The Grave Task

Viktor Krum watched the children pour out of the arena, chattering excitedly, many of them reenacting their favorite moments from the First Task. Potter's performance had been the favorite, and Viktor acknowledged fully that the boy should have taken first place, rather than tied with him. He could not tell Karkaroff so, of course, but then, he rarely told Karkaroff anything that mattered.

Viktor would certainly never tell him that he himself should have come in last.

With a grim look, Viktor left the shadow of the champions' tent, casting one wary and slightly disgusted look after the retreating students. Against the late afternoon sky, the castle towered majestically, and Viktor could imagine all the delighted faces gathered in the Great Hall, candlelight shining in their eyes and a wealth of food spread out before them. Karkaroff would have arranged a small feast in the ship as well, in his honor. Viktor would have preferred to fast, but his preferences, in that matter at least, would have to be ignored.

Treading along the edge of the trees, Viktor rounded the edge of the arena. He could hear, as he had from the tent, the anguished shrieks of the Fireball, yet now that he was closer he could feel them, as well, the shivering pain as they pierced his ears, the rumble of the ground as the dragon thrashed and flailed. Through the trees, Viktor saw the clearing where the dragons had been gathered, black and smoky and milling with men.

Crates were being assembled, crates the size of houses. Very few of the workers cast the screaming Fireball even the slightest glance. The Conjunctivitis Curse had been lifted from her eyes, but Viktor could see the residual redness as she glared furiously, helplessly around herself.

With equal fury, Viktor surveyed the men until he found what he was looking for.

"...eyes are squished, but that one's look all right, don't ya think?"

"Might get a few Galleons off 'em. This one 'ere's got all 'is teeth, those'll fetch twenty apiece -"

"This one's got 'em all too, and his claws've started comin' in, see? Have to be careful not to break 'em…"

"Vot are you doing?" Viktor asked, scowling at the men.

The taller one, covered in tattoos, shot him an annoyed look, did a double-take, and hit his rather hefty friend on the shoulder.

"Oy! What're you 'ittin' me f-" He stopped, staring at Viktor.

Viktor's scowl deepened. The problem with Quidditch was that even the lowest creatures considered themselves your fans.

"You're Viktor Krum," the hefty man informed him helpfully.

"I am."

"Saw you up against Ireland," the tattooed man said. "Brilliant, that. And now you're up against us again, eh? How come you weren't flying like Potter?"

Viktor had asked himself the same question many times in the last hour. "Vot are you doing?"

The men both looked down at the small crate in front of them, which had been lined with a tarp and filled with the ruin of the eggs.

"These're just the eggs as got smashed. Not much left in 'em, but there's plenty of other bits to sell."

"To sell," Viktor repeated.

The man seemed to notice the cold look on Viktor's face, but misinterpreted it. "You want in, I guess? Seeing as you smashed 'em?"

"No," Viktor said quietly. "I do not vant in."

"Then what're you doin' 'ere?"

"I am here to bring them back to their mother."

The men gaped at him, dumbfounded. "But what for? They're dead, aren't they?"

"They are," Viktor agreed.

"So then what -"

"They belong to the mother," Viktor said.

The men looked at each other, then back at him, clearly uncertain whether they had the authority to argue with Viktor Krum.

"You vill give them to me," Viktor said.

"Listen 'ere," one of them said. "These eggs're here on the Ministry's approval. We can't just hand 'em out to anybody."

"I smashed them," Viktor reminded him. "You vill give them to me."

"And what'll we get?" the tattooed one challenged.

Viktor considered. "My autograph."

The men considered this. Quidditch fanaticism battled with greed in their eyes. "All right," one of them said. The other shrugged his agreement.

Barely concealing his contempt, Viktor signed the scraps of parchment they thrust in front of him. As they stowed the autographs away in their robes, Viktor bent down and picked up the crate.

"Hold on," one of them said. "You sure you don't want to sell 'em? We can find a buyer right quick."

"I am sure," Viktor said, slouching away.

A few men granted him curious looks as he passed, but most were too busy to do even that. This worked in his favor. By the time they realized where he was going, it was too late to stop him.

"Hey! HEY! Stay away from her! It's not safe! HEY!"

The Fireball had ceased her wailing and fixed him with her golden eyes. She recognized him, he knew. Dragons remembered everything. And he had taken nearly everything from her.

A growl started low in her throat, full of the crackle of sparks and flames. But she could smell the eggs. It was the same smell she must have had to lick off her feet, the only evidence she had found of her children, when her blindness was healed.

Viktor did not look down at those children now, though the image of their fragile, mutilated bodies was branded into his brain. Tiny dragons, limp and lifeless, glistening with the blood that had been crushed out of them by their mother's stumbling feet - Viktor knew the image would never fade. Like a dragon, he would remember everything.

He held the crate up. She fixed it with angry, apprehensive eyes. Then she moved. She was a ribbon of fire, a serpent of wild scarlet flowing across the ground. Viktor held his ground, heart bursting like flames, and she stopped, a frozen coil of red with gnashing teeth.

For long moments, their eyes met. Viktor felt the force of her gaze, the accusation, the hatred. He felt her greatness, this blazing bright being. He dropped to his knees, pushing the crate out in front of himself and prostrating himself on the ground.

The dragon's hot breath swept his neck, ruffled his hair. He held himself still. The shouts of the men were as distant as the coming winter. Beneath the dragon, summer raged across his skin.

And then, just as suddenly, she was gone. The shouts beat down on him like hail, the cold November breeze tearing at his hair in her absence. He lifted his head to watch her coiling away, undulating in brilliant folds back into the shadow. The crate was gone.

"Viktor!" Karkaroff was yelling, from a safe distance. "Viktor!"

Shakily, Viktor stood, bowing one last time to the dragon and backing away from her until he was out of reach of her fury. Unpleasantly familiar hands gripped his shoulders and spun him around.

"Viktor!" Karkaroff gasped. "Are you all right? Are you hurt? What were you doing with -"

A shriek ripped the sky, high and fierce and anguished. Karkaroff clamped his hands over his ears. So did everyone else, except Viktor.

A second shriek joined the first, then a third, then a fourth, until all the dragons were screaming, staining the clearing with their grief. The dirge wailed and cut and burned, soaring higher and higher until, with a desperate cry, the lead voice broke off, descending, as the others shrieked on, into a burst of roaring flame.

Heat blasted across the clearing, bright and orange. In its swell, Viktor saw the ribbon of the Fireball wrapped around it, her head bent over the pyre.

Then the screams died out, first into mournful moans, then into silence. The fire faded into smoke.

Viktor gave Karkaroff a cold, flat look.

"Dragons burn their dead."