“I think I know how you can cast an offensive spell,” said Jocasta.
They were in the History of Magic classroom, approximately ten minutes before the class was to begin.
“You have to hate your target.”
Sparrow frowned. “I’m not sure that I hate anybody specific.”
“Nobody at all?”
“There’s a fair few people around here who I’m annoyed with, sure, and plenty of people in the world who have made bad choices, and plenty of people I would have strenuous disagreements with, if I knew them personally. But, around here? No. I don’t have any personal enmities.”
“So little miss high-and-mighty is also miss nice-nice." said Jocasta. "Doesn’t want to hurt anyone and doesn’t hate anyone. I had you figured wrong! You’re just a sweet widdle angel covered in sugar.”
“Are you trying to goad me?” said Sparrow.
Jocasta sat down heavily at a desk. “I’m just…I mean, I thought that if you were all judgy about everyone then it would be easy for you to follow my advice. Now I have to come up with something better.”
“I haven’t thought of it yet.”
“Why do you even want to help me with that?”
She said nothing more to Sparrow, as they waited the remaining time before the class began.
At the sound of the clock striking one, the remaining students shuffled reluctantly into the classroom, sat down at their desks, and prepared to take a post-lunch nap. Professor Binns floated out of the blackboard and started his usual drone. “In the mid seventeenth century, the Welsh Wizarding Council blah, blah, blah…”
Jocasta leaned over to Sparrow and whispered, “Your mother’s a whore.”
“She was,” whispered Sparrow. “Is, kind of. I never asked her much about it though. Who knows? Maybe I’m a half-blood.”
“Are you serious? Fine. Your father’s a whore.”
“I thought I had made it clear that I don’t consider that an insult.”
Jocasta said nothing more for a while, but fumed silently, drumming her fingers on the table. Then she poked Sparrow.
“Knock it off,” said the girl.
“I said knock it off.”
“Quit it!” Sparrow flicked Jocasta’s hand away.
Jocasta kept trying, with Sparrow trying to fend her off. They went at this for about twenty seconds before a glowing yellow wall sprang up between them.
Sparrow looked around. The entire class was staring. Including, of all people, Professor Binns.
“Twenty points from Slytherin,” said Binns, “and twenty from Hufflepuff.”
“I’ve never heard of Binns doing anything with house points,” said Cormac, as he played a soft tune on his ukulele.
The Hufflepuff common room was busy this evening with people doing homework. Nevertheless, people did their best to stay away from Sparrow and her friends. Apparently losing Hufflepuff more than a hundred house points within the first 6 months of the school year could put a dent in your reputation.
Sparrow was sitting in a comfy chair by the fire, holding her wand in the palm of her hand. “Oh, I’m sure he’s done it once,” she said. “Maybe centuries ago. But I wanted to ask you about wands.”
“I am surprised,” said Cormac. “After what I put you through in the Courtyard.”
“I have my wand in hand,” said Sparrow. “And so I have my confidence in hand.”
“But not your girl.”
“Now that’s a touchy subject.”
“Or a lack-of-touchy subject.”
Sparrow shot Cormac a glare.
“Sorry. I’m just saying, I blame myself for that one too.”
“Don’t. Jill’s been running away from me this entire school year so far. Maybe the wand thing is just an excuse…but I can never think that badly of her, can I? She promised she wouldn’t run away again. And she’s got to have good reasons for keeping herself at arm’s length now. I just wish she would tell me what they were. I wish she would explain.”
“Likewise you to me,” said Cormac. “I’d appreciate knowing why you’re always nervous.”
“I said I’d tell you later. On a night when we can get to the dragon tower again. That’s a promise. Anyway, wands. You said that my wand had absorbed my own principles. It’s not alive, though, is it?”
“They’re alive,” said Cormac. “That’s the first chapter of the book on basic wandlore. The question is, how much can they think? Even Ollivander isn’t certain. Then again, I don’t know if he’s ever bothered to figure out. That’s something to ask him, I suppose. As it is, your wand is learning along with you. That’s why we’re in school, Sparrow. That’s why it takes so long to become a proper wizard. You’re shepherding your wand along the path to power as much as the teachers are shepherding you. You’ve got a partner in crime and you have to figure out how to work with them.”
