Chapter 4

Albus spent the rest of the train journey staring out of the window and trying to forget the brief glimpse of shock and hurt he’d seen on Scorpius’s face before he’d slammed the compartment door on him. Outside, the sky had darkened, the flat landscape becoming gradually more mountainous, the trees now bending in a fierce wind. When the last rays of sunlight completely vanished behind the craggy hills, Rose announced she was going to get changed. Ace helped her off the cushioned seat with a chivalrous hand and then waited until she left the compartment to let out an appreciative whistle. Berwick grunted and nudged Ace in the ribs, wagging his eyebrows. Albus resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

As they got changed, the two other boys hid each other’s clothes and tried to trip each other up with their robes. Socks, ties and cloaks ended up scattered across the compartment. Albus quietly changed in the corner, facing away from them, his mind wandering back to the image of Scorpius’s face.

It was with a feeling of great relief that the train finally came to a stop at Hogsmeade Station. Albus didn’t waste any time hanging around for Ace and Berwick to gather up their things. He hauled down his trunk, the weight of it almost making his arms buckle, grabbed Salvador’s cage, then hurried out of the compartment and off the train. Old-fashioned streetlamps lit the platform, which was thick with steam, jostling students and grouchy animals. Salvador kept pecking at his cage, eager to stretch his wings, but Albus didn’t want to let him out until he’d got to school. What if Salvador tried to fly back home? He might not realise he lived at Hogwarts now…

Albus tried to ignore the feeling of despair at the thought of Hogwarts being his new home. Not that he could do anything about it.

I have to make the best of it, he told himself.

Albus thought he caught a glimpse of platinum-blond hair in the crowd, but it disappeared behind a throng of students piling towards a set of carriages. He had a sudden urge to follow after Scorpius, but then a loud, rumbling voice drew his attention to the other end of the platform. “Firs’-years this way! Firs’-years over here!”

Even with the great mass of people on the platform, it was easy to spot Hagrid. His big hairy head stood well above everyone else. His great shaggy coat hung from his shoulders, his bushy hair fanning out around his face. Albus felt a surge of happiness and relief at the sight of the enormous man. He weaved through the crowd of older students, all heading in the opposite direction towards the carriages, his arm aching from the weight of his trunk, Salvador now squawking impatiently.

“All right there, Albus?” Hagrid said as Albus came to a stop amidst the group of first-years standing around the impossibly tall man. Many of them were gazing at Hagrid with a mixture of wonder and terror. Albus, who had known Hagrid all his life, was used to the man’s immense size, but he still hadn’t got used to Hagrid’s hugs. Albus thought his ribs might crack as Hagrid squeezed him in a one-arm embrace.

“Hi Hagrid,” Albus said breathlessly once Hagrid had let him go.

“Can’t believe yer already in yer firs’ year at Hogwarts!” Hagrid gushed, his smile wobbling, his eyes filling with tears. Hagrid looked so happy that Albus tried to make himself look excited.

When all the first-years had gathered, a man, who turned out to be Argus Filch, the caretaker, came to collect their trunks and animals. Once Filch had disappeared with the last of them, Hagrid led the first-years down a steep, narrow path. On either side was pitch-darkness. Albus found himself slipping and sliding on the muddy path and therefore ended up trailing behind at the very back of the group.

As they turned a corner, Hogwarts came into view. Windows glowing with golden light and fiery torches blazing bronze and scarlet, the castle looked like something out of a fairy tale. The lights were reflected in the clear, black water of the lake, which rippled faintly in the breeze, a breeze that was icy against Albus’s skin. He delved his hands into the pockets of his robes to keep them warm, then regretted it when he slipped and fell. Without his hands to brace himself, he landed squarely in the mud. His knees were now sodden, his sleeves dripping.

“No more’n four to a boat!” Hagrid called, pointing to a fleet of little boats sitting at the edge of the shore. By the time Albus reached them, there were only a couple spaces left. None of the little wooden vessels were completely empty. Rose, Berwick and Ace had been joined by a pretty girl with pig-tails to complete their four. Then, at the very end of the fleet, Albus spotted a boat carrying just one girl sitting alone. She sent him a single cursory glance as he climbed in. The girl had a thuggish, boyish sort of face, with a large nose, thin lips and short, black hair. But her eyes were round with long lashes and they glistened in the lantern-light.

