The room looked like the ordinary kitchen of a very modest red brick terraced house in an ordinary street in a grey suburb of London. There was nothing particularly beautiful about it; it was just common and decent, though perhaps a tiny bit dingy, suggesting that the lady of the house, to whom such tedious chores as cleaning kept being delegated, had better things to do with her time than housekeeping. A few peculiar cracks in the floor tiles and the somewhat battered aspect of a number of kitchen utensils hinted at the fact that the room had more than once been the scene of what might delicately be referred to as ‘ardent debate’ among spouses relating to this and other matters.
At the wooden kitchen table near the window, a little boy was doing his homework. He was about eight or nine years old, pale and with a somewhat stringy look about him. His physical features were unremarkable, except for his glossy black hair, which he wore rather longer than boys usually do, tied in a sweet little ponytail in the nape of his neck, and his large eyes, so dark that it was impossible to distinguish the irises from the pupils. He had scattered textbooks and notepads around the table, all neatly covered in blue paper and labelled with their subjects and his name. On top of the maths book lay a sheet of paper on which thirty sums had been solved in a childish but clear handwriting. Left of it was a small herbarium, in which leaves of common trees, collected in one of London’s larger parks, had been carefully glued with their names inscribed next to them; on the right was an English textbook with a short essay entitled “My Favourite Holiday” sticking out of it.
The boy was poring over a book with a label that read “History” when his mother entered the kitchen. She was a woman in her mid-thirties and with her black hair and eyes, identical to her son’s, possessed a kind of grave, Victorian beauty that clashed with her violently coloured and flower-patterned cotton dress, which was, oddly enough, an ankle-length version of the then fashionable waist-less mini-dress.
“What are you studying, dearest?” she asked, walking over to the table where her son was sitting.
The child did not answer, but held up the book for her to read the label without taking his eyes from the text. His mother let out a soft little laugh, a shrewd expression on her face. She pulled the book down, forcing the boy to look her in the eyes.
“So,” she said slowly, amusement sounding in her voice, “since when do primary school textbooks come printed on heavy Dutch paper, and with their edges powdered red? Very clever of you to disguise the cover; but that is not enough to fool me.” She smiled as her son puckered up his nose, annoyed that his deception had been revealed. “Now show what you were trying to hide from me,” she said, and gently tugged the book from his hands. She opened it; it was one of her own. She smiled sadly at the dedication on the half-page: To Septimia, who does the DeQuinceys proud, from her doting Father, Christmas 1945. The title read, Overtures to the Dark Arts. An Introduction by Alardyce Crimpton.
Septimia DeQuincey shook her head and looked down at her son. “I have many interesting books,” she said. “Why did you pick this one?”
The boy shrugged. “I took the big one first – the one with the locks.”
“Advances in Dark Magic? You tried to read Advances in Dark Magic?”
“Yes. The pictures were nice – there was one of a man with his head inside out. But the text was very difficult. So I thought I would try this one, because it says ‘introduction’.”
“But why Dark Arts, Severus?”
“I’m – I’m not sure,” the boy said, a little taken aback by the question. “It seemed … right.” He looked for a sign of confirmation in his mother’s expression.
“Then why were you trying to deceive me?”
“Because … because Papa says Dark Arts are bad.”
“But you like what you read?”
“Yes,” the boy replied with an apologetic look. He knitted his brow pensively and added, “What I understand of it.”
“Well, you are perhaps a bit young,” Septimia said, “but then I wasn’t much older when my father gave me this.”
“But … Grandpapa …” The boy did not finish his sentence, as though he was afraid to do so.
“Yes,” his mother said somewhat bitterly. “Yes, how very right you are, my little man. He could hardly be called a proper point of reference, at least as far as popular opinion is concerned.” She sighed.
“Papa says he was very evil.”
“How like Papa to say that,” Septimia sneered, and her black eyes flashed for a moment. “Listen, Severus,” she said, “Papa and I have quite different opinions on what is evil and what isn’t.” Her expression hardened. “And I say that if you want to learn Dark Arts then so you shall. Only,” here she took his small hands in hers, “you must promise me not to work in secret. Dark magic is a very serious matter and you mustn’t venture into it on your own. I will teach you. What do you say to that?”
“You won’t tell Papa, will you?” he asked, worried.
