Miranda had plucked a single Mandrake leaf, and held it cupped in the palm of her hands as she strode through the upper corridor with Sparrow. Cormac had elected to wear his formal robes for the occasion, and had felt silly when Jill had told him he looked overdressed, until Violet elected to wear her formal robes as well. Jocasta had bags under her eyes, for she had not slept all the previous night, instead lying awake in fear and anticipation.
The children made their way down the upper corridor, glancing glumly out the windows, for this night was also rainy. They had been informed by Sparrow that there was a way to clear the air and let the moon shine down, yet she would not tell them what it was, until Jocasta had reminded her of her promise to communicate. And so the children were marching towards the dragon tower, knowing of Sparrow’s plan but not believing very much that it would work. Dragons were not, in any way, obedient creatures. There was a reason they were considered Class XXXXX, “extremely dangerous and untameable”. It was only Sparrow’s skill with a shield that led any of them to believe they would survive the encounter.
There was a ghostly light in the hall. Argus Filch was floating there.
The children waited, wondering what he would do.
“You’re still invited,” said Sparrow. “Will you come?”
“Will I come,” said Argus Filch. “Will I come. To an event. Hm. No student, no teacher, no ghost ever asked me that question. I’ve never had to answer it.”
“So what’s your answer?”
It was for Filch to float through a wall, and out into the rain.
The children continued, having no idea if that was a good or a bad sign.
And so they came to the Dragon Tower, a black shape looming in the gloom.
And there was another shape in the gloom, close to the walkway’s edge. A human figure. An adult.
“Is that Blaise?” said Jocasta.
“Nope,” said Miranda.
“Lumos”, said the figure. It was, in fact, Professor Longbottom.
“What are you doing out in the rain?” said Violet.
“It keeps me grounded,” said the Professor. “And watered. Oh dear, I must be turning into a plant after all.”
“You wish,” said Miranda. “Did you decide what you were going to recommend for us?”
“No. I didn’t. It’s all very…enticing, to think of breaking the law in the name of doing Good, but I am old, and harder to lead when it comes to that road. I think I would have a better sense of what I ought to be doing, if I could understand where you are all coming from. So…have I your permission to listen to the stories you would tell?”
“Some of them are quite personal,” said Sparrow. “You would have to swear to their secrecy.”
“I do so swear.”
“Well then. What does everyone else think?”
Of all the children, only Jocasta objected, largely out of principle, for as she said, this entire plan had grown far beyond what she intended.
And so the children came to the door of the Dragon Tower, and knocked.
“Cold rain,” said Violet. “Are you sure we can’t do this on another night?”
“The muggle astronomy reports say the full moon is tonight,” said Cormac. “Tomorrow night the moon won’t be full enough. It has to be now. But, that’s assuming the plan works.”
“Shouldn’t be too much trouble,” said Sparrow. “As long as Blaise knows what they’re doing. As long as they’re here. ”
At last the door to the tower creaked open. From within spilled an orange light, and within the doorframe was silhouetted the long cape and pointy hat of the one whom Sparrow had been trying to reach for so long.
“I’ve been waiting to see you again,” said Blaise. “Too long. Filch told me that you thought I wouldn’t show up if it was raining. Is that what he told you?”
“He implied it!”
“A merry jest,” said Jocasta. “But I’m not feeling merry, because the wind is cold and the rain is cold and can we get inside please?”
Blaise stepped aside, and the assembled Wizards entered the tower. As they passed, Sparrow hung behind, until only her and Blaise were left. Then she whispered her plan in Blaise’s ear, and hoped that they would acquiesce, for this was, in fact, the first chance she’d had to speak to them in while.
Blaise, for their part, sounded amused. “To use dragons,” they whispered, “in a manner not magical but scientific. Clever girl. Well, I can ask them to try. It ought to work. Come on.”
Sparrow and Blaise entered the tower.
Its ceiling was lost to view. Its walls were bare stone. If there had been any cloth upon those walls, it had since been burned off, for the stone had enough scorch marks to look like the back wall of a fireplace. And there were dragons, on the high stone balconies, dragons enough to make Sparrow’s head spin as she tried to count them all. It was tricky because they kept flying from one perch to the next. Sparrow had the feeling they were restless after the months of rain.
There were dragons, on the high stone balconies all the way up to a place lost to view, dragons of all shapes and sizes. Black Hebrideans, Sparrow could identify those, and Welsh Greens, sure enough, but what were the ones that were smaller than the Hebrideans, and silver, and rotund? What were the ones that were long and narrow and breathed purple flame? What were the ones with blue scales and golden wings?
Was that a single massive eye in the darkness above?
“Blaise,” said Jocasta. “Have you been experimentally breeding dragons? How naughty.”
Blaise put up their hands. “Not my fault. I had nothing to do with it. Dragons came here to stay and here they breed. Anyway. Come sit by the fire.”
There was a large bonfire in the center of the room. Sparrow peered around it, and discovered to her shock that a large white dragon, with a head the size of a sheep, had been resting here on the floor the entire time. She watched it snore and snort, as if dreaming, and with each snort it breathed a bit of flame. Thus the bonfire was kept lit. Blaise went over to the dragon, tickled it under the chin, and whispered into its ear. It opened one eye, and seemed to grin. Then it went back to sleep again.
Around the fire were arranged logs, as if people were meant to sit here and talk and sing campfire songs.
Miranda sat upon one of the logs. “Nice touch,” she said. “Were you expecting guests at some point?”
“I often have a particular guest,” said Blaise. “My dear Mr. Longbottom, always a pleasure to see you.”
“Likewise,” said the Professor.
“You could have just grabbed him a chair,” said Jocasta.
“I have often thought the same thing,” said the Professor, as he sat down against a wall.
“I wanted something to turn a bare and utilitarian fire into a friendly bonfire,” said Blaise. “I figured logs would work best for that. Even if my only common guests are one solid Professor, one solid student, and one ghost. Ah well. I guess luck favors the prepared. Come on, Mr. Longbottom. Don’t act like an outcast.”
The Professor shrugged, and took a seat beside Miranda.
The rest of the children took their seats around the fire, Sparrow alone electing to sit close to the dragon. “Oh goodness,” said Jocasta, scooting over to Sparrow and clinging to her arm, “My brave knight, my one true love, save me from the dragon!”
“Fear not,” said Sparrow. “Fair Maiden, thou art safe with me. Take comfort in mine mighty arms.” She draped an arm around Jocasta.
“Ahem,” said Professor Longbottom. “I imagine there are many stories to tell tonight.”
“I’m getting cold feet,” said Sparrow.
“So stick them in the fire and talk,” said Jocasta.
“Please,” said Blaise. “We’re here to listen, not to beat out confessions. If Sparrow doesn’t want to go first, then maybe someone else is willing. If no one is, we can still enjoy the fire, and wait for the moon to show its face. Should I go first?”
“I will,” said Jocasta. “It’s kind of my fault we’re here anyway. Well. You might say it’s my father’s fault.” She lifted Sparrow’s arm off her shoulder, and stood, gaze fixed upon the fire, the light of the flame dancing in her dark eyes. Her expression was grim, as if all the humor she carried was draining out of her.
“My father. Not my Dad, but my father. Rodolphus Carrow, neé Rosier, who married Hestia Carrow. I’m the grandchild of Amycus Carrow. Yes indeed, that man. The man who ruled this school when Voldemort ruled the ministry, the man who used the Cruciartus curse upon students. My father always said the students must have earned it, somehow, but he wouldn’t say how.”
“Nee Rosier?” said Cormac.
“He married into the Carrow family and they weren’t going to let him forget it. They invoked an ancient Wizarding custom where spouses dueled each other and the winner got to keep their surname. He lost, so Carrow he became. As for his own ancestry, well. There was the Rosier family, of course. But he had been born of a mother who claimed to be descended both from Lisette de Lapin and Morrigan, two different legendary animagi. Well, maybe his mother was off her rocker, but it hardly matters, because Father took up the supposed legacy, and became an animagus himself. A wolf. He was very proud of that. He decided that I, a girl of ten years old –”
There was a collective gasp.
“ – yes, before I even made it to Hogwarts – would follow in his footsteps.”
“And you followed?” said Professor Longbottom.
“I didn’t want to. But. I lived in the Carrow manor along with my father, and there were things in the basement, the sorts of things parents threaten their children with, only these were real. There were things on the walls that would whisper my name if I disobeyed my father. There were portraits of ancient family members who would inform on me if I stepped out of line. I felt like I had no choice but to give in.
