The Sugar Quill
Author: Firebird (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: A Bitter Draught  Chapter: Default
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Without knowing why, without even consciously registering it, the homebound workers instinctively gave a wide berth to the hun

 

 

Without knowing why, without even consciously registering their aversion, the homeward-trudging workers gave a wide berth to the hook-nosed man with the black hair and flowing black cloak.  He, for his part, was utterly oblivious to them, his glittering eyes fixed straight ahead as he sliced through the crowd like a knife through warm butter. It had been an unseasonably chilly June, and a light rain was falling, but the man in black seemed insensible of the drops that caused most passersby to tug their coat collars higher and scurry from awning to awning.

 

Abruptly, without pausing to look for traffic, he plunged across the main street and up a narrow side street. It was lined with unremarkable brick flats that carried an air of having seen better days. The streetlamps were not yet lit, and the dusk hung thickly here where little light penetrated and only his footsteps echoed between the building fronts. He walked without varying his pace for a quarter of an hour, his cloak billowing slightly in his wake. He seldom glanced left or right, but he occasionally pulled back his left sleeve to peer at a spot on his arm, rubbing it fretfully, as though it pained him.

 

At length he stopped and turned to face a particularly blank stretch of wall. Shaking aside his curtain of greasy hair, he stared back the way he had come, checking to see that the street behind was as deserted as the way ahead. He need not have bothered, really, for the door that had appeared in the wall before him would have been invisible to any but another wizard. Satisfied that he was alone, he ducked inside with one swift, convulsive movement.

 

The interior was as nondescript as the exterior. The single unadorned bulb was no match for the shadows that congregated in the corners of the dingy vestibule. To his left, a set of stairs led out of sight, and the man’s face jerked upward as he heard the slight scuffle of descending feet. A frown creased his forehead as a squat figure, moving furtively, sidled down the stairs.

 

The figure, its face hidden within the voluminous folds of its hooded cloak, ducked its head as it skittered by, as though anxious to avoid recognition. Silently, the man in black swiveled as it passed, his eyes drilling into the retreating form until it darted through the door and disappeared.

 

Only then did the hook-nosed man ascend the staircase and, pausing before the single door on the first landing, take a long breath before giving a purposeful knock.

 

“Come,” commanded a high, cold voice from beyond the door, and he obeyed.

 

“Snape,” said his host, without troubling to turn from where he stood facing the empty grate.

 

“My Lord,” murmured Snape, bowing slightly -- without for an instant moving his eyes from his host’s back. Although the man was enveloped from neck to toe by robes of the darkest green, something crabbed about his posture and the angularity of his shoulders conveyed extreme thinness. The back of his head, which was completely bald, had the pallor of a skull. It seemed almost to float in the dusky gloom that shrouded the room.

 

The man’s head was bent over something he appeared to be holding in his arms, and although he did not utter further speech, Snape realized with a faint shudder that he was humming. Not only humming, but –the hairs on Snape’s neck rose at the knowledge – humming a lullaby, a lullaby to the thing in his arms.

 

They remained thus for some moments until, more to break the silence than anything, Snape blurted almost involuntarily, “My Lord, if I may ask, if it is not impertinent …”

 

The humming ceased. The man’s head came up.

 

Snape’s voice faltered. He pressed his already thin lips tightly together, as though trying to swallow the rest of the sentence. Although his host’s back was still turned, Snape had the impression that every faculty was focused on penetrating into the recesses of Snape’s brain. He steeled himself, willing his mind to be as blank as the building’s brick facade.

 

At length, the man bent again over whatever it was he held and murmured something indistinct. As the man turned to face him at last, Snape caught the faintest rustle, as though something was slipping away over the polished floor. By then, however, every shred of his attention was riveted on his host, who regarded him with a twisted smile that would have caused the bravest man to quail. Even in the semi-darkness, it was plain that the man’s eyes, glaring out of a face stretched taut like a death mask, were deep red, with vertical slits for pupils.

 

“Impertinent? Yes, Snape, of course it is impertinent. And, as you know, the Dark Lord brooks no impertinence.” There was an edge of excitement as well as cruelty in his voice, and his nostrils quivered as though searching the air for the scent of fear. “However, it is now I who am curious. Pray, continue. What is it you desire to know? What can have prompted such temerity?”

 

“It is nothing, my Lord … only, I could not help but wonder who it was that preceded me in enjoying the pleasure of your Lordship’s company.”

 

The red-eyed man’s smile stretched into an evil leer. “Pleasure,” he mocked. “Surely you flatter me too, much, Snape?” When Snape did not reply, he gave an impatient shrug and said, “No one. Merely a trusted servant. Why do you ask?”

 

“No reason, my Lord. It is merely that I thought all your servants were known to me. And yet, although this man seemed vaguely familiar, I did not recognize him as one of your Death Eaters.”

