As a sultry canopy of darkness began to spread over the tiny village of Wellschem, Bertha Jorkins scratched her dirty blonde hair in puzzlement. Pushing her round glasses further up the bridge of her nose, she squinted at the cheap map of Albania in her hands, trying to make out the name of the town she was supposed to be in that night.
She had been wandering around the same area for two days, and the thought that she might have taken a wrong turn finally occurred to her. Two days ago she was supposed to be in Tiranë. But instead of resting her aching bones in a hotel in the Albanian capital, she had ended up sleeping in the stable of a dull little town that she didn't even know the name of. And it certainly looked like she'd be doing something similar tonight.
She was standing at a fork in the dusty road she had been walking on for the past thirty minutes, but for the life of her, she couldn't remember which road she was supposed to take. Her second cousin, Roberta, had given her specific directions to take on her way to see her old Aunt Madrigal, but Bertha had lost the little slip of paper long ago and had been guessing which way to go ever since then.
Finally, after peering hopelessly at the map for ten minutes, she stuffed it back into her backpack and took the left path, which seemed to lead towards the centre of Wellschem. A map of any sort was useless in her hands. She'd just have to find some inexpensive place to spend the night in and make her way further south tomorrow ... somehow.
But what did she expect? That the exact directions to a wizarding hotel would magically manifest before her eyes, or that her Aunt Madrigal herself would Apparate right in front of her and lead her to her home? Bertha snorted. She had been told more than once that she had a rotten memory and absolutely no sense of direction. For all she knew, she could have misread the map and ended up in Andorra instead of Albania! They both start and end with A's so it's easy to make such a mistake, she thought, trying to comfort herself.
Trudging along the well-worn dusty path, Bertha was suddenly overcome with self-pity. She knew what people said about her behind her back, she had heard them at it. None of them cared about how she might feel if she overheard them saying all those nasty things - Bitter Bertha, Bungling Bertha, Batty, Bumbling, Boring Bertha ... none of them even tried to make her feel wanted or welcome. Not even her own sister.
Bertha grimaced at the thought of her older sister, Florence. They had not spoken to or seen each other for over fifteen years, ever since Florence's much celebrated graduation from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Not that either of them minded. Both had been in conflict with each other ever since Bertha had been born, although it was not quite Florence's fault.
Bertha had always been jealous of Florence's beauty, charm and gracefulness, none of which Bertha ever acquired; it was always and forever Florence who had a stream of ex-boyfriends wallowing in her past, while Bertha had never even had one; it was Florence who had received barely a handful of OWLs and NEWTs, yet the fault was overlooked by her parents, while Bertha had emerged with much higher grades without receiving one bit of congratulations from her family; and it was always Florence who got the loveliest gifts and highest plaudits from Mr and Mrs Jorkins, while Bertha was forever shunted to the side.
Perhaps if Florence had been magnanimous of spirit and gentle of heart the relationship between the two sisters may have been salvaged; Bertha would have accepted Florence as her friend most happily. But it was not so, and all friendly relations between the sisters were ruined.
Florence married her Hogwarts beau of two years as soon as she graduated and settled down not far off from her parents, while Bertha had gone off to join the Ministry of Magic, bitter and lonely as usual.
Bertha kicked a stone down the path in front of her, remembering how she had loved to badmouth Florence. But that wasn't very surprising as she had loved to badmouth almost everyone in the school! She had been a very disagreeable teenager and wilted more and more each year at Hogwarts, consumed with envy of Florence who blossomed instead.
Bertha had been glad to get out of Hogwarts at the end of her seventh year. She longed to be somewhere, anywhere her sister hadn't been or influenced. Thankfully, Florence had no intention of working with the Ministry of Magic; Bertha highly doubted whether Florence had any intention of working at all. Florence had always been so absorbed in her own beauty and boyfriends, shamelessly neglecting her studies as Bertha never could. Bertha had been a Hufflepuff and prided herself on it, thinking that she was in the best house.
That was until Florence and her abominable Gryffindor friends burst her bubble, making her feel regretful of being who she was.
