concerns you in the slightest.” Aberforth nearly chokes on the sudden wave of fury leaping up his throat. “Do us all a favour and turn your prying eyes away from our lives.”
The boy laughs; Aberforth’s anger has vanquished his boredom at last. “Great-aunt Bathilda told me that your sister cannot perform magic and that she is one of those, how do you call it, magically impaired?”
“You’d do best to hold your tongue right away.”
“Come now, there is no need to holler in such a way. I did not intend to offend you.” But his eyes say otherwise, glimmering with insult and a kind of gleeful abandon. “Her condition – anyone unfortunate could have been born with such. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Why do you hide her away under the pretence of illness? She would fit nicely within the society of Muggles. Better than the lot of us.”
Aberforth draws out his wand and points it at the boy. Albus would have a fit seeing him so blatantly break the rule about underage magic, but eternal damnation be to Albus! “Draw your wand.”
The other boy’s eyes light up. “I do not have a wand.” He turns out his pockets, shakes his tunic loose and holds up his hands. There is no wand on his person. It would be cowardly and mean-spirited to attack.
As Aberforth lowers his own wand, the boy speaks again in an unnervingly cheerful tone, “But that is hardly a matter of concern for us now, is it?”
With that, he springs off the stile and lunges at Aberforth, the momentum of his leap knocking both boys over. The stony ground clouts the back of Aberforth’s head, gravel scraping at the nape of his neck and his ears ringing with the blow. They grapple for a bit, the other boy struggling to wrest the wand from Aberforth’s hand, his hard knees digging into the latter’s torso. Aberforth shoves a shoulder back, grunting, and just as his grip on his wand loosens, he swings a fist at the other boy’s face. There is a snap of flesh, and the sensation of collapse around Aberforth’s knuckles, burying into the boy’s cheekbone before knocking his nose askew. The boy rolls away, breath bursting sharply from him, blood streaking from his nose, a vivid chute of colour against the brown summer landscape around them. But Aberforth has lost his wand, which now sticks out of his opponent’s fist. The boy appears to be completely oblivious to his own broken nose and jarred cheekbone blooming purple, triumph curling his lips into a sneer.
“I’ve won it,” he rasps. “It’s mine.”
“Give it back.”
Laughing, he holds the wand out, but just as Aberforth swoops forward to snatch it up, the boy hops back and dances away in a curiously stilted manner. “I have its allegiance now! Perhaps it won’t even work properly for you any longer. You might as well throw such a disloyal thing away! Besides, I need a wand.”
He touches the end of the wand to his nose and murmurs an incantation; the flow of blood ceases and his nose realigns itself in a crisp pop of bone. The bruise however, continues to blacken on his cheek.
“It suits me!” he crows. Just as Aberforth starts toward him in rage, the boy spins on his heel and Disapparates, leaving behind a faint trace of laughter dissipating over the miles of dry pasture.
* * *
Mother’s death is all Ariana’s fault. Albus will never utter this out loud, – for to do so would indicate a clear loss of composure, something which Albus does not seem to find acceptable, – but Ariana can feel the mild reproachfulness in his manner, in his near-faultless concern toward her.
Ariana is kneeling gingerly at the foot of Kendra Dumbledore’s grave, the hard ground pressing into her knees, smudging the pale blue of her skirt. On the headstone, the name and dates have been inscribed in a most plain and forgettable manner, – exactly as Mother would have liked it. Above the name, more letters have been sliced into the clean stone: In Loving Memory.
It is still early; there is no glare of sunlight to set her aflame, and the heat has yet to rise from the ground in thick paste-like waves to stultify the entire village. Behind her, standing crookedly with his elbows jutting out and hands stuffed into the pockets of his breeches, is Aberforth. She can tell that he is uncomfortable from the way his hands remain stubbornly stuck into those pockets, the fingers tightly scrunched so they don’t poke through the holes in the bottom. Stealing out of the house to visit their mother’s grave in the early hour of dawn had been entirely his idea.
“Perhaps you’d like to say goodbye to Mother, Ariana,” Aberforth had offered kindly when he snuck into her room that morning. She had been drifting through a thin netlike sleep, perforated with dreams of old women and stone women and girls made from sand, crawling through furnaces until they melted in the heat and cooled and became glass.
“We needn’t tell Albus; we’ll be quick. It isn’t far from here and there’ll be nobody about the churchyard at this hour,” Aberforth had pressed on. He was already dressed in his usual untidy manner, and a thick grassy scent emanated from his clothes.
She hadn’t particularly wanted to come. But she hadn’t said anything either, so Aberforth pulled a coat over her dress and led her down the attic stairs, carefully, making sure they avoided the third step from the bottom with the traitorous squeak in its wood.
“You can say whatever you want you want to Mother,” Aberforth offers. “I’m sure she’s listening somewhere.”
Ariana is inclined to disagree, but instead, she squeezes her eyes shut, trying to think of an appropriate memory of Mother, anything that will prompt her to say something apt and eulogistic, though she knows that really, Aberforth does not expect her to say anything.
Aberforth wanders away, stopping now and then to scuff his boot at tree roots or kick up piles of dead leaves. There is something different about him; of late, he has been moody and bitter, quick to blow up at Albus, who in contrast, becomes frosty and almost condescending.
It must be all her doing, Ariana decides, Mother’s death, and now both her brothers’ unhappiness. Mother is gone, so it falls upon her now to hold the three of them together. She must. She will.
She bites her lip and swears it by this stupidly silent tombstone, by the hard-packed earth that houses the casket but no true trace of Kendra Dumbledore. She swears it by Albus and by Aberforth, both ignorant of anything that had passed between her and Mother. She swears it by everything else she has – she reaches into her pocket – nothing there except an old pinecone doll.
A curious thing it is, that doll, crafted for her some time ago by Aberforth, who is far worse with his hands than their father, Percival, had been when carving that crude wooden box for her. The doll has a flattened bead for a head with an acorn cap glued on top, and its face consists of little more than a few circles and curved lines inked in by a blunt quill. The doll’s body is a round pinecone, the scales flaking off, with no arms or legs. Ariana sneaks a glance behind at Aberforth, but his attention is still on the ground, on something between his feet, which he shuffles around through the dead leaves.
There is a limp in his step, the cause of which he has repeatedly refused to reveal to either her or Albus. She can hardly explain it, but all of a sudden, a surge of affection for her sullen, disordered eccentric of a brother nearly overcomes her. How she would love to run her fingers through his hair, breaking through the tangles and dislodging the flakes of dead leaf caught within.
Tucked into the hem of her dress is a long silver needle. Her little secret. She slides the needle out of the fabric, rests the stinging point on the pad of her thumb, and pushes it in, slowly, right through the hub of those frenzied whorls. Blood swells at the base of the needle and wilts into a single drop, which glides off her thumb to fall onto the doll, lost between the dark scales of the pinecone. She pulls the needle from her thumb and scratches a mark, a crisscrossing of lines, on the back of the wooden bead head. A rune for protection. She slips the needle back into the stitches of her dress.
“It’s time to go,” Aberforth’s voice cuts through the quiet of the churchyard. “It’ll be dawn soon and Albus will have a right old fit if he discovers that I’ve brought you out the house.”
She rises, clutching the doll. When Aberforth takes hold of her arm, she presses it into his hand. “For you.”
He looks down, a kernel of recognition sparking in his eye. “But I made this for you, Ariana.”
“It’s for protection.” That is all that she will say.
He shrugs, still not understanding, but when she refuses to take it back, drops it into his pocket and begins to lead her home. They take the long route through the rear of the churchyard, away from the main street, carefully skirting the faint glow of dawn, which is now slinking over the roofs of Godric’s Hollow.
* * *
Of course, Albus quickly discovered Aberforth and Ariana’s early morning excursion. He had risen early that morning, and his usual habit upon getting out of bed is to make straight for Ariana’s room to ensure that all is well with her.
His two younger siblings, upon arriving home, were greeted by the sight of Albus waiting for them on the doorstep, coldly radiating disapproval. Ariana, he gently brought into the kitchen, sat her down and placed before her a bowl of steaming porridge and a jug of cream, instructing her to eat. Aberforth on the other hand, he turned his wrath upon, as quietly as he could, so as not to upset their sister. Aberforth knew just as well not to raise his voice a notch, but in the end, he simply hissed, “It was just to visit Mother,” before shoving past Albus and disappearing into the depths of the house.
By late morning, in a bid to escape Aberforth’s moroseness and a mild tantrum that Ariana had thrown (along with the breakfast porridge, which made a fine splatter on the kitchen floor), Albus finds himself heading toward the churchyard as well. It is his turn to call upon their dead mother’s grave, though the chiefly escapist nature of this visit fills him with a biting shame.
He cannot stay away for long; Ariana needs to be watched closely at all times like a young child. Besides, whatever spare time he has, when not devoured by tedious household chores, must be spent working. Of late, Albus has been researching and writing a new article for Transfiguration Today on a convoluted mathematical formula calculating the precise length of time Vanished objects can remain in the phase of non-being. The journal will pay a decent sum for his article.
He drifts in between the headstones beneath the drowsy shade of the birches, careful not to tread upon the graves, many of which are nearly smothered by long grass speckled with buttercups and yellow thistle flowers.
Someone is already at Kendra’s grave when he arrives. A strange boy, – almost certainly a visitor to Godric’s Hollow, – standing with his hands clasped behind his back, looking down solemnly at the headstone. Despite the gravity of his carriage, the boy looks younger than Albus, but not by too many years.
“Good afternoon,” Albus says, curiosity rising in his chest. “Did you know my mother?”
The boy turns. A moment passes, during which his face remains blank, devoid of expression, the edges of his stare unsettlingly cold. Then, his mouth splits into a large, cheery smile, so sudden that the rest of his face seems to topple into that grinning mouth; the rigidness of his stance vanishes in an instant, as though his smile has diffused to the rest of his body, swelled through his limbs and loosened them. A proffered hand swings up to Albus, who shakes it, mildly surprised at the sudden change in the boy’s manner.
“I heard about her recent passing. I hope I am not intruding,” he says. The words are careful and curiously thick on his tongue, and the tone of his voice is practiced in its evenness. “I am Gellert Grindelwald.”
The name is familiar to him; someone had mentioned it before – ah, of course. Bathilda had been leaning over the fence, a plate of piping-hot Cauldron Cakes in her hand, telling him that her delinquent of a great-nephew would be coming to stay, though Albus had been too distracted to pay much attention.
“Dreadful turn of events.” Bathilda was shaking her head, tongue clucking against the roof of her mouth. “Expelled from school for improper magical conduct, apparently! I never had much faith in his featherhead of a mother – she’s let him run wild, given him far too much free rein. It would do him good if he could spend some time with you, Albus. I’m sure you’ll both enjoy each other’s company; such fine and intelligent young men the two of you are.”
Albus hadn’t thought much of Bathilda’s suggestion. Hogwarts had had its fair share of unruly students, and Albus had not always cherished his time keeping those mischief-makers in line as part of his Head Boy responsibilities.
Bathilda’s great-nephew, however, seems different. Though his movements and his mannerisms appear lazy, there is a brightness in his eye, something suspicious and scorching and acute, a deep-seated awareness beyond that of the average juvenile delinquent.
“I was merely passing through. I saw the name on the headstone – Great-aunt Bathilda has much to say about Madam Dumbledore, and all of it good.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Albus replies. “And how are you finding Godric’s Hollow so far?”
“Very much to my taste.”
Albus is sceptical. Gellert Grindelwald, he knows, is from far away, from somewhere vast with possibility, the expanse of the Continent; Albus himself has never stepped foot beyond Britain, though he had previously been scheduled to do so with the conclusion of his N.E.W.T. exams – plans that had been ruined by his mother’s untimely death. What is it that Gellert sees in a place as isolated and as socially and intellectually numbing as this village?
“It must be quite the drastic change of scenery for you.”
Perhaps the tiniest hint of bitterness in Albus’ voice makes Gellert stop and appraise him very carefully. “Do you not like this place?”
“I have liked it quite enough, I’m afraid.”
“Your village is a fascinating one, a place steeped in ancient magical history. I have learnt that it is the birthplace of many a famous witch and wizard.”
“So I’ve heard, too, from Madam Bagshot herself.” Albus smiles briefly. “If I may ask, what could possibly interest you about this desolate and rather overgrown churchyard?”
Gellert steps away from Kendra’s grave, his gaze sweeping around the cemetery before locking onto Albus’ own eyes. “I am looking for a sign.”
A pause settles between them, far too long and too fraught with strange, half-illuminated sentiments. There is a vague air of mistrust in the way Gellert speaks, in the measured gaps between his words, in the lift of his eyebrows and the unflinching, almost impolite way he stares directly at Albus, something the latter cannot help but find mildly amusing.
“And I have found what I am looking for,” Gellert continues. “I can show you if you like.”
He turns and walks toward the back of the cemetery, Albus following automatically. They pass stone angels with outstretched wings and hands clasped in prayer, square crosses with jagged stumps of arms, weathered arches, wrecked slabs of granite and marble veined with dirt, and crumbling mausoleums with missing doors and unimaginable darknesses within. This is a part of the cemetery hardly anyone ventures into, extending beyond the church grounds and into a thick copse of twisted oak and yew trees. Finally, Gellert stops and kneels before a grave; the tablet-shape of the tombstone is mostly intact, though the winds have toothed at the edges. Much of the inscription has been eaten away by centuries of weather, but the name is still there, scraps of a shallowed alphabet.
And beneath the name is a mark: a vertical line, cutting in half a circle fitted perfectly within an equilateral triangle. It is this mark that Gellert looks upon with adoration, one long finger tracing the channels of the symbol carved into the stone, beginning at the apex of the triangle.
Albus laughs. “The Deathly Hallows? The Peverell legend? Surely this isn’t the sign you’re looking for?”
“You know of them?” Gellert demands, astonished. “And yet you do not believe?”
“Any child brought up within a vaguely magical household will be familiar with the tale of the three brothers. It is a story for children.”
“There is a different version of the tale,” Gellert answers. “But yes, I know of your English version: Beedle the Bard, is it not? Unlike you however, not many will connect this child’s fiction with the legend of the Peverell Brothers and the Deathly Hallows.”
Albus frowns. “Their powers have surely become increasingly exaggerated over the years. Humankind has always exhibited a penchant for hyperbolae. If you’re referring to the rumours of –”
“Immortality?” Gellert cuts in, tilting his chin a little toward Albus. He exhales regret. “No, I’m afraid. Despite my absolute faith – there, I’ve said it, – in the Hallows, I simply cannot believe that they afford true immortality. That is the real myth, I fear.” He rises from the ground slowly, knees unclasping from their bent position, as though he is loath to part with that peculiar stone marking. “So it is true, then. This is indeed the final resting place of Ignotus Peverell, winner of the Third Hallow. Or rather, creator of it.”
“If you are indeed pursuing a myth, Mr. Grindelwald, I doubt you’ll find anything of further interest in the village. Godric’s Hollow is but a dead end; Ignotus Peverell’s bloodline and descendants seem to have vanished into obscurity, which is a remarkable coincidence, really, considering that Ignotus Peverell’s Hallow was the Cloak of Invisibility. This village is both the start and the end of your trail.”
“Perhaps,” Gellert says, rather airily. “But there is always that possibility, yes? I shall prove to you that the Hallows do exist –”
“Oh, I have no doubt that some form of them exists, or has existed. But I do ponder the truth about the extent of all the power that they are reputed to have, the power that will be bestowed upon the person who unites and wields all three Hallows.”
“First of all, they must be found. As I said, I shall prove to you that they can be found, and that it is worth finding them, if you will let me convince you, Dumbledore.”
“Albus,” Albus says, absently, before stopping. Somehow, he has neglected to formally introduce himself to Gellert. A slip in his manners. A slip! How easily he had slipped into conversation with this strange newcomer, this great-nephew of Bathilda’s. And how pleasant it had been to speak without restraint. “Albus Dumbledore.”
“I know,” Gellert replies. “I’ve read some of your publications in the periodicals that Great-aunt Bathilda keeps and catalogues in that library of hers. They are very good – your writings, I mean.”
The boys have wandered into the shadow of the abandoned church, a squat stone building, erected centuries ago, the walls and roof draped with curling vines. The god-fearing and superstitious Muggles believe it to be haunted, and rightly so, for within the chapel walls dwell a number of ancient ghosts, a rambunctious lot from long-dead eras always kicking up a racket with their ceaseless and rather tiresome wailing. Beyond the church, the trees come to an end, the street and open sunlight breaking upon the boys. Gellert’s hair is the colour of bleached summer fields.
Albus blinks. Time has slid by so surreptitiously. He has stayed out far too long. Aberforth will undoubtedly be out chasing after those ridiculous goats of his, which means Ariana is unattended.
“I’m afraid I must go,” Albus says. “I suppose you’ll have to tell me more about your quest for those Hallows another time.”
“There will be plenty of opportunity for that. I have the whole summer and the rest of my life to live.”
Albus nods his farewell, but just as he is about to leave and head home, Gellert grasps at his arm, and the suddenness of the gesture makes Albus uneasy. “Is something the matter?”
The look on Gellert’s face is one of equal discomfort. From a hidden pocket sewn into the insides of his vest, he pulls out a wand and thrusts it toward Albus, handle first. Willow, dragon heartstring, twelve and a quarter inches. Aberforth’s wand.
“Tell your brother I’m sorry.” Gellert’s eyes are downcast so Albus can only see the soft crease of his eyelids. “We got into a bit of a tussle; perhaps I instigated it. I forcibly took his wand from him; I’ve wronged him. I can be impulsive sometimes.”
Albus stares hard at Gellert. The latter’s show of remorse while convincing enough, is incongruous with the rest of his unapologetic, free self. “Aberforth is quick to anger,” Albus says at last. “I should not be surprised if he, too, lost his temper and drew his wand far too quickly.”
Gellert seems relieved. ‘Yes, yes, perhaps that is so as well.”
“I’ll pass this, together with your apology, along to my brother.”
As Albus heads home, his steps feel considerably lighter than they had been earlier on in the day. Any thought of returning to the confining walls of home, back to temperamental Ariana and scowling Aberforth, fails to dishearten him. A breeze flutters through his clothes and for a moment, the stifling heat of summer is lifted off his skin. And is he really humming? Indeed. A low, familiar tune to match his gait. If he is any less careful, his shoes just might begin to skip across the cobbles. How strangely buoyant he feels today!
A/N: Many thanks to all my lovely readers and reviewers who have shown such support and enthusiasm! I am truly sorry that this chapter took such a long time to put together. Real life has got me by the throat. I hope the delay in posting hasn't put you off this fic!
A note about canon: I'm pretty sure, from reading DH, that Ignotus Peverell's grave wasn't so far back in the churchyard, since Hermione found it pretty quickly. However, me being unacceptable decided to tweak canon a bit for dramatic effect. Worst comes to worst, we can always fall back on the flimsy excuse that the cemetery changed in the 100 years or so between 1899 and 1997, when Harry and Hermione first set foot into Godric's Hollow.
Thank you, lovelies! And let me know what you think of this chapter.
Chapter 4: Symbols and Stories
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THE DEATHLY CHILDREN
Chapter Four: Symbols and Stories
April 14th, 1946
What, no reply? Who quelled your quill, old friend? Or have you made peace with yourself? You need not bother with that last one; I already know the answer.
Silence is a strange response from you, Dumbledore. By any chance, did I strum a nerve of yours? Inadvertent, I assure you.
I had forgotten just how good your precious guesses were. But then again, it would be out of keeping with who you are if you were not perched somewhere in your eyrie, calculating and plotting and mapping out the tangles of lives at your disposal. Was I an interesting subject of study, Albus? I’m flattered! Even when we first met – what was the year again? 1899? My apologies. Isolation does wonders to the mind. Linear time is my worst foe when I can’t follow it. I’m a spider caught in my own web, my own sense of time circulating through my own lattices. You’ve sectioned off part of the world for me, Albus. How very thoughtful of you.
As you now know, I did have the Wand. Also, the better part of the world. I pinned the Continent to my wall; I redefined it, strung up my own boundaries – if you hadn’t stopped me, I would have gone on. I would have gouged trenches in all my paper Continents, prised territory after territory out of the hands of desperate Ministries behind the smokescreen of Muggle wars. And why stop there? Is not the world round? It would have been so easy to follow its curve. Are you sick of me now? I hope you are, because I intend to go on writing to you so you shall have to open letter after letter from me until both our lives shrivel up. I’ll exhaust us both; I don’t care.
In the papers, they hail you as hero most honourable! Vanquisher of villainy, defeater of darkness, triumph over tyranny! Very dramatic, but if I recall correctly, our duel wasn’t that much of a grand spectacle now, was it? Although I suppose it did take me a lengthy twenty minutes to surrender. I see that you’ve neglected to explain that to your followers. You hold back facts, you feed everyone riddles and when they ask too much, brusquely you brush them aside. You must be well pleased that now you occupy your own niche in a Chocolate Frog card; you always were fond of sweets.
O Albus, you marvellous serpent. You manipulative and thorough bastard. Your mouth is sick with sugar and your conscience is a strangely beautiful thing. The small dishonesties that do not trouble you, while other things – other things would destroy you if you were to know the truth of them. Let us not pretend to be enigmas to each other. I know you too well. And every dark alcove of my soul is lit up by the brilliance of your gaze.
Eat your sweets and speak your half-truths, now that I’ve given you the Wand, the duel, the victory that will be an eternal Trace on your name. As you knew I would. Long ago, you seeded in that hope that you would turn your back on everything and be my ally, my comrade and fellow visionary. Hope is an insidious thing to plant among your enemies. It grows and grows, and it gnaws, how I’ve felt it gnawing in all the frenetic silences of my life. I swallowed all the hopeful kernels of your revenge. And then you came.
I’m on the verge of confessing how proud I am of you! Truly, you’ve surpassed me, you scoundrel.
Answer me, Dumbledore. How does your conscience work?
P.S. It was not me who killed her.
* * *
There is a sign, a new sign that has come to her. There is symmetry in it: lines and arcs and junctions lighting up and swivelling into position, unfolding bilaterally, shapes fitting into each other.
Ariana shuts her eyes and imagines herself detaching from her body, unhooking all the way down from her heels, which are still planted firmly on the ground. She floats in an airy darkness until she finds that abstract spot toward which all her thoughts gravitate, stretching and thinning like tapers. The sign emerges – curious, curious – a rune of some sort, a symbol perhaps? But she cannot get a good grasp on its precise shape. Her eyelids dart back, and her gaze curves wildly around the attic bedroom, seeking a spare quill or parchment.
“Use your nails. Then you’ll remember,” comes a harsh voice behind her. Ariana does not have to turn around to know that it is the Tall Woman speaking. As if for emphasis, the Tall Woman raps her crooked staff against the wall.
“They’ll hear you,” Ariana warns. But there is not the slightest stirring of sound downstairs. Albus and Aberforth are as deaf as they are blind.
On the floorboards, beneath the window ledge, she presses her fingernail to the wood, scratching in the outline of the sign she has seen. Her knees wilt at the scrape of sound, and her jaw clenches and unclenches. She pulls her hand away.
There it is: a vertical line slicing through a circle, mantled by a perfect triangle. An eye-like shape. She squints at it, puzzling over its severe geometrics, and it stares right back at her, cat-eyed and crafty.
“Eyes, my love, give me some eyes,” cries the Crone, squatting just beside her and swaying to and fro. “Help a blind old woman see.”
Ariana reaches under her bed for Percival’s chest and retrieves a handful of glassy marbles, which she hurls at the Crone. One of them strikes her forehead. “Now will you be quiet? I’m trying to think.”
The Glass Girl hovers in the furthest corner of the room, lipless and silent, her arm stretched forward, as though pleading to be allowed to join the odd company of women. Ariana ignores her.
“That symbol is one of the many signs of Death,” says the Tall Woman. She has bent forward to look, and her face is so like Mother’s. Mother’s thin mouth and jarring cheekbones and the arctic kindness of her eyes.
“My death?” Ariana scoffs.
“One of the many signs of Death.”
“You need not be afraid, my dear,” says the Crone soothingly. The marbles swirl in her eye sockets. “We are always with you.”
“Many signs of death. Signs of death.” The Tall Woman’s echoes are tinged with spite. “Death has many signs, many faces, many names.”
“I wish you wouldn’t. And this is such a stupid sign.” Ariana scrubs hard at the marking on the floorboards with her thumb, but it will not go. Now the room has an eye to watch her as well.
Furious, she picks up Percival Dumbledore’s chest and drops it with a rattle over the symbol, covering it. But it is too late. She has seen it, and it writes itself over and over again in her thoughts, in each blink between thoughts; she will continue to guess at its infuriating angles, the strident lines searing her sleep.
The sensitive parts of her inner elbows and wrists and the back of her throat begin to tickle: a warning. The magic is beginning to build up in her like a breath of stale air trying to rise from the bottom of her lungs. She runs to the door. On the top step of the attic stairway is a tray with a pitcher of water and a glass, a bowl of cold porridge as well as a vial of potion that Albus had brewed for her earlier on in the day, but somehow could not find it in him to knock and enter and set the tray down by the bed, as he always does.
Albus has been distracted these days, nipping off for quick walks to the shops to purchase some insignificant ingredient or other. Always, when he returns, he smiles his distant secrets at her and sometimes even stops to engage in pleasant but trivial conversation with Aberforth. Most extraordinary.
Ignoring the food and the water, Ariana picks up the vial and tips the potion into her mouth and swallows. Numbness washes through her.
She shuts the door again and whirls around, expecting to catch those horrid women intruding on her again but they are not there, and so she climbs into bed and tugs the sheets over her head, still in a thoroughly bad temper.
* * *
On his way to the shops, Albus runs into Gellert. The meeting is almost accidental.
Bumping into Gellert has become a series of coincidences spinning out of control. Over the last fortnight, Gellert has always been coming down the path, or swinging jauntily around the corner, or sometimes Albus catches sight of him leaning beneath striped awning, against the bay window of the confectioner’s.
Today, Gellert is climbing out of the back garden of a cottage belonging to a bad-tempered Muggle couple known as the Harrisons. He lands beside Albus, a satisfied grin on his face, dust puffing around his ankles. Something Albus has noticed about him: Gellert has a blatant disrespect for boundaries of any sort; he has a flair for weaving through them, cutting across back gardens and sending lines of washing flapping to the ground, filching flowers from the doorsteps of the local residents in broad daylight.
“And so we meet again.” Gellert half-bows, his hand doing a rather absurd twirl.
“Have you found the Deathly Hallows yet?” Albus attempts not to smile too broadly. This question he has been asking each time their paths had crossed ever since their first meeting by Kendra’s tombstone.
“All in good time,” Gellert responds carelessly. “My search has not been utterly fruitless, however.”
The other boy’s pockets are swollen with greengages stolen from the Harrisons’ back garden. Gellert tosses one of the fruits skywards before catching it and taking a large bite, his teeth making a ticking sound against the wrinkled stone at the centre. Juice trickles out the corner of his mouth and he swipes his sleeve carelessly against his chin.
Albus shakes his head, frowning, when Gellert offers him a large glossy greengage. “If you really want fruit, I can get you some from the greengrocer.”
“These are sweeter.”
Hardly surprising. After all, hadn’t Bathilda made it well-known to Albus that Gellert had disciplinary issues, that he had been expelled from his school? Petty thievery is surely nothing compared to the misuse of magic, – possibly Dark magic – that had resulted in his dismissal from the institution.
“Will you walk with me, Albus?” Gellert’s voice is softer, kinder, all his airs evaporated. His pockets are flat; the fruit have mysteriously vanished.
As always, Ariana rises to the forefront of Albus’s thoughts, her glazed, confounded stare ghosting over every decision he has to make.
Gellert notices his hesitation, because he quickly adds, “I shall not take up much of your time. I wish to show you something; that is all.”
“If it won’t take more than thirty minutes, then,” Albus agrees, curiosity piqued.
“I know of a rather pleasant place we can walk to, away from the town. We will not be long at all.”
The boys tramp along the dusty country lanes before cutting across fields full of testy sheep, until they reach a spinney of beech trees at the edge of an abandoned farm, a little way beyond Godric’s Hollow.
“I’ve lived in this village for a good many years, and I know so little of the surrounding areas. Or at least those that appear unmarked in the local maps,” Albus remarks. “This isn’t a place I’ve come across before.”
“I am good at getting around.” Gellert leans against a beech trunk and draws something out from behind the small of his back.
“A new wand, I gather?”
“Eleven inches, yew, core of dragon heartstring. I bought one from the wandmaker in London. Great-aunt Bathilda was willing to loan me a small sum, though I did have to promise to rid her Plangentine bushes of garden gnomes.”
