The Cant of Avalon
The rich, dark earth stained his fingers as he dug them deep, until he could grasp 'round the roots of the weed and tug it out with a single, quick jerk. The weed cried out in the briefest of pains before falling silent, and the man sighed as he set the swiftly-browning corpse aside. It never mattered, how gentle or how cruel he was. There was always pain.
It was the rare weed at all that dared to grow in his gardens. He had maintained them for the majority of his life, and knew every growing thing in them by sight and by feel, as he had known the generations before them. After so many years, plants he did not wish to grow had all but vanished. It was a blessing, and not just in how it eased his labour. In the beginning, there had been so many weeds, and each had cried out in turn in its death throes, while he did his best not to hear.
The gardens knew his thoughts, and wrapped their murmurings around him in loving support. He was their master, who cared for them so dearly; he was all they knew, and they in turn were all that he cared for. Neither could have lived without the other. Neither wanted to.
There were no more weeds to be found in that garden, on that day, and so he rose to his feet, brushing soil from the knees of his leggings. A breeze brushed through his unkempt hair, ruffling it, and he turned his face up towards the sun in the perpetually clear, blue sky. The sunlight burned his eyes, and warmed his skin, but the coldness that grew within him was untouched. It grew every day now, it seemed, sapping his pleasure in those things he had once taken solace in. Even his gardens now did little more than occupy his time and delay the inevitable, when once upon an eon they had been his only comfort in despair.
It was time, he reflected, beginning the journey back towards the stone behemoth that sprouted from the mountainside. Well and past time for him to move on. His duties had been neglected of late, and if things continued on as they were, even his gardens would drive him away through his growing apathy.
He would find an heir, and train them. And then he would die.
"I am truly sorry about this, Mister, ah…"
"Wyllt," the baritone voice answered her, as lacking in expression as its owner's face. Elizabeth Johannson repressed the urge to flinch as though the single word had been a blow.
"Of course, Mister Wyllt." She knew she'd fumbled the name, unable to duplicate its harsh consonants. She'd be damned if she let something so small put her off, though, when there were more important things at hand. "I can't understand how we misplaced your appointment. It was quite clearly down in the calendar."
"It's fine," Mr. Wyllt answered, though he still seemed, to her, vaguely irritated. It was difficult to tell. "So long as the appointment is kept, I will make no complaint."
"Of course," she said again, nodding quickly. Far be it for her to press the issue if the man was willing to drop it. The social worker glanced once more through the sheaf of papers on her desk and tugged at her brunette ponytail. "Your registration forms and proof of solvency are all in order…" And were they. Elizabeth was still goggling at the number of zeroes contained in the statement from Midland Bank. "Solvent" didn't cover the half of it. "Remaining is the personal interview with a social worker, which we'll handle today, and then filling out another form which will be submitted to a board for approval. If all goes well, you'll be able to begin meeting the children in a few days."
She didn't notice how Mr. Wyllt's jaw tightened at those words, only glancing back up at him in time to see his solemn nod. "That is good to hear. However, it is a remarkably pleasant day outside. Might we not conduct the interview out on the grounds?"
Elizabeth frowned. It really wasn't proper procedure… and with the weather cooperating so well, some of the children were certain to be outside…
A breeze gusted through the windowless office, carrying with it the scents of flowers and wild growing things. Surprised, Elizabeth breathed deep, and found herself amazed by the depth, variety and sheer clarity of the perfumes… balsam and apple wood, lemon blossoms and mezereon; her head swam under the fragrant assault, and she swayed in her chair.
The stern voice brought the social worker back to herself like a shock of cold water to the face. She stared at the pale-haired man sitting on the other side of her desk. His eyes were like slate, cold and unconcerned, that shade of color between blue and grey. "Might we continue?"
Elizabeth coughed behind her hand to hide how flustered she was. "I… yes. Yes." To her acute embarrassment, she couldn't quite recall where in the conversation they had left off. "Er… could you perhaps remind me…?"
