The Sugar Quill
Author: Igenlode Wordsmith (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Water-horse  Chapter: Special Consignment (Ch1 of 8)
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Ch.1 - Special Consignment


"I am here," began Lachlan MacMartin with great unwillingness, "because there is something in the loch which may bring you ill-fortune, and—"

"In the loch! What, an each uisge, a water-horse?" Ewen was smiling. "You cannot shoot a water-horse, Lachlan — not with a charge of small-shot!"

The Flight of the Heron, D.K.Broster (1925)

Each uisge (Gaelic — 'water-horse'): subspecies of kelpie (q.v.) related to the night-horse (ref. Cherryh, p27 and passim). The blood, tail-hairs (when in horse form) and tongue all have applications in various fields of potion-making and particularly in mind control.... Wizards should note that this creature is classified as a Level 6 predator (see Appendix VIII) and may only be obtained under specific licence.

Hoof, Horn & Bone — the Potion Maker's Guide to Body Parts, Vol 2 (Heidelburg Press 1991)

Ch.1— Special Consignment

"Professor Snape?"

The Potions master, marking students' work in a pool of lamplight, failed to look up. His mouth was drawn into a thin line. The fifth year Slytherin class was one of the weakest in the House, and despite impending O.W.L.s, young Tench's Potions work had continued to be poor enough to drag the entire House average down five points. Snape's lips thinned further as he scanned the remainder of the essay, his quill underscoring omissions, inaccuracies and misspellings with jabs of vivid scarlet. Three inches from the end of the scroll, a large and hopeful blot had obliterated half a paragraph of the conclusion.

Snape studied this phenomenon, nostrils flaring unpleasantly once more, and after 'Shoddy work' appended a single, slashing 'T', and the grim phrase 'See me'. From the far end of the dungeon classroom he caught the intake of breath as the girl nerved herself to speak again.

"Yes, Miss Franklin?" Snape said sharply, not bothering to glance in her direction. His peripheral night vision had always been excellent.

Ava Franklin, fourth-year Hufflepuff, emitted the predictable suppressed squeak of dismay that had never once, since her first Potions lesson, failed to irritate him. She was hovering nervously in the doorway as if she thought he might be about to stab her with his quill. "Sir — please, sir—"

"Yes, Miss Franklin?" Snape allowed the scroll to snap shut and fixed her with cold black eyes. No coherent explanation appeared to be forthcoming. "I assume you do have some reason for disturbing me at this hour?"

Ava gulped. "Sir — Professor McGonagall—"

Under his glare, she took visible hold on her message and recited: "Professor McGonagall's compliments, and would Professor Snape please, umm, remove his Potions consignment from the entrance hall where it is causing an obstruction."

Snape sighed and laid down his quill automatically, preparing to get up and inspect the contents of this new delivery. He disliked being interrupted in the middle of marking, particularly when it was going badly, but a Potions consignment was always an event and the prospect of fresh ingredients was a not unwelcome one.

Then his gaze fell on Ava, and he picked up his quill again, his eyes glinting slightly in anticipation. "You may go, Miss Franklin. My compliments to Professor McGonagall, and you may tell her I'll be along presently."

He reached out one hand for the next scroll and unrolled it with deliberation, watching the changing expressions on Ava's face with some enjoyment. It was fifteen years since he'd last found himself in terror of the sharp side of McGonagall's tongue, but the prospect clearly had the fourth-year appalled. Snape's thin, unpleasant smile dawned.

"I believe I told you to leave, Miss Franklin. Out!"

Some forty-five minutes later, his marking completed and liberally endorsed with red ink, he encountered Minerva McGonagall, looking thunderous, in the entrance hall.

"Professor Snape, I distinctly seem to remember requesting—" The faint Scots intonation in her voice, always a sign of agitation, had become considerably stronger.

"I was busy," Snape said coldly, cutting across her. Minerva's scoldings were only one of the various unpleasant situations he had hardened himself to ignore, over the years.

Removing the dog-eared parchment tacked to the lid of the largest box, he surveyed the collection of crates and packing-cases, ticking off the various items one by one first on his mental list and then on the delivery note in his hand. Lion whelk — tick. Shredded mares' nest — tick. Angusberries, dried; carragheen, dried; distilled lamprey oil — tick, tick, tick.

The list was twitched from under his nose. "The items are all there," Professor McGonagall said, her mouth a tight-pressed line. "If there is one thing I have had, it is time to check."