“It is a fetching wand. But hardly the one you seek, if I may say so.”
Gellert’s brow crinkles. “Do I detect yet more scepticism in your tone, Albus?”
“My apologies. But you can still achieve great things with this wand, I’m sure.”
“You mock me, Albus. That is fine. I forgive you.” Gellert’s scowl leaches away. “Anyway, I wanted to test this new wand of mine. A little light exercise, you may call it.”
“You – want to duel with me?” Albus guesses, trying to hold his face straight. “I’m afraid this will come off as a little boastful, Gellert, but I’m not entirely incompetent with a wand. There is a fair chance that I have something of a duelling reputation here in Godric’s Hollow.”
“Well, perhaps I can take that conceitedness of yours down a notch or two,” Gellert teases back. “I haven’t duelled anyone in ages. It was strictly forbidden at Durmstrang, naturally.”
There is always the matter of underage magic. Gellert, he is fairly certain, is not yet seventeen. And are expelled students even permitted to use magic? If Hogwarts dismissed one of its pupils, their wands would be snapped and the Ministry of Magic would keep a close eye on them to prevent any mishap or even the slightest use of magic.
“I do not think that this is wise for either of us, especially you, Gellert,” Albus begins.
The other boy’s enthusiasm vanishes instantly. “You’re afraid, aren’t you, Albus?”
“If you know me at all, then you’ll know that I’m anything but.”
“No, you’re not afraid of losing a duel. You’re afraid of something as trivial as going against the simplest of rules. I know fear when I see it."
“Gellert, the British Ministry does not permit – ”
“Anyone can lay down a book of rules before you, Albus, and tell you that they are absolute and I can wager that you will follow, without so much as– ”
The wand springs from Gellert’s fingers, arcing neatly through the air and into Albus’s raised hand. In his other hand is his own wand, which he had drawn with a speed that surprised even himself. His throat is tight all of a sudden, voice clinched with indignation. “You talk too much and far too loudly, Gellert.”
He flings the wand back to the other boy, who catches it, open-mouthed, though this face quickly slackens into a grin. “So you do have it in you after all? Maybe –,” he breaks off and a red flash of light bursts from the tip of his wand.
Albus blocks the Stunning Spell easily. Gellert is testing him.
This duel is a mistake, something which he had been tricked into all too easily. But perhaps he himself had been curious; perhaps he had wanted more, to know more about Gellert Grindelwald, his irresponsible yet delightful new neighbour, who seems uncannily wise about the ways of the world – everything that Albus is not. And Gellert is indeed a formidable duellist. His spells are silent, his wand movements deft, nicking through the air like a razor. The curses barrage from his wand, charged and incandescent; just when Albus deduces that Gellert has a fondness for spells which are explosive yet graceful in execution, the latter fires off a mocking Tarantallegra. Albus’s feet begin to skip sideways and tap dance and kick in a rather ludicrous manner, which sends his rival buckling over in a spasm of laughter and of course, Albus seizes the moment and Disarms him, before Vanishing the effects of the dancing hex on his heels.
“Truce!” Gellert shouts, his eyes still wet and cheeks maroon with laughter.
“Technically, I have won the duel, seeing as I’ve Disarmed you,” Albus replies.
“Yes, but I stopped fighting after I hit you with that –,” he breaks off, chuckling again.
Perhaps it is a good time to be generous. “Truce, then.”
“Until next time.”
“I don’t think we should duel again.”
“I am sure that we will. We enjoyed it today, did we not? You are the best opponent I’ve ever had the privilege to meet.”
They have wandered deeper into the woods, for the air is thicker, the baritone of cows from the pastures fainter, and the light is dark green and syrupy. Gellert drifts closer to Albus. His proximity and his scrutiny is wearying.
Albus steps away from the other boy, forcing a little distance between them. “Gellert, it is getting late; I must be heading home, soon.”
But they both fail to move.
“I have taken up too much of your time. I apologise.” Gellert raises his new wand to the level of his face, and with two fingers, holds it into a vertical line parallel to the straight cut of his nose. “We were distracted. What I really wanted to tell you all along was that I had a long conversation with the wandmaker, Mr. Ollivander. He knows plenty and he was willing to share. I suppose he must have taken to me, somehow. I showered him with endless questions on wandlore, and dug up all the myths and stories about wands. And finally, toward the end, he made mention of it.”
Ollivander, the respected wandmaker and one of the most reliable authorities on the subject of wandlore? Albus has corresponded with the man before, some years back when he sought information on the curious phenomenon of wand-wilting.
“Do you mean the Elder Wand?”
“He all but confirmed its existence.” Gellert’s reply is smug. “And he spoke of a distant rumour that a wandmaker in the east has somehow obtained this wand. Gregorovitch is his name. He is a newcomer in the wandmaking industry, and yet I know this name. He will be easy to find.”
Albus is silent for a minute. “I’m not sure what to believe. But I do know that Mr. Ollivander is extremely knowledgeable in anything pertaining to wandlore and wandmaking.”
“Can you imagine the extent of the power possessed by he who wields this wand?”
Albus does not say, you are just a child. You are not even of age. Nothing about Gellert suggests that he is a child, or has ever been one. He knows too many strange things of this world.
“Power corrupts, Gellert. Just look at our florid magical history of Dark wizards and witches. What could you possibly want with all that power, anyway?”
Gellert lets out a mildly explosive snort. “What could you possibly not want? Tell me, Albus, what is one thing that you desire most in the world? And be honest.”
The answer is easy. So easy and so clear it is, and so instant is the idea that leaps into his thoughts, that Albus is ashamed. Instead, he affects a smile.
“A Sherbet Lemon would be nice.”
Gellert stares at him. “A what?”
Albus fishes a crumpled packet of Sherbet Lemons from his pocket, unwraps a bright yellow sweet and drops it into Gellert’s outstretched hand.
“I find its taste very agreeable.” Gellert’s left cheek is indented, and the wisp of his breath is lemon-scented.
“As I thought.”
“I also find that you’re lying. And just an hour ago, you were chastising me on honesty.” He bursts into a sudden sparkle of laughter. “All the power in the world and you’d waste it on a pile of – what do you call these, Sherbet Lemons?”
“Hardly a waste,” Albus nods, trying to hold back his own laughter, watching as Gellert does a light jump in front of him to slap his palm against a low-hanging branch. “I take it that you are going to seek this Gregorovitch and find the whereabouts of the wand, then?”
“I am.” But he is uncertain.
“The other day – when we first met,” Albus begins, forehead creasing. “You mentioned something. Another story. Another version of the tale.”
An odd glimmer moves through Gellert’s eyes. “I remember. I confess I was a little disappointed that you had not queried further on that subject.”
“Oh, I did want to question you very much on that. I’ve been thinking about your words all week. The only story of the Hallows I know is that of the Three Brothers, who were walking along the river one evening–”
“Yes, yes. We all know that one. Trite story.” Gellert waves him silent, almost rudely. He leans forward, fever-eyed, closer to Albus, who hears the other boy’s pulse aching beneath his words; his breaths are erratic, punctuating his speech in unexpected areas, the gutturals of an accent rubbing through.
“But listen, Albus. You like stories, don’t you? Well, I have one for you, and it is not one that many people have heard of, or even to care to hear of. But you, you’re different. You will want to hear this. So let me tell you a different story.”
Albus glances toward the sky, but the trees obscure the sun. Still, there is always time to listen to a story, isn't there?
Once upon a time, there lived a young girl in a village.
The village was a prosperous one: trade flourished; there was no dearth of food for the crops never failed and the livestock were fat all year round. Absent were the diseases so rampant across the rest of the land, cutting down whole towns like a scythe shearing through fields of yellow barley. Yet the villagers were a disagreeable and ungracious lot. Men quarrelled, women spoke against each other, children wore the stony faces of their parents as they went about their chores, and above the village hung the bruise-coloured clouds of perpetual discontent.
The maiden, a kind soul fair in the bloom of her youth, saw this and vowed to find a cure for the villagers’ chronic unhappiness.
She left her home and journeyed on foot from town to town, seeking the counsel of wayfarers and Wise Women, but none could tell her of any remedy to the villagers’ dissatisfaction.
Soon, she arrived at the edge of a great forest. Fear is a strange idea to youth, and so without hesitation, she ventured into the trees, hoping to find the solution to her problems on the other side.
The day stretched on and grew late, and the sun began to slip away. She heard the sound of water brushing through the thick ferns and followed the stream until it led her to a little cottage, set between the scrambled trunks of two dead oaks. The roof was plaited from barbed bracken and peat moss, threaded through by the leafless branches. In front of the house, a water wheel creaked in the breeze, the spokes brittle with rot, and the flume snapped into two like a matchstick.
When she knocked, the door opened to reveal three of the oddest women she had ever laid eyes upon. The first was an old woman, stiff and humpbacked, and though her eyes were pale as milk and blind as dust, she seemed to look straight at the girl and peer into the depths of her intentions. The second woman was tall as a church steeple and thin as a sapling, and her face reminded the girl of her own mother’s. Her mother’s soft cheeks and weary brown eyes and flat nose and greying curls sat upon this tall woman’s gaunt shoulders. The third person standing in the doorway of the house was another girl, not too many years older than the maiden herself. This other girl’s face was almost translucent; she seemed brittle as a fine gem, and her fingers were long ribbon-like bones curling around the doorknob, and yet in her eyes dwelled an agelessness that the maiden had never before beheld in the gaze of any living person.
Thus, the girl knew that these were not ordinary women, and that she was in the company of three witches of great power.
“Grandmother, mother and sister,” she spoke politely as she curtsied, “I have a long way to go but the day draws to a close and the shadows hide the path that I must take. Please let me shelter here for the night.”
The Witches Three took a liking to the maiden’s earnest manner and her simple dress.
“You may,” said the grandmother-witch, “If you can make yourself useful to us.”
And so the girl began helping the Witches with their last chores of the day. She fetched water from the stream, ground roots into a paste, stirred the watery turnip stew simmering over the hearth, and laid the trestle table for supper.
That night, as she sat down with the witches, she told them about the problems of her village.
“They have enough to eat. Their families are well. They are not ill. And yet they are unhappy."
“This is what you must do,” said the sister-witch, and her voice was as flat as a millpond crusted with decaying leaves. “East beyond the forest is a valley. At the bottom of the valley is a lake. Fill a flask with water from the lake and bring it to me.”
The girl dipped her head. “Thank you, sister.”
“That is not all,” said the grandmother-witch in a voice as ponderous and grey as a boulder. “You must wade through the lake until you reach an island of black rock in the centre. From that island, tear out a chunk of stone and bring it back to me.”
“Thank you, grandmother,” the girl told the second witch.
“Yet there is more for you to do,” said the mother-witch, in a voice rough and cracked as bark peeling from trees. “You must climb onto that rock island. A large elder tree grows out of the very rock. From its crown, break off a twig and bring it back to me.”
“Thank you, mother,’ said the girl, gratefully.
The next morning, she set off into the woods and resumed her journey, wandering until the trees dwindled and the ground began to fall away at her feet. Down a narrow steep trek she went, and soon entered into a hidden vale.
At the bottom of the vale, she found the lake. It lay, a black pane of glass, swallowing all sunlight and yielding no reflection of the sky or the trees or the rushes bordering it. She knelt by the edge and filled a calfskin flask with water.
Then, she gathered up her skirts and stepped into the lake. The water was an icy cramp, climbing past her knees and strangling her waist, the cold gripping her spine but she waded on until she came at last to the island, a large black boulder in the centre. She ran her fingers over the flank of rock but try as she might, she could not tear any chunk off it for the surface was slippery. So she scraped and clawed until her nails broke and her fingers bled, and tiny black grains came loose from the boulder island. These, she caught in a small pouch and pulled tight the drawstring and tucked it into the bodice of her dress.
Next, she clambered onto that rock island. The tree that grew out of it was enormous; its roots were stubby fingers grasping at the stone, the branches were akin to a spider’s woven grid, and the foliage was such a deep green that it was nearly pitch dark in the shade of the tree. Undeterred, the girl began climbing, branch to branch, and the leaves that brushed against her mouth were as bitter as death. When she reached the top, she broke off a twig, tucked it into her sash, before climbing down, sliding off the side of the rock into the lake, and wading back to land.
Exhausted, soaked, bruised and scratched, she left the valley and returned to the forest, searching for the Witches Three. High and low she sought them, but the paths twisted and coiled into each other and she could not find the cottage. By nightfall, she came across a clearing in the woods. The moon shone above her head, and she saw before her a tall figure, robed and hooded, its face completely hidden in the darkness beneath its cowl.
“Who is it that you seek?” the figure asked as she approached it.
She would not answer, only asked in return. “Who is it that I speak to?”
“In these parts of the world, I am called Death.”
“I’ve heard of no such name.”
Death lifted a withered hand to gesture at the girl. “You have done what has been asked of you. You may surrender to me the water of the lake, the dust of the rock and the twig of the elder tree that you have collected.”
But the girl did not trust this Death. She demanded that Death show itself, shed its cloak, so she could look upon its face and remember it and see the truths written in its eyes.
And so Death threw back its hood and undid the rope belt around its waist. And lo! The black robe cast to the ground, there stood not a single person beneath but three, the very same Witches Three who had sent the girl on her difficult errand: the hunched grandmother-witch, the tall mother-witch and the childlike sister-witch.
“You have succeeded, child,” croaked the grandmother-witch. “We will keep our end of the bargain and help you find the cure that you have been seeking.”
With that, the aged witch took from the girl the pouch and emptied the black dust into her palm, spat into it and began rubbing the mixture of dust and spit until it rounded into ball of dough, which hardened into rock. The mother-witch took the twig from the girl and muttered a spell over it until it grew powerful with imbibing her magic. And lastly, the sister-witch tipped the flask of liquid into a stone basin and with her fingers like knitting needles, wove a cloak out of the lake water.
When they finished, the Witches Three presented to the girl the Cloak, the Stone and the Wand.
“Go back to your village,” whispered the sister-witch. “Drape the Cloak around your shoulders, and in your left hand, hold the Stone. In your right hand, you shall wield the Wand.”
“At the village square, you must strike the ground with the Wand with every inch of your will,” croaked the grandmother-witch.
“And the villagers will be cured. They will find the peace that you have been seeking on their behalf,” declared the mother-witch.
The girl wrapped the Stone and the Wand with the Cloak and after thanking the Three, curtsied and hurried out of the moonlit glade. The way unravelled before her and soon, she was free of the forest and at the outskirts of her beloved village.
All was quiet for it was still dark, and so the girl slipped the Cloak over her shoulders, clutched the Stone within her left hand and in her right, held the Wand aloft and advanced past the silent cottages, into the heart of the village. But as she stood in that deserted square, she stopped and the old feelings of misgiving came to her. Still, she did not trust Death and now her suspicions extended to its myriad of forms, including the Witches Three, and for a long time she stood, pondering.
Death grew impatient at the girl’s hesitation, and so it appeared before her in the square, Three of them, unmasked and uncloaked.
“Why do you hesitate, child?” the grandmother-witch demanded. “With sunrise comes yet another day of misery for your people. Why do you not end their collective sickness? Have they not suffered enough?”
Still, she refused to do anything.
But the Three were cunning and persuasive with their words. They held her hand and told her stories and fed her strange dreams beneath her eyelids, and she saw many things, wondrous things.
With all the power that she wielded, she saw herself, a regal queen, a great Witch, more potent than Death in its threefold form. Men and women knelt before her, and children sang their praises of her deeds.
The Cloak around her shoulders, stitched with water and rippling with sunlight caught from the skies, granted her powers of invisibility. She was made unobservable and unknowable to all men, even as the lives and the smallness of all men were made completely visible to her. In her left hand, the Stone glittered with starlight stolen from the constellations. And with the Stone turning in her palm, all those who had ever been dead rose from the ground to pay homage to her. But it was not just the dead that came forth from the earth; trees sprouted and blossomed, crops throve and the land turned lush with life. As for the Wand of elder wood, she held this as though it were a sceptre of gold, and before it, all the evil men of the world, the tyrannical kings and those who lived off the misery of others were struck down, brought to justice and humankind was purified and at peace.
How much power for such small hands!
Youth is robust, yet it is also easily swung, and the girl’s resolve weakened. In a moment of madness, she raised the Wand high above her head, and through it and the Stone and the Cloak, she channelled her newly awakened desires and magic cracked through the walls of her heart and raged through her arteries and punched into the ground.
A deep silence descended upon the village. Overcome by fear, the girl went knocking from house to house but nobody answered. She ran to her own home and found her father and her mother and her brothers and sisters dead their beds. All the villagers had perished of a sudden and mysterious sickness and even the livestock were struck down where they had stood in the barns.
So this was Death in its true form, and it had been the girl herself who had brought this pestilence upon her own home.
In rage and horror, she summoned Death before her using the Wand, Cloak and Stone, and Death had to obey. She demanded that they undo the curse and bring the villagers back to life.
“There is no balance in this village. Life has sickened, soured into the very source of suffering of those whom you love,” said the mother-witch coldly.
At this, she fell to her knees and wept bitterly.
“Take these! I don’t want them!” And she cast the Wand, Stone and Cloak back to the Witches. “And if you cannot bring my kinsfolk back to me, then take me to where they have gone.”
They took pity on her then, and they held her hands and consoled her and combed their fingers through her hair.
“Then you must follow us,” said the grandmother-witch.
The mother-witch retrieved the Wand and swallowed it and it became a bone in her rib, and the grandmother-witch picked up the Stone, put it in her mouth and it rolled down her throat, rattling into her chest like a dead heart. The sister-witch took the Cloak and threw it over her shoulders and the shoulders of the other Witches and the girl, and together, the four women fled over hill and field, seeking the souls of those who had been lost, invisible wraiths in the moonlight.
The boys have left the beech thicket and begun their tramp back home, following the crisscross of dirt lanes. The sun is moving thickly behind the hills. Albus wonders at the route Gellert is leading him along. He hadn't been paying attention to the way they had taken to the beech trees, but now he is fairly sure that Gellert is using a different route back, one that seems to meander between tracts of empty land and bald hummocks.
“It was a rather morbid tale that you told me,” Albus says at last.
“Fascinatingly morbid,” Gellert agrees. He bounds two large steps ahead of Albus before turning around to face the latter, walking backwards. “You do not like the story?”
“I’ve not heard this one before, though I have come across far more gruesome tales. Is there a meaning to this? A moral of some sort, a hidden message to this particular myth?”
“It is not a parable, Albus. There is no need to go looking for symmetry or epiphanies in everything you read. And this is not one of those Muggle allegories to be dissected and tried and – violated by the probing minds of stilted intellectuals.”
Albus raises an eyebrow.
“Of course I do not mean you,” Gellert says, quickly.
“I think we both know better,” Albus replies. “But maybe you’re right. Maybe– ”
“It is just a story. Much of it is too fantastical to be true. But still, it is a sign, a clue in the trail. It references the Hallows. Cloak, Stone, Wand. There are so few legends mentioning the precise combination of these three objects.”
“You’re contradicting yourself, Gellert. You dismiss the entire story that you’ve so carefully relayed to me and yet at the same time take it as proof of existence of the Hallows?”
“You like stories. That is why I told you.”
The village is nowhere in sight. Albus glances around, disoriented by the spread of fields. So rarely does he go wandering about the country lanes, and now with the late afternoon sun angling downward and steeping everything with its dusty glow, the whole landscape is alien to him.
“Where are we going?”
Gellert sends him a look that seems to consist of a condescending mixture of pity and patience. "Why, back to your home, of course. To Godric's Hollow. Is that not where we should be headed?"
“We took a different route here. I’m sure of it.”
Gellert stops walking, and his sudden cessation of movement is strangely forceful. All laughter is gone from his face, and for a brief moment, there is the same unsettling coldness that Albus had glimpsed upon their first meeting.
“Do I make you uncomfortable, Albus?”
So Gellert has noticed. Albus cannot put a name to this, either.
“You are skilled. Gifted, Gellert. You’re a brilliant duellist. I’ve not come across anyone who manipulates magic the way that you do, or who is so instinctual when it comes to spellwork. I feel that we have much to learn from, and about each other.”
This is partly a lie; admiration is easy. The real answer, Albus knows, is a lot more complex.
Gellert laughs, the warmth returning to his voice. “Well, I am glad. You must know that I admire you as well. But I feel that we are speaking of different things.” He claps Albus on the back twice, a gesture that the latter finds both genial and disheartening. “Let us speak no more about this; we have many days together, my friend, to talk about all the things we wish to talk about. We are both finished with school, after all.”
“You’re right.” The air, pressing against Albus’s cheeks, smells of damp. “At any rate, it appears that we are going to be rained upon, soon. I suppose you know the way back now?”
“We have been practically walking toward Godric’s Hollow all this while, as I have been telling you.”
Albus remains doubtful, but the path skirts around a field and the first houses of the village step into sight, looming out of nowhere.
The sky breaks into a downpour of convectional rain drenching them in warmth, flattening the fabric of their clothes against their limbs.
“Come on,” Gellert says and he waits for Albus to fall into step with him, before draping an arm around his shoulders and the two of them half-jog, half stumble along the rain-slicked track, both trying to match the other’s stride to synchronise their steps, and both not quite succeeding.
* * *
And so this is how Ariana sees her brother and his newfound friend: the door banging open, and the two boys falling in and beaming, their hair and clothes sticky with water, melting into their skin.
Can it really be Albus? The other boy with an offhand arm round her brother’s shoulders, ruffling her brother’s lank hair and being so affectionate, pretending – yes, of course, pretending! – to have no notion of the boundaries that Albus has always established around himself.
She had heard them coming up the garden path and had slipped upstairs, and now she watches from the shadowy top steps, higher than both of them. For a minute, they look small as dolls made of blanched sticks and rags, and her fingers itch to pick them up and wring them, and possibly even chew their limbs off, an old habit that is sure to have Mother turning in her grave. The sound of the downpour outside batters against Aberforth’s furious protestations and Albus’s placations but the new boy – she already knows his name: it is Gellert Grindelwald, and he is Bathilda’s great-nephew; she has known for some time – the new boy just watches her brothers in silence, looking apologetic and humbled and smug at the same time.
So this is what the runes have been saying lately, the signs, her crudely-cut dice spelling out the shoddy inevitabilities that she will not accept.
There is a self-satisfied air about him, in the carelessness of his lips and quirked brows, in the way his eyes traverse the length of the kitchen and the drawing room and for a moment, they leap up the stairs to where Ariana is hidden. The way he retracts his exploratory gaze back into himself is vaguely unsettling, as though he is already familiar with the Dumbledore household and all its ruinous secrets. He means to stay.
A/N: HUGE APOLOGIES for taking so long with this chapter. *hides* Between Chapter 3 and this one, I got sidetracked by a one-shot writing spree as well as eight seasons of Supernatural.
I'm a little worried that this chapter might have been too long, and too slow in some parts. What did you think of the story, or Gellert's letter? Feel free to hit me with your feedback, guys!
Thank you so much to everyone who's read, reviewed, favourited this story so far! Your support for this story is amazing, and I can't thank you enough! ♥
Chapter 5: Of Blood and Intent
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THE DEATHLY CHILDREN
Chapter Five: Of Blood and Intent
I’ve not heard of such a name. If you’re a Mudblood, I don’t deal with dirt like your kind. I am pure, can you grasp such a concept? I am blood distilled from the Peverells, from the House of Slytherin, Founding Father of Hogwarts. You come for relics but the truest treasure is and always will be the blood. But what would you know of the ancient blood magics, yours is corrupted, you come from the cesspits deep in the earth. If you’re not a Mudblood, what can you offer me that I don’t have? WHAT CAN YOU GIVE ME. Ministry genealogist indeed. I know a swindler and a liar when I meet one. You’re a collector or I’ll be damned. One of those purveyors of antiques passed down the tainted families whose lines have intersected with those of Muggle filth. I cursed one of you the other day, had the nerve to show up at my doorstep and ask me to the eye. You’ll not come near me or my heirlooms or my estate. So you’ve traced my Stone now, have you? No you can’t look at it and your hands won’t cloud its gloss. You come near and I’ll kill you, government dog.
* * *
Three of the local boys – they can’t be older than six or seven – are in Gellert’s way, skittering stones across the path. Muggles, but he knows their names: Puttworth, Jones, and Creevey.
At times, Godric’s Hollow is a curious place, a shambling antique of a village, which has marooned itself in the midst of a bland sea of scruffy farmland. There are small hills beyond the houses, and these Gellert has climbed, looking for a fresh perspective. The view is narrow and there is a circularity to the horizon, sky and field coiling together at the margins of sight. The landscape curves as he turns; he longs to unfurl the entire panoramic column, grasp the world with his eyes and lay it flat as a map: from the roof slates of the village to the bristles of woodland, to the broken fences teething through the ground. One owns nothing and does not belong to anything if he does not know the names of their parts, even a village as small as this one. Even its occupants, ticking along their brief pathways, unaware of the greater world expanding beyond them.
One of the stones reaches the tip of Gellert’s shoe and he considers flicking it off into the long grass. But the smallest of the Muggles, Creevey, darts toward him and snatches up the stone, as if sensing Gellert’s spiteful intention. They carry on with their game, ignoring him, and he stays where he is, watching these unmagical children roll their stones and squabble.
Their next game is a game for dominance. They take turns and play in pairs, hands held in secret shapes behind their backs only to be thrust forward and aggressively matched: flat palms, or fists, or two fingers stabbing the air.
“Rock, paper, scissors. Rock, paper, scissors,” they chant, and Creevey’s voice is the shrillest. He wins each time: rock crushing scissors, scissors slashing through paper, paper smothering rock. And with every win, he slaps the wrist of Puttworth or Jones, and they grimace and look gloomy each time he steps up pertly for a turn.
Something snaps at the back of Gellert’s thoughts, and he blinks, all his vague attention drifting like a net in water suddenly pulled back and focused on the trio of children before him.
Rock, paper, scissors. Rock for Stone, Paper for Cloak, Scissors for Wand.
Can it be possible? Even in the most trivial of Muggle children’s games, the signs are calling to him. It’s a stretch; quite possibly, he may be on the verge of reading signs into things, imposing his own dreams onto the blank canvas of perspective and perverting his own sense of reality. No. No. He can feel them: the Hallows are calling to him, even as he stands here under this nowhere sky, blue and domed toward the dark reaches of space. A heat flickers in his eyes, and he shuts them to prevent the warmth turning to water and leaching down his face. There is purpose in everything he sees and hears, even in these whimpering clods of children.
“I should like to have a turn,” Gellert says as politely as he can, stepping into their circle. He does not know how to address children, especially Muggle ones. The boys look up, startled. They’ve seen him before of course, striding through the main street with his pockets full of sweets, nicked from the confectionery for him and Albus to share. (Albus does not know that those are illegally-procured sweets. Or maybe he does, but has chosen to be generous).
Gellert taps his foot, then lowers himself to his knees, hand behind his back. “Well?”
Puttworth and Jones retreat but Creevey shrugs and steps forward.
“Rock, paper, scissors,” Creevey falters over the words. Gellert does not utter the chant with him.
It is Creevey’s turn to lose. Gellert can see every flickering choice in the boy’s half-afraid, half-defiant expression. Paper, his eyes flicker, and Gellert scissors his fingers. Paper again, and therefore, scissors yet again. Rock then, Creevey’s eyes flicker. Gellert’s open hand slaps the boy’s wrist with more force than necessary. Creevey winces but says nothing and stubbornly continues with his losing streak.
It takes a good twenty minutes of consecutive losing and consequent wrist-slappings to break Creevey down. His wrist is smacked into a rosiness that flares past the button-shaped wrist bone and across the back of his hand. There are unfallen tears in his eyes as he slips the smarting hand beneath his shirt and hooks his fingers into his small ribcage.
“Go home,” Gellert laughs and Creevey turns on his heel and flees. Puttworth and Jones have long since bolted.
Albus is not anywhere about. He must be at home, shut up in his room, trying to read his stuffy old books, or babysitting his brother and sister. Perhaps he should drop by; Albus had welcomed him, told him to pop in anytime. But there is a good chance that he might run into Aberforth, so instead Gellert makes his way back to Great-aunt Bathilda’s.
Great-aunt Bathilda is sitting in a rectangle of white sun by the window, a tray on a small table before her.
“Gellert,” she smiles when he enters, the skin around her eyes folding and layering over each other, and he stops, surprised and suddenly aware of an affection clasping his middle and radiating, vein-like, into his chest. “Do sit down.”
On the tray is a squat teapot dressed in a crocheted cosy, a jug of cream, a dish of scones rich with butter, a pot of strawberry jam, and a pair of silver tongs for the sugar cubes. Bathilda flicks her wand, and the teapot tips hot liquid into a daisy-patterned bone-china cup.
