Chapter 3 : Methodical
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20th September, 1941: The Daily Prophet main article
Grindelwald Increases Grip on France
Critical town in Southern France lost to German Empire – can French Resistance last?
The critical town of Narbonne in Languedoc-Rousillon was seized by Grindelwald’s forces in the early hours of this morning, following fierce fighting throughout the night. Fighting started at seven fifty-six in the evening, mere minutes before the curfew put in place by the French Government when war was first declared, and only ceased at four thirty-five in the morning, when the mayor of the town officially surrendered the town to the German forces.
The French Resistance fighters based in the town were aided by a large number of townsfolk, many of whom have married muggles in the area or who live in harmony with their muggle neighbours. At present, it is estimated that sixteen members of L’Association Française pour le protection des Moldus have been killed, with at least three others known to be captured. Forty-three townspeople were killed, including eleven women and four children, with countless more injured during the battle. It is believed that over the next few days the death toll of the people of Narbonne will rise, with guesses at a final figure landing somewhere between eighty and one hundred.
Narbonne is a grave loss for those Freedom Fighters in the south of France, as it occupies a useful position in both the Floo Network across the south and geographically. On the Floo Network, it sits as a major grate between the towns and cities on the Mediteranean coastline and Paris, serving most of southern France and Monaco, meaning that Grindelwald’s forces will now, since they also have command of the major control centre for the Floo Network in the French Ministry in Paris, be able to Floo troops down to the south and back up to the northern borders to help with the invasion. Furthermore, geographically, it is the gateway to the rest of south-western France, being only ten miles from Carcassone, another town with both a muggle and a magical population, which boasts a number of Apparition hotspots, formerly used for students of Beauxbatons to take their Apparition tests.
General Marie-Thérèse Barousse, leader of L’Association Française pour le protection des Moldus, has issued a plea to those ministries not yet in Grindelwald’s grasp for aid and praised the courage of her fallen comrades: “Every time I hear about the death of another member of the Association, I feel it deeply. It is as if I am losing a member of my family each time. My thoughts and prayers, as well as those of my staff and commanders, are always with the families and friends of those who have died in these times.
“But with each death, we must remember what we are fighting for. We must remember our cause and our conviction and keep our courage. We must be strong, because if we fail, who then will protect our neighbours and our wives and our husbands? Who then will protect our children? We cannot give up or our country will be overrun. It is for our country that we fight, for our freedom and for our rights. We must never forget this.
“There are those who sit behind walls, untouched by these tragedies and unaffected by this war. I would ask you – I beg of you – to come and help us. We cannot do this alone. The German Empire is too strong. Every day, we are pushed back bit-by-bit; every day Grindelwald and his troops take another town, kill more of our people. If you sit there and let them die, let innocents die, then you are just as culpable as he is. Should we fall, you will be next. Grindelwald will not stop once France is his – he will not rest until Europe is united under one banner, that of his empire. I beg you to join us, to help us to stop him before it is too late. We must have courage, my friends, to stand up and fight for freedom, to stand united in opposition, or else he has already won.”
22nd September, 1941; Hogwarts, Scotland
Even now, he hesitates. The Owlery is silent – as it should be, this long after curfew – and almost empty, populated only by a few owls, hooting balefully to each other occasionally. Every so often, a winged silhouette swoops into the room through the high, arched windows, a dead mouse or frog clutched in its beak. There is movement everywhere, it seems, but for him.
Albus stands still, an envelope in one hand. There is no name on the envelope, nothing to distinguish it, a plain red wax disc holding it shut. On the outside, it is ordinary, with no reason to be afraid, but inside… inside is an entirely different story, and it is not one which the man holding it is sure he likes.
Inside his mind, he is stuck fast on one tiny question: is it wise?
So simple a thing, so trivial a matter, but at the same time so important and so necessary to ask. Is it wise? Is it wise to reply to a known Dark wizard? Is it wise to strike up such a correspondence, despite it taking place in the dead of night? Is it wise to tempt the rekindling of a boyhood friendship he had previously considered all but lost? More importantly still, is it wise to stir up memories and emotions he thought he had buried decades ago?
If he sends the letter in his hand, he will do all those things.
He would risk so much – perhaps too much – in pursuit of something he isn’t even sure could happen anymore. There have been rumours, whispers of an extraordinarily powerful wand and Dark spells, darker magic than even he could imagine. He would risk his reputation, his place at Hogwarts, his credibility, his fledgling relationship with his brother (they had just about got beyond nodding and the occasional grunt two years previously). He would be toying with people’s lives, shifting pieces on a board he can’t see, hoping, praying that something good will come of it.
