Blood From a Stone.
I woke that evening, and felt much worse than when I had retired to bed. My cold had worsened and, coupled with lack of sleep, left me feeling ill-disposed to my work. It took me much longer to dress and I could feel the weight of my bones as I did so. On the dot of six, my breakfast appeared, if a meal at such a late hour could be so termed. It was brought to me by one of the prisoners, a young girl called Harriet who was in Azkaban for the theft of a broomstick. Unfortunately for her, it belonged the niece of the Head of Magical Law Enforcement, and no one listened to the girl’s pleas that she was on her way to St Mungo’s, where her sick grandfather was in a poor way. So here she was, poor child. She wasn’t much over sixteen.
I was pleased with the presence of an apple on the tray and it immediately joined the two vials of potion in my pocket. I sneezed over the toast and scrambled eggs and ate very little. My throat protested at even the smallest morsel.
Corridor C was an unwelcome destination that night. I made my way there wearily, wondering what would await me. Eamon was not on duty and instead I was faced with the leering mass that was Simeon Thorpe. He was a broad-shouldered, intimidating man with a penchant for dealing out punishments, even when none was deserved. I knew I would find at least one prisoner with an extra bruise that night. His flat face appraised me, as if weighing up my sickness and suitability to work. He grunted, which evidently meant he had decided I would do. He threw the keys at me, forcing me to reach out an aching arm to catch them, and growled something that I could barely understand before lumbering from the corridor. In his haste to get away he did not hand over in the practical way that Eamon did and I was left to perform an extra vigilant first round of the cells. Fortunately, I found nothing amiss. Nothing, that is, until I reached sixty-six.
With my wand lit, I could see Professor Snape huddling against the wall, sitting on his pallet with the now clean blanket covering his rake of a body. It seemed he was trying to blend into the dark stone in an attempt to make himself disappear from this life. Even in my dim wandlight I could see the welt that rose from his neck and reached up to his temple, crawling away into his hairline in some kind of disgrace. And I knew that he had felt the brunt of Simeon’s frustration. Some warders found it easier than others to be here. Simeon was not one of them.
I had no salve for that particular injury and instead crouched down by him and examined his wound more closely. The look he gave me was blank, and I believed he really could not see me, lost as he was in another world. It was only when I spoke, did I recall him from his mental meanderings.
“I have brought you more medicine for your cough. But I can do nothing for that,” I said, indicating the livid scarring.
“Your attitude does you no favours, Professor,” I replied. “I’m here, and I am not going to go away, so you may as well work with me rather than against me.”
“Can you bring me one of those” – he nodded to the vial – “that will end my life?”
“No, you know I can’t do that.” I could feel his reluctance to even draw a breath and was so sure, at that moment, that if he could have simply stopped breathing and allowed his life to slip from his body, he would have.
“Then enough is enough. Please let me be.” In profile I could see the strength of character that once ruled the man and wondered if he would ever hold his head high again.
I took the vials and apple from my pocket and placed them by me on the floor. I could hear that his breathing had returned to normal and there was little sign of the illness that had threatened to steal his life away just twenty-four hours ago. But even so, it would be well that he took the remainder of the medicine, lest the creeping cold allow the illness to re-surface.
I kept my voice low as I entreated him to take the rest of the medicine. My cough broke into my speech and I turned my head away to prevent the germs from reaching him. Turning back, I picked up the first vial and offered it to him. Those cold, black eyes focused on me and hesitated, flickering at me with flinty uncertainty.
“I have no need of it now,” he said, his teeth clenched against any false impression of concern on his part. “You appear more in need of it than I.”
“I sleep in restful quarters with warm bedclothes and some comfort. If I sicken any more they will remove me from the island and get me medical treatment. Should the same happen to you, you will be left to die. You may wish for death, Professor Snape, but when it comes to the moment, when you feel your last heartbeat and realise that you have crossed the Rubicon, what will your head speak to you of? Will it congratulate you on making a wise choice or will it berate you for your foolishness?” I paused to allow another fit of coughing to pass me by and he did not remove his gaze from my face. “Nothing in life is ever certain and all things pass eventually. Do you want your last moments to be spent in dank and desultory ignominy on this cruel piece of rock?”
“It will happen sooner or later. I think it would be prudent to wish it to be sooner, don’t you?”
“There is always hope, Professor Snape. This may not be the end.”
Perhaps it was my imagination, or perhaps I just willed the look of regret that crossed his wasted face.
“Nevertheless,” he began, changing the subject back to where we had been, “you would be doing yourself a disservice if you did not take something for your cold.”
“I will find some rudimentary herbs in the kitchens that will bring me relief. I want to you to take the rest of this.” I held out the sparkling glass and waited, hoping for some movement.
