Prologue: The Visitor
The path from the Apparition point was dark. Enshrouded within a dense canopy of trees, its roughly paved surface only served to enhance the intended ambiance, sending shivers down the spines of unwary visitors.
Of course, there were those for whom the atmosphere had little to no effect. For them, it was simply their normal walk to work.
It was one of these individuals who made her way through the forest. Despite the familiarity, her breath still caught as she emerged from the shadow of the tree line and her destination came into view.
The ancient fortress perched on a mountainside above the forests that surrounded it like a raptor scouting for prey. Its weathered grey stone, a match to the cliff on which it perched, still bore signs from the conflict, which had transformed it from a fortified stronghold into a prison for its one-time Lord.
Over a half-century of service as a prison was not enough to erode away the majesty of the old Lady. Instead, the additions simply made Nurmengard that much more intimidating to observe.
Shaking off her moment of contemplation, the mysterious witch continued onward. Upon reaching the guard station that marked the fortress’ perimeter, she veered off from the path to the main entrance. Instead, she headed down a much smaller passage that wound along the inside of the retaining wall for some distance before it reached a large – but not massive – old wooden door.
Reaching out, she lifted up the latch and pushed through, into the fortress proper. The room in which she now stood was massive. Along one wall stood a series of fireplaces, each configured for a different type of cooking. The centre of the room was dominated by a series of hewn wood trestle tables, while storage cupboards lined the walls. The room was filled with noise and life, with a group of off-duty guards grabbing a meal in one secluded corner. Meanwhile several cooks were hard at work preparing food for the remainder of the guards and prisoners who inhabited the prison.
The contrast between this lively environment and the absolute misery that pervaded even the staff areas of Azkaban prison was quite dramatic, and she couldn’t help but compare the two. Staffing at Nurmengard was not a punishment. Rather, it was almost a way of life for many in the local Wizarding community.
“Annalise,” one of the cook staff called, spotting the witch. “Thank Gerda, you’re here.”
“Blessed Morn, Inga,” she replied as she shrugged off the long cloak that she had worn on her walk through the woods to reveal the same uniform worn by the cook staff. Hanging it up on a peg, she snagged a long apron from the nearby pile, tying it on with practiced hands. “What can I do for you?”
Unlike the rest of the staff, her German held a hint of an accent that spoke of time spent in the British Isles. Still, she was clearly competent and comfortable speaking in that language.
“It seems that Matilde, that wretched girl, has decided to call out unexpectedly, so we’re short staffed today.”
“Oh?” Behind her calm façade, her mind tensed with hope.
“Yes. After you finish your regular duties, I need you to feed the old man his breakfast.”
“Of course, Inga.”
With a lightness that she could barely hide, the woman called ‘Annalise’ practically flew through her typical routine. One of the guards even commented on it when she delivered his tea.
“What’s got your wand core in a tizzy, Anna?” He asked with a smirk. “New beau?”
“Just some good news from home,” she replied. “My brother just made me an Auntie, again.”
“Congratulations,” he said, his smirk transforming into a more genuine smile. “Boy or girl?”
“Boy. He already has twin girls, but had yet to gain an heir for the family.”
“And what is this young heir’s name?”
Roughly two hours after she had arrived at the fortress, she was finally done. Making her way once more to the kitchen to collect the tray, she then began the arduous climb up through the stairs and passages of the fortress until she reached the base of the tower.
Along the way, she passed a number of guards and other staff, offering each a nod or a smile. Over the past several years, she had done her best to build relationships with as many of the fortress’s staff as she could manage. It was how she had managed to become trusted in that tight knit community despite her status as an obvious outsider.
And, after all that time, it had finally paid off.
Nodding to the guard at the tower door, she hefted her tray in an obvious explanation for her presence.
“How’d you get stuck on feeding duty, Anna?”
“Tilde’s playing at being sick.”
He snorted. “Of course she is. It has nothing to do with the excitement yesterday evening.”
“Of course not,” she agreed, mimicking his dry, sarcastic tone.
Young Matilde Stein was the most comely and flirtatious of the local young witches. As such, she had incited more than one drunken duel between her various admirers, the most recent of which had been the last night. Likely, she had decided to reward the young swain who had been ‘victorious’, to the detriment of her ability to work the next day.