“Of course not. It will be just you and me.”
“That sounds fine,” the boy said happily. “Can we do curses? They seem like fun. I saw this picture of a man whose mouth had been cursed away – that looked really cool! I could do it to Mr Holroyd when he shouts at me again during gym-”
“Not so fast!” Septimia interrupted, raising her eyebrows. “There are three things I have to say to that. First of all, you are not allowed to actually use magic until you are eleven, so there will be no cursing Mr Holroyd. Accidents happen; but I warn you, I will know if you do something on purpose. Second, don’t go imagine that the first thing I will teach you is practical Dark Arts. You will study the theory first, and it will be up to me to decide if and when you are ready for practice. – No, don’t give me the Bambi eyes, I won’t be moved. Third and most important point: this is not the right attitude.” She cast him a very stern look that made him shift nervously in his chair.
“What did I say wrong?” he pouted. “What is the point of magic if you can’t use it?”
“I didn’t say you can’t use it. You mustn’t use it irresponsibly. There is a great difference. A proper wizard doesn’t just curse people because they happen to annoy him. Magic is a wonderful gift; you should learn to use it wisely. And Dark Arts …” She paused a second to think. “The Dark Arts, especially, are to be treated with great caution. To do your father justice, Dark magic’s bad reputation is not entirely unfounded. It is just that things are more complex than he makes them out to be. His lack of subtlety makes him prejudiced. And I suppose that – well, I can’t really blame him.” She pulled up a chair and sat down, her hands folded on the table in front of her.
“Your father’s parents, Severus, lost their lives during the war because they … somehow got in the way of certain Grindelwald supporters. As far as I know, they were not even involved in politics. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time; that was all the reason their killers needed. So you will understand his resentment towards Dark wizards.”
“Did your parents have anything to do with that?”
“Then why does he call you names because of them?”
She sighed. “Well – they were in league with Grindelwald, in a way. They thought some of his ideas were interesting.” She fidgeted with the corners of the herbarium, avoiding her son’s eyes. “I was only a little girl. I hardly knew what was going on. I think their involvement wasn’t very deep, though. I remember they once organised a garden party where Grindelwald was a guest, and they invited prominent British wizards to meet him. But that was about as far as it went.”
“But they were … you know …”
“Yes. They died in Azkaban. But you have to realise, Severus, that many people envied your grandparents. They were wealthy and successful, and – well, after the war, some wizards who had suffered under Grindelwald’s operations, and some who hadn’t – they denounced your grandparents’ allegiances; and then they sacked our house and stole everything they could carry, pretending it was fair payment for all they had lost, even if the DeQuinceys had never taken anything from them. You see, in such situations as war, people turn very nasty. They try to take revenge on anyone who ever slighted them, or whom they imagine slighted them; and there is never any mercy for the losing party. The trials aren’t very fair. The prosecutors are always people who have suffered loss themselves, and they want to hurt the prosecuted as much as possible to make up for that, even if it doesn’t make much sense.” She halted and seemed lost in her own thoughts.
“What is a Dark wizard?”
The boy reached for the book and opened it. There was a funny little frown on his face; he was really quite serious in his pursuit of understanding. “Mr Crimpton just goes on to describe spells and things and they don’t look so bad. Like, here is a chapter about how to change into somebody else with the use of Pol- … Poly- … well, a potion.”
“Polyjuice,” Septimia smiled.
“Yes. Well, what’s so wrong with that?”
“Why should there be anything wrong with it?”
“It’s Dark. And Dark wizards go to Azkaban. That means that what they do is wrong, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid things aren’t nearly as simple as that, dearest,” Septimia said. “I know that in the Daily Prophet and on the wireless every criminal is called a Dark wizard or witch, but that is a distortion of the truth. I can assure you that not all Dark wizards are criminals, just as not all criminals are Dark wizards. The Dark Arts are a specific kind of magic, and a Dark sorcerer is a person who studies and practices magic of that particular kind. The Polyjuice Potion you read about is classified as Dark because you need to add bits of the person you want to change into. And the transformation is painful.”
“I still don’t understand about the Dark,” the boy muttered grumpily. He was usually quicker on the uptake, and it stung him that he needed so much help.