She had tried her very best at the Ministry of Magic but her sudden lapse into poor memory and lack of concentration after a few years of working there had really thwarted her efforts. From the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, the highest level in the Ministry of Magic save for the Minister and his assisants, Bertha dropped to the Department of International Magical Co-operation, straight into the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office with Arthur Weasley.
Then, less than two weeks later, Bertha voluntarily moved to the Goblin Liaison Office at the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. She worked there for six months as an assistant to Barnaby Braggor who, when he could take no more of her forgetfulness, later complained for her to be transferred to another department.
And so she was shunted a department lower to the Floo Network Authority in the Department of Magical Transportation. But when it became clear after just one month that she could not handle the hustle and bustle of the Authority, she changed to the Apparation Test Centre of the same department. However, when she almost caused the accidental splinching of a young wizard only two weeks into the job, she was shunted even lower.
Down to the Department of Magical Games and Sports she went, working side by side with Ludo Bagman in the British and Irish Quidditch League Headquarters. And she knew that it was simply out of pity that Bagman had given her this holiday. She had not deserved it, though she worked hard, but she grasped at the opportunity to relieve herself of the stress that work caused her - although she ended up taking away the stress of her workmates instead.
The holiday had not been too satisfactory so far, mainly due to the fact that she had no idea how she was going to get to her aunt's home. Nobody she had met in the surrounding area spoke English and she did not know a word of Albanian. The natives had all stared at her oddly when she tried to communicate with them by sign language, perhaps because she was asking them something completely different from what she was meaning to ask, or perhaps because her appearance was so dirty and disheveled. She had not seen a mirror in weeks nor had a bath in several days, so it was small wonder that none of the people even wanted to approach her.
Bertha forced her recollections to the back of her mind as she traipsed into the little village. There were a few cottages on either side of the road, none of them with lights, and a little further on she spotted a two-storey inn with several people spilling out of it, singing raucously and tripping over their own feet. Bertha sniffed displeasedly; she did not approve of drunkenness and had only ever tried cooking sherry, which had later proved to strongly disagree with her stomach. Nevertheless, she walked upto the inn, pushed her way through the group of drunks and slipped inside.
Inside the inn was hot and full of smoke fumes; compared to the cool freshness of the air outside, it was horrible. Bertha wrinkled her nose and wandered through the small tables in the room, dodging arms and legs, over to the tiny bar behind which stood a beefy man with glowing, red cheeks, a large grey moustache and squinting eyes. He was drying a glass with a rag that looked so filthy that it seemed to have retained all the stains that it had ever wiped in its existence. The man was watching two gypsy women with curly hair and low-cut, colourful dresses twirling on the raised platform that presumably served as a dance floor.
When Bertha cleared her throat loudly to get his attention, the man squinted at her so hard that it looked as though he'd closed his eyes. He barked something unintelligible to her and Bertha sighed despondently; clearly she was going to have to go through the whole process of language barriers.
"Erm ... do you speak English?" she pronounced as slowly and clearly as she could.
The man frowned and shook his head as though annoyed. He growled something under his breath that sounded more or less like a curse to Bertha.
"All right then," she said to herself. Then she began mimicking sleep, with her hand under her head and her eyes closed, and pointed up to the next storey.
The barman was still eyeing her suspiciously when he suddenly gave a nod and outstretched his hand. After a moment, Bertha understood that he meant to see money and she began rummaging in her pockets for some Muggle Albanian currency. Putting down the glass and the rag, he withdrew a bunch of five or six keys from under his soiled apron and exchanged it for the money that Bertha gave him and thrust it under his apron, seemingly without even looking at how much it was. Then he filled a more or less clean glass mug with something from a grimy bottle that looked like whisky, and slammed it onto the counter, spilling a little over the sides.
Pocketing the key, Bertha tried to smile at him, hoping that she looked gracious, but he was already back to squinting at the two gypsy women, who were now dancing even more wildly then before, giving the whole room a good view of their underpants.