 

“Enough!” hissed the spectral man. “It does not suit Lord Voldemort that all of his servants should be known to one another. Do you imagine that you, or any other Death Eater, is fully within my confidence, Snape? Your job is to obey and to serve, not to delve into matters that do not concern you. Or perhaps I have put too much trust in you? Perhaps I made a mistake in placing you so near that cunning idiot, Dumbledore? Perhaps your allegiance to the Dark Lord is wavering?”

 

“No!” breathed Snape. “My Lord, I despise Dumbledore and those weak-minded fools he gathers around him. I could not bear to lower myself to associate with them if it were not that by doing so, I can be of service to Lord Voldemort.”

 

Voldemort laughed mirthlessly and strode to a corner where a low table, a lamp and two wing-backed chairs provided the room’s only furnishing. With a flick of his wand he lit the lamp, then settled himself in one chair and gestured Snape into the other.

 

“Now, if you are finished being impertinent,” he said when Snape was seated, “we will get to the purpose of this meeting, which means that I, and I alone, will ask the questions.”

 

“Of course, my Lord,” said Snape.

 

“I wish to hear again,” Voldemort said, regarding Snape closely in the circle of the lamplight, “the exact wording of the prophecy that you so fortuitously overheard last month at the Hog’s Head Inn.”

 

The merest flicker of disquiet crossed Snape’s sallow face. “Certainly, my Lord, but I have already told you everything.”

 

“Perhaps,” said Voldemort. “However, certain matters have come to light that … Well, let us just say that I desire to hear it again. And leave nothing out.”

 

“Yes, my Lord,” Snape said slowly. “Well, as I explained before, I went to the Hog’s Head at your direction for an audience with Dumbledore, to discuss my taking up a teaching post at Hogwarts. When I arrived at the inn, I learned that another supplicant was to be interviewed before me. Ascertaining in which room that interview was to take place, I waited out of sight until Dumbledore had entered. I then placed myself just outside the door.”

 

Voldemort nodded hungrily.

 

“For some time, I was able to hear only fragments of the conversation, from which I deduced that the applicant, a woman, was seeking the post of Divination instructor. It was my impression that the interview was winding down when, suddenly, her voice grew loud and distinct. I heard her say quite clearly that a child is soon to be born who will have – forgive me, my Lord -- power to defeat the Dark Lord. This child, a boy, is to be born as July wanes, to parents who have thrice eluded your wrath …”

 

“Yes,” Voldemort breathed eagerly, “what more?”

 

Snape frowned. “As you know, I was most unfortunately discovered at that moment. I was seized from behind by that horribly uncouth barman, and in my attempts to free myself, I heard nothing further.

 

“I do not think there can have been much more, however,” he said hurriedly, seeing Voldemort’s nostrils flare and his hands, white and thin as spiders, clutch convulsively at the arms of his chair. “I was still attempting to throw off the barman when the door flew open and Dumbledore discovered us.”

 

“But there must be more,” snapped Voldemort. “Surely you caught some further words, some fragment that will tell me which …”

 

He broke off, let out a long hiss and leaned forward, his red eyes boring into Snape’s black ones. “Surely, you do not wish to displease Lord Voldemort,” he said with silky menace. “Surely you do not wish to fail the Dark Lord?”

 

Snape refused to look away, but he shrank perceptibly into the recesses of his chair. “Of course not, my Lord. You know I desire nothing but you serve you, nothing but to further the rise of the Dark Arts. But – and I say it with the utmost regret – I cannot repeat what I did not hear. If (and I do not believe this to be the case) there was more to be gleaned.”

 

“Oh, there was more,” said Voldemort with quiet menace. “There was most assuredly more.”

 

“Forgive me, my Lord, but what leads you to this conclusion?”

 

“Because,” Voldemort spat, his already hideous face contorted with fury, “there are two!”

 

“Two what?” asked Snape.

 

“Two boys, you imbecile,” hissed Voldemort. “Two boys who fit the terms of the prophecy: who are to be born at the end of July, and whose parents have dared to defy me. That is the news that was brought to me earlier this evening. That is why I summoned you here!

 

“And what,” he demanded peevishly, “do you bring me, Snape? You, who are right next to Dumbledore? Somehow you failed to acquire this intelligence that is so vital to my survival. What good are you? Where would I be without other servants, servants who are more cunning and, perhaps, more loyal?”

 

“My Lord,” protested Snape, his voice tinged with panic, “I have only just taken up residence at Hogwarts. I must be subtle, I must give Dumbledore no reason to suspect me. You know I am loyal. How many times have I proved it?”

 

Voldemort silenced him with a wave of his hand. “Enough,” he said. “I do not need pretty speeches. I need information that will tell me which of these brats to fear, and you, worthless as you appear at this moment, are ideally placed to acquire it.

 

“The whole of that prophecy rests inside the mind of Albus Dumbledore, and you hold yourself out, do you not, as an exceptional Legilimens? This shall be a worthy test of your skill.”