He freed himself from his supporting wall and reached out a hand. “You know, this is not the best potion I have ever had the misfortune to take.” He pulled the stopper out of the top with practised hands and paused for a moment, as if savouring the feel of things he once touched on a daily basis, before his world had evaporated in a cauldron of Dark magic. “Your healer must be young and inexperienced or they would not have added quite so much Lungwort.” Tipping back his head in a swift movement, he drank the potion down and shuddered.
I took the empty vial back and handed him the remaining Pepper-Up potion, but this time he insisted that he would not take it. He lifted the vial from my grip and looked at me sternly.
“You only need take that vile concoction once,” he insisted. “You will take it or I will smash it to the ground.”
We faced each other, crouched against the corner of that forsaken cell and waited for one of us to give in. When he raised his hand with the vial clenched in his fist, I knew he was completely serious about breaking it and I allowed him to win this one small skirmish. I nodded and he removed the top and handed it back to me.
“Drink,” he instructed.
The taste scorched my taste buds and I was only too happy to wash away the tang with the glass of stale water that sat on his table. I immediately re-filled it using my wand and moved across to where the smell of the pot was almost overpowering, guessing that Simeon had done nothing with it all day. I waved my wand and emptied it. Really, these conditions were beyond belief and once back in London I intended to make my feelings clear to the Ministry. I doubted anyone would care too much though. These prisoners did not have a good standing with the public at large, even the minor ones, and there would be little support for them. My days as a Hit-Wizard were coming to an end, even then I was sure of it. I had seen enough, done enough, to know that this life was no longer for me. If I could take what I had learned and at least turn it into something helpful, then perhaps I could make sense of things.
“Is there anything else I can try and get you?” I asked, knowing the answer would be a resounding no.
“You can get yourself from my sight,” he said bitterly. “And hide that hair. It is… Too much.”
His earlier concern over my health was quickly re-buried and I was left to touch the russet strands of hair that fell to my shoulders, not knowing what he could mean. I was itching to use my wand to heal his cut, but healing magic would have been detected immediately and I knew it was impossible. The need to do something, anything, was overpowering and with a quick flick of my wand I re-lit the candle, lending a comfort to the room that would last after my wandlight had gone. They could not detect lit candles after dark, that much I knew.
He raised his head angrily and sprang to his feet, crossing the few feet of cell with a litheness that would have been impossible for him yesterday. Reaching two fingers to his mouth, he wet them with his tongue and extinguished the flame. “I prefer the dark,” he snarled, before returning to his misshapen bed.
I slipped from the cell hurriedly, pondering on his comment about my hair, and resolved to send an owl to my old friend Sarah Mompesson, to see if she could acquire some back issues of The Daily Prophet for me. I would find out more about this man if it killed me, and, as I coughed harshly against the night, I realised it probably would.
One day slipped into the other, like a hand into a well-worn glove. Professor Snape’s health had improved considerably but his temper did not, and he remained surly and withdrawn, despite my best efforts to beseech him to talk. But still, on occasion, he let his guard fall just a little and I saw a resurgence of the pain that dogged his days. Fruit still found its way into his cell, and was consumed there, although neither of us mentioned it any longer. I sensed, eventually, that his pain was becoming over-shadowed by the realisation that he had nothing with which to occupy his mind. He would have a fight on his hands to deal with the way that the hours stretched out, longer here than anywhere else. The prisoners may have had very little in the way of comfort or possessions, but the one thing that they did have was an over-abundance of time.
This was something I could partially solve, but at great potential cost to myself. We were allowed our own personal effects with us for the duration of our stay on the rock, and I had brought with me quite a library of books to while away the long hours in between my active work. I was sure that Professor Snape would appreciate one or two carefully chosen volumes, but I would need to be very careful about bringing them to him. And if he chose to be difficult, leaving them in an open place for other warders to find, I would be in serious trouble. It’s one thing, wanting to walk away from the job, but I want to do it in my own time. Could I honestly say that this relative stranger was worth the risk? Was I taking the risk for him or for myself?
Our training had been vigorous. First they had dealt with the physical and then the mental; hours and hours of constant re-enforcement that the criminals were the enemy and we, the force of good. I may not be an idealist now, but I was then. I wanted to fight the good fight and help rid our world of its various scourges. What a naïve fool I was not to see that one of the scourges consisted of the very people supposed to be helping. I have met, in the course of my work, some far more honourable criminals than my superiors. So I am tainted by what I have seen, hardened to suffering, yes, willing to see the guilty punished, certainly, but not at the expense of my own sense of what is right and wrong. And keeping them in the filth of Azkaban was wrong. Beating them for whatever reason was wrong. The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that helping Professor Snape was a way of salving my own heavy conscience until I could actively try and do something about it.