Bertha averted her eyes from the scene, picked up the mug and shuffled across to a table by a window. The drink that the barman had given her certainly did not smell anything like sherry. It was much stronger, and Bertha was soon lightheaded within minutes of sniffing it mistrustfully. Taking a cautious sip of the liquid, she looked out of the dusty window and was mildly surprised to see that it was pitch black outside already. She did not know the time, though she still had her old watch on her wrist, but it was broken and permanently stuck on two o'clock. However, a round silver moon in the black sky hinted that it was already after eight.
The drink was definitely alcoholic as it warmed Bertha's insides like no fruit juice could and burned her throat as it trickled down to her stomach. It wasn't bad either, just made her eyesight a tad hazy and her mind slower than usual. Taking another sip, this time more, Bertha thought she could see a dark figure walking towards the inn from the other end of the path she had come from. The person hovered outside the inn's entrance for a moment but decided to enter.
It was a short, balding man with shabby clothes and a fatigued expression. He shuffled past all the tables to the bar, dug inside the pockets of his pants, and slapped some Albanian money onto the counter. The barman slammed a tankard of beer in front of the other man and continued wiping another glass with the same dirty rag.
The other man looked around the room blearily, his eyes brushing over the few spare tables in corners and, spotting Bertha, slowly strode over to her table. Bertha gazed at him blankly.
"May I sit down with you? All the other tables are taken," said the man, giving her a vapid smile.
Bertha was just about to tell him that there were free tables when he pulled out the chair opposite her and planked himself on to it. Taking a hearty gulp of beer, he nodded and said, "Thanks very much. My legs appreciate it."
Up close, Bertha noticed that he had small, watery eyes and a pointed nose that reminded her of a rat. She shifted uneasily in her seat. "How did you know I spoke English?"
The man's grin widened like a rubber band. "You look English. And I heard you trying to speak English to one of the natives yesterday. Besides, I recognised your face from Hogwarts." His grin suddenly vanished to be replaced by a look of agitation. "You are Bertha Jorkins, aren't you?"
Bertha nodded. "And who are you? I can't quite remember seeing you before ... or it might be the effect of this blasted drink." She pointed at her mug.
The man smiled in what he must've thought was an alluring manner. "Oh yes, the Albanians make quite a brew," he said, ignoring the first part of Bertha's reply. "The villagers get drunk here every night and their singing can be heard for miles! Quite terrible, actually."
"You live around here?"
"Er ... yes, yes, as a matter of fact, I do. Quite a nice - erm - cottage, if I may say so myself." The man nodded vigorously as though to encourage his words.
"Are you with family or on holiday?" Bertha asked. She kept talking simply for the sake of staying awake. The drink was really starting to go to her head and she had not even drunk half the mug!
"Oh, I'm - I'm - I'm staying with a friend! Yes, with a very good friend of mine! Free lodgings, he's giving me!"
"Well, isn't that wha - wha - what a friend does?" yawned Bertha.
The man had been looking around them apprehensively and started when Bertha spoke. "What? Oh! Yes, yes of course. Oh, I have an idea!" He stood up suddenly, knocking his chair to the floor. "How about I ask my friend to give you free accommodation as well? I'm sure he'll agree, he's really very nice. He'll let you stay there for as long as you wish."
Bertha wanted nothing better than to stay sitting where she was, in the now pleasantly warm inn, with the gypsy music washing over her and a mug of drink in front of her. She was ready to nod off on the table and was about to lay her head on it when the man pulled her chair back from the table and lifted her out of it roughly. She protested for a few seconds but the man overrode her with, "Whoops! Can't fall asleep on the table! Come on now, Bertha, let's go for a walk," he said cheerily, walking her across to the door and outside into the night.
Bertha blinked wearily as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. "I don't really think a walk is a good idea. I'm very tired and - "
"Here, you can lean on me," interrupted the man, offering her his arm.
Bertha sighed resignedly and took it. He led her down the road he had come from and they were quite soon out of the village. A couple metres ahead, Bertha could see a mass of black, spiky shapes that appeared to be very tall trees of the coniferous sort. The tops of the trees waved slightly in the cool breeze that ruffled the long grass on either side of the road Bertha and the man were walking on. Suddenly, the man lurched to the right, straight into the grass and towards the forest, dragging Bertha with him.