It would be easy, he knows, to turn around and walk straight back to his office, burn the letter he holds and the one to which he is responding and pretend neither were ever written, but for the knowledge that Gellert has written directly to him (he pretends, nonetheless, that that doesn’t make his heart beat just a little bit quicker), the idea that maybe if he is careful he can direct the outcome of the war, temper Gellert’s fury and plans as he once did. Maybe he can, in some small way, help stop atrocities from being committed. He knows he is the only who could attempt such a plan, such a scheme, and he is aware that though he knows Gellert well, it is not an advantage, for the other knows him equally as well.
He holds no aces, only a solitary joker, and if Gellert is serious on his intent of making conversation and holding correspondence with him, of debating politics and ideologies as they once did so many years ago, it will not work. Gellert is nothing if not persistent. Failure will not satisfy him – it never has – and so more and more letters will arrive in much the same manner until he finally bows under the pressure and composes a reply.
There is nothing for him to lose by sending this letter, and perhaps something to gain.
That is why, he tells himself, when he leaves the Owlery five minutes later, he is deep in thought and his hands are empty.
25th September, 1941; Nurmengard, Germany
Recently, he has taken to wandering the corridors of the vast building at night, slipping easily past the guards and checks dotted all around the vast complex. No one ever disturbs him; no one even sees him and it’s a comforting sort of invisibility after having spent the day surrounded by lackeys and servants and politicians and soldiers.
If he had the cloak, he would probably use it on these nightly excursions, though that, to his mind, is a task far too frivolous for the powers of the Hallow. Nevertheless, needs must.
He feels a certain sense of excitement thrumming in the air, almost palpable, and it makes him shiver. Ever since he sent that letter to Albus, ever since he had that single, swift, brilliant idea, he has felt more alive than he has done in years. This is what he lives for: a battle of wits, of magic, of power with an equal, someone who can match him stroke for stroke and blow for blow and not crumble or beg for mercy.
It is a sensation he has long come to associate with Albus, ever since that faded summer long ago, this twinned hope and fear, that energy which makes him grin to himself and almost skip along the corridors. He is young again, young and free and almost giddy.
This strange new mood of his seems to be intimidating his staff. They don’t know what to make of his smiles and his confident, excited manner and the way he’s constantly glancing at the windows, waiting for night to fall, waiting for an owl with the reply. In a way, that amuses him more than anything else; he has always loved confusing people.
Stepping out onto the top of Nurmengard, some thousand feet up in the air, he watches the stars twinkling. Up here, they seem so near, as though he himself is up in the sky with them. To a certain extent, he is. Moving over to the edge of it, leaning on the parapet of thick, black stone, he smiles to himself. It is a beautiful night.
Every night, he comes up here, alone, and just gazes out across the landscape before him: across the wide plains of southern Germany with its forests and woods and neat green fields. On clear nights, in the distance, he fancies that he can see the mountains, see the river, see München. His land, his country.
As the wind whistles through his hair, there’s a flash of red swooping through the sky and he gives a soft whistle – not a call to heel, never a call, but a quick signal: I am here. Less than a minute later, Fawkes lands on the parapet beside him, butting his shoulder with his head. His plumage is fading, the sparkle dimming on the golden feathers; his burning day is approaching.
Above, clouds pass sedately across the moon, casting a dim spell over the land around the fortress. Mere wisps of condensed water, they give off a faint, silvery glint. If he squints, he can see the edge of the moon through them. He doesn’t squint – he can imagine it well enough. Normally he would breathe in the cold night air, feel it flowing down into his lungs, crisp and clean, and just watch the sky, admiring the clouds and the stars and the half-full moon.
Not this night.
Raising a hand, he reaches out – the angle is a little uncomfortable, to be honest, but he ignores it – and strokes the feathers on Fawkes’ neck, running down onto his back. The phoenix has been away for the last few days, flying off into the east, towards the Carpathian Mountains where Gellert first found him. He’s back now, and Gellert is grateful for the company; Fawkes always seems to know when he is needed.
He has come up here every night for the two weeks in a row, waiting for that all-important letter to arrive. It would not do for his subordinates, any of them, to receive the owl without him being there – while he does not distrust any of them specifically, he certainly doesn’t trust them with this. This is too precious, too big a chance to take any chances with.
