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Villain of the Piece

Part 3  Waiting Games

- Chapter  36 -

 Chapter 36:   Legends

3rd to 4th September 1981

Thursday.  A morning of unrelenting rain.  Aurora again not at breakfast.  The newspaper full of a report about a fire at a Muggle paper mill.  A first-year double period of Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs, followed by a single period of third-years from all houses.  And then a single, blissful free slot – to catch up on marking.  And then lunch – at which Wilbert Slinkhard got to the table ahead of him, leaving vacant the seat next to Minerva.

Slinkhard by name, slink-hard by nature, Severus muttered bitterly, as on the other side of him he heard Minerva re-folding her newspaper, finishing an article she hadn’t had time for at breakfast, and behind them the rain continued to clatter against the windows.

“There’s trouble in Europe with the giants” Minerva murmured.

“Is there?” Severus asked.  “Where?”

Albania … Dumbledore went over there in the summer.  Did you know?”

“No, I had no idea.”

“Yes … He gets around a good deal.” In silence she read a little more.  “Ach, this Morag McAllister” she hissed.  “Foreign correspondent.  I can’t stand the woman!”  Turning the page, she hooked out another topic.  “What do you think of Crouch’s latest attack on the CPBS?”

Severus remembered the item from his breakfast-time reading.  “A little over-the-top” he replied, wondering what reply Minerva would expect.  “I think the CPBS is a spent force, anyway.  Dangerous for being desperate, but many people think it’s old fashioned, so perhaps we’re seeing its death throes.  What do you think?”

“That Crouch is far too harsh at times” Minerva said, laying down her paper and pondering.  “Not all of these people can be close followers of this Dark wizard whom everyone fears to name.  You-Know-Who – that’s who I mean – that’s what many people are saying now.  I think Crouch is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

“He came down very hard on Yaxley and Gibbon.”

“Aye, well so he should” she insisted, with an abrupt change of attitude.  “They were part of the gang who slaughtered the Prewetts.  They were with that Dolohov.  Albus still thinks they didn’t get them all.”

Then wise old Albus is probably right, Severus decided privately.  He wondered why he had chosen to call his old friend ‘Yaxley’ instead of ‘Xavier’.  And why he described the CPBS as a spent force.  Perhaps because he knew Lucius had other interest aside from stirring up trouble in the Wizengamot.  Not that he would give up on it.  But the Wizengamot’s official stance had hardened, so Lucius would put his energies elsewhere, into more pleasant ‘sporting’ and ‘exciting’ activities.  Politics could wait.

*

The afternoon was pleasant, a double practical lesson with the sixth-years, and then a single period of theory with the fifths – students who, in the main, were prepared to make an effort.  And before dinner a chat with Septima Vector, whom he had not spoken to since he had completed his Arithmancy NEWT.

He noticed her as he was making his way towards the staff room.  He recognised, first, the flat-heeled brown sandals, and then the calf-length donkey-brown skirt.  She was loitering halfway up the main stairs and he sensed she was waiting for him.  She was holding a pile of books.

“Tea, Severus?” she asked in her typically doleful voice, turning to look down at him.

Severus took the marble steps two at a time.  “I was just going in search of that very thing” he said.

“Yes.  No doubt.  Staff room tea.  But how about a cup of Lapsang with me?”

Refusing would have been discourteous, and he had already anticipated her request and decided to accept it, wondering what she really wanted.

“Thank you.  Can I carry those books for you?”

“Oh.  Yes please.”

He looked at them.  Most were Arithmancy textbooks, but one was–

“Shakespeare – The Comedies?  I have The Tragedies – this very edition.”

“Do you?  I’ve just got that back from Pomona.  Like the bard, do you?”

“If one can tolerate the absence of any credible plot – yes, I like him up to a point.”