Mr. Wyllt seemed to take no notice of her distress. "We were going to walk the grounds while we spoke."
She smiled in relief. At least she hadn't forgotten anything of the interview itself. How humiliating that would have been! "Shall we, then?" she asked, rising. "The grounds are quite beautiful in the spring."
For the first time since she'd set eyes on him, Mr. Wyllt smiled. It was a small smile, cool and with a hint of superiority to it. "We shall."
"Are you married, Mr. Wyllt?"
"Never," the mage answered shortly. Despite his efforts to suppress it, his irritation with the woman and with the entire adoption process was beginning to show through. He should never have delayed so long. Where once he would have been able to choose a child to train and only need to reimburse its family, within the last century governments had involved themselves in the process and constructed a fortress of paperwork around his chosen heir. Wyllt could simply abscond with the child, it was true, but doing so would mean that his heir wouldn't be able to move around in the larger mundane world without a great deal of trouble for at least a century. It would be highly irresponsible, regardless of the temptation.
Speaking of whom… Wyllt closed his eyes for a brief moment, double-checking that they were still headed more-or-less towards the magical signature that had led him to the orphanage.
"Mmm… I'm sorry to say it, Mr. Wyllt, but that may count against you with the Adoption Board. We normally try to put our children into stable households where they can easily form a family unit."
It was a strong signature, he reflected, ignoring the woman's prattle. That was a good sign. The world had changed so much since Wyllt had take up his post, particularly in the last two centuries. His heir would need that strength, in the years to come.
So many of the ancient threats still remained, with so many of them unguarded against as the old legends were disregarded; still new threats appeared nearly every day as often-unwise advances were made. Once upon a time, it had only been the magical population that might have destroyed the world. Now it was the mundanes who were more likely to than any. It very nearly took Panoptes with his hundred eyes to keep a sharp watch on the lot, and Wyllt with his miserly two had been forced to keep most of his attention on the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons, as well as the beginnings of quantum experimentation, among the mundanes. The wizards and other creatures, near as he could tell, had been fairly stable since that mess with Grindewald during the Second World War. He would have to remember to check in on them soon- perhaps when he was teaching his heir about magical history in a few years.
"There will be no trouble with my adoption," Wyllt interrupted, forcing his voice to be soothing instead of expressing the irritation he felt. "All that remains is to find the right child." To enforce his command, he wove in the essences of waxvine and passion flower, and the mundane's eyes glazed over.
"Of course, Mr. Wyllt. I'm sure the Board will find you a perfectly acceptable parent."
"I would like to meet the children now." Red valerian, now, and a touch of freesia for trust. "Wait here for me, please."
He hardly waited for her dazed nod of agreement before striding away from her along the path. To his right stretched a large open area, flat and grass-covered and dotted with aged playground equipment. The signature he was tracking did not belong to any of the noisy, boorish children playing on them, and Wyllt sent a fanciful thought of gratitude to the spirit of his predecessor. He would not have cared to deal with any such irksome spawn.
On his other side, the trail was lined with juniper trees, which must have once been neatly trimmed but now ran wild and overgrown. His quarry was somewhere beneath their low branches, and Wyllt eased himself into the prickly, protective consciousness that belonged to the species.
I seek, he replied. Will you show me what I seek?
protect. The juniper was firm. The child had sought protection beneath its branches and protection it would provide, as it had pledged at the making of the world.
I do not bring harm, the man promised. He could have forced the trees to obey, but doing so might have meant that the next time he asked for their strengths, he wouldn't be blessed. The wisdom in using the power you had was far more important than the power itself.
After a pause that seemed longer than it could possibly have been, while he listened to the wind rustle the needle-like leaves and- was that humming?- the branches shifted aside. Burrowed into what had been a hollow near the trunk of the largest juniper was a young boy of perhaps five, dark of hair and pale of skin. He stared at Wyllt through the curtain of his fringe, and the mage realized that the humming had stopped with his appearance.
