Albus woke up with a start. It took him a moment to get his bearings, to remember where he was and why there wasn’t a poster of Gonçalo Flores at the end of his bed.
It was Saturday morning – the start of Albus’s first weekend at Hogwarts. Watery light streamed in through his dormitory window, the rays broken every now and then by a darting fish or a bit of floating pondweed. As usual, Arty was snoring in the next bed. Albus pulled his duvet over his head and pressed it to his ears, trying to block out the incessant noise. It was no good. Arty’s snores rumbled through the fabric like a foghorn.
Sitting up, Albus sent his roommate a glare. Arty was sprawled across his bed, arms and legs starfished, his mouth hanging open so that drool slid down his chin and onto the sheets. Another great, echoing snore escaped him.
Albus considered throwing a pillow at him, but decided against it. Since he was awake, he resolved that he might as well get up. It was too early to go down to breakfast. Instead, he got out a canvas and set it up in front of the window. He’d been meaning to sketch the underwater view of the lake for a while.
As he worked, Albus’s mind drifted back to the previous night. He thought about the dinner party, about how he’d revealed that the figures in his art couldn’t move and about the conversation he’d overheard between Thorn and Slughorn. Thorn had been deeply interested in the wolfsbane potion. But why? And, as Scorpius had pointed out, why was Slughorn making the potion in the first place? Was there a werewolf at Hogwarts?
As they had for most of last night (while he’d laid in bed trying to get to sleep), Albus’s thoughts turned to Scorpius. It turned out the boy, who everyone thought was the son of Voldemort, wanted to give magical creatures a committee and knew enough about merpeople culture to become their next ambassador. Scorpius had even sounded a bit like Aunt Hermione when he’d talked about them (though much less high-pitched and angry).
Albus kept thinking of Scorpius’s silvery cloak, of the way his silhouette had stood against the window, how sadness had practically leached the air around him when he’d gazed out at the Black Lake. Albus wondered how it would feel to be Scorpius, to have no friends.
Lonely, he thought, his stomach twisting.
Albus had almost finished his sketch by the time Arty woke up. The boy groaned and rubbed his eyes. His wild hair was sticking up in all directions, his Chudley Cannons pyjamas distinctly ruffled.
Albus guessed it was time to head to breakfast. Pan was probably already waiting for him in the common room.
Arty refused to leave his bed so Albus headed upstairs by himself. When he reached the common room, he was surprised to find that none of the black leather sofas were occupied by Pan. Drake Salmer and Prince Zabini were lounging in armchairs playing a game of wizard’s chess; some older students inhabited several bench seats that looked out into the depths of the Black Lake reading papers or writing essays, some whispering intently to each other and in a far corner a clump of second-years were grouped around a game of gobstones, though none of them seemed much engaged with it. They too were chatting in low voices, sending furtive looks towards the other Slytherins.
Albus couldn’t explain it, but the room felt tense.
“Albus,” Drake said, beckoning him over. Uneasily, Albus approached. Once he was close enough, Drake gestured towards the chessboard. “Any advice?” he asked.
Albus, who had never been particularly good at chess, gave the board a quick glance and shook his head. “You’ve asked the wrong person, I’m afraid,” he said truthfully.
“Seriously?” Drake sneered. “You play gobstones or something equally simple when you’re at home?” Drake’s superior gaze turned to the group of second-years in the corner of the common room. Zabini smirked.
“My family plays chess,” Albus replied through gritted teeth. “I’m just not very good.”
“Ah, really?” said Drake, arching an eyebrow. “At home, we play in the house library. We were going to have a chess room built at my family’s manor, but Mother thought it might be an overindulgence.”
Albus shifted uncomfortably. He glanced over at Prince, but the boy seemed unfazed by the idea of a house library or a chess room. “We play chess in the living room,” Albus said.
“How quaint,” replied Drake whose eyes were glittering malevolently. “My family has seven homes, you know. Zabini’s parents own a couple houses in London and a manor house in Somerset. Not bad, I suppose. And you, Albus? Where do you live?”
The false smile on Albus’s lips was quickly fading. “Well… We live—”
“Are you coming?”
Pan was striding over to him from the direction of the dormitories, her short, dark hair uncharacteristically messy. Albus felt a flood of relief at the sight of her. “Yes,” he answered at once. “I’m starving.”
“Watch yourselves, won’t you,” Drake called after them. “There’s a madman on the loose after all.”
Albus and Pan halted mid-step. “What are you talking about?” Albus asked.
“You mean you don’t know?” replied Drake, a satisfied smirk contorting his features.
Albus and Pan exchanged puzzled glances.
“I’m surprised your mother didn’t tell you in advance,” Drake continued. “I suppose she didn’t have the authority. Either that, or she didn’t trust you with the information.”
Pan was scowling. “Spit it out, Salmer.”