“On his part, my father did everything in his power to make the process of becoming an animagus easy for me. He stuck the mandrake leaf under my tongue with a simple little sticking charm, and he brewed the potion himself. The trickiest part was finding dew that had lain in darkness untouched for seven days, but he managed it. And he made sure that the moon shone full and clear in one month and the next by blasting the clouds with wind. And when it came to the recitation, he would wake me every morning, without fail, and make me recite the animo anima. He tried, he really did.
“I blame him for the fact that I turn into a fly, not simply because of the sticking charm. That might have something to do with it. But, if being an animagus reflects one’s personality, well…I had been raised to be a fearful little worm in the first place, by that house, by the Carrows, who were fond of the whip, and by my father, whose implied threats were enough to terrify me.
“I don’t know if I should regret becoming an animagus. In some ways the whole thing was entirely out of my hands, so why live with guilt that I don’t deserve? And yet, the business may yet cause me trouble, because my father –” Jocasta turned her head to meet Sparrow’s gaze. “I told you that my registration was uncertain. My father did not wish to register me. He said it would spoil the whole thing, to be a publically known animagus. But, perhaps to sabotage him, or perhaps because she was immensely proud of my accomplishment, Grandmother Impedimenta went and registered me anyway.” Jocasta turned back to the fire. “Father was furious. He went to the ministry and tried to erase my name from the register. Literally, he tried to erase my name from the page. And he succeeded…somewhat…but the page itself was, in fact, rather tenacious, and would not give up easily. So Father quietly had the registrar promoted to a distant office, got a friend of his to be the registrar, and had the man erase my name whenever it showed up on the page again.
“If you go to the register and you’re lucky, which is to say I’m unlucky, my name will be there because old Mundungus hasn’t got around to erasing it again. But most days of the week I’m unregistered. I guess, if the Ministry ever does come sniffing around, I can get Mundungus to stop erasing the name, and avoid being tossed into Azkaban. Maybe that’s a good thing. In some ways I’d rather be registered, because when I’m a fly I’m stealthy enough that being unregistered feels redundant. On the other hand, I have the element of surprise right now.” Jocasta shrugged.
“I think, when it comes down to it, that my behavior at this school has always been a matter of just how much I could get away with. Any time I might face consequences, I could run. Any place I wanted to go, I could go. I never faced…any real discipline. Until this year, I suppose. Until I realized that I’d hurt someone I cared about. That I’d hurt two people I cared about. I’m sorry for that.” Jocasta let go of Sparrow and walked around the fire to Jill. She laid a kiss upon Jill’s head. “And that’s my life.” She turned towards the gathered circle. “Does anyone want a big fancy manor full of dark artifacts? Bidding starts at a sickle and goes up by knuts.”
“Your father is nuts,” said Cormac.
“Yes, Cormac, that was the point of my story.”
“Couldn’t resist the pun,” said Cormac. “Do you know how long I’ve wanted to make that pun? British Wizards call their smallest coin a “nut” and yet I haven’t been able to find any opportunity to make a good pun with it. It’s been so frustrating.”
“Same,” said Sparrow. “Imagine growing up with pounds and pennies and learning that Wizard coins are called ‘nuts’. It was the greatest day of my life. I shall use that memory to cast a Patronus someday. Talking of which, Cormac. You look like you want to go.”
“I didn’t think you had any sensitive stories to share.”
“I wouldn’t call it sensitive,” said Cormac. “Just painful. Yeah okay I guess that’s sensitive. Anyway! Speaking of surprise, are any of you surprised that my surname is ‘McKinnon?’ Does that name, perchance, ring any bells? Hmmmmm?”
“The first Wizarding War,” said Professor Longbottom. “All the McKinnons were killed.”
“So where’d you come from?”
“Let me put it this way. The first Wizarding War, for all that it was a terrifying ordeal, was limited in scope. Voldemort said he wanted to rule the world, and yet his actions never crossed the pond. He never made any moves in the Americas. No idea why. Well, that was fortunate for my branch of the McKinnon family, who lived in Chicago.
“The McKinnons of Chicago are ruled – I shouldn’t say ruled, that’s un-American, but I’m saying it anyway – by my great-grandmother Grainne, who always said to me that the McKinnons belong in the Isles of old, that they belong to the isles, that the isles belong to them. Well, that all seems a trifle arrogant, and to tell you the truth I never much felt of a personal connection to Ireland, nor to England. North America was my home and is my home.”
Sparrow looked puzzled. “But you’re here, in Scotland. Is Hogwarts not your home?”
“On a physical basis yes. On an emotional level? I am torn. If I could pick up Hogwarts and place it outside of Chicago then I would be entirely satisfied. I do not wish to be away from the Americas. I did not wish to come here. I feel…not merely stifled, but segregated artificially.”
“Now hang on a moment,” said Sparrow. “Last month you told me that this segregation was a good thing.”
“I implied it”, said Cormac. “Sorry about that. I was trying to warn you about how dangerous it was to act against Muggles too openly and I couldn’t tell you the whole truth about my own behavior so I wound up sounding like I enjoyed the whole business of Wizarding secrecy. I don’t, as it happens. I just understand why it exists.
“The truth is, I was exiled from my homeland by my own grandmother. Not for breaking the Statute of Secrecy but for being too eager to show muggles my abilities up close. See, the reason I know muggle songs is because I have engaged with them on a regular basis --
“You what!” said Jocasta.
“Oh come off it,” said Cormac. “Plenty of Wizards do the same thing here. It’s just that here the Wizard life is kept separate and hidden but in the western hemisphere…not quite so much. There’s a lot of open space in those lands. In any land, really, but – in England you have your little towns crowded together, little cities crowded together, and it’s a complicated explanation of why but the short version is that when the local Lord owns all the land you don’t get to buy individual plots. Meanwhile the countries of the Americas – okay, the settler-colony countries of the Americas – grew up with a culture of individual land ownership where everyone had a lot of their own space. The joke about Daniel Boone is that he would move away whenever his neighbors started to live closer than five miles from his place. Or maybe that wasn’t Daniel Boone. The point is, what I hear everyone talking about this Statute of Secrecy business…for most of my life so far it hasn’t been part of my experience, not as closely as it is now.
“See, you get yourself a culture where people are real spread out, and you wind up with Wizards who personally own vast tracts of land where they can do whatever the gosh-darn hell they want. So you don’t have to be real careful about keeping magic secret. If y’all want to run off over them hills yonder – ”
“I can’t tell what he’s saying,” said Jocasta.
“I think that’s an American accent,” said Miranda.
“ – then y’all can have a literal blast. If any folks hear the noise, well, some of them will know what’s up and some of them will think it’s a science experiment. No muss, no fuss, just make sure you clean up the mess, and if any ‘muggle’ sees you, just tell them it’s all a magic trick. That ain’t no lie.” Cormac winked. “Just not the whole truth. And it’s always worked. Even in the years when the Americas were full of many more people than they are now, you could go to the places where folks lived most densely, and still find countless houses with backyards – ”
“Back what now?” said Jocasta.
“Backmeters,” said Miranda. “Americans use yards.”
“Darn right we do!” said Cormac. “For cookouts and football and lawn darts and whatnot. You could find countless houses with backyards big enough to hide smaller magical activity. You could sit out on the back porch and wave your wand to light a brazier, and there wouldn’t be a muggle close enough to be certain of what you were doing, even if they were looking in your direction. At least that’s what my grandmother told me.
“And in the back country, maybe you could do a few magic tricks for your non-magical friends and call it a magic trick without explaining the details, because a magician never reveals the secret of a trick, right? Technically the law says you’re not supposed to do magic in front of ‘muggles’ but the Continental Congress doesn’t really enforce that law. I think they’ve got one guy in a small office who’s in charge of enforcement. For the entire continent. I’ve never had anyone from the Congress breathing down my neck about that. Never even met one of them.
“Chicago isn’t exactly a crowded city either. We’re huddled at the shore of Lake Michigan, but out beyond the Chicago River the buildings are mostly abandoned, slowly reclaimed year by year. If I wanted to cross the river I could find plenty of places to play at magic. Easy enough to get into an abandoned building when the boards over the doors are rotten, and if anyone passing by sees weird flashes of light, they decide that it’s precisely why they don’t cross the river willingly. I sometimes wonder if all the older kids with their wands are the reason Chicago residents don’t reclaim their old territory quite as fast.
“Then again the shadows sometimes have critters in them that would make your skin crawl, and it’s Granny leading the Chicago Wizards to chase them away so that folks can settle across the river.”
“Wizards helping muggles?” said Jocasta. “Why on earth would they do that?”
“Because it’s Chicagoans helping Chicagoans,” said Cormac. “My Granny’s a Chicagoan born and bred as she says, even if she talks a lot of guff about being Pure Irish. And so am I. Our neighbors are neighbors, magic or no magic. I’ve always felt like the business of magic was a family business the same way a farm might be, even if it was supposed to be kept quiet. Never felt like it was some kind of…ethnicity. Here in Britain Wizards act like it’s some kind of tribe and they talk about Wizarding Britain and Muggle Britain like they’re two different worlds.”