"Hello," Wyllt said after a long moment. His voice seemed harsh after the quiet, and the boy flinched back ever so slightly. The juniper rustled in warning, and the mage send it a soothing thought with a whisper of magic.
To his surprise, the boy started even as Wyllt's magic reached out, and then peered up at him. Hair fell aside to reveal enormous green eyes. A humming started, deep in the boy's throat, and then his own magic was clumsily reaching out to both Wyllt's and the juniper's.
Either sound-based magic, or music specifically, Wyllt analyzed. He was rather pleased, and it showed in the magic he deftly wound around the boy. The last shred deep in his soul of the bard he had once been was even delighted. Such magic had its weaknesses, like any other, but had the potential to be much more versatile than his own.
He couldn't have felt the magic on more than a subconscious level, but nonetheless the boy relaxed enough to give Wyllt a shy smile. "Hello," he whispered in return.
Wyllt knelt, heedless of the organic detritus covering the ground. "What is your name, child?"
"Harry, sir." The child was shy and submissive, even after losing some of his wariness, and Wyllt frowned to himself. Deportment lessons would be needed. Still, it was better than having to tame a screaming diafol.
"You will call me Master Wyllt," the mage instructed, using the tone of voice that, rather than commanded obedience, simply could not comprehend not being obeyed. He watched the child bow his head without a hint of defiance.
"Yes, Master Wyllt."
He nodded, satisfied. "Come," he directed, holding out his hand. "We have much to do."
Harry took it gingerly, but allowed Wyllt to draw him from his cave. The boy brushed his hand along the juniper's leaves as he moved, and hummed, and his magic gave one last caress to the tree. Wyllt sent his own magic out in acknowledgement of the juniper's services, and then rose to his feet.
A brush of his hand was enough to dislodge the debris from the knees of his dwemered slacks, and Harry glanced down at his filthy, if serviceable clothes in shame. Wyllt surprised himself by reaching for the cleansing properties of lavender, drawing them forth more strongly than the mere scent needed to affect a person's senses, and directing them to the boy's clothing. There had been no need for him to do so. Harry would be coming with him straight to the Isle, and would be receiving more appropriate clothing there.
Perhaps it was the bit of warmth that lit up within his chest that compelled him, when the child gasped in awe as the magic drew the stains from his clothing, and he smiled up at Wyllt. The mage inclined his head, and then turned to go back up the path, his new apprentice trailing behind him.
Severus Snape surveyed the slightly overgrown orphanage with an unhappy sneer. "You're sure this is the correct place?"
"The muggles Albus questioned were certain it was," the witch in the emerald green suit dress replied, pausing to catch her breath. They had needed to Apparate to a cleared zone easily a full mile away, and despite how reluctant she was to admit it, Minerva McGonagall was no longer a young witch. With an impatient huff, she pulled her wand from her sleeve and waved it own her front, erasing the wrinkles that had accumulated in her clothing.
Severus elected to merely tug his own charcoal grey suit back into order, being far more accustomed to muggle clothing than his colleague. "Then this will at least be over with quickly." He had essays that needed grading, if he was to have any hope of a leisurely Sunday on the morrow. The last thing he wanted was to spend the day chasing after a Potter because of Albus' mistakes. With any luck, they would only need a few minutes to get inside, charm the muggles, and return to Hogwarts with the boy. "I don't see why the child can't stay here."
Minerva sniffed. "We are not leaving Harry Potter with muggles again. I told Albus not to do it the first time, and I certainly won't allow him to do it once more. Particularly when the muggles might be so loathsome as those Dursleys were."
The wizard had to look away, feeling his jaw tighten. He didn't care a whit for Potter, but even he wouldn't have wished such a family on the son of his rival. The boy was supposed to be a spoiled brat when he entered Hogwarts, where Severus could suitably and gleefully deflate his overblown ego. It had never entered his mind that Potter might have a childhood equal to or worse than his own. That such a thing had nearly come to pass, and only been prevented by muggles who, for once, had noticed something further than the ends of their noses…
At least it had been caught before five years could pass. The boy still had at least four more to recover, and Severus could only hope that he would indeed become the spoiled brat that could safely be despised. He didn't want to consider the alternative, and he had yet to even meet the boy.