“Ah, but the language, Severus, the language” Septima insisted.  “He’s such a poet…”

Her office was not far from the South Tower.  In a shady corner an old raven sat on a perch, asleep, white feathers showing amongst the black.  He opened one eye, inspected Severus, and closed it again, returning unruffled to slumber.

“Pop the books on the desk, please – the desk by the window.”

Severus did as bid, noticing as he did so that the view from this level was very fine.  The rain had stopped and he could see across the lake to distant mountains.

“You have a good view from here, Septima.”

“I like to look out when I work.  Do take a seat.”

Severus glanced at the armchairs by the fireplace but didn’t immediately take her up on that, preferring to look out at the sparkling grey water.  But he couldn’t stay too long by the desk in case it gave the impression that he was prying through her papers, so he turned and found himself facing a painting of a Germanic-looking turreted castle, executed in soft greyish-green watercolours.

“Family seat?”

“Ha.  Yes.  Sort of” she said.  “Ravens Craig.  Not Ravenscraig, the Muggle steelworks!  Yes, that house was an old family home – for a while.  Long gone now.  Lost in the mists of time … Okay, I’m ready.”

She carried a tray of bone china tea things to a low table set beside the armchairs and they sat down.  The tea was good.

“Crumpet?” she asked.  “I can soon toast some.”

“Not for me, if you don’t mind” Severus decided.  “Too close to dinner.  “But I’d like to take you up on that another day, if I may?”

“Of course” she beamed.  “I’ll pass on it, too.  I only offered because men tend to eat more.  So, you like the view from here.  Yes, I like it too.  One or two of my relatives wouldn’t much care for it.  They’d prefer your dungeons.”

“Really?”

“Yes.  You’ve got one of them in your House; Phoebus King.  ‘Phoebe’ as all the other children seem to call him.  I warned his father not to give him a stupid name like Phoebus, but would he listen?  I even find myself calling him Phoebe, now.”

“I’m sure it’s very character-building” Severus said smoothly.  “Yes, Willy Slinkhard said Master King is related to you.  And to Minerva.”

“And to another McGonagall you know” Septima beamed, “Flora of the infamous London boarding house.”

“Oh dear” Severus chuckled.  “I can see I’ll have to be careful about dishing out detentions.  My past sins might catch up with me.”

“No, don’t worry about detentions” she said airily.  “If the little beast earns one, let him have it.  But I thought you’d appreciate being made aware of the family connections.  You’ll find this sort of thing happens a lot.  Phoebe’s father was here in the sixty’s.  In Gryffindor.  Remember Roger King and Timmy McGonagall?  All the same family.”

Severus thought it over and shook his head.  He had a vague idea that they were old stars of the Gryffindor Quidditch team, but they had left Hogwarts before he started.  James Potter had spoken of them as if they were gods.

“So, is young Master King a grandson of yours?” he ventured”

“Grandson?  You flatter me!  Great-grand!  Great-grand nephew actually” she explained.  “I have no children of my own.  I never married.”

“A life dedicated to teaching.”

“Don’t know about dedicated” said Septima, in her self-deprecating way.  “I wandered into teaching through not knowing what else to do.  Does that sound terrible?  I suppose it does.  But I think I made a good choice because the job gives me the opportunity to think, and to discuss, and of course it gives me access to a library.  I only have to deal with the third form up; wouldn’t want to teach children.  Wouldn’t want to have to do a compulsory subject.  I like my subject to be chosen so that I know the students have a hunger for it.  I suppose, on reflection, that sounds rather mean.”

“No, not at all” Severus insisted.  “I’m only sorry that my subject has to be compulsory.”

“Yes.  It’s bound to be” she agreed.  “Mine’s far more obscure.  More akin to Divination … I must say, Severus – and I hope you don’t think I’m speaking out of turn – I never thought of you as a teacher.  Thought you were going to be a Healer.”

His eyes searched deep into hers but she seemed genuinely puzzled.  It was a truthful comment, sincerely made.