"Wait a minute! This friend of yours, he doesn't live in that forest, does he?" Bertha inquired.
"Oh yes, yes he does!" answered the man, quickening his pace. "Er ... lots of good firewood, you know! Always keeps the cottage warm!"
Bertha could barely keep up with him; he looked like he could barely contain himself from running. It would have been fine if he would just let go of her and stop pulling her along with him. Things seemed to be going too fast for her. Her mind was spinning from the liquor and her body was weak from fatigue, her legs stumbling over unseen logs and holes. She would have really liked to be back in the inn, sleeping comfortably in her room. Then she realised that she didn't have her bag with her. It was back at the inn!
"Hold on, there! I've left my bag at the inn!" she yelled to the man.
But he didn't stop. He simply called over his shoulder, "Don't worry about it. We can collect it in the morning, no one will steal it. The barman will know it's yours."
Bertha turned her head back to look at the village and was surprised to see that it was already quite a distance behind them. She could just make out the flickering lights of the inn when she tripped over another log, cried out and fell facedown onto the grass. She could hear the man walking back to her and nearly cried out in pain again when he grabbed her around the wrist and forcefully pulled her onto her feet, almost twisting her arm out of its socket in the process.
"Could you please refrain from handling me so? I'm not immune to pain, you know," she complained, trying to wrangle herself from his grip.
But the man ignored her and carried on walking, pulling Bertha behind him, his breath now coming in low ragged puffs. He strode briskly into the shadowed forest and wove his way through the trees, stumbling on cones and rocks, and tearing his clothes on branches that stuck out in his way. Bertha felt her own clothes being ripped and her face and glasses scratched by the sticks and needles of the trees, and twice came crashing down onto a pile of cones. But the man ignored her pleas to stop and just kept walking to the centre of the forest, following a path only known to him.
Bertha began to feel afraid. She had read many Daily Prophet articles about witches who went on holidays to foreign countries and were tricked, robbed and murdered by bloodthirsty wizards. What if this man was one of those criminals? She didn't even know his name or who his friend was. She didn't even let anyone know where she was going, and she doubted whether the barman would care. She thought about screaming at the top of her lungs, but the idea was soon hushed by the thought that he might kill her straight away if she tried to.
She didn't want to die. Not yet, at any rate. And to die in such a way, where no one would know and most likely won't care, would be worse than dying in an accident, she thought. There'd be no fuss over her death. She was just another casualty of life, they'd say. Unimportant, unknown, and unloved. With a pang of despair, Bertha realised that she world would probably be better off without such a person as she. One less fool in a world of fools couldn't be a bad thing ... could it?
All of a sudden, the man halted. Bertha looked up and saw a tiny run-down hut standing in a moonlit clearing with smoke curling out of its crumbling chimney. The windows were boarded up with planks of wood but Bertha thought she could see flickers of light coming from the cracks. She looked up at the man in time to see a look of relief pass over his features. Now, in the moonlight, he seemed strangely recognisable and yet, Bertha couldn't quite place her finger on who he reminded her of. She turned to look back at the hut.
"Is this it? That nice cottage you were talking about?" she queried in a surprisingly bold tone.
"Oh yes, this is it," the man responded, the ghost of a grin playing around his mouth. "Let's go inside, shall we? It'll be much warmer and I'd like you to meet my ... friend."
Bertha slowly turned her head to look at the man. As the clouds moved away from the moon, a shaft of light illuminated his face and Bertha's jaw dropped. It can't be, she thought desperately, it is simply impossible. Peter Pettigrew is supposed to be dead ... Sirius Black had killed him long ago. "What is your name?" she asked timidly.
The man scowled, his mouth thinning. "I shall have to say that it is none of your business. It is not important, anyway."
"You - you're - you are Peter Pettigrew, aren't you?" breathed Bertha. "Yes, yes, I still remember your face! You always hung around with - what was his name? - well, that Potter boy at Hogwarts!"