“Thank you, Great-aunt.”
“You seem very happy of late, Gellert. Godric’s Hollow is doing you plenty of good.”
“I do like it here,” he agrees, wincing into his cup. Tea is something he will never understand. Either it is tasteless, or it hints on a bitterness that spreads and stains his mouth with each subsequent sip. Perhaps this is why Albus is so fond of sugar cubes. He came to tea yesterday, much to Bathilda’s delight, and he had grinned at Gellert across the table, tucking three sugar cubes carefully beneath his tongue before swallowing a mouthful of scalding tea.
“And you’re getting along very well with Albus Dumbledore,” Bathilda remarks. “I worry about him sometimes, almost as much as I worry about you.”
“Albus is capable, Great-aunt. As am I. I suppose you will not listen if I beg you not to worry about us.”
She laughs. “Have you thought about staying on? You ought to consider it. I’m sure Albus could help you finish your education, tutor you, perhaps.” Here she pauses, disapproval flicking her lips askew for the briefest moment, perhaps at the reminder that he is, after all, still a delinquent who was expelled from Durmstrang. “You could set up a new life for yourself here. A new beginning. You could work with the British Ministry of Magic in the heart of London; you were so very fascinated by the city the other day.”
“No,” Gellert replies, shortly. “It is good here, but I will not be staying long.”
Rock, paper, scissors. Cloak, Stone, Wand. They call him in his sleep, in his waking moments, even if he has never met them. And strangely, each time he sees Albus, he feels the pull of the Hallows. The Hallows, The Hallows, The Hallows, he can hear himself clacking on and on to Albus, and Albus, whose interest in the matter had initially only been borne out of politeness, has begun to ask more about Gellert’s theories until both of them are discussing and dismissing each other in jest.
Being with Albus reminds Gellert of a pair of girls he had seen back home on the Continent. They were village girls, bright specks in the middle of a sun-stippled plain, skirts and lace aprons and one of them had a kerchief tied over her hair. They stood toe to toe, crossed their arms and grasped each other’s wrists before starting to twirl. Round and fast they spun, a trellis-armed twirling trap, the scarf snatched from the girl’s hair by the wind generated from the force of their play.
“I want you to stop now. Stop, or I’ll tell Mother,” cried the girl who had lost her scarf.
But they couldn’t stop. It was the sheer speed of their movement that finally dislodged them from each other’s grip and sent them spiralling into a ditch. They emerged, laughing and sobbing, teeth spotted with blood and earth. It is like this when Gellert is with Albus: they talk about The Hallows and they never stop, and then they begin spinning, round and round into the vortex of each other.
Bathilda is upset at his flat refusal. “I can write a letter to your mother. I’m sure she’ll understand; she’ll want the best for you, Gellert, and you’re practically thriving here.”
“There’s no need. I have quite made up my mind about this.”
The mention of his mother accentuates the acrid taste of tea in his mouth. He had very nearly gone to visit her after his dismissal from Durmstrang. An hour’s walk away from home, and his legs had frozen and refused to carry him a step further toward her. Instead, he had ended up arranging for the Portkey with Bartolomew, which brought him here. That was the only thing about his expulsion that left him bitter, resentful. He hasn’t written a word to her, but she knows him too well to be worried, knows his fondness for wandering far and wide by himself. His mother is still young but carries herself about with a pride that people say she doesn’t deserve to have. Her eyes don’t belong to her face; the colour has been pinned into her sockets, and the intelligence in them stolen from a wiser, kinder creature. His mother would have understood, would never have passed a single judgement on him for his actions.
They have an understanding between them: that neither belong to each other. She would have made him sit down as she conjured up two tulip glasses.
“Drink,” she would tell him, and he would lift the glass to his mouth and be spiked by the scent of pálinka, brewed and fermented from plums growing in the kitchen garden.
“I will come to visit often, Great-aunt Bathilda,” Gellert offers.
Next door, Aberforth Dumbledore lumbers down the garden path and slams the gate. He scowls in the direction of Bathilda’s house without looking in the window.
Bathilda tut-tuts. “The poor, troubled boy.”
Gellert sets his teacup back into the saucer. “I think I shall pay Albus a visit.”
They both glance out the window where Aberforth had just passed, and then back at each other. He rests his hand on her thin shoulder, which has begun to curve like a bow. She settles her own hand over his for a brief moment. “Be nice to Aberforth; he’s going through a trying time.”
Gellert grins and plucks a scone from the tray. “I shall bring one of these for Albus.”
* * *
Kendra Dumbledore was perhaps the only person to discover the true power of her daughter’s damaged potential. While Percival was serving his sentence in Azkaban and both her sons were respectably sent off to school like other ordinary magical children, she began to study her Ariana very closely. There was nothing to distract her from her daughter any longer, now that the house was mostly empty, and the absence of her brothers made Ariana restless, gravitated her toward the nearest human presence.
The child refused to have anything to do with magic, recoiling every time Kendra used her wand for some menial task or another. But magic flowed from her, untrammelled and brutal, in the form of her episodes. The magic yearned to be put to use; it colonised her marrow where the new blood was mixed and poured out into her body. It was all about blood, wasn’t it?
One afternoon, Kendra baked a batch of Cauldron Cakes and for the first time, went over to Bathilda’s house and gave the old woman quite a shock. Bathilda had to peel her hand from over her heart to take the proffered cakes, still steaming beneath a square of muslin, and she quite bluntly asked Kendra what had come over her.
“You must come to tea tomorrow,” Kendra announced, allowing a corner of a smile to show. It was as though a stone had been cast into a still pond; the smile moved about her face, but her expression seemed disturbed rather than cordial. She continued, quickly, “But I’m afraid Ariana won’t be able to join us.”
“Of course, my dear. Understandable.”
Thus began the simple transactions of taking tea with Bathilda, or baking pastries for her neighbour and in exchange, she began borrowing out of Bathilda’s prized collections. She applied herself with alarming intensity to books about blood and ancient magic and people with injured magic and the magic of sigils and runes.
Kendra called Ariana to her one morning. Her daughter came downstairs, hesitating all the way, pulled up the three-legged kitchen stool and sat by the range in the kitchen.
“If you are to stay home, then I shall teach you myself.”
Ariana reached out and took the wand from Kendra’s hand, held it up to her face, as though she was going to examine it closely, or perhaps thread it through her own eye. A blush spread across her daughter’s pale cheeks, and a minute later, her wand hung broken from Ariana’s fist. Kendra only sighed.
Is this all you have to offer, she did not say. But Ariana understood, because she pushed her lower lip forward, bowed her head and glared at Kendra from the top of her eyes.
“As you have broken my wand,” Kendra said, gesturing to the fireplace, where an iron pot hung over the squat flames, “I am unable to finish brewing my Pain-Relieving Potion. So you will do it for me.”
“You know I can’t.”
“There is a reason why a subset of the older pureblood families are so protective of their bloodlines, why they resist the idea of intermarriage with Muggles or those of Muggle ancestry.”
The old pureblood families – she felt nothing but scorn for them. They were limited in their beliefs, and yet there was some seed of truth in their oft-times fanatical ideologies. To them, the blood pathways linking the generations were also the pathways of magic, and such sacred corridors should never be sullied by mingling with less-than-magical blood, in order to preserve the concentration of magic within the family. Half-true, but only in the archaic sense, when the practices of blood magic were still in fashion.
“They’re not all wrong. The direct use of blood does indeed work for some. But for the most part, magic is intent. Magic is a means of channelling intent.” She paused, watching Ariana, who had her head inclined toward the flame, challenging it. The fire sputtered and went out. “Are you listening, Ariana?”
Her daughter gave the faintest of nods. Kendra reached up to one of the kitchen shelves and brought down a round box and opened it. Cradled in red velvet was an array of implements: a sewing scissors with mother-of-pearl loops for handles, a thimble made of sterling silver, a needle case, a glove hook, a narrow-eyed bodkin, a pincushion wedged into a pointy shoe, and a star-shaped bobbin. From the needle case, she shook out a long silvery needle with a very delicate point.
This, she held out to her daughter and again, gestured at the iron pot on the range. “When the potion is complete, the liquid should be completely colourless. You do want to help me finish this potion, don’t you, Ariana?”
Before the incident with the Muggle boys, Ariana’s eyes had been an unblemished blue, but all colour had been seared out of them by the fire and by her own withering magic. Now, however, fear was a match striking a blue flame in her daughter’s eyes. She reached for her Ariana’s hand and held it.
“You must want to help me with this. You must intend for this to happen. There isn’t any other way.”
“Yes,” came the toneless reply. “I suppose I do.”
Ariana sank the point of the needle into the pad of her forefinger and a drop of blood fell into the cauldron, a scarlet punctuation mark, perhaps a lapse of breath in the recipe, altering the course of the potion. She blanched and swayed a little on her feet, leaning against Kendra, her grip clawing at her mother’s wrist. Then, she stopped and a smile swept the momentary terror from her face. In the pot, the potion became as clean and invisible as water.
“Well done, my daughter,” said Kendra.
* * *
When Albus and Aberforth came home from Hogwarts last month, there was an icefield between them; they spoke to each other in telegraphic fits of sentences. They made it a point to miss each other at mealtimes, and when this failed due to Aberforth’s poor sense of timing, they engaged in the strange habit of sitting next to each other and keeping their heads fixed forward, believing the other to be made of air and therefore, not worth addressing. Albus unloaded his trunk of books and robes in Kendra’s old bedroom, though Ariana watched him stand outside for a few minutes, staring at the door. Then, he pushed into the room with a sigh and sealed himself in. The same day, he moved the rest of his belongings out of the bedroom he used to share with Aberforth. Albus hummed throughout the day; he and Aberforth were pretending that nothing was happening.
Peering into Kendra’s bedroom for the first time since her death, it is clear to Ariana that Albus is not comfortable with staying in the room of someone recently deceased, despite his insistence that superstition should not be allotted so much space in one’s life. Things have been shifted around in a bid to invoke some measure of unfamiliarity out of a room that they know too well. The bed with its new horsehair mattress has been moved into a position exactly opposite from where it had once stood; the wardrobe has been trundled aside, and Kendra’s simple wooden bureau has been Transfigured into a large writing desk by the window. Kendra did all her letter writing and reading at the kitchen table.
Albus is not in. He had called upstairs before leaving, saying he would only be gone for a minute, much to Aberforth’s disgust. Aberforth himself had left ten minutes ago. The absence of both her brothers is the perfect opportunity for her to forego her hated medicine; she had uncorked the vial and poured it through a crack between floorboards and the floor had drunk it up. When she put her ear to the ground, she thought she heard the sound of an animal tongue lapping up the liquid.
Ariana tiptoes toward the desk, orderly with its parchment stacks, inkstand, and a vase of snapdragons on the windowsill. A half-written essay (more of that dreary theory about dragon blood and such) is accreting a film of dust, making the slender writing look archaic. Albus has not been inspired with this current article. Too much infatuation and time spent with his shiny new friend, the boy from next door.
Right beside the desk is Albus’s bookshelf, the tomes in impeccable condition and arranged by subject. She slips her hand between the books. Experimental Potions of the Seventeenth Century by Cuthbert Thwaites. Bezoars: The Universal Poisons Panacea? by Amaryllis Waffling. New Uses of Gillyweed in Advanced Potion-Making by Theophilus Thimble. Sleeping Solutions and Draughts of Death by Phaedra Shillingworth.
There is something rather fascinating about examining Albus’s things, collecting clues on the secret neuroses of a tidy scholar. Albus will not be angry if he finds her here, merely unsettled that she could show such interest. The front door opens, its heavy bottom scraping against the floor and the rough sound of laughter swarms up the stairs to her. Ariana freezes. There is a good chance that if she tries to run back to her room, she will be seen scuttling across the landing, not just by Albus, but by Gellert Grindelwald, who is downstairs with him now. Footsteps climb closer toward her and she drops onto her stomach and slides under the bed, the grain of the floor chafing against her hands and knees. Breathing as quietly as possible, she glances to her side. The Crone is lying beside her, the black holes of missing teeth grinning at her. Her breath is that of a decaying thing. Ariana blinks and the Crone disappears. The door to the room opens and Albus’s shoes walk in, attached to the columns of his calves, which are truncated by the scalloped hem of the blankets spilling over the side of the bed. Another set of shoes enters and pauses in a lazy mimicry of a tap dance.
“In Hogwarts,” Albus is saying, “There is a system that Sorts students into four different houses based on the characteristics they exhibit.”
“How stupid,” says Gellert Grindelwald. Ariana quite forgets to breathe, lying there on her back, hoping to gather dust like a shroud. Gellert continues his chatter. “But in Durmstrang, it is stupider, I suppose. Upon enrolment, they comb through our family trees and then catalogue us according to our purity of parentage. I shared a room with several other pure-bloods.”
“And you do not agree with this?”
“It is an ancient way of thinking. Magic is magic. We put too much stock in our ancestors,” Gellert’s voice lilts to a rhythm that only he can hear. His shoes walk toward the bookcase where Ariana had been just a few minutes earlier, and she hears him peeling books off the shelves, the crack of turning pages interposed with the occasional remark: “Interesting, very interesting. Indeed.”
“Not as vast a collection as your Great-aunt Bathilda’s, I’m afraid.”
“My great-aunt has begged me to stay on in Godric’s Hollow and make a life for myself here.”
Albus’s voice catches, like a crinkle of cotton beneath the hot press, the flaw stamped deep into the fabric. “And will you?”
Gellert sounds troubled. “I am sorry, Albus.”
“For choosing a logical path of action? I hardly think an apology is in order. I would not wish–,” here, Albus’s voice drops into a cheerless tenor, “– such incarceration for anyone in this desolate town. You ought to go, Gellert. You won’t find anything you’re seeking here. Certainly not those fabled Hallows that we’ve been researching so earnestly of late.”
The frame of the bed shivers above Ariana, and the mattress lets out a downward sigh. Albus has sat down on the bed. Her cheek is pressed against the floor now, and she is looking directly at his heels, one of them lifted off the ground by the arch of his foot. The chafed leather of Gellert’s brogues walk their way across the room to where her brother is, and he seems to be crouching, resting his arms on the edge of the bed and leaning his chin on them. She imagines him gazing upward into her brother’s face, and Albus looking down at him, both of them contemplating the best words to elude each other.
“I was not seeking anything when I came here. Maybe this is why I feel that I have found something. I found you, Albus. You have listened to me like nobody else has, and I understand magic as only you do. I swear that you were waiting for me here, all this while.”
“You’re awfully conceited, Gellert,” Albus laughs. “Remember that day in the churchyard? You were waiting there for me. But I stick to what I have said: that you should not stay here. We both know how it is to feel bigger than our prisons, to be enslaved to our own selves by our own selves. But one of us should have the chance to go free.”
There is a loud flap of air, like the downbeat of a massive wing in the room. Albus has leaned backward and slumped onto the bed.
“I have a solution,” Gellert says, carefully. “You want to leave? Why not leave? With me. We are old enough; we can visit all the places we want. We can search for the Hallows together.”
Albus is impatient. “You know very well –”
“Your family? Your brother will be going back to school. And your sister can come with us. I don’t care. If she is what anchors you here to this place, then why not weigh anchor and bring her along?”
“She’s ill; her condition is unstable.”
“And you are the best physician for her, so it seems. You are not abandoning anybody. Your sense of guilt is intolerable, Albus.”
Another rush of displaced air and another thud. Gellert has thrown himself on the bed beside Albus, and the horsehair mattress exhales again. It is harder to hear them now; they are so close to each other. She can imagine them, their heads turned to their sides, facing each other in a manner that is both intrusive and impossibly familiar. Their speech is low and confused with the sound of breathing; words are sucked into the sheets, becoming part of the mattress, a massive buffer keeping Ariana away from the boys. Her toes and calves and knees are beginning to twitch against the absolute stasis that she has imposed upon them, and the floor is pressing an ache into her back.
“You know what I find stories to be? I find them to be shells, shells to be cracked so we may scoop out the truth of their insides. We have dreams, both of us, Albus. And your love of stories and my desire to bring these stories out of the shells of themselves and into the real world has brought us together. The Hallows have brought us together. We can bring them out of their shells. We can capsize the myths and create new ones. Do not disbelieve them any longer, Albus.”
“You’re asking me to take a leap of faith. Just for you. One morning, you waltz right into this – trite, did you say? – life of mine, with all your dreams and your tales and demand that I jump off the cliff for you, that I turn my whole existence around, just so that it continually looks upon your face.”
“Nobody takes their saviours seriously at first.”
“You arrogant sod!” Albus laughs. “That takes the cake!”
More laughter, then Gellert speaks again, and there is distance and contrition in his voice. “I am selfish. I am sorry. But I am thus only because we have shared so much together in the short weeks since our first meeting, and I do not want to lose such a dear friend. Promise me that you will at least consider the things I have said.”
Albus sighs as he levers himself up, and his shoes land on the ground again. “You’re too persuasive to be trusted, Gellert. But you’re right; this is worth thinking about. Meanwhile, you can carry on convincing me until I reach that point of tipping over and conceding.”
Gellert, too, rises off the mattress. Any moment now –
“I must look in on Ariana,” Albus suddenly exclaims. “I’ve forgotten completely. I shall have to fetch some more potion for her. But I expect she’s asleep.”
Ariana bites down a groan.
“I shall wait for you here.”
The door opens and Albus leaves. For a minute or so, there is neither sound nor movement from Gellert, and the stillness grows unbearable. Heat is swimming off the floor, into Ariana’s body, or perhaps her body has warmed the narrow atmosphere beneath the bed to an insufferable temperature. There is no way of getting out.
Then, Gellert’s shoes walk toward the edge of the bed, toeing the wavy line separating the shadow from under the bed with the exposed sunlit floor of the bedroom. Do not cross the line. I forbid you to do so, Ariana wills the words in her mind. The heavy hem of the blankets are peeled back, and clearer than ever, she can see the scuffed toecaps and the perforations of his brogues, which he probably stole from the cobbler’s. His feet tense and turn like a sideways glance, and his ankles press forward until they are almost horizontal. One knee plants itself on the ground, and then a fan of pale hair, and a careless hand banishing the hair to the back of an ear. The face of Gellert Grindelwald is looking directly at Ariana.
They stare at each other, both too surprised to move or say anything. A moment longer, and Ariana will refuse to come out. Albus will have to come in and shift the whole bed to extract her from underneath. But Gellert acts first: he holds out a generous hand toward her. When she reluctantly takes it, curling her fingers so he won’t see the pinholes among the whorls, he pulls her out from under and slides her upright to her feet, in one smooth effort.
“Hello,” he says, cautiously. “Ariana.”
Should she be airy and aloof, like Albus sometimes is? Or sulky and clipped like Aberforth? She chooses silence.
“I did not know you were under there the whole time,” Gellert tries again. “Or we would have invited you out sooner. To talk, perhaps. We have not met. I am Gellert Grindelwald. Albus speaks very highly of you.”
She smiles. “He speaks of me as an invalid.”
“You heard us,” he replies. “What excuse can I give, except that people are not as careful with their words when they think they are alone. Perhaps we should be take into account that the walls in this house have ears?”
She ignores him. “You heard him. He says that I’m ill.”
“Are you ill, Ariana Dumbledore?”
Behind his shoulder, the air dithers. The ripples bunch and curve into the outline of a girl with eyeless hollows and a surprised mouth. Glass Girl is watching Ariana, evaluating the situation.
“There’s a girl behind you,” she says. “Can you see her?”
Gellert turns to look. His eyes search the space behind him and return, blank. “Suppose I cannot,” he says, playing along, “but I will be able to once you describe her to me. After all, some people or things cannot be seen until their presence is pointed out.”
Glass Girl’s languid shape becomes rigid when Ariana opens her mouth to reply; she walks around Gellert, gathering definition with each step, the sound of windowpanes crunching beneath pressure, until she stands nose-to-nose with Ariana. Her presence is the touch of an ice sculpture on her skin. Through the translucent body, Gellert’s gaze is fogged and puzzled. Ariana steps back in shock and then closes her mouth firmly.
Alright, you win. The girl dissolves.
“She doesn’t want you to know that she’s here.”
Gellert’s cautious smile doesn’t waver. “Well, is it a good thing that she is there, though? Or is it a bad thing that I cannot see her? If the latter, that would make it an augury of some kind, would it not?”
“Maybe she’ll tell you herself someday.”
Something catches her eye: a strip of paper peeking out of Gellert’s pocket. He sees her staring and draws it out, unfolding it and flashing it past her face.
It turns out to be a long letter written in Albus’s slanting hand, words compacted into sturdy squares across the parchment; it is tiresome just looking at it, trying to pull out loose strands of individual sentences for clues to its general content. But at the bottom of the letter, below Albus’s spiralling signature is a symbol: the very same symbol she had seen some days ago and scratched onto the floor of her bedroom. Circle, triangle, line. The rudimentary geometry of it. Gellert tears the letter in a crooked streak between Albus’s signature and the sign. The piece with the letter, he folds carefully and returns to his pocket, but the strip with the symbol, he closes her fingers around it.
“I see this fascinates you. Well, keep it. Maybe you will understand it someday.”
“It’s a sign of Death,” she blurts out.
“Death?” he laughs. “No. I see it as deliverance. Deliverance from the tragedy of unimportance that is all our lives at present.”
His dismissal angers her. The jar of pink and orange snapdragons on the windowsill leaps to her thoughts and disintegrates mid-air in a flash of temper. Shredded flowers fall from the ceiling. Gellert looks up, open-mouthed.
“And they said that you are magically impaired,” he marvels. “How wrong they are. Or how badly they have been treating you. You are very good in wandless magic.”
The stairs reverberate with angry footsteps, and in rushes not Albus, but Aberforth, whose fury is instantaneous upon seeing her with Gellert. He leaps in between them and shoves Gellert in the chest.
“You don’t belong here.”
Gellert’s face turns ugly. “I belong where I please. Besides, your brother insisted I make myself at home here. And we are indeed dearest friends.”
A round of shoving ensues between them, though Gellert steps far back when Albus enters.
“You let this scoundrel near our sister?” Aberforth demands. “Have you lost your mind?”
“Ariana, are you well?” Albus crosses the room to Ariana, lifting her face to meet his.
Looking into her brother’s incisive eyes has a lightening effect on her, turning her demure and empty. “I would like to go to my room now.”
“I’ll take you,” Aberforth says, still furious, but his hold on her elbow is incongruously gentle.
“It was nice meeting you, Ariana Dumbledore,” Gellert calls after her, and Aberforth swings back again, hissing, “Don’t you dare!”
Albus restrains him. “Go on. Ariana’s had enough.”
Gellert Grindelwald’s expression is nothing short of joyful.
Back in her bedroom, Ariana takes it upon herself to console Aberforth. “You needn’t worry about me. But you’re right; he isn’t to be trusted. What did he do to you?”
“Nothing!” Aberforth explodes, then pulls in a breath and exhales an apology. “He’s violent and dangerous.”
“He will take Albus away from us,” Ariana agrees idly. She slips into bed and pulls the covers up to her waist, sitting upright like a legless trunk of a body.
“We don’t need Albus. We can manage without him.”
“I’m tired, Aberforth. I should like some rest now.”
Aberforth nods. He sinks a kiss to her temples and leaves quickly, still fuming. But Ariana doesn’t rest. She scratches at her throat, trying to swallow the slow burn of magic back into her centre. She rattles her bone dice into meaningless constellations. She ignores the Crone’s endless chattering, her mother’s constant reproach and sends all of them back into the walls. And at last, she sifts through her collections of dainty broken things, seeking a new quill and some ink.
A/N: I'm sorry this chapter has taken so long! I completed it a couple of weeks ago, but took ages to edit. If I'm not mistaken, I'm kind of halfway through the story now. I'm going away for the rest of October, so I'm not sure when the next chapter is coming, but I'll definitely be working on completing this fic for NaNo, if I'm doing it!
Secondly, THANK YOU SO MUCH. SO MUCH. SO MUCH. To everybody who nominated and voted for this story in the recent Dobby Awards. The Deathly Children won the Best Description Award AND was a finalist for the Best Wielding of A Canon Character Award, and I'm truly humbled and a bit awed at just how supportive all of you are for my writing. ❤ ❤ I love you all, and this really means a lot to me.
Chapter 6: A Communion of Saints
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LET PERPETUAL LIGHT
Chapter Six: A Communion of Saints
The tone of your letter is amusing. I know who you are, more importantly, what you are. You are a deprived soul. You have nothing left. Those whom you deem unworthy have snatched up the last of your birthright. You straddle the threshold of derangement. I can taste the derangement in your handwriting, in your great clumsy words like fences keeling over, like crooked stiles built by your shaking hands. Do you want to know how mad you are? As mad as I am, as I am! We are not so different from each other, you will see.
I did not mention a stone of any kind in my previous letter, merely stated an artefact of immeasurable value belonging to the Peverells, but yes, one such thing that I am seeking is indeed a Stone of some sort. I thank you for confirming my suspicion. Do you know what your Stone is, Mr. Gaunt? Do you know who the Peverells are? Do you know what and who Death is? I write you letters (and I apologise if I don’t write very well, I taught myself writing) but Death writes stories and sows them across the gibbering tongues of humanity for us to spit at each other, infecting one soul after another.
You are right, Mr. Gaunt. I have nothing to do with the Ministry of Magic; I do not know how they work, how they spend their power, how they turn the cogs of a hidden nation. But I am not lying about one thing: I do indeed possess something of the Peverells. This particular relic in my custody: it’s yours isn’t it? If you are indeed of Peverell stock, then all Peverell relics should be yours. I’ll sell it to you, your lost family heirloom. Refuse, or ignore me, and I shall seek out the highest bidder. I’m doing you a favour, aren’t I?
If you are interested in reclaiming this relic and I know you are, say so and we shall meet. We shall meet anyway, I know we shall. Bring with you the Peverell Stone that you were so bragging about in your last letter, as proof that you are who you are. Then I’ll believe you, and we can negotiate some sort of deal with this Relic that I have.
After all, these deathly artefacts of the Peverells are meant to be sealed in hallowed union.
* * *
The swollen heat of July collapses into August, drawing out of the marshlands a living vapour of mosquitoes and midges. The summer loses its sharpness and turns clammy and permeable, seeping through all layers of earth, brick, fabric and skin.
Progress is uncharacteristically slow for Albus’s latest academic project, an article destined for publication in the upcoming issue of Transfiguration Today. He has been working on this all through the strange and distracted summer.
Just two days ago, he received a letter from Phoebus Raggins, editor of Transfiguration Today, who had generously offered to extend the deadline for Albus, postponing publication of the issue.
Albus sets his quill down. The tips of his ears have reddened and warmth prickles across his lobes to the edge of his cheeks: a sensation that he has come to accept as a peculiar manifestation of his conscience. Failure to meet work deadlines is a new and deflating experience. Albus has always been speedy and accurate with his research, his ideas arranging themselves into the ranks of a structured argument as they leap from his brain to the point of his quill. His words fall smartly onto parchment, like new soldiers with shiny buttons, but self-aware and expertly picking their way across the troughs and traps of contradiction and counterargument.
By the window, hangs a relatively recent addition to the Dumbledore house: a domed wire cage, half-shrouded with a velvet drape. A brown owl hoots in its sleep, its head sunk into the feathered cradle of its shoulders.
Ariana had approached Albus nearly a month ago, while he was working futilely and distractedly at his article. He had not noticed her, had not even heard the door open, but all of a sudden became aware of a flicker of presence at his back, as though a patch of air behind him had consolidated into the shape of his sister. Ariana looked a little lost in thought, but in her gaze, wandering across the contents of his bookshelf, there was a trace of intent.
“I’d like an owl?” she said slowly, inflecting her words the wrong way at first. And then she repeated: “I want an owl.”
“What do you need an owl for, Ariana?” Albus asked, puzzled.
“Oh, I don’t know. I’d like a pet, or a companion, I suppose.” Petulance grew in her voice.
Aberforth, when he heard what she wanted, was delighted at her sudden show of interest in something and immediately offered to buy her one from the owl emporium in Diagon Alley. But such a purchase would have depleted his scant savings scraped up over the years, so it was Albus instead, who made the trip and the payment.
When he brought the cage with the owl back and introduced Ariana to her new companion, she let it clasp her wrist with its trimmed claws, staring at its yellow-ringed eyes and the soft pivot of its head.
“He’ll do.” She set the bird back into the cage and left her disappointed brothers.
“You haven’t given him a name,” Aberforth called after her.
“Albus will find a name.”
She has hardly looked at the owl since then.
These days, the bird answers to the name of Pythagoras, much to Aberforth’s disgust.
Absently, Albus sticks the quill between his teeth, a splotch of vaguely sweet ink dribbling over his gums. He sets the quill down again, then picks it up, then gives up on the essay, and instead begins writing yet another letter to Gellert.