So I grovelled by my rough bookshelves, looking at titles and trying to decide what he would like to read. Coughlin’s Theory of Magical Irrelativity seemed a little on the heavy side, as did An Expansive History of Time. I had struggled to read them myself and had brought them thinking that the lack of other distractions would help me immerse myself in them. I had been wrong, for they are still unread. Challenging Logic: A Wizard’s Guide seemed promising, as did 1001 Arithmancy Puzzles: the Devilishly Advanced Edition, (a Christmas present from a well-meaning friend several years ago, but I have no head for intricate mathematics). I decided on the latter, as it was a slim volume and would be easily hidden.
On the night shift it was easier to conceal things, but I was now on days and would have to be careful. There was something about this act that was so final. Giving a prisoner extra rations could be deemed a health issue, although it was still a punishable offence, but giving them something for recreational purposes would mean instant dismissal.
As I made my way to corridor C the book nestled uncomfortably between my robes and shirt. By the time I took the keys from Eamon it had become a literal thorn in my side. The fortress groaned under the weight of a late November snowfall, blizzards bringing fresh coverings in on a daily basis. A cutting blast of ice lived in the wind that howled through Azkaban. It crept up beneath the very rock that the fortress was built upon, screeched through deep fissures in the walls and blasted its way through any door that was opened. I had taken to wearing an extra layer beneath my normal clothes, but even that could not keep away the penetrative cold that ate into the very core of my body. On more than one occasion I had felt as if I would never be warm again.
Shunpike was having a bad day and I spent a few extra minutes with him. He wanted to write to his mother, which was forbidden, because visits had been restricted to one a month and he was desperately missing the contact with home. I couldn’t promise him anything but offered to try and send her word that he was well, a lie in itself. He seemed happy with that, so I was able to leave him and make my way to the other cells. It was a wearying walk; opening and closing doors on despair and sorrow. I finally reached sixty-six and unlocked it, stepping into the now-familiar darkness of his existence.
“Oh, how uplifting,” he said sarcastically. “My favourite tormentor is here once again.”
“Good morning to you too.” I made my voice light, emptying the pot before turning to him. Instead of lurking on his bed, he had now taken to sitting bolt upright on his chair with a look of expectancy on his face. I knew he wasn’t expecting anything, but this was his way of fighting of his demons. He had, once more, taken on the aura of a teacher, and I felt the urge to hand in imaginary homework as I looked into his stern eyes.
“Were you a popular teacher?” I asked, wondering if it was just Azkaban that had made him so taciturn.
“Of course not,” he replied. “My job was not to be popular. I was a teacher.” He looked at me as if I was an imbecile.
“I had some nice teachers,” I began, but he cut into my flight of memory.
“Spare me the details,” he hissed. “They obviously never taught you to know your place.”
I laughed at that, puncturing his balloon of self-righteous pomposity with a needle of amusement. “That’s rich,” I grinned, “coming from you.”
“Oh, go on with your rounds. You’re clouding my air with your idle chatter.”
“I actually brought you something, but I’m not sure I’ll bother giving it to you now.”
“If it’s more fruit, you can keep it.” Gratitude was clearly not one of his stronger points and I gave him a scowl that would rival one of his own.
“It isn’t fruit.” I was rewarded with a look of interest so fleeting that I thought the wind had chased it away.
“Then it will be something equally mundane,” he said dismissively.
I stepped toward the table and lowered myself to his level, bringing my face very close to his own. He didn’t move a muscle, trapping his instinctive desire to pull back within a vice of self-control. My nose was so close it was almost brushing his inordinately large one, and I opened the top of my robes to reach down the front of them. I kept my eyes on his, enjoying this small moment of power, for I could see his mind turn to thoughts of the flesh. In truth, I was a little flustered by my close proximity, even though I had instigated it. Professor Snape had an energy that surrounded him, one of latent power that was suggestive and potentially intoxicating.
Bringing my hand out from my robes, I smiled and set the book on the table. It seemed we both chose the same moment to breathe again and I moved quickly, backing away from him.
“I need not tell you not to allow the other warders to see that,” I said, as I reached the door. “If they do, I will be moved from this corridor and probably Azkaban. Good day to you, Professor Snape.”
“And what a blessing that would be to us all,” he breathed, his eyes shifting away as he spoke.
Closing the door behind me, I steadied my breathing and prepared to check on sixty-seven. Did I really feel what I thought I had felt? Feelings that had been left un-stirred for many, many years had moved, and I wasn’t sure I had enjoyed it.
When I returned to my room at the end of my shift, I was prepared to eat my dinner and read for a little while. I expected the knock at the door to be the arrival of my food, but when I opened it one of the young prisoner-helpers stood there with a package.
“For you, Miss,” he said. “Came by owl this morning.”
“Thank you,” I replied, taking the brown paper packet and closing my door on the prisoner, who looked surprised to be thanked for anything, let alone the simple task of delivering mail.
As I tore open the paper I realised that Sarah had been true to her word. It had taken her a few weeks but she had amassed a significant number of back copies of The Daily Prophet. Now I could finally try to get to the heart of what made Severus Snape the prisoner I had to deal with. It would be a long night of reading.