 

Snape looked appalled, but he dared not protest. Moistening his lips with a flick of his tongue, he said, “Yes, my Lord. As you say. It might help, however, if I were more in your Lordship’s confidence. You know, I take it, the identities of these prospective foes? Who are they?”

 

With a shrug of annoyance, Voldemort said, “I hardly see how … Oh, well, if you think … First are those blood traitors and slaves of the Ministry, the Longbottoms. Pathetic, they are, calling themselves Aurors and presuming to hunt down my Death Eaters. They shall live to regret it.”

 

Snape nodded sycophantically. “And the other?” he asked.

 

Voldemort’s grin was more like a leer.

 

“Oh, you’ll appreciate this, Snape – you, whose taste for vengeance is perhaps as rarified as my own. You will find it almost unbearably delicious, although to me it can only appear as an insult, the suggestion that the son of a mudblood and a sniveling blood traitor could challenge the greatest Dark Wizard of all time.

 

“Think, Snape: Whom, among all your personal store of enemies, do you most detest?”

 

Snape looked puzzled. “Sirius Black, my Lord, but he is unmarried.”

 

 “Ah, yes, well, it comes to almost the same thing. Blood traitors, both of them. I would have crushed them like insects before now, if it weren’t for Dumbledore’s interference. They will pay most dearly in the end, I can assure you, for daring to stand against me.

 

“And that impertinent girl, too. She, no doubt, deludes herself that Dumbledore’s favor and her husband’s bravado will protect her. So much the better. I shall use her specially to demonstrate what becomes of mudbloods who presume to sully the name of wizard-kind.

 

“Potter,” he spat, as though the word was poison in his mouth.

 

Somewhere about this middle of this tirade, Snape had ceased to breathe. The blood had gone from his face and the glitter from his eyes, which stared as unseeingly as two lumps of coal.

 

Then, realizing that Voldemort had finished, he jerked to attention and began to mumble, “Yes, my Lord. It shall be done, my Lord.” Under cover of refastening his cloak, he ducked his head and took several quick, ragged breaths. When he raised his face again, he was pale, but his eyes were blank and his voice was steady.

 

“I will endeavor, my Lord, to pierce Dumbledore’s mind. But, surely, it is as you say. It can hardly be James and Lil … the Potter brat who poses a threat to your Lordship. It is preposterous, laughable, to imagine that the child of such an outrageous … such a vile … such a despicable union could threaten the likes of the Dark Lord. Surely it is the Longbottoms to which the prophecy referred. It cannot be otherwise.”

 

“Be that as it may, Snape, I intend to be sure,” Voldemort retorted. “And I intend for you to acquire the information that will make me sure. You shall have the honor of sealing the fate of the one that is so marked – whichever it is. Do you understand me?”

 

“Yes, my Lord.”

 

“Good. Now you may leave me. I am weary of company. Lord Voldemort is relying on you Snape. Do not fail me.”

 

“Yes, my Lord. That is, no, my Lord,” Snape said, rising. Once in motion, he wasted no time, pausing at the door only long enough to bow jerkily before bolting through it – leaving Voldemort to stare speculatively at its blank, unresponsive surface.

 

                                                                ***

 

Mild though the night was, Snape felt as though he would suffocate as he slipped  through Hogwarts’ enchanted gates. He walked swiftly but bent over, like a man with painful stomach cramps. His breath came in uneven gasps. He was almost at the front steps when he abruptly turned aside and took the path that skirted the castle toward the greenhouses.

 

Just a little way along, he sank onto a stone bench and grabbed his head in his hands. Rocking spasmodically, he shook his head like a bull tormented by a swarm of bees. No sound escaped him, but his agony could not have been more palpable.

 

Gradually, his body grew quieter but no less anguished. On and on he sat, occasionally rocking or twitching and finally pressing his palms into his eye sockets as though he would blot out the world. More than an hour had passed when he rose, finally, with the look of a man condemned to the gallows. His face, always harsh, was a frozen mask of despair. But the set of his shoulders spoke of resolution.

 

Walking neither fast nor slowly, he mounted the castle steps, unlocked the massive oak doors with a wave of his wand, and climbed to the seventh floor corridor where a stone gargoyle stood guard.

 

“Chocolate frog,” he said, and the gargoyle sprang aside to reveal a moving spiral stairway. At the top, Snape did not pause before knocking on the headmaster’s door.

 

The familiar voice bade him enter.

 

Dumbledore, seated behind his vast desk, looked tired in the lamplight, but he greeted Snape graciously. His shrewd blue eyes betrayed no surprise at the unannounced visit. In fact, Snape had the improbable sensation that he was expected. At other times, that thought would have increased his habitual wariness, but under the present circumstances, it seemed wholly trivial.

 

“What brings you to me, Severus?” Dumbledore asked kindly, motioning him toward a chair.

 

Declining to sit, Snape planted himself directly opposite the headmaster’s desk. Fixing his eyes on Dumbledore’s, he said in a voice that was harsh with suppressed emotion, “I have betrayed you; you must help me.”

 

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