“Oh, but why spoil the surprise?” Drake crowed. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
Pan opened her mouth to reply, but Albus pulled on her arm. Reluctantly, she walked with him out of the common room.
“What did he mean, ‘there’s a madman on the loose’?” Albus asked Pan.
The tense atmosphere wasn’t restricted to the Slytherin common room. The whole castle felt quiet, muted, as if a silencing charm had been placed on it. Every student they passed seemed to be suspiciously scanning their surroundings or were muttering to friends in low, conspiratorial tones.
The Great Hall was no different.
“It’s like someone’s died,” Pan said once they’d sat down at the Slytherin table. Danielle Varda, Aberfa Bullstrode and Missy Groombridge were already seated, their breakfasts largely uneaten.
“What’s up with everyone?” Albus asked them.
Danielle grimaced and handed Albus a rolled-up newspaper with a thick envelope attached to it. “Read this,” she said. “Your owl brought it when the post came. The story’s on the front page.”
Albus glanced at the envelope. It was from his mother; he recognised her thin handwriting. Impatiently, Albus untied the string attaching it to the The Daily Prophet. Swiftly, he unrolled the paper. The headline made him gasp. Pan, who was peering over his shoulder, groaned when she saw it.
RABASTAN BACK IN BRITAIN
Death Eater Causes Mayhem at St Mungo’s
St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries has been left in shock after Rabastan Lestrange forcibly entered one of the wards in the early hours of this morning. At approximately 3am, reports suggest that the death eater (who is supposed to be in hiding in Switzerland), entered the hospital via the visitor’s entrance. Reportedly, he strolled into the main building, traversed the staircase to the fourth floor (unchallenged and undetected) and proceeded to enter ward 50. It is believed he passed through the ward door with a simple unlocking charm, then attempted to abduct one of the hospital residents, none other than Asunia Lestrange, his wife.
The healer on duty at the time, a young witch named Darcey Gilbus, reported, “I heard noises, people shouting. I thought one of the residents had woken up and set the others off. But when I got there, I saw a man. He was trying to take Mrs Lestrange.”
Asunia Lestrange, whose mind was severely damaged after being tortured by Agram Pole and Celia Waters eighteen years ago, fought against Rabastan, screaming for help. The healer, Darcey Gilbus, acted on instinct, sending out stunning spells at the cloaked intruder, who then fled the scene.
Eyewitnesses, who were at the hospital at the time of the break-in, later established that the intruder was, in fact, Asunia’s husband, Rabastan. This comes after mounting rumours that the known death eater has been back in Britain for some time. His appearance at St Mungo’s has provided irrefutable evidence that Rabastan has, indeed, returned from abroad.
The Ministry of Magic has refused to comment on the situation, but the lax security at the hospital comes as yet another embarrassment for the ministry, which has been heavily criticised for Rabastan’s escape from Azkaban earlier this year. The recapture of Lestrange has been the Auror Office’s first real challenge since Voldemort’s demise. His easy infiltration of the largest wizarding hospital in Europe is a shocking oversight.
The wizarding community in the UK believed itself safe from the unhinged and incredibly dangerous Lestrange when, over two months ago, he was sighted in Switzerland. Now that he has returned, the wizarding world eagerly awaits an official statement from the Ministry of Magic to give some sign that they have this situation under control.
Daily Prophet reporter
Albus put the paper down. It lay quietly on the table, the gaunt, thin face of Rabastan Lestrange staring up out of it, his long black hair hanging down in greasy ribbons. The other Slytherin first-years were silent. Albus could feel the eyes of the Great Hall flitting towards the Slytherin table, watching it distrustfully.
So his mum had finally printed the story about Rabastan Lestrange being back in the country. In truth, Albus had barely given it a thought since coming to Hogwarts. It wasn’t any wonder: she’d told him about it over a week ago. Why had it taken so long for it to be printed? And now Rabastan had broken into the wizarding hospital…
“He tried to take his wife from St Mungo’s?” said Pan.
Albus frowned down at the picture of Rabastan. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “His wife’s insane. How does he think he’s going to keep her hidden while he’s on the run?”
Missy Groombridge made a high-pitched, disbelieving noise. “Who cares about what he thought?” she said, her tone bordering on hysterical. “He’s back in the country. That’s what we should be worrying about.”
“He’s only one man,” spoke Pan coolly. “There’s no need to wet yourself over it.”
Missy glared at her.
Danielle placed the tips of her fingers on the newspaper, covering over Rabastan’s scowling face. “He escaped Azkaban,” she said in a low voice. A shadow had passed across her features; it diminished her beauty somewhat. “Only one other person has ever done it.”
Albus took The Daily Prophet out from under Danielle’s hand and turned it over so that Rabastan’s face was hidden. Danielle sent him a brief smile of gratitude, a smile that made Albus’s heart skip.
Pan began ladling great spoonfuls of porridge into her bowl and then piled her plate with eggs, bacon, sausage, fried bread and hash browns. The other girls stared at her.
