Chapter 8 : Puanteur
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"Where are we?"
He surveys his surroundings. "I'm not sure, but not far enough, and we'll never get anywhere if we look like this. Come here."
Simon feels a bit stupid brandishing a toilet brush around. When the tattered striped pyjamas morph into civilian clothing, and he has performed a rapid Scourgify, however, he must admit that it is good enough.
"Give me the brush," Sarah demands. As an afterthought, she adds, "please." The word feels so foreign. In the past year and a half, she has never asked for anything, merely taken what she could and fought to get the extra scraps.
With nimble fingers, Sarah strips the wood of the handle off, revealing the wand which she hands to Simon.
Knowing that he is now responsible for someone other than himself, he finds himself even more aware of the danger they are in.
"We need to get the hell away from here." He squats slightly to be at eye-level with his sister. "Do you remember my friends from Caen? Camille, Jean, Johanna, Xavier, Astrid?" She nods. "Who do you remember best?"
"The girl with the brown hair who gave us a pot of strawberry jam once."
It has been four years now since the Ziegler family has left Caen, and Simon has no idea who Sarah is talking about.
His confusion must be evident because Sarah shakes her head at him. "She was always staring at the other boy, I can't remember his name, when she thought he wasn't looking. We got a letter in Paris that they were going to get married!"
"Camille, then. Alright, I want you to concentrate very hard on her face. Try to remember anything you can about her."
Sarah nods, closing her eyes for more focus. Simon holds her arm, and he too thinks of Camille, trying to remember her face, the crinkles around her eyes when she laughed, her habit of smacking Xavier on the back of the head when he spoke nonsense.
The tugging sensation is a lot stronger this time, and the impact much more painful. His torso hurts like hell, one glance announces the diagnosis: splinched.
Before everything goes black, Simon recognises the face looming into view, features the perfect picture of shock.
The crack makes Camille's head shoot up in alarm from yet another report she is filing. As the one who destroyed the Nazi headquarters through fire, her feedback is apparently crucial to the Ministry. Never mind that Christmas is in less than a week and that she'd like to think about that instead, Paul Goldberg doesn't wait.
She draws her wand and holds it in front of her as she makes her way to the living room, where it clatters to the ground accompanied by a scream.
Covered in blood, Simon lays on the floor. Next to him, shaking, is one of his sisters. With her shaved head and emaciated cheeks, Camille has no idea whether it is Esther or Sarah. The girl, however, immediately recognises her and throws herself into her arms, tears breaking loose and streaming down her cheeks.
Camille tightens her arms around her in response, silently acknowledging how desperately thin the body she holds is.
She rocks her like a baby for a while, before remembering that there is a man emptying himself of his blood in the middle of the room.
"Let me take care of your brother, and then I'll take care of you, okay?"
As the girl moves away, still crying, Camille finally recognises her as Sarah. She waves her wand imperiously, summoning a flask of Dittany to her, which she pours onto Simon's chest. The bleeding stops, though he is still very pale. Another flick of Camille's wand settles him more comfortably on the sofa as the blood vanishes (there have been more than enough men bleeding on the carpet these past few days for Camille to consider her quota filled for at least the next month), and she rapidly moves back to Sarah.
"How far did you Apparate from?"
"I don't know. We never saw. We were on the train the whole time, and…" Her previously dulled sobs increase again.
"Shh," Camille soothes. "You don't need to talk now if you don't want to. I'll get you something to eat first."
There isn't much, just half a loaf of bread and a bit of margarine, but it will have do. As she pushes two slices towards Sarah, Camille warns, "Eat slowly. I don't know when you last ate properly, but I'm assuming it was a while ago, and your body won't react well to the change."
Despite this advice, Sarah wolfs down the first slice in a matter of seconds. As she attacks the second, she begins to tell her story to Camille.
"We were taken away in July, to the biggest velodrome in Paris, the Vélodrome d'Hiver…"
Vélodrome d'Hiver, Paris, July 1942.
The first thing they notice is the smell – the smell of thousands of terrified human beings rounded up in the same place, with limited access to sanitation.