“Don’t be gruff,” his mother chided. “Patience is a virtue. Here, let me explain, and mind you pay close attention.” The boy straightened up in his chair.
“Darkness and Light, Severus, keep one another balanced in this world. They are each other’s complements; each is defined by means of the other. Take one away, and the other loses its meaning. You have to study both in order to understand each individually.
“There is nothing easy about Darkness and Light, or Black and White, or, for that matter, Evil and Good. Their meanings shift. What is Dark for one person is Light for another; what one community calls a sin another calls a virtue. In the West, the colour of death is black; in the East, it is white.
“Do you understand that, Severus? There is always Darkness and Light, but what belongs where is determined by individual perception, by culture, by history, by convention. In war, each side is convinced that they are in the right. And maybe they both are, in some way. Who can tell? One truth does not exclude the possibility of another. People, Severus, are never neutral. They are never without a background, and they all have their own private interests. They all have their own truths, and it is very, very hard, if not impossible, to tell which is superior to the other. I want you to keep the things I have just said in mind when you study the Dark Arts with me. Is that clear?”
The boy nodded silently. His expression was one of intense concentration and his large black eyes gleamed.
“The Dark Arts,” his mother said quietly, “are largely misunderstood by Muggles and magical folk alike. People are afraid of them, believing they are inextricably linked with Evil. But they are not. Magic is in essence neither good nor evil. The only thing that matters is how the wizard or witch uses it, and to what purpose.”
“Then why are the Dark Arts called Dark?” the boy asked.
“That is a good question,” his mother said. “Dark Magic on an advanced level involves a transfer of power from one source to another, and this transfer – here we come to the Dark part – involves a sacrifice. The wizard or witch who performs the spell has to give something in return for what he or she receives. Remember what I said about balance.”
“And White magic asks nothing in return?”
“No. White magic proceeds from the spell caster only, and you do not have to pay a price to yourself. But you gain nothing by it either.”
“And – and what kind of price do you pay for Dark magic?”
“Oh, there are many different possibilities. Personal possessions. Shreds of cloth. Blood. Flesh. Hair. An eye. Or, most commonly, energy – then you just feel exhausted when the enchantment is done. Naturally, the more you ask for, the higher the price will be. In this sense, you see, Dark magic is very fair, much fairer than White magic that has no consequences for the caster.”
“But surely a wizard can make a sacrifice of something that does not belong to him? I mean, say, if he needs for example a great deal of blood – then he would die if he took his own, wouldn’t he? So he’d have to take someone else’s in order to work the spell or brew the potion he wanted. That sounds a lot easier: he’d get something without paying for it himself. In fact he could do it all the time.” The boy cocked his head and smiled with a little air of triumph.
“Well, not really,” his mother said. “You see, there are rules. In magic, as in the rest of life, there are limits to what you are allowed to do, and penalties for breaking the law. Even in magic, taking something that is not yours is a crime, and you would have to bear the consequences of it.”
“What would happen?”
“The magic would eat away at you. It is terrible. The wicked deed becomes part of you.”
“Indeed. Besides, a thing forcefully taken might not produce the same effect as the same thing willingly given would. The spirit of the act counts, too. You see how complicated it is. But when you come to think of it, it seems quite logical that self-sacrifice should have a different power and impact than a forcible sacrifice, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose so,” the boy said thoughtfully. “But Mother…”
“In a sense all magic is a use of force, isn’t it? It is a change of something that … you know … nature has made a certain way, and a magician sort of bends it to his will, right?”
“Yes, but magic is a fact of nature too. Wizards and witches are born with it. The point is not to abuse your gift by being disrespectful of your fellow beings. Magic that breaks the basic laws is warped.”
“Does it also mean it is more powerful than the other kind?”
“You have not been paying sufficient attention, darling. I have told you Darkness and Light are complementary. Their weight is equal. The most powerful White magic is on a par with the most powerful Dark magic. They are just two different approaches to the same question.”
“So – what is wrong with the Dark Arts?”
“Why, nothing, dearest. It is simply the sacrifice bit that frightens so many people.” Septimia frowned and added, “And, admittedly, the Dark Arts do seem to get out of hand more easily than other forms of magic.”
“How is that, Mother?”