Missy sniffed reproachfully. “How can you eat at a time like this?” she asked. She then looked Pan up and down, eyes lingering on her boyish shoulders, her thick midriff. “And I don’t mean to be rude,” Missy continued, “but I really don’t think you should eat—”
“I wouldn’t finish that sentence if I were you,” interrupted Pan before shoving a loaded spoon of porridge into her mouth. Missy blinked, but remained silent. Once Pan swallowed, she turned to Danielle. “There are no dementors at Azkaban anymore, remember,” she said.
Albus frowned. “You think it’s easier to escape from there than it used to be?” he asked.
“It’s possible,” she said, shrugging.
“Still,” Aberfa spoke up, her expression stern, “Rabastan’s dangerous. We should all be careful.” Her accent seemed to give her words extra weight. The graveness of her tone hung in the air around them like a heavy shroud.
At last, Danielle broke the quiet. “Look at them,” she said, nodding towards the other house tables. “They’re all staring at us. It’s as if they think Rabastan Lestrange is a close friend of ours or something.”
Aberfa shifted, Missy Groombridge laughed awkwardly and Pan grunted, a forkful of bacon in her mouth. Albus, who was used to people staring at him, was nevertheless unnerved by the thought that the other students now considered him and the rest of the Slytherins a possible threat.
A few minutes later, Arty trudged into the Great Hall and sank onto the seat next to Albus. Like Pan, he began piling his plate with food. It seemed he’d decided not to brush his hair: it stuck out in all directions. Pan rolled her eyes at the sight of him. “Gave up on the grooming then,” she said.
“Not looking so tidy yourself,” he retorted.
Pan ran a hand through her hair and groaned. “I didn’t sleep well,” she answered. “Julia kept me awake, crying.” Pan bunched her fists. “It’s been the same every night since we arrived.”
Danielle sat forward. “Julia’s been crying?” she asked, concerned. “Is she alright?”
“Homesick,” replied Pan in an unforgiving voice.
“Does she know about Rabastan?” Danielle asked.
Pan grimaced. “Not yet,” she answered, “but she’ll probably cry for a month when she finds out.”
“Rabastan?” Arty piped up quizzically.
The others began filling Arty in on The Daily Prophet article. Albus stayed quiet. He kept glancing down at his mother’s letter, simultaneously eager to open it and afraid to read what was inside. He hadn’t heard from his parents since becoming a Slytherin. Despite his father’s words on platform nine and three-quarters, Albus couldn’t help feeling that he’d be disappointed. Everyone else in Albus’s family had been a Gryffindor. And now, not only had Albus been placed in a different house, he’d been sorted into Slytherin.
Once Pan had finished eating, she got up, beckoning for Albus to follow. “Time to get our brooms out,” she said. At Albus’s blank expression, she folded her arms. “Flying lessons start this week. We need to prepare.”
“I— I need to go to the library,” Albus lied. “I want to get Slughorn’s essay done.”
Pan glanced down at the letter in his hand and then let out a sigh. “Another time then,” she said. “Come on, Arty.”
Arty, who had a large bit of sausage in his mouth looked around in puzzlement. “What?” he said.
“Quidditch practice,” Pan told him bluntly. “Hurry up. We’re wasting time.”
Arty gulped down his sausage, took a slug of his drink and then hurried after Pan who was striding imperiously towards the Entrance Hall.
Dimly, Albus could hear that Danielle was speaking to him, but his thoughts were fixed upon the letter in his hand. Without a word, he got out of his seat, muttered a goodbye and left the Great Hall. He found himself heading to the library. He settled himself into a seat beside one of the windows and tore open his mother’s letter.
My dearest Albus,
I’m sorry I haven’t written sooner. The office has been busier than ever. At home, things are quiet. I miss James’s noise and I miss your constant tidying. The kitchen is certainly less clean without you here to pick things up and put things away. I think the only room in the house that is remotely tidy is your room. I admit, I may have sneaked in there a couple of times so that I can sit and look at your paintings and miss you for a bit. Don’t roll your eyes. It’s my job to miss you. I’m your mother.
Now for the part of the letter I know you’ll have been waiting for. Yes, Albus, I know that you’re in Slytherin. James wrote to tell us the first night. He certainly writes home a lot more regularly than you do (which isn’t difficult as you haven’t sent a single letter yet). I’m not annoyed. I’m happy you’re settling in. Harry reminded me that he never once sent a letter home to his relatives when he was at Hogwarts. His relatives were the Dursleys, however, so I don’t think that really counts. In any case, I hope you’ll write back to me soon.
As for your sorting, your father and I couldn’t be prouder. It will be difficult for sure, but you’ve always been strong, Albus. If anyone can make the best of a bad situation, it’s you. I have to say, your father and I were both surprised by the Sorting Hat’s decision. Your father always expected you to be sorted into Gryffindor. I, on the other hand, thought Hufflepuff would be your house. I guess we were both wrong.