There is no denying that Gellert’s arrival in town has changed many things, and in ways that Albus had never expected. Long, pleasant hours they spend in each other’s company, in the woods outside Godric’s Hollow, or in Bathilda’s house, or right here in his own bedroom, after Aberforth has gone out to tend to Bramley’s goats. Time seems to reel away from them, refusing to interrupt their extended discussions and laughter-riddled, slightly sardonic banter. Their discourses continue into the evening, spanning the length of the night in a stream of letters exchanged between his bedroom window and Gellert’s, over at Bathilda’s house.
Pythagoras has proved to be of some use, after all.
From upstairs, a conversation between several people stumbles through the walls and ceiling, syllables blunted by their percolation through wood and plaster. Ariana has the unsettling gift for creating casts of entirely different characters out of the modulations of her voice. Albus goes upstairs.
She is sitting at the foot of her bed, scribbling on a piece of parchment, silent the moment Albus steps in. Her lips are dark with blood hardening in the minuscule fractures of flesh. When he takes her hands, he sees that her nails have been eaten deep into her fingers. The whites of her eyes are larger and emptier than usual, but her hair has been washed and pinned back; he had heard her this morning, murmuring a song stripped of music and peeled to its rhythmic bones, as she combed the sodden drape of her hair into the kitchen sink.
All the medicines and potions he has been brewing and improvising are not strong enough. Ariana looks more ill than ever. However had Kendra managed all those years on her own, fighting to keep his sister’s raging sickness down?
“Who were you speaking to?” he says, lightly.
She pretends not to understand, tucking the piece of parchment carefully away into the bodice of her dress.
“Can I at least see what you’ve been writing?” Albus presses again.
She smiles, and he is surprised; there is a shyness in her smile. “I am well, Albus. I feel well. Sometimes I wish you wouldn’t worry so much about me.”
Briefly, he recalls the incident that happened a few weeks ago with the jar of snapdragons in his bedroom. Gellert had seen everything and for a moment, Albus had been torn. With shame, with a rising tide of excuses for his poor, broken sister.
He smiles back at her. “I believe you’re going to get better, Ariana.” But his tone has smoothened, become patronising, and Ariana looks sharply at him, her mouth curling to one side.
“Mother always believed me. Her potions also worked better than yours. Maybe you should just follow in her stead.”
Her eyes dart at the wall behind him and Albus turns to see what she is gazing at. There is nothing behind. The house seems to close down on him, and he winces against an imaginary collapse. The attic is especially claustrophobic.
He makes up his mind. “I’m going out for a little while. Just to see Bathilda. I’ll be back in five minutes.”
His conscience begins steaming in his ears. Lying to his own sick sister! Can he sink even lower? But just five minutes – and besides, hadn’t he heard her? She didn’t want to be treated like a child or an invalid. He ought to give her a chance. Just five minutes. It will be a test for her. Parents test their children all the while, don’t they? Perhaps Ariana is far less frail than what everyone thinks.
“Five minutes,” he repeats as cheerfully as he can, and then he leaves without daring to cast a goodbye glance at her, practically bounding down the stairs and out the house.
The sunshine is warm and splendid on his face, and he forgets her almost at once. His knocking is joyful on Bathilda’s door, but it isn’t Bathilda’s face that he seeks; when she opens the door, he smiles through her, his eyes telescopically scouring the interior of her house for the one face that will not leave him alone.
* * *
At Bramley’s farm, Aberforth brushes the goats’ fur and sweeps out their shed. They nuzzle his palm, chew at his sleeves and untucked corners of his shirt. He ruffles their ears and scratches their chin. As he passes one of the nanny goats, she butts her knobbly forehead against his side. Something tumbles out of his pocket and clatters to the floor of the shed.
It is the pinecone doll that he had made for Ariana, and which she, for some unfathomable and incoherent reason, had given back to him.
The doll is warm in his hand, as though it were a living thing, waiting within the curvature of his palm. Feeling stupid, Aberforth brings it close to his ear, listening for a heartbeat. Of course there isn’t one. The face that he had drawn onto its bead head seems different. The dotted eyes, the slender hook of a mouth, the topsy-turvy eyebrows – all frugal features inked in thoughtlessly. But something else has been drawn into them, some sort of sentience. The flat spots of eyes now catch his own gaze, and the mouth seems to smile back politely.
Aberforth blinks and shakes the doll, feeling impatient with himself. Ariana’s imagination is rubbing off on him.
“It isn’t mine anymore,” she told him when he tried to slip it under her pillow one evening. “I told you: it will protect you.”
He decided to humour her. “And what is out there to harm me, that I should need protection from?”
“Things that will eat you up, of course.” She laughed and stopped short, stacked her hands on her lap. “Things that will take you to places you aren’t supposed to go.”
“Where am I supposed to go, then?”
A frown puckered her forehead. “You’re supposed to stay here. For a very long time.”
He kissed her temples suddenly, and she shut her eyes. “Then for a very long time, we’ll both stay here. Until you say we can go.”
Aberforth drops the doll back into his pocket and carries on with sweeping the shed.
* * *
There is a church in the village, a twenty-minute stroll from Bathilda’s house: a quaint stone building with a white steeple and arched windows, a hanging plaque bearing the inscription, Parish of Saint Swithun. This is where the townsfolk gather to celebrate the Sabbath. Gellert has never gone in.
There is another church in the village, a deserted chapel in the village cemetery where Albus’s mother had been buried, one infinitely more tolerable than that dainty white shell of Saint Swithun’s, with its muted hymns and pretentious hush.
Nobody ventures in here: the second church, this nameless wreck of a shrine with its whispering congregation of ghosts, among the grounds of the dead. The stone pews are crumbling into dust and the towering wooden crucifix has long been stolen, hacked apart for firewood long ago, leaving an eight foot space on the wall behind the altar. Rubble from collapsed sections of the architecture form small piles, resembling libations, across the nave of the church.
The saints are still here. Stationed within intervals along the walls are the saints: clasping swords, scrolls, crosses, rosaries, keys and stone bouquets, saints with chipped shoulders and faces weathered into indifference, headless saints, amputees of saints.
Gellert walks from saint to saint, reading the worn engravings at their feet. Sunlight becomes narrow-eyed through the fissured ceiling. There is no sacrosanctity here, not when it is priestless, crossless, silent.
If there is one thing his mother is particularly passionate about, it is the saints, the martyrs, those who were stoned to death, who were hung from trees, crucified in inverse, thrown to the wild beasts, quartered, burnt, starved. These were the only tales she shared with him as a child, the brilliant glittering saints, mangled and mauled, bleeding light from the stumps of their necks, from the gashes in the rags of their bodies. Their blood hallowed the ground, either turned it to chalk and ash, or dragged lilies out of the rocks, and their adorers secretly constructed shrines around the stained earth.
He remembers the prayers well. His mother had altars built into almost every room of their house, and each shrine was crowned with golden candles. Before the candles, she would recite the Angelus in the dark hours before dawn, and the rosary prayers in the evening, all in Latin. Her mouth laboured with the language as the prayer beads passed one by one through her thumb and forefinger.
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
The other day he had been telling Albus about his mother. “She named me after a saint condemned to death, whom the people threw into a cart, rolled him up the hill and pushed him off, hoping he would break every bone in his body. When he reached the bottom still breathing, they bludgeoned him until he stopped.” He laughed. “I think she expects me to die the same way; after all, she does permit me to do as I please.”
Szent Gellért: his saint and the patron saint of Hungary. Sometimes the stories tell how he was fitted into a barrel with long spikes on the inside, and down he went, skewered over and over again through the ribcage and eyes and throat, all the way down Gellért Hill. His body fed to the Danube, sucked into the silt and into the fish mouths.
Albus had thought it rather odd that his mother would name him after someone who had met such a gruesome fate. Albus has neither religion nor imagination, and yet Gellert is inexplicably drawn to him.
It has been two days since he last saw Albus; he has been testing himself to determine whether it is absolutely necessary for him to see his friend so often. As it turns out, necessary is hardly a relevant word. Still, the past two days have been a dreadful bore and he misses the conversations, their strolls across the fields and woods, the enthusiasm of his friend and his willingness to listen to anything at all for the sake of maintaining the reputation of possessing an open mind. He especially misses the occasional discomfort fleeting through Albus’s eyes whenever either of them says something that traverses too close to the other’s heart.
A sudden flare of light floods the church. Soaring down the aisle, approaching him, is a silvery shape with wings and feathers whose ends dissolve even as it moves. A phoenix, a creature that is a great source of fascination for Albus. Therefore, Albus’s Patronus.
The phoenix Patronus speaks in Albus’s voice: “The usual?”
Gellert smiles, fondly. “So we shall meet.”
The phoenix spirals upward and passes through the stone, into the sunlight.
Gellert draws his new wand, the one he had lied to Albus about. He hadn’t bought it from Ollivander at all; he had gone to visit the wandmaker in Diagon Alley, and they had had a long discussion on wandlore, wand legends and the Elder Wand, but while the old man had jabbered on endlessly, Gellert’s quick fingers had plucked a wand out of one of the many boxes stacked on the shelves.
Now he gives it a sharp twirl, spins on his heels, and Disapparates to the thicket of beech trees outside Godric’s Hollow, eagerly awaiting the arrival of his friend.
* * *
Curse your owl, the slow-witted bird! Has it gone to lay its eggs while delivering our letters?!
Albus, the wizarding world does not comprehend the extent of magic as well as it should. It sets barriers between the types of magic that it knows and the types of magic that it does not care to know. Our world is afraid. I have heard others speak, both Muggles and wizards, how afraid they are! The century is fading – a bad sign. A new beginning is a bad sign? As if time could ever be a sign! I can at least excuse the Muggles: they have no magic; they are pitiful in their cages of superstition and squalor and grimy industry and their fluctuating fashions and their trivial wars for territory and their obsession with their old emblematic queen in her throes of death.
But we, the ones with magic, we have no excuse. Why do we live in hiding? Why in fear? The International Statute of Secrecy is unjust. I hate it with every inch of my life. They persecuted us, the Muggles, and we let them. Now we build our own burrows and trap ourselves inside and congratulate ourselves and turn fat with complacency and hiding. We are safe! We have escaped persecution! We are fools.
But can we truly blame our kind? Is our magic enough? After all, the Muggles exist in legions; we are but a small pocket of this world. We need the power, Albus! The power and the confidence to show ourselves; we must fight for our acknowledgement, and bring down this regime of oppression. The Hallows will help us. The Hallows will let us be heard. With the Hallows, we can revolutionise magic.
There are words for us: saints. We are saints-in-waiting. No, do not laugh. I mean it. We are the patron saints of magic, as surely as Saul was struck blind with epiphany on the road to Damascus. How much of ourselves are we sacrificing for a society that shuns its own potential and refuses its right to live. We are more powerful than the Muggles, Albus. Why should we capitulate to them?
Beneath the letter, Albus had written his reply, the paragraphs slanting toward the margin of the parchment. They had been writing all night, sending Albus’s owl Pythagoras back and forth until the creature had given a final, indignant hoot and refused to make another trip between the boys. So Albus delivered his reply to Gellert’s latest letter by hand when they met.
Here I must reprove you, my friend. If there is one thing I know about magic and power, it is that it shouldn’t ever be treated as a plaything. Nor should it ever be our leverage over the non-magical society or an excuse for discrimination. Magic should not be corrupted; magic should never divide. Rightly, our ministries have constructed barriers to prevent us from accessing the most powerful of magics. Our intentions are not always pure; we have been known to corrupt magic, to lose our way and to succumb to the darkness of power.
But if we are going to seek power, this is what I feel is right: magic is not to divide but to equalise, to mend breaches, to align perspectives. We must not seek to impose ourselves upon Muggle folk, but with whatever power we have obtained, we right the lies of our society, and then we must uphold the peace between our kind and those different from us. Our purpose shall not be a selfish one: everything that has been given to us, channelled through our abilities, is for the greater good of the world.
“The greater good,” Gellert utters, and his eyes leap away from the letter, shining. “Albus, you are a genius. Of course. No saviour ever spoke a truer word.” He gives a mockery of a bow. “I am reproved. You are far wiser than me.”
“Common sense,” Albus replies, crisply. “You don’t want to sound too tyrannical or nobody will buy into your ideology.”
“Common sense. Of course. You are better than me at that. Here I am, going on about saints and revolutions and whatever else.”
Albus leans against the base of a beech tree and unfurls a length of parchment and begins poring over it, quill tucked behind his ear. The shadows of leaves sway over the paper, shapes ghosting over the text.
“A journal article I’m writing for Transfiguration Today.” Albus’s explanation is a vague apology. “On the theory of Conjuration and Vanishment, and if there is a greater unseen thaumaturgical relationship between these two processes, if one affects the balance of the other, and the degree of effect, and if there is a possible formula to calculate and create a model for the thaumaturgical mathematics –”
“Albus, you are babbling.”
Albus laughs. “I apologise.”
“Can you not put your work away for one afternoon?” Gellert demands sullenly. Two days without seeing Albus, and Albus has hardly cared. In fact, he is more preoccupied than ever.
“I have a deadline,” Albus sighs. “I will be finished soon.”
An hour ticks slowly past, and Albus continues working. Gellert Disapparates, but Apparates back within five minutes with stolen fruit in his pocket. Albus does not reproach him, does not even lift his head to notice.
Gellert draws his wand and murmurs a hex at Albus – not a particularly injurious one – and the latter is caught off-guard, so absorbed had he been in his work. The carefully written essay and the sheaf of notes are shredded by Gellert’s spell. Albus leaps to his feet, blazing.
“At last I have netted your attention.” Gellert is triumphant.
“That was my work.”
In response, Gellert fires a Stunning Spell. Albus reacts with astonishing speed; a Shield Charm blossoms before him, and Gellert’s hex shatters, scarlet light splintering off into all directions, forcing him to dodge the shards of his own spell.
“What are you doing? There are plenty of Muggles in Godric’s Hollow!”
“Do not put your wand away! I am not finished with you yet!” Gellert strides toward Albus, until their noses are nearly touching, seizes the front of his robes, and hisses through his teeth. “You are glorious when you are uninhibited.”
He steps away as quickly as he had drawn near. Albus remains remarkably composed, much to Gellert’s disappointment. His plan had been to unnerve and distract Albus, to rupture through that sheen of irritating calm and bring him to his knees.
At first, they duel with practice strokes, gentle hexes, generally harmless spells. But Gellert becomes less and less sure when the boundaries of practice and play are breached, when he really begins duelling Albus in earnest.
Spells crackle from their wands, flaring with the vehement intents of their casters; missed curses dig into the bark of surrounding tree trunks, cratering into the ground, stripping leaves off overhanging branches. He has underestimated Albus – Albus, whom he always assumes to be brilliant, but with a brilliance limited to theory and to aspects of his intellect. Albus, constantly buried up to his nose in dreary texts, is someone he assumes follows the book and lives with little imagination. He had expected Albus’s movements to be starched, his reactions to be sluggish and overly practiced. True, they had had several other duels before, but those had been a series of playful scherzos, ending in affectionate truces and teasing.
How very wrong he has been.
Albus is a natural duellist; magic streams from his body organically. His eyes are the edge of a sharpened sickle, and his mouth tightened to a slash. All his spells are non-verbal; every breath is channelled into the energy of his curses rather than squandered away into sound. A Stunning Spell bursts from Albus’s wand, so fast that Gellert has no time to cast his own Shield Charm, and had he been any less agile, the curse would have punched him straight in the solar plexus and knocked him out of consciousness. He rolls to one side, dried leaves snagging in his hair, earth clotting in the folds of his garments. Desperation is jagged, twisting in his gut, and there is white-hot blindness beneath his eyelids. Never has he lost a serious duel. This cannot be the first time.
Without thinking, the spell leaves his wand, a deadly variety of a curse, colourless, its passage a lethal ripple turning the surrounding air pliable. He has used this spell before – not too long ago, in fact – on his former classmate at Durmstrang. Averin is the name of the unfortunate boy. Gellert had been testing the curse, which he came across in a restricted tome from the staff-only section of the school library. The effects of the spell and its potency had surprised him. Averin had been thrown up into the air, hung upside-down. He had shrieked and wet himself and clutched at his temples, and bit his tongue and lips and clawed at his cheeks. Blood seeped from his nostrils, and trickled the wrong way, staining his eyeballs. The very same evening, Hedlund, headmaster of Durmstrang, had summoned Gellert to his office, and he had been permanently dismissed.
Albus’s jaw drops open in surprise, the hard line of his mouth broken. Good.
But it is not the end. With a slice of Albus’s wand, a glittering counter-curse gouges its way through the space between them, and Gellert’s spell is cut into two, its furious energy dissipated. Gellert is thrown off his feet and the ground leaps to meet him, his body twisted against itself in an ungraceful sprawl of limbs.
Before the hot flashes of light in his skull can clear, Albus is already kneeling beside him, wand tip against his throat, his expression a mixture of disbelief and cold fury.
Gellert raises a hand and tries to crack a grin. Defeat is sour, spreading down his throat like poison. Such humiliation. “You have bested me. You are indeed a champion duellist. I am honoured to have lost to you.”
When Albus speaks, his voice is utterly devoid of sentiment, flat as a plain and incongruous with the rage radiating from his eyes. “What was that spell you used? More importantly, what were you intending with that spell?”
“It was not a fatal spell. You would only have been lightly injured had you been hit.”
“Don’t take me for a fool. Are we friends or have I misjudged us both?”
He must show remorse. How stupid had he been to use that spell? It was a slip of his temper. He cannot have Albus Dumbledore against him, especially not after such a humbling loss. “Forgive me; you were right. I lost control. I swear to you, I had no such intention to injure of maim you in any way. It was a vicious reflex on my part and for that I am truly sorry.”
Albus regards him suspiciously. “It’s something I fear will get you in trouble. Your knowledge of these malevolent spells, and while your intent, as you say, is not true, you have such little control over your impulses. Sometimes, I wonder if it is best that someone like you left such knowledge alone.”
Nobody chastises him in such a way – never! But instead of unleashing a furious retort, he apologises again and mutters, “Help me up.”
Albus spends another few minutes compressing him with cold scrutiny; a strange weight builds against his forehead, a warm sly pressure against his skull. He pushes back at the weight, blinks and clears his thoughts.
“Perhaps we should exercise a greater level of caution in the future.” Albus pauses, wand lowered at last. “There was a moment or two during the duel when I might have hit at you a little harder than intended. I must apologise as well. We ought not to let these practices get out of hand.”
Another truce, then. Gellert decides to press his luck. “We have both admitted guilt, but I have more to confess. I suppose our duel did get out of hand for a brief moment. But I still found it to be a most invigorating exercise. I feel we should make this a regular practice of ours. To push each other further, to better our magic, but also to prevent each other from crossing those boundaries that you hold so dear.”
Albus smirks. “Do you so savour the taste of defeat?”
Gellert scoffs and tries to rise, but a blunt pain axes into his side and he sits back down, hissing.
“You’ll have cracked a rib or two. My counter-spell was a lot stronger than necessary. Forgive me, but you did take me by surprise.”
The tip of Albus’s wand lightly touches Gellert’s shirt, and the pain disappears. He extends a hand to Gellert and who latches his fingers around Albus’s elbow and hoists himself up. Gellert does not let go, and they remain arm-locked for a few moments.
“You’re on your own feet now.” Albus jerks his head toward Gellert’s shoes. “You may let go of my elbow, as I believe it has fulfilled its purpose in assisting you.”
In response, Gellert digs his fingers deeper into Albus’s arm, feeling the muscle clench around his hand. He brings himself as close as he can to Albus, still gripping his arm, without their faces touching.
“I am unsure about something. I feel – that there is something you want from me, but which neither of us have acknowledged.” He is whispering now, out of necessity, because they are so near each other. Albus’s eyes are wide, suspended between bewilderment and comprehension of his own feelings, and of the confirmation that Gellert is offering him.
“Well? Am I close to guessing, Albus?” Gellert asks, and from the look on Albus’s face, he knows that he is not close at all; he is completely right. “Is this something that you want?”
“There are standards that we live by,” Albus says carefully. “Think about what you’re doing, what you’re implying.”
“Standards! Boundaries! Prohibitions and inhibitions of all kind! Always so cautious, Albus! Learn to feel less guilt! But all this has nothing to do with the question I asked you. Am I right?”
He waits for the denial. There is none. So he leans forward – Albus seems rooted to the ground – and angles his head slightly so he can get around their noses, until their lips are grazing each other’s and their breaths are stirring together. Contact is clunky, broken, but they try again, this absurd but exhilarating violation of each other’s thresholds. Their necks lean into awkward positions, their bodies wary but listless, and all the while, Gellert is intensely aware of Albus’s physical presence. Albus is no longer simply an analogue to Gellert, a correspondent, a reciprocator of philosophies, stories, friendship and other immaterial concepts, but flesh and blood, exhaled heat and slamming pulse.
“If either of us are wrong,” he says against Albus’s lips, “Then we know what to do, do we not? How to stop each other?”
When they pull away, Albus looks troubled.
“Who is to see any of this?” Gellert laughs, a warmth rising from deep within his body, nearly lifting him off his feet. “You are my dearest friend, always. We are equals. There is much for us to learn from each other, as you always say so, but no matter, because we have patience, do we not? And we have time, all the time in the world. We will achieve great things together, you and I. We will revolutionise the way we use magic. We will change everything.”
There is one defeat between them, but he is certain that they are even.
* * *
The village of Godric’s Hollow is a stranger to the figure shambling down the main road. Night has fallen; the shops on the main street are shuttered and the silence is dense. This desolate village is small, but in the darkness, it gathers the deception of space, shadows stretching free of their buildings, curving around corners and blotting out boundaries. The village unfolds like the hidden compartments of a snake’s mouth, unhooking to swallow things far larger than itself.
The visitor is hardly more than a boy, having come of age several months ago, but fixed into his features is the bitterness of his forebears, and the lingering youth of his face has been warped into an expression of great petulance. One of his legs is a good two inches shorter than the other, a peculiarity passed down the generations. His arms are unnaturally long, almost reaching to his knee, dragging his shoulders downward in an apish hunch.
The visitor’s name is Marvolo Gaunt, of the ancient but dwindling House of Gaunt, directly descended from the legendary Peverells, and from one of the Founders of Hogwarts, Salazar Slytherin. The quaint shops, the waning lights of the cottages in the distance, and the rustic atmosphere of the village elicit his derision. His own dwelling is little more than a hovel in the grounds of a larger mansion belonging to a family of despised Muggles, but in all truth, Gaunt lives not in his dilapidated lodgings, but in the grand halls of his ancestors, now squandered away along with the rest of the family wealth. Marvolo Gaunt is a pauper.
He turns away from the main street. The houses, he decides, must be Muggle. No self-respecting wizard would live in such squalor. This mysterious Thimble person must be a Mudblood, undoubtedly.
There had been no designated meeting place, no address, merely an infuriating loop of writing: Godric’s Hollow. I will find you when you arrive.
Marvolo Gaunt sways on his feet, kicking the ground churlishly as he walks. A pulse is flapping in his temples, a result of the Firewhiskey, making him more ill-tempered than usual. Yet he is curious, a furnace of greed having been stoked up by the mysterious letter-writer. Thimble had made mention of more than one artefact. What are they? Treasures, heirlooms, relics of magic gathering value over the years, presumably from the honourable Peverells, and therefore rightfully the possessions of the Gaunts.
Ha! All the other wizarding families, proliferating like vermin, yet tainted with the filth of Muggle blood, all of them are nothing before the House of Gaunt.
Hallows, one of the letters had mentioned.
But the letters. The letters are strange. They had sounded official at first, but there hadn’t been any stamp of authority on them, no bearing of the Ministry, and as he became more suspicious, they adopted a more persuasive tone, a more personal touch.
Then finally, the last letter and the breaking open of all the lies. He, Marvolo Gaunt, consorting with a black market dealer to buy back what is rightfully his! He will show that scoundrel, Thimble! He will claim what belongs to the Gaunts, everything that the world, corrupt as it is, has robbed from the House of Gaunt.
He draws his wand, but his other hand is rolled into a fist inside the pocket of his grubby waistcoat. He can feel the warm metal band squeezed between his fingers, the large gemstone set on the ring depressing its angles into the bones of his hands. Its solidity is a comfort.
Marvolo Gaunt, drunk and eager, awaits the arrival of a liar, clinging onto words written by a ghost.
Fun fact: Gerard Sagredo was a Benedictine monk from Venice (23 April 980 – 24 September 1046) who played a role in converting Hungary to Christianity. In Hungary, he is known as Szent Gellért. He was martyred in 1046 (put in a cart and pushed off a hill, now known as Gellert Hill). In 1083, he was canonised as a saint and is one of the patron saints of Hungary.
Also, um, hi. *hides* I know this is a way way way overdue update, and I'm so sorry for not posting this chapter earlier. I have just finished editing it today...and so here it is.
I have a confession to make: The Deathly Children is actually complete; well, it needs a whole lot of editing, but I finished writing the rest of the story during NaNo last year...and after that, never bothered to post it up. I know, I know, I'm awful and lazy and terrible. I BLAME RL.
A huge thank you to Laura/Aphoride, for all her support, and for piling all the guilt on me and forcing me to update, and for sharing my love of all things Grindeldore! Laura, we should totally do the Grindeldore drinking game. FOR REAL. ❤ Everyone else, go read Laura's amazing Grindeldore stories, especially L'optimisme!
Thank you, everyone, for reading and reviewing! I'll not let such a long period of time go by before I put up the next chapter.
Chapter 7: In Resurrection
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LET PERPETUAL LIGHT
Chapter Seven: In Resurrection
September 12th, 1946
Your pardon: I cannot seem to leave you in peace.
What if I apologised for the tone of my past letters? This is new; I have never apologised to you over such a trivial offence – do you even take offence, Albus? I have wished you dead; I have tried to kill you and take from you everything you hold dear, infect you with my bitterness – not that I needed to, of course. I have ripped through the roots of the world and sown my poison, and that poison is named after you. I have never apologised for any of those deeds, and somehow I know you understand. You cast me into this cell, after all, instead of delivering me in the name of justice, to the world that I have ruined.
Furthermore, you allow me access to quill and parchment, so perhaps you do expect me to write to you.
We wrote to each other that whole summer, and we barely lived ten paces away from each other; I’d never written letters so fervently before, not even to my mother, whom I haven’t seen since that same year we parted ways in less than cordial terms. I visited her after I returned to the Continent, and after that never again.
That summer – I brought you to places in your own village which you’d never seen. I lavished you with stolen sweets and fruit. I turned the place inside out and brought out the glittering core in you and your stuffy little town. I always told you that you read too many books, and that all theory and no practice would make your mind go flabby. You laughed. You always thought I had a delightful sense of humour. That summer I held you or we held each other; we found places to hold each other in your house, in old Bathilda Bagshot’s house, in the woods, in the cemetery, at the feet of your dead mother, turning to earth. I remember the moment you stopped caring, when all the guilt leached out of you, and I looked at you and your eyes were clear and absolute. I remember you pushed me against a beech trunk and caught me by surprise. You were always one action strung into place by another; to me, you were always a brilliant sequence, a charming formula, but a formula, nevertheless. I thought I could predict you. But that day, you abandoned all the choreographed logic of your mind, as you snapped the buttons off my shirt and pinned me against the tree (you nearly suffocated me with the clumsy desperation of your fingers), as you took me. You always seemed so docile, sometimes so distant, lost in your own suffering that I was not able to comprehend.
You thought I was selfish. Were we both not? I bit you hard on your shoulder, just to see if I could. I could. We wrestled. We had a truce.
Why taunt you with all this? But it is this or the alternative.
Does it surprise you that I am going mad? In this cell where you keep your shame, I dream shapeless dreams; I hear voiceless things speak. Shadows on the wall, movements in glass. At night it is pitch dark and there are no boundaries in the darkness. The dimensions collapse into each other and I lie there, not able to hear the sound of my own godforsaken breathing. Sometimes, I think I see three women. One of them is my mother as I last saw her in the village, holding out a glass, asking me to drink, and I do, and the drink is that vile creamed tea you used to sip at Bathilda’s house. Sometimes I see an old hag. It could be that great-aunt of mine, except I heard that she’s still hale and hearty back in Godric’s Hollow. Sometimes, someone else. I’m becoming as mad as your sister.
Your sister. Your poor insane sister, whom you incarcerated. Ashamed of her as you are of me now, aren’t you? Isn’t she quite the mystery? Nobody knew about her, not even nosy old Bathilda. Magically-impaired, Squib, delicate constitution.
