I woke up extra early the morning of the first day of classes, although I really hadn’t needed to since I would be spending the whole morning assisting Professor Sprout in the hothouses. There was no reason to spend extra time looking nice when I would soon most likely be elbow-deep in fertilizer. However, I didn’t want to look like a total slob, either. I would
be at breakfast with the rest of the staff, and Professor Snape was most likely going to be there… Eventually I pulled together an outfit that was simple yet sophisticated and wouldn’t be ruined if I ended up squirted with bubotuber pus. I pulled my hair up into a loose bun so my neck wouldn’t get sticky in the muggy hothouses.
My first observation of the year was to take place at nine o’clock in hothouse three where Professor Sprout would be showing the second year Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs how to repot the mandrake seedlings she had managed, through much haggling and wheedling with the Ministry, to procure. I could barely believe it when Professor Sprout had shown me the mandrakes during my tour of the hothouses a few days prior. The British Ministry classified mandrakes as a class three hazardous substance, so it was quite amazing that she had been allowed to take them onto the school grounds at all. I myself had only worked with mandrakes once before in my life, and that had been during graduate school where we were all already quite accomplished herbologists. I couldn’t imagine being exposed to such a plant when I
was twelve years old. But Professor Sprout was quite right when she explained how the mandrakes could be used as a vital learning tool.
“Because they take almost nine months to fully mature,” she had said, “we can use the mandrakes in class for almost every year.” That was why now when the mandrakes were only seedlings and not yet lethal, the second years would be tending them. Then later when they were fully mature and highly dangerous, they could be cared for by the seventh year N.E.W.T. students. Needless to say, even though the mandrakes were only babies, I was quite eager to get over to the hothouses and start my observation. However, things ended up not working out the way I had planned.
I was just walking down the ground floor corridor to the Great Hall, feeling a little nervous in case Professor Snape was there and still in a bad mood, when I saw Professor Sprout bustling down the hallway toward me. She was already dressed for the outdoors with her patched witch’s hat pulled down tightly since it looked like rain, and she was carrying a large, bulging satchel in her arms. She reached me before I had a chance to enter the Great Hall.
“I am terribly sorry, my dear, but I was wondering if you could assist me.” Professor Sprout was out of breath, most likely from lugging the heavy-looking satchel around the hallways looking for me. “I was just out appraising the Whomping Willow, and I am afraid the damage is much more severe by the light of day than I had previously realized.”
“No problem! I would be glad to help,” I said as I reached out and took the satchel from Professor Sprout before she could protest. It was quite heavy, and I had to lean slightly to the side to counterbalance the weight after I slung it over my shoulder. I tried not to let it show, but I was slightly disappointed to miss my breakfast chat with Lavinia.
“I hope it won’t take too long,” Professor Sprout said as we turned and starting walking back to the entrance hall. “It is
such a valuable tree, and it’s best to tend it now before any dampness can settle in and cause rot. As I’m sure you know, Whomping Willows are actually quite fragile-”
“Did I hear that you are going to tend to the Whomping Willow, Professor Sprout?”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Gilderoy Lockhart had appeared seemingly out of nowhere and now stood between us and the door outside.
“Please allow me to lend a hand,” Lockhart continued, his own hands clasped behind his back while he rocked back and forth on his heels. “I would be glad to offer what little expertise I have on the subject. Shall we go?” Without waiting for an actual invitation or offering to help me with the heavy bag, Lockhart strode pompously out the front door ahead of us.
Professor Sprout shook her head and clucked her tongue in annoyance, almost making me laugh. It was pretty sad that it was only the first day of classes and already the other professors hated him. Nevertheless, Professor Sprout hitched up her skirt and hurried out the door after him while muttering, “Didn’t even manage to scrape a Herbology O.W.L.… expertise indeed...” I slowly brought up the rear lugging the satchel and fuming over the fact that not only was I going to miss breakfast but I was going to have to listen to Lockhart now for an indefinite amount of time.
