Lichcraft & Larceny
"It's not like I'm the first gargoyle in recorded history who put on a tunic and learned to read," Harry grumbled, slate-grey arms crossed over his chest in a petulant huddle. "And yet, for some reason, people keep falling over themselves in awe, every time they realize I can make sense of written sentences that are more complicated than 'see Spot run' without help."
"Look, I already apologized! There's no need for you to keep going on about it," said Hermione. She clenched her tea cup, holding it close to her lips as if she was trying to hide her blushing face behind the steaming porcelain. "I just got a little... Overly excited, that's all. I've never met someone I've read about in a book, before... Books, plural, actually!"
"Overly excited?" Tonx chortled, dunking a biscuit in her own mug of tea. "You flailed your arms around so much, you knocked over twenty-three stacks of books!" She leaned back in her chair, cramming the soggy biscuit in her mouth. "Thofe poor old bookf rained down all over the place, like: Wham! Flam! Kablam!"
"I know plenty of other gargoyles who can read, and write," Harry growled. "Some of them don't even move their lips all that much when they're doing it!"
"Ferioufly?" Tonx said, still talking with her mouth full. "If you're not movin' your lipf when you're doin' it, you ain't doin' it right." She swallowed her mouthful of food, and smirked. "Oh, you meant doing literate stuff. Right, okay."
"Anyway," Hermione said brusquely, her blush intensifying. "Now that we've established that the Dark Lord Voldemort's recorded accomplishments as a professional educator are vastly overrated, perhaps we could move on to discussing why you're here?"
After the initial round of introductions, and Hermione's brief bout of awestruck babbling when she'd recognized the famous gargoyle, the group had ended up in a small staff kitchen. The room looked as dilapidated and book-strewn as the rest of the building, but Hermione had still managed to rustle up a few refreshments for them all.
A couple of kitchen chairs had been freed from the excess literature piled on top of them, which gave Tonx and Hermione a chance to sit down. It was determined that the available furniture was far too frail and rickety to support the weight of a stony gargoyle backside; instead, Harry had ended up seated on a large sack he'd brought with him when they arrived.
"It's not like Voldemort stuck around to finish teaching us all the stuff he'd promised," Harry groused, apparently unwilling to abandon the subject just yet. "He was just looking for shock troops and minions who were a bit smarter than the average troll, but still, y'know... Strong and tough."
Tonx gulped down the last of her tea, and set the empty cup back down on its saucer with a loud 'clink'. "Right! We were over in one of the neighboring villages - Hogshaven, I think they called it - and we needed to look up some information on alchemical wossnames... Potion reagents, yeah? And so we asked around, in Hogshaven and Hogswallop, and heard there was a library here in Hogspuddle."
"Of course, once Voldemort found out that gargoyles are tougher than he'd expected, he lost interest in his little 'pet project'," Harry mumbled to himself, rubbing the jagged scar on his forehead. "Didn't want to risk being stuck without an easy, lethal option for dealing with his hench-monsters, if people decided to stab him in the back, or go on a bleedin' union strike."
"We weren't sure if we'd found the right place, when we saw your library from the outside," said Tonx, ignoring the gargoyle's disgruntled ramblings. "I mean, no offense, but the place looks a bit, uh..."
"Like a boarded-up, barricaded old ruin on the verge of collapse?" Hermione said with a wan smile.
"...Well, I wasn't going to put it quite like that, but... Now that you mention it, sure," said Tonx. "So, what's the story, here? Why's there all those locks on the door? Isn't this place supposed to be open to the public?"
"That's true, and technically, it still is, but..." Hermione sighed, slumping a little in her seat. "It's all a matter of budget cuts, y'see. Mayor McGonagall tried to stretch the funding to keep everything running, but Viscount Malfoy objected."
Tonx winced, and gave the librarian a sympathetic pat on the hand. "Ah... Yeah, I've heard about him. What excuse did he come up with, this time? His old standby, I bet: 'Something something Pure-bloods are best, blah blah bugger off, you filthy pleb'?"
"Oh, he was terribly polite and eloquent about it," Hermione seethed, squeezing her tea cup dangerously. "He said that the money would be better spent on 'synergistically reinforcing the cultural infrastructure within Trotterton Crescent itself' - whatever that means - rather than 'frittering away the taxpayers' hard-earned gold on minor facilities in rural areas that hardly ever see any use'... Hah!"
Harry and Tonx were both leaning sideways in their seats, away from the ranting librarian.
"As if Malfoy had ever done a day's honest work in his life!" Hermione snarled. "He just wants to hoard as many Galleons for himself as he can possibly get away with - oh, pardon me! He's 'enriching the urban environment within the regional capital', with 'bold new socio-economic ventures'! More like: lining his own pockets, and making people thank him for the pittance he's willing to dole out, as if Trotterton Crescent's coffers were his own private charity!"