How are you finding Hogwarts? Have you made many friends? Your dad asked me to remind you to be cautious when it comes to certain members of your house. I think he was referring to one boy in particular. Usually, I would say to ignore your father’s advice on this point, but I remember Draco Malfoy from my own days at Hogwarts and trust me when I say he wasn’t a pleasant boy. If Scorpius is anything like his father, then my advice would be to stay as far away from him as possible.
Back home, we’re all well. Your dad wasn’t overly impressed with my article. I think I was a little too critical of the Auror Office for his liking. I was just glad it finally got printed. The ministry was pressuring the Prophet to keep Rabastan’s return a secret. But when he broke into St Mungo’s, they couldn’t keep it hushed-up any longer. Your father wanted me to print the story before now – ministry approval or not. He can be as much of a hothead as me sometimes. A trait both James and Lily inherited.
You, on the other hand, Albus… Let’s just say we miss your calmness.
If you do write back, be aware that Lily, your father and I are going away for a week to visit a healer in Canada, so our reply might be delayed. We’re hoping the healer will be able to help with Lily’s muteness. It’s nothing to worry over. We just want her to be ready for when she starts school in two years’ time.
Missing you dearly, Albus
All my love
Albus re-read the letter twice, then folded it up and tucked it in his pocket. He could almost see his mother writing it, the places where she would smile sadly, the places where she would frown, the places where she would laugh. At the part about Lily, he had a feeling she would be wearing a worried, strained look. Albus felt it too, the same heart-aching worry. Bright, happy, carefree Lily – the girl who could beat anyone at chess, but who couldn’t utter a syllable of speech. She was in more danger than his mother would admit to him. Albus remembered all too clearly the conversation he’d overheard between his parents the night before he came to Hogwarts. If Lily didn’t learn how to talk soon, her magic could become trapped inside her. And if that happened, she could die.
Albus drew his knees up to his chest and gazed out the window at the pink-tinged sky. The view was beautiful. He wished he could appreciate it. No doubt Pan was enjoying her flying practice in this weather.
Suddenly, a familiar voice broke Albus out of his thoughts.
“Are you all right?”
It was Scorpius. His pale hair was falling into his eyes and his hands were laden with books. His bag, too, was overflowing with thick tomes, the strap cutting into the boy’s narrow shoulder. Scorpius was gazing at Albus, a wary, uncertain expression on his face.
Albus took the letter from his pocket. “From my mum,” he told Scorpius.
Scorpius nodded. “How did she take it?” he asked. “You being in Slytherin, I mean.”
“Surprised mostly,” Albus replied.
“She thought you’d be in Gryffindor,” Scorpius guessed.
“Hufflepuff, actually,” said Albus.
There was a pause. “I can see that,” Scorpius said. “Kindness, loyalty, friendship. I think you’d fit there.”
Remembering the way he’d treated Scorpius on the train, Albus felt his cheeks warm. “And you?” he asked, changing the subject. “Where do you think you should fit?”
Scorpius opened his mouth to answer, but then seemed to think better of it. Wincing from the weight of his bag, he set his books on a nearby shelf and adjusted the shoulder strap.
“Do you want to sit down?” Albus asked, patting the seat beside him.
Another pause. “Okay.”
Once Scorpius had sat down, the two of them fell into silence. Albus searched for something to say. His mind kept returning to the letter, then to Lily.
“You’re worried about something,” Scorpius said abruptly, his pale, silvery eyes fixed on Albus.
At first Albus said nothing. But then, before he knew it, Albus found himself blurting the thoughts that had been swimming through his head. He told Scorpius about Lily’s muteness, about the conversation he’d overheard between his parents, about what would happen if her magic became blocked. It was the first time he’d spoken about it to anyone. The words just kept tumbling out. “My parents are taking her to see a healer in Canada,” Albus said. He wrung his hands. “None of the other healers have been able to help though.”
A deep notch had formed between Scorpius’s eyebrows. “Sometimes muteness isn’t an illness, Albus,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a choice.”
“You think Lily is choosing not to speak?” Albus asked sharply.
Scorpius shifted. “There are some things that healing magic can’t change.”
“There has to be a way!” Albus exclaimed, his voice louder than he’d intended. Both boys looked around for any sign that Madam Pince, the prickly librarian, had heard. Thankfully, there was no sign of her.
“If your sister has been to a lot of healers,” Scorpius said gently, “then all the normal healing spells and potions must have been tried already.” He paused to think for a moment. “There is one thing that might help, but it’s incredibly rare. I’m not sure it even exists.”
“What is it?” Albus asked quickly, leaning closer.
“It’s a plant,” answered Scorpius. “I remember reading about it. It’s supposed to be a cure-all.”
“It can return someone to full health, even if they’re about to die,” said Scorpius. “It heals anything. The only thing it can’t cure is death.”