With an exhalation that couldn't quite be termed a sigh, Severus reached for the door and held it open for his colleague. She gave him a regal nod and swept into the lobby of the orphanage, only to stop quickly just inside. Severus stepped up behind, and found that what had made her pause was a muggle woman, perhaps in her late twenties, who was standing in the center of the lobby in a daze with a sheaf of papers in her hands.
"Miss?" Minerva asked cautiously, and received no answer. The two moved closer to the woman, and Severus carefully studied her glazed-over brown eyes. The Imperius, perhaps, but if someone had cast the Imperius Curse on her… A cold chill went down his spine at the thought that someone might have beaten them to collecting the Boy-Who-Lived.
"Madam!" he said more sharply, moving in front of Minerva with his wand in hand. If someone was controlling the muggle, it wasn't unimaginable that they had left instructions to assault any other wizard who came along. But as Severus moved forward, a whiff of the air surrounding the woman nearly rocked him back on his heels as his mind felt suddenly sluggish.
Wisteria, peony, perhaps datura… he absently identified the scents, even as his eyes glazed over. He could hear Minerva's concerned voice, but couldn't understand her words, until Severus felt a tug on his arm and was pulled away into the clearer air.
It was almost like waking up, as Severus shook off the effects the scents had had upon him. "I'm all right," he reassured the witch, pinching the bridge of his nose to try to bring his thoughts back together. Wisteria and peony… in a potion, those would have assisted the drinker in keeping secrets against lesser truth potions. Severus had even experimented for a time in developing a counter for Veritaserum using a distillation of both and other ingredients, but giving it up as his duties to the school grew heavier. In combination with datura, a weed that affected the mental state and made illusion truth…
A potion akin to the Befuddlement Draught, perhaps? Severus had never encountered one weaponized as an aerosol before, though it was definitely a thought for later consideration. And yet, if it had been a potion that affected him through inhalation, it should have continued to affect him for considerably longer as it left his system.
Shaking his head, Severus lifted his wand and conjured a breeze to blow the air around the muggle, and whatever substance it contained, toward the other side of the room. Her eyes didn't clear immediately; unsurprising, given how much longer she'd been under the potion's effects. "It might be best to question her now, before she returns to herself," he pointed out tersely. It was disconcerting to be so blindsided by magic within his own field.
Minerva's lips were pinched, but nonetheless she nodded and turned to the muggle woman, catching her eyes as best she could. "Miss, what is your name?"
"…Elizabeth Johannson," the muggle answered.
"Ms. Johannson, do you work for this orphanage?" It was best to start off with simple questions in an interrogation, to establish a pattern of question and answer not easily disrupted.
"Yes. I'm a social worker."
Minerva leaned forward, aware that time was running out before the muggle recovered her wits. "Ms. Johannson, do you know a boy named Harry Potter?"
The muggle smiled. "Oh, yes. Such a sweet and quiet boy. It's a shame what happened with his uncle."
The two professors exchanged a glance. There'd been little doubt after finding the woman in such a state that they were in the correct place, but now they knew for sure. "Where is Harry Potter now?"
"I don't know. The man adopted him."
"Which man?" Severus interjected.
"The cold man. I didn't like him very much, but he'll take good care of Harry." The last part of the sentence was said mechanically, as though the words had been implanted, and Severus recognized the effects of a magical suggestion.
"Who is the cold man?" Minerva asked, but instead of waiting for an answer Severus reached out to tug the papers from the woman's hands. Adoption papers. 'Harry James Potter' was handwritten on one of the lines on each page, instead of typewritten as it ought to have been. That was true of only one other name.
Severus committed 'M. C. Wyllt' to memory as Minerva did her best to pull a physical description from the muggle, who was slowly waking at last. Albus would want to know.