Filch floated through the wall, startling everyone into falling off their seat.
“Oh come off it Longbottom,” said Filch. “You do that every time I float through the wall.”
The Professor chuckled. “I figure it’s courteous to act like that for any ghost.”
“I thought you weren’t coming,” said Sparrow, as she picked herself up. “But welcome to the circle of blood traitors. What took you so long?”
“Had to convince the castle ghosts to stay away tonight. I said I’d inform on you for them. Didn’t say if I’d tell ‘em the truth. Heh. Don’t thank me, just doing my job. Anyway, Cormac, you’re right about Wizards and Muggles being two different worlds here. And where does that leave a Squib, eh?”
“Torn apart?” said Cormac.
“Used to be literally.”
Cormac looked puzzled, then horrified.
Filch grinned. “You don’t know what Wizards do to Squibs?”
“I…should expect that they treat them like part of the family. Because that’s what they are. What on earth did – ”
“Later,” said Filch. “Later. Get on with your own story first.”
Cormac shook himself, and said, “Right. My world wasn’t strictly segregated. I didn’t even learn the word ‘muggle’ until Granny yelled at me for doing magic too close to people. So. I grew up around kids who had magic and kids who didn’t, and I was told that the ones without magic would be real jealous so I shouldn’t show off in front of them. For while that explanation worked. I didn’t want to be mean.
“But then I got to thinking…so many of my neighbors without magic were struggling. Trying to find good sources of water, trying to grow food where they could or get it from farms farther out, getting sick from contaminated food or water or some such thing that Muggle Magic could have taken care of in the old days. They don’t have as much access to that stuff now because most of it goes to the rich folks on Goose Island in the river. And Granny used to tell me that kids used to have safe concrete pools where they could learn to swim, and now they have to learn to swim in the lake or the river, so now and then a kid drowns just for trying. Or a creaky building falls on someone and the doctor can set the bone but there’s none of these fancy painkillers for us, just cheap old Novacaine stolen from shipments going to Goose Island, so when it comes to dental work we’re all set but otherwise we’re out of luck. And if someone is diabetic they’re not long for this world. Is it like that in London?”
“We’ve got proper medicine in London,” said Sparrow. “The city government is a tangled mess but they try to distribute medicine properly at least. What kind of terrible government do you have?”
“In Chicago? We’ve got the rich folks on Goose Island promising to protect us from northern raiders but Granny says a raid hasn’t come from the north in two decades. We’ve got City Hall that gets paid off by the rich folks. Otherwise we just kind of get by, and people settle their larger disputes with fistfights.”
“Sounds utterly charming,” said Violet.
“Don’t know if you’re being sarcastic or not. Sparrow, I told you I’d seen someone die in front of me for cracking their head on something. I didn’t tell you I’d seen it twice. I say it ain’t exactly an easy life to live when that’s a risk. So, getting to my point – I got to thinking that if we had all this magic we ought to help our neighbors more than we do. Purify their water and shore up old walls and set their bones and put out fires and maybe even do that openly.
“But Granny wouldn’t have it. Granny knows that there are blame mean people out there, preying on small towns, swooping in to grab the food and slaughter the folks, out beyond Chicagoland. They did used to come down from the north. She told me there are plenty of places where people were fighting their small wars over territory, like they used to before the States united themselves and settled everything down. She told me she knew that if Wizards got to being honest about their business then everyone would want to use them as soldiers in their silly little wars, and you’d have Wizard against Wizard.
“That shut me up for a while but I kept asking her, and then on my eleventh birthday I got myself a wand and I went and did magic in front of my neighbors and told them that magic was real, not a trick. And Granny dragged me home by the ear and told me I was not to spill Wizard Secrets in front of muggles again.
“The next time I did, Granny decided it was high time I visit the Enchanted Isles and learn proper Wizarding secrecy at the world’s best school of magic. She told me that it would be best for me, if I was so eager, to learn at a formal magic school instead of by random tutoring the way most learned. So she put me in a boat on the pier, we sailed to Green Bay and picked up a port key from there, and…there I was, standing on a train platform in front of the train, didn’t know what the hell a train was, didn’t know where Granny had gone. I got on the train because everyone else was getting on it and…here I am now.
“I tried to go home for the holidays the first year because Granny said she’d be there for me in Green Bay. So I took the port key back. But Granny wasn’t there for me.
So I stole a broom and traveled where I wanted. Saw a group of people shooting at a farmhouse and I saw the farmer’s wife get shot – ”
Violet gasped. “You told me your first Christmas home was boring.”
“I’m being honest tonight. Anyway I tried to swoop down to help her but I think one of the raiders shot me. I woke up in some random field far away with Granny standing over me and she said, Cormy, you didn’t even wait ten minutes for me to reach the port did you. And I said no. And she said Cormy, I’ve been on your tail for the last three hours but you stole a faster broom than I did. And I said thanks. And she said Cormy, you done messed up this time, I had to blow apart one of them raiders to save you and now everyone will know magic tricks aren’t just tricks, so maybe you ought to stay across the sea until you’re older. And I said Granny, you can kiss my ass.
“So I’m exiled here. I don’t go home for the holidays because I can’t. Sometimes I like being in this castle because I can do all the magic I want but…I could do that before without having stupid rules about bedtimes and mealtimes and class schedules. Bleh. I don’t really like sticking around here over the holidays but…I can’t go home, can’t stay here. I said my home is in North America but right now, I’m not sure where home is.”
“My house,” said Violet. “You’ve been there for two Christmases running.”
“Fair enough. I like your folks. They’re nice people. Just a little…well not more strident about this Statute of Secrecy business than anyone else, but I sure feel stifled. I’m used to running wild. So. Sparrow.” Cormac stood with a fierce gleam in his eyes. “I’m as restless as you are. Once upon a time I was free, and I’ve been caged by the culture I was tossed into, caged by fear and secrecy and lies, and if I tell you to follow the laws it’s because I’ve seen what muggles can do after all. So now I don’t know about breaking the silence. If y’all want to get into this Animagus business -- ”
“What exactly does that word mean?” said Jocasta.
“You all,” said Miranda.
“ – Then I’ll follow soon as it looks safe. And sometimes I think the rest of y’all are nuts – ”
“Wait,” said Jocasta, “is that word singular or plural?”
“It’s complicated,” said Miranda. “You wouldn’t get it.”
“What, am I thick as Tewksbery Mustard?”
“ – but y’all’re my kind of nuts. So maybe home is where my friends are, and I do for you like I wanted to do for Chicago. Maybe that means warning y’all away from trying what I wanted to try. But I like the idea of running around asking people instead of just giving them something they don’t want. And if they say no it’s a load off my mind! So I’m in on this whole thing for now.”
Cormac sat. For a few seconds no one spoke.
“My turn?” said Violet.
“Please,” said Jocasta.
“Alright. Well.” Violet stood, and glanced at Cormac. “I think Cormac did a lot of my work for me here. I have also felt stifled, in my own way. Not in the way of a free person suddenly bound, but in the way of a child who grows up feeling caged from the beginning. My story is…not as gritty as Cormac’s. I am connected to my childhood home and to my world. Nor am I a McKinnon, nor a Carrow. Just a boring old Brown.
“If I had been entirely content with this I would have nothing to say. But, as I said, I felt caged from the beginning. To begin with I am disconnected from the side of my family that knows nothing of Wizards. Jill, you are of mixed heritage yourself, correct? Perhaps you know this feeling.”
“To a certain extent,” said Jill. “I see my father’s side of the family frequently but not on a consistent basis, and when I am there I have to remember how to wash dishes without magic. Can’t break the law, right?”
“Bingo. Or else the Ministry comes down on you. This was impressed to me from an early age. I go to the house of my father’s father and I don’t know what to do because I’m so used to doing things with magic.”
“You’re a little spoiled,” said Cormac.
“Fair enough. But the silence is the worst part. I don’t know what to say because I can’t describe what my school is like, what I want to do with my life, where I want to go…I sit in silence and let everyone think I’m trying to be rude. And it’s hard on my father because he can’t explain anything either. And he can’t explain a single one of my mother’s family relations to his own side of the family, so the two sides never ever meet.
“I know that if I do magic in front of the toddlers they would love it. But no. Too bad. And when I go home, I can’t do magic, because I’m underage. Pfeh. If I were in North America maybe I would feel as though the world was stretched too thin, but at home I feel like I’m squashed short. Because I’m underage for doing magic anywhere but Hogwarts. If I do it in the privacy of my own home the Ministry is like POOF ‘naughty naughty naughty!’ POOF. What a bunch of nosy parkers they are.
