Tuesday, December 23, 2008

96. Britannin

Inspired by contest winners: jatibbal, Shiri and _houdini

“Yves the Leper,” Endora said knowledgeably, lecturing Spanky and the party of goblins that were gathered in Vault 1,066, “was not only the greatest potionier since the Norman Conquest, but also a giant among apothecaries and herbalists. In fact, much of the English lore in those disciplines descends from him. Yet some of Yves’ most powerful discoveries are all but forgotten today, surviving only as vague legends or rumors – and perhaps, in the contents of this vault. It is possible that this vault contains, or until the break-in did contain, some potion or potion ingredient that exists no where else in the world today.”

“What would it be worth?” said an oily goblin at the front of the class.

Endora suppressed a sigh of disgust and replied, “We can hardly know until we learn what is – or was – here.”

“What’s here is not your concern,” snapped another goblin. “We only want to know what’s gone.”

“I can’t very well find that out without studying what’s still here,” said an irritated Endora. “I may have a great nose, but it can only smell what is here to be smelled. But I may be able to fill in the gaps by deduction...”

“Then get on with it,” the second goblin bristled.

Endora got on with it. Spanky stood by and took notes while she moved along the shelves of flasks and jars. She temporarily vanished each lead cork and wax seal, gently wafting the scent of the ancient potions toward her rather large nose. Then the seal and cork were replaced, intact, and Endora described what she had smelled. Spanky scribbled: twice-distilled falcon feather – crushed, desiccated stag beetle wings – pickled spoonbill tongue – great auk toes in an infusion of arrow root – the list went on and on.

By and by, the observing goblins grew bored. Some of them went outside the vault to play a game like quoits with what appeared to be human hyoid bones, tied together in pairs. Spanky tried not to think about it. Others became disgusted and left altogether. The two or three goblins who remained, stayed near the door muttering among themselves, keeping an eye or perhaps half an eye on their human guests.

“So let me get this straight,” Endora whispered to Spanky, while pretending to identify the contents of a row of dusty flasks. “That huge heist that we planned and executed was only a trick, to get the goblins to let us in – and this is where we actually steal what it’s all been about? And all those people’s skills were needed, more or less, to create a deception?”

“From what Harvey has told me,” said Spanky, “that isn’t entirely true, but it’s not entirely false. What we stole the other night was, after all, something that Harvey needs.”

“All those flasks of something that smelled like essence of human being? I would be seriously nauseated, if I didn’t know for certain that Yves the Leper had a potion for extracting the essence of any living thing from a fragment of tissue, like a hair follicle. I wrote an essay on it for NEWT potions, you know. I believe the essence-extractor potion was an ancestor of Polyjuice...erm...silk spun from the hairs on poplar seeds...is he gone? All right, now that potion, the essence-extractor, could be worth something. Only I wouldn’t know how to identify it without trying every potion in this vault; and that, clearly, is not what we’ve come for.”

“What was that again?” Spanky said loudly, as another goblin paced near them.

“I said, concentrated milkweed juice...all right, the coast is clear. The trouble with what we stole is that there’s no way of knowing which human being’s essence is in each flask. They’ll all have died 1,000 years ago, and unless Harvey has someone who knows a lot more about ancient runes than I do...”

“Did you say grated satsuma bark?”

“Not bark – peel.”

Another goblin sauntered by while Spanky and Endora pretended to ignore him.

“The other thing I don’t understand is why we had to nick a thousand-year-old cask of sack from this vault, when your team was pinching a bottle of 1922 Bouché-Leclercq from Il Comte’s vault. I mean, really! There’s no question which wine I’d rather drink.”

Spanky looked sheepish. “Actually,” he said, “that was my personal business. The Bouché-Leclercq, I mean.”

“Oh,” said Endora, with wide eyes and lifted brows. “I see.”

After another hour or so of poking through potions and ingredients, Endora brushed the dust off the front of her robes and made an announcement to the goblins. Patting an enormous rack of ancient, oak barrels, she declared, “All of these will have to go to my laboratory for analysis.”

Several goblins tried to speak at once, some of them stammering. A spokesman finally came forward, quieted them, and said, “We regret that what you request is not possible.”

Endora met the goblin’s stare with steeliness to spare. “Nevertheless,” she said, “it is necessary.”

“I was assured that the RMB would have your full cooperation,” Spanky said tragically. “Surely, the bank wants this crime solved as much as we do, if not more. I mean, what would the wizarding public think if the bank that they trust did not prosecute a break-in like this to the utmost of the...”

“Can you at least explain,” sighed the spokesgoblin, “what twenty-eight barrels of dragon bogeys have to do with solving the burglary?”

Endora inhaled deeply. Most of the goblins winced, realizing that another lecture was about to begin. Endora held forth on the uses of dragon’s blood, dragon dung, dragon scales, crushed dragon claw, and even the fragments of dragon eggshells. At last she got round to adding, “Though all of these dragon-related substances have multiple uses, there is one that has but a single known use: dragon phlegm, reknowned since ancient times as a powerful preservative.

“Of course, the market for dragon phlegm has fallen off a bit since it was proven to cause one to have Squib children and gradually to lose control of one’s magical powers, also known as Lynde’s Syndrome. But they weren’t to know that in the eleventh century, were they? Now if the burglars’ potions expert analyzed these barrels to determine what they contained – as I am sure they did – then some trace of the burglars may have gotten preserved in the dragon phlegm, where it is just waiting for us to track it down. But if you would rather...”