“There are many ways in which things can go wrong. One is that many Dark wizards are unable to keep the balance I talked about. Temperance and measure are essential qualities for any sorcerer who engages in the Dark Arts. Some spells have it in their nature to affect the magician who casts them. They change you, physically, mentally, or both. Dark magic often involves absorbing essences, powers, properties of things and beings outside of one. You must not allow the magic to take over, or it will destroy you. You would lose the essential you. You might even become dehumanised. The most horrible things can happen if you are not careful. And another thing is that – well, it can be very tempting to cross the boundaries I told you about.”
“But who does these things if they’re horrible?”
“People who aren’t strong enough to resist,” Septimia said. “Or people who are curious and don’t know where to stop. Or some who simply take pleasure in doing harm.
“Listen, Severus. You can use the Dark Arts to develop yourself. You will then give something of yourself away in fair exchange for personal knowledge and power. But as soon as you start using Dark magic in order to lash out at others, you drain yourself in order to destroy – you give things away but you get nothing in return. Dark magicians who do that hollow themselves out.
“Many of those attracted by Dark magic do not know how to handle it, or are tempted to abuse it. But by the nature of these Arts, that comes down to self-destruction. It is important that you remember the greatest law of the Dark Arts: whatever you do will bounce back at you.”
“If you spit at the sky it will fall into your eye,” the boy said with a snigger.
“That is right,” his mother smiled. “So the trick is to make sure that what bounces back at you is exactly the thing you want.”
“But Mother,” the boy looked serious again, “this all sounds rather dangerous, does it not? And if Darkness matches Light and both can achieve the same things, then why would anyone choose the Dark way?”
“Ah, well, that is where temperament comes in,” Septimia said. “Studying the Dark Arts can teach you a lot about yourself and about the nature of magic. It is challenging. Do not get me wrong: I am not saying that White magic is easier than Dark. To be a really powerful White mage requires quite as much effort, talent and knowledge as you would need in order to become a really competent Dark sorcerer. And those few wizards and witches whose aim is to develop their magical understanding completely will train themselves for both, though I have no doubt they will always have a preference for one of either.
“The Dark Arts are a vocation. That is to say, some are drawn towards them and others are not. Dark magic is like walking a tightrope. It is very exciting, but it requires great skill. Those who deal with it stand much to gain, but if they do not pay attention, serious damage can be the result. Much of the Dark Arts’ appeal stems from the fact that you are constantly confronting yourself, paying the toll and reaping the rewards for your own actions.
“Now, do you still wish to study Dark magic?”
“Very well. In that case I have something to give to you.”
Septimia delved into a deep pocket in her cotton dress, retrieving a small, red velvet pouch from it. She opened it and took out a chain from which dangled a very ornately decorated cross of blackened silver, about two and a half inches large.
“I want you to have this,” she said, hanging the chain around her son’s neck. “It belonged to your great-grandmother Faustina, and it is very old and precious. You have to promise me to take good care of it.”
“I will,” the boy said solemnly, caressing the silver with his fingers.
“And you are not to show it to your father. You know he thinks religion is nonsense; he would not want you to wear this.”
The boy was turning the cross around in his hands, carefully studying the metalwork. His mother stroked his hair and smiled.
“Now then, do you understand why I have given you this crucifix, Severus?” she asked. Her son looked up.
“It will be a reminder of the boundaries you are not to cross.” She looked at him very seriously. “I believe that you have all the capacities it takes to achieve greatness in the Dark Arts if you set yourself to them. You are careful and precise and you have an analytical mind. But you will need protection – you are a veritable little Scorpio, I fear, and your temper flares up much more often than is good for you. I give you this to cling to. If you honour the basic rules this cross stands for, you will not come to harm. That is my firm belief. There are other systems and creeds, of course, each with their own value; but this is the one I have tried and found helpful.” She stroked his small white face with the back of her hand. “Always be your own master, Severus,” she said. And the boy nodded, even if he had not quite understood everything his mother had been saying.
I don’t own the character of Severus Snape; he belongs to J.K. Rowling, Bloomsbury and Scholastic Books, and Warner Brothers. I make no money from this.
A/N: This story was prompted by Sirius’ statement in GoF that Severus knew more curses when he arrived at Hogwarts than most seventh years – and by my own curiosity as to the nature of the Dark Arts.
Special thanks to my invaluable betas, Charybdis and Elfie.