“So, in the years when Cormac was getting restless about doing good things for muggles, I was getting angry that magic was rare. Blaise, I’m still sorry about setting the curtains on fire.”
“You’ve apologized enough times,” said Blaise. “I could tell that you had a lot on your mind. But why did you take a year to tell me what it was?”
Violet shrugged. “I wasn’t certain that I was right about the matter being unfair. Maybe it was good that few people had magic if a Wizard was going to burn stuff by accident. But what I’ve seen of muggles in London, what I’ve seen of the world…I’m leaning towards the idea that I was right after all. I had always hoped that muggles could know the delights of what I could do. I was dismayed to think that they never would.”
“Is that why you wandered out alone at night when Father told you not to?”
“I wanted to see the stars, that’s all. I was wondering whether we could have reached them by now, if we all had magic at our disposal.
“And, truth be told, I was getting into some dangerous business that I didn’t want to drag you into. Because I started thinking about the nature of magic itself. Wondering how to find the truth of it, how to change it. My father told me it was something for the Department of Mysteries, and that I should not speak of such things loudly. I have kept my mouth shut since then. But in my silence I have been studious. And now, Sparrow, you have an idea of who gets the library books before you do. Not that I managed to save any from being removed to the Ministry, more’s the pity.”
“Really,” said Sparrow. “Did you check out the second volume of the Granger And Snape book of potion craft?”
Violet shook her head. “I’ve been waiting to see that one returned for ages.”
“Oh dear,” said Miranda. “Whenever it does return, both of you shall have to race for it.”
“Or we can share it,” said Violet, “like sensible people. Talking of sense, I did much as Cormac did, and learned forbearance over the years, as I began to understand the differences between the Wizarding world and the world of muggles. I have been informed that muggle magic seems to break down in the presence of Wizardry. This is not quite accurate, or else Wizards would never be able to turn on an electric light. But it is true that you can’t get a muggle radio to work at Hogwarts. Maybe it’s the sheer concentration of magic here that messes things up.”
“Makes sense to me,” said Cormac. “If Muggle Magic works through subatomic particles and Wizard magic ignores the laws of physics, a concentration of Wizard magic will mess with the proper function of subatomic particles.”
“Subawhat?” said Jocasta.
“You need to pay attention in Muggle Studies,” said Cormac.
“No I don’t.”
“Truth of the matter aside,” said Violet, “the fact is that I have been trying to find the truth of the matter without assuming that I ought to do anything with it yet. And here comes good old Sparrow Jones saying hey hey hey, let’s turn all the muggles into wizards, what could possibly go wrong! So I’m just as tempted as Cormac to follow you into that mess and just as wary. Does anyone remember Oprah?”
Everyone shook their heads.
“She used to be a television show host and there was this one time she gave everyone in the audience a free Automobile. Everyone was overjoyed until they realized that she forgot to pay the taxes for them, so everyone wound up paying thousands of dollars after all. Whoopsy-daisy, right? That’s what you get for making things a big surprise without considering things carefully ahead of time.”
“I have received similar warnings from my parents,” said Sparrow. “About barging into a situation and trying to fix things your way without asking.”
“Then your parents are wise. For my part, the conclusion about space travel that I came to is based on what I see at this school. Candles, quills, carriages – ”
“British Wizards are highly hidebound,” said Cormac.
“But only British?”
“Well – ”
“Because I have certainly never heard of your wild American Wizards sending a rocket to the moon.”
“Well not yet,” said Cormac, “But we’ve never considered it.”
“Precisely.” Violet pointed to the ceiling. “All manner of flying creatures at our disposal and no Wizard has tried it? All manner of magic and no Wizard has considered it? Wizards the world over are hidebound. I think the magic does everything for us, so we don’t try any wild adventure because we’re content with what we have.”
“Come now,” said Jocasta. “The Department of Mysteries investigates things all the time.”
“And tells us how much of it?”
Violet sighed. “Just proving my point, I suppose. We’re happy and lazy. Meanwhile muggles have no magic, so they have many challenges and they have to solve them as they can, and out of their restless striving they do great things like reach the moon. So, Sparrow, if you were to turn all the muggles into Wizards tomorrow, you would erase a world of challenges and triumph for the sake of a world at lease, and we would all lose something important.”
“You sound like the Headmistress,” said Sparrow. “Have you been talking to her?”
“Not once in my entire life,” said Violet. “Too nervous, I suppose. And my grades are perfect, so I don’t have to explain anything to her. And I’m making dangerous inquiries, so I probably shouldn’t be talking to her. But then here you are, also making dangerous inquiries, and she didn’t expel you yet…so maybe I could talk to her after all? The point is! I don’t want to switch the world from muggle to Wizard magic because I don’t want to lose their way of doing things. I’d like to be able to work with them. And maybe we can reach the stars together.”
“Big plans,” said Cormac. “I like that.”
“Bigger than you can handle,” said Miranda.
“One part at a time,” said Violet. “The first part is getting into the fundamentals of magic, and I’m getting there. Second part is doing diplomacy. I’m in this whole business because Sparrow’s come up with a way to do that quietly. Before she started this crazy Animagus scheme I couldn’t think of a way to talk to muggles without bringing the Ministry down on my head. So thanks for that, Sparrow, and Jocasta, I think this was your idea so thank you as well.”
“Are you sure?” said Jocasta. “You were the one who introduced Sparrow to your sibling in the first place. I think that got the ball rolling for a few different things.”
“Blame aside,” said Violet, “you now have the story of my life.” She sat back at her place on the log. “Who wants to go next? Jill, do you have a story?”
“I wouldn’t call it a story,” said Jill. “More like an explanation for my fury. I’ve been hurt, a lot. And…if were were going to work with muggles like Violet says, I’d prefer we talk to everyone besides the people in charge, because elders always fail me. So, to begin with, understand one thing.”
She stood, and stared at the flames. “I burn.”
The flames grew higher.
“There was a girl. In a muggle school. Yes, I went to a muggle school. Grandmother Padma insisted. She wanted me to have a basic elementary education. Reading, Riting, Rithmetic. Fair enough.”
“I’m supposed to call this a surprise?” said Cormac. “It sounds like you’re telling me you tie your shoelaces.”
“It’s unusual for Wizarding Britain,” said Jill. “Most Wizard children are tutored at home before going to Hogwarts. But, I was sent to School. And in my school, in my fourth year, there was a girl.”
“Was she pretty?” said Jocasta.
“Pretty as you. So, I wanted to get to know her better. But. For whatever reason, she hated me. Or…maybe she didn’t. Maybe she just didn’t care. Either way, she…did the sort of things to me that children do before they’ve learned how to play nice. Only, by my age she should have learned. So, you know, pulling hair, tripping me, stealing my belongings. It had to have been deliberate, in the way a toddler’s cruelty isn’t.
“I put up with it for a year, trying not to lash out at her. But it was getting worse. She was clever. She would frame me for certain things like breaking windows. My reputation at the school was suffering. And when I would try to enlist the aid of a teacher, she would say that the situation was my fault.
“And they believed her. Because in front of them, in front of almost everyone, she was a sweet little angel who never did anything wrong. They turned their backs and her claws came out. Every time. I think she had a lot of fun tormenting me. I think that was the point.
“I was fully prepared to put up with this. But. My reputation at school was suffering. The teachers were turning on me, reporting bad behavior to my parents. It was quite a bit of work to convince Mum and Dad that I was not, in fact, a wild child. And the students were turning on me as well. They didn’t trust me. They started to kick me, call me names.
“There was one child, one brave little boy, who stood by me through all of it. A child named Benjamin Grey. I loved him for his bravery, and I think he loved me.
“And the girl who had tormented me for so long saw this. And one day she began to go after him as well.
“And that was the last day she did so, for in the very moment when she began to accuse Benjy of stepping on a frog, I knocked that girl clear across the courtyard. It was the first magic I’d ever done, and I was…terrified. But I was thrilled. And I turned to the other students…and all of them, even Benjy, shied away from me.
“The girl herself hit a tree branch. She suffered some fractured ribs, a concussion, a lost tooth, a sprained ankle, and she probably has mental scars to this day.
“I was pulled out of school. Well. I was expelled. But Grandmother elected to tutor me in my remaining years before entering Hogwarts. And she kept me cooped up at the Warren. I was quite a bit put out, over being confined, but then, for her it made sense to avoid letting a little firecracker out into the world. I had already suffered quite the stern lecture from the Ministry until Grandmother assured them she had things under control. Still, I’ve resented my grandmother since then, and my parents, to a certain extent, for putting me in that school.