They appeared on the shore of the island, the magic of the transportation spell dispersing in barely-there waves of color seen only from the corner of the eye. The sea was calm, as it always was, and nearly grey where it faded into the perpetual mists. The boy- Harry- nearly stumbled on the rocks of the shore, and it was automatic to reach out to steady him with a hand on his shoulder.
The bones were thin and fragile under his palm. Wyllt looked again, more closely at the boy than he had before, and recognized the signs of past near-starvation. Strange. It had been common when he himself was a boy to see the pinched faces in winter when the crop had been poor, or battles had raged over the farmlands. In this century, though, especially in the Western countries, it was rare. A faint frown of puzzlement creased his face, before he shrugged the question away. Whatever had been before had no bearing on the future. The apprentice would eat well at his master's table, to best learn his master's trade, and that was all there was to it.
"Come," he ordered, pushing the boy forward towards the thick forests of apple trees that shrouded the sprawling stone citadel and its gardens from view. The graceful tendrils of grapevines were woven among their branches, and Harry stared wide-eyed at the enormous globes of fruit ripened out of season as the two of them strode purposefully through the trees. It wasn't a long walk for a grown man, but the child was stumbling by the time the forest opened up into a gently sloping meadow, the citadel on the rise at its heart. The sun was cast in twilight by the island's eternally overcast sky, and his home seemed forbidding with its crumbling walls draped in deep shadows and vines.
It was as though Wyllt was seeing it again for the first time, through the new eyes of his apprentice; and his heart hurt to remember it as it had been once upon a time, when the citadel's halls flowed with life and the joy of living, and there was the promise of a golden city, a monument to truth and beauty and justice. But the stones were empty and yielding to time, as Wyllt never had, and for all the clouds in the sky there still shone enough sunlight to make a beacon of the menhir of pale, rough-hewn marble that marked his lord's grave.
Soon, Wyllt promised himself, feeling the old madness stir in the depths of his soul. Soon it would be enough. More than enough. Soon he could pass the vigil on, and sleep next to his lord.
"Come," he said again, his eyes still on the ruins of the dreams of his youth, the decaying halls of Avalon. "You have much to learn, and little enough time for it."
Flower language: the association of certain plants, particularly flowers, with words, phrases, or concepts. Modern flower language draws from cultures around the world, so not all sources consulted agree on specific meanings.
Plant/flower meanings as used in this chapter:
Apple: temptation (Christian mythology).
Balsam: impatience (yellow balsam).
Datura: deceitful charms, delirium.
Freesia: trust, care and calm.
Lavender: cleansing and renewal (Roman).
Lemon blossom: discretion.
Mezereon: the desire to please.
Ox-Eye: patience. Also known as a False Sunflower or a Buphthalmum.
Passion flower: faith, belief.
Peony: many meanings, in this case, secrets and promises.
Red valerian: accommodation.
Waxvine: susceptibility. Generic name for a plant belonging to the Hoya genus.
A/N: As you can see, this is very different from Strains of Melody. Rather darker. Believe it or not, this is what the original version was actually intended to be, long ago, but I quite frankly sucked at writing anything not at least a little light-hearted. I hope you agree that I've improved.
This took so very long in part due to the depression I've fallen into after graduating university and then finding there weren't any jobs to be had, especially for new graduates, and partly due to the amount of research that was needed. When I'm depressed, I get lazy. Probably because if I was doing things, I wouldn't be depressed. But I decided I would give myself a Christmas present of sorts and post a few things, even if it meant staying up all night so that it would still technically be Christmas Day for me. I hope you've enjoyed reading it, and would love to hear any thoughts on the contrast between this and Melody.
Disclaimer: I own nothing pertaining to the Harry Potter franchise. If I did, there would be a skill-based MMORPG centered around attending and graduating from Hogwarts, then living in a magical world following your chosen career path and interacting with other wizards.
25 December 2010