Hagrid’s boat led the way across the lake, the others following magically along behind him. The closer they came to the castle, the more Albus’s trepidation grew. Up ahead was Hogwarts, the place where Harry Potter had had his legendary final duel with Lord Voldemort. In that castle, would Albus be anything more than Harry Potter’s son? In that castle, Harry Potter had been a quidditch champion, head of the quidditch team, the youngest seeker in a century. What would Albus be?

Albus tried to distract himself from his dark thoughts. He gazed down at the black surface of the lake, but it was making him think of the dream he’d had the previous night. He remembered chasing his sister across the lake, then seeing the shocking, gruesome sight of her face – mouth sewn shut with thread. Amidst all his fear of Hogwarts, he’d hardly spared a thought for his sister. He’d waved her goodbye and hadn’t even thought about the words he’d heard his parents speak – she’ll die.

If Lily wasn’t cured of her muteness, her magic might get trapped inside her, might even kill her.

Albus wrapped his muddy arms around his body and tried not to think of anything at all.

“If you’re going to be sick, do it that way.” It was the girl who had spoken, her voice deep and no-nonsense. She was pointing away from herself towards Albus’s side of the boat.

“I’m not going to be sick,” Albus said, glad to talk, glad of anything to take his mind away from his thoughts. “I’m Albus by the way.”

The girl studied him a moment before she replied. “Name’s Pan,” she said.

“Pan?” Albus replied. “That’s an unusual name.”

“And?” she said, her tone turning irritable. “You think there’s something wrong with my name?”

Albus quickly backtracked. “Oh no, not at all,” he said. “It’s just that I’ve never heard anyone with that name before. Well, except Peter Pan… Oh and there’s also the Greek god, Pan. He was part goat I think…” At the look on Pan’s face, Albus’s voice trailed off.

“You talk a lot,” Pan said. “Name’s actually Pandora. Never liked it much. Pan’s fine.” With that she turned away from him and carried on staring towards the castle. Clearly, that was the end of the conversation. Albus saw that her fists were clenched tight, her knuckles white. Now that he looked closer, he saw that her face was equally pale. He realised she never glanced down at the water, not once. Her eyes stayed fixed on the castle or drifted up to the sky, but never fell upon the water.

He wasn’t sure whether he should say anything. After a few more minutes of silence, however, he decided to risk it. “You don’t like the water much, do you,” he said.

Pan eyed him. “What makes you say that?”

“You won’t look at it.”

“I’m not afraid of it,” she said firmly.

Albus didn’t know what to say. Once again, silence fell. He couldn’t stand it. “I’m scared of stuff. I don’t like heights much. I don’t like the dark either. Slugs freak me out too. They make my skin crawl.”

“You shouldn’t tell people all that,” she said. “Me – I’m not scared of anything.”

“You must be scared of something.”

“You think because I’m a girl, I have to be afraid of stuff?” she accused angrily. “Well, I’m not. And telling people your fears is never a good thing.”

“If you’re not scared of anything, then what happens in your nightmares?”

“You talk a lot,” she grunted.

“Sorry,” Albus replied. “I’m just nervous.”

She let out a humph. “I don’t have nightmares, but if I did, it would probably involve drowning in a great dirty lake like this one.”

 

As they approached the cliffs beneath the castle, Hagrid’s voice boomed out, “Heads down!”

The little boats carried them through a curtain of ivy which hid a wide opening in the cliff face. The boats continued along a dark tunnel that seemed to be leading them underneath the school. At last, the boats came to a stop inside an underground harbour. Pan was quick to climb out of the boat, then held out a hand to help Albus. Some of the colour had returned to her face now that she was back on land.