Simon has come here before once or twice to watch a bike race, but this is different. The bicycle track at the centre now hosts several tents obviously meant for doctors, in front of which many people are already queuing, and the spectator seats are filled with people, fidgeting, crying or praying. Many also shout for water they do not have, and will not get.
Mere hours later, with the toilets clogged up and the heat of the Vélodrome, the stench has gotten even worse. Deaths begin to be reported – the bodies are evacuated as best as possible.
The hub of rising panic grows louder and louder; yet in the middle of it Deborah's gasp is clearly audible to her family around her.
"The baby is coming."
"I'm going to deliver, Joseph!"
"How? Your waters haven't broken yet!"
"They broke when I came off the bus," Deborah admits. "I'm sorry."
Carrying her to a doctor is near impossible though the throng, but Simon forces his way past, Joseph on his heel and Deborah on his arm, using his burly shoulders to push people aside and a steely glare to silence those who protest. The miracle occurs: they are granted access inside one of the tents.
Simon has only studied medicine for two years, but he is enrolled to help anyway. There is a shortage of nurses, of doctors, of medication: anyone who does not squirm at the sight of blood is worth keeping.
The baby, a boy, is still-born. Deborah cries of exhaustion, despair and joy.
"That makes one less of my children to have to go through whatever is coming."
She is handed two compresses, and sent back to her seat. Struggling to keep her back straight, she kisses Esther and Sarah on the head in an attempt at reassurance. Simon takes them down to the track to distract them, they play tag with other children amidst the waste, under the already empty gazes of over seven thousand people. Only Joseph stays by Deborah's side, holding her hand as she allows herself to weep again now that her children cannot see her. He presses a kiss to her temple, and when she buries her face against his shoulder, he holds her tightly to him, hoping that she will die before she can suffer even more.
Sarah talks to Camille until the sun drops, and both are crying. One grieves, for the first time, for everything she's lost, the other is disgusted by the fact that human beings are doing this to others.
The Nazis want to turn those they deem inferior into animals; yet they are the ones losing their humanity in the process.
When Sarah has finished speaking, Camille pulls her to her again. "You're safe now," she whispers against her stubbly head. "I promise."
The others arrive when Sarah is bathed and fast asleep in the girls' room, Simon sleeping in the bed next to hers.
"You've been crying," Jean notes. "What happened?"
"Simon is back. I don't know what distance they Apparated over, but Simon splinched half an arm."
"They?" Jean asks over Johanna's hysterical gasping at the news of Simon's return.
"His sister is with him."
"Only one." Xavier isn't asking a question.
"Putain." His mouth sets into a thin line. "We're going to get back at these bastards. How old was Esther?"
"Not old enough. Sarah doesn't know about her parents, and she doesn't know where they were either, but I think Simon might know more."
"What worries me is how they accessed the flat," Jean states darkly. "The wards recognised the entering wand signature as foreign, but still let it pass."
"It's not the wand signature that matters, but the magic of the person yielding it. Magic is what leaves the trace, not the wand. There are no risks."
Jean stares at Camille in doubt. "Are you sure?"
"In that case," a small smile graces his lips, "we wait for them to wake up and thank any superior authority for the fact that they're alive."
The Ministry Atrium, as expected, is practically empty when Astrid Apparates into it. Three days before Christmas, it only seems obvious that people would try to distract themselves from the war, especially wizards. They can afford to pretend it does not exist, after all.
She smoothes down her black skirt with the flat of her hand as she makes her way to Goldberg's office. She chose it purposefully, along with the shabbiest cardigan in her closet – she doesn't want him to get the wrong idea.
An assistant in dark crimson robes stops her just before she enters the antechamber preceding the actual office.
"The Minister is in an important meeting, Mademoiselle. If you'd like to take a seat…" He motions to the plush armchairs scattered along the walls. Once Astrid is seated, back straight and ankles crossed under her seat, the wizard continues, standing by her elbow. "Would you care for something to drink?"