The difficulty is, he thinks, that owls are always fluttering around Nurmengard, letters tied to their legs, carrying news from Eastern Europe, from the Mediterranean, from Scandinavia, to all departments. Every now and then one looks like it’s about to fly up to him, but it swoops and dives through an open window instead, the letter flapping in the moonlight intended for a different man. On the odd occasion that an owl is intended for him, it usually turns out to be something dull and trivial – like the names of captured spies in Prague, or a report on how the fight is going in Normandy.
He is always tempted to scrunch the parchment, the failed letters, into balls and throw them off the top of the tower, rip them to pieces or set them on fire and watch as they disintegrate into ash, and his hands will tremble, his eyes closing briefly as he takes a deep breath and allows himself to calm down again.
It has been almost two weeks, twelve days and two hundred and eighty-eight hours, and Albus Dumbledore has not responded, and he is getting impatient.
In the back of his mind, a voice wonders if Albus really is going to reply, if, perhaps, he was wrong – but he knows, he knows, that he wasn’t wrong. He is never wrong. Not about Albus, at any rate. Even when the other would very much like him to be wrong, he isn’t. It’s the one thing he prides himself on, more than anything, that he can look at a person and know them, that after only two months he can still recall every little detail, every touch, every glance, every cursed feeling.
An owl hoots behind him and he jumps, pausing for a moment to steel himself, to prepare for yet another disappointment (it is strange, he muses briefly, that before now dispatches and lists of traitors were things he looked forward to receiving, but now they mean nothing to him). Straightening up, he turns around to face the owl, regarding it appraisingly. It’s a tawny owl, large and sturdy, quite obviously overfed, with a letter bound to its leg.
There, just peeking out from the edge of the sealed envelope – the end of a white ribbon, forked, fluttering in the breeze.
Instantly, he bounds forward, fingers already reaching for the knot of the string around the bird’s leg. He fumbles a little with it, mind ahead of his body, muttered under his breath at himself, before it finally comes away and the letter, the letter, falls into his hands.
The owl hoots again, disdainfully, spreads its wings, and takes off again, apparently unwilling to linger for longer than necessary. He barely notices; even Fawkes is ignored as he focuses solely on the blank parchment envelope, as though trying to read what its contents through the paper.
Then, he stuffs it quickly into a pocket, trying not to crumple the edges of it. If all goes well, this could be the ticket to absolute supremacy.
I must express my surprise to hear from you – I had expected for this to be a thoroughly one-sided correspondence until such time as it came to an end – so you must forgive me should I be less verbose than usual.
I do not wish to be dragged into a discussion on theology and philosophical theories, as they are of little value when applied to the real world outside of windows and walls. While yes, they are fascinating topics to converse about – more so than others, perhaps, due to their very nature in that there is no ‘correct’ answer, as such – the world is not a toy for you to play with, testing out your theories until you find the one you like the best.
On that point, I cannot in good faith simply watch you continuing to murder, maim and torture all those who come across your path. People are dying – something must change. It is your empire; their lives are your responsibility. Stop the war and it may be that you do not suffer for what you have done. If you do nothing, it may be that people are forced to act against you, and this will only exacerbate the situation further.
In good faith,
Sitting at his desk, he can only frown, one hand buried in his hair, the other fiddling with a quill on the table. By his side, Fawkes coos and rests his head on his arm, sensing his master’s annoyance. It is soothing, but it doesn’t have the same effect as it normally would; this is something beyond Fawkes’ abilities to deal with.
The letter irritates him – no, it infuriates him. Everything about it is exasperating, from the way Albus refuses to write his name (because what else is that hastily scribbled out mass of ink?), to the way he insists on signing his name at the bottom as though he is writing a missive to a Ministry lackey. His language is equally insulting; his tone verges on condescending at times. Part of him wants to toss it into the flames – toss it away, watch it burn and hang Albus verdammt Dumbledore.
Except that he can’t, if only because it would just mean he would have to find a different way of dealing with the frustrating English wizard before the calls of the wizarding population get too strong for the other to ignore. Gellert does not want to get to that point; it would be better to deal with it calmly, secretly and with as little fuss as possible.
Grabbing an ink bottle and placing it on the top of the sheet of parchment so he can pore over it more easily, he scans the letter once more, trying to find something he can use, something he can work with. Once he has a starting point, he is confident he knows Albus well enough to be able to spin a web fine and tight enough that the other will sing like a canary for him by the time he is finished.
Here and there, he notices, are little hints, little slips – little peeks of Albus showing through the façade of wise, brilliant Professor Dumbledore. It’s not much, hardly anything at all, but it’s enough.