The man wrinkled his nose as though disgusted with the memory.
"But didn't Sirius Black kill you? He - he must've! That's what he was imprisoned for! You should be dead ... you should be dead," Bertha whispered hoarsely, trying to shrink into the shadows, as far away from the man as she could get without actually walking.
He didn't speak, but merely took a firmer hold on Bertha's wrist and shuffled to the hut, raising clouds of dust around his feet. Thrusting a hand into his pocket, he drew out a wand with an inscription upon one side that Bertha could not read. He prodded the door with it, muttered a few words, and the door creaked open. He pushed Bertha in before himself and magically locked the door behind him. He had been right; the hut was much warmer than the forest air. The fire in the grate at the other end of the room was the only source of light and heat, but it was doing its job well.
The hut hardly had any furniture at all and no decorations, just a pile of straw at one corner that presumably served as a bed, a mouldy-looking high-backed chair in front of the sooty fireplace, looking very out of place in the crude home, and a jumble of logs beside the fireplace. But what unnerved Bertha about that hut was the fact that a large snake lay curled up by the chair, apparently sleeping, its dark scales glimmering with the firelight.
"What on earth is that?" Bertha gasped, pointing at the snake.
Then, a high cold voice spoke out of the depths of the chair, sending shudders through Bertha's body. "Did you bring a visitor, Wormtail?"
The other man, Wormtail, was now hunched up and shuddering, though not from cold. He answered the voice timidly, "Y - yes, m - my Lord. I - I think it will please you if you know who it is."
"Well, who is it then?" the cold voice asked menacingly.
"B - Bertha Jorkins, m - my Lord," replied Wormtail, his hands clasped to his chest.
A pause ensued. Then - "Bertha Jorkins?" the voice repeated softly.
"From the Ministry of Magic," added Wormtail. "My Lord - "
"Oh yes, Wormtail, it does please me." Wormtail seemed to sag with relief at this pronunciation. "Very good, Wormtail, very good," the voice continued. "However, we do not yet know how useful Miss Jorkins will be."
"What do you mean, sir?" Bertha asked warily. Though she was thoroughly afraid of the owner of the cold voice, she felt a kind of courage surge through her that she had not expected. "I did not come here quite willingly. Your friend tricked me into coming under the pretence of free accommodation."
"Indeed?" The voice sounded amused. "And did my ... friend ... tell you that I am not a very kind host?"
Bertha looked accusingly at Wormtail who was still staring at the chair with the utmost fear etched on his face.
"As you can see, you have been quite deceived," the cold voice continued comfortably. "But I am willing to let you go free if you will consent to aid me in several matters."
"What kind of matters?" asked Bertha suspiciously.
"Oh, just some information I am needing that you may be able to provide me with."
Bertha frowned and pushed her cracked glasses up her nose to keep them from sliding down. "How can I trust you to keep your word?"
"I never make promises that I know I won't keep, Miss Jorkins. But I promise you that I will let you go if you will help me."
With a feeling of foreboding, Bertha asked the question she knew would be the most dangerous to ask, "Who are you?"
A tense silence pervaded the hut. Even the crackling of the flames seemed to have been covered by the heavy blanket of taciturnity.
"I am a being higher than any man, Miss Jorkins," the cold voice finally said. "I am the one who they all thought was destroyed, dead, gone! But they were wrong. Immortality prevailed." He paused. "I suppose you need a name, Miss Jorkins? Simpletons like you always need names. And the one I fashioned for myself is most appropriate, as I found out quite a while ago. Flight of death ... I had always thought the French language to be beautiful and imposing ..."
Flight of death. Bertha's mind was in turmoil after those three words were spoken. Unbidden scenes of old memories flashed through her mind, image after image, completely uncontrollable ... her tenth birthday, not one single person had come ... ten years old, yet she blew out a single candle on the cake her mother had bought instead of baked ... Florence had always had the correct number of candles, Bertha recalled ... Florence's sixteenth birthday party in August, so many Hogwarts students had come, as invited ... Florence's first French lesson with an old Swiss witch, as a birthday present ... stealing Florence's French notebook when she was out ... Bertha distinctly remembered three words that Florence had written down in green ink in the notebook in her vocabulary list ... vol de mort ...
