The title and summary for this story come from “This Bitter Earth”, a beautiful song by the lovely and talented Dinah Washington. I hope you enjoy this, and I covet your reviews.
It was just one of a thousand shadows, a small shred of darkness that cascaded gently down the sheets of frozen stone as the wind beat against the stalwart, steady walls of the ancient castle. It disappeared beneath darker shades and emerged on the other side, making its way down and around the spiraling towers until it dipped onto the grass below, which was enjoying a brief reprieve of dryness before the dew descended with the morning and turned each blade to ice. The edges of the shadow fluttered slightly, almost as if it were shivering in the winter-laced breeze, and then it dove toward the safety of a tiny covered window that sat nearly at ground level.
The young man on the other side of the window barely heard the tapping under the noise of the wind howling all around the castle. In fact, he might not have even noticed the owl staring expectantly at him if he hadn’t glanced up to assess the presence of the stars on this frigid night. His heavy eyelids settled briefly over his irises of coal as he noted a battered envelope tucked into the bird’s mouth, a gracious substitute for the lack of stars in the smooth, dark sky above. Resisting the chill with his thick fur jacket, which he had taken to wearing even indoors after suffering through many bleak winters in his homeland of Bulgaria, he unlatched the fragile window and accepted the letter, rewarding the bird with a few moments to soak up the heat. He had no treats for the messenger, and he no longer cared if the chill seeped into his bedroom.
He passed the fire, which he had lit to keep himself warm but by which he could also hope to make out the letter’s contents in his otherwise shadowy dwelling. Traditionally, fires were only lit at Durmstrang for magical purposes, but seeing as he was one of few residents in the castle on the evening prior to Christmas, he cared little for following the rules. Besides, he wasn’t even a student there any longer, but a member of staff. The school had requested that he teach the younger students to fly during the colder months when his regular career was on seasonal hiatus. The position came with free meals and room and board. He had elected not to refuse them.
When the owl had departed, Viktor Krum settled himself before the fire and opened his gift.
He nearly gasped as he recognized the handwriting he had not seen in many months. In fact, she hadn’t written to him since the summer, when she’d politely declined his invitation to come and visit following his departure from her school. At first, he’d been angry, pacing about his room and convincing himself more with each passing day that she’d surrendered to the red-headed boy, or worse, Harry Potter, one of few young men more famous than himself. Then, his concerns about her romantic life were replaced by fears concerning the growing war outside. He had taken out a subscription to the Daily Prophet just to keep up with the names of the dead.
He had not considered what he might do if her picture was printed in the paper one day.
His heart swelled slightly as he carefully unfolded her letter, which comprised two pages of parchment and had been abused by the falling snow and unrelenting wind. He took a moment to return to his old habit, staring at his name in her quill’s ink and falling deeper in love with her. But this tradition did not captivate his interest for long; he needed to get to the source of the letter, to why she had taken so long to write, to the chance that she desired him to be at her side.
Like any woman, she began her correspondence to him with useless, flowery pleasantries, inquiring idly about his health and the weather, as if she were somehow ignorant of the fact that, without fail, the December freeze rendered Norway all but uninhabitable each and every winter. He read only superficially through her initial paragraphs, though he took note of the fact that she professed to be well and enjoying her fifth year at Hogwarts. She made an unusually minute mention of her friends, and he took pause at this, wondering if the three might be growing apart. If they were, it was little business of his, and thus his eyes traced further down the folded page.
As Viktor progressed through her next paragraph, he was met with vivid descriptions of the Christmas season at Hogwarts. He could picture the large tree posed in the corner of the hall, lit up with tiny floating candles at the end of each branch and crowned with a warmly glowing star. As she began to describe some of her preferred ornaments, he was reminded of his time at Hogwarts during the previous Christmas, when he found amusement in watching the tiny Charms professor scale a child-sized ladder and stand on his tiptoes to pass the brightly colored baubles up to a rather chubby and cheerful ghost hovering near the top of the tree. He had spent a number of nights tucked inside the large window frames at Hogwarts’ expansive library, alternating between watching the snow pour down outside and staring at Hermione’s golden-brown curls in boyish fascination. His cheeks flushed just slightly with embarrassment whenever she looked over and caught him observing him, but when she smiled, he felt nothing but joy.
The fire before him cracked, bringing him back to the feel of the damp parchment in his hand and the darkness that adorned the corridors of Durmstrang. He frowned, putting the letter down in his lap and realizing for the first time that his second home looked nothing like the season suggested. In fact, it was far from the way Hermione had described Hogwarts, with its bare, shadowy halls and the way the students only spoke to one another out of necessity instead of pausing to spread Christmas cheer. Durmstrang had never been a particularly friendly place, but it had become especially foreboding since the unforeseen departure of its Headmaster.