“It didn’t work out” he replied carefully.  “Perhaps you heard.”

“No” Septima replied.  “Did hear something about you, though.  Heard you were mixed up with that Dark Wizard who’s supposed to be behind the latest round of trouble.”

“Where did you here that?”

“General chit-chat.”

“And what did you conclude?”

A shrewd expression came over her face.  “That it must be pretty wide of the mark if Albus has taken you on board” she said pointedly.  “Anyway, I’ve seen Dark Wizards come and go.  I remember life before Grindelwald … Another cup?”

“If I may – thank you” Severus said.  He wanted to stay, but he wanted to get away from the subject of the Death Eaters, and although genealogy was also not a favourite topic he felt he would prefer to return to it.  “So the Vectors and the McGonagalls are related” he reiterated, as he accepted a second cup of black China tea.

“Yes, well all the old wizard families are related” Septima explained.  “Not that I care about this pure-blood nonsense.  But if you go far enough back you can spot links between the descendents of Gryffindor and Ravenclaw.  And Slytherin.  I don’t know about Hufflepuff, but there must be.  My father was more interested in family history than I am.  The only thing that ever interested me was what he had to say about Myriad Mansion.”

“What is or was Myriad Mansion?” Severus enquired.

“It was another name for Ravens Craig” Septima said.  “Not that castle in the painting – I mean the original Ravens Craig on the west coast.  The house that is lost.  It was a kind of nickname, because the house was supposed to include a library of a thousand rooms.”

“A thousand – not a myriad?”

“Well – the wonders of magical space not withstanding – I can’t see how any building could have that many!” she continued reasonably.  “That would mean ten-thousand rooms.  No, even in my wildest dreams I cannot believe in that – even though they were supposed to be all small cells.  But I’d have liked to have seen it.”

“How did your family come to lose the house?”

“They lost it in two respects” Septima said gloomily.  “They lost ownership of it, and now centuries later no one even knows its exact location.  Possession went in about the year nine hundred and thirty.  Some ancestor of Salazar Slytherin was supposed to have wrested the house from the Ravenclaw owner of the time.”

“By force?”

“More by legal trickery, I think.  Although there was a curse attached to it.  ‘I’ll deny you the house for seven times seven ages.’  Great stuff!” she added, grinning.  “I love those old stories of old curses.”

“I never heard of this before.”

“No, you wouldn’t” she agreed.  “This is family history.  And ancient history.  This goes back to before the founding of Hogwarts.  And you have to exercise a bit of caution with these tales.  They can be nonsense.  They can be whipped up just by spite, or manufactured for entertainment – tales to tell round a winter’s fire.  Hogwarts isn’t immune from stories either.  It has its own set of legends – maybe true, maybe not.  Ever heard of the Chamber of Secrets?”

“Yes, I’ve read about it in the history texts” Severus said.  “It was just a mention.  No details.  Well – nothing exact.  Is it just a legend?  Or is it true?”

“A good question” Septima said sadly.  “There is some truth in it.  There was an incident.  Back in the early 1940s.  A Muggle-born girl – a pupil – was actually killed.  And, supposedly, a monster escaped from the castle, but to where, no one knows.  Albus is convinced that that was not the monster – that it still lives on, here, somewhere in the castle.  And that the Chamber was never found.”

“But you don’t believe it.”

“Let’s just say I’m sceptical” Septima stated fairly.  “Albus says he doesn’t know all of Hogwarts secrets, and secret places.  But he is a very powerful wizard.  Seriously powerful!  So I find that claim a hard one to swallow.  And the monster – it’s been decades since that incident!  Surely someone would have seen it again.  Surely!  Could it really exist in the Chamber all the time?  Never coming out?  So yes; I’m sceptical.  Well, you were a pupil here for the regulation seven years.  Did you ever get so much as a sniff of a monster?”

“Not unless you count Hagrid after too much Christmas ale” Severus chuckled.