It was these three words that brought her back to earth with an audible gasp.
"Not so dim, are you, Miss Jorkins?" the cold voice said lazily.
Bertha's hands trembled and she felt as though she'd faint. "You're - you're ... him ... the Dark Lord ..." she whispered tremulously.
"Well done, Miss Jorkins. You do have a head on your shoulders instead of a turnip," the voice remarked, amused.
"How did you know about that?" choked Bertha, breaking out in cold sweat. Before, it seemed like such a trivial thing that Florence had said she had a turnip for a head; now it was crucial. "I never told anyone - "
"I have many ways of finding things out, Miss Jorkins. I do not have to be told something to know about it ..."
"But you're - you're dead ... you're supposed to be dead!" cried Bertha, her voice rising to a shriek. She backed away from the chair towards the door. "And him!" She pointed a shaking finger at Wormtail. "He should be dead, too! There were witnessess who saw him killed!"
"I told you. Everyone was wrong. And don't even think of running away. The door is sealed so none can get in or out without my permission." Bertha's eyes darted to the wand lying at Wormtail's feet but it was as if the Dark Lord had seen her glance because he added, "Even if you try to use my wand."
"What do you want from me?" breathed Bertha, frightened out of her wits.
"I told you that, too. I want information, Miss Jorkins, and I will get it from you whether you allow me to or not," the Dark Lord said simply.
"I'll scream! I'll scream so loud the whole village will hear and come - "
"No one will come," the Dark Lord said quietly. "No one will hear you and no one will know. Even if they did, they wouldn't care. You know that."
Indeed, Bertha did know that but she wished it were not true. She wanted to run, to hide, to scream her lungs out for help, but she knew it would all be useless. She had heard of the Dark Lord's deeds and had lived in terror during his reign. But now that she was in the same room with him, just metres away from him, she knew that before tonight she had not known what terror was.
"So, Bertha, are you willing to help me?" the Dark Lord asked.
But a fierce determination to resist the being that sat in the high-backed chair opposite her arose in Bertha. She stood to her full height and said through gritted teeth, "I wouldn't help you if my life depended on it." And she instantly regretted it for another heavy silence filled the room.
Again, it was the Dark Lord who broke the quiet. "Well then, Miss Jorkins ... that leaves me with no choice but to force it out of you. Wormtail!"
Wormtail jumped. "Yes, my Lord?"
"My wand. And turn me around so Miss Jorkins may have the privilege of seeing her opponent."
Wormtail grimaced, took a deep breath, and strode over to the chair. He handed over the Dark Lord's wand and, wincing, turned around his chair to face Bertha. As soon as Wormtail moved away from the chair and Bertha caught sight of what was in it, she nearly choked on her scream. A ghastly sight had met her eyes and she wished, with all her might, that it be removed from her vision. But it wasn't. It raised the wand and uttered a single word so casually that it might have been saying something completely different, "Crucio."
Bertha dropped to her knees and screamed like she had never screamed before. She writhed and twisted on the coarse wooden floor of the hut, her screeches echoing around the clearing but unheard by any living soul outside the hut, the impenetrability of the forest trees preventing it. The pain that coursed through Bertha's body was such that she had never felt before nor ever imagined. It seemed to flow through her very veins, along with her blood. Her eyes rolled inside her head and she screamed, screamed, screamed ...
Suddenly, the curse was lifted but the pain was not gone. Her bones ached and her brain felt as though it would explode if such pain were inflicted upon it again. Memories were spinning inside her mind, people's faces flashed before her eyes, their voices echoed in her ears, and she twitched as she lay on the floor in front of the Dark Lord, completely at his mercy.
"Yes, that wasn't too nice, was it?" the Dark Lord said. "If you don't want another dose of pain, you will answer my questions." Bertha groaned in reply and the Dark Lord continued. "Now ... is there anything I should know about Hogwarts?"