"No, thank you." She needs full possession of her senses to face Goldberg and escape as unscathed as possible should he choose to be more upfront now that she is alone. "Do you happen to know when the meeting should end?"
"Unfortunately not, Mademoiselle, however Minister Goldberg has been informed of your arrival. This should certainly be reason enough for him to shorten his current rendez-vous."
Astrid frowns slightly at the last sentence. If that bastard has been spreading rumours or making allusions, I'll Avada Kedavra him myself and will enjoy every moment of it. Remembering her place, she banishes the creases off her forehead and flashes as bright a smile as she can manage to the assistant.
"I have time," she beams, fluttering her eyelashes. "Perhaps you might entertain me with your conversation while we wait."
Reddening and stammering, the man natters off to a barely listening Astrid, who nods, widens her eyes, and makes small noises of appreciation when her interlocutor pauses for breath. After twenty minutes of the oblivious boy's small talk, Astrid arches her back out, yawns, and gazes wistfully at her watch.
"Tell me, Antoine dear, should this not have finished by now?"
He closes his ajar mouth, raising his gaze to Astrid's face. "I, um, it should have."
"It must be terribly important if it drags on like this."
"It is," Antoine agrees distractedly, eyes flicking down to where Astrid is licking her lips ever so slightly. "Not that I could tell you anything about it, it's exclusively between the Minister and Monsieur Grindelwald and no one has been given further details."
Again, a barely visible frown flickers across Astrid's features. Grindelwald is most certainly not the kind of name one would expect to hear in a place like the Ministry, and even less the name associated to a person who has confidential meetings with the Minister. Astrid suddenly feels like her mouth is full of ashes – she doesn't understand what is going on, but she knows that something is very, very wrong.
Before she can pressure Antoine into answering more of her questions, the door between office and antechamber opens with an alarmingly loud creak. Against the light streaming from the room behind him, Goldberg is only a dark, imposing shadow for a moment, until he lets out a booming laugh and saunters over to where Astrid has gotten up upon his arrival.
"My dear Astrid," he takes the hand she has, with hidden disdain, stuck out for him and kisses it grandiloquently, "I do apologise for making you wait."
"You were working. Do not apologise."
"Shall we move to my office to discuss the progress in your mission?"
"Gladly," Astrid forces a smile onto her face.
To her relief and utmost surprise, the meeting stays as professional as it can be, save for Goldberg's heavy flirting and allusions. He wants her to find the wizards amidst the soldiers she cohabits with, record their habits and the moments where they are alone, and keep the Ministry aware of any developments. What she is collecting this information for, Astrid does not ask. Death will certainly await them all, it is the time between their capture and their execution that will fluctuate.
"Oh, and Astrid," Goldberg calls out after her once she has left. "If you are, for some reason, still in contact with the incompetent fools you had the misfortune of working with before, please tell them I want results, and fast. If by the end of the month they have brought me no one, the consequences will be rather dire."
Astrid smiles. "I shall make sure to let them know."
Unspoken, the words and to help them kill you should you try to harm us resonate in her head.
A/N: Hello! Again, apologies for the lateness, hopefully the next chapters should be up faster as they only require editing. Considering that I've said that quite a few times before though, I'd advise you to take my words with a pinch of salt.
A note on the Vélodrome d'Hiver... Built originally to host indoor bike races, it was a massive stadium able to hold 17.000 people. During the second world war, it served as a place to park half the Jews arrested during the roundup of the 16th of July 1942, so approximately 7.000 people. They stayed there five days, with no food and only one point of access to water. Those who tried to escape were shot on the spot. The others were transfered to French transit camps (Drancy, Pithiviers, Beaune-la-Rolande), before being sent off to extermination camps in Germany. Of all those who were rounded up, less than a hundred adults survived, and not a single child. This roundup, on its own, was responsible for the deportation of over a quarter of the Jews who were sent from France to Auschwitz in 1942.
Please let me know what you though of this chapter, and as always thank you for sticking with me even when I put the characters through horrible things and am a slow updater. ♥
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