We crossed the grounds to where the Whomping Willow stood swaying gently in the morning breeze. The tree did look as though it had seen better days at the school. Dozens of smaller branches littered the surrounding grass, while several of the tree’s larger limbs were splintered or hanging haphazardly at unnatural angles. Lockhart had stopped a few yards away from the tree and was looking expectantly at Professor Sprout, who once again shook her head before casting a Freezing Charm on the ominously swaying branches.
“Come here a moment, dear,” Professor Sprout called to me. I dropped the satchel and hurried over to the trunk of the tree where she was standing. Professor Sprout pointed to a knobby patch of bark on the tree’s trunk with a gloved finger.
“See this knot?” she asked, acting as if Lockhart wasn’t even there. He craned his neck nosily to try and see what we were doing. Professor Sprout lowered her voice. “If you ever need to approach the tree, you can press here with a stick or some other long instrument to completely immobilize the tree for several minutes.” I nodded in understanding as Professor Sprout fixed me with a meaningful, though kind, look. She, of course, knew by now of my difficulty with magic spells.
“Now, let’s get started,” Professor Sprout said in her normal voice and walked back to where I had put down the bag. She opened it to reveal numerous rolls of bandages and slings along with jars of Miracle Re-grow
plant salve. “Why don’t you start gathering up those loose branches, Avrille,” she said gesturing toward the base of the trunk. “We might be able to sell the larger ones to Mr. Ollivander in Diagon Alley, and I’m sure that Professor Snape can find some use for the twigs.”
“Ah yes,” spoke up Lockhart out of nowhere, “I have often used the wood of the Whomping Willow tree during my travels. It burns smokeless, you see, making it the ideal fuel for a camp fire when one does not want to attract the attention of hunting harpies. Not that I couldn’t deal with them
of course…” Lockhart continued to prattle on about the various harpies he had defeated, and how he had personally plucked one featherless himself. I set about gathering up the loose sticks and tried my best to ignore him. Professor Sprout seemed to be doing the same as she concentrated on magically winding salve-smeared bandages around some of the higher damaged tree limbs.
It was very slow-going work. It seemed like Harry Potter’s car had managed to do at least some damage to every single tree limb. Once I had finished gathering and bundling the loose sticks, I took up a roll of bandages myself and started doctoring the low-hanging branches that Professor Sprout had purposefully overlooked, knowing that I would be unable to levitate the slings as she was currently doing. Lockhart, unsurprisingly, did not lift a finger to help. He did once bend over to examine the Miracle Re-grow
ointment before backing quickly away while muttering something which sounded like, “That would stain awfully…” He then straightened his immaculate turquoise robes and matching hat before launching himself on another tirade, this one concerning how he had once wrestled down a Devil’s Snare plant the size of a large hippopotamus.
Professor Sprout and I had been working for well over an hour when we heard the castle bell toll nine o’clock, signalling the start of the first class. Professor Sprout hurried over to me and quickly took in my work with an approving nod.
good, my dear,” she said. “Would you mind just finishing up here while I go to class? We can have you observe a different day; this really must take priority. The Freezing Charm will last for another hour, giving you plenty of time to finish. You can leave the supplies and the larger branches here; I will fetch them when I am finished with class. Would it be possible for you to bring the twigs to Professor Snape when you are done?”
“Sure!” I replied, finding myself strangely glad to have an excuse to go talk to Professor Snape. Professor Sprout smiled and patted me on the back. She quickly Conjured a small burlap bag for the twigs then hurried off in the direction of hothouse three, Lockhart at her heels and still describing every counter-move he had used against that vicious Devil’s Snare.
Once more I was disappointed, now that I would be missing out on watching the repotting of the mandrakes, but it was something that I had done before whereas I had never had the chance to doctor a Whomping Willow. With Lockhart gone, my concentration was much better, and I managed to finish the remaining bandaging within a half-hour. I gathered all of the smaller twigs in the burlap bag Professor Sprout had left me and walked back up to the castle.