The first-years followed Hagrid through a passageway and into the shadow of the castle. They climbed up a set of stairs and then Hagrid knocked on the oak front doors, which swung open at once. A short, plump, grey-haired woman stood in the doorway, her green cloak draped around what looked like gardening clothes. A very shrunken, lopsided hat sat on her head. This woman, Albus knew, must be Professor Sprout, though he’d never actually met her before.

“The firs’-years, Professor Sprout,” said Hagrid.

“Yes, right,” she said in a distracted voice. As the first-years began to bustle inside, Albus saw that she looked quite ill. Her hair was thin and frizzy, her skin ashen. “Thank you, Hagrid,” she said. “I’ll just…” She beckoned for the students to follow her past another set of enormous oak doors and into a small chamber.

Professor Sprout turned to the first-years and cleared her throat. “The start-of-term banquet will start soon. First, however, you’ll be sorted into your houses. The four houses are called Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin. While at Hogwarts, your house will be like your family. You can gain house points with your successes. Rule-breaking will lose you points. At the end of the year, the house with the most points receives the House Cup.

“The Sorting Ceremony will take place in a few minutes in front of the rest of the school. I’ll return when we are ready for you.”

Professor Sprout left the chamber. Albus shuddered. It wasn’t long now. Soon, he’d know where he really belonged.

The door to the chamber reopened and Albus’s heart skipped. This was it. Time to be sorted. When he looked over, however, it wasn’t Professor Sprout that he saw walking into the chamber, it was Scorpius Malfoy. He shut the door behind him, clearly trying to make as little noise as possible. It was in vain – the whole room was staring at him.

Ace walked forwards. “Too good to come on the boats with the rest of us?” he asked Scorpius. “I saw you rushing off for the carriages. Or maybe they wouldn’t let the spawn of Voldemort on the Black Lake. You’d probably push someone in.”

Scorpius had gone red, a colour that was made all the more prominent by his pale hair. He glanced around at the crowd of first-years, all of whom, Albus realised, were sending him distrustful looks. When those icy eyes landed on Albus, he felt a great stirring of pity for the other boy. Albus stepped forwards, ready to say something, but then the door opened once more and Professor Sprout gestured for the students to follow her.

Pan watched Albus with a thoughtful expression as they walked back out into the Entrance Hall. “What do you think about the Malfoy kid?” she asked once they’d been shepherded into a neat double-line in front of the doors to the Great Hall.

“Sorry?” Albus said. He was struggling to concentrate on anything other than the thought of what was waiting behind those doors – the sorting hat, the long benches full of ogling students, his brother…

“Word of advice,” Pan said. “Stay away from Scorpius Malfoy. Sticking up for him is a one-way-ticket to having no friends and a load of grief.”

Albus blinked. “How did you know I was going to stick up for him?”

Pan chuckled. “You’re Harry Potter’s son,” she said as if that answered the question. “Gryffindor for sure.”

A thrill went through Albus at those words, even though Pan had said the word ‘Gryffindor’ as if it left a foul taste in her mouth.

The doors to the Great Hall opened, pouring out warmth and light. The double-line began to file inside. They were walking along an aisle that ran parallel with the house tables. Lighting the room with a flickering, orange glow, candles floated beneath the ceiling, a ceiling that was enchanted to look like the sky. At the moment, it was cloudless, stars twinkling down upon the students below. Above the tables there floated an assortment of pearly white, partly transparent ghosts, ranging from a portly-looking man, to a sullen dour-faced woman, to a frightening figure in blood-stained clothes and chains.

Albus was having trouble breathing. There didn’t seem to be enough oxygen in the room. He couldn’t take in any of the splendour of the Great Hall, his eyes fixed on the singed, patched-up and sorry-looking hat sitting on a bench in front of the staff table. All around the hall there were mutterings, but Albus barely heard them over the pounding in his ears.

When they reached the hat, Professor Sprout lined the first-years up so that they were facing the older students. Albus didn’t know where to look. There were so many faces. Many of them, he realised with discomfort, were gazing at him. He decided to stare down at his feet. Beside him, Pan didn’t seem at all fazed. Arms crossed, chest out, head high, she met the eyes of the onlookers without a trace of fear.

