The Sugar Quill
Author: Igenlode Wordsmith (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Water-horse  Chapter: First Blood (Ch2 of 8)
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Ch.2 - First Blood

Ch.2 - First Blood

Reserved and gypsy-dark, Magnus Lovell, now in his sixth year in Ravenclaw House at Hogwarts, had always been tall for his age. Over the last year he had finally begun to broaden out to match his gangly height. During the summer, Snape noted with distaste, he had also taken the daring step of acquiring a single gold earring. Some feather-witted girl had probably told him that it made him look piratical and dashing. To Snape's mind it made him look more like a Muggle garage mechanic.

He stared coldly at Lovell until the boy looked down and began to shuffle. "If you've quite finished inspecting the hem of your robes, Mr Lovell...." Snape's voice was silky, but Magnus flushed.

"Professor McGonagall said you needed some stuff moving down to the dungeons, sir."

"Yes." Obviously, Snape's expression implied. He indicated the crate that held the each uisge with a brief jerk of his wand. "This one contains livestock. I suggest that you handle it with extreme care."

Another flick of his wand rounded up the levitating small packages and sent them bobbing ahead of him towards the stairs down to the lower levels of Hogwarts. He was halfway across the hall when a yelp and crash from behind him told him that the boy Lovell had managed to drop the packing-case.

He swung round on his heel, snarling. "I believe I mentioned extreme care, Mr Lovell?"

The seals on the case were unharmed, but Lovell's hand was bleeding. The denizen of the cage had obviously managed to get in a bite. Snape relaxed and allowed himself a thin smile.

"I suggest more attention in future when handling hazardous materials," he told the boy coldly, watching him take a fresh grip on his burden, and swept his own load out of the hall and down the stairs.

He passed Lovell several times as the pile of packages in the entrance hall steadily decreased. The Ravenclaw appeared to be making extremely slow progress. As Snape came swiftly up the stairs for a third time, the boy stumbled, missed a step, and almost brought them both crashing to the ground. A wicked black head, flattened against the inside of the crate, twisted round and tried to get in a nip at Snape in passing, only to recoil before a venomous hex.

Snape brushed off his robes, regained his balance and directed a truly murderous glare at the incompetent Lovell. The boy was almost in tears. He made another attempt to lift the packing-case, flinching with pain, and let it slip, holding out both hands in appeal. They were covered with shallow nips and scrapes and bleeding freely. "Sir — I can't—"

"Silence!" Snape stared him down. "I would have expected more initiative from a Ravenclaw of your abilities, Mr Lovell." An almost contemptuous flick of his wand set a Repulsion hex along the edges of the slats, bringing a harsh hiss from the dark shape within. He pointed his wand in the direction of Lovell's hands.


Lovell let out a gasp as the Numbing Curse hit, then stared down at his nerveless extremities in mingled relief and dismay. He fumbled to pick up the crate with some difficulty.

"Get on with it." Snape turned away sharply. "I'll expect you to bring down what's left from the Entrance Hall once you've finished. I have work to do."

But he took care to supervise the creature's transfer to Professor Kettleburn's enclosure himself, all the same, forcing the horse-demon across from travelling-crate to sturdy cage without allowing for one moment the Containment Curse to lapse that held it pent in miniature form. It was not until the Curse had been firmly anchored in its new destination, and the protections on every bar of the enclosure checked over yet again — he had absolutely no intention of trusting his own safety to them on the strength of old Kettleburn's assurances — that he dismissed Lovell to fetch down the remainder of the supplies and allowed himself to relax a little.

In the corner of the disused classroom, the each uisge shifted softly, one dark eye half-visible in the shadows. It whickered gently, projecting 'harmless' and 'glossy black hide, so soft to touch'. Snape gave it a cold stare and turned his back.

But the process of opening and unpacking all the various bales and crates of newly-arrived components intrigued him and calmed his temper, as it always had; there was an unthinking pleasure in breaking open each bundle and spreading out the delicate contents across the long desks in the lamplight, in a subtle rainbow of textures and colours and scents, musty and spicy and sour, with a hint of sharp musk, and the faint, unpleasant background tang that was the relic of a hundred failed schoolboy potions. It had hung about all the dungeon classrooms for so long that he barely even registered it with distaste; it was simply the familiar scent of Potions...of his domain.

He was in the middle of examining a carefully-graded array of lionfish spines when Magnus Lovell made a belated reappearance, almost concealed behind an armful of the remaining packages.