“So what is this plant?” Albus questioned impatiently. “Where can I get it?”
“It’s called Angel’s Trumpet,” Scorpius told him. “It’s a flower. But it only grows in places that have been touched by powerful magic. According to the book I read, the last place it grew was on the ground where Dumbledore and Grindelwald had their legendary duel.”
“So what happened to it?” Albus asked. “Why hasn’t the ministry grown more of it?”
Scorpius frowned. “The ministry destroyed it,” he said. “They burned the plant to ashes.”
“The book didn’t say,” Scorpius said, his frown deepening.
Albus’s heart sank.
“Albus,” Scorpius said tentatively, “do you think maybe Lily’s muteness is part of who she is? That it’s possible she doesn’t want to talk?”
Albus shook his head, bristling. “Of course she wants to talk.”
“There can be lots of reasons why people are mute. She might feel like—”
“She wants to talk, Scorpius,” Albus interrupted. Without realising it, he’d stood up. He was breathing fast. “You don’t know anything about her.”
“I-I’m sorry,” Scorpius replied, paling. “I just meant—”
Whatever Scorpius had been about to say was interrupted when James appeared around the corner, broomstick in one hand, a book in the other. With his bulky frame, his brown hair and his freckly skin, he cut quite a different figure to Scorpius. The moment he spotted Albus, his face broke into a grin, a grin that quickly faded when he saw the platinum-haired boy. James raised an eyebrow at Albus. “What are you doing with him?” he asked.
Albus glanced down at Scorpius. “I’m not with him,” Albus said. “I was just leaving.”
With that, Albus followed his brother out of the library. He didn’t let himself look back. As James chatted about quidditch practice, Albus ignored the nagging feeling of guilt in the back of his mind.
He was only telling me what he thought.
But Scorpius knew nothing about Lily. He’d never even met her. How could he say she was mute by choice? Did he think she refused to talk to Albus, to James, to their parents because she just didn’t want to?
For the second time, Albus felt anger rising up inside him.
I thought Hufflepuff would be your house. That’s what his mother had written in her letter.
The more Albus thought about it, the more he doubted it.
Am I loyal? Albus thought critically. Am I good friend?
As the answers popped into his brain, it came to him that perhaps he really was a Slytherin.
Albus spent the rest of the day in his dormitory working on his sketch of the Black Lake. He mixed up his oil paints, trying to match the water’s murky shades of green and grey. At lunchtime, he didn’t go to the Great Hall. His mind swirling with thoughts of his sister, he had no appetite.
By the time the light had faded and the depths of the Black Lake had turned to nothing but shadows, Albus had almost finished his painting. The colours weren’t quite right, but he liked the way he’d captured the light, how it rippled through the water, distorted.
As Albus finished clearing away his paints, the door opened and Arty stumbled into the dormitory, apparently exhausted. He muttered a lazy “Hello” as he dragged his feet towards his four-poster.
“What happened to you?” Albus asked.
“Four hours of flying-practice with Pan,” he said, climbing into bed, “then a two-hour detention with Thorn. He made me skim stones across the lake to improve my aim. But they were like boulders. My arms are killing me.”
At dinner, the Great Hall was quieter than usual. The same tension that had been in the air at breakfast hadn’t faded. If anything, there seemed to be even more suspicious looks thrown at the Slytherin table than before. Throughout the meal, Julia Hopkirk kept up an incessant chatter about Rabastan Lestrange, her fears and predictions becoming ever more hysterical until Pan had to tell her to shut up. Both Julia and Missy Groombridge had gazed at Pan, looking scandalised. Before they’d finished eating, the two girls left the Great Hall, arm-in-arm, muttering irritably to one another. Albus, whose attention was distracted by his thoughts, barely acknowledged the girls as they disappeared from sight. His eyes flitted towards the lone boy at the end of the table, whose head was buried in a book. Scorpius guzzled down his soup, eager, it seemed, to leave the hall.
Albus felt another stirring of guilt. He willed Scorpius to look up at him. And for the first time, Scorpius obeyed his wishes. Those silvery eyes glanced up from his book and met Albus’s. A tentative smile curved those pale lips. Albus’s stomach flipped. For some reason, he found himself looking away, his cheeks flushing. When he forced himself to return his attention to Scorpius, the other boy was getting up from the table. He didn’t spare Albus a glance as he hurried out of the hall, whispers following in his wake.
“You think Malfoy knows anything about Lestrange?” Drake Salmer asked the other Slytherin first-years. “Darted out of here pretty fast, didn’t he.”
“He always does that,” said Danielle. “Can you blame him? The whole school hates him.”
“Yes,” Salmer replied, “because his family are all death eaters. Old Rabastan’s probably hiding out at the Malfoys’ as we speak.”
“The Malfoys hardly ever leave their manor,” Prince spoke up. “They’re not in contact with dark wizards.”
“They don’t leave their manor?” Salmer questioned, eyebrows raised. “You don’t think that’s suspicious?”