The muttering died down. Silence fell. Wondering when the sorting would begin, Albus looked up. That’s when the sorting hat twitched. A rip near the brim opened up like a mouth and it began to sing:

Another feast, another year,

This old hat sings its song,

I come to you from ages past

And here I still live on.

A heavy task I must fulfil

To keep Hogwarts on track,

I split you, part you, cut you up

And there’s no going back.

At Hogwarts we have houses, four,

Each one with its own merit,

From four great founders do they stem,

With skills you shall inherit.

For Gryffindors, of red and gold,

Courage is their craft,

Yet Ravenclaws, of wit and logic,

Scorn the dim and daft;

Hufflepuffs are loyal friends

Their strength in being kind,

While Slytherins seek purity

They’d leave the rest behind.

So here we are! Here we go!

Place me on your head!

I have no skull, but I have brains,

No fear, no need to dread.

I’ve done this countless times before

I know what it’s about,

So stick me on and let me think

I’ll soon figure you out!

 

The hall burst into applause. Albus belatedly joined in. Pan wasn’t clapping. She rolled her eyes. “You’re applauding a hat,” she muttered to Albus.

“So’s everyone else.”

“Everyone here’s an idiot,” she replied.

Professor Sprout stepped forward holding a long roll of parchment in her thick, stubby fingers. There was dirt under her nails. “When I call your name, you will sit on the stool,” she said. “Acridson, Bryce!”

A very pretty girl with blonde hair stepped forwards and sat on the stool. When Professor Sprout placed the hat on her head, it fell down to her eyes. There was a pause, and then –

“GRYFFINDOR!” shouted the hat.

One of the tables burst into applause. Grinning broadly, Bryce took off the hat and skipped over to her house table, a satisfied smile on her face. The Gryffindor ghost, who Albus knew to be called Nearly Headless Nick, floated over to welcome the new girl to his house. She took one look at his severed neck, grimaced, and then turned her back on him.

“Applebee, Chris!”

“RAVENCLAW!” shouted the hat, and Chris plodded over to the Ravenclaw table, where the students were on their feet and cheering happily.

“Bullstrode, Aberfa!”

“SLYTHERIN!”

This time it was the table on the far right that took to their feet and cheered. Perhaps it was Albus’s imagination, but the voices of the Slytherins seemed gloating rather than triumphant, their faces looking hungry rather than welcoming, as if they intended to devour Aberfa Bullstrode. Well if that was the case, they’d certainly get a good meal. Aberfa Bullstrode was tall and thick-set. She was wider than any of the other first-years and almost as tall as Ace McLaggen.

“Chopra, Lance,” went to Hufflepuff and the table exploded with cheers at its first new member; Lance was welcomed with handshakes and warm smiles. “Corner, Cole,” went to Ravenclaw and “Cotton, Josie,” became a Hufflepuff.

Albus watched each first-year heading towards their house table with increasing anxiety. It seemed that there was a small creature burrowing inside his stomach, nibbling at his insides. His eyes kept wandering over to the Slytherin table, to the austere, sharp-eyed students with the green and silver snake branded on their robes.

More students were called up to the Sorting Hat and sent off to their respective tables. At one point, Albus caught sight of James at the Gryffindor table, clapping and cheering as a first-year came to join his house. Albus quickly averted his eyes. By now, his hands were shaking so badly that he’d clasped them behind his back.

“Granger-Weasley, Rose!”

Rose strode eagerly over to the hat, glancing back to give Ace McLaggen a wink. When the hat was placed on her head, it seemed to scrunch its face up as if it was thinking hard. After a long while –

“GRYFFINDOR!” shouted the hat.

Pan snorted. “Knew it,” she muttered. “Another squeaky clean, air-headed Gryffindor.”

“She’s actually really clever,” Albus corrected her. He regretted speaking almost instantly. In opening his mouth, bile had begun to rise up his throat. A wave of nausea swept over him. Albus swallowed and silently vowed not to open his mouth again until the sorting was over.