“So can I, like, talk to the wand?”
“Oh sure! But it might not talk back.” Cormac winked. “If you want a conversation, well. I’m sure there’s something on that in the library. Maybe. The wand lore book makes much of wands having personalities, but maybe it’s the same way a dog has a personality. You can tell it what to do, but it can’t tell you what to do.”
“That’s been bugging me.” Sparrow held her wand up to the light. “We talk about mastering the wand, of owning the wand, but if it’s a living thing – ”
“It’s like being the master of a dog. You’re not some kind of slave driver.”
Sparrow glanced at Cormac, a lad as pale as anything. Then she glanced at her own hand, which had a tendency to blend into shadows. “I should certainly hope not. But it’s still uncomfortable. I do not want to be a master. I want to be a partner. I want to have a relationship with this thing that isn’t just ‘do this do that.’ What I mean is, I would like to be able to convince this wand to do some basic offensive spells. I’m a little more amenable to the idea now, but this thing is a real…stick in the mud. Har har har.” She pocketed the wand.
“A relationship? The wand isn’t a person, Sparrow. It’s a tool. Like a boarhound or a farm cat. It has a personality but there’s only so much you can do to connect with it.”
“But what if that isn’t true? Come on. You’re the wand expert around here, you have to at least entertain the possibility.”
“Are you going to turn into another Hermione Granger? Going to Liberate the Wands?”
Sparrow gave Cormac a searching glance.
“Are you saying the liberation of the House Elves was a bad thing?”
“I mean, it caused a bit of mess, didn’t it? Wizards had to start doing things themselves, things they didn’t exactly know how to do.”
Sparrow glanced at her hand, then back to Cormac. “It only caused a bit of mess, did it? Yes, you’re right. That’s all it caused. A bit of mess. Wizarding society was able to pick up where the House Elves left off. Which means they never needed the elves in the first place. They were just a bunch of lazy twats who liked to boss elves around. Now, think about what it would have meant if the loss of the House Elves DID cause a real problem. It would mean that we’re not as powerful as all that, and that we did, in fact, require slaves to do the menial tasks, the heavy lifting, et cetera. Either way Wizards don’t come out looking good, do they?”
“They liked it!” said Cormac. He strummed a discordant note, grimaced, and set the ukulele aside. “Granger’s first effort flamed out because the House Elves genuinely enjoyed serving Wizards! She went around calling for freedom and the house elves did not want it. She thought she knew what they needed and when they told her she didn’t listen. Just like you sometimes. I’ve heard you want to break the Statute of Secrecy down. Did you ask anyone if they would benefit?”
“To be fair,” said Sparrow, “I haven’t had a chance. You know it’s a forbidden subject for me. Nobody’s explained why, exactly. I’m just supposed to get the idea. I mean, if it were true that Wizards were only so powerful, maybe we’d be in genuine danger from the muggles, but. We can just wave a wand and have things happen. What can they do to us?”
“Obliterate an entire section of countryside in an instant with one bomb.”
Sparrow’s eyes grew wide. “Are you serious?”
“How on earth – ”
“And,” said Cormac, leaning forward in his chair, “Despite their troubles in recent decades, they still have the capability to launch half of the bombs they’ve got.”
“How many do they have?”
“Enough to blow the world’s surface to oblivion a hundred times over.”
There was a long pause.
“Well,” said Sparrow. “Shit.”
“You’re the muggleborn, girl. You ought to know about this more than I do.”
“Hey, I’m the kind of kid who had their wildest dreams come true when they went to Hogwarts. I haven’t studied muggles much lately. You’re more interested than me. It’s like when you go to a friend’s house and they’ve got all kinds of new toys that you don’t, so you say ‘wow’ and they say ‘ho hum’. I’m a kid in a goddamn candy store here at Hogwarts. But tell me more about this county-obliterating bomb. It sounds positively wizardly.”