"There's still another couple of boxes up there," he said hastily, before Snape could speak. He let his armful cascade clumsily onto the end of the table beside the rest. "I couldn't manage everything all at once. I'll just go and get them—" He almost bolted from the room.

Snape stared after him, breath hissing sharply between his teeth. But the boy's feet were clattering up the stairs already, and young Master Lovell's antics could be tracked down to source later. Meanwhile...meanwhile, there was the intriguing, bitter scent of crushed mermaid's-foot seed drifting from the half-opened packet in front of him, and a whole cornucopia of other treasures to be brought to light....

It was some few minutes later, handling feather-light sheets of gossamer silk, that he became aware of an unpleasant stickiness in his touch. Snape wiped one hand down the black of his robes, irritably. Then frowned, staring at the colour of the faint smudges on the gossamer. Brought the other hand up slowly, first into the lamplight and then, cautiously — gaze going from the reddish smears on his fingertips to those on the side of the bale he'd been handling — to his mouth.

The fleeting taste was only a confirmation. Blood-stains. Hand-prints, on everything the boy had brought down. And the boy himself, standing in the doorway with the two last boxes clutched to his chest, and a thoroughly hangdog expression....

"Mr Lovell!" Snape was on his feet, robes billowing around him as if the shadows themselves were reaching out, and Lovell flinched.

"Have you any idea—" the Potions master's voice had taken on that deadly intensity that his students knew all too well— "have you any idea of the potential consequences, not only to yourself but to anyone careless enough to use the contaminated material, if this wizard's blood of yours is allowed to come into contact with work in progress? Have you any hint of understanding of the Dark Arts implications alone of mingling a wizard's own blood with a spell?"

He drew a breath. "Because strangely enough, Mr Lovell, I seem to remember setting an essay on that very subject for your Potions exam — an examination which you purport to have passed with an ease which now appears entirely improbable!"

Snape broke off. Not, by any means, because words were about to fail him, but because the young Ravenclaw didn't appear to have heard a word he was saying.

"It won't stop..." Lovell whispered, his voice cracking. He held out both hands towards Snape as if clutching at him, the boxes in his arms fallen unheeded at his feet. "I went up to the common room to get these—" he was wearing what might once have been patterned gloves— "but the blood just soaks through and through, and it won't stop..."

Snape caught him by the forearm and stripped off one sticky, sodden glove, ignoring the boy's attempt at protest. The cuts and scrapes underneath were no more serious than when he had last seen them. But they were still oozing a thin film of blood.

"Some kind of anti-coagulant, obviously," he observed drily. "Possibly grounds for an interesting footnote in Whyte's Bestiary, but hardly life-threatening, Lovell. I would suggest you find a more responsive audience for your histrionics."

He let the boy's arm drop, wiping his fingers in distaste, and turned on his heel to leave the room. When he returned from the stores, a jar of salve in either hand, Magnus Lovell was still standing exactly as he had left him, the first hint of colour beginning to return to his face.

Snape propelled him by the collar towards a seat at the end of one of the long tables, dumping the jars down in front of him.

"Wound-Seal. Use it. And I want notes on the varying effects of the two different recipes."

The boy's mouth opened as he gave a helpless look down at his hands, and Snape forestalled the inevitable objection with a snarl. "Mental notes, Mr Lovell. I assume you do retain that facility behind the unassuming ear-ornament you are so modestly sporting?"

He swept back to his own seat without bothering to wait for an answer. In the blessed silence that followed, it was some time before he even recalled Lovell's existence to mind again.

A shower of dried palm leaves clattered to the floor as the edge of Snape's robes brushed against the discarded packaging. Snape stared down at the mess for a moment, mouth tightening, then turned suddenly and glared across the room.

"Strange as it may seem, Lovell, I understood that you were here to play the part of an assistant, not that of a decorative classroom feature. I can only assume there is some very good reason why you are sitting at your ease and twiddling your thumbs?"

The Ravenclaw student flushed. "I'm still waiting for this second batch of salve, sir. I don't think it's working, much."

Snape frowned and got to his feet, sending more wrappings cascading unheeded beneath the desks. One of those jars had been made to the standard recipe for the Wound-Seal Salve: the other had been the original trial batch of a faster-acting variant he'd begun experimenting with some three years ago. There had been no ill-effects that either he or Madam Pomfrey had ever been able to detect. It did, however, occur to him forcibly that one thing he had never considered was a possibility of the compound's becoming unstable with age.

The sudden dawning of hindsight had never been one of his favourite experiences.