Since class was in session, the entrance hall was deserted. I paused before a large mirror to fix my hair and tried to rub some of the dirt off of my face with the sleeve of my robe. I headed straight down the stairs to the dungeons, thinking that Professor Snape might be in his office since I knew he did not have a class this first period. It seemed that after I took the first step down, the temperature dropped by several degrees. A phantom draught whistled through the corridor, and I pulled my robe tightly around myself wondering how Professor Snape could stand being down here all day long.
I could see a faint light flickering under the door to Professor Snape’s office, so I ran a hand over my hair once more and knocked quietly.
I heard his voice call briskly, “Enter.”
I opened the door to reveal Professor Snape leaning back in a chair at his desk reading an ancient-looking book. There was a cheery blaze burning in the fireplace which made the office much warmer and more pleasant than the outside corridor, even though the numerous jars of pickled potions ingredients gave it a slightly macabre appearance. I entered and closed the door behind me to keep in the heat. Professor Snape put down his book and looked up at me expectantly.
“Professor Sprout thought that you might like to have these,” I said, approaching the desk and holding out the burlap bag. Professor Snape took it from me and looked inside. “They’re from the Whomping Willow tree.”
Professor Snape upended the bag, spilling a jumble of twigs, leaves, and clods of dirt across his otherwise pristinely organized desk. He picked up a twig at random and held it up to the light, rolling it between his fingers as if to appraise its quality.
“The tree was
badly damaged, then?”
I started slightly at his question since I had been strangely mesmerized by the way his thumb had been caressing the twig’s smooth bark.
“Yes,” I recovered quickly. “Professor Sprout and I were just out mending it, but I think it will be several months before the tree is back to perfect health.”
Professor Snape sighed heavily and dropped the twig back onto the desktop, his lips pursed in annoyance. From what I garnered from his brief comments last night, it seemed he did not think Harry Potter had received enough punishment for the offence. For a while he just sat there, his chin resting on steepled fingers. A few locks of his black hair fell forward to brush the crisp white of his cuffs as he continued to study the small pile of twigs intently.
Then, in a brisk yet graceful motion, Professor Snape magically Vanished the dirt and swept the branches into the bag as he said curtly, “Thank you for bringing them.” He picked up his book once more. Assuming I was not needed for anything else, I turned to leave.
“Mistress Asphodel.” Professor Snape’s voice called my attention back to the room just as I was about to close the door behind me.
“Yes?” I stuck my head back in. My heart was positively pounding, and I didn’t know why. Professor Snape was gazing at me from over the top of his book, his dark eyes keen and studious as though seeing me for the first time.
“You stocked the student store cupboard for this morning.” He said this as a statement, not a question, with no voice inflection by which I could ascertain a positive or negative tone. I re-entered the office slightly with my hand still resting on the door latch.
“Yes, I did. I thought perhaps with all the commotion last night you might not have had a chance to before your first class.”
He continued to consider me over the top of the book for a moment before saying coolly, “I appreciate your concern, but I am fully capable of handling my own workload. Unless you are going to be observing that particular class, you needn’t bother in the future.” With that, his focus dropped once more to the pages of the book, and I understood myself to be dismissed. Although my first instinct was to stay put and explain that I did not think him incapable of preparing for his own class, and I had just been trying to help, I nodded silently and left the office. Once the door was closed, I sagged against the wall and rested a hot cheek against the cold stone.
I did not know what I had done to offend him, but it seemed as though, for the moment, Professor Snape was not very impressed with me. Perhaps he was still miffed over that incident at St. Mungo’s… or maybe he resented the fact that he had an apprentice who was practically a Squib. I pulled my robes tightly together once more and rested my lips on my knuckles. I had been criticized and downright reprimanded by teachers before. Why did that one little comment of his hurt so much?
With an angry huff, I pushed off from the wall and strode back upstairs. Well, I would just have to show him that I was totally up to the task, wouldn’t I? I didn’t know how I was going to do it yet, but I was determined to impress the hell out of him before the week was through. Somehow I was going to make myself the best damn apprentice he ever had.