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The spare, round-shouldered wizard bent over the letter spread out before him. He must make a decision on this and quickly, for the person to whom it must be delivered, the wizard he regarded as the greatest since Albertus Magnus, was impatient for the knowledge. But it was dangerous to be one who shared this knowledge. He read the letter one more time.
Dear Professor Dumbledore,
Finished at last! I must say, you were correct in your theory. There are indeed two of them. I've owled you a draft of the monograph by separate cover—the complete story, so far as we were able to ascertain. The polished copy I will send to old Mildewe, of course. One must pay one's bills after all. He's been waiting a long time for it, although it will hardly shake up anyone but the academics. I doubt one wizard in a hundred believes in the reality of the Dark Side of magic, still less that its practice is rampant abroad. Nowadays students think classes in Magical Defense are just one more way for teacher to keep them from more important things: dinner, the Quidditch, and their personal amours.
But we know better, don’t we?
I admit I am a little disappointed, sir. You weren't entirely honest with me, hiding your personal interest in the subjects of my enquiry. But then my own aunt, the great Bathilda herself, hid her (and my) relationship to the family Grindelwald too. So I can understand your not wanting people to know that you were once fast friends with one whom, I daresay, has turned into a ruthless, albeit canny, despot. I had to include your part in this business in my writing though. It wouldn't be right to leave it out. Please forgive me. You must have known I would put two and two together.
Anna has been a great help to me, I must admit. Very much like her mother, efficient and quick to see a salient conclusion. And that tin of LOKHS you sent helped her wonderfully in communicating with the natives, although, I must say she picked up oddments of the various dialects well enough to do more than merely haggle over the price of our dinners.
I'm proud to say she has been accepted as assistant to Nott in Mageneology at WEEMI for the coming term. My thanks for suggesting that. They were duly impressed with her personal accomplishments. Aunt Batty, on my prodding, sent along a very nice recommendation.
We're going to take a well-earned sabbatical now.
Yours in truth and history,
The reader raised his head. "You're sure this is the only one?" he spoke sharply to a man standing before him.
The man, unusually tall for a Slav, shrugged. Probably had some giant blood in him—or troll. "Except for dat manuscript yesterday. Ve vatched all night, my lort. No udder owls haf been taken down."
It was enough. This fellow was known for his keen eyesight and accurate bow. He had put an arrow through the messenger's throat—a tiny Scops—and brought the letter to the tent immediately.
"And the house—it is being watched?"
"Most carevully. Novun can get in or out without ve knowink it."
"Has the girl returned?"
"Not yet, but it iss dinner time. She vill not be lonk. Ve haf only to look for da red and yellow platok…."
"Good." He dismissed the tall forester with a nod, and turned to the other wizard in the tent. "Georgy, it is time."
The wizard approached out of the shadows. He wore dark robes in a heavy, canvas-like fabric. "The blue fire, my lord?"
"Of course. We must leave no trace of wood or paper or… bone."
"It shall be done. The flame of the northern drakes cleanses as it burns." He made a complicated gesture, forming with joined hands a triangle, then a circle, ending with his forefinger pointing upwards. "To the cause!" he barked.
To the cause," his superior echoed and watched him leave.
He motioned an owl—another Scops—to him, and tied the letter to its leg with no explanation added. Lord Gellert would know immediately what it portended. The tiny owl made for the tent flap without hesitation, the backbeat of its wings stirring the cold, loose dust at the entrance, as the man wondered what the term 'fast friends' meant to the English.
Hildy Bagshot scrutinized the last page carefully. It shone, like the others, with the viscous liquid Madam Volkovsky had coated it with. Her father couldn’t see bearing the extra expense, and she'd had to bargain with Madam for a fair price, but it was worth it. As long as he insisted on sending his precious manuscript by owl post, she wanted to be sure that over a years worth of scholarship and painfully precise composition would reach Dust and Mildewe unscathed. The Cropuchin Celluloid Protective Potion would guarantee its safety against fire, water, wind, lightning, and cutting damage.
She paid Madam in Muggle zlotys and groszys, as she insisted, carefully bound the manuscript pages, and placed them in her bag. Outside, the sun was setting behind the trees. She'd have to hurry to pick up their dinner.
She made her way down the dirt track to the Kowalkas' cottage. She had contracted with the widow Kowalka and her daughter to provide them with a nightly supper, so that she and her father did not have to worry about it themselves. It had become their habit at every town they visited. And a good thing too, or they might be starving. Hector Bagshot's food-making magic had never been much better than his wife's, and their daughter didn't know any at all as they didn't teach it at Hogwarts any more. She couldn't bring herself to Accio random foodstuffs to their tent every night—the villagers were poor enough as it was.
Elzbieta Kowalka was a pretty girl and knew it. She was no smarter than most Muggles her age and quite a bit vainer. Her mother showed a glimpse of that same fair beauty occasionally when the sun caught her plait of graying hair, wrapped about her head like a wreath. Elzbieta preferred to wear her hair loose and free, and her mother was continually scolding her about it. But she was not entirely devoid of manners, and had volunteered to deliver their dinner to them several times, when Hildy, caught up in a discussion with her father about some point of logic or other, forgot to pick it up. Of course, she received a tip for her trouble, so perhaps her motives weren't entirely ingenuous. Hildy doubted that Elzbieta saw a groszy of the money they paid her mother.
