The Magic Quill #122: Mr. Exion’s Daughters

by Robbie Fischer

Contest winner: TWZRD

The first time Spanky woke up after the Battle of Hogwarts, he was in a lumpy bed, under a musty-smelling counterpane, in an unfamiliar room. At first he felt fine, but when he tried to lift his head an all but visible wall of pain and dizziness held him down. Then he tried to move his arm, and that hurt even more. It hurt to take more than a shallow breath. It hurt to speak.

He knew little more, for a while. Then, judging by the changing angle of light in the room, he found himself waking for longer periods between shorter and shorter naps. And he came to understand that most of his body was bandaged, his right arm and both legs in splints, and the hand that fed him and sponged his brow belonged to a woman he did not know. He could not turn his head, and she never seemed to lean quite directly over him, but even so, he found it strange how difficult it was to form a clear picture of her face. She never spoke, except to shush him if he tried to speak.

On what he reckoned to be the eighth day of his recovery, he noticed that the woman tending him had a different scent than the last time he had wakened. When he wasn’t wondering where his wife was, and whether his friends were alive – he had not seen them since Aberforth Dumbledore had burst into their private parlor at the Hog’s Head and pressed them into service for a great battle that was about to start, a battle Spanky little remembered – he pondered the possibility that there was more than one woman taking turns attending him, hovering at the edge of his vision.

The day finally came when Spanky felt strong enough to speak. Or, to be more precise, he felt ready to bear the consequences of doing so, though he knew they would be painful. As a spoon scraped the bottom of a bowl of broth near his head, he moistened his lips and said – how strange his raspy voice sounded! – “Where is this?”

The woman, who somehow smelled different from whoever had tended him either of the last two times, shushed him. But when he started to repeat his question, she put down the spoon and said, “You’re in one of the guest rooms at the Prickly Spindle.”

Spanky tried to shake his head, but the pain almost blinded him. “I don’t know it,” he croaked.

“It’s in Hogsmeade,” said the woman. “My father is the landlord. We’re not as well-known as the Three Broomsticks, but we do all right. Especially since the battle. Every room in the village is full. The battle, you know. And the burials, and the rebuilding, and a little skirmish here and there – the work has been nonstop. And of course, there are wounded, like you. Ones who aren’t well enough to be moved, that is. The Prickly Spindle has been more hospital than pub lately.”

The woman seemed friendly enough – or at least talkative – though she didn’t seem happy, at least toward the end of her speech.

“My wife,” Spanky croaked —

“Tell me your name and hers, and we’ll send for her. Perhaps she has been looking for you.”

Spanky had to breathe deeply for a minute before he could pronounce the two names. He thought: If Ilona were alive and well, she would have come looking for me. She would not have stopped looking until she had found me; and then, she would not have left my side. What could have happened to her?

The woman left the room. As soon as she had gone, Spanky’s distress grew until he had to throw up. A basin, hovering upside-down, darted over him and caught the sick, which somehow fell upward out of his mouth. When he was done, the basin flew away. While a piece of cloth wiped his lips, Spanky heard the sound of a window opening, a distant splattering sound, and someone yelling, “Oi! Who did that?” as the window slammed. A moment later Spanky noticed the basin, empty again, hovering near the foot of his bed.

The magical phenomena in the room provided enough distraction to keep Spanky’s mind off worrying about Ilona, until the woman came back – or perhaps a different woman, as she smelled different again. More like yesterday’s attendant.

“Still awake?” she asked. Her voice was similar to the other woman’s – sisters, perhaps?

“How many of you are there?” he asked, even more hoarsely than before.

The woman laughed, yet did not sound altogether happy. “There are three of us,” she said. “Three and father, but he hasn’t been in. He has a pub to run, you know.”

“What name?” Spanky rattled. The cloth daubed at his chin.

“Exion,” she said. “You can call me Ava, and my sisters are Connie and Nancy. We’ve been taking turns looking in on you. You’re the last one who hasn’t gone on…”

Spanky blanched. “The others died?”

Ava laughed – nervously, this time. “Of course not. They’re at St. Mungo’s by now. They were moved to London on the train, as soon as they could travel. One of them got well enough to go home by Floo Powder. But you had the worst injuries. It’s amazing that you survived at all.”

“What happened?”