“Am I under control now? I don’t know. If I had to pick a happiest memory to use for a Patronus spell, knocking that little bitch across the courtyard would have been right up there a few years ago.” She looked up, and met Sparrow’s eyes, and Jocasta’s in turn. “Thank God I have happier memories now.” She looked down at the fire again.
“When it comes down to changing the world, there are many people who have not paid for their crimes, even the crimes of decades ago. They…remind me a great deal of that little bully. And everyone who lets them run rampant reminds me of the teachers who saw my pain and did nothing. So, I burn. Year by year. I have always struggled to keep myself in check.
“That’s not the whole story, unfortunately. Some things I can’t tell to anyone yet. Just know that…if you want me involved in this whole business, you have to be careful, and I have to be careful. Or else I will melt the stone around me. Sparrow, when I told you you never wanted to see my all, I was not joking.”
“You gave it your pretty damn best at your last duel,” said Professor Longbottom.
“Best, yes. That was because I was controlling where my energy would go. If I don’t, it just goes up. When was the last time you saw a volcano?”
“Never,” he said, “but…when did you?”
“Bad memories,” said Jill.
“Never mind. Just understand this – there will come a time when my all is needed. I can hope that such a day will never come, but on the path we are taking, it may be that all the dark powers of the world will stand against us. So. If you need me, then, I will be there, as Benjamin was for me. If you say I must go, if you think I am too dangerous for your goals, I will break my wand, and go. If an innocent person comes to harm because of me, I will break my wand, and go. I do not wish to be the sort of person who, in their utter moral righteousness, decides that a whole world has to be violently forced to change. Tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people have been killed that way. There’s plenty of people who did awful things to uncountable people because they thought it was for the greater good.
“What I will be, though, is precise. I will be unflinching, and ruthless. I will be the sword. Sparrow, do not feel that you need to cast curses of any kind. Leave that to me. I’m the bad cop, not you. Are we in agreement?”
“If you would be the bad cop,” said Sparrow, “always remember me. Remember that we are not only doing this out of love, we are doing this for love, and we are doing this with love. If we are to do anything it must be with all gentleness and peace possible. If people are to survive our ambitions we must always remember that. Are we in agreement?” Sparrow looked around the circle. Everyone nodded, even Jill.
The firey girl sat back down, and the flames subsided, lower than they had been. Jill had used up quite a bit of the fuel.
“ Ok,” said Sparrow, “who have we left out. Miranda?” She turned to the girl who was still holding a mandrake leaf in her hand. “Got any sad stories to confess?”
Miranda exchanged glances with Professor Longbottom.
“No,” said Miranda. “I am your ally in the struggle against the Statute of Secrecy, but I have no wish to reveal very many details of my past. Blaise, why don’t you tell everyone your story?”
“Sheesh,” said Blaise. “I never thought much about the statute. My world is the world of dragons, not of muggles and Wizards. I can’t say whether or not it’s a good thing that the dragons are kept hidden. I’d rather they be able to migrate with the seasons, you know? And me with them. Maybe I’d just…do that, and hang the consequences. But the Ministry would have wizards obliviating muggles, wherever we went, and that’s. Well. At best it’s unsettling.
“There are a fair few cruelties in the world of Wizards, enough that I stick to the dragons up here. As for what happened to me, one wonders if I could blame Wizards for it, or people in general.
“I am the middle child in my family, where Violet is the youngest and Scarlett is long since gone to the Ministry. I came to this school about ten years ago, having felt middling my whole life. Indeed I even felt middling between being boy and girl, and never picked one or the other. None had forced me to choose, not Father, not Mother, not Scarlett, not Violet. The matter had never really arisen between us. I’d like to think that’s all by-the-by but it did mean that I was unprepared for a world where people do care about such things, and in the ways people tried to steer me towards this group of friends or that group of friends, I was very confused. I got scared and I thought that I was supposed to have chosen my sex years ago, and I had somehow missed the boat. Thank goodness for me that the Sorting Hat was able to sort me out! It told me that the choice of house was more important than details of sex. So, then and there, I refused to choose my sex, and I was sorted into Gryffindor.”
“Wait,” said Jocasta. “Scarlett, Violet, Blaise. That last one doesn’t fit. What happened to your family’s naming scheme?”
“Oh, I changed it a while ago. I figured it was more appropriate to my state of being than what I had before.”
“So what was it then?”
“Irrelevant,” said Violet, glaring at Jocasta.
“Please,” said Blaise. “You need not defend me as stridently as you once did. I’ve got dragons for that now.”
Jocasta’s face paled, difficult as it was to make her face look any paler.
Blaise chuckled. “I jest. But it is true that I could have stood some sort of defense when I was at the school, and I was sorry to be away from my family, for there were too many who thought they knew what was best for me and changed my shape to their liking, without asking. Magic makes that easy, eh? It’s very good for the people who know what they wish, and also very good for the people who wish to switch from one form to another now and then, though only a Metapmorphmagus can do it in an instant. For those who refuse to pick one or the other, as I did…this was not something many people understood.
“So, Sparrow, Violet, what both of you saw of my treatment at the school from my fifth year onward was genteel in comparison to what came before. People had gotten bored with me by then. Before that point…I remember a few times someone held me down and cast spells upon me. It was not an enjoyable experience. Not at all! It was the kind of experience that made me curse the idea of magic altogether. My grades suffered terribly in the first year of schooling. Would have been worse if the Headmistress hadn’t sorted out the culprits properly. But she didn’t do it before I learned a wrong lesson about the value of magic.”
“What value?” said Filch.
“Exactly,” said Blaise. “Not a good lesson but a lasting one. Took me a few years to let it go. In the meantime – ”
“In the meantime I was disappointed to see you getting into magic again,” said Filch. “Why’d you hang around me so often if you were just going to be a good little Wizard after all?”
“You know why. Why will you not admit it?”
“Because I don’t believe you. Nobody’s a safe place. I’m not. I was the grouchy old caretaker. Did all those insults mean nothing to you?”
“They did,” said Blaise. “But no matter how many times I sat in your office and read old books, you never cast spells at me. So I felt safe around you.”
“I couldn’t cast spells. You were taking advantage of my weakness.”
“Or confiding in a fellow spirit, someone between two worlds like me. Come on, Argus. You were a friend to me before you died. What caused you to forget that?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Filch shrugged. “Maybe it was the part where the staircase shifted and made me trip over the railing, so that hitting the floor knocked that memory out of my head, along with everything else. Ooh, I bet if I had been a Wizard I would have been safe – ”
“Not likely,” said Jocasta. “There’s not many spells a wizard could use to save themselves from that fate.”
“I mean someone would have bothered to catch me.”
“Alright, that’s a fair point.”
“No it isn’t,” said Blaise. “This happened at the small hours of the morning.”
“And I was cleaning at the small hours of the morning because nobody bothers to clean up their own messes around here when I can do it.”
“That’s a fair point.”
“Wait,” said Violet. “I tripped off the stairs once. They’re supposed to have spells to catch people. How did they miss you?”
“Judging by my family manor,” said Jocasta, “they don’t work on Muggles.”
An awkward silence hung in the air.
“Anyway,” said Filch, “this is your story, Blaise. Get on with it.”
“Ahem. Right. Well. I started hanging around Argus here like I said. He didn’t exactly understand, at first, and kept shooing me out of his office. Thought I was trying to steal things. But then I kept acting out specifically to get detentions with Filch. Pushing people down flights of stairs and attacking the portraits and writing stuff on the walls. And so I’d get detentions with him, and he’d have me polish all the trophies, or clean Slobber-worm mucus down in the dungeons, or something nasty. And I had the chance to speak with him.
“And I asked him, what’s it like being a Squib, and he said it was like going to a birthday party and everyone gets the guest prizes except you, and then everyone makes fun of you for it, and isn’t it nice that old Dumbledore gave him this job so he could get his revenge on the children of the people who were nasty to him.
“Argus here has never been a nice man. It’s hard to be nice when you’ve been kicked around like that. But he didn’t kick me around, or insult me like the other students, or do much of anything to me, and I thought, well, that’s better than naught. And eventually, he did let me hang around his office. Taught me how to do things the non-magical way. And he told me, sometimes, of what people used to do to him. Things like – well. He enjoys describing them and I don’t.
“So for a few years we were kindred spirits, of a kind, and then…I guess we weren’t. Once I started paying attention to my studies. But Argus, you must remember that I never once did magic when I was in your office. Even in later years.”
“Yeah, yeah. Right. Fair enough.”
“And you don’t have to be a Wizard to appreciate dragons, do you? Maybe if you’d lived you could have rode with me, that first time.”
“I’m not crazy,” said Filch. “You are. To approach dragons like that so easily.”
