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Chapter 8 : Witch in the Water
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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. ♥
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