“Malfoy’s wife is ill,” Prince answered simply.
“Scorpius’s mum is ill?” Albus piped up.
Salmer pretended Albus hadn’t spoken. “How do you know so much about the Malfoys, Zabini?” he asked Prince, an accusatory note in his voice.
Prince flashed his white, perfectly even smile. “My father knew Draco Malfoy when they were at Hogwarts together,” he said. Then, at Salmer’s derisive look, he continued, “They’re not in contact anymore.”
“I’ve heard Malfoy Manor’s a big place,” said Salmer, a malevolent glint in his eye. “I bet there’s more than enough room to hide an escaped convict.”
Danielle shot him an incredulous look. “You realise that’s exactly the sort of thing everyone else in this hall will be saying about us!” she exclaimed. “They probably think we’re all in league with Lestrange.”
“Precisely,” Salmer agreed. “But, like you said, the whole school already hates Malfoy. A rumour that his family is involved in hiding a death eater will take the heat off the rest of us.”
Danielle’s mouth twisted in disgust. Aberfa shook her head. Even Pan put down her knife and fork to gaze at Salmer, her expression hard. But it was Albus who spoke. “Don’t spread that rumour,” he said, his voice coming out croaky.
Salmer sat forwards, his mouth a thin line. “You don’t tell me what to do,” he said coldly.
Danielle opened her mouth to speak, but Pan beat her to the punch. “Zip it, Salmer,” she said, “or I’ll ask the Bloody Baron to set Peeves on you.”
Salmer clicked his tongue at her. “I get it now,” he said, pointing between Pan and Albus. “Your relationship, I mean. Pan likes coming to your rescue, doesn’t she, Albus. I’m guessing she’s the boy. You’re the girl. It all makes sense.”
Albus clenched his jaw. “I can look after myself just fine,” he retorted in a low, hoarse voice.
“No, I’ve changed my mind,” said Salmer. “I reckon it’s Scorpius you have a soft spot for.” Salmer did a very unconvincing impression of Albus’s voice. “Don’t spread that rumour! Not Scorpius, my boyfriend!”
“Shut up!” Albus shouted.
“Oh dear,” Salmer crowed, “I think I hit a nerve.” He peered around at the other first-years, his eyes narrowed. “If we want an easy life at Hogwarts, we have to use our brains. Scorpius is the perfect scape goat. If the school thinks his family is helping Lestrange, the rest of us will be overlooked.”
Aberfa sighed. “I don’t like it,” she said, “but it makes sense. Everyone hates him anyway. It won’t make any difference.”
“I agree,” said Prince.
“Well, I don’t,” Danielle countered disapprovingly.
“It’s cowardly,” said Pan.
Albus said nothing. His insides were twisting. For some reason, Salmer’s words had got under his skin. But why did he even care what Salmer thought? So what if Salmer teased him that he liked Scorpius? It wasn’t true.
“Albus?” Salmer pressed. “What do you think?”
“Spread whatever rumours you like,” Albus answered carelessly, his stomach twisting even as he said it. “Tell everyone Rabastan’s hiding in the Malfoys’ cellar if you like. I don’t care.”
As they left the Great hall at the end of dinner, Pan nudged Albus in the ribs. “You changed your tune,” she said.
“I don’t want to talk about it!” Albus snapped. When they got back to the common room, he hurried to his dormitory and collapsed in bed, throwing the duvet over his face to block out the flickering, green lanternlight.
He didn’t sleep well that night. His racing thoughts and Arty’s snoring made it almost impossible for him to relax. When daylight finally streamed in through the window, Albus pulled himself out of bed and headed to breakfast. As always, Pan met him in the common room. There was a cold air about her. Albus remembered the way he’d snapped at her the previous evening and promptly muttered an apology.
“A bit harsh,” she said as they climbed the stairs from the dungeons, “spreading a rumour that Scorpius’s family is helping to hide Rabastan. You really think it’s a good idea?”
Before Albus could answer, the Bloody Baron glided past them, the silver blood on his robes shining in the green light. Albus’s pulse quickened, but the baron showed no sign that he’d seen them. He passed through a wall and vanished.
“Why does our house ghost have to be so scary?” Albus wondered aloud.
Pan grunted. “You’re avoiding my question.”
“Why do you care so much about Scorpius all of a sudden?” Albus asked her. “You’re the one who’s been telling me to avoid him all this time.”
“Avoiding him and spreading rumours about him are two different things, Albus,” she said.
They talked no more about it. As it had been the day before, the Great Hall was rife with whispers and dark looks. Aberfa attempted to lighten the mood when she handed Arty a wrapped present. Upon opening it, he found it was a rectangular mirror. “To help you brush your hair,” Aberfa had said, turning slightly pink. “I had a spare. Now I don’t need to get you a Christmas present.” Danielle smiled encouragingly at her. The other first-years had laughed, all except for Albus. He wasn’t in the mood.