The fact remains that your sister is a marvel. Every cell in her thrums with power, with untapped potential – the very kind of magic that you and I have talked so much about. The new magic, the old magics, the unbridled power of her blood. We were going to bring our kind out of hiding, remember? You had such power within your grasp all this while and what do you do – you lock it up! Little Ariana sitting in the roof of your house!
Madness is confinement, and you know this. You know this! What else am I doing in this cell, you ungrateful, cowardly bastard!
So much for my apology. Forgiveness be damned.
Madness blights everyone you’ve ever associated with. Your father went mad at the hands of Dementors, your sister was mad, and her madness killed your mother. As for your goatherd brother, I have nothing to say about him.
Who killed Ariana Dumbledore? She did not always have death in her veins. Was it just an errant curse, or was it a curse in her blood, or did she die tormented in a prison made by others?
* * *
“There are things Kendra Dumbledore never taught you,” says the Tall Woman. “She knows pitifully little, for there is only so much that one can glean from dusty old books filled with ancient uncertainties.”
Ariana is sitting on one side of a trestle table, its surface spiralled with rough wood grain. On the opposite side are the three witches: the Crone, the Tall Woman, and Glass Girl. Four bowls of soup are cooling before each of them.
Everything is laid out like a scene plucked from the story she overheard a little while ago: Albus and Gellert Grindelwald were talking in Albus’s bedroom and she was lying on the attic floor above them, listening. The walls and floors carried all their conversations to her.
Ariana is having supper with the three witches, just like in the story, Gellert’s story. Albus has told her a different version before, supposedly also about these mysterious Hallows. Once upon a time, there were three brothers who built a bridge and cheated Death, and so Death rewarded them for cheating…
Gellert’s tale is better.
Grindelwald will take Albus away. She has heard their grand plans, the way Gellert speaks of the Continent with all his lurid exaggeration, the way he evokes alien cities, set upon hills like crowns. Rivers sharp as knives, cutting their way through buildings, and the spidery bridges that arch over them. Sprawling cathedrals, boats gliding over canals, domes and steeples and plazas, scrubbed fortress cities thousands of years old and completely magical, never before seen by Muggle eye. Magic, purity, power, saints. The Hallows, the Hallows, the Hallows.
She has seen the signs they have traced on the insides of their wrists: triangle, stone, line. Once, she saw Albus press his mouth to the symbol on Gellert Grindelwald’s wrist, and Gellert’s hand tearing into her brother’s scalp, clenching a fistful of his hair.
“Finish your soup or it will get cold,” says the Tall Woman sternly.
Ariana spoons soup into her mouth and tastes nothing. There is nothing on the spoon after all. There isn’t even a spoon that she is holding, or a trestle table to hold her soup. She is sitting in the middle of her bedroom, on the floor, her legs curled into a cramp under her.
“Remember, my child?” the Crone rattles, and she remembers the Muggle boys setting her on fire.
When the table reappears, complete with the soup, she sends her bowl spinning off the ledge. Liquid steams into the air and disappears. The earthen flavour of the soup fills her nostrils and scalds her mouth.
“Dear, dear,” sighs the Crone. “I wish you would listen to us sometimes.”
“How is your writing coming along?” the Tall Woman cuts in.
These days, she writes almost as much as Albus writes; he would be proud if he knew, if he saw her. She no longer carves indecipherable signs into the floors and walls with her nails; she can write beautifully. She can craft letters, long, long letters. Perhaps not as long as Albus’s letters to Gellert. Sometimes she intercepts his letters, whistling tunelessly at Pythagoras as it flies past her attic window, and when the owl wheels around and stops at her ledge, she snatches the paper from its indignant claws. Dear Gellert, Dear Gellert, Dear Gellert. Or sometimes they begin like this: Gellert, I’ve thought of something most marvellous, and you must hear this. I must tell you in person. When shall we meet next?
She has to swallow her jealousy down.
Glass Girl knocks her spoon on the table, drumming a rude little rhythm. In Ariana’s own hand is her spoon, no not a spoon, - silly, silly! – but a cluster of scrolls. How long had she sat on the floor of her bedroom writing? It hadn’t really been her writing all that time (or had it?) – perhaps it was the Tall Woman who bowed over her, who reached out one giant emaciated hand, and closed it over Ariana’s. Her touch was rough and damp like decaying tree bark. Her knuckles were pointed ulcers. The Tall Woman guided Ariana’s hand, forming the letters, pulling the strings in Ariana’s fingers. Her quill spelt out neat words. The ink did not smudge. The handwriting did not belong to Ariana.
“All letters need to be signed by a name,” said the Tall Woman, when they had reached the end of the first letter she had written.
Ariana thought of Albus’s bookshelves and all the books there. She looked down at her fingers and absently sucked on the old wounds and puncture marks, where she had pricked herself over and over with the needle she carried. Didn’t Kendra use to have a shiny thimble somewhere in her sewing box?
“Thimble it is,” said the Tall Woman, and she piloted Ariana’s hand along the course of an elegant, corkscrewing signature. Over time, Thimble’s signature deteriorated as the Tall Woman grew less and less interested in helping her.
But now the Tall Woman appears to have regained some measure of interest in Ariana’s writing. She surveys the rest of Ariana’s letters disapprovingly, as though checking a student’s homework. Ariana has never been to school.
“Your work is sloppy. Your writing has grown wild. You are impolite and indecent. Is this how you address a gentleman?”
“He’s a madman,” Ariana says, sulkily. Glass Girl clangs her bowl. “And the old woman is a bore. She used to talk to Mother about me as though I’m one of her precious, fragile books. Besides, she hasn’t got any further information to offer. I don’t want to write anymore.”
“You must work for the things you want,” the Tall Woman replies coldly.
“I know what it is I need. I know enough.”
“And what do you know?”
“The Hallows,” Ariana replies, smiling. “I’ve heard my brother and his friend. I’ve seen them draw symbols on parchment, sign their letters off with it.”
She traces the mark on the back of her own hand. Her fingertip leaves a glinting trail through the fine pale hairs. When she blinks, the mark disappears.
“Gellert Grindelwald says this sign does not mean Death. It means salvation.”
“Salvation for them. Death for you.”
The Tall Woman begins to grow, uncoiling her spine to reach her full height. Her gigantic spindle-shape hovers above Ariana, the folds of her robes engulfing the supper table along with the Crone and Glass Girl still sitting there idly, and her sleeves and skirt grow shapeless with width. She hovers crow-like above Ariana, her neck curved forward like a beak. For a moment Ariana panics, thinking that the Tall Woman is going to make her disappear, punish her for not writing properly.
Death for her. Salvation for the boys, and a reprehensible death for her. But nothing else happens.
“Who are all of you?” she asks at last. All the years she has been seeing them, ever since the burning, but she has never had the courage to ask. The question, along with any desire to know, dies as soon as it reaches her lips.
“If you come with us,” comes the reply, and the Tall Woman’s voice is tripled, different tones and pitches aligned into a skeletal chorus, “You will know the answer.”
Ariana takes a step back and her heel crushes something. A small glass vial is broken beneath her foot. She is standing on a tray, which Albus had brought to her room not too long ago. The shattered vial contains her undrunk medicine, which melts into a stain on the floorboards. How many days has she gone without her potion? She forgets to count, and so does Albus. Aberforth, forgetful and trusting of her as he is, wouldn’t know, either.
“We are very old, Ariana,” says the Tall Woman in that disconcerting tripled voice of hers. “Much older than you can imagine. And yet we came to you all those years ago in your agony when you called to us. We came to you but you would not come with us. Instead, you bound us to your blood and have never released us, choosing instead to live a life on the threshold of death. And now you seek your brother’s irrational dreams, believing that you can overpower your fate.”
“I must work for the things I want,” Ariana says, serenely, picking glass off her heel. “You told me just a few minutes ago. I remember. And I have told you, I know what to do now. I want the Deathly Hallows. If you are bound, then you are bound.”
When she looks up to gloat at the Tall Woman, there is nobody there in the room.
* * *
At night, the copse of beech trees, frequented by Albus and Gellert during the day, exudes a sense of composure. The sky tangles among the dark masses of leaves and the ground is patched with moonlight.
“I would apologise for the inconvenience of having us meet here,” Gellert says, and his voice is quiet, urged into peace by the benign equilibrium beneath the trees. “But I know us both, and we are both tired of writing letters, and slipping through walls and surreptitiously Apparating into each other’s rooms and circling ourselves with anti-detection Charms. Secrecy is such a tedious affair.”
Gellert’s hair and clothes are ruffled and he is standing with his hands in his pockets. This exhibition of pensiveness is new. Then he looks up and smiles, and Albus feels a tightness in his stomach: desire, affection, and an unruly joy because this is Gellert, who one day appeared out of nowhere and laid claim to Albus’s whole life.
“I have established a number of wards around the house as a cautionary measure. Neither Ariana nor Aberforth will be able to cross the threshold of the house, and only I am able to lift them. Nevertheless, I can’t stay out long.”
Albus turns away from Gellert, and walks through the trees, stepping over roots and avoiding low branches, guided by wandlight. He has no desire to stay still, not while he is out here, beyond the reach of his home, chained into place by his careful spells.
Gellert follows behind. “I am glad this summer is nearly ending. The heat of this country of yours is unspeakable.”
The petulance in his voice draws a smile from Albus. “I believe I do detect an extra freckle on your neck. My apologies on behalf of this country of mine, for the climatic atrocities it visits upon your Continental constitution.”
In response, Gellert picks a handful of twigs and leaves from the ground and hurls it at him. He dodges with ease.
“You keep your freckles and your country with all its slimy heat!” Gellert jeers.
They continue walking apart, occasionally kicking debris off the ground at each other. Gellert runs the back of his hand across his forehead, swabbing at the perspiration. “When I was in Durmstrang, I returned home to see my mother every summer, but never during the winter holidays. I let my mother celebrate the yuletide season by herself with her cathedrals and her carols and her sculpted saints. Once, I crossed into the Arctic Circle, employing Charms to keep myself warm, into Svalbard. I suppose I felt proud in my reclusiveness, a hermit who thought himself superior because he dismissed the world as a stupid, infantile place. There was no daylight in Svalbard. At first, I could not tolerate that; it was worse than the cold, and then I became used to the whirling snow and the dimness of the blank world.”
“Gellert Grindelwald, the hermit of the Arctic?” Albus says, incredulously. “I thought that you would have preferred the excitement of the great cities of the Continent.”
“Sometimes I did venture into some of them. There was a barge sailing down the Danube one winter and I boarded it when it passed through Esztergom. The river was stiff with sheets of broken ice and the hull of the boat grated its way along and I saw all the marvellous cities: Budapest and Vukovar and Belgrade and I went as far as Silistra before I became bored and found my way back to school.” Gellert stops suddenly and turns to Albus. “We will visit all the cities of the Continent together. We are going to, are we not? You have decided?”
Albus ignores the question. “Ariana has hardly ever left the house. Isn’t it strange, at least for you to think, that there is someone who is even less familiar with Godric’s Hollow than I am? Her home is a stranger to her.”
“Forget about your family for a few minutes and answer me.”
They have emerged from the cover of trees and are picking their way over a rotting fence, into an abandoned farm. A derelict barn with holes torn in the roof and a door warped off its hinges hulks before them. Rusted remains of ploughs and scythes and other farming implements litter the floor of the barn, catching splinters of moonlight. They pass through the farmyard and continue aimlessly across the fields.
“Beech trees are deciduous, and the green pigment, once drawn out of their leaves and treated with a complex application of spells and potions additives, is occasionally used as an ingredient in alchemical formulae.”
“Are we playing one of your stupid games again?”
“Are we, Gellert? I can tell you that Aberforth despises chess; his favourite game is draughts. We used to have a game every evening. The ratio of his victories to mine is 4:5, though most of his triumphs are due to my generosity. He will never admit this, naturally.”
Gellert yanks at the back of Albus’s collar and the latter gives a surprised yell. Albus is laughing, even as he stumbles backward against his friend.
“Keep mocking me and I will make you dance again,” Gellert says, lazily. “You remember?”
Tarantallegra, Gellert had hexed him teasingly all those weeks ago. Albus gives Gellert a hard shove and he stumbles, his usually nimble legs catching on overgrown tufts of dry grass, before falling. Albus drops down to the ground beside him. After a moment’s hesitation, he lowers his head gingerly against the earth. In the sky, pleats of cloud shift, tissue-thin and wanly lit.
“When Aberforth leaves for Hogwarts in September, we, too, shall make a departure of our own. We will leave Godric’s Hollow together,” Albus says, slowly at first, and then the words tumbling out, eager to be bound in promise. “Ariana will come with us. We will have to make arrangements for her.”
“Yes!” Gellert’s eyes are agleam. “Bring her along! I do not have a sister or any other sibling. But perhaps we are looking at your sister the wrong way. Is she not a person like one of us? She has retreated deep into herself; perhaps if we were to introduce her to a world beyond that suffocating atmosphere of your house, she can be cajoled out of her own self-made prison. I am certain that a little adventure will do her health good.”
“She’s far too frail for too much excitement.”
“She is stronger than you can imagine. You are treating her like a baby. I wonder how she feels about your condescending attitude toward her.” He frowns. “Her condition: you have told me so little about it. Until I saw with my own eyes, I have always been under the impression that she could not perform magic, that the childhood incident she experienced caused her magic to stall, and her to consciously shun it, until it withered away completely.”
“Now you know that I have been evasive. Ariana is magical; there is no mistake about this. But her magic is unbalanced, explosive, and will not be subdued. Detrimental both to her and to those near her. I never knew how exactly our mother died, but it can’t have been anything else but a result of a particularly violent episode. Somehow, Ariana destroyed a section of our sitting room, brought down a wall over our mother. I suppose that is how she died.”
Gellert rolls over closer to Albus and all of a sudden his face is an inch away, the angles of his cheekbones and jaw coming harshly into focus. The nearness of Gellert makes the rest of the world behind him recede into distortion, into an existential haze. Gellert kisses him and they fumble at each other, snapping at buttons, clenching at fabric, pulling at waistbands. Their mouths and hands are rough on each other; their teeth knock. When he shuts his eyes out of a dare, his thoughts grow blind, directionless, unravelling beneath Gellert’s touch and there is breath on his eyelids. His mouth is full of the salt of Gellert’s skin; Gellert’s skin is hot and alive in his mouth, and for a moment, the heat distracts Albus, sends a single word spinning across his thoughts, resurrected from recent conversation. What was it? Svalbard. In a distant land to the north, over cold seas – Svalbard. A continent flaking away, the sea knifing through the flanks of ice in fjords. He can almost hear the crunch and the grind of glaciers, the wind heaving drifts of snow in from the sea.
“Imagine all the powerat our disposal once we unite the Hallows,” Gellert murmurs.
“All the possibility,” Albus corrects.
“The power to liberate our kind and bring down the draconian Statute.”
“The possibility to unite all worlds for the sake of equality.”
“The power to find, no – to create a cure for your sister.”
“Not a cure,” says Albus. “The Resurrection Stone. Imagine if we could freely cross the threshold between life and death, if we could break down that final division. I could bring my parents back. For Ariana, I could do that.”
“See? You are unselfish after all!” Gellert laughs. “Have faith in yourself, for the world awaits our revolution.”
“But until that happens, Ariana will always be a risk unto herself, I’m afraid.”
“And I am prepared to accept any risk in exchange for your company and your affections,” Gellert breathes into the side of Albus’s throat, half an inch below his humming pulse. “So you have decided, at long last. I am glad, Albus, so very glad. Let us seal this pact.”
* * *
Pythagoras swoops down toward the window of the Dumbledores’ attic. Two dry biscuits are waiting on the ledge, along with a pickled toad filched from Albus’s potions supplies. The curtains are drawn, but they part at the sound of beak against glass.
Ariana unties the message from the owl’s foot and reads it vaguely.
Thimble, I am here.
“So the madman has arrived, at last.” She turns around and announces to her empty bedroom. “As I told all of you, I know what to do. You will see.”
She reaches under her bed and her hand closes on a book. The Living Bloodlines of Ancient Britain by Callisthenes Copperfield. A rare manuscript, supposedly, from Bathilda’s private collection. On one of the pages, the names Gaunt and Peverell have been ringed in ink so deeply that the quillpoint has perforated the thin paper in several places. She tears out that page and over the crowded text, writes a note in her illegible and ungraceful handwriting: Wait for me. I’ll find you. She binds it to the owl’s claw and sends it out through the night like a herald.
Then she goes downstairs. Albus has gone out. But Aberforth is in his room. She can hear the creaking of his snores, the brokenness of his sleep.
Aberforth is sprawled across his bed, shirtless, one arm hanging off the side. He looks softer and less sturdy in his sleep. His uncut hair covers half his face. Ariana resists the urge to kiss him on the temples, like how he kisses her sometimes. No, he will awaken and everything will be ruined. Her eyes sweep across the bedroom until she spies the handle of his wand sticking out of the pocket of his breeches, slung by the suspenders from a hook on the wall.
There had been a couple of times when she had deliberately broken Kendra’s wands, but never has she used one as an instrument, or an extension of herself. Just like how her brothers would use theirs. Aberforth’s wand is stubborn in her hand. It does not belong to her and it can sense that she has no business fiddling about with it.
A little sacrifice will help, perhaps.
Once again, she unpicks the needle from the hem of her dress and punctures her palm. Blood wells and flows along the channel of her lifeline. She touches the tip of Aberforth’s wand into the tiny gully of blood and the wood seems to lap up the liquid like a cat’s tongue, until nothing remains, save the soreness of the needle wound.
Aberforth’s wand feels supple now, with a will like the most pliable wood in the world.
Ariana makes her way to the front door. A network of delicate wards has been woven around the perimeter of the house; she recognises the signature of Albus’s magic. Thin strings of air tug and catch against her dress and hair like spiderwebs, and the threshold of the house seems to slip just out of reach every time she takes a step forward.
It amuses her for a little while, and when she tires of the game, the wards lift like folds of gossamer fabric, allowing her to pass before gently dropping back into place once she steps outside.
Beyond the garden, a world of hedgerows and narrow cottages dilates before her. Light rises from within her blood, swelling out to the point of the wand, though she utters no incantations.
When she hears an uneven shuffle of footsteps, she lifts the light and sees the approaching silhouette of a man dressed in long robes. His arms drag at his sides, heavy and much too long and his gait is uneven, hinged on knees that do not straighten. He curses as the light strikes his face. His chin juts beyond the frame of his upper jaw. He isn’t much older than Albus.
“You are Thimble.” There is an accusation in the man’s voice. “Get the light out of my eyes.”
It is one thing to meet a stranger in quill and ink, and Ariana almost enjoys receiving his half-lettered rage. But it is a completely different experience to receive the company of this same stranger in the flesh: in all his uneven, chaotic and all too tangible dimensions. She bites her lip and clenches her fist for some instinctual spell that might offer her a last, desperate measure of protection.
Marvolo Gaunt draws his own wand and splutters out an incantation for light. “You’re a girl. Where is he-- Thimble? He has something that rightfully belongs to me. A relic of the Peverells." His snarl tightens. "I am the House of Gaunt, the living embodiment of the ancient Slytherin and the Peverells, of the establishment of magic itself.”
He lurches toward her and she steps back out of impulse, rather than alarm. He can’t be more than seventeen or eighteen, but he smells decrepit. The heat of his breath is strong, medicinal.
“Where is the Stone you spoke so fervently of in your letters?”
Gaunt’s eyes narrow. “You were the letter-writer? What have you done? You dare – a girl like you? You are a Mudblood, are you not? What have you called me out here for?”
She wills herself to speak. “The artefact belonging to the Peverells: it’s a wand. The most powerful wand in the world, they say. Haven’t you heard of it?”
“I have heard of it: the Deathstick! It belongs to the Peverells? Then it’s mine! Where is it?”
“Show me this precious Stone that you claim to have.”
“I see you now, cheat and swindler. You are not worthy to touch such a sacred artefact!”
“I want to see it,” she says, trying to ignore the childish demand roiling just beneath the surface calm of her voice. “It is patently clear that you don’t know what exactly it is, and what it is capable of. You don’t know the legends, I suppose? Isn’t it odd, Mr Gaunt, that you brag so extensively on your famous forebears, the Peverells, yet truly know so little about them?”
Gaunt raises his left arm, turns the back of his hand to face her. His third finger is encircled by a band of thick dull gold, and mounted upon it is a black stone – not circular like Albus and Gellert’s sketches, but pyramidal, tapering like a symmetrical bud waiting to crack open. Even in the shadows she can see the sheen of its polished planes.
“The Deathstick,” Gaunt snarls. “What do you know about it, and where is it?”
She raises Aberforth’s wand, still lit.
Gaunt’s eyes widen. “Do you take me for a fool, girl?”
At this moment, she does not know how to feel fear, so she laughs. “You are right; I do know where it is, and I also know that it indeed should be yours, but still you shall not have it.”
Marvolo Gaunt bounds forward in a rage, ignoring the wand, and seizes her by the collar of her dress. His stinging-sweet breath gusts over her. A fleck of his spit strikes her eye. His nearness, his smell, his contempt, fills her with revulsion. A screech escapes from her throat, the only sound she can make, and magic swells out of her like an open wound. It conducts itself through the channel of her body, overriding both body and her intent, directing itself along the pathway of Aberforth’s wand, threaded with her own blood. The spell surges through her sealed mouth and her wordless thoughts. Her fingers go numb. The wand, veined with blood, burns in her hands. Gaunt is thrown to the ground, and he remains facedown, breathing dirt. His left arm is flung toward her, the ring gleaming on his finger.
As though in a dream, she drifts forward, and pulls it off from where it is beached against his thick knuckle.
“What you are about to do, and which you are about to achieve, is futile,” someone says.
The Crone, the Tall Woman and Glass Girl have returned and are standing two paces away, unmoving. Glass Girl is between the other two, one arm linked through the Crone’s arm, and the other clutching at the Tall Witch’s shadowy robes.
“How do I use this?” Ariana beseeches. “This is the same stone from the story. I know it.”
“The Grindelwald boy’s tale?” sneers the Tall Woman. “Have you grown to trust him after all? You become more arrogant and less wise with each passing day.”
“You turn it three times, my dear,” says the Crone. “I ought to know. I was in those very stories, though perhaps they aren’t the best representations of us.”
Ariana turns it. The light from Aberforth’s wand flickers. She sees the shadows first: branched shadows, growing across the ground, turned elastic by the light. When she turns, two figures stand before her. Ariana’s pulse leaps when she recognises Kendra Dumbledore in her black robes with that familiar knife-like crinkle between her heavy brows. The other person is someone almost completely unfamiliar: her father, Percival Dumbledore, whom she has not seen since the Ministry hauled him off to Azkaban, to fester and become insane under the influence of the Dementors.
They stare at her with pinched expressions, their eyes grasping for understanding. The way their hands flag at their sides as though they are counterweights, locking their bodies into position, makes Ariana uneasy. So placid they are, so silent, so upright, yet their eyes are wide open. They remind her of one of those peculiar post-mortem photographs Bathilda had shown Albus one day. Bathilda left the pictures behind and Ariana found them when she was idly going through Albus’s belongings.
All the subjects in the pictures had been dressed in satin dresses with puffed crinoline skirts and frilly bonnets and smart waistcoats and top hats, bedecked with finery. They were seated with their heads drooping and flowers brimming on their lap, made to look like they were asleep, but in truth, they were all dead. There was a picture of a girl no older than Ariana; her hair had been curled into ringlets and the dress she was wearing was monochrome and demure, and she had been arranged on a divan, but with her head tilted on an armrest at such an angle that her eyelids fell back. She gazed at the camera with a smile and a hint of a dream in her wide-open eyes. She too, was dead.
The fabled Resurrection Stone has brought back Kendra and Percival, yet it has not stopped them being dead in any way. So this is a Hallow, a cruel trick, a hollow promise. Ariana lashes away the hot sting of tears with the back of her hand.
Kendra’s mouth moves. “Ariana. My daughter.”
“Mother,” Ariana says, cracking the words from her throat, dry as paper. “You’re not really here, are you? If only Albus could see you, then he would know. Albus wants you back. So do I. He’s running off with Gellert Grindelwald. Aberforth is unhappy as well– I think I’ve made them all unhappy.”
“Ariana. My daughter.” Kendra’s voice whirrs like clockwork. She tries to move her mouth in a different direction. Her thin lips are a seam, splitting with strain. Recognition is bleeding out of her eyes, bit by bit.
“Don’t you remember me?” Ariana presses. She turns to Percival. “Father? It’s me.”
The shade of Percival Dumbledore turns to her, haggard, thin as a rail, clad in the rags of what must be an Azkaban inmate’s uniform.
“Ariana,” he rasps. “Ariana, my child. I went to Azkaban for you.”
Ariana, Ariana, Ariana, is all Kendra and Percival say, murmuring her name over and over again, their capacity for speech left behind in whatever realm of the dead the Stone had extracted them from. She goes to Kendra – Percival is all but a stranger to her – and reaches for her mother’s hand. As expected, her hand is cold and unreactive. She cannot bear the touch of her mother, so instead she crouches at Kendra’s waist and clutches her mother’s robes and shuts her eyes. The material is soft and rotten; she can feel the fabric coming apart between her fingers. The summer night has turned cold. Her parents’ voices are muted and indistinguishable from each other.
“Now you know,” someone utters, harshly. Ariana opens her eyes.
The Crone, the Tall Woman and Glass Girl are still standing there, watching the scene.
“Now you can see for yourself,” says the Tall Witch again.
“That they don’t belong here?”
“That you belong with them.” The Tall Witch gestures dismissively at Kendra and Percival. “Send them back.”
“Turn the Stone, child,” the Crone adds.
Ariana steps back from her parents to look at them properly. She tries to commit them to memory, every detail of their faces, their lacklustre complexions, their wooden forms and blinking eyes and mouths twitching with words they have forgotten to say. Kendra’s head dips in a very slight nod, as though acknowledging what Ariana is about to do. Send us back, Kendra seems to be pleading through her eyes. Send us back. You and your brothers are nobody to us any longer.
In her mind, Ariana frames them like a portrait. Then she turns the Stone in her hand, three times the other way, just in case. Her parents vanish.
“It is best to put things back to where they belong, little Ariana,” says the Crone.
“Put the ring back on the man’s finger. Tomorrow he will forget,” adds the Tall Woman.
“We can help him forget. He will wake up in the morning in this ditch, suspecting nothing more than a drunken experience.”
“I want to keep it.”
“It isn’t for you,” says the Tall Witch.
“I’ll not keep it, then. I’ll give it to Albus.”
“Your brother can find it on his own one day. Your paths do not intersect any longer.”
Someone picks her off the ground and closes an arm around her elbow, leading her along. Ariana turns to see who is steering her and stares right into Glass Girl’s blind sockets.
“My sister,” says Glass Girl, and her voice is calm like a mirror of water. Ariana has never heard her speak before. The effect is disconcerting. “My sister, I know your wounds. I know the crush and the burn of magic in your blood. All the stories that you have heard turn away from you; they are answers for other seekers. Who and what was I in them? A water-witch? A girl with no age? A peddler of invisibility? I am and am not, at the same time, and you have found me. In your speechlessness and your invisibility, you are far wiser than your brother and his friend. You suffer, but that is the price of life, and in all truth, your pain is inessential and aimless.”
“There is no victory in cheating Death, for all life is the property of Death,” says the Crone, gently.
Numbly, Ariana follows as Glass Girl leads her to Marvolo Gaunt’s prone body. She takes the ring with the Hallow on it and with more force than necessary, crams it over Marvolo’s thumb. He will have a hard time removing it tomorrow.
Glass Girl does not let her go. “Now, my sister, follow us.”
A/N: So I've officially changed the title of the story, from The Deathly Children to the current one. This current title is a partial quote of the prayer for the dead. I felt that the old title didn't fit the story any longer.
This chapter is dedicated to the wonderful Dan/CambAngst, for all his wonderful support throughout this fic, and for reviewing so consistently. Thank you, Dan; this really means a lot to me. :)
Thank you, everyone, for reading.
Chapter 8: Witch in the Water
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LET PERPETUAL LIGHT
Chapter Eight: Witch in the Water
24th August, 1899
I have misjudged you. You are far from the courteous young academic who wrote such thoughtful letters to me all those weeks ago. I should have realised something was amiss when you refused to include any address in your letters. You speak less and less of magical history, despite confessing to being an avid scholar of the subject, and your ‘research’ leans more toward the absurd.
Frankly, I found your last letter very disturbing, and your tone to be most upsetting. Your last letter: you wrote it on pages torn from one of my books, the exceedingly rare Callisthenes Copperfield text! Is this how genuine friendship is repaid? I am outraged by your behaviour and the best thing you can do to redeem yourself is to offer compensation for this unspeakable act of vandalism. I was sincere, and I believed the best of your character, when I first wrote to you, but it appears that my good sentiments are unreciprocated and I am most regrettably mistaken.