"She's doing that thing with the finger quotes again," Harry whispered out of the corner of his fanged mouth. "It's unsettling!"
"I know, it's scaring the dickens out of me, too," Tonx murmured, her hair cycling between acid green and a shade of yellow-orange so pale, it was almost white. "I think it's the way her glaring somehow seems to get even sharper when she's doing that."
The librarian slammed her cup down on its saucer. "And then, the so-called 'minor facilities in rural areas that hardly ever see any use', like the Hogspuddle Library & Book-a-torium here, are left to struggle and scrape by, on the most meager funding you could imagine! It's preposterous! People in the smaller villages have just as much right to pursue academic interests and seek enlightenment from literature, as those... Those..."
"...Snooty, toffee-nosed toffs?" Tonx said.
"...Malfoys?" Harry ventured.
"Yes! Exactly!" Hermione snarled. "Those arrogant aristocrats in Trotterton Crescent! Those greedy, venal, self-aggrandizing, money-grubbing, parsimonious... Malfoys!"
"So, um... Just out of curiosity, mind you..." Tonx said, keeping a cautious eye on the furious young woman. "How many customers do you get, here in this, eh... Rural area facility?"
Hermione seemed to deflate a little. Her large mane of bushy brown hair, which had appeared to puff up into an even more intimidating thundercloud of curls during her tirade, began to settle itself around her shoulders. "Well, ah... You see, the locals are mostly farmers, and craftspeople, who work with, eh... Between one thing and another..."
Tonx just smiled politely, staying carefully quiet.
The no-longer-fuming librarian sank back down into her chair. She huffed a deep sigh. "Hardly any... That's how many visitors we get, on average. But that's just as much Malfoy's fault! I'm sure the locals would be spending far more time in the library, if they didn't have to spend money, as well."
The two visitors glanced at each other with worried expressions.
"Spend money?" Harry queried.
Tonx carefully put down her own tea cup, making sure not to spill on any nearby books. "...In a library?"
"Mmm. That's right," said Hermione, nodding morosely. "Malfoy came up with the idea of introducing 'user-financing' to all the smaller village libraries, and other governmental branch offices and facilities, you see."
"Facilities?" Harry murmured quietly. "Makes it sound like a privy."
Tonx clapped a hand over his mouth, as discreetly as she could, and hissed: "Don't get her started again!"
"He's got a point, though," Hermione laughed mirthlessly. "These days, most of the people who visit the library just want to borrow the washroom. Nobody's eager to pay a rental fee to 'lease' the books."
"Is that why all the books are scattered everywhere but the shelves?" Tonx asked, making a sweeping gesture at the room around them. "Without any customers, you've got plenty of time to redecorate?"
"Oh, no. That was all part of my own strategy, to make the library more accessible and inviting," Hermione explained, pasting an anxious smile on her face. "You see, Hogspuddle's former head librarian, Madam Pince, decided to retire when she heard about the budget cuts. I was promoted to the position, and used the opportunity to reorganize the book collection. I'm using a new filing system, much more intuitive... It's nothing short of revolutionary!"
Harry scratched at the little craggy outcroppings on his chin, his eyes looking slightly vacant and glazed over. "Uh... Right, sure. Revolutionary."
Tonx poked one of the smaller stacks of books within reach. "Storing books on tables, or on a carpet, instead of keeping them on bookshelves... Correct me if I'm wrong, but... Isn't that more of a devolution?"
Hermione glared at them. "I'm not done reorganizing and sorting all the books yet, obviously."
Tonx held up her hands in a placating gesture. "Great, okay. Good work, eh... Work-in-progress, I suppose," she said in a soothing tone. "Perhaps you should consider shining the place up a little on the outside, as well, while you're at it? Maybe take down some of the barricades from the windows? Cut down to just one or two locks on the front door?"
The young librarian looked shocked. "Oh, I could never do that! Out here in the countryside, there's all manner of ruffians and ne'er-do-wells that roam the night - and sometimes during the daytime, as well! Thieves, pick-pockets, cut-purses... Or worst of all, adventurers!"
Harry and Tonx glanced at each other, before looking back at Hermione in unison. "Adventurers?"
"Yes, you can never tell what they might get up to!" Hermione nodded. "All that reckless gallivanting about in old abandoned warlocks' towers, or hobgoblin fortresses, hunting for lost treasure... Well, Hogspuddle Library might not look all that impressive, but we've got some very rare volumes on the shelves!"
Harry peered around the room. "Not right now, you don't."
"Part of my job description is to protect the books, and prevent them from being stolen. I take that very seriously!" Hermione went on. She leaned in closer over the table, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial tone.