“Well someone had to,” said Blaise. “Someone had to be an ambassador. Or else everyone here would feel like we’d been invaded. And I don’t hardly mind it if the dragons want me to be more a part of their world than the Wizarding world. Not after the way Wizards have treated me.”
“What are you,” said Miranda, “some kind of hostage for good behavior?”
“Let’s say I’m a liason. But, now that you know how my tale ends, I have little more to say. Filch, I think you have your own story to tell.”
“If a gaggle of Wizards wants to hear it.”
“You said you were saving it for later,” said Cormac.
“How much later?” said Filch. “I didn’t say that, did I? But if you look so eager, I’ll tell you.
“I told you about being torn apart. Bit of a joke, there. Nobody’s done that to a Squib in ages and ages, as far as I know. But Dumbledore told me that when he was a lad, Wizards would imprison their squib children. Or kill them.”
“Don’t be surprised, boy. We’re talking purebloods here. Devoted to Wizardry. Couldn’t handle having a non-magical member of the family. It is what it is.”
“Well it shouldn’t be,” said Cormac. “And it isn’t where I come from!”
“It is where I come from,” said Professor Longbottom. “And I come from Wizarding Britain. The Longbottoms are a pureblood family. So, when it took me too long to get my magic going, the family thought I was a squib.”
“Right,” said Argus. “And they said they dangled you headfist out the window because they thought it would scare your magic into working.”
“Well it did, didn’t it? Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
Argus grunted. “I keep telling you not to make excuses for them.”
“And I keep telling you that’s not a thought I want to entertain.”
“Got to confront it sometime eh? Think about the pureblood way of thinking. The reason why you know so many ghosts.”
That caught the ghostly caretaker’s attention.
Blaise had a fire in their eyes. “You are in the middle of my domain. If I say the walls are not yours to pass through, then they are not. Leave Mr. Longbottom be and continue your story.”
“Right. Families murderin’ their squibs. For what it’s worth…by the time I was a lad it had been nearly a hundred years since that sort of thing was common. Some Squib git had wrote a book about his life and the Wizards had read it and cried, and said they would treat Squibs nicer.
“Mother tended to thrash me with a belt when I couldn’t do magic on her command. Father hexed me with itching and tripped me up with invisible rope. Lovely childhood. No Hogwarts, of course. My siblings went, I didn’t. I could pass through the platform at 9 ¾, but the closest I would have ever come to attending would have been the sorting hat telling me no. I could pass into Diagon Alley, but what reason would I have to even go there?
“19th May 1968 was the only time before or since that I have been in Diagon Alley. There was a march. A march of Squibs. Must have been all of them in the Wizarding world, at least all the ones who bothered to join that world. I was young, and there was some fire in me. When someone told me that a bunch of Squibs, of all things, were marching, well I had to see what was going on.
“And what a sight it was. Signs like “we have rights” and “Squibs are people too.” I hadn’t thought that was true. Mother had always told me I was a pathetic little disappointment. Imagine having someone reach out their hand to me and tell me that I was something after all.
“Imagine being torn away from taking that hand, by a pure-blood wizard. Aye, the pureblood supremacists were hot in those years, full of more fire than me, and what dragons they were, to breathe their fire on everyone. The riot was all up and down Diagon Alley. The damages were in the hundreds of thousands of galleons and there were at least three deaths. All Squibs. They couldn’t defend themselves, I suppose.
“I’m told that Borgin & Burke’s was untouched. Everywhere else, creatures had been released from cages, books were scattered, windows were shattered, magical fires raged. And who was prosecuted for it? Nobody. The Aurors never caught anyone involved. Maybe they didn’t want to. And everyone bamed the squibs for stirring up trouble. I lost a few friends because they blamed me.
“Imagine going through all that, then having Wise Old Dumbledore The Great offer you a job. At Hogwarts. To poor little Argus from before the riot, it would have been the dream come true. To poor little Filch from after the riot, it felt like a condescending consolation prize. I took it. I had nothing else to look forward to. Had quite a bit of fun, in the first years, doing as I pleased to the nasty little Wizard children. Didn’t care much about who got the worst of it, they were all the same.
“And I passed that way for many years. I didn’t care about the Wizarding War. It was Wizards kicking each other around. Not my problem. Maybe having fewer of their children around would mean I had to clean less. And that Potter boy, the first one, he caused me no end of trouble with his friends. My greatest triumph was when I got that damned Marauder’s Map from them.
“Didn’t care a whit for the second Potter boy either. Ooh, la-dee-da, he accidentally killed the dark Lord. Pfeh. He didn’t do a thing for it, did he? Just sat there and Voldemort slipped up and killed himself. Maybe the old goat tripped on the carpet and pointed his wand at himself while he cast the curse. Avada-ka-whoops.
“Didn’t care much about the second Wizarding War, either. Same thing as the first. A war between Wizards. Not my problem. Except when they went after the damned school, my school. My home. That meant something to me. And they smashed quite a bit of the stonework. Caused me no end of cleanup.
“And then things quieted down again, until, I guess, the Muggle world quietly crumbled while I wasn’t paying attention. Heh. Maybe it’s good to be a squib after all. I had a place to retreat to and they didn’t. And I lived in the usual way at Hogwarts, and the next generation of Potter’s children and Weasley children caused the same trouble as ever, and I figured that would be my life from then on.
“And then this little git starts hanging around my office, asking me all kinds of questions I didn’t want to answer. Wormed their way into my good graces, they did. It’s like Blaise says. I liked to see that this little Wizard kid DIDN’T want to take advantage of what magic could offer. A Hogwarts student refusing magic, that was new. A Hogwarts student smashing things up specifically to see me, that was strange. What would a little Wizard child want with a 90-year-old Squib? To feel safe? Someone felt safe around me? I’d spent an entire career building up a reputation and where was this little twerp ignoring it. Well, fine. We got along. Blaise learned how to sweep a floor without magic and I had someone to talk to for once.
“I didn’t choose to stick around on earth because of them. I’m still around because I only learned on my dying day that there was something called the Society for the Protection of Squibs. I was furious. Where had they been all my life? Had I missed them because I was hanging around Hogwarts? Why had Dumbledore never told me about them? Everything I thought I knew about Hogwarts was turned upside down.
“So here I am, because I’m still angry. Still nice to talk to Blaise, though, when they’re available.”
“Hang on,” said Sparrow. “I never did get to hear why Blaise only shows up on the full moon.”
“I only open the door to the Dragon Tower on the full moon,” said Blaise. “I’m not some moon creature, Sparrow.”
“Then why – ”
“Aesthetic. And I’m still kind of mad at the school. So, they only get to see dragons occasionally. So there. Now, I think we’ve heard every story willing to be told, haven’t we? Oh wait.” They rose, and passed through the fire. Filch snorted in derision, but Blaise paid no heed as they took Sparrow’s hand and said, “Your story. The one you promised. It is your turn to tell, young one, if you would. Will you?”
Sparrow shuddered. “I suppose this is a better place than any. Among friends, protected by dragons. Very well then, you shall hear of why I have been, so far, nothing but the Shield Maiden, the Barrier Witch, the poor kind girl who could never harm anyone.”
Sparrow rose, and let the glow of the flames dance over her face for a few seconds, before she spoke. “There are terrible things in this world. Terrible wizarding things. Things that most of us know nothing of, and well that it should be so. Leave dark magic to the dark wizards. Yet, sometimes those dark things will not leave alone, and, as is their wont, come after us. They find us, and destroy us, because we are innocent, because we have things they want, because nobody will miss us, because nobody will defend us. Because they can get away with it.” She extended her hand towards the fire, and flipped it over a few times, letting the children see the difference in color between her palm and the back of her hand. “I have often wondered if I was targeted, somehow, on that basis. It would not be so surprising. I have heard of worse injustices, from across the pond and across the sea, visited upon people like me. Yet never have I met them myself, not yet.” She glanced at Miranda. “I can only speak for myself, of course.”
Miranda coughed. “Let’s say you’re lucky.”
“What have you encountered?”
“In the Wizard world?” said Miranda. She shrugged. “The usual nonsense about purebloods. I spoke to Aldous Yaxley once upon a time, and he thought I was part of the kitchen staff, but then he said I shouldn’t be, because I was obviously a pureblood. It took some questioning for him to make it clear that he thought I was obviously a pureblood, because of how my ancestors had clearly stuck to their fellow Wizards in South Sudan.”
Jocasta whistled. “Never heard that one before. Your ancestors are from the Nile region, then?”
“No! They’re from West Africa! Had no further wish to heed that fool. So, I went into the kitchen and fetched a well-done steak and brought it to him. I decided he deserved the worst the kitchen had to offer. For a man of supposedly high class, he had no objection to the dish.”