A couple of strides took him round the end of the desks and along to Lovell, who was holding out the jar defensively as if he thought Snape wouldn't believe him. One sniff and taste were enough to confirm his suspicions. Degraded — almost beyond use. He'd have to warn Poppy to clear out her old stock.

His clenched jaw tightened further as a fresh thought occurred to him; he'd have to submit a cautionary addendum to the account of the new technique that had made it into publication in last year's British Philtre Journal, as well. And the boy was staring at him with an oh-so-innocent expression, as if he didn't understand why Snape should even care

"Show me your hand. Both hands!" Snape's own bony wrists shot out as he yanked Lovell's hands towards him. The right hand was clean, bite-marks and scrapes dried up to thin lines against tanned skin. The left was still pink and swollen. Snape prodded one of the raised scratch-marks with a merciless touch, tightening his grip as the boy instinctively pulled away. The wound didn't — quite — split open.

"It'll do. Get to work." He thrust the boy towards the workbench, indicating the mess with a comprehensive sweep of the arm. "You can start by clearing that up."

Himself busy sweeping assorted potion ingredients into suitable containers, Snape kept an eagle eye on the boy; but while Magnus Lovell had never shone in Potions, he had been a reliable student, and he was making a competent job of it. Snape left him to it, and began assembling the rest of what he was going to need.

They worked in silence for a while, with barely a sound save the steady rustle of the boy's movements and the occasional brush of Snape's robes as the Potions master moved softly around the classroom like a shadow in a candle-flame, first reaching high then stooping low without warning. From the corner, almost hidden in the darkness save for one glinting eye, the each uisge watched.

Snape set an alembic of isinglass down on the desktop with a rap that made his assistant look up in surprise.

"That's enough for tonight, Mr Lovell. I'll expect to see you here again after dinner tomorrow. Is that clear?"

Magnus Lovell nodded, looking for a moment as if he would have liked to ask a question. Snape eyed him coldly, and after a few seconds he subsided.

Reaching for a fresh scrap of parchment, Snape began to dip his quill; then stopped. The time had grown late enough to cause trouble if any student were to be found wandering the corridors of Hogwarts out of hours. But a permission note from Severus Snape might cause even more trouble, later, if things went badly. He had absolutely no intention of trusting Lovell to dispose of it.

He laid the pen down with decision. "Straighten your robes, Mr Lovell. I have business upstairs. I'll take you up to the common room myself." Correctly interpreting the young Ravenclaw's expression, Snape allowed his lip to curl unpleasantly. "Believe it or not, despite being Head of Slytherin I am sufficiently acquainted with your common room's location to do so...."

In fact, as it happened, the Ravenclaw common room was not a hundred miles removed from Argus Filch's office. And there had been the small matter of one item which he had discovered to be missing out of the delivery manifest. Given its nature and the earlier presence of Mrs Norris, he had a strong suspicion that Filch knew the answer.

He was right. Long practice enabled him to pick the reek of burnt ambergris out of the air before he even reached the caretaker's office on his way down from delivering Lovell — unseen and hence unquestioned — back into the tender care of Ravenclaw House.

Waiting for Filch's shuffling steps to answer his rap on the door, Snape occupied himself detecting the other ingredients of the potion Filch had been trying to brew, although he had already guessed its nature without a shadow of doubt. His mouth twisted a little in private amusement. He'd tried that one himself, when he was seventeen. It had taken nearly half a year for his hair to grow back in, let alone back to anything like a natural colour — and needless to say, the smooth glossy locks the tempting nostrum promised had never materialised. He'd suffered enough from ribaldry in that time to leave it severely alone ever since.

Judging by the smell of burnt potion, Filch hadn't even got that far. Unsurprising, since the caretaker was a Squib.

Contrary to many students' — and, he suspected, adult wizards' — belief, creating a successful potion required rather more magical power than mere Muggle chemistry. Without the necessary talent, mixing up Granny's old Love Philtre in the garden shed was more likely to poison the victim than render her receptive. Mediæval doctors had inadvertently proved this point beyond all reasonable doubt during the period when well-meaning wizards had attempted to introduce some of the minor Healing Potions into the Muggle world.

It hadn't stopped the Muggles hopefully boiling red-haired dogs and infusing worms in pigs'-marrow for several hundred years, though. Nor from continuing to kill off their sick with the useless results.

If the Ministry of Magic had any sense, they'd spend less time regulating cauldron thickness and far more in clamping down on unlicensed potion-making — and, most of all, on the quack firms that circulated sheets of Seven Easy Nostrums or Potions '89 for Dummies to encourage people like Filch to waste time and ingredients in trying.