“Clever?” Pan replied. “She’s friends with that McLaggen idiot. No way she has a brain.”

Albus felt too sick to laugh. He thought his face must’ve been green. Well, at least if I’m in Slytherin, I’ll match the colour scheme.

He gulped down another wave of nausea.

After several more students were sorted, including “Groombridge, Missy,” and “Johnson, Harriett,” Scorpius Malfoy’s name was called. He walked hesitantly towards the stool as if he was heading for the death chair. Albus caught himself staring at his silvery-blond hair. It seemed to glow in the candlelight. The Sorting Hat took its time deciding where to place Scorpius. Eventually, it called out –

“SLYTHERIN!”

Was that a flash of disappointment on Scorpius’s face or had Albus imagined it? Was Scorpius unhappy with the hat’s verdict? Surely, he wanted to be in Slytherin? His whole family had been sorted into Slytherin house (as far as Albus knew anyway).

It was then that Albus noticed that there was no applause. A smattering of claps had quickly died out and now Scorpius walked slowly, his head bowed, towards the Slytherin table, the silence in the room thick with dislike. He perched himself on the very end of one of the benches and settled himself there, alone and unwelcome.

Albus frowned.

“McLaggen, Ace!”

Ace didn’t walk, he swaggered over to the stool and perched himself on it as if he was a celebrity about to be interviewed for a magazine article. The hat didn’t debate for long.

“GRYFFINDOR!” it yelled.

There was a great eruption from the Gryffindor table as they watched the muscular, athletic specimen that was Ace McLaggen saunter over to their table. Ace sat himself down next to Rose, who was smirking in a satisfied sort of way.

“What a git!” Pan grunted under her breath.

Many more first-years were called up, including the Nott twins, “Nott, Francesca,” and “Nott, Ileana,” who were placed in Gryffindor and Ravenclaw respectively.  A particularly scruffy and unkempt boy “Oakes, Artemian,” was placed in Slytherin, then two more first-years were sorted into Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff before Professor Sprout called, “Parkinson, Pandora!”

Pan walked up to the stool as if she was taking a casual stroll. The sorting hat barely touched her head before it screamed, “SLYTHERIN!”

She got up and headed to the Slytherin table where they cheered and clapped her on the back. She shrugged nonchalantly, barely cracking a smile.

Then, at last –

“Potter, Albus!”

The sound of his name almost made Albus’s knees buckle. It was with a force of will that he moved towards the stool and sat himself down. There were mutterings across the hall. Every single face turned in his direction, gazing interestedly. The Sorting Hat was dropped onto his head, the thing heavier than he’d expected. It slipped down past his eyebrows. He wished it had covered his eyes, at least then he wouldn’t have had to look at the sea of faces before him.

“Hmm,” said a small voice in his ear. “Another Potter. Difficult. Very difficult. A creative mind, eager to do well. I see ambition there, but fear too. You are anxious, that’s plain… So where shall I put you?”

Albus squeezed his eyes shut, fear rushing through him. He thought of his father, his mother, his brother – all of them Gryffindors. But then he thought of Rose, of Berwick Cross and Ace McLaggen. Out of the recesses of his mind popped the pale, sharp face of Scorpius Malfoy. For some reason, it comforted him.

“SLYTHERIN!”

Albus jumped. The hat’s voice had boomed through his head like cannon fire.

Slytherin, he thought. I’m in Slytherin…

There was absolute silence in the Great Hall. The hat was removed from Albus’s head and Professor Sprout, her eyebrows drawn together, pointed him towards the Slytherin table. Albus didn’t move for a moment. His legs seemed to be glued to the floor. His blood beat in his ears like the tolling of some awful death bell.

Up at the staff table, Albus caught sight of Uncle Neville. His mouth was hanging open, his eyes wide. It was an expression mirrored by several other faces in the hall.

Albus clutched his stomach, willing himself not to be sick. He edged towards the Slytherin table, trying to comprehend the fact that he was now a Slytherin – his colours were green and silver, his house crest was a snake, his house founder was Salazar Slytherin.