“We’re not sure,” said Ava. “Whatever it was, it involved a bad bite, a kick of some kind, and maybe a spell that ricocheted into you. Your legs were beaten up, too; something may have fallen on you. Or maybe you fell on something. More than that, we don’t know. A centaur brought you here with some herbs that we were to feed to you in broth. He didn’t say where he found you, and he hasn’t come back.”

A sudden draft announced that the door was open; then the latch clicked, and Spanky’s peripheral vision saw a shadow appear on the other side of the bed. The one who had left a few moments ago spoke now: “We have sent a message to your wife by owl. Also, Nancy is inquiring at the ministry, to see if anyone has been asking about you.”

“Thank you,” Spanky managed to whisper, before sinking beneath a combination of anxiety, relief, and pain.

The next time he awoke, he smelled the third sister – Nancy – nearby. Before he opened his eyes, he tried to identify what it was about her smell that was so distinctive. He eventually decided it was a combination of mothballs and burnt toast, and maybe a bit of roasted pumpkin seeds tossed into the bargain. He opened his eyes and asked, “Have you heard from my wife?”

“Not yet,” she said. “The owl won’t have reached her yet, you see. Someone at the Ministry said she had gone to Romania with your children. Did you know they thought you were dead? Seems they identified some other poor bloke as you, and buried him with the others in the graveyard above Hogwarts.”

Spanky’s heart plummeted during this speech. The room spun round and round. He must have passed out, because the next moment all three sisters were gathered around him. They seemed to have just finished redressing his wounds.

“Not as much as all that,” the one named Connie (who smelled of herring and dill in a slightly rancid brine) said in a disgruntled voice.

“Still, more than we expected,” said Ava (garlic and glue, with just a tiny breath of fresh grass cuttings). “It would keep us going for a good while. And that’s ready money, which is more than we can say about this.”

“Right now, yes,” argued Connie. “But the sooner we finish this, the sooner it will make us rich.”

“But meanwhile, we’re on the verge of losing everything,” Ava replied, in a strained whisper so as not to wake Spanky (who, for some reason, had decided to pretend that he was still out cold).

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Nancy sniffed.

“Call it dramatics if you like,” Ava hissed. “I, for one, would breathe a lot easier if we had a bit more to get by on right now. I think it would be worth holding off the big breakthrough for just a few more…”

“But we would have to start the tests all over,” Connie pleaded, sounding close to tears. “We’re more than halfway now, I’m cerrtain of it. And it might be a long time before we find another perfect subject like this!”

“Maybe we have enough results already,” said Ava.

“But his power isn’t completely gone,” said Connie. “We can’t be sure until he’s had the full dose.”

“If only it didn’t take so long,” said Nancy.

“Well, it does,” barked Connie. “Too much of the venom at one time could kill him. Or if it didn’t, I don’t know what it would do to him, but I’ll wager sickles to scones it wouldn’t be good for the business.”

“I think we should ask father,” said Nancy.

“Yes,” said Ava. “She’s right.”

“Fine,” Connie snapped. “He’ll only say what I’ve been telling you.”

“He might say differently after examining the subject,” said Ava. “Besides, how likely is it that someone else is working on this? Who is going to steal a march on us, even if we do delay it?”

“It’s a risk,” Connie insisted.

“Yes, but a small one. I think the certainty of reward money now weighs pretty well against the small risk…”

“…of losing the fortune of a lifetime?” Connie scoffed. “After all this work? After coming so close?”

Spanky almost jumped when Ava put her hand on his forearm. It felt very cold, even when she squeezed. “What if it isn’t right to do this?”

“We’re not going into all that again,” said Connie, her voice getting softer as she stomped out of the room. The sisters’ footsteps drowned out anything else she had to say.

For the next few minutes Spanky lay alone, eyes still closed, trying not to tremble. What experiment were these witches doing on him? What venom were they putting in his soup? Did it have something to do with how weak he felt?

Footsteps approached – louder – more of them than before – among them, the tread of a larger, heavier person, approaching his bedside. Something squeaked, and a bright light was directed – evidently, through a lens – onto Spanky’s face. Hands prodded his flesh. Large, coarse thumbs peeled back his eyelids. Spanky made an effort to keep his eyes unfocused and still. The brightness of the light stung his eyes.