I have told you, and this is the last time I shall tell you: do not invest yourself too deeply into these legends, because they are what they are: legends. I don’t understand your obsession with the Deathly Hallows and I want no further part in your rambling discussions of them. Sometimes, you sound like quite a child. Besides, all my information sources about the subject, along with several precious tomes of wizarding genealogies are all in your possession.
I do not wish to continue our correspondence. Please return to me, intact, all borrowed texts as soon as possible.
* * *
Albus arrives home to a racket at the front door. Aberforth’s yelling and banging is muffled behind the lattice of wards securing the threshold of the house, and his brother is trying to force open the door that will not yield. Gellert appears at Albus’s side, dusting flakes of crushed dead leaves off his clothes.
“What is the matter with that brother of yours?” Gellert’s voice contains a note of disdain. “He will wake Great-aunt Bathilda along with the whole town.”
“Aberforth,” Albus hisses. “Be quiet. I’m coming in.”
The air wrinkles and shimmers faintly as the wards roll back from the tip of his wand. Aberforth bursts out the door, clutching at his unkempt hair, an expression of genuine terror on his face. For once he fails to react to Gellert’s presence beside Albus.
“She’s gone! I can’t find her. She’s gone, she’s gone out. I tried to go outside to look for her but I couldn’t. What the hell is going on, why am I locked in?” Aberforth grabs Albus by his shoulders, sputtering broken sentences.
Half-aghast, half-disbelieving, Albus points his wand toward the interior of the darkened house. “Homenum revelio.”
The spell loops through the house before returning to him in a swirl of clean silver. Nobody inside. No Ariana.
“She can’t have left the house.” Albus shakes his head. Aberforth’s fear is contagious. “It isn’t possible. There are wards around the house and they are still intact. I established them myself. I don’t understand how she could have circumvented them; they were meant to prevent anyone from going in and out of the house. And it isn’t like her to leave—”
“To hell with your wards!” Aberforth snarls. “She’s gone.”
“She cannot have gone far,” Gellert cuts in. “She does not know how to Apparate and you were not gone long, Albus. We have a good chance of finding her if we start looking for her now.”
Aberforth rounds on him furiously. “Don’t you tell us what to do! This is our sister. You know nothing about her.”
“We can continue this argument later. Let’s split up, the three of us,” says Albus. “Ariana has hardly ever left the house, so she doesn’t know Godric’s Hollow as well as us. She won’t have any intended destination. We’ll search the whole village for her if we have to. Don’t go around yelling or you’ll rouse the whole town, Aberforth. Nobody can find her but us, do you understand?”
Aberforth curses and bounds out the front gate, toward the direction of the main street.
Gellert turns swiftly to Albus. “We will find her. Do not worry.”
He takes the path toward the outskirts of the village. Little Ariana, missing from her bed, but how? There had been no error in the precise magic of Albus’s wards; he had sensed the strength from the residues of the spells woven around the Dumbledores’ house. Little Ariana, slipping past without disrupting a single skein of Albus’s magic, nothing more than a breath of air. Certainly, she has her secrets, and the rest of the world is ignorant to them.
Something on the ground catches Gellert’s attention, and the beam of light from his wand illuminates a long bolt-like shape. A man in robes is lying in the dirt, asleep. He does not wake when the light strikes his face, but his eyelids twitch and he grunts and spits a sleepy curse before going still again. His breath is spiky with liquor.
Nothing but a common drunkard, spending the night in the ditch. Gellert scoffs before continuing on, past the last cottage of the village, out into the fields.
Every few paces, he stops and casts revealing spell after revealing spell, flares of silver boomeranging over the emptiness of the pitch dark countryside. His spells return to him clean, unmarked by human presence. It is as though he is strung in the middle of an abyss, and all directions he turns to are directionless. Ariana is nowhere to be seen and found.
A barn own hoots and then he hears a whisper of water, and his sense of direction is restored. He makes his way toward the sound until a squat stone bridge comes into sight. This is a familiar place: Albus and he lying next to each other on the grassy bank of a stream, bicycles creaking over the bridge in the afternoons, and Albus’s hazy voice explaining to him the various species of non-magical wildflowers proliferating in the meadows and the importance of their pollination by bumblebees.
There is a faint bubbling coming from the water and he hurries toward the stream. Something on the opposite bank makes him stop and squint.
“Ariana?” Gellert calls.
When he lifts his wand, the light is weak and truncated by the dense night. Still, he can discern three spectral figures standing at the water’s edge, so still that they could be trees or rocks or misshapen statues. One of the figures is impossibly tall. They do not react to his presence and the wandlight will not reach them.
“Who is there?” he utters, as calmly as he can manage. If they try anything, if they unleash any act of magic against him, he will retaliate. Or maybe he should strike first.
But there is no movement from the three. Instead, the sound of bubbling from the stream grows louder and he turns his attention back to it. The water, when he steps into it, is icy, sucking at his waist and legs. In the middle of the stream is a patch of bubbles and Gellert clamps his nose shut with one hand and ducks beneath the water, his other arm sweeping through the current. For such a warm summer’s night, the cold is almost intolerable, and his muscles begin to bunch and curl into themselves.
Fingers that do not belong to him brush against his wrist and he catches hold of that strange hand and tugs with all of his strength. The hand is small and docile and definitely Ariana’s.
Albus’s sister is heavy, though she has never looked it, always shapeless beneath her pale blue dress. Gellert can hardly move her, as though she has sunk to the bottom and fused into the bedrock. An image passes through his thoughts: he sees Albus’s little sister turning to stone, the currents biting at her, the stream silting her away to far seas. It is an unsettling image. With one final effort, he heaves her to the surface and out of the water. His teeth are clicking against each other from the cold. Not a sound from her.
Her dress bulges in many areas, and the swellings in the fabric are hard. Stones. Ariana has sewn pockets into her dress, filled them with stones and sealed them with tiers of tiny stitches that could never have been accomplished by her own hands. Gellert lays her down on the grass. Her wet hair, plastered to her scalp and neck, is the same colour as her skin, making her look bald.
He casts a spell and she stirs and coughs up water. When Ariana opens her eyes, there is no recognition in them, only the feral edge of her irises bleached in the light of his wand—the light. The light startles her and she goes rigid.
He knows of her episodes; Albus has described some of them in detail to him.
Gellert pins her shoulders down to the ground and yells her name. “Ariana! Ariana Dumbledore. Your brothers are looking for you!”
She looks at him through the whites of her eyes. Her hands swipe at his face and yank at his hair. Magic smoulders in her bloodstream and instinctively, Gellert casts a Shield Charm over himself. Heat blisters his palms and he snarls out a curse. Ariana’s magic is undiluted and uncontrollable; too much of it exists within such a small vessel, and it moves her against her will, straining at the seams of her existence. Her convulsions cause the sharp rocks sewn into her dress to cut into flesh.
Ariana Dumbledore is powerful beyond imagining. Even now, in the midst of her fit, Gellert finds himself analysing the situation, grappling with the enigma of Albus’s sister. Can such power exist within people? Is Ariana special, or do reservoirs of untapped potential reside within every person? Every person born to magic, that is. What if she learnt to control such power, what if she were drawn out from her shrouded life and taught the ways of the world? How valuable she would be in his and Albus’s studies of magic, in their upcoming pursuit of the Deathly Hallows! Indeed, she is a rare specimen of magic, unseen before in the wizarding world.
The episode passes and Ariana goes limp. She blinks as he extinguishes his wandlight.
“Ariana Dumbledore,” Gellert says, lifting her head and resting it on his forearm. Her hair is a length of slimy, braided rope. River water dribbles from her lips. “Truly, you are a miracle.”
He severs the stitching of the many pockets on her dress and throws away the stones. The cotton is stained with blood.
“I will bring you home to Albus.” At the mention of her brother, her gaze flicks over his shoulder, toward the opposite bank.
But there is nobody standing across the river when he turns to look. The memory of seeing those three silhouettes not so long ago now seems ridiculous. A trick of the imagination, a dream surfacing too closely to reality.
“Expecto patronum,” Gellert says, and silver flows from his wand, coalescing into a shape that surprises him. He has cast the Patronus charm many times, mostly out of experiment rather than pressing need, and never has it adopted this form: a winged creature with plumes like spikes of silver fire. A mirror of Albus’s own Patronus.
The phoenix soars away toward Godric’s Hollow, seeking Albus.
* * *
In the morning, Marvolo Gaunt awakes in a ditch in an unfamiliar village, his clothes crusted with dirt, and with passers-by calling their disapproval at him and his drunkenness.
He curses back at them, the dirty Muggles, as he stumbles to his feet. He has no recollection of what he had done last night, or where he had been going. His wand is lying a few feet away, and somehow his precious ring, the most valuable possession on his person, is jammed over his thumb. With relief, he kisses the Peverell stone mounted upon the ring then frowns as he remembers a disconcerting splinter of a dream.
There had been a young girl in his dream, frail-looking, with eyes as blank as glass. She advanced on him while he remained rooted to the ground. What was she? A wraith, a pale shadow, neither alive nor dead. Something reared behind her, like the silhouettes of huge asymmetrical wings extending from her shoulders. But when he looked harder, he saw that the shapes behind her were the distorted outlines of three women: a hunch-backed crone, a very tall stern-postured witch, and another girl, impossibly transparent, more of an intangible shape rather than a corporeal being. In that moment, Marvolo Gaunt understood that these three were attached to the girl, and that where she went, they followed, and if she drew even closer to him, she would bring those three cursed figures to him as well. He remembered gibbering in fear and rage, shielding his face, trying to ward them off with every spell he knew.
But the dream is gone now. There is nothing left but this stupid dirty village, which Marvolo despises already. He Disapparates with a crack.
* * *
“Ariana, will you eat?” Albus presses the tip of spoon gently against his sister’s lips, which part without protest to receive the thick creamed porridge he had prepared together with Aberforth earlier on in the morning. She swallows and opens her mouth for more without saying a word or looking at him.
Ever since Gellert pulled her out of the depths of the stream a week ago, soaked and bone-cold in her shredded dress, she has been like this: not completely incapacitated, but speechless. She woke early this morning. She combed her hair and plaited it all by herself, washed in the basin, and folded her bedclothes. When Albus came into her room, she was sitting on her bed, and she looked at him directly in the eye without acknowledgement. She wouldn’t eat by herself, but did not object to him feeding her.
Between them, her silence is an impermeable barrier. This is all his doing. He had left his brother and sister alone. He had been complacent, arrogant, thinking that a few of his spells were sufficient to keep them safe. But most jarring of all to him is his understanding of the extent of his selfishness. How unlike Kendra he had been, who forsook the rest of the world and devoted her life to Ariana without protest. His thoughts sting with shame. All his talk about liberation with Gellert! Liberation comes with the price of sacrifice. And Ariana’s safety has already been paid for by one life: Kendra’s.
Albus sets the tray of breakfast down on the ground, takes her hand and lightly pulls her to her feet before holding her in a tight embrace. She allows him to do so.
“I shouldn’t have left,” Albus speaks into her hair, his fingers raking through the loose strands, arranging and gathering them where they split or coil over the collar of her dress. “Where were you going that night, Ariana?”
She doesn’t answer.
“You don’t have to speak. What matters is that you are safe, and that you always be safe.” He pauses. “Will you forgive me, Ariana?”
Albus releases Ariana from their awkward embrace but keeps his hold on her wrists. He sways her slowly, side to side, shifting their joint weights from one foot to the other. He begins humming, tuneless at first, but then an old song swells out from the depths of his throat and moulds his humming accordingly to its melody. Her fingers shed their limpness to curl around his own wrists.
“Do you remember this song, Ariana? Father used to sing this tune when he was pottering about in the garden on Sundays, catching flesh-eating slugs in a jar to show you. I don’t believe any of us have heard this tune for many years now.”
He twirls her gently and she acquiesces. He continues talking.
“I think Father was the only person who ever sang. Mother never cared much for music, and neither did Aberforth. As for me, I’m afraid I’m only good for humming. Music will always be one of the most beautiful mysteries of life for me.”
The door opens and Aberforth enters. His brow knits at the sight of Albus and Ariana in the middle of their formless dance but decides not to offer any comment.
“I want to talk to you,” Aberforth says. His expression is neutral but the bluntness of his voice is forceful.
Ariana drifts out of Albus’s arms and settles back on her bed.
“What is it?” Albus asks.
Albus lifts the breakfast tray off the ground with his wand and sends it sailing placidly out the door and downstairs, towards the kitchen.
Aberforth kisses Ariana on the temples. “I won’t go anywhere. I’ll stay in with you the whole day.”
Her brothers shut the door gently behind them. Ariana gets off the bed and reaches for her small oak chest that Percival Dumbledore had given her. All her little collectibles are now gone: the bone dice, the marbles, strange rocks and dried stalks of flowers, straw-stuffed dolls and other little treasures Aberforth gifts her from time to time. The Crone had stolen all her marbles and they are now shining from her eye sockets. All the bone dice had been ground to powder beneath the Tall Woman’s heavy elder staff. Glass Girl had drowned all the rest of her treasures.
Instead, the chest is filled with shredded books, paper and ink. She wonders if she should write another letter. Not to Marvolo Gaunt; he is of no use to her. The Stone of the Peverells has come into her grasp and then passed on.
A sudden swirl of air startles her. Gellert Grindelwald has Apparated into the centre of her bedroom and is now looking down at her. His Apparition is slick, unaccompanied by the usual cracking and popping sounds made by less competent wizards. Since that fateful night, he has visited her several times and his arrivals are always rude but with uncanny timing; he never appears when either of her brothers are in the room. She is not afraid of him. Does she owe her life to him of all people? No. Gellert Grindelwald is nothing to her.
“Those are good books which you have ripped,” he says, disapprovingly. “Do they belong to Albus?”
They are Bathilda’s, actually. Perhaps she ought to return them via Pythagoras. Paper crunches in her fist and the sound disorients her for a moment.
She shreds another page from Bathilda’s open book (Extant Bloodlines of Antiquity by Hesper Loudbrooke) and digs her quill into paper and draws the symbol of the Hallows. When he reaches out to take it, she notices the same symbol on his inner wrist, a visible vein cutting straight through the triangle. That was where Albus had kissed him once. She had seen them.
“This I understand,” says Gellert, pleased.
For a moment, she wonders if she should tell him about the Stone that calls forth the dead. She held it in her hands on the same night he pulled her out of the water, turned it three times and out of the shadows came Kendra and Percival, true to the stories. Should she tell him about how the Hallow had conferred on her such unimaginable power, and yet had simultaneously rendered that same power insignificant?
Gellert drops to his knee so that his face is level with hers. He presses the scribbled symbol back into her hands and closes her fingers around it. “Would you not like to see the world, little Ariana? Would you not want to travel with Albus and I, to be part of our vision to correct the wrongs of the world, to liberate the lives of the magical populace? Do we not want to transcend the baseness of our daily lives, to be greater than what we are? You are as magical as we are, Ariana, and your magic is beyond miraculous. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Now she knows. He wants Albus, and he wants to adhere to all their grand plans, their seizure of power and their mad ideals. A smile touches the straight line of her mouth but fails to reach her eyes.
Gellert and Albus, such undeserving questers! Seeking magical artefacts whose power they do not understand! They ought to be the ones living in her attic, locked into place by magical wards.
He misunderstands her smile. “So you will come with us?”
For the first time in days, her voice surfaces. “Albus will never go anywhere with you. I shall drive a wedge between you and Albus. You are not good for him.”
He recoils, his face clouding over and blushing wine as though he had been slapped. She turns away and does not see him leave. There is nothing more to say.
* * *
“You can’t do it,” Aberforth declares.
“You do have to be more specific about what I can’t do,” Albus answers, testily, anticipating disagreement.
They are both in the kitchen, the furthest room from Ariana’s attic bedroom. The kitchen is spotless: a result of Albus’s impeccable cleaning Charms.
“Your grand plans with Grindelwald. You can’t bring Ariana into all that. I don’t care what he’s said to persuade you; Ariana can’t be moved. She’s unwell. You know this.”
“Gellert saved her life,” Albus answers.
“Grindelwald endangered her life in the first place. As did you.”
“I’ll accept responsibility for that,” Albus says heavily. “I wasn’t thinking when I left the house. I ought to have never left Ariana and you alone. I thought my wards would keep you safe. But this is all my misjudgement; Gellert has nothing to do with that.”
“Make all the excuses you want for your friend, Albus. Someday you’ll see that I’m right.”
Albus sighs and tries to leave but Aberforth blocks his way.
“Aberforth, I am kindly asking you to allow me to pass. Ariana needs us now—if you will not go to her, then I will.”
In response, Aberforth draws his wand and steps toward Albus.
“Go on,” he snarls. “You do this with Grindelwald all the time, don’t you?”
“What, duel with you?” Albus exclaims. A smile has crept into his features, giving him an air of superciliousness.
“I’ve seen you and him together, the way you talk, the way you stand with him, the way you look at each other.” A look of distaste crosses Aberforth’s expression. “I can’t say I comprehend what goes on between you two, but I don’t care. He’s warped you and you’d turn against us for him.”
“I’m not turning against anyone. Stop this silliness at once.”
“Draw your wand!” Aberforth hisses. “I’ll make you see sense.”
“If I have to show you, Aberforth, then so be it.” Albus draws his wand with uncanny speed, and in one fluid movement, sets loose a Disarming spell. “Expelliarmus!”
Aberforth’s wand leaps from his grip and rockets straight toward Albus, who catches it.
“You needn’t worry. It isn’t a huge disgrace to be Disarmed by me; I do have a bit of a reputation for duelling.”
But his remark, despite meaning to be good-humoured and conciliatory, only infuriates Aberforth. When Albus returns his wand, he seizes it back ungraciously.
“You think Ariana will thrive in the company of you and him? You think the world is for her, that you can cure her while carrying out your grand treasure-hunting plans? You’ve gone stupid, Albus. You’re possessed by your pride and for all your cleverness and ambition, you’re blinder than dirt.” Then, before storming out the front door, Aberforth spits, “I’m not going back to school. I’m staying here with Ariana. I won’t let you or him harm her any further. You’re free, you and Grindelwald. If you want to go so badly, then go.”
* * *
Once upon a time, Albus told Ariana a story. Albus always comes home from Hogwarts during the summer holidays, brimming with stories. Aberforth has stories too, but he keeps them corralled in and refuses to believe in them.
Once upon a time, Albus said, there was a little girl.
“There is always a little girl,” Ariana remarked.
That was before the burning with those three Muggle boys. Stories existed only before the burning. During the burning, the flames scorched away the walls that kept her safe, and the stories broke through those membranes that split truth from tale, spilled their violent innards over her and sucked her into the depth of their bellies. Witches, magical relics, Death, legends: sometimes separate, sometimes coagulating into a blot of narrative. What is untrue about all this? She has seen them all.
“This girl is special. That’s why she keeps reappearing,” Albus insisted. “Her name is Ariana, just like yours. And by the way, it’s completely true, all my stories.”
If only they weren’t. If only he believed in them himself.
“Tell me an untrue story.”
“Listen to this one,” Albus said patiently. “I think you might like it. There was a girl and her name was Ariana. She was walking through a maze seeking treasure, but unbeknownst to her, there lurked a strange and terrifying beast.”
“What was its name?” she said.
He thought for a while and then smiled, a glitter of mischief in his eyes. “Its name was Aberforth.”
Aberforth, who had been in the room during that time, wasn’t in the least bit pleased. He hurled a pillow at Albus and a minute later, both brothers were on their feet, yelling at each other, Aberforth’s heels rising off the floor in an attempt to bring himself level to his much taller brother. Kendra came in and sent Ariana to bed and coldly appeased the boys’ argument. Albus was contrite almost at once, though Aberforth chose to sulk for a little longer.
That was a long time ago. That was once upon a time.
Ariana is somewhere else now. In water. It is cold. In Grindelwald’s story, there was a girl wading through a lake. She can’t feel her toes or her knees or legs, but she keeps ploughing through the dense swirls of water.
“What is it that you seek?” On an island of black rock stands the Crone. “Come to us and we can help. Maybe we can help.”
The steeple-thin figure of the Tall Woman materialises beside the Crone. “You know where you belong, and to whom.”
Both the Witches are standing in the shade of a tree with sprawling branches and leaves as dark as midnight. Ariana stops, unable to speak or cry out. The story goes like this: she has to collect water from the lake. Then she has to cross the lake to the island where the Crone and the Tall Woman are waiting for her. She has to climb to the crown of the ancient elder tree. Then, she will be saved.
“If only it were that easy, my sister.” Glass Girl is beside her in the lake. Her voice has a dangerous edge to it, as though any moment her flat crystal tone could soar upwards into the shrill shriek of a banshee’s.
On Ariana’s other side is a boy—not her brothers, but Gellert. Even in the middle of this lightless scene, in a lake that yields no reflection, beneath the shadow of a tree that blocks out the sun, Gellert Grindelwald is bright. He seems to float through the currents, dusted with light.
“We are saints,” he says. This time, he isn’t talking to Albus. His hand is stretched out to her, his palm and long fingers, open and kindly. “Both of us. And you, Ariana, are truly a miracle.”
“You are a fool,” the Tall Woman calls from the island.
Glass Girl lets out a wail and the sound cuts through Ariana’s eardrums. The lake pulses around her. Glass Girl shrieks again and cracks begin to split open her face like a windowpane on the verge of shattering. On Ariana’s other side, Gellert’s face blenches in horror. Light and colour seep out of him and he sinks into the lake, which swallows him without the fuss of a single ripple.
The fissures in Glass Girl’s face mend themselves and she speaks calmly again. “Come with us.” She gestures at the island where the Crone and the Tall Woman are still waiting. “For you are our sister after all.”
Ariana understands. The bedrock falls away beneath her and she drops into the deep. Like fire, the water burns. It burns her eyes, her throat and her lungs.
No, no, no, this will not do at all. She doesn’t like this. But the surface is a mile away and she is heavy. Her small arms cannot windmill her weight upwards.
Briefly, she recalls pulling thread from her collar and sewing pockets into her dress with that hidden needle of hers. She remembers paddling through the shallows, picking those smooth-skinned river pebbles and filling her pockets with them. She sewed the pockets shut. Glass Girl taught her how to sew, guiding her cold fingers to create the daintiest of stitches. She walked into the river with stones under her arms, and clustered at her hips.
Ariana lets herself drift downwards to the bedrock and is anchored there by her own weight, breathless, compressed. Kendra Dumbledore’s face blossoms out of the liquid darkness, wraith-like, dragged out of the abyss of her deathly slumber by the power of the Resurrection Stone. Her lips have lost their tightness, and her eyes their direction. You wanted me, her slack mouth seems to say, well, here I am.
It is then that Ariana remembers someone’s hand catching hold of hers, drawing her out of the currents, into a world she can hardly recognise anymore.
There are savage tears on her face as she paces the floor of her attic bedroom. Not in the lake, not in the stream, not in water. Those Witches Three had tricked her; she had the Hallow! And somehow they convinced her to give it up, to relegate herself back into this detestable condition, to resign herself to her fate.
“You saw your mother,” Glass Girl says, her perfectly featureless face protruding from the wall, smiling.
Kendra had always been so perfectly in control, so impeccably resigned to her own fate of looking after Ariana, of tutoring her daughter in the lessons she could not attend formally. And yet on the day of her death, she was nothing. She was no match for the raw upheaval of her daughter’s condition. Ariana remembers her mother holding her down, the skin of her arms peeling back. Kendra ripped her hands away from Ariana’s shoulders in pain and was struck in the midriff by something akin to a minor shockwave. She clattered against the wall, which did not hold her.
In the moments after Kendra’s death, nothing coherent registered in Ariana’s thoughts: not her mother’s still form, mostly blanketed in debris, not Bathilda Bagshot appearing before her, gasping into her hand, hauling Ariana into an embrace and through her tears asking what happened, what happened, what happened.
* * *
“You promised, Albus,” Gellert says. His voice is close to a whisper so Albus will not hear the shiver through his words, the dread rising like thick smoke to cloak all their hopes.
“Aberforth is right.” Albus looks stricken, and hugely apologetic and disappointed; his sincerity is undoubtable. But at this moment, nothing is more hateful to Gellert than Albus’s apologies in their myriad of forms: from his increased kindness, to his gentler manner, to the pain he tries to inflict on his own self by biting his lip.
“We swore an oath to each other. You cannot abandon me; I cannot do this alone.” Gellert crosses the Dumbledores’ small kitchen to where Albus is standing by the stove. Potatoes are boiling in an iron pot. Albus’s arms are folded too tightly across his torso, pressing his ribcage inwards. “You are really going to choose your brother over me?”
“Gellert, I’m asking you—I’m imploring you—not to see things this way. This is not the end of everything.”
“How would you like me to perceive this desertion of yours, then?”
The lid of the pot rattles from the pressure of the steam. Water sloshes over the rim and vaporises upon contact with the flames. Albus irascibly jabs his wand toward the stove, extinguishing the fire and sending the lid flying into the sink. Steam swells across the kitchen, beading at Gellert’s temples and forehead.
“I’m asking you to do us both a favour,” Albus insists.
“I know what it is. You want me to sacrifice myself to you. You want me to surrender all of our shared dreams and our plans. You would have us succumb to our circumstances. You would have us become a pair of fools making magnificent plans and then never realising them. That brother of yours would be laughing because he is right about us after all! Delusions of grandeur! Is this what you would have us do? Sit around in a backwater village and tell each other tales for all the rest of our forsaken lives!”
“I need you to allow me time, your time.”
“Time!” he scoffs. “Time is beyond me. Time does not belong to me; it is not mine to give.”
Gellert starts pacing the kitchen automatically, his head pounding and it is all he can manage not to clench his fist and throw it into the wall like a child. Albus is going against his word. Who would have thought it possible? He had Albus! Everything he had in the past few weeks, he had shared with Albus. This is a betrayal!
“What did your brother say to change your mind?” he says at last.
“What he said is of little import to the matter between us.”
“I want to know.”
“Aberforth is my brother, Gellert. My mother left not only my sister in my care, but Aberforth as well. He has to finish his education at Hogwarts and he will not do so if Ariana is moved from Godric’s Hollow. I have neglected my duties to them, and my mother’s wishes for too long. And you have seen Ariana: we were wrong about her. For now, she has to be kept in a stable environment, and I’ll have to monitor her constantly. I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
“A year. Is that what you are asking from me? A year.”
One whole year. If he would wait a year. He could stay in Godric’s Hollow with Great-aunt Bathilda. Albus would just be next door, and they could spend as much time as they liked in each other’s company. But the Hallows, the Hallows, the Hallows. He shuts his eyes for a moment and feels a strange pull; his thoughts sharpen and their focus narrows, magnetised to distant lands across the sea, to where the seeds of their joint ambition had been sowed, now ready for reaping. He must move soon.
“I cannot give you a year,” Gellert says at last. “We were supposed to be leaving in early September. In a year, we will be journeying through the new century. How can you think about spending the new century in the death trap of this village! I see that you choose your burdens over freedom. Perhaps one year will pass and then another year and then another. Perhaps you will never change.”
“I’ll keep my word if you would allow me the chance to show you,” Albus answers, hotly, his own temper rising at last.
Gellert’s only response is to fish out a scrap of parchment from his pockets, which he thrusts at Albus. It is a letter, written in a slurred hand. The parchment is stained and speckled with mould.
Pleasant surprise. Portkey arranged for September, to Paris. Planning to go around the Continent? You let me know whenever you need a Portkey. Always amusing doing business with you. And yes, I found out for you, that wandmaker Gregorovitch still has a shop in Germany.
“I have made travel arrangements for us. I can get us Portkeys to go anywhere we like, anywhere in the Continent.” Gellert’s face creases, and his eyes turn hard. “And Gregorovitch. Ollivander from London said that Gregorovitch is rumoured to possess the Elder Wand. I have picked up the trail at last, Albus! We can find the Deathly Hallows. It is within our grasp; I beg you, do not let this opportunity go.”
Albus is unmoved. “A year. It’s not very much to ask for. I need my brother to finish his last year at Hogwarts, and Ariana’s illness to stabilise without any further excitement. I can’t leave now, and not because I don’t wish to—far from it.”
“A year and the trail will be cold by then. Suppose others are looking for the Hallows! We are fools to think that we are the only ones.”
But this time, there are no words to pull Albus out of himself, out of the wretched gulf of his life. Gellert can see the misery in his beloved friend’s eyes, that contemptible helplessness, the rejection of freedom.
“As you wish.” He draws back, shaking, his fingernails curving deep into the flesh of his palm.