As if they’d only just realised they’d managed to bag themselves a Potter, the Slytherins burst into applause. Even Pan clapped her hands. Albus came to sit next to her, then absentmindedly shook hands with the older students. He tried not to notice that there were several Slytherins who weren’t clapping. Indeed, some of them were looking at Albus as if he was an infectious disease.

Now that he was sitting down, Albus had a better view of the High Table. Professor McGonagall, the headmistress, was frowning, her lips forming a thin line. Her black hair was pulled into a bun, her square-shaped glasses resting on the tip of her nose. Her black robes were as tight and severe as her manner. Hagrid, sitting at the far end of the High Table, wasn’t bothering to hide his shock at Albus’s sorting: his horror was evident in every line of his huge, hairy face. Next to Professor McGonagall, a portly man with a large belly and expensive-looking turquoise dress robes was gazing at Albus with undiluted delight and interest. This, Albus assumed, was Professor Slughorn – head of Slytherin House. On McGonagall’s other side sat a muscular, square-jawed wizard who could’ve been Ace McLaggen’s father owing to his action-doll appearance. His hair was short and receding, however. He seemed neither pleased nor troubled by Albus’s sorting. Instead, he took a large sip from his goblet and tapped the tabletop impatiently.

Albus sat numbly while the sorting ceremony carried on around him.

There were many more students sent off to their house tables before, finally, “Zabini, Prince,” was placed in Slytherin.

Albus, who had been staring down at the empty golden plate in front of him, looked up as Zabini sat himself down at their table. In the distance, he caught sight of his brother. This time, the two of them locked eyes. For the first time in Albus’s memory, his brother looked completely serious and entirely unamused.

Albus’s heart stuttered. He focussed his attention on Professor McGonagall and tried to block out the feel of his brother’s eyes burning into the back of his head. The headmistress had stood up. She now cleared her throat and the Great Hall went silent immediately. She didn’t smile. Her eyes were hard and unflinching.

“Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts!” she said in her clipped tones. “Now the sorting is finished, it is time to eat. Enjoy!” She clapped her hands and the dishes in the centre of every table filled with an assortment of different delicacies, from meat pies with thick onion gravy, to roast chicken with crispy skin, to lamb cutlets garnished with sprigs of mint. Other, smaller dishes were filled with vegetables. At any other time, Albus would’ve devoured the food. His eyes popped at the sight of it. Yet the sick feeling in his stomach hadn’t eased. If anything, it had got worse. The thought of eating a single bite made him feel sick.

Pan didn’t seem to be having the same trouble. In fact, she seemed to be eating enough for both of them. “What’s wrong with you?” she said, eyeing Albus’s empty plate. “Not one of those fussy eaters, are you?”

“Not hungry,” Albus replied in a small voice.

Scorpius, who was perched at the very end of the bench, had an equally empty plate. He hadn’t touched the food. In all the time they’d been sitting here, no one had spoken to him.

Pan nudged Albus in the arm. “Don’t even think about it,” she said.

“What?” Albus replied.

“You’re thinking of talking to the Malfoy kid,” she said. “Bad idea. Trust me.”

Just then, the Slytherin ghost floated over to introduce himself. “Bloody Baron,” he said to the first-years, his voice like gravel, “always good to see new Slytherins. Always good.”

“Oh, is that blood on your robes?” asked Missy Groombridge, one of the first-year girls. “How’d it get there?”

The baron merely looked at her, a look that plainly showed she should not have asked that question. He floated through her and then glided off down the table. She gasped and shivered, rubbing at her upper arms. “It felt like someone chucked ice water over me!” she said.

“Then, next time, think before you speak,” Pan said to her, her tone blunt.

Missy narrowed her eyes, then she flicked her hair and carried on eating in a very dignified sort of way.

“Can’t believe I ended up in Slytherin,” said Danielle Varda, one of the other first-year girls. “Maybe it was a good house once, but now it’s just a big joke.”

“I know,” said the tall, attractive Zabini. “I heard Slytherin hasn’t won the cup for over two decades.”