"I overheard some of the woodcutters gossiping the other evening, when I popped by the Fox & Homunculus tavern for supper," she whispered. "Apparently, there was a couple of adventurers who drifted through Lower Hogston, last week. They spent all evening in the local inn, drinking and carousing, and when the landlord asked them to settle the bill..."
Tonx's friendly smile was looking a bit strained. Next to her, the short gargoyle coughed into his fist, and studied the floor intently.
"...They just reached into a large sack they'd carried in there with them, and pulled out a severed rhinotaur head!"
Harry froze, staying very still in his seat, even by gargoyle standards.
"They just dumped it out, right there on the table. They didn't have any gold left, they said, and offered to saw off one of the poor beast's horns, and use it as payment!" Hermione sniffed primly. "That's just plain unhygienic!"
"Ahaha! Is that so?" Harry mumbled with a rather forced-sounding chuckle. He tugged at the collar of his tunic, looking away from the librarian. "So, uh... That was a thing that happened last week in Lower Hogston, huh?"
"What's the story behind those names, eh?" Tonx rambled, looking excited about the abrupt change in subject. "Hogshaven, Hogswallop, Hogspuddle, Trotterton Crescent... Call me Little Miss Over-Interpretive if you like, but I sense a pattern, here."
"Yeah, good point," Harry joined in. "Are people in this country just really fond of bacon, or what?"
Hermione looked surprised at the sudden conversational sideslip, but lit up with enthusiasm when she heard the last question. "Oh, it's far more complex than that! You see, many of the settlements in the area were named after a small flowering plant that grows around here - the hogsblossom. It's always been one of the more important trade goods in the country, because of its value as a potion ingredient, and..."
She clapped a hand to her forehead. "Potions! By Mordenkainen's hound, I completely forgot - you two came in here to research alchemical topics, not listen to my worries!"
Fishing an envelope out of her pocket, Tonx produced a piece of paper and unfolded it. "It's really just a couple of questions we needed to look up answers for... You don't have to-"
The paper was promptly snatched out of her hand by the eager-looking librarian.
"...Ooor you could take a look, I guess?" Tonx said with a shrug.
"Hmm... Effect of adding asphodel to a solution of chrolotated uttapharses..." Hermione read aloud. She reached into a pocket of her own and fished out a pencil, with which she started scribbling notes in the margins of the paper. "That one's easy, that's just part of the recipe for the Draught of Seamless Drips."
The gargoyle frowned. "Seamless drips? Why would anyone want to drink something like that?"
Hermione didn't even look up when she answered, or when she reached over and yanked a thick book out from one of the stacks with a small 'whumppp' noise, as the other books settled. "Oh, nobody wants to drink it. The Draught is a medicinal potion, you see."
Tonx followed the gargoyle's example, and grimaced in distaste. "Dare I ask what it's supposed to treat? Diarrhea, maybe?"
"Ah, here's the full recipe, I'll just jot it down for you..." Hermione studied the contents of the book she'd selected, writing more notes on the back of Tonx's paper. "...Hmm? Diarrhea? Oh, no. Quite the opposite, in fact. Healers usually prescribe the Draught of Seamless Drips for severe cases of constipation, blockages of the urinary tract, that sort of thing."
"That's... Very useful, I'm sure," said Tonx, looking anything but. "Uh, can you figure out the other questions?"
"Let's see... What is the difference between fumascite and skunkshood?" Hermione grinned triumphantly. "Ah, that one's a classic! One of the potionology professors at Hogsford University loves to ask trick questions like that."
Harry nodded sagely. "Ah, right. A trick question, eh? Thought as much when I saw it, what with all that fummery skunky business. I hate it when people make up fake words like that."
"Fake words? No, no, fumascite and skunkshood are both real words, I assure you. In fact, they're two different names for the same creature!" Hermione launched into another series of animated gestures.
"Centuries ago, people thought it was just a regular mushroom, but it's actually a worm-like burrowing animal, which uses its mushroom cap as a lure to catch prey - flies and such - and then it swats the bugs out of the air with the cap," she lectured. "Anyway, that's why it's given two different names, depending on which method is used for harvesting it: Cutting off the toadstool above ground, or digging out the whole creature."
Tonx had slowly pulled her paper back towards herself, while the librarian was distracted. She'd even gotten hold of the pencil. Now, she smiled and prepared to take a few notes of her own...
"Here, let me write that down for you, so you don't forget any of the major details!"
The paper was yanked out of Tonx's grasp with a brisk tug. The currently purple-haired woman blinked a few times, staring at Hermione as the brunette began to scribble away at high speed, again.