Pan and Albus ate their food quickly, then headed to the library. Laden with books, they made their way back to the common room to do their homework. Slughorn had set them an essay on cauldron maintenance; Binns an essay on the Hogwarts founders (following their ‘lacklustre’ efforts to write about a historical figure from Slytherin House, in which Albus had chosen to focus on Merlin); Flitwick had tasked them with practising the tenacio charm, which had the effect of making things sticky; Thorn wanted them to perfect the coagulous charm and then there was the impossible task of transfiguring matches to needles, which both Pan and Albus had been putting off.
“How did we end up with all this homework?” Pan moaned before flicking her wand at the small table between their armchairs and muttering, “Tenacio!”
Albus placed his hand against the tabletop, then tried to pull it off again. The surface of the table felt tacky, as if it had been painted with a layer of resin. His skin squelched as he unstuck his hand. “Not bad!” he said. Then, he pointed his own wand at the table and said, “Slipperslick!” Instantly, the tabletop took on a glassy appearance and Pan’s half-finished essay on cauldron maintenance began sliding towards the edge of the table along with her quill and ink.
“Tenacio!” Pan said again. The table lost its glassy quality at once and the objects on its surface stopped moving, stuck fast to the table.
“I think you’ve got it,” Albus said.
Pan sighed. “Back to our essays then, I suppose,” she conceded glumly.
Albus’s essay had fallen on the floor earlier, along with his quill, ink, and library books. He picked them up and began riffling through pages of Cauldron Care: Pointers and Pitfalls.
It wasn’t long before Pan had pulled out her matches and suggested they retry transfiguring them. “Anything but this essay,” she said.
After almost an hour of continuous practice, however, the closest either of them had come to transfiguring their matches was a slight shine that may have been due to their sweaty fingers.
After all the homework, lunchtime should’ve been a restful affair, but Albus found himself on edge the moment he entered the Great Hall. Snatches of ‘Malfoy’ and ‘Lestrange’ caught his ears as he made his way to the Slytherin table.
“…Malfoys are hiding him.”
“I heard he’s in their basement.”
“Of course Voldemort’s son is helping a death eater.”
Albus felt slightly sick as he ate his lunch. The vegetable soup tasted like gritty water in his mouth.
“I hope you’re happy,” Danielle threw at Salmer.
He smirked, a slice of buttered bread in his hand. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I am.” He pointed the bread at each of them. “And you can all thank me later.”
Before Albus and Pan left for the common room, an austere figure approached them from the staff table. Professor Winter’s white hair was pulled back so tightly that the skin around his hairline looked stretched and almost translucent. His blue robes were fastened tight around his bony frame. “Potter,” he said in his cool, clear voice, “Professor McGonagall wishes to see you in her office this evening. Meet her after dinner. The password is bagpipes.” His lips curved into an ugly smile. Albus noticed Julia Hopkirk listening intently. She began whispering frenetically to Missy Groombridge. “I hope you’ve been practising on your match,” Winter continued, that ugly smile still marring his features. He strode away from them, his white boots clicking on the stone flagons.
“What was that about?” Pan asked once he was out of earshot. “Why does McGonagall want to see you?”
Albus shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said.
That evening, after dinner, Albus made his way to the headmistress’s office. He hoped that Professor McGonagall wouldn’t keep him long. Despite working all afternoon, he had half of Binns’ essay to finish and he still hadn’t managed to transfigure his match. The thing remained resolutely wooden and blunt-ended.
After several wrong-turns, Albus finally arrived outside the gargoyle that guarded the headmistress’s office. “Bagpipes,” he said. The gargoyle leapt aside to reveal a moving spiral staircase. Albus stepped onto it and soon found himself standing in front of a heavy oak door with a brass knocker. The moment he knocked, Professor McGonagall’s clipped tones called for him to enter.
Inside, he found himself in a circular room, the walls affixed with shelves upon which were arranged an array of objects, including the Sorting Hat, a selection of quidditch memorabilia, a row of tartan hats and several other items, many of which were unfamiliar to Albus. Professor McGonagall herself was sitting behind her desk. Standing on one side of her was Professor Sprout, on the other was Slughorn. Leaning against one of the shelves at the edge of the room was Professor Thorn, and sitting in one of two chairs in front of McGonagall’s desk sat a student with messy brown hair. Even from behind, Albus recognised Arty Oakes. When the boy turned to look at him, he was wearing an uncharacteristically nervous smile.
“Sit down, Potter,” McGonagall said, her voice commanding, yet kindly.
Thorn folded his arms, watching Albus closely.
As Albus approached the headmistress’s desk, he saw that there was a goblet upon it, the liquid inside giving off a faint blue smoke. Once Albus had sat down, McGonagall cleared her throat. “You are no doubt wondering why I have called you here,” she said imperiously.