“Because everyone hates us,” Danielle put in sadly.

Missy Groombridge put down her fork, shaking her head. “Ridiculous,” she said. “We’re the best house. We have the purest blood—”

“And the record for most wizards turning evil,” interrupted Zabini.

A boy with an upturned nose, large teeth and immaculate brown hair sat forwards, lip curled. Albus remembered his name was Drake Salmer. When he spoke, his voice was a drawl. “It’s not about purity of blood any more,” he said. “It’s about prestige, power, money. We’re here because we’re destined to be better than the rest. If you were true Slytherins, you wouldn’t be sitting here moping like a bunch of weak Puffs. You’d be celebrating the fact that you’re going to be rich and influential.”

Missy Groombridge put down both pieces of cutlery and gave him a little clap. The girl next to her joined in.

The scruffy boy, Artemian Oakes scoffed. “I don’t think I’m ever going to be rich or influential.”

Drake Salmer wrinkled his nose. “I do rather think the Sorting Hat might have gone a bit senile,” he said, his eyes darting from Artemian to Albus. “A strange selection, this year.”

By the end of the feast, Missy, Julia Hopkirk (the girl who sat next to Missy), Zabini and Drake Salmer had slid along the benches to separate themselves from the other first-year Slytherins. Pan rolled her eyes at them.

Halfway through the main course, Artemian insisted the others call him Arty, as his real name was, in his words, disgusting. Danielle Varda attempted to chat with Aberfa Bullstrode, but she didn’t seem to be much of a talker. Eventually, Danielle listened in on Pan and Arty’s discussion about the rise and fall of Slytherin house. They both agreed that the Battle of Hogwarts had really finished off Slytherin’s reputation, turning a house that was generally disliked into a house that was universally loathed.

Scorpius wasn’t included in any of the conversations. He sat outcast and rejected. Albus tried to imagine how it must feel to be so hated. It made him shudder.

As the feast wore on and dessert was served, Albus’s eyes drooped. All he really wanted to do now was sleep. He looked back up at the High Table, wondering when the feast would be called to an end. It was then that he caught sight of the muscly, square-jawed teacher, who had been sitting next to McGonagall. Now, he seemed to be in the middle of a heated discussion with none other than Uncle Neville. Neville was sitting in his chair, his hands bunched into fists. There was an aggressive tension in the other man’s body that worried Albus.

The two wizards quickly broke apart, however, when Professor McGonagall stood up to address the school. “I have a few start-of-term notices to give you. First-years should note that the forest is out of bounds. As always, no magic should be used between classes. And quidditch trials take place in the second week of term. Speak to Madam Hooch for further details.

“Now, I’m tired. Off to bed with you.”

Slytherin prefects, a boy with curly brown hair and a girl with a blonde ponytail, led them out of the Great Hall. Albus’s legs were heavy with tiredness. Pan was rubbing her protruding belly, muttering about too much food. Drake Salmer and Missy Groombridge were at the front of the line, the two of them nattering away to each other, pointing to parts of the castle and loudly pronouncing them to be lacking in style or sophistication. Pan groaned every time they spoke.

The group of first-years passed through countless passages and took innumerable sets of stairs – all leading downwards. Portraits hanging on the walls waved at them or tried to follow after them by jumping into other paintings. Halfway down a particularly steep set of stairs, Pan got her foot caught in a trick step. It swallowed the bottom part of her leg as if the stone had turned to quicksand. It took several minutes for Albus to yank her free, by which time they had been joined by a little man with twinkling, mischievous eyes who popped into existence above them, floating cross-legged as if on an invisible carpet. “Well I never! It’s potty wee Potter!”

“Peeves,” groaned Albus under his breath. His father had warned him about the poltergeist.

Pan too, it seemed, knew all about Peeves.

“Is it a boy or is it a girl?” Peeves cackled, pulling at strands of Pan’s short hair. “Can’t tell which!”

Pan tried to shove him away, but he floated out of her reach. “Shove off!” she shouted.