She knocked on the door. Mrs. Kowalka opened it immediately as if she had been waiting. There was an edge to her voice, the Polish lilt subdued by apology.
"Hilya, my daughter took your dinner to the tent. She was afraid it would get cold… "
"That's all right, Mrs. Kowalka, I'm sorry I was late." Hildy was rather proud of her command of Polish, although the LOKHS helped a good deal. "I'm just sorry my father will not be able to pay her for her trouble as I have all our money with me." She fumbled for the tattered purse in her coat pocket.
The woman shook her head. "It is all right. You have been more than generous. That scarf you gave Elzbieta…."
"I'm glad she liked it. It becomes her—festive—and gay." Mother and daughter both admired Hildy's red and gold head scarf, one of the few things she had saved from her days as a Gryffindor. Hildy had given it to her yesterday in a fit of pity. These poor women, caught between a Muggle war and a magical coup d'etat needed a bit of frivol to sustain them to better days.
She bade Mrs. Kowalka goodbye for the final time and stumped to the edge of the village, and on into the forest of spindly trees and overgrowth.
As she walked, she reflected on her father's reasons for owling the monograph, rather than carrying it back in the Floo and presenting it himself to his publisher in Diagon Alley. He had surprised her as he placed the last full stop on the work by announcing diffidently that he was taking her on a tour of France after this, to visit their Ministère in Paris, then branch out into the countryside—the parts not ravaged by Muggle war--making their way to Marseille and the Côte d'Azur. She had never been abroad before, and their days in the Balkans, Poland, and eastern Russia had included no time to relax and enjoy the atmosphere, the glories of the old world. She was suddenly touched by his generosity. He had never before taken note of her in a personal way, she thought. Their collaboration had brought them together in a deeper way, made her less an accidental event in his life, more of a person.
There was an odd smell pervading the twilight, and a hint of smoke, she was sure. Dad would have made a fire in the grate by now, starting it with some crumpled notes—soured ideas and bankrupt theories. A good idea that. Her lips would be blue in this unseasonable weather. They hadn't expected the Carpathian foothills to be so cold in the autumn.
A change in the atmosphere struck her harshly. The air was suddenly ten degrees warmer, and the sky, which had been blackening by the minute, seemed lighter, as if dawn had decided to occur ten hours early. And there was a distinct change from the woodsy fragrance of pine and pleasantly rotting leaves. The sensation reminded her oddly of Hogwarts. That was it—one of her first-ever potions classes. Madam Gora had decided to demonstrate the various types of magical flames under the badgering of that insufferable, two-year old Raymie Sykes. Well, at least his question had been relevant that one time.
The day before someone had asked what a 'normal' flame was. Madam Gora had done a bit of badgering of her own, getting Dugald Macmillan to admit he knew about several sorts of magical flames. It had cemented in Hildy the understanding that he was a kindred spirit of sorts—a seeker after knowledge for its own sake, surprising in so large and awkward a fellow. So Madam Gora had called forth, in turn, the crimson flame of the Chinese Fireball, with its heady flavor of incense, and the steel-colored fire of a Romanian drakes which had an ozone tang, and finally, a very small sample—because it was so intensely hot—of the blue inferno that was the Swedish Short-Snout's weapon of choice. She remembered that smell best of all because it was really an absence of smell; this flame was so overbearing that it razed all oils, gases, resins to their component odorless atoms immediately, and heated its environment to the extent of pulling anything with a hint of the volatile out of the air around it.
She had heard that the Short-Snout could strike quickly, being incredibly fast as well, but the beat of its wings would surely give it away….
She rushed onward through trees and undergrowth, alternately dreading what she might find at the top of the rise and assuring herself that she was being a gormless ninny.
They had erected the tent in a meadow ringed by high, short branched trees, already leafless. She came to the meadow's eaves and saw—nothing. The tent was gone, and in its place, and spreading out to a distance of tens of yards was a burnt circle of whitish ash with a long coil of smoke rising from it. The heat in the ground, even at this distance, was incredible; it made small pebbles glow softly. It was as if the area had been struck by lightning.
Now there was movement at the edge of the trees opposite her. A larger than life man, ugly and dressed like a forester, and a shorter man in cumbersome, brittle robes moved towards the blighted area. They circled it warily, poking at it with long sticks they carried, muttering in guttural accents. She caught a few words in Polish: "… both of them… clean job… well timed… report…", and they left the clearing the way they came.
She crept away from the brutish scene, still clutching her bundle; there was no time to take in her loss; not even time to feel fearful. She walked long in a straight line up-slope, allowing thorns, brambles, low-hanging whippets to beat at her, thinking nothing, hearing nothing. She began to feel faint, as if the air had been sucked from her lungs, but she staggered on. When the night was at last its normal black, she sank into the brush and knew no more.