Bertha drew in a great shuddering breath and slowly shook her head. "Not - telling - you ... nothing - about - Hogwarts ..."
"Stop being so brave, Bertha," the Dark Lord said quietly. "It's not going to do you any good. You'll only be in more pain." But Bertha kept silent so the Dark Lord raised his wand again. "Crucio."
Bertha felt the impact of the Dark Lord's power once more as a new wave of pain ripped through her body. She could not understand how he had retained so much of it, how he could still cause so much suffering when he was barely alive. The bones in Bertha's body seemed to be groaning under the pressure of the pain, and she was sure they'd soon crack. She hoped they would; anything, even death, would be better than this horrendous torture. Her throat was near to tearing with all the screams that had passed through it, her brain was pounding worse than ever, and memories continued to spin before her eyes like a multicoloured wheel of sights, sounds and noises ...
And again, the curse was lifted. Bertha breathed in great gasps of air as though she were a dying fish, and whimpered with the strain the exercise caused. Every breath itself was torture enough now. Instead of relieving her, the oxygen that passed through her body was like a thousand knives stabbing at her insides.
"I did warn you," the Dark Lord said, brutally amused. "The more you resist, the worse the pain will get. Surely you can understand that. And so ... is there anything I should know about Hogwarts?"
It was a couple of painful seconds before Bertha replied. She had completely lost her voice and the only sound that came out of her throat was a hoarse whisper. "Triwizard - Tournament - this - year ... Hogwarts hosting ... Beauxbatons and Durmstrang ... competing ... also ..."
"Triwizard Tournament, eh? That hasn't been done in a hundred years."
"Ministry thinks it's safe ... Department of Magical Games and Sports will organise ..."
The Dark Lord laughed harshly. "Oh yes, just because they think I'm gone, it's safe to do anything ... oh, the fools ... anything else about Hogwarts?"
"Yes ... new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher ... the Auror Mad-Eye Moody ..."
"Moody? Hmmmm ... yes, I remember him ... one of my Death Eaters, Rosier, died at his hands ... and speaking of Death Eaters, what do you know about them? How many have not been captured?"
Bertha drew in a deep breath, which only succeeded in causing her lungs more pain. "Many had been captured after your fall ... all had trials ... many released ... Malfoy, Macnair, Avery ... Nott, Crabbe, Goyle ... some thrown into Azkaban ..."
"Who exactly is in Azkaban right now?" inquired the Dark Lord.
"I know of only four Death Eaters in Azkaban ... Bellatrix Lestrange ..." (the Dark Lord slowly smiled in a terrible manner) "... Rodolphus Lestrange ... Rabastan Lestrange ... Bartemius Crouch, junior ..." whispered Bertha laboriously. Then suddenly, a memory floated to her mind that she had not been able to remember ever since it had happened. "Crouch! Barty Crouch!" she cried out.
The Dark Lord's smile vanished and his eyes narrowed even further than they had already been squinting. "Yes? Yes? What about Crouch?"
"He is seeking you ... his father put him under the Imperius Curse to prevent him from coming back to you ... he is trying to come back to you ... he will do anything you ask if only you'd contact him ..."
"How do you know this?" the Dark Lord asked suspiciously.
"I came to his house, Crouch's house ... he wasn't there ... the Crouch's house-elf was talking to your Death Eater ... he was under an Invisibility Cloak ... when Crouch came home, I confronted him ... but he - he - he ..." Bertha groaned again as the pounding in her skull grew worse at the very memory of what Crouch did. "He put a Memory Charm on me so I would forget what I heard."
The Dark Lord was silent, apparently thinking these pieces of news over in his mind. He smirked. "So ... I have a faithful Death Eater yet ... yes, he could prove very useful ... very useful indeed. Thank you for that, Bertha."
Bertha tried to turn her face away, but it was impossible. The pain was just too much for any sort of movement and she felt she was going blind with the kaleidoscope that was whirling in her eyes. She could neither speak nor move; she hoped that death was approaching for she was sure it would be better than this. She felt the Dark Lord watching her, she knew he enjoyed her pain, and she detested him with every atom of her body.
