THE DEATHLY CHILDREN
Chapter Four: Symbols and Stories
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! ♥
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