Gellert storms out of the house, seething and so lost in rage, that by the time he looks around trying to remember where it is that he is going, he is already halfway across the village. He recognises the white steeple and the hanging plaque of the Muggle church. Parish of Saint Swithun. The old Muggle parson is working among the flowerbeds, stands of purple foxgloves towering over him.
A little further and Gellert will reach the edge of Bramley’s farm, where Albus’s philistine clod of a brother spends his days, frolicking in the company of livestock.
A fresh wave of fury hits Gellert. Who knew that that oaf could convince Albus better than he ever could? He has underestimated the grip Aberforth has on his brother.
He crosses into Bramley’s farm and heads toward the entrance of the shed where the goats are kept, their hoofs clacking on the boards. They bleat when he enters, unused to his presence. What is that strange English proverb that Albus had mentioned offhandedly some weeks ago? Birds of a feather?
Well, the parallels between Aberforth and his scruffy groaning herd are most evident.
Something ugly warps Gellert’s usually pleasing features, his clear eyes clotted with fragments of shadow, which fuse into a singular, rage-filled thought. Intent blinds and deafens and corrupts him. Something equally ugly shapes itself into a spell and waits like a trigger on the seat of his tongue, as Gellert raises his wand toward the barn full of hapless creatures.
A/N: It's November! The third November (or the third NaNo) since I officially began working on Let Perpetual Light! And there are only two chapters left after this one. It feels like a graduation of some sort.
This chapter is dedicated to Kristin/marauderfan for all her wonderful reviews, and for sticking to this fic even after all this time. Thank you, Kristin! ♥
Thank you, everyone, for reading, and as always, I'm amazed and humbled that I even have readers. ♥
Chapter 9: At the Hour
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LET PERPETUAL LIGHT
Chapter Nine: At the Hour
November 1st, 1946
My words have lost their glamour on you; that much is obvious. I used to make you laugh, old man.
These days I dream even though I put a stop to all dreaming years ago. Years ago, I had the best Potioneers in the Continent brew me draughts to darken all my dreams so that I may sleep like some sightless subterranean creature each night.
But lately, these things I’m seeing here in this accursed prison--why did I ever build it? O, my icicle-crusted arse! Lunatic ghosts populate this cell with me. There’s my mother over there in the corner (she’s one of these ghosts, you see), towering like a dead tree, splintered by lightning. Greetings, Mother! Are you well and with the saints! Why would she visit? And why would she tolerate the company of that blind crone next to her with ferns sprouting out of her ears. There is someone else flaunting her eyeballs at me--a girl.
She looks like someone we both know. No, I’ll clamp my teeth down on my tongue.
I won’t press my thumb into your wound; I want you to listen. Because I want you to listen.
I’ve had more than enough of these games, these stupid infantile back-and-forths of ours. Were you ever right, Albus? Do stories have more power over us than we realise? All through my life I went looking for signs; even now, when I wake, I wake into incoherence, into skeins of signs, into an endless mesh that can’t be deciphered. These tales spring to life just when my own life is ended--festering in this cell and all--should you be here with me? Shouldn’t you?
The day of our grand farce of a duel, I beheld your face for the first time in decades. What was that I saw? Resignation! I was most offended that you would show me such! You had that look that suggested you were coerced into this, martyring yourself in the name of the greater good. Ha! Remember all the times we duelled during that summer of our first meeting? We won an equal number of times, but the times when I pushed you as fiercely as I could, you always won. Yet all those duels made you uneasy. You prefer truces. But me, ah, I’ve always liked it rough. I would risk falling just to hold that moment before falling for as long as I can. Since the day I met you at the feet of your dead mother, I’ve been sparring with you ceaselessly, whether you’re by my side or not, and I haven’t stopped. Not even now.
After I left Godric’s Hollow, I searched for the Elder Wand. My lead was accurate and I obtained it easily. Was that not enough for me to believe that I was destined for the power I held in my hands? Everything fell into my grasp with such grace! I travelled through the Continent, as we promised each other we would. I flew through the cities--old stones and moth-eaten glamour, hardly magical-- they can keep their feather-headed histories for I tire of them, of their obscurities and bygone allure. What does the world become once you’ve had it? Everywhere I went turned ash-grey; everything I touched was stung with elder wood. Yes, I wreaked my destruction everywhere; you know how I was.
The Elder Wand was everything I asked for and beyond. Except, of course, for the somewhat rankling fact of your betrayal.
I suppose I deserved it.
I left the Continent and went East. I whirled through deserts and great frosty plains and forests of boreal razors, and then south, past caged cities and languid lakes clotted with pleasure boats. I walked along the jawbone of a great wall that tore its route over the mountains. I came at last, to an ancient abandoned city. Trees grew through it. Seeds heaved their way through the stone paving and slowly broke the city’s bones and punctured the ceilings of houses and temples with their branches. Now those old stone temples bear trees on their roofs.
Time is a tree, Albus. It starts as a seed, implanted in us when we are infants, then it outgrows us and sheds us like old bark. I think of you and I, and I think of those ruined shrines--I have an affinity with holy wrecks, as you well know,--being ground down year after year by the excruciating weight of those trees. For every inch those trees grow, the shrines sink a little deeper into the dirt.
These are us, these wrecks. Soon a lush forest will grow on our heads, their roots feeding on our mouldering legacy. We are too far away from that summer of our first meeting, and we are too far from power of any sort.
I write all these letters to you and I ask all these questions. You don’t reply. So my questions become rhetorical. I will write once more to you.
For the second time, I shall yield. Then, peace from me. Then, we fester.
* * *
The summer has been nothing short of frightful for Bathilda. Never mind the live, sly creature of the heat, or the hottest summer the country has witnessed in three decades. Really, it all began with the death in the house next door.
On the day of Kendra’s horrible and unexpected demise, Bathilda heard the dull thud of something colossal falling to pieces; later, she dramatically described it as “her life in sudden disintegration”. Bathilda hurried over to the Dumbledores’, coughed and stumbled through the granular haze of brick dust and crumbled plaster, and through the tatters of Kendra’s former protective spells. She discovered Ariana in the ruined sitting room, perched on the points of her unshod heels, wordless and with a bird’s foot of blood edging out of her nostril. Kendra’s head was on her lap, the dark bun of hair unravelled, and her eyes were round and bright as polished black coins.
Then, barely a week after that ghastly day, Bathilda received a letter from her great-nephew, Gellert Grindelwald, imploring her to allow him to spend the summer at her cottage, having been most dishonourably dismissed from the Durmstrang Institute of Magic.
At first, Bathilda had been glad; despite his tarnished reputation (which was hardly his fault, because his mother had not the slightest inkling how to raise a sensible child), Gellert’s presence would be a welcome distraction from the terrible affair of her neighbour’s death. Besides, young Albus would also be back, and surely the boys would find favour in each other’s company, being so similar in age.
And she had been right: the boys got along well, too well, in fact. Gellert is hardly home these days, and even if Albus does drop by, they spend hours shut away in deep discussion, forgoing mealtimes. Albus has also begun to show less and less interest in their agreed collaborative research proposal, which she had so generously offered when he came home from Hogwarts.
Lastly, there is the whole business of Theophilus Thimble, the enigmatic sweet-quilled scholar who writes from an unknown address. He had always been so polite and obliging, querying after her research and admiring her collection.
She is a fool, easily deceived. Thimble changed after the course of several letters, after she had most unwisely lent him several tomes from her collection. Bathilda feels a spike of indignation in her chest each time she thinks of his increasing rudeness, his refusal to return her precious texts to her, and his long, fevered letters, most of them fixated on some child’s tale. His last letter was written on three pages torn from The Mythos of Death by Callisthenes Copperfield, a very prized book which Bathilda had sent him. The brambles of his handwriting were barely legible over the text of the Mythos book, and the entire letter consisted of paragraph after paragraph of rambling about those accursed Hallows.
Bathilda has spent the entire summer writing to a madman.
The thought is immensely upsetting to her, as she rifles through her library, pulling out ancient issues of Magical Annals from her shelves and dusting them.
A crisp tap on the window startles her. On the ledge is a brown owl with a letter ties to its foot. Thimble has written yet again. She ought to end this nonsense now and send the note unread back to its unhinged writer. But instead, she retrieves it.
I found the second Hallow, the Resurrection Stone. I found it. It brings the dead to life! But what a farce. I am dissatisfied, even if I have held it in my hands, even before your great-nephew has. Your charming, brilliant great-nephew that you were so telling me about in all your letters.
This is my last letter to you, and I must apologise, because the books I’ve borrowed from you are too badly damaged to be returned.
Mad! Incoherent! To speak of dear Gellert in such a manner! Well, it is partially her fault for revealing information on such personal matters to strangers. The letter bursts into blue flame at the vehement prod of her wand.
“Be off with you!” she snaps at the owl and it gives her its most affronted screech before zipping out the window.
In the enclosed space of her library, the heat draws sweat out of Bathilda’s skin in stiff beads. Such a frightful creature, this summer has been.
* * *
Goats are not silent animals. They bleat; they snort and chortle; their hooves clip against the creaky floorboards. They butt the walls of the shed and mimic the hacking cough of old Farmer Bramley, cursing his way across the fields.
Today the goats are silent, and their silence is incorrect. The shed door is ajar.
Aberforth’s thoughts go still; all the world seems to lie flat on its belly and hold its breath, because Bramley’s goats are silent and they have never been before. Where is their brutish humour, the rasp of their laughter, the high-pitched stutters of greeting the moment they sniff out his approach?
He pushes the shed door wide open. The razor-thin smell of ammonia from animal droppings lances through his nostrils.
It takes Aberforth a minute to understand the scene before him. Focus is a sickly slow thing, crawling along the aisle, past the empty stalls and the stands of implements and strewn hay, toward the goats at the back of the shed. His eyes unscramble the mess before him.
All five of the goats are lumped together in a shaggy heap, like common carcasses. Their mouths are open, as are their hyphenated eyes, drying out in the summer heat. Flies flicker like static on their eyelids and ears.
Aberforth chokes in rage and horror as everything leaps to simmering life in his brain, and tears cut their way out of his eyes. He kneels before the goats and half-seizes, half cradles one head after another. Their necks are broken, as are some of their limbs. One of the animals (Beryl, her name) has had her hooves torn off. Another (Bugle, with a mottled brown and white coat) has purple gashes running down her flanks. Another one’s head is badly disfigured by poisonous orange warts.
Bramley is likely to attribute the blame to Aberforth, but blame will not bring the beloved goats back. These creatures are dead by magical means, by a variety of lethal hexes.
There is only one person in Godric’s Hollow capable of such malevolence. Aberforth has seen evil, like an infinitesimal swarm of locusts moving through Gellert Grindelwald’s clear eyes. Grindelwald will pick his way through families, towns, countries perhaps, staying as he pleases, taking lives apart with his corrupt charms and refashioning them into his own pathway to power.
Somehow Aberforth will find a way to drive that scumbag friend of Albus’s from Godric’s Hollow. If he has to, he will kill Grindelwald.
But first, he tends to the goats. He carries them one by one to the edge of the field where they spend afternoons browsing for meadow flowers and thistles. He conducts a few spells and digs five shallow graves side by side, into which he lowers the dead goats. Earth piles into the graves, until all that is left are five dark mounds.
He stares at these blackened hillocks without a eulogy. Then he runs home, wand in hand. The main street and the bustle of townsfolk leap past, and then the rows of cottages stumbling into each other, windows blooming into doors and back into windows. The fences are adjoined in one endless railing. A sharp pain stitches itself into Aberforth’s side, but he keeps on running.
Grindelwald is lounging on a divan in the Dumbledores’ sitting room when Aberforth reaches home. His legs are propped up on a worn bureau. Albus is nowhere to be seen, though the aroma of bitter herbs and soup wafts from the kitchen.
“What is the matter?” Grindelwald asks, lazily. His features have curdled into a smile. The tone of his voice is gentle, but there is something detestably sly beneath his languid and polite manner.
Insufferable! Aberforth raises his wand and Grindelwald’s expression dissolves in alarm as he tries to leap out of the way. He is a moment too slow, and the Stunning Spell clips him on the shoulder, which is already angled to dodge. The force of Aberforth’s curse tips the divan over and sends Grindelwald spinning across the floor, but the latter regains his footing within a split second.
Aberforth does not hesitate; he sets off a barrage of curses at Grindelwald, shouting every haphazard incantation that crosses his mind--Stunning Spells, Laughing Jinxes, Jelly-Legs Hexes, Blasting Curses, Body-Bind Afflictions, Discombobulations, Disarming Spells.
Grindelwald is untouchable. Shield Charms spring to silvery life around him, and all of Aberforth’s spells are instantly dispersed upon contact.
Grindelwald smiles infuriatingly. “Do you even think, that you, an insignificant and stupid child can hinder your brother and I in any way? You would bring us down and see that our plans never come to fruition? You would tend to the insecurities of your broken little family and deny the world its rightful saviours?”
“You’re a lunatic,” Aberforth snarls. “There are places that can hold you until the end of your delusions. For all the glory that you desire, these are the places best suited for you.”
Grindelwald’s face distorts. A brief grin touches the corner of his lips. The Shield Charms before him flicker and disappear.
Aberforth is gripped by a curse, Unforgivable in the eyes of the Ministry of Magic. The pain is all-consuming and final in its devastation. He drops to the floor, everything else forgotten: Albus, Ariana, his beloved goats, his very existence swells and then contracts violently on itself. The entire world narrows in pain. His flesh is interwoven with knives beneath his skin, and every movement is a laceration of his body. His skin is a wide, flapping sheet torn from the framework of his body, endless, existing only to feel mile after mile of torment. He hurls his forehead against the floor. Every moment of consciousness is an incandescent shard through his eyes. He is nothing, nothing but a pathetic beast curled up on the floor, screaming and pleading for mercy from his hated enemy. There is laughter in the margins of his agony.
And all of a sudden, the pain stops. The stoppage of pain has an impact of its own, and the world slams into him.
Someone is kneeling beside him. Aberforth’s vision focuses first on his brother’s eyes, and his brother’s face, and then he registers his brother’s hand clenching at his shoulders. Though the Cruciatus Curse was lifted only moments ago, Aberforth’s memory can neither describe nor recreate the intensity of the agony experienced.
“It’s alright, Aberforth. It’s over--it’s stopped--I’ve made him stop.” For once, Albus seems to be incoherent. “Hold still; you’ve been hurt.”
Blood dribbles from a gash over his brow.
Across the room, Grindelwald is slumped against the wall, beaming with red-stained teeth. His eyes are malevolent stars. Aberforth clambers to his feet, despite the weakness in his limbs and the pounding in his head.
“Step away, Albus.” He wrenches himself free of his brother’s grip and stumbles.
“A sharp dose of pain can be unexpectedly refreshing, can it not? You would like more, I presume,” Grindelwald sneers. He jumps to his feet, and with a wide grin, begins to murmur a song. “There was a little goatherd, who rather fancied livestock. He sulked all day and night when he couldn’t find his flock.”
“STUPEFY!” Aberforth howls.
But Albus is quicker, and a Shield Charm erupts between Aberforth and Gellert.
Spells shred the air. Furniture is splintered and chunks are gouged out of the walls by stray curses. Albus’s Shield Charms are relentless, bursts of silver between Aberforth and Gellert.
“Oh, I think I hear a cry so fleeting! Through yonder door--can it be bleating?”
“Gellert, I beg you, do not do this!” Albus yells.
The plea strikes deaf ears. “Have we not begged enough of each other? Your brother wants a duel, so he shall get one. But why do you keep standing so irresolutely in between the both of us? Your Charms will not preserve either of us for long and you know it. So, Albus, I ask you once again: make your choice.”
“If any of this madness has anything to do with our earlier conversation,” Albus begins, “then you and I can settle this on our own, far from here. Leave my brother out of this.”
“This has nothing to do with you!” Aberforth shouts. “You’re blind if you can’t see this!”
“Why does the hoofless beast dance? Does it know its goatherd’s tune, perchance?”
One of Gellert’s curses dodges the translucent Shield Charm bubbles and finds its way to Albus, enveloping him in a swathe of shadow. Something circles his throat and tightens, pressing the air out of his lungs. He struggles in the dimness, clawing at the unseen grip around his neck. The edges of his thoughts turn blurry with panic.
An incantation comes to his mind, and wordlessly, Albus concentrates on the unspoken syllables of the counter-curse. A white-gold flash tears through the shadowy coils and his windpipe inflates with the onslaught of air.
“Very good, my friend.” Gellert is no longer smiling. Every inch of his face has frosted over.
Albus is dazed. His movements feel sluggish and tricked, even to himself. The person before him is Gellert. Doesn’t he know everything there is to know about Gellert? But this Gellert before him is veined with violence, with an impenetrable coldness. The curses Albus has been deflecting range from spiteful to downright lethal, with several considered illegal by the Ministry. And the Unforgivable!
He surveys his friend in a new capacity; he sees pitch-black reservoirs and passion bordering on venom in the limpid eyes of his friends.
Aberforth flings a Blasting Curse at Gellert, who disappears with a flurry and a crack. The missed curse pulverises a bookcase and sends tremors across the room. Gellert reappears right behind Albus, who retaliates with a Disarming Spell.
Gellert discharges two spells in quick succession: a Bone Shattering curse toward Aberforth (which Albus manages to annul with a deft Impervius charm), and another odd curse toward Albus (who does not have sufficient time to strike up a counter-curse). Albus falls. His right leg has turned into a stump of wood, with roots tentacling from where his ankle used to be. The roots fasten to the ground and burrow into the floors of the house.
“I see you’ve retained your sense of humour even during a time like this.” Albus is calm, but the bitterness surfaces in his words.
“You can set your roots down now!”
“I don't need your help,” Aberforth hisses at Albus. “And besides, shouldn't you be on his side?”
Gellert raises his wand. Plaster, wood, broken limbs of furniture and other debris leap into the air, conducted into a swirl of movement by his wand. The jagged angles collapse into each other, darkening and turning into a smooth, hulking, four-footed outline.
A lion’s head and mane. The body and cloven hooves of a goat. And at the creature’s rear, instead of a tail, the whip-like form of a serpent, ending in a serpent’s head and forked tongue.
Neither Albus nor Aberforth have laid eyes on a real Chimaera, but they recognise its fearsome proportions and the grotesque quilt of its body.
The creature is imperfect in its animation; with every moment, its shape wavers, and at times a shard of portrait frame juts from its flanks like a brass rib, or the hissing serpent-head flickers into an old lampshade.
Albus removes the hex on his leg. There is no time to think and protect Aberforth. The Chimaera snarls and snaps. Instead of flames, a blinding dust billows from its jaws. Aberforth howls and scratches at his eyes. The beast thrashes its tail and the serpent’s head arcs through the air, dodging a Severing Curse and sinking its fangs into Albus’s arm. Albus feels the bite of porcelain shrapnel and the rusting tooth of the fire-poker, and the warm rush of blood from the wound. The snakehead has no venom.
Determination sinks its barbs into Albus’s brain, clears the confusion and the sense of betrayal in his thoughts, and his duelling instinct takes over. He casts a non-verbal spell, and the flaming shape of a phoenix bursts from his wand. Wings afire, it swoops toward the Chimaera and passes through its hodgepodge body, both creatures merging violently into a blazing spectre, before disintegrating in a rain of cinders.
“Stop,” Albus croaks, “I beg of you, Gellert. Ariana will hear, if she hasn’t already. She isn’t in a stable condition, as you very well know.”
Aberforth is leaning against the wall, breathing hard, and clasping his wand tighter than ever. His eyes dart upward, but no sound comes from Ariana’s room in the attic.
Ash sifts over Gellert’s head in a grey halo.
“So you have made your choice. So you will betray me and yourself. You will turn your back on us and all that we have sworn to accomplish together. When I promised you greatness, I promised the both of us. I will hold us true to this if you keep your part of the bargain.”
“After all I’ve seen you do today,” Albus says. “I do not know who you are.”
Each word slits its way out of his mouth. Every truth is a denial of himself.
“Well, I no longer care how you choose to live your life.” Gellert’s expression is bitter. “But in this duel, you are now against me.”
He turns his wand on Albus.
* * *
“Whoever knew that little Ariana Dumbledore could achieve so much?” the Tall Woman says. She shakes her head and leaves drop from her crown, shrivelling once they touch the ground.
“I have not been kind,” Ariana reflects. “I have been lying to old Batty Bagshot next door. I ruined her books. And I lied to that madman Gaunt. Not that he didn’t deserve it, of course. Anyway, that’s hardly any harm done.”
Ariana is seated at the trestle table from Gellert’s story again, opposite the three witches. There is no supper between them, no fire at the hearth, no hearth for a fire.
“I heard Gellert Grindelwald say that he has found the Elder Wand, and that he knows of its location. And I now know that the Stone is with Gaunt. But I wonder about that last one, the Cloak that eluded Death?.”
“Whoever knew,” the Tall Woman corrects, “That little Ariana Dumbledore could achieve so much and yet learn nothing at all?”
“You tend to become repetitive the more you talk.” Ariana manages her most insolent expression. The curl of the Tall Woman’s sneer becomes more pronounced. Ariana can hardly believe that she used to think the Tall Woman had Kendra’s face. There is no resemblance between this spindly giant figure and her deceased mother. The Tall Woman’s skin is flaking. Earwigs crawl from her mouth. Next to her, the Crone has sported a beard of damp lichen. The grey tangles of her hair smell like flooded caves.
In Gellert’s story, the Cloak of Invisibility was water stitched into form. The water-witch had woven it with fingers like knitting needles.
Ariana thinks about Albus and Gellert, respectively coveting the Resurrection Stone and the Elder Wand. How they want to be seen. To have their future deeds magnified rather than diminished by time, to have their names inscribed into the annals of magical history. But how much more power could be accorded to one, if one is not seen, Ariana ponders. If one can see but not be seen, if one can judge but not be made available for judgement, if one can reduce the entire world to nothing but one’s observation. Supposedly Death could not find the third Peverell brother, but the brother could see Death clear as day, and thus keep well out of Death’s way.
“The bloodline of the third brother is hidden, even from us,” sighs the Crone. “Such a pity, I would have loved to pay him a visit. Maybe we shall one day find his descendants. I expect there are plenty of them, scattered across the magical families, and proliferating in utter unremarkability.”
“And that is what happens when you run away and hide,” the Tall Woman says, sharply. “You disappear. You live, but are forgotten.”
“I am not forgotten,” Ariana says.
“You cannot hold us back forever, my sister,” Glass Girl speaks at last, her first words all day. Looking at her, Ariana recalls the smell of river water, algal and sickening, corkscrews of silt, her bones cracking with cold.
“You dragged me under the water that other night.” She turns accusingly toward Glass Girl, who flinches. A ripple of movement passes beneath her transparent features. Perhaps she will break like glass. “You sewed the stones into my dress and held me under.”
“You’re imagining things,” the Tall Woman cuts in.
Downstairs, Aberforth is yelling. Large objects are being hurled across the room. She tries to ignore those boys, always clamouring for attention. Through the floorboards, the tendrils of the strongest magic she has ever encountered rise to envelope her. The magic in her own blood stirs in response. Infinitesimal pulses move under her skin.
“That would be your brothers and the Grindelwald boy fighting in your name, Ariana. And we are here, waiting for them.”
“We’ve grown tired waiting for you, my sister,” Glass Girl whistles. The window panes tremble.
Ariana stares at the Three, but their expressions turn wooden.
“Tell me what is going to happen.” The hairs on her arms are tingling. The room is beginning to bulge and shrink, and the air is turning thick and pillowy in her mouth.
“You used to play with dice, my dear,” says the Crone. She reaches her gnarled hand across the table. In her palm are the lumpy bones of Ariana’s dice. “Let’s see what they say now.”
Ariana takes the three dice and lays them at the edge of the table. She flicks them off and they clatter to the floor. It doesn’t matter where they land, for the lines draw themselves in her head, and they each become a point of reference. The triangle picks itself up from the floorboards to engulf her. Everyone in this house knows the symbol too well.
“What is going to happen to Albus and Aberforth?”
“But you already know,” Glass Girl chimes.
“If you had ever gone to school, my dear, you would have been exceptionally talented in the subject of Divination, though I doubt your mother would have approved,” says the Crone.
The entire house shivers as an errant spell tunnels down into the foundations.
“That Grindelwald boy is tampering with some dangerous magic,” says the Tall Woman. She stands up and spreads her arms in a grotesque crucifix entwined by twisted branches. Her long black robes are interrupted by patches of vegetative growth. “And your brother Aberforth hardly knows what he’s doing. Your other brother Albus is doing his best to protect everyone, and is failing somewhat at this task.”
“Leave them alone. What have you got to do with them? You are my apparitions. You are my curse!”
“There are three of us,” the Tall Woman continues. “And there are three below. One for each of us. This is your madness that has infected them. This is your curse.”
“It is only logical,” the Crone croons with false compassion. “They have been seeking the Hallows. If you remember the stories, you’ll know that whosoever seeks the Hallows seeks power beyond Death, and no matter the variance between any of the tales, one thing remains constant, and it is that Death will not be eluded. All seekers of the Hallows only find Death.”
“Aberforth has done nothing wrong. He doesn’t care a whit about the Hallows.”
“He is to replace you,” says the Tall Woman. “You will not come with us and we are unable to make you. So Aberforth will come in your stead, and we will leave you to your own devices. You may linger as long as you wish in this abject life that you so dearly love.”
“I will stop you.”
“For that,” the Three chorus in their mismatched voices, “You are not strong enough.”
She knows what they will do. She can see the truth of their words, the trajectory of their intent. They will leave her and descend to the bottom of the house where Albus and Aberforth and Gellert are. She knows--she sees flashes of them skulking in the periphery of the duel, waiting for the boys to cast the correct combination of spells, which will turn the air lethal, which will incite their own magic against them until they strike down and are struck down by each other.
Ariana overturns the trestle table as she rises. There is no thud of the table hitting the ground. There is no table or bench. Her room is as it always has been: the bed, scrubbed washbasin, a rocking chair, curtains stuttering in the breeze. Bare walls.
“I’ll come with you.”
The Three stare at her.
“Are you certain?” the Crone wheezes. The Tall Woman purses her lips, taken aback. For a moment, she looks like Kendra again.
“Leave them all alone, and I’ll follow you. You’ve been waiting years for me, did you say? I must be worth all three of them to you. Wasn’t the third brother the one most desired by Death, on account of Death being inconvenienced to wait a full lifetime before he could be claimed? His value exceeded the combined value of his two brothers, so much so that Death accorded him enough respect that they could walk together as friends. Or so Albus’s dreadfully dull story goes.”
“Now you think far too well of yourself,” the Tall Woman says, but there is a glitter of a smile in her eyes.
Ariana reaches under her pillow for a quill and one of Bathilda’s shredded books. She rips a page and begins writing, and then crosses everything out.
Somehow, she must leave a note. How can she disappear without a trace, how can she fall silent without a farewell of any sort? But she won’t write to Albus or Aberforth; their guilt will corrode them for the rest of their lives. She does not sign her name.
Something taps on the window: Pythagoras, Albus’s owl has undone the latch of its cage, flown out the window, circled the house and landed on the attic ledge, as she had taught it to. She opens the shutters. The sun is far too bright, and the pulses of magic begin to build in her. Her blood seems to flare in intervals. Not long now. She ties the note to Pythagoras’s leg and sends it off.
Glass Girl detaches herself from the other two witches and takes Ariana’s hand. There is triumph but no malice in her eyes.
“The duellers are becoming more and more savage,” sighs the Crone.
Glass Girl speaks and her voice does not sound like clogged ponds gathering decay, but like clear channels of running water. “You escaped that first time, my sister, all those years ago, though you summoned us. You fought so very hard to live; you fought for your life’s worth and with your magic, bound us to your blood. But all the years that you have borrowed from us are now due.”
“So any debt I have is now paid in full.”
“Paid in full,” the Three concur.
The Crone takes her other hand. Pain zips up her arms. She looks into her hands and sees two slivers of glass, which she has been squeezing. At her feet are her crushed dice and the carved shell of a hand mirror, which Kendra had given to her on her fifth birthday, the fragments of glass diverting sunlight. She kicks the remains of the mirror under her bed. The Three Witches are nowhere to be seen.
Her bedroom door opens; the attic steps find their way to her, bearing her down through the house. The rooms buckle and lengthen into passageways; walls peel apart into rippling doorways. The house channels her through its space until she finds herself in the sitting room where the three boys are, strung together by their jets of magic and fiery spells into a distorted triangle. The boys are imprecise shapes darting through the smoke. Their language is senseless to her.
Ariana walks through the chaos with her fistfuls of blood, like an unperturbed sacrifice. She smiles benignly at their triangular configuration, with Gellert positioned at the apex, half-laughing, half-snarling. She wanders into the centre of that three-cornered realm.