"And thus, Bertha, does your life end," said the Dark Lord softly. "You have been of much use to me and could have served me even longer had it not been for your idiotic resistance. You would not be in so much pain had you simply submitted. And alas, that is a lesson wasted, for you will not be able to put to use anything you have heard or seen tonight. Perhaps I had been wrong when I told you that I am not a kind host ... I will let you go ... goodbye, Bertha Jorkins ..." And he raised his wand once more, followed by Bertha's aching eyes, and quietly spoke the two words that Bertha had never expected to hear spoken to her, "Avada Kedavra."
A flash of green light erupted from the Dark Lord's wand, like a snake lunging to strike, and Bertha's eyes widened in shock as the deadly emerald green snake was thrust into contact with her immobile body and released her anguished soul from its hampers with its poisonous fangs, tearing her away - in mere seconds - from the world that did not know her and would not miss her.
Her breathing stilled, her pulse stopped, the pain receded, and Bertha Jorkins died.
Both Wormtail and the Dark Lord stared at the glassy eyes of the dead woman, the former in awe and the latter in speculation. Neither seemed to be bothered by the fact that a human being had just been murdered. The Dark Lord hissed something to the snake still lying in the corner of the room and watched apathetically as it slithered across the hut and devoured the dead body of the woman, letting nothing escape from its fanged jaws, flesh or apparel.
"Wormtail," said the Dark Lord. "It will be dawn soon so we will wait until dusk hits the village again. We will set out for Britian and pay a visit to the Crouch's. Miss Jorkins's information has given me a plan that, if it works out correctly, could very well bring me closer to Harry Potter and thus, even closer to my return to power. But this plan will not tolerate many mistakes. Every blunder that is made could bring me closer to ruin. Do you understand that, Wormtail?"
"Y - yes, my Lord. I will try my best."
"You had better, Wormtail. Or you will find yourself the object of some of the magic used tonight on Miss Jorkins," the Dark Lord said warningly.
Wormtail grimaced and closed his eyes as though in prayer.
"You may sleep now," the Dark Lord said. "We will have a long journey."
"Th - thank you, my Lord." Wormtail warily shuffled across the room to his bed of straw and lowered himself onto it. He covered himself with the straw and curled up in it with his back to the wall. The Dark Lord again hissed something to the snake and it slithered back to its spot beside the fire, settling down for a nap, too.
But the Dark Lord did not sleep. He had not slept in many years, he no longer knew how. But even if he could, he would not have been able to. Ideas, decisions, plans all chased themselves around in his mind, each bigger and better, and seeming to bring him ever closer to his ultimate goal for the moment.
He knew that with each day, each thought, each breath he was brought nearer and nearer to achieving this goal. Every day and every night he envisioned his glorious return to power, his reunion with his Death Eaters, his murder of Harry Potter, and his reign over death and the entire world.
He knew there would again be a time when wizards the world over would fear to speak his name, just as they did before that fateful night when his power was vanquished, and just as they continued to do now, even though they deemed him to be long gone. How terribly wrong they were. They would soon find out what a mistake they made when they believed that he, the greatest Dark wizard of the time, could ever be wholly defeated by a mere child when he had gone to such lengths to prove the laws of mortality wrong.
The Dark Lord smiled cruelly as he tossed these thoughts over in his mind. This night was the start of a new plan, a plan that was sure to bring him back to the glorious bountiful power that he had before, a plan that could not and must not fail at any cost. He would not tolerate failure any longer; no more mistakes would be allowed to pass without punishment.
This would be the last battle for domination between himself and the rest of the wizarding world, he knew. And he recognised with satisfaction, too, that no matter whether he would succeed or fail in his own attempts, the Dark Side could never be defeated completely.
For as long as there was good, evil would live on, forever glad and ready to torment those who opposed its laws, until the time when the earth would be plunged back into the void of Chaos, lost in darkness, buried in time.