“One barrel only,” the goblin said doggedly.

“But that’s ridiculous,” said Endora. “How can we tell which one, if any, contains a clue? Except by opening all of them, that is.”

The goblin ground his teeth, then turned toward his associates and held a short, rapid discussion with them in Gobbledygook.

As they sat in the first of a long row of carts, loaded with barrels of dragon phlegm, racing towards the ground level of Gringotts, Spanky wondered aloud, “Why dragon phlegm, really?”

“I believe I have it all worked out,” said Endora with a small, smug smile. “I myself was wondering, why a thousand-year-old cask of sack wine? It was only when I recognized the rune Harvey made me memorize that I put it together. Well, actually, since he forbade me to open the barrels, it really needed the goblin to tell me what the rune meant – dragon phlegm.”

“I’m no more enlightened than I was before you answered my question,” said Spanky.

“No ordinary wine could stay drinkable for a thousand years,” said Endora, after making sure no goblins were listening in. “But I had forgotten what a great herbalist Yves the Leper was. He was one of William the Conqueror’s household wizards. He specialized in creating varietals and potions that had power or grandeur befitting the first true king of all England. Power to help in the conquest, grandeur to solidify the king’s power, to impress people with a sense of durability, legitimacy, destiny...”

“I hope your theory is going somewhere,” said Spanky. “Because this cart certainly is, and it will be arriving shortly.”

“Then shush,” said Endora. “What I’m trying to say is – think about it – why would there be wine in the Vault of Yves the Leper? Unless – unless he was not only a herbalist, apothecary, and potionier, but also a vintner! Suppose Yves cultivated a kind of grape containing a magical sort of tannin – a supertannin – something befitting the power and grandeur of the new English kingdom, which was to last at least a thousand years...”

“Britannin,” Spanky whispered with awe.

“That’s good,” said Endora. “Yes, Britannin. A preservative nearly as strong as dragon phlegm – breaking down slowly as the wine aged – taking perhaps a thousand years for the vintage to reach its peak...”

“By now, that wine would be well worth drinking,” said Spanky.

“And suppose,” said Endora, “that there was more to this Britannin than giving King William’s wine the richest, smoothest flavor in the history of wine. Perhaps it had other magical properties, such as making the drinker feel very good without all the poisonous side effects...”

“...impaired judgment, loss of motor control...”

“...sickness, hangover...”

“...addiction, liver disease...”

“You get the picture,” said Endora. “In fact, such a magical vintage could change the whole world for the better.”

“But is it likely?” Spanky asked doubtfully.

“I think it is,” said Endora. “Otherwise, we would only be nicking a bit of wine, for our private enjoyment. But if it turns out to have the magical properties that I think it has – and that, surely, Harvey suspects it to have – then he would want more than just a taste of this wine. He would want to be able to make more of it.”

“And how would he do that?” said Spanky. “And what, for the love of magic, does it have to do with dragon bogeys?”

Endora’s smirk was nearing the point of becoming a criminal offense. “Who put up all these barrels of dragon bogeys?”

“Yves the Leper, presumably.”

“And if Yves the Leper was also a viniculturist, what do you suppose might have gotten into these barrels of highly preservative dragon phlegm?”


“Or pips, or pollen, or little fragments of grape vine, or what have you. Perhaps enough to start a new culture of Britannin-bearing grapes...with a bit of magical help, of course.”

“Doesn’t our Sadie have a friend who specializes in helping things like that along?” Spanky said with a look of growing comprehension.

“Miles O’Roughage,” Endora affirmed. “Won’t Harvey act surprised when I don’t act surprised to find old Miles waiting with him at my laboratory.”

The two of them were occupied with their own thoughts for a while. Then, as the turns of the cart track grew more familiar and better lit – signalling their approach to the ground level of the bank – Spanky muttered, “I still don’t get one thing.”

“What’s that?” asked Endora.

“If it’s going to take a thousand years to make the next batch of this stuff,” said Spanky, “why would Harvey bother? It’s not just that none of us will live to taste it. We’ll be ancient history by then.”

Endora frowned. “That’s a good one,” she said. “Can’t say. I suppose that destroys my Britannin theory.”

“That’s all right,” said Spanky. “It was interesting while it lasted.”


Because #99 will be a “Who’s Who” edition of the Magic Quill, and #100 will be a “What’s What” retrospective of the chapters since #50, this will be the last “Double Challenge” before the Magic Quill turns 100.

To send Robbie your personal feedback or original ideas, visit the Feedback Form [EDIT: Rather, leave a Comment]. To vote in the Survey and Contest to determine what happens in the Chapter-After-Next, visit the Discussion Forum [EDIT: This discussion is closed].

SURVEY: More than any other character in the Magic Quill, which one: (A) Rocks your world? (B) Leaves you completely cold? (C) Would you like to know more about? [Hint: you can choose a different person for each part.]

CONTEST: Describe a really stupid magical blunder – and, if possible, the counterspell to fix it.

The Survey answer that gets the most votes, and the Contest entry that Robbie likes the most, will be featured in Magic Quill #98. So be sure to visit our Discussion Thread – and if you aren’t a member of COS Forums, join today!

[Originally posted 7/30/06]

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