Albus nodded. He looked from McGonagall, who was wearing stiff black robes, to Professor Sprout, whose skin was sallow, her hair lank, then to Slughorn, who was smiling indulgently at Albus. Thorn stood silently in the shadows, a stern expression on his face. Finally, Albus turned to Arty, but for some reason, the other boy refused to meet his gaze.
“It is a week until the full moon,” said Professor McGonagall. She picked up the smoking goblet and placed it on the desk in front of Arty. “This is the wolfsbane potion. Tonight, Arty will take it.”
Albus stared at her, uncomprehending. Arty scowled distastefully at the smoking liquid. Still, he refused to meet Albus’s eyes. “You’re a werewolf?” Albus asked him.
Arty folded his arms. He said nothing.
“Yes, Albus,” said McGonagall. “Mr Oakes is a werewolf. The first we’ve seen at Hogwarts in over forty years.”
Albus stared transfixed at Arty, shocked that the other boy hadn’t mentioned it, had given no sign of it.
“As you can imagine,” McGonagall continued, “certain safety precautions have had to be put in place. The week before each full moon, Arty will visit Slughorn’s office every night to drink this.” She pointed to the goblet. “The wolfsbane potion will render Artemian harmless when he transforms.”
Thorn stepped into the light. “The boy will sleep in the same room as Albus on the night of a full moon?” he questioned.
McGonagall nodded. “We considered giving Arty his own dormitory, but the transformation can be distressing.” She fixed Albus with a piercing look. “We thought it would be best if he had someone with him. For comfort.”
“And what if Albus should be hurt?” Thorn pressed, the lanternlight glittering in his eyes.
“A prefect will stay in their dormitory on the night of each full moon,” McGonagall answered calmly, “but there will be no danger. The potion is quite effective.”
“And you believe your potion to be infallible?” Thorn asked Slughorn.
The portly wizard twirled the ends of his moustache and pursed his lips. “I am quite capable of brewing wolfsbane,” he said, “as I’ve already told you.”
McGonagall cleared her throat again and the two men snapped to attention. “The question is,” she said, “are you happy, Albus, with this arrangement? Your parents have been informed and have given their consent. Now, it is up to you to decide.”
Arty shifted in his seat, shoulders drooping.
The boy looked so different, so uncertain. He seemed stripped of his usual energy, of his lightness. It was as if the secret he’d kept was now closing around him, strangling him.
“Of course,” said Albus. “I’m happy to be his roommate.” He paused for a moment, then continued, “I just hope he snores less as a wolf.”
To Albus’s relief, Arty let out a deep breath and then grinned. The tension in the room broke.
Arty clapped Albus on the back. “Maybe I need to get a nasal peg as well as a mirror,” he said.
Professor McGonagall cut through their laughter with a single look. “Albus, you may return to your dormitory,” she said. “There are things we still need to discuss with Mr Oakes.” She gestured towards the door. “Goodnight.”
Albus was sure he caught Thorn scowling at him as he left. When he opened the door, however, Albus froze mid-step. In the doorway stood Missy Groombridge and Julia Hopkirk, both looking white-faced. Thorn hurriedly paced towards them. “What are you doing here?” he questioned. “How did you get past the gargoyle?”
“W-we knew the password,” Missy answered. “We wanted to speak to the headmistress about something. W-we didn’t realise there was a meeting.” Albus didn’t miss the way Missy’s eyes travelled towards the smoking goblet on McGonagall’s desk.
“Girls,” McGonagall said in her brisk voice, “if it is urgent, go and wait by the gargoyle. I will fetch you when I am done here.”
They hurried to do as she said. Albus followed them down the spiral staircase. At the bottom, both girls rounded on Albus, eyes wide. “What was that about?” Missy asked intently.
“Nothing,” Albus lied. “Just…” His voice trailed off. He couldn’t think of a good enough reason for the headmistress, deputy headmistress and two other teachers to have called him and Arty to a meeting. So instead of answering, he changed the subject. “I have homework to do,” he said, and before they could respond, he paced away from them towards the Slytherin common room.
It was as he descended the steps to his dormitory that he came face-to-face with Scorpius Malfoy. The boy jumped in shock at the sight of Albus. Neither of them spoke at first.
At last, Albus broke the silence. “Where are you off to?”
“I think I dropped a book in the common room,” Scorpius answered. He made to pass Albus, but Albus stepped in his way.
“Wait,” he said. “I’m sorry about yesterday—”
“It’s fine,” Scorpius interrupted.
“No, it isn’t,” replied Albus. “I was rude. I shouldn’t have walked off like that.”
Scorpius attempted a smile. “I know being friends with me isn’t easy, Albus,” he said. “But you don’t have to feel sorry for me. I’m used to being on my own. It’s fine.” With that, he slipped past Albus and disappeared up the steps, his robes billowing behind him.
Albus was left standing in Scorpius’s wake, feeling as if a cold hand had clenched around his chest.