Peeves opened his mouth to say something else, but then Drake Salmer’s drawling tones wafted up from the passage below. “It feels abandoned if you ask me. This whole place needs remodelling. I can’t believe I have to spend the next seven years here!”

His lip curling, Peeves raced off in the direction of Salmer’s voice.

By the time Peeves was done with him, Drake Salmer was hanging from a lantern bracket by the neck of his robes, his shoelaces tied into his hair like bizarre hair extensions.

Once the male prefect had succeeded in chasing Peeves away, Missy and Zabini helped Drake Salmer down from his humiliating position, the two of them trying to hide their sniggers.

Pan smirked at the sight of him. Albus was only glad it hadn’t been him Peeves had decided to pick on. His dad had said Peeves could be ‘a right git’.

Finally, the prefects stopped in front of a blank patch of wall. It felt like they’d left the Great Hall a long time ago. They must be far below the castle by now. The walls were damp and grimy and there was a musty smell in the air.

Draco novus,” said the male prefect. At his words, the cellar wall let out a sigh of air then slid sideways, revealing a thin passageway that rippled with green light. Beyond it was the Slytherin common room. The first-years gasped, eyes wide, when they saw it. Even Missy and Drake had no scathing comments to make. The room was grand, furnished with black leather sofas, walls adorned with skulls and tapestries. The cupboards and sideboards were all carved from dark wood. The brackets and fittings were silver. Albus wasn’t a fan of the skulls, but the rest of the room was cosy enough, though he’d have to get used to the green lanterns – they gave the space an eerie quality.

Without pausing, the prefects led them to the dormitories. The girls were led down a separate passage by the female prefect. The boys descended a set of spiral stairs to a short corridor with three doors, each labelled with a silver plaque.

“Don’t ever share the common room password,” the male prefect told them before he left. “It changes every fortnight. Do not write it down. Do not forget it.” With a disdainful look at Albus and Arty, he ascended the stairs.

The boys headed into their rooms. Albus entered the one emblazoned with the plaque, Artemian Oakes and Albus Potter. So, he was sharing with Arty. He thought that was probably the best he could’ve hoped for. He thought suddenly of Scorpius, but he squashed the image from his mind.

At least I’m not with Drake Salmer, he thought.

“We’re roomies!” said Arty as he made his way over to the four-poster bed closer to the door. There were two beds in the room, both taking up most of the floor space. Arty didn’t even bother glancing around to take in his new surroundings. He pulled off his robes, clambered into bed and shut his eyes.

Albus swallowed. The door behind him shut itself with a creak.

He was alone.

Trying not to panic, Albus studied the room – the green lanterns, the black hangings, the dark wood furniture. Lastly, his eyes fixed upon the huge floor-to-ceiling window which looked out onto pitch blackness beyond. His trunk had been placed at the end of the bed nearest the window. On top of it, Salvador’s cage sat empty. Albus guessed he must be in the Owlery.

As he made his way over to his trunk, Albus gasped when something small and pale flitted past the window. He hurried towards it and peered out. When he pressed his hand against the glass, its surface was icy cold. Again, something flitted past, but this time Albus saw what it was – a fish. He gasped. The window looked out onto the depths of the Black Lake!

Albus wondered how far below its surface they were. The thought unnerved him. It all unnerved him – the green light, the dungeon-feeling of the place, the fact that he was in a house that loved power and pure-bloods.

All at once, a horrid wave of homesickness washed over Albus. He thought of his bright green and gold room at home, of his radio that he would listen to at night, of Mrs Figg who would tuck him in and read with him.

You’re being silly, he told himself. You’re at Hogwarts now. You have to grow up a bit.

He made his way to the empty four-poster by the window and climbed under the covers. They were soft but cold. A few paces away, Arty was already snoring.

I’m in Slytherin, Albus thought, hardly believing it, not wanting to believe it. I have to make the best of it.

What was his dad going to say? What would his mum say?

He thought of the humourless look on his brother’s face and the way he’d glared at Albus from across the Great Hall. Albus pulled the duvet over his head to block out the eerie green light. He squeezed his eyes shut.

I’m in Slytherin…

 

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