The difficult part, of course, is in composing a reply. It cannot be too formal, as that would defeat the whole purpose of the letters in the first place, but it cannot be too friendly, either. Not yet, at least – perhaps towards the end they will be writing to each other as they used to, with the Hallows sign inscribed at the bottom of each page, like a marker or a secret sign.
And Albus will begin with ‘my dear Gellert’, will write affectionately and eloquently, will praise rather than attack, as he used to. Then, and only then, will he know that he has won.
Fawkes chirps and Gellert, almost absently, lifts a hand to feed the phoenix a honey-covered almond, which vanishes almost as soon as it touches his fingers. Rubbing his fingers together to try and get rid of the stickiness of the honey (Fawkes nudges at his fingers, beak clacking as he searches for another treat), he closes the tin with a flick of his wrist, tucking it back in the top drawer of his desk for a later date. Disappointed, ruffling his wings in the same manner that a man might huff and wriggle in his seat, the phoenix flutters over to his perch on the other side of the room, closing his eyes.
Ignoring Fawkes’ tantrum (really, it is for the bird’s own good – too many sweets and he could be hurtling towards his next Burning Day at the speed of light), though he tries and fails to suppress a small, amused smile, Gellert carefully underlines certain phrases, certain words on Albus’ letter in blue ink. It is too late and he is too tired to write his reply now, the nervous energy from before having worn off now he has received the letter, but it will help him to plan what to say when he sits down to respond.
He is halfway through the letter when he runs out of ink – the nib of his quill is scratching the sides of the bottle on his desk in search of a few remaining drops. Abandoning the old pot, he pulls open the drawer to fetch a spare; Fawkes’ hopeful plea is easily audible as he sees what Gellert is doing, and he cannot help but to give a slight chuckle.
Perhaps it is just him being sentimental, but he finds the temperamental phoenix oddly funny.
Nevertheless, despite Fawkes’ soft, encouraging cries, he unscrews the lid of the new bottle of ink, dipping his quill into it and finishes underlining all he needs to in Albus’ letter. That is all he will do for now; there are other things he will need to do before he can consider replying. Like a good general, he has to gather his troops, his weapons, his supplies before he can attack. That is why in the morning, he knows he must write to Tante Bathilda, a polite letter from her favourite great-nephew, and enquire after her work, after the possibility of a subscription to Transfiguration Today and Challenges in Charming, and about dear Albus’ career. If he is to win Albus over, he will have to be everything: charming, clever, witty, quick, persuasive. He knows he can do it – has done it before - it is just a question of repeating the feat.
The notes on the block of parchment on his desk are scribbled, nearly illegible, and he twirls his quill idly, regarding them one last time, before he lays it down, rising and fetches the tin of nuts from his drawer.
As soon as he begins to walk over, Fawkes perks up, his beady eyes fixing immediately onto the tin and he adjusts his feathers, cocking his head to one side. It is ridiculous, really, but Gellert still finds himself opening the tin and taking out another of the precious treats. The almond is plucked from his fingers as soon as it is in reach, and Fawkes, having gobbled it down, butts his hand gratefully, the first few notes of a cheerful melody bursting into the room.
Petting the phoenix’s head, he cannot help but feel that this has been a good day. France is crumbling, Russia is slowly falling back and he has started his charm offensive against Albus. Fawkes sings, bright and enthusiastic, and Gellert relents, offering him a third treat.
The news comes at breakfast, splashed all over the front pages of the newspapers: Grindelwald’s forces have surrounded Carcassone in the south of France. Fierce fighting on all fronts. Several dead already, many wounded. Albus Dumbledore, resplendent in forest green, exchanges a troubled look with Armando Dippet; Galatea Merrythought clucks her tongue and sighs deeply.
On a wooden desk, approximately one thousand and eighty-six metres away, a phoenix dries his feathers in front of a roaring fire, having dropped off his burden already.
Despite the severity of the situation, the reality of the war and the horrors it causes, Albus can feel his pulse beating quick underneath his robes. It’s not adrenalin – not in the way others would expect. He is not afraid. No, it is rather the opposite: he is excited. For all his posturing and pleas for peace, this – this game of lies and lives held under the looming threat of war and invasion – is what he wants. It is, he muses, just like a live match of chess, the second they have played in their lives, only this time the board is Europe in her entirety.
Grindelwald has moved; Dumbledore must counter. The game is underway.
A/N: 'verdammt' is German for 'damned', and 'Tante' means 'aunt'.
Also, all of the towns, cities and regions mentioned are real places, however their importance to the French wizarding world is totally fictional.
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