He didn't like Filch. He didn't even, exactly, pity him. But the man had an uncanny nose for rule-breakers and miscreants that had proved extremely useful in the past, and a thoroughly laudable zeal for seeing them punished. Under the circumstances, Snape was able to ignore the Squib's conviction that enough experiment would enable him to unlock his powers, and was even able to extend a degree of tolerance to the abstraction of basic ingredients for yet another attempt at potion-concoction — tolerance that would have amazed those students who had run foul of Professor Snape's legendary watch over the contents of the Potions store cupboard.

None of that, however, implied liking. He stared down coldly at Filch's hunched figure as the door finally opened. The scent of burnt musk wafted pungently about them both, and Snape's nostrils twitched. "I think you know what I want, Filch."

Filch ducked his head in a sort of nod. "Just a few grains, was just a few grains, and I was going to bring it over to your office special-like...."

Beyond him, in the centre of the cramped little room, a small cauldron was smouldering. Mrs Norris was watching it intently with large pale eyes, her whiskers quivering. Snape stalked in, uninvited, on the caretaker's heels, and stared around at the litter of parchments on every surface as Filch dug among them for the missing jar.

"You're wasting your time, Filch." He crumpled the nearest sheet — Goody Furbelow's Guaranteed Complexion Enhancer — and let it drop. "None of this dross is worth the sheepskin it's written on, even for a qualified wizard. And none of it is ever — ever — going to work without magic."

"Ah, but I thought of that, di'nt I?" Filch squinted at him, straightening up with the open jar in his hand. "I took what you told me to heart, Professor. Sent off for a course that'll set me right—"

If there was one thing Snape detested, it was Argus Filch's attempts to be ingratiating.

"No doubt." His tone did little to conceal his own opinion of such an eventuality. "And until that happy arrival, perhaps you could restrain your depredations upon my supplies. Thank you." He had removed the jar from the caretaker's grasp and stoppered it, in one swift movement.

In the doorway, he paused. "Incidentally, the effects of ambergris fumes can be particularly injurious to cats. I suggest you apply to the Headmaster for additional ventilation."

Filch's eyes had begun to bulge, and Snape allowed himself a small, unpleasant smile. "Good night."

It was less than welcome, therefore, to find that his own rooms had become suffused with a stale, ammoniacal reek in his absence. Not that the source was hard to find. Snape stared across the dungeon at the each uisge, a softly-moving shadow behind the bars. He could just discern the outline of pricked ears and one, sidelong, eye. The creature whickered, horse-like. It was watching him.

Thin lips tightening, Snape slammed the door and set a locking spell on it. He checked the other disused classrooms. Nothing there. Nothing in any of the main dungeons, or the corridors, or his own office. Nothing, save for the scent of damp and decay, and the faint clinging odour of stale water.

Lying awake, later that night, in the silent blackness that filled his bedchamber after the candle had been blown out, he could almost feel the air thickening around him. Sliding, slow and stagnant, beneath the door and past his wards like a ghostly roll of thunder in the hills, and pooling in the room. Lapping higher and higher along the walls, deadening movement, smothering all sound, rising silently across mouth and nose—

Snape shot bolt upright in bed, gasping, one hand sliding instinctively in search of his wand. For a second or two he was unsure even if he was awake.

"I've faced Voldemort," he said softly into the empty room between clenched teeth. "I've seen more Dark Arts than the years that have flowed through your river. I'll not play your mind-games."

He slid his hand out from underneath the bolster, holding his wand. "Ventilare vegetus!"

Snape held the wand straight out in the darkness for an instant; then brought it across in front of him in a steady line. And the night-breeze followed in its wake.

Cold and clean, like a draught of ice-water— He took a deep breath, feeling his head clear almost instantly, and let his wand fall, ending the charm. For the first time, in the moments that followed, he became aware of the beads of moisture that had gathered on his face.

But the air had changed. The thick, stagnant taste that had filled the room had been swept free. He let himself sink back slowly onto his pillow, alert in the dark; but he could detect nothing, save the faint leaf-mould tang that had always, for him, accompanied the Fresh-Air Charm.

And — he yawned and suddenly rolled over, sliding his wand back under the bolster as he did so — for the first time he felt as if he could rest. Whatever the sense of menace that had weighed upon him, it was gone, at least for tonight.

Five minutes later, there was nothing stirring in the dungeons at all.

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