Viktor’s eyes darkened slightly as he stared into the fire, pondering his final days in the presence of his former mentor. Karkaroff, who had worked to maintain strict order among the boys that inhabited the corridors of his illustrious school, had become a bit of a phantom amongst his pupils as the final task of the Tournament approached, and he began to forget the lectures of encouragement and flattery that he had taken to bestowing upon Viktor every day. His eyes took on a deep madness, a sense of hopelessness that Viktor felt was too profound to attribute to his performance in the competition. He began to bathe only once a week, and then every two weeks, and then so rarely that no one could stand to spend long in his presence, Viktor included. The unusually quiet voyage home from Hogwarts was the last time he’d seen the man.
Then, Hermione was saying goodbye to him again and blushing, and he returned to her note.
Viktor, I’m afraid.
Her words made the cold that had been slowly building in the room, a reminder of the rule against opening the windows in the later months, feel ever more salient to him despite his quickening heartbeat. I just don’t see how I can focus on my schoolwork when I know that he could be out there, watching us and waiting for the perfect moment to attack. And I’m worried about Harry. Ron is, too. He’s barely seems like he’s listening when I talk to him.
He felt jealous bile rise up in his gut, mixing uncomfortably with the remnants of his dinner, and he ignored her final thoughts. Instead, he turned back to the previous line.
…I know that he could be out there, watching us and waiting for the perfect moment to attack.
He opened his mouth to utter her name in concern and realized that he would be talking to no one. He couldn’t help but wonder, though, if he could soothe her even if she were standing before him in the lonely room. After all, another presence felt closer to hers now, replacing the warmth of her thin body wrapped in scarves and layers with the heavy feeling of a hand on his shoulder, steering him forcefully toward a destiny he would never have selected on his own.
But would he? Karkaroff’s private conversations with him before the sudden turn in behavior had always included the reminder that a powerful league of wizards was waiting for him after graduation. He had been told many tales of men who could help him perfect his nearly impeccable spell-casting skills, who could teach him to turn ordinary objects into powerful weapons, who had spent their lives training vicious beasts that caused lesser men to faint. He recalled Karkaroff speaking highly of one man in particular, Snape, whom he claimed could poison men effortlessly without the victim or any witnesses raising even a hint of suspicion. He was reminded of his initial meeting with Snape, feeling anew the bitter surprise that overcame him when he and Karkaroff realized simultaneously that fame did not impress everyone.
He smiled a little despite himself. No, fame did not impress everyone, but Hermione had found other qualities she prized in him, or so it seemed. She laughed politely at his jokes, and she listened avidly as he recounted the close victories he had secured during the previous Quidditch season. She had even obliged his request to take her for a ride on his prized broomstick, though she could not hide her relief to be back on solid ground when they landed ten minutes later.
Viktor, I’m afraid.
He could almost hear her. He frowned a little once again, trying to imagine Karkaroff as he’d known him previously, but the last few months of confusion too easily overshadowed the seven years of power and privilege to which he’d grown so accustomed. Viktor could feel a pang of doubt as he considered the stories about the fearsome talents of the men in Karkaroff’s circle. Everything he had been taught pushed him in the direction of joining those infamous individuals, and yet, the few fleeting moments he had enjoyed with Hermione had a strange pull of their own.
He remembered how her brown eyes lightened slightly when she smiled, and he folded the letter, looking again into the fire. He may be miles from her, but he would stand strong where he was, extending her the tiniest of courtesies: he was resolved never to act against her, never to hurt her.
The fire before him blazed with renewed strength, overpowering the creeping chill in the air.
When they next met, perhaps in the streets of London or when he again asked her to spend the summer with him in Bulgaria, he would no longer be hidden by Karkaroff and his war stories. He would stand at her side and defend her, even if it meant that he had to share the battleground with the boys with whom she typically associated. He would systematically eliminate the men whose feats he had memorized, destroying each one until she could smile for the rest of her life.
Viktor stood up, feeling every day of his nineteen years. He retrieved a battered but unused piece of parchment from between two books that were already at home on the shelf when he had arrived. Next, he stopped at the desk he had all but forgotten about, retrieving a quill and half-empty bottle of ink. Lastly, he found a spare bit of food suitable for a bird, and took his seat.
Then, knowing exactly what he intended to say, Viktor began to write.