"And the last question is... Where can you find a grizzlegore buzzard?" Hermione arched an eyebrow. "Well, I very much doubt if anyone would be foolish enough to go looking for a carnivorous monster that's part vulture, part grizzly bear, and part dung beetle, but..."
The gargoyle leaned closer to peer at the paper, which was covered in notes by now. "Are you going to draw us a map over where to find 'em? Don't get me wrong, that'd be great... But I reckon that sheet's run out of space to draw it."
"You won't need a map," said Hermione. "Grizzlegores primarily make their lairs inside large caverns. This means that the most likely habitat for them in this area, is the hollow mountain - Copricarnung Peak."
"Oh!" Tonx snapped her gloved fingers. "I see what you mean. That place is huge, you can see it from miles away."
The librarian finally relinquished the paper, letting Tonx take it back and stow the notes in her pocket. "It must be a highly advanced potion-brewing project you're preparing, if you need all those ingredients," she said. "Can you share any details? I'm sure the alchemical theory behind it must be simply fascinating!"
"Um, well..." Harry shifted awkwardly on the sack he was using as a chair. "We're not the ones making the potion, you see. We're more along the lines of, eh... Hired contractors?"
"Retrieval specialists!" Tonx chimed in. "That's us! You need it, we fetch it."
Hermione had been tapping the pencil against her chin, sitting poised with an eager look and a fresh sheet of blank paper she'd dug out of a pile. Now, the pencil-tapping paused, as she frowned at the two strangers. "Hired specialists? Then, why was your list written like it was an exam quiz?"
"Blame the bloke who hired us," the gargoyle groused. "Cheerful type, looked like he'd been living on anger and lemon juice for a decade. I bet he wrote the list that way out of sheer spite."
"Or as a test," said Tonx. "I suspect he wanted to weed out applicants for the job by forcing people to figure out what ingredients to bring back, rather than just putting it down in a plain grocery list. That way, the, ah... Retrieval specialists he's hired, are more likely to have some skill with potions."
"...And thus, more likely to know how to harvest and collect the ingredients properly?" Hermione said, nodding slowly, but still looking dubious.
Harry considered this for a moment. "Yeah, like I said: Spite."
"Either way, it doesn't really matter," Tonx waved him off. "He's paying us a tidy sum for the job, so if he wants to waste his money, getting people to play games, that's his problem."
"Ah, well... Speaking of payment..." Hermione winced. "I hate to be so crude, but... Um... How would you like to reimburse the Hogspuddle Library & Book-a-torium for our services?"
Tonx started patting her pockets with a sheepish look. "Payment? I, ah... Don't suppose you'd accept a heartfelt thank-you?"
Harry raised a stony finger. "We could give it to you in writing, if you want?"
"Sorry, but I'm afraid I have to insist on cash," said the librarian, bushy brown hair bouncing as she shook her head. "It comes back to that whole 'user-financed' business I mentioned, earlier."
Tonx and Harry looked at each other. The now ultramarine-haired woman shrugged, and gestured at the gargoyle, who stood up from his seat at the kitchen table. "Unfortunately, we're sorta short on Galleons, at the moment. Perhaps we could offer you some... Trade goods, instead?"
Hermione's eyebrows narrowed. "I... Suppose that would be acceptable? What did you have in mind, exactly?"
In response, the gargoyle hefted the large sack he'd been sitting on, and upended it over the table. Something big and heavy tumbled out, landing on the tabletop with a resounding 'THUD!', and a clatter of jostled tea cups.
Jumping back in her seat a little, the startled librarian goggled, wide-eyed, at the gory lump in front of her.
The lump stared back.
It took a few seconds before Hermione realized what she was looking at. She'd seen the illustrations when she read about this type of creature in various bestiaries, of course, but none of those descriptions had gone into detail about what the monster's head looked like, after it had been separated from the body.
It didn't help matters that this particular specimen had been relieved of several bits - probably by means of a saw - and had lain in a sack long enough to get rather... Ripe.
"T-t-that's..." Hermione stammered. "...That's a rhinotaur!"
Harry patted the severed head on its bald, hide-armored scalp. "Finest quality! We already bartered off the horns, but maybe you'd be interested in its teeth? The fangs would look ace on a necklace!"
Tonx barely had time to catch Hermione, when the pale-looking librarian slumped off her chair in shock.
Replies to reviews and comments:
Twilight of the Gods: Excellent explanation! Perhaps that's why Sirius decided to get a magical motorcycle? ("Time to put the hog in Hogwarts!" VROOM VROOM)
ALF Fonze O: Thanks! Remember, it's not the size of the compliment, it's how you use it.
Scherazade: Those hoggy warty flowers may end up playing a bigger role, later on.
armourdefense: Very good point... Would it be more correct to call her a 'citronette', then?