“You see, father?” said Ava’s voice. “You see it’s true. The venom works, just as you said it would.”

“It isn’t conclusive,” said the man, mercifully letting Spanky’s eyes fall shut again. “It hasn’t reached its full effect yet. His power could still return; there is no way to ensure otherwise, except by taking all of it.”

“But you can already…”

Connie interrupted, “We need to see how the full dose looks before we dare publish what we have found. To say nothing of selling it!”

“We have enough results to justify further tests,” Nancy suggested, taking a middle position. “Whether we do them on this fellow, or on another, is immaterial. It might even be better to test this on multiple subjects.”

“But we haven’t enough money to do that!” Connie shouted.

“We would, if we let this man go and collected the reward,” Ava fought back.

“But suppose, while they’re examining him at St. Mungo’s, someone twigs onto our little heterodox treatment,” Connie said. “They might stop us continuing our work. Or worse, they might try to reproduce it before we can complete our…”

“Thank you, Concupiscence,” said the man, who sounded old, ill-tempered, and corpulent. “That is enough. I appreciate your concern. However, Avarice also makes some excellent points. Clearly, the two of you will never agree, so there is no use in continuing to argue about it. I will have to decide this myself. Be so good as to leave me alone with him for a few minutes. And Malignancy, dear, bring me another bowl of broth. This stuff has gone cold. While I have never heard of platypus venom losing its potency in so short a time, I would hate to let the tiniest uncertainty spoil our data. Besides, he might not care to drink it cold.”

By now, Spanky was even colder than the broth. Platypus venom, the man had said. Even a small dose could incapacitate a man, through swelling and pain, for days or even weeks. And that was apart from whatever magical properties it might have. Spanky racked his brains for anything he might have heard about the uses of platypuses in magic.

The door closed firmly, and the man leaned over Spanky. It wasn’t that Spanky could see his shadow; no, that bright light shining on his face was still pouring pinkly through his eyelids. But the man’s bulk seemed to press down on one side of the mattress, and his faint odor of wet dog, gin, and sulfur grew stronger.

“You may as well open your eyes now,” said the man. “I am not as easily fooled as my three daughters.”

Spanky opened his eyes slowly, but could see nothing but pure light and just the faintest suggestion of a large shape to his left.

“Who are you?” he asked in a ghost of his usual voice.

“That depends on how well you can keep a secret,” said Mr. Exion. “I may be your new business partner; and if so, you and I will soon be very, very rich.

“Or,” the fat man continued, leaning even closer so that Spanky felt his warm breath on his face – breath that, surprisingly, emphasized the smell of sulfur rather than gin. “Or, I may be the last person to see you alive. I would prefer the former, however. What do you think?”

“I need more information,” said Spanky, a little louder now.

Mr. Exion laughed a rich, hearty, jiggly laugh that made Spanky think about blancmanges. The feeling of nausea returned.

“Very good,” he said. “As partners, we should keep no secrets from each other. But you know, I think Concupiscence was right. We really must finish our experiment before we restore you to your loved ones. You see, letting you go now, when you could grow your powers back, just wouldn’t do. How could I trust you, then, to honor your side of the partnership? Why, nothing could stop you from asking for a larger share, or causing all kinds of trouble for us.

“No, indeed! You really only have two choices. Continue your treatment, and become like the platypus: entirely, and eternally, immune to magic…or go cold-turkey, the operative word being cold. Is that enough information, or shall I leave you to think about it?”

There was a knock at the door. Mr. Exion called, “Come.”

Footsteps. Malignancy’s voice: “Here is that broth, father.”

“Excellent. Mr. Spankison was just about to tell me whether he wants it or not. He has been fully informed, too. It’s entirely his decision. So how say you, friend? Will you have some of this excellent broth?”

Of course, Spanky did.
+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE +++

To help choose the direction of the next few chapters of The Magic Quill, visit theDiscussion Forum, or send Robbie feedback. The survey answer with the most votes, and the contest entry (or entries) Robbie likes best, will be featured in the chapter after next.

SURVEY: Which death in Deathly Hallows would be most likely to effect the characters in The Magic Quill?

CONTEST: Now that Voldemort has been finished off, magical crime will tend to be more local and small-time in nature. What kind of magical crime might a small, local ring of rogue wizards and witches get up to?

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