The fire in her blood is a low thrum of heat. She can feel smoke curling through her veins; she feels as light as smoke, as vapour, as ash.
She remembers the mirror shards ensnaring and scissoring light, turning it into bright spots in her eyes. She is a fragment of death itself, a sacrifice, something hallowed, a blessing laid upon an agreement.
The three of them will live, the boys. She will be forgotten, but that is hardly important. Despite all her efforts, she isn’t important after all. The stories wind on beyond and without her, and she slips away from them, a loose narrative coil spiralling away into the uncatalogued annals of untold stories.
It is a fair exchange, if Albus and Aberforth and maybe even that fool, Grindelwald, live and never be able to harm each other again. Somehow, they won’t be able to kill each other off, no matter how bitter or how passionate the feelings they harbour toward each other, as long as they are bound to this world.
She has reached the centre of their triangle, constructed from their rage and self-righteousness and ignorance. The magic in her blood rises through her and beyond. Still, they do not see her, though she sees them and pauses, momentary fondness blotting the edges of her intent. Then they cast their final spells, and her own taintless magic meets theirs, and the conference of all their collective magic lifts her off her heels and flings her skywards.
She does not remember falling.
* * *
Nobody sees Ariana Dumbledore at first.
There are several ways one can become invisible: Concealment Charms, Invisibility Cloaks, elaborate Camouflage Concoctions—potions and spells and magical objects. But one can also be invisible if one is not seen in the first place, or if one remains a fixed perception in the eyes of the beholders.
Albus, Aberforth and Gellert do not see Ariana until their spells collide with something corporeal in that no-man’s land at the centre of the sitting room. Something stronger than the sum of their quarrelsome, impulsive magic catches their spells and ricochets them back at the duellers. Wands are torn from their hands and they are pitched backwards.
Only when the smoke clears and the world drifts back into visibility do they see her: Ariana Dumbledore, the invisible sister, her arms thrown apart like a rejected embrace, her fingers loose, her fingernails unbitten for once. Her eyes are open and skyless, having no regard for any of them.
Aberforth recovers first, a scream wrenched from his throat as he rushes to her, seizes her shoulders and lifts her head in the most inept manner possible. Her cheeks are squashed within his hands and her eyes roll at the tilt of her limp head. Albus, on the other hand, is struck dumb. He kneels beside his brother. The sunlight tearing its way through the windows is far too lucid, and he is all too aware of sitting like a puppet in a diorama of dazzling epiphany. All the veils are lifted from his eyes, all the dreams he had ever dreamt penetrated by the awakened lens of reason, all the glorious madness of summer dissipated. Common sense is a horrifying thing to return to.
“Is she--hurt?” Gellert mumbles, stupidly.
Instead, Albus gets up and leaves the house, into the warmth of a morning edging into noon.
Aberforth has begun sobbing into Ariana’s hair.
Gellert is nauseated. This is the first time he has come so close to Death. He had nearly killed his schoolmate, Averin, all those months ago, and was expelled from Durmstrang as a result, but there was never the sense of crossing a threshold, of his fingertips touching the brink of a void. Now Death looks right back at him, gazing flatly through Ariana’s washed-out irises, calculating, perhaps deciding a future date for when it should come back for him. The girl is dead. Sweat seals his clothes to his flesh and he feels stained, sullied by the whole nightmare of an experience. He is a marked man.
When he goes outside, Albus is standing in the middle of the Dumbledores’ garden. The summer still exists. Heat, and the whirr of flies.
This cannot be the end of everything. He hadn’t meant it to end this way.
“I can fix this. We can fix this.” The words tumble from Gellert’s mouth, strung into one honeyed promise after another.
Albus laughs bleakly, not looking at Gellert. “I doubt that.”
“The Hallows! Have you forgotten? The Resurrection Stone is one of the Hallows. I have been concentrating too hard on locating the Elder Wand; forgive me, I have been selfish. But we will seek the Stone first. The Stone will bring the dead back to life. We can bring her back, Albus. It is never too late! This is the only way.”
“Listen to yourself talk, Gellert. If you had any respect for me or for my sister, you would stop.”
“You have always believed in me. Do you not trust me now? We have always looked after each other. You are my friend--no, more than my friend! Far more.”
Albus is shaking. He pinches his eyelids shut with two crooked fingers. Gellert crosses the space between them and pulls Albus’s hand from his face.
“Why will you not look at me?”
“What have I ever meant to you, Gellert?” His voice is neutral, despite his shaking hands.
Gellert is suffocated by dread. He will lose everything if he speaks incorrectly. Albus is everything. How helpless he is now, when just moments ago he had been overpowered by his own rancour, wanting nothing but to destroy, to maim, to wreak his anger on Albus and Albus’s brother.
“Albus,” he says, “I have never loved anyone as I have loved you. You know it.”
“Then come closer.”
Gellert takes a hesitant step forward.
Albus kisses him hard. Gellert responds, and there is a clash of teeth and the harsh bell of pain ringing through his skull. He lifts his hand to touch Albus’s face or grasp his hair but Albus jerks away, hissing a spell.
Gellert hadn’t expected this, hadn’t known that Albus is capable of such magic and manipulation. But he has spent all summer underestimating his friend and rival and lover.
A torrent of images pull free from the condensed strata of his thoughts, untethered by chronology or relevance: isolated moments moving so quickly that they are forcibly joined to one another into an absurd pastiche of his life: his mother elbow-deep in a barrel of fermented plums morphs into Averin, suspended upside-down. The barges churning down the Danube begin climbing glaciers in Svalbard, under a sky crowned by green flares. Great-aunt Bathilda pours tea in her parlour in the assembly hall of Durmstrang. Little Ariana sputtering water on the crumbling altar of an abandoned church.
Then there are all the moments he had shared with Albus. These moments are clearly delineated from each other. Albus and he at the churchyard during their first meeting, and the peculiar but keen interest Gellert had felt toward this tall stranger slanting over a headstone. He sees their mock duels again, hears their whooping cries and laughter, feels the heat or shade of their lazy days in sunshine or under the beech trees, the scratch of grass beside the millpond, the undulations of each other’s voices, tripping up and down the climaxes of shared stories. The way they gave in to each other’s hands and mouths, grasping and tussling, bodies bruising together. The feathery feeling of hair snagged between teeth. The endless letters spanning the nights and the distance between the houses they lived in.
Gellert gasps when Albus stops abruptly and distances himself.
“So you are telling the truth, partially,” Albus continues in his anaesthetized voice. “But it is too late. Ariana is dead, Gellert. I’ve also seen that you won’t ever understand what this means to me, and so it will always drive a wedge between us. Do with your life as you please, Gellert. I’ll have no part in it.”
And so Gellert Grindelwald, still in shock, leaves, vaulting over the fence to Bathilda’s garden and into Bathilda’s house. The door slams its ugly cadence.
A/N: This is the penultimate chapter of Let Perpetual Light. This is dedicated to everybody at HPFF, because you're all a generous and supportive community, and I'm so happy to know you all.
I would really appreciate feedback on this chapter; please let me know if my action sequences are too clunky, protracted, and any other aspect of the story which you think could use some improvement.
Thank you so much for reading, especially if you have stuck to this tale after all these years.
Also, I can never resist the meta!!! Not even in this fic!!! ❤
Chapter 10: The Last Enemy
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LET PERPETUAL LIGHT
Chapter Ten: The Last Enemy
December 31, 1946
You did not kill Ariana Dumbledore.
What’s this, you ask, remorse?
Remorse by Gellert Grindelwald, your shadowy bane stepping on your heels, sticking out his foot to trip you up and break that smug gait of yours? Certainly, remorse, and more than remorse.
You did not kill Ariana.
You are not obliged to believe me, but know that I speak with neither pity nor ridicule. I would not.
I never understood your sister and all her mysteries and how we always treated her like a fragile seashell. I understood her less the day she stepped sideways from life and left us abject souls behind. I’ll never come to know her, and it has always bothered me these years, how she could have existed so closely to us, breathed our words in through plaster and wood and brick and yet we could sense nothing of her secrets.
I swear that I still see her. I see the shape of her face and the mimicry of her hard stare pressing through walls made of skin. She passes through dreams and waking, through twilight and shadow, membranous and accusatory. But perhaps her accusations are part of my remorse. I saw her descend the stairs that day. I see her, and I now remember that I saw her. (If this is my own memory fabricating new stories, I swear I’ll wring my own neck. Enough of the stories!) She came down the stairs, peripherally, uninterrupted. I saw the resolve in her stride, the way the world unfurled at her feet, the pre-established sequence of her sacrifice. She knew where she was going.
If I tell you that Death was her veritable destination all along, will you hate me with an even greater intensity than you do?
(I know you hate me; all these letters I send and I’ve only had your silence to eat.)
If I tell you that she walked into that room of her own accord, fully conscious, will you continue to think of me as a coward, reallocating the blame to poor, innocent Ariana, the magically impaired girl with the delicate constitution?
There was a time when I wanted you dead. I wanted to crush your throat beneath my heels, slam my knees down onto your ribs, and all the while I would be writing to you. I wrote with my hands and I passed the letters down to my feet where you were and I made you eat them. I wrote you the vilest curses, the most venomous of words. I spat fountains of ink from my teeth, but by the time the letters got to my feet, they had changed. Morphed into pleas, into shouts of “Hear me! Hear me! Hear!”
But in the end, I could not find it in me to turn the Elder Wand on you. And so the Wand forsook me and my weakness, and chose you. I thought I could destroy everything that once held us together.
Is it too late to ask for forgiveness?
I’m sitting in this cell, half-icicle, half-wretch, writing this final letter to you. I suppose I ought to wish you good things for the New Year.
Can anything truly be new for either of us? Sleep has been a scarce creature over the years and now I’m safely excluded from the rest of humankind, I will continue to eat your silence, drink your hatred, and dream these dreams which you’ll never come to know, so pure is your intention to repent a wrong you never committed.
I was meant to write to you all along, but I am finished now.
What I said all those years ago, that very day Ariana died, I still hold them true in my own way (which you will, of course, find scornful and perverse). But they are true. I swear it. All these years and I have scourged the world in my aimlessness, living on a mantra you gave me. All these years and I have swallowed my own poison and cankered. All these years and I have always loved you.
I will not bother you any longer. If my words mean nothing to you, then lay the blame on me. Absolve yourself of all guilt. Ariana’s death is in my hands.
After all, I have always duelled as I have lived: to maim, to blight, to destroy.
* * *
Bathilda is reading in her library upstairs when Gellert bursts in. She can hardly understand the onslaught of his words and the slurring of his distress. But her concerned eye registers his torn shirt, and the cut carving his cheek open, down to the corner of his lip, so his mouth blooms from the wound. Those sharp bright eyes of his have become red-rimmed and feral.
She slips the ribbon marker between her pages and snaps the book shut. “What is the matter, Gellert? What has happened?”
“Exactly what, I do not care to know,” he snarls, then falters. “But I have never felt this way before.”
Bathilda attempts to rise, but Gellert reaches her first. He presses her shoulder down so she is forced back into her armchair, much to her surprise. He drops to his knees and buries his face in her lap, a gesture that Bathilda finds unusually intimate for her occasionally disingenuous great nephew. She had always hoped that he would display a little more tenderness toward her instead of his usual flippant manner, but not like this. This is alarming. She can smell the prickly saline of his sweat; his pulse is a feverish stutter in her lap.
Inwardly, Bathilda chides herself. Gellert is still her great-nephew, so she strokes his hair with as much placidity as she can muster.
“You must tell me what’s wrong,” she presses. “I can help you in this predicament of yours. Does it involve Albus? Did you both quarrel? I can speak to him for you.”
At the mention of Albus’s name, Gellert starts and jolts away from her. “I wish to leave. I will not stay in Godric’s Hollow any longer.”
“Gellert, please!” she exclaims. “Sit down.”
Instead, he snaps to his feet. “I see now. I see with all the clarity that this God-forsaken town tries to obscure from me. I should never have stayed this long; after all, I have everything that I need.”
“What is it that you are looking for? You never told me you were seeking anything when you first wrote to me asking to stay.”
He doesn’t answer. Perhaps she should give him time to calm his thoughts. She rests her hand on his shoulder for a moment, and then goes downstairs to put the kettle on. He follows. In the kitchen, she bustles about, lighting the fire, putting the water to boil, clattering about with her saucers. The more noise and movement, the better to distract herself from Gellert’s presence behind her.
“I need a Portkey out of this country as soon as possible.”
Bathilda sighs. “I don’t understand what’s happening with you. But it will take me at least two and a half weeks to arrange for a long-distance Portkey from the Ministry.”
Gellert’s knuckles clench as he grips the edge of the kitchen table. “She’s dead, Great-aunt. Albus’s sister. I—I don’t know how—however it happened—it was an accident, I swear!”
“Ariana?” Bathilda is aghast. “How did this happen? If Ariana is really dead and you’re a witness, you can’t run away like this. The Ministry will want to know what happened.”
“I already have a sullied reputation; I was expelled! Nobody will believe me. And they will snap my wand again, just like they did at Durmstrang. How can I live and never be allowed to practise magic? I will not.”
Bathilda is silent for a minute. She gestures for him to follow her into the sitting room. On the mantelpiece is a squat black jar. “There is Floo powder in there, if you really must go. But I beg you to stay and reconsider, Gellert. You need not run. You have friends here, and I will of course support your word.”
He ignores her advice, and instead embraces her. The gesture is perfunctory. “Thank you for your hospitality throughout my stay, Great-aunt. But I must go.”
He reaches for the jar and brings out a handful of emerald green powder. A quick Incendio, and fire fills the grate.
“Are you leaving this moment?” Bathilda says, astonished. “You haven’t packed anything.”
“What I do not have with me right now, I do not need.”
The flames billow into a brilliant green cloud when he casts the Floo powder.
“Aren’t you going to at least write Albus a goodbye note?”
“As I said: what I do not have, I do not need.”
He steps into the flames. Bathilda, on the other hand, puts on her hat, knots the laces beneath her chin, and goes to visit her neighbours, afflicted by yet another terrible tragedy.
* * *
The clouds today hold a grey, sickly rain. Weight colours the sky, tumbling down onto the squared shoulders of the village of Godric’s Hollow, the cottages hunkering down to earth, and the streets pressed clean of people. In the cemetery by the abandoned church, the birch trees shroud a small gathering of people standing before a new grave. It is an acceptable day for a funeral.
Albus Dumbledore has no excuses to make, no thanks to offer to the attendees: strangers, all of them. His words turn to loose stones, dried seeds that he can’t spit out for fear of lack of courtesy.
An ache sits on his left molar; his appetite for sweets often gave him toothache. When he was a child, Kendra made him gulp down a bitter potion that sent pins shooting through his gums before making the insides of his mouth thicken into the taste of rubber. She proceeded to slip a thread around his bad tooth and tie the other end to a doorknob.
“Shut your eyes and be brave, Albus.”
He trusted her. Kendra slammed the door and out came the tooth. Warmth and salt oozed from the hole in his mouth. Loss was a sharp wrench of movement that sent needle-thin echoes cracking through his skull.
Kendra is becoming an increasingly comforting memory to Albus. She had died for him, for Aberforth, and most of all for Ariana. When she died, she took all the burden of blame with her, and still he had been resentful and bitter because hadn’t she left him with the twin anchors of brother and sister? He was ungrateful, inflamed with his sense of self, but how clean her death had been. Kendra’s death was the concept of a sacrifice. Now—now, Ariana. Ariana’s death is different. This is a death that has stained him, that looks him in the eye through the gaze of every stranger present, that whispers the shadowy syllables of doubt behind the proffered condolences. He is implicated, and deserving of implication.
It is not our burdens that kept us sealed to our fates, but our love of enslavement.
Gellert’s voice slips through the fissures in his thoughts, throbbing with the ache in his cheek.
You keep her imprisoned. Does she want this? Surely she deserves a little humanity.
Ariana’s casket had sat in their repaired sitting room for the past two days. Last night, both Albus and Aberforth sat by her, keeping vigil. Ariana was featureless in death, and she seemed to shrink into her favourite forget-me-not blue dress. Flowers smothered the lower half of her body, gladioli and waxen roses. Her fingers were pinched around a bouquet. She lay there, a frilly garden, the blooms sponging up what little colour left of her. When morning light cut across the floor, Aberforth had gone upstairs to the attic, sat on the small rocking chair and rocked back and forth, back and forth violently. A crack splintered through the house.
Bathilda breaks away from the semicircle of funeral attendees to stand beside Albus and squeeze his shoulder, and he is grateful for this. He is excused.
The casket lowers itself into the earth beside Kendra’s grave. He didn’t have time to arrange for a new headstone, so Ariana’s name is simply inscribed upon Kendra’s headstone. There are no eulogies for his sister, and the watchers whisper to each other. These are Kendra’s few acquaintances in Godric’s Hollow, and most of them were completely unaware that she had a daughter.
Earth slides into the grave until it is filled. Rain falls in tatters.
Aberforth turns away abruptly but Albus catches up with him in two long strides. He must not let his brother go.
“I’m leaving,” Aberforth says.
“I can see that.”
“I mean I’m not going back to Hogwarts. I’m through with school. And no, I’m not merely being rash.”
“Hardly the wisest choice for yourself, Aberforth. I know it’s hard going back, but you’ve just got a year left of school, and I can assure you that it will make all the difference in the years to come. I’ll help you through your last year, I promise.”
“Yes, you would know all about wise choices,” Aberforth spits. “We’re both standing here today because of your glorious wisdom and your brilliant choices.”
“I understand your anger at me,” Albus says quietly. Dread closes around his airways and a light-headedness settles between his ears. “But you needn’t turn that anger in on yourself. Please, just consider this. Mother would have liked you to at least complete your magical education.”
“She would,” Aberforth agrees. “But she would rather have Ariana alive.”
“However I’ve acted in the past, I want to make amends,” Albus says, at last, desperation evident in his voice. “We are the only ones left of our family. Mother and Father and now Ariana are gone, and I don’t want to lose you, or us to lose each other.”
In response, Aberforth spins around, bringing his fist with him, and with the momentum of his body, lands it right in the centre of Albus’s face. There is a crunch of bone yielding and a collective gasp from the few attendees still present. Pain snaps like a released spring, striking the back of his eyeballs and he blinks, blood leaking from his broken nose.
“Do not beg anything of me,” Aberforth shouts. “You never saw Ariana as anything more than her illness—all through her life you analysed and studied and tried to solve her, you only sought to measure how much she would hinder you and your brilliant dreams, what quantity of her was sticking in the way between you and him. You saw her as a problem that needed a solution, but of course you wouldn’t have guessed that she was a lot more complicated than a Potions recipe, because aren’t you the most complex, the most misunderstood, the most gifted of us all? Well, you have your solution now.”
Truth and shame split Albus’s tongue with the gall of his brother’s words.
Aberforth continues: “And I know they’re all dead, by the way. You needn’t remind me. I have no use for your regrets; you can keep those.”
He Disapparates in a whorl of wind, and the onlookers emit another gasp of collective disapproval.
But Albus no longer cares.
* * *
Aberforth arrives home, intact. Miraculously.
Just a few months ago at Hogwarts, he had failed the Ministry’s Apparition test, Splinching himself badly and leaving behind a thick band of his torso, while the rest of him made it to the destination.
The feeling is somewhat similar now. He stumbles through the house, eviscerated by loss. He storms up the stairs but that brings him too close to Ariana’s attic and the chair he had just broken this morning so he goes downstairs again and paces through the rooms. He turns the space of the kitchen and the living room into spirals of aimless miles. If he stays still, he becomes all too aware of the disconsolate certainty of his body, composed of nothing but empty chambers stacked on top of each other, amplifying his heartbeat. He feels like this house.
There is nothing left for him here. Well, there is Albus, but he won’t have anything to do with Albus any longer.
In his bedroom, he kicks a trunk out from under the bed, draws his wand and begins directing his possessions inside. He strips the room and when it is bare, sits down heavily on his unmade bed for the last time. Something hard presses against the side of his thigh, and he draws out a wooden pinecone doll from his pocket: the same doll he had crafted and given to Ariana, only for her to return it to him.
For protection, she had told him.
Had he been protected? It is hard not to think so; during the altercation, Grindelwald, with his volley of deadly curses hadn’t come close to harming him seriously. He had emerged from the scuffle with nothing more severe than an assortment of scrapes and cuts. Unlike Ariana.
Aberforth squeezes the doll and presses it over his heart. It grows warm in his hand, and the stiff flakes of the pinecone are familiar against his palm.
“You’ll live,” he tells himself. “Because she didn’t.”
He lugs his trunk out the door, but pauses outside Albus’s bedroom. If only he can uproot all those tidy sheets and sweep all his brother’s carefully arranged books from the shelf. At the funeral, watching his stricken brother, Aberforth had never hated him so fiercely before.
But he doesn’t do anything except toss the pinecone doll onto Albus’s pillow.
He has no need for protection, not any longer. Albus doesn’t deserve this, but he’ll get it anyway, because Ariana would want Albus safe and unharmed, because Albus gets everything, anyway.
Aberforth’s trunk thuds and smacks down the steps and out the front door. He picks it up and hauls it out the garden gate. He will not return to this village.
* * *
Albus remains in the churchyard, beside Ariana’s grave, long after the last guest (Bathilda) leaves. A number of the other attendees had milled around in a rather infuriating fashion, pretending to examine the names and inscriptions on the ranks of headstones. He rather suspected that Aberforth’s public outburst had stirred up some excitement among them, and they lingered, scavenging for gossip.
Ariana is in the earth now, still unacknowledged by life.
He kneels and touches the carved letters of his sister’s name on the headstone, though his blessing feels tainted.
“I cannot undo this, little sister.” The tenderness in his voice is foreign. “Just a few days ago, I would have tried, but I know that this is now beyond me. You have taught me that.”
If only he could beg for forgiveness! He would offer her everything; he would pledge anything for her, for Aberforth, for the ruins of this family. But there is nothing to forgive; there is nobody to forgive or be forgiven. Death has destroyed the possibility of any transaction of forgiveness. Death has left behind an unbalanced equation.
If he were to make amends, it will never be toward his sister. She isn’t here, and he doesn’t believe in any form of her lingering behind.
He cannot face this empty churchyard any longer. The trees shush each other, and the crooked lines of headstones offer him neither compassion nor judgement. The world is this: a godless, gentle thing, accepting him and his every deed without a word. He feels minuscule, undifferentiated from his dead sister or his unruly brother, who by now would have left Godric’s Hollow. Aberforth is true to his words.
Albus wanders into the desolate ivy-choked church. A new kind of silence drapes over him: the silence of places consecrated by humanity. The nave of the church is filled with the decrepit ranks of pews. Parts of the roof have been pulled off by storms, and sunlight is cut into falling lace by the tangle of vines. There are plans being made by the town’s Muggle councillors to restore this church.
Standing at the lectern, confronting an invisible congregation, is Gellert. He looks down at Albus with disinterest and a condescending familiarity.
“My guess is right, then,” Albus says, coolly. “I had the feeling that you weren’t far, even though Bathilda told me you’d left for London and were on your way back to the Continent.”
Gellert leaps down the steps of the sanctuary, landing beside Albus. “You are bleeding, amid other things.”
His nose is crusted with dried blood from Aberforth’s punch, and his cheeks are encased in hardened tears. He had not even noticed that they had been falling. His face is throbbing.
“It was Aberforth,” Albus replies, dully.
All of a sudden, Gellert pulls him into an embrace, and the sides of their faces chafe. Albus is too surprised to respond; he tumbles into Gellert, his height making his drape slightly over Gellert’s shorter frame. This display of intimacy is jarring but not unwelcome, and for a moment, Albus toys with the idea of not letting go.
But the thought disintegrates even as it forms.
“Let me fix this.” Gellert traces a fingertip along the raw, skewed outline of Albus’s nose.
Albus pulls away in a trice. “Not everything that is broken can be pieced together so easily.”
Gellert’s expression hardens. “You are now a free man, Albus, whether you accept it or not. What will you do with all this freedom?”
It is true: the future is an endless field before him, directionless space. All that can be seen is the disc of the horizon. Time falters and drops to his feet, begging to be marked, to be defined, to be put to use. He cannot bear this desolation.
“I only know what I mustn’t do.”
“It is really true, then,” Gellert laughs. “We do become attached to our burdens. We love the things we claim to hate. We love our subjugators and our subjugation. You are the perfect example of this, a living breathing microcosm for the wretched state of our magical world, and the chains it imposes upon itself. But I shall not be like you, Albus. I shall be different.”
There is nothing more that he can say. “I wish you well, Gellert.”
The syllables drop like stones punching through the glassy film of a still pond, stirring up the sediments at the bottom. The church is silent, and the stagnancy between him and Gellert is silted with both their joint insincerity.
“The next time we meet, we may no longer be friends.”
“So it may be.”
“Who is the last enemy, Albus? Because it is not I.”
Albus doesn’t answer. He turns away from Gellert, who stands at the foot of the altar, bright and upright like a sapling, or a saint among the ruins, growing upward to break the ceiling with his bare, branching hands, slab by slab until he strikes the sun.
Gellert calls after him as he walks out the doorway: “Maybe I will write to you, my friend!”
* * *
These are his mother’s words to him, spoken as a daily Charm threading his life together: May the saints guide you always, Gellert.
Prayers and charms will always be the same to her. Magic and the glory of the saints are synonymous.
He shuts his eyes in the sunlit gloom of the church, lifts his wand above his head and summons all the power within him, then releases his spell without an incantation. From all their recesses in the walls come the saints: headless, half-limbed or intact, some of them shapeless trunks of stone, blighted by frost and mould, with faces weathered into indeterminacy. They drop their crosses and holy books and swords as they lumber down the aisles to encircle him in their monolithic, crumbling communion.
He smiles evenly at his mute witnesses. They meet his gaze. Then he breaks them all with a flourish of his wand. His spell grinds them down to meal, to ashen dust swirling in the air, the grit beading in his eyelashes.
Nobody but Albus knows that he is still here in Godric’s Hollow.
It has been two days since he’d emerged from the fireplace of a London inn, after leaving Great-aunt Bathilda’s. Two days he stayed in that inn, unwilling to depart, even though the Continent called him home, even though he felt the tug of the Hallows, impatient for their discovery by him. And last night, a tap on his window had startled him. There was an owl outside, and for a moment, excitement and hope flared in his heart, for he recognised the bird: Albus’s owl, Pythagoras, who had been delivering their letters all summer.
But the note he received was not written by Albus’s hand.
That which you seek is not for you.
Those whom you call will answer with your destruction.
I have heard the dead speak, seen them draw cold breath, and in my blood I have bound death itself.
And the last enemy that I shall destroy is death.
There is no name on the letter.
It seems strange that Ariana Dumbledore would ever write him a letter, and even stranger that she would write such a cryptic message. Certainly, she had her secrets when alive, and what a great pity it is that he never found them out, that he never learnt the true extent of her uninhibited magic. It was this letter that had made him return to Godric’s Hollow and attend Ariana’s burial from afar, cloaked in Concealment Charms.
Gellert leaves the rubble of the church and goes outside. At the foot of Ariana’s grave, he buries her note there.
“Destruction is a strong word for you, little Ariana, but not too strong.Let perpetual light shine upon your soul, now and forever.” It is the best eulogy he can offer. After all, she had never really cared much for him when she was alive.
Gellert rises to his feet. Never mind the meek saints, the martyrs, or the one whom he was named after, dying his ignoble death. No, he will live and he will seek the power that he deserves. He will reshape the world and bring triumph and justice to magic; he will eliminate the yoke of secrecy and oppression from a unified wizarding world. For the greater good, he will live. He will bring together the Deathly Hallows, as he and Albus had promised to do. He will carry both their dreams with him, and do what Albus cannot do.
Maybe he will forgive Albus for his betrayal.
But that will come later.
For now, he has a Portkey to catch. For now, the day is still new, and the light is still glowing with promise, and so Gellert Grindelwald laughs as he Disapparates into a future spun with gold.
A/N: So ends my very first completed novel! *sobs*
A huge, huge, huge thank you to everyone who has been following this fic; your support has been amazing. Thank you to all who have left reviews and gave me such encouraging feedback.
Thank you to Kristin, Laura, Dan, Kenny and Mo for all your latest reviews on this fic. Thank you to everyone who has read but never reviewed--I appreciate your reads so much. And thank you to Isobel, for whom this fic was originally (and still it!) dedicated to, for being a great friend and keeping in touch with me.
It's sad that I'm no longer able to celebrate my completion of my first ever novel on the forums, which has been my internet home for the past four years, but that's alright. Home is where the people are, so long live HPFF.