“And what about in Muggle society?” said Cormac.
“I’m alive because I know magic,” said Miranda. “That’s all I wish to tell you. Getting back to the actual speaker here? Sparrow, you said you were never targeted for being black.”
“Was I ever?” said Sparrow. “Was I never? Hard to remember. So I guess the answer’s no. As for the moment I’m describing…I can’t square racism with what actually happened to me. The vast majority of racism is done either for gain, or in desperate desire to hold on to previous ill-gotten gains. This was mass murder for the sake of neither money nor land. And mass murder of children who were mostly white, in the first place, and one that left ME untouched, so if an evil wizard was somehow racist on the basis of skin color, as opposed to purity of magical blood, somehow they got everyone except the one they wanted to. Some things are so improbable as to be functionally impossible.
“Here is what did happen, as I am certain: I went to bed with eight children at a slumber party. Eight friends, three of whom I had known for years. The window was open to take advantage of a cool breeze. When I awoke, I was the only child left, and there was a black blanket crawling out the window. And there was a shimmering, translucent yellow dome over me. The first magic I ever cast. Having no control over it, I couldn’t figure out how to dismiss it in time to pursue the strange blanket. What had happened? Where had the children gone?
“They had left their shoes, they had left their clothing, they had left all their belongings. If they had run it would have not been for long before they were found. And the children were never found.
“The only thing that was found was a single finger bone.”
There was a collective gasp among her audience.
The white dragon opened both of its eyes. Its contented smile had vanished, to be replaced by a look of great concern. It met Blaise’s gaze, who nodded. The dragon began to growl softly.
Sparrow gave it a worried glance. “Am I about to be roasted by a dragon here?”
“It is alright,” said Blaise. “Abrax is growling for you, not against you. They have a very good idea of what happened to your friends.”
“But what happened?” said Violet. “Who took them and left a bone?”
“I think I know,” said Cormac, with a voice as grim as a fourteen-year-old boy could muster.
“Then tell,” said Violet.
“No.” Cormac met Sparrow’s gaze. “I have stepped over that boundary once, and will not do so again. If Sparrow wishes to come to the conclusion, it is up to her. She’s talking about something that can scare dragons.”
Violet turned to Sparrow. “What happened to your friends?”
“Getting there,” said Sparrow. “They died, I’m sure of that. Whatever had happened to them, they were dead and gone. But what had happened? What would the police say? What would the investigation turn up? The neighborhood was all shaken by the disappearance. We all awaited an official explanation.
“But there was no investigation. There were no police. The neighborhood was suddenly mourning the loss of eight children to a gas leak, and calling me lucky. I tried to tell them that it was no gas leak. They refused to listen. I and my parents were left in confusion and fear, and the confusion was never fully resolved.
“Until the incident with my growing a tree. Imagine my fury when I learned of the existence of memory charms, and the practice of obliviating swathes of muggles whenever anything magical happened in their area. The Ministry must have obliviated my neighborhood to prevent any muggle investigation. I’ll never forgive them for that. To force muggles to be deluded about the deaths of their very children is…a crime beyond measurement. I will never forgive the Ministry for that, nor anyone for using memory charms on anyone. Keep that in mind. Ha ha. Ha.
“As for the deaths of my friends…for the longest time, I had no idea how to investigate the matter. But what I could do, at least, was swear that no one would ever come to harm again on my watch. And so the only spell I’ve really bothered to practice is the shield spell, here at Hogwarts. I felt that it was all I needed. My fault, I suppose, for becoming overspecialized.
“Cormac’s remark about L – about – damn it.” Sparrow had begun to shiver again. “I’m not sure I can continue here. I’m – I’m – I’m sorry I just – ”
Jill rose to stand beside Sparrow, and hugged her close. In turn Jocasta put her arms around the both of them. After a few seconds, Sparrow’s breathing slowed.
The three girls separated and sat back down, but sat close together. Violet and Cormac exchanged glances, then moved around the fire to sit beside them. In turn Miranda rose from her seat, and sat down on the stone, perpendicular to the log. Blaise rose from their seat, and sat down upon the stone at the log’s other end, facing Miranda.
Abrax uncoiled, and slithered over to the now-concentrated gathering, and lay behind the log, encircling them all with their tail.
Filch stayed here he was, until he sighed a ghostly sigh and came to float by the fire, a foot outside of the circle of the dragon’s tail. Professor Longbottom did the same on the opposite side of the circle.
“Do you wish to continue?” said Cormac.
Sparrow took a deep breath. “I think I can.”
“What is it then?” said Jocasta. “What is this word you couldn’t name?”
“The word is Lethifolds!” said Sparrow. “Lethifolds! Lethifolds! There. I said it.”
“Oh!” said Jocasta. “Those horrible things?”
“Horrible is a paltry word to describe them,” said Blaise. “Monstrous. Evil. Pure evil. Evil distilled. The most dangerous and deadly creature in the world, if you are sleeping vulnerable.”
Abrax began to growl again.
“Oh come on,” said Violet. “Cone snails are more deadly by far.”
“Yet they don’t hunt humans,” said Blaise. “And you can smash a cone snail with a hammer. These things are living nightmares. Do you know, I don’t think even old Voldemort himself tried to use them. If even he thought they were dangerous to him…”
“Voldemort never bothered to look outside of Europe,” said Sparrow. “Hidebound old fool like so many Wizards. His chief problem, I suppose. Probably the reason he got the Second Wizarding War going. Couldn’t let go of the pureblood business. But – I cannot call these creatures pure evil.”
Blaise looked shocked. “What on earth do you mean?”
“I mean they’re wild animals. Right? Technically innocent. I can hate them, sure, but call them pure evil? That’s a human concept.”
“Mostly,” said Violet. “The higher orders of apes had rudimentary concepts of justice. But if Lethifolds are nothing more than living blankets, they wouldn’t have enough brain to know what right and wrong were.”
The dragon was growling again. Louder this time.
“But we don’t know that,” said Cormac. “These are magical creatures. Maybe they have some sort of brain nobody can see. Or maybe they’re not wild animals at all. Maybe they’re…something else. Nobody knows. Nobody can catch them. There’s only two accounts we have from survivors and the only thing they could have done was cast a Patronus and run. We can’t know if they think, if they scheme…they’re so rare as to be nearly legendary. How do you judge something nearly nobody has ever seen?”
The dragon was growling louder still.
“Abrax,” said Blaise. “Please.”
“Does the dragon know something?” said Miranda. “Spill.”
“Plenty,” said Blaise. “And this discussion is nearly as distressing to them as it is to Sparrow, so let us please leave off speculating.”
“I would note one more thing,” said Jocasta. She turned to meet the dragon’s gaze. “If I may.”
Sparrow turned her head to see Abrax, their teeth slightly bared, eyes wide, holding Jocasta’s gaze. The dragon subsided with an annoyed snort, and nodded their assent.
“Thank you.” Jocasta turned back to address Cormac. “There are only two written accounts from survivors. We don’t know how many true accounts there might be. Also there are only two written survival accounts, in English. Perhaps the rest are all written in a language from the tropics, and we’ve never bothered to check. But around here, we have one true account, from Hagrid. He told me in passing that he’d seen a Lethifold twice in the – Oh my God.” Jocasta’s eyes grew wide. She met Sparrow’s gaze with as much concern as Abrax had, if not more. “I sent you into their very domain.”
“It’s alright,” said Sparrow. “I mean it’s alright now.”
“Is it? After all you’ve been through, sending you into a place where you might have met your worst fear – and even if you never did you had to be thinking about it night and day – I can’t blame you for what you did at the dueling club. I sent you into the realm of your worst enemy. Your real worst enemy. Sparrow, I am so sorry.” She took Sparrow’s hands in hers. “I must have caused you greater terror than anyone besides a loathsome fiend could deserve.”
“I will admit,” said Sparrow, “That I harbored some resentment for you, for that. Mostly it was satisfied by my revenge. But you were only one part in a chain of errors. It was Hagrid’s idea to take me into the wild, and my decision to follow.” She laid a hand on Jocasta’s shoulder. “Don’t blame yourself more than I blame him or me. He didn’t know about my terror, nor did you. Neither of you could have known. It was not a story I could ever have told anyone, until here, until now.” Sparrow draped one arm over Jocasta’s shoulder and put an arm around Jill’s waist. “With all of you around me. So it was difficult to tell anyone just where my boundaries were, until they were crossed – Cormac ran into that and I got snappy.” She nodded to Cormac. “Sorry about that, old bean.”