Snape's lip curled slightly, as if in disbelief. "All there?"

Their eyes met. Her level gaze held his for a moment, then indicated one of the larger packing-cases. She gave a brief nod in that direction. "All there."

Despite himself, Snape couldn't hide a touch of relief, mirrored almost instantly in the relaxing of Professor McGonagall's taut-braced shoulders. It was not the 'obstruction' in the wide hall — not at nine o'clock at night! — that had left her temper on edge; and it was not the Deputy Headmistress' habit to monitor every delivery in person. Nor, for that matter, was it entirely the envisioned disaster of his O.W.L.-year Slytherins that had worn his own patience thin, these last few weeks, nor even the antics of a certain set of second-year Gryffindors. The presence or absence, however, of the one item in this consignment that was not on the list — that one very dangerous and extremely illegal item that had only been included on Professor McGonagall's personal authority — had had a great deal to do with it. Not least, the fact that neither of them had as yet informed Professor Dumbledore.

"And that cat Mrs Norris was nosing around earlier," Professor McGonagall was saying shortly as she led the way to the extra packing-case. "How you expect me to—"

"I dare say she would be," Snape cut across smoothly. If he was also regretting the momentary satisfaction derived from the impulse to keep her waiting, then he had no intention of showing it.

He inhaled sharply, analysing the most pungent constituent parts of the aroma from long practice. "The lamprey oil, unless I'm much mistaken." Automatically, he had cast a glance around for Filch; but neither the caretaker nor his cat familiar were anywhere in sight.

McGonagall's pursed lips suggested that she didn't believe anything so innocent of Mrs Norris for a minute. But she reached the packing-case in question and indicated it with a tap of her wand. Something moved inside, and instinctively both of them took a half-step back.

"Each uisge," Professor McGonagall said, a little hoarsely, touching the crate more cautiously with the very tip of her wand, so that the seals on the strappings glowed into visibility. "One. Adult. Male, so far as we can tell. And you can thank your lucky stars, Severus, that we're north of the border— " the trace of Scots was making another appearance in her agitation— "for I would not have tried to bring that down south without a permit, not with Grindelwald himself on my heels."

Snape was inspecting the seals, peering between the slats at the dark shape shifting within. An eye rolled at him, dark with a crimson streak, and he caught a glimpse of black silky hide. The creature was no larger than a dog.

"I specifically asked for an adult." His tone was sharp. "Even a common kelpie should be larger than this—"

McGonagall shook her head. "Containment Curse," she explained. "Believe me, they don't build bespelled crates big enough to hold an each uisge without."

She directed her wand towards the crate's interior. "Visio Encapsulatum!"

Despite himself, Snape stepped hastily aside as the ghostly image of a sixteen-hand stallion sprang into being above the crate, night-black hide rippling over muscles in very un-horse-like places. Its glossy hooves were cloven, and looked razor-sharp, and the mouth that turned and hissed at them bore a double row of predatory teeth and a forked and delicate sandpaper tongue. The each uisge laid back its ears and snapped. The nearest eye held a glint of red intelligence in its depths.

Professor McGonagall, looking shaken, banished the image with a flick of her wand, and exchanged glances with Snape. "I trust the spells on that enclosure Professor Kettleburn has been constructing will prove adequate."

"So, Minerva," said Snape drily, "do I." The gruesome contents of the shelves in his office had never disturbed his sleep one whit. Strangely enough, however, the prospect of having this creature caged within the same set of rooms as his bedchamber seemed far from conducive to slumber.

"At all costs," McGonagall was saying fervently, "we must keep it out of the lake."

Snape's lip curled slightly. He had never suspected Professor McGonagall of a talent for the blindingly obvious. "No, somehow I don't imagine the news that we had an escaped man-eating water-horse on the grounds would enhance our student intake...."

Professor McGonagall treated this last sally with all the attention it deserved; namely none. Confronted with the reality of the each uisge, his colleague had begun to look rather sick. "Severus, are you sure this is necessary?"

Snape stiffened. "In my professional judgement, the fresh heart's-blood of an each uisge is essential to the functioning of the mixture, yes. If you are asking me to judge the desirability of developing a Free-will Potion, that would depend entirely upon your assessment of the likelihood of the return of Voldemort — and your assessment of the undesirability of that event—" He broke off abruptly, shutting off the memories before they could rise.