Septima laughed too, and Severus warmed to her, realising that she might well become a good friend.  He had always enjoyed her subject; now he began to see more of the person who taught it.

“Actually, Ted’ll have his work cut out if there really is a monster” he observed.

“Yes, he will” she agreed thoughtfully.  “If there really is a monster – on that scale – I don’t reckon we can leave it to Ted.  We’ll all have to pitch in.  He lost two fingers last year, just messing around with a Doxy nest.  St Mungo’s managed to reattach one, but you may have noticed what a chewed-up mess it is.  The other was a write off.”

“Too damaged?”

“No, no” she said airily.  “Eaten!  Gone for good.”

Just then there was a pop and a house-elf appeared.  “Excuse me, Professor” he said to Septima, “But the Headmaster would like Professor Snape to go to his office when he has finished here.  He wishes to see him before dinner if possible.”

“Thank you, Titcha” Septima said.  “Oh dear, Severus.  Called to the Headmaster’s study!  Have you been a naughty boy?”

“Well if I have, I didn’t bank on getting caught” Severus chucked.  “I’d better go.  Thank you for the tea.  Please excuse me.”

“Go on – off you go.”

“Err, perhaps you would tell me more tales round a winter’s fire, one day.  When we get into winter?”

“Perhaps.”

“In return for afternoon tea in my dungeon?”

“Oh yes, your dungeon” she said, sounding doubtful.

“No view, I’m afraid.”

“No … Never mind, just make sure there’s a good fire to sit beside.  I’m not so young as I used to be – my bones feel the cold.”

He drained his cup and left, dismissing the house-elf on the way.

As he set off for Dumbledore’s room Severus was in a particularly good mood, almost as if he had received a Cheering Charm  He recalled fully now just how much he had always liked Professor Vector, even to the extent of being entertained by her quirky dress sense.  Her complaints about the cold were well known, and in winter she sported long socks and skirts that looked as if they had been made from horse blankets.  Sometimes she wandered into class wearing odd socks, her head too full of an abstruse mathematical problem to be bothered with selecting clothes.  A few students laughed at her for this, but Severus had never felt much inclined to sneer because her eccentricity was accidental, not flamboyant and deliberate like Slughorn’s.  Septima Vector was the closest thing Hogwarts had to an archetypal absent minded professor, and in Severus’s opinion she was none the worse for it.

When he entered Dumbledore’s office he noticed the Daily Prophet spread on the table.  The Headmaster was standing, leaning over it.

“Good evening, Severus” the Headmaster said.  “The elves are getting faster and faster at finding people.  Did you read about this fire that made the front page this morning?”

“Do you mean the paper mill in Snodland?”

Dumbledore beamed.  “Well, that answers my question” he said.  “Yes, that’s what I mean.  It doesn’t say so here, but the Ministry went on the alert.  They think it’s a magical fire.”

“Why?”

“Because the Muggles couldn’t control it.  Because it kept breaking out.  You know what they were looking for.”

“Ashwinder?  Or eggs?”

“Eggs.  Never found any though.”

“Then perhaps they are wrong.”

“Yes, perhaps” said Dumbledore, “But perhaps not.  You see – last year Horace lost some Ashwinder eggs.  Someone broke into his storeroom.  Stole a brand new batch of them.  Any ideas who might do such a thing?”

“I knew about this” Severus said coolly.  “There’s a note in the inventory.  The word is it’s a student prank, maybe with a view to brewing Love Potion.”

“I have my doubts about that.”

“You think – the Dark Side, Headmaster?  But how – by what means?” Severus asked, genuinely perplexed.  “And no, from my view on the other side I have no reason to suspect any of them.  Whereas I have noticed several very irresponsible students, particularly amongst the third year.  And what about last year’s third year – the current fourths?  And even a few of the less mature fifths?”