“Your first time up there, right?” He asked kindly.
“Don’t worry. The old bastard’s pretty harmless these days. Though you do have to watch out, he has a slippery tongue. We’ve had our fair share of attempted break-outs over the years thanks to that s-“ The guard cut off his rant before he could really get going.
“Sorry. I just… the bastard… he’s ruined far too many lives. Anyways,” he continued. “No wands or other magical foci are allowed in the tower. You can tuck it in there,” he waved towards a small cupboard mounted to the wall. “It’ll lock so you’re the only one who can open it once the wand is inside,” he added when she flashed him a sceptical look.
“Ja,” she hesitated for a moment, and then nodded, fishing her wand out of an inner pocket on her uniform. The sun coming through the nearby window glinted off its surface, bringing out the reddish hue of the wood for a moment before she tucked it away.
Just as the guard had said, when her wand was in place and she went to shut the door she felt a tingle pulse down her skin and saw a momentary flash of white light.
“See,” her companion said as he demonstrated his inability to open the cupboard, “Goblin-Warded.”
With that, he reached out and grasped the tower door’s handle. It swung open with a groan, revealing a narrow staircase that spiralled up around a large interior column.
“Just follow the stairs all the way up. Franz should be waiting near the cell’s door.”
It was a tiring slog, climbing all seventy-seven stairs without her magic lightening the load in her arms, but she did manage to reach the top without dropping anything.
As she stood there catching her breath, the expected guard walked over and claimed the tray.
“Here,” he offered her his chair, “Catch your breath. The old man can wait a minute.”
Pouring water from a pitcher set on a small table beside the chair, he offered her a drink.
With a nod of thanks, she took a couple of sips.
“It gets everyone the first time,” he commented mildly. “Felt longer than it should, right?”
“It’s part of the magic of this place, the suppressing Wards. Bad enough for us, worse for him,” he gestured over his shoulder at the still-closed cell door.
“You ready?” he asked after a moment.
She nodded, and upon climbing to her feet, reclaimed her tray.
“Just knock when you’re done. I won’t hear anything otherwise,” the guard, Franz, commented mildly. “Keeps me safe from his whisperings, you know,” he added.
Perfect! She thought, but all she did was nod.
With a flourish, he took the massive old-fashioned brass key off the wall where it hung. A turn of the lock and the door was open. Giving her a flirtatious bow, the guard waved his guest inside.
Then, once she had crossed the threshold, the ancient timbers shut with a thud. The woman known as ‘Annalise’ was now alone inside the cell of the defeated Dark Lord Grindelwald. Looking around, there was little to see besides the bare, undressed stone walls and wooden floor. A set of glazed windows provided the sole source of illumination for the dreary space.
Against the wall that lay opposite to the door sat a rough-hewn wooden bed, with a single chair and small table at its side. Making her way over, ‘Annalise’ slid the heavy tray onto the table before glancing at the bed’s occupant.
The man lying there looked nothing like the charismatic and powerful Dark Wizard from the history books. Instead, Gellert Grindelwald looked old and worn. His once thick platinum blonde locks were now merely wisps of snowy white, while what could be seen of his body was wrinkled and emaciated.
But then he opened his eyes and, for just a moment, she could see it. That sense of presence that had once made him a leader of men.
“Good morning, Mister Grindelwald,” she said calmly. “I’ve come with your meal.”
Reaching out, she helped to shift him into an upright position. As she did so, the shaking of his hands was quite evident, explaining the need for a nurse to help him eat. The shift also caused the sleeves of his shirt to ride up, revealing a line of runes tattooed along the inside of one arm. It looked almost like a number in the dim light, visible evidence of the Wards that held him as a prisoner in his former stronghold.
Almost absently, he smoothed down his sleeve with one quavering hand, hiding them from view.
“Clever men, my first wardens,” he said with a cough, the first words that he had spoken. “It’s amazing what a powerful force vengeance can be.”
She hummed noncommittally, claiming a seat in the chair beside the bed.
“Before you begin your meal,” she said, leaning forward. “I was hoping that you would answer a few questions.”
“What do you want to know? Why did I try to take over the world? How could I cause the loss of so many? Am I insane?” He managed a weak smirk at the last question.
“No. Tell me, Gellert Grindelwald. What do you know about Obscurials?”