McGonagall was shaking her head helplessly, perhaps trying to drive out her own memories of those dark days. "We have to have something to use against the Imperius Curse." Her knuckles tightened around her wand. "It was bad enough last time. To go through that again— There has to be something we can use to protect against the effects!"

"I'm convinced a Free-will Potion is possible." Snape kept his own voice soft with an effort. Bitterness stained his words. "Under which circumstances it is unfortunate, to say the least, that the Headmaster has seen fit to refuse permission for any further research."

"The risks—"

"The risks are my affair."

"The risks to the school—"

"The only risks to the school would be in the case of my gross incompetence," Snape said coldly, and McGonagall sighed.

"Well, it's no secret Albus Dumbledore and I didn't see quite eye to eye on this one." The corners of the Deputy Headmistress' mouth twitched slightly as she surveyed the assortment of potent and highly exotic commodities she had taken steps to acquire, all of which Snape had listed as equally essential to practical development. Then her lips thinned once more to a straight line as her gaze returned to the caged each uisge. "How long before you can demonstrate a result that may change Albus' mind?"

Snape didn't miss a beat. "Three to five days—" he'd worked it out often enough, calculating theory, allowing for experimental error — "five, at the outside."

"Before— ?"

His smile was less than pleasant. "Before I can produce a result that warrants asking permission to carry out full tests with the Imperius Curse, of course. Or did you seriously imagine that it would be possible to perform a series of Unforgivable Curses in the dungeons at Hogwarts without ringing alarms everywhere from the Headmaster's office to the Ministry of Magic?"

McGonagall pointedly ignored that.

"And—" she frowned, her eyes still on the half-seen movements of the each uisge — "just where do you plan to send that thing after your work is over? There's no water near here will be safe—"

"Send it?" Snape stared at her, then laughed, briefly. "Minerva, I specified fresh heart's-blood. We will have exactly one chance at this. As far as that creature is concerned, there isn't going to be an 'afterwards'."

He caught the expression that crossed her face, and his lip curled. "Come now, Professor, I'd have thought you'd have been the last person to feel sentiment over an each uisge — after what happened to your sister."

Professor McGonagall had gone very white. She was staring at him. "How did you know?" she whispered. "How could you know...about Catriona?"

"It's amazing what you come across in the course of basic research." Snape smiled, sourly. "There haven't been many kelpie attacks this century. The name caught my attention...and it wasn't hard to put two and two together."

For a moment the hall was silent, save for the liquid shifting of the caged creature, barely a wand's-length away. "She would have been your elder sister, I think?" Snape prompted in a low tone, raising an eyebrow.

Professor McGonagall's lips were pressed very tightly together, and she had her head turned away to the far side of the hall. She said nothing. After a few seconds she nodded, slowly.

"For what it's worth," Snape said stiffly at last into the long silence that followed, the unaccustomed words hard to force out, "you have my — condolences."

Professor McGonagall turned and smiled at him suddenly, her face resolutely bright. "Oh, it was a long time ago, Severus. A very long time."

She shook herself briskly. "You'll be wanting an assistant, I take it?"

Snape, momentarily taken aback, pulled himself together. "An assistant — at least for the initial preparations, yes. One of the older students will do. The sixth-years have barely started their N.E.W.T.s; they can easily spare an evening or two."

"Sixth-year Slytherin," McGonagall nodded. "Well, that can be arranged—"

"Not Slytherin," Snape snapped. "I don't want Slytherin House implicated in this. Neither your House nor mine — we may need an independent witness."

Fresh lines had appeared on Professor McGonagall's face, but she conceded the point unhappily. "Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw, then. Emma Currion's a very talented student...I'm sure—"

"I don't care how talented she is at Transfiguration, I'm not having a hamfisted Hufflepuff near an experiment of this delicacy," Snape said flatly across her protests. He cast his mind across last year's Ravenclaw Potions class, trying to separate the competent students from the troublemakers. "Lovell will do. I'll take Lovell."

"Magnus Lovell?" McGonagall looked surprised. "Don't you think he's a bit...quiet?"

"The quieter the better," Snape retorted. He had drawn his wand and was busy levitating packages into a neat queue towards the stairs.

Professor McGonagall sighed, drawing her robes around her as she prepared to leave. "Very well. I'll have Lovell sent down here. Is there anything else?"

"I'll keep you informed." Snape didn't spare her a glance, concentrating on handling three bales of larks-tongues at once. After a moment he heard the quick rustle of retreating steps, followed by silence.

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