“I don’t think so” Dumbledore replied, although it was clear that he had not ruled it out completely.  “Horace had that room secured by a powerful password.  Only a very competent wizard could break it–”

“–Or a competent witch–”

“Sounds like you have someone in mind” he said, his eyes twinkling.  “I wonder if I’m thinking of the same competent witch.  And I’m surprised you describe Love Potions as trivial.  Do your suspicions fall on anyone in particular?”

“If we’re talking in-house, I’d say Nymphadora Tonks” Severus stated flatly.  “If we’re talking of a break-in I seem to remember that Greta de Montmorency had a fondness for Love Potions–”

“But she has been gone for – what – two, three years?” the Headmaster exclaimed.  “I find it hard to believe that she would break back into the school to steal potion ingredients–”

“Well, the eggs are not easy to obtain, and they are therefore very expensive.”

“But how would she know they were here?” Dumbledore asked reasonably.  “Anyway, Severus, I do not think an outsider of Greta’s calibre would be able to break Horace’s password.  And I cannot believe in her as a burglar.  She’s grown up now; the days of school pranks are past.  She’s engaged to Colin Catchlove.  She writes the cookery column for Witch Weekly – Gerta Curd – you might have read her.”

“I didn’t know that, Headmaster” Severus replied, “Not being an avid reader of Witch Weekly.”

“Well, don’t let your desire for vengeance get the better of you.”

“As you wish, Headmaster.”

“And you don’t think this is the work of our enemies, and I don’t think it’s our students.  Impasse?”

Severus thought that over.  “Why, Headmaster, are you so convinced that this fire was magical anyway?” he asked.  “If the Ministry could find no evidence–”

“I have no evidence either, Severus” said Dumbledore.  “Only my long nose.  My long nose that smells trouble.  But no, I have no evidence … Very well.  Let’s leave this here and get ready for dinner.”

*

Almost before Severus knew it the end of the week was in sight.

“Friday at last” Slinkhard said triumphantly, as a sunny morning heralded the advent of the weekend.  “Think I’ll have smoked haddock with a poached egg on top.”

“Is food all you think about, Wilbert?” Minerva asked archly.

“Well – not entirely” Slinkhard muttered, grinning at Severus as he nodded towards Aurora’s accustomed place.  “Well, Severus” he added, changing the subject, “What delights are in store for you on this fine day?”

“For me?”  Severus gave an ironic smile.  “Three double practicals” he said.  “Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff fourths–”

“Easy!”

“Gryffindor and Slytherin seconds–”

“Tricky!”

“And Gryffindor and Slytherin firsts–”

“Now that” Slinkhard murmured, “Should be interesting!”  He lowered his voice even further and added “Has madam said anything?”

Severus knew what he meant.  “No” he mouthed.  “Not a word.”

It was during the afternoon that the situation to which Slinkhard referred, presented itself.  It was the surprises the Sorting Hat had given him, one being in the form of Sam Halliday; a thin, dark-haired Muggle-born boy, good-looking, and rather quiet; and the other in the form of Phoebus King, the handsome, confident boy with the long blond hair.  The expectation had been that King would go into Gryffindor or Ravenclaw.  What Minerva thought of King being directed to Slytherin House was anyone’s guess, but Septima hadn’t seemed put-out about it.

Severus sat watching King and Halliday as the students mixed up a solution to cure boils.  King knew what to do.  It was obvious that he was already well educated; thoroughly primed to take advantage of his secondary school years, and being painstakingly groomed in preparation for later life.  He was bound to do well.  Had King been chosen for any house but Slytherin, Severus would have enjoyed deducting house points, in a token repayment for the exorbitant rent he had had to pay Flora for the dingy London digs.  But with King in Slytherin that was not a sensible option.

Halliday was following King’s instructions; reluctantly perhaps, but making the most of the situation.  Their potion was going well.  Does ‘Phoebe’ know Sam’s a Muggle-born, Severus wondered.  Does he even care?