“Young bean. But I’m the one who saw the line in front of my eyes and crossed it. I have some fault here.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps. And yet it was fortunate that you explained Lethi – Lethifolds – to me. Reluctant as I am to admit it. That was the key to a door I thought had been shut. It was a bridge to that old mystery. I looked up Lethifolds and, what do you know, a black blanket creature that devours people in the night. Normally they only live in the tropics. But, you know, most of the world is tropics now.
“And now you can see why I’m on about this Statute of Secrecy business, and why I am so protective. It all comes back to that one night. Because the muggles smudged up the world enough that Lethifolds could sneak around even here in Britain. Because the Statute of Secrecy did nothing to protect my friends. Because the Ministry did nothing to comfort me in my grief, nor offer any sympathy to my family. Because the Ministry deliberately deceived multiple families about why their children had died. So let the whole pile of junk disappear for all I care.”
Jill waved a hand at the fire, and it burned higher.
“Nice touch,” said Sparrow. “And an illustration of what led to the situation we’re in now. The world burned. Because of muggles, because we couldn’t help them, we couldn’t save them, we couldn’t protect them, because the Ministry didn’t want us to, because they thought the Muggles still hated us. As I was unable to help my friends, Wizards were unable to help anyone else. And even now the Ministry won’t let us act openly to undo the damage. We’re not allowed to make a difference.
“I suppose if you could distill my ambitions into one idea, it is the hope that we can make a difference. We cannot change the past, but we can change the future, if we dare.” She rose from her seat, and stepped over Abrax’s tail to stand close before the fire.
“And do you dare?” said the Professor.
“Do we dare. But that is up to each of us here. I will not ask any of you to follow, if you feel it is beyond you, or if you feel that it is unjust. I would only ask that if you feel it is unjust, you would stand up for what you think is right, and oppose me with all of your will and all of your might. I would not have anyone cower before me nor accept an injustice for the sake of friendship. If you are in, say so, and if you are not, say so.” She turned to face her friends.
“I’m with you to the end of all things,” said Jill.
“I can hardly resist,” said Jocasta.
“There are wondrous opportunities here,” said Violet.
“I would relish the chance to live in a wider world once more,” said Cormac.
“I will render what aid I can,” said Blaise. “Though my tasks keep me here and busy. It takes enough time to negotiate with dragons on a normal day, and it will take quite a bit to convince them to do more than stand out of the way. Argus? What about you?”
“Heh.” Filch had his arms crossed. “Dangerous. Heroic. I’ll not stand in the way. That’s all.”
“And Mr. Longbottom?”
The Professor looked grim. “I have come to a better understanding of your griefs,” he said. “And I do not think it is my right to stand in your way. If I had ever entertained that thought it vanished when Sparrow described what the Ministry did to those parents. But as much as I have appreciated that you informed me of your actions, as much as I have felt honored to be included in tonight’s proceedings, I think it would be safer for me to avoid getting too involved. I have my own gardens to tend. I am sorry.”
“I don’t hold it against you,” said Sparrow. “Thank you for being here, and for listening.”
“We’re missing one,” said Blaise. “Miranda?”
Miranda was not meeting anyone’s gaze, but staring at the fire. “I…do not know. I wanted to help you with the mandrake leaf. I informed Professor Longbottom of the proceedings as a matter of personal integrity. Yet as for the rest, I fear I am being swept forward on a flooding tide. Sparrow, I told you I had no wish to be involved directly in bringing down the Statute of Secrecy, and then…I gave you the mandrake leaf. I do not know what I want. Will you give me time to decide?”
“All the time you need,” said Sparrow. “Just…whatever you decide, please be willing to tell me.”
“I can do that.”
“Alright then.” Sparrow stood as tall and straight as a slip of a fourteen-year-old girl could stand, facing the flames once more. “The fire is getting low, and dire deeds arise. Blaise?” She turned to meet the eager gaze of the dragon keeper. “It is time.”
Blaise stood, and, moving behind the log, whispered into Abrax’s ear. They opened their eyes, grinned, and looked up. The dragons overhead began to slither out of the windows, one by one.
“Who can be blamed for this situation?” said Sparrow, as she met the worried gazes of her friends. “Me? The Ministry? Jocasta? Violet? I offer up Jill, if only because she commanded me to be considerate of other people, thus preventing me from merely attempting to interfere with the existence of memory charms. No, if we wish all people to survive our ambitions, we must be delicate, as I said. So. I have, per Jocasta’s suggestion, chosen the hard road. To do good is more difficult than evil. It is ever thus. Come, then, and let us embark.”
She left the fire, then, and opened the door, where the cold rain down came down. She looked back at her friends. “If you are all with me in spirit, be with me in body.”
“I could do that all the time,” said Jocasta.
“Read the room,” said Jill.
“She walked right into it!”
“And we’re walking right into the rain,” said Violet. “How’s this supposed to work? Where’s the full moon?”
“I haven’t given the signal yet,” said Blaise. “You must go outside first. Go on.”
With a fair bit of grumbling, the children followed Sparrow out into the cold rain.
And Blaise whistled sharply.
As one, the sky burst into flame, as a hundred dragons breathed fire into the clouds, heating them into invisible water vapor instantly. For, as Violet had once told Sparrow, the clouds were not puffs of cotton high in the sky, but collections of water vapor that had come to a place that was cool enough, and had condensed there. If the place was suddenly hot, why then, the water vapor would no longer be condensed, and the moon would shine down, if only for a little while.
So it was, that the lowering clouds vanished and were replaced by the sight of a hundred dragons soaring in the night sky, wheeling around the moon, roaring a fierce joy to the heavens. The last of the rain fell and no more came. The moon’s silver light was reflected in the water that lay upon the walkway. The children stood and watched the dragons as they soared.
Sparrow took the mandrake leaf from Miranda, and stepped to the edge of the walkway, turning towards her friends for dramatic effect. “This will be a long journey,” she said, “full of many twists and turns. It may take years. Decades, even. But, we can only reach the end if we dare the beginning. Like so.” She held the mandrake leaf aloft to the moon.
“Wait!” said Jocasta. She ran up to Sparrow. “It will be an entire month that I am missing the taste of your sweet lips, my dear. Let me have one more kiss before I am forbidden.”
“How could I forget,” said Sparrow. “Very well.”
Jocasta kissed her full on the mouth, lingering there for some time. “There,” she said, “I shall be looking forward to that again.”
Jill came up beside Jocasta, and took her hand. They exchanged a glance that said more than words. Then Jill turned to Sparrow, and, still without speaking, tapped Sparrow on the cheek once. Sparrow nodded. Jill kissed her there, then, for as long as Jocasta had done.
“Does anyone else want a piece of me,” said Sparrow.
Cormac and Violet came up and flanked the girl, and each gave her a peck on the cheek.
Miranda hung back with the adults, as if still uncertain.
Sparrow held the leaf up to the light again. “Here’s to the first step,” she said. She cast a sticking charm on the leaf. Then she placed it in her mouth, under her tongue.
And nearly gagged. The taste was bitter, foul. The sticking charm prickled. No wonder it was a challenge to keep the damn leaf there for a month. Perhaps her tastebuds would become numb at some point, but until then she had something in her mouth that she didn’t want to, and she had to fight the urge to spit it out immediately.
But. She was Sparrow Jones, and no little thing like a bitter leaf was going to conquer her, by thunder. She held her tongue down on the leaf until the sticking charm took full effect and the prickles faded.
Miranda finally moved forward. She peered at Sparrow, whose expression was, at the moment, easy to read. “I see,” she said. “You are determined after all. You have chosen to set out on this road, and I know you will follow it to its end, whatever end that may be, for you are willing to endure bitterness and pain in pursuit of your goal."
"Definitely," said Sparrow through gritted teeth.
"My fears for this situation, for your execution of your grand designs, were that you would shoulder burdens onto others, or run at the first hint of trouble, like so many pathetic cowards who raise armies of eager young people, and then abandon them, just to save their loathsome hides. Or that you would be the sort of person who makes lots of suggestions for other people and then fails to live that advice yourself, like some armchair general. But, here you are, leading from the front. You will not abandon me on the journey, nor guide me into anything you yourself cannot handle. Although you might guide me into something you believe you can survive, only to be proven wrong. Hm. Therein lies the real problem. You are in this situation precisely because you are so bold.”
She sighed, and looked up at the moon, at the dragons wheeling in the sky. For a few seconds she appeared to be lost in the sight. Then she turned her gaze to Jocasta, who seemed to be vibrating with anticipation; to Jill, whose steely expression was matched only by Sparrow’s; to Cormac, whose expression of fascinated curiosity was matched only by Violet’s.
She turned her head towards the Professor, who nodded.
“I had hoped to stay out of this business,” said Miranda. “But you know what? Fuck it. I’m in.”