“You know from Muggle Studies that by this era, long after we abandoned them, they’ve managed to come up with their own kind of wizardry. They’ve unlocked secrets of the universe that we never bothered with, just as we unlock secrets that they don’t even know how to look for. They’ve found elements beyond what we know, and discovered the smallest unit of each, and discovered how to break those units in two. That’s where the bomb comes from. They figured out that there’s quite a bit of energy packed into each of those units. They discovered the fundamental properties of light itself, peered into the heavens and discovered cold heavens far beyond what we know, and cold heavens far beyond them, and beyond them, and beyond them. They figured out how to focus light to go all in one direction, so as to travel miles upon miles in a tiny straight line, and light a match at the end, as easy as if from a pace away . They strapped a kind of internal combustion engine to wings, attached those to long narrow vehicles – ”
“I know what aeroplanes are, Cormac.”
“Believe me, some pureblood wizards don’t. Ignotius Travers – you know him, he was the one who put a knee through the Cadogan portrait last year – he asked me if I knew what those tiny things zooming along in the sky were, and couldn’t understand me when I said that they’re thirty thousand feet above. Some people don’t bother to teach their children about muggle things and don’t care if their children fail the Muggle Studies class.”
“Pureblood nonsense,” said Sparrow.
“Mostly,” said Cormac. “Sometimes you get mixed parents who figure their children will be totally ensconsed in the Wizarding World anyway so why bother. But everyone else has some idea of what Muggles can do. If Voldemort had ever revealed himself to the Muggle world, if he had ever tried to overthrow them, he would have been vaporized in short order. They’ve got bombs that can level entire city districts without having to level the entire countryside. They’ve got aeroplanes that can fly without humans in them and throw a missile straight at your house. They’ve got electric servants floating high in the heavens – ”
“I also know what satellites are.”
“Ah, but did you know that these satellites have wondrous muggle cameras in them that zoom nearly all the way to the ground? If Muggles had known where the Death Eaters were meeting on the evening of Voldemort’s rebirth, the satellites would have been able to direct a missile to that precise location and eliminate the entire gang in one fell swoop. And possibly Harry Potter as well. They’re not very good at limiting collateral damage. Seem to have developed a military doctrine to maximize it. Nasty business.” He waved a hand as if brushing away a fly. “The point is, Mr. Riddle and his ilk, all the pureblood-superiority people, they’re totally ignorant of what muggles can do. They’re lucky that we hide ourselves away. If Muggles were ever exposed to Lethifolds, they’d probably start dropping bombs like crazy.”
“A black blanket creature that smothers people and eats them.”
Sparrow’s eyes grew wide. She began to shiver. Even as she left her chair and sat directly upon the hearth, she shivered.
“Something the matter?”
“Nothing,” said Sparrow.
“Does this have to do with your being nervous all the time?”
“Please drop the subject.”
“It sure sounds like you were attacked by a – ”
Sparrow turned her head towards Cormac, glaring at him with nearly as much fury as a tiny schoolgirl could muster.
Cormac fell silent.
After a few seconds, he picked up his ukulele and played a soft tune, head bent to his work. For a while he played, one tune after another, never speaking, never raising his head, as if he did not dare to meet Sparrow’s gaze again.
Sparrow was the first to break the silence. “I think I remember that song,” she said. “I’ve got sixpence, jolly jolly sixpence…”
“Just playing the muggle tunes I remember,” said Cormac. “Try this one.” He plucked out another tune.
“Mm-ah went the little green frog one day…”
“Marvelous. I didn’t expect you to know that one, it’s an American tune.”
“Well how do you know it, then?”
“Now that’s a long story that I’ll have to explain later.” Cormac winked.
Sparrow did not smile at this, but set her mouth in a grim line.
Cormac set the ukulele aside. “I am sorry,” he said. “I have crossed a line tonight that I should have known not to cross. Or come much too close to it, anyway. I would appreciate hearing your story someday, even if it is far from now. But that’s up to you. As for me and my story…you hear the muggle songs out of me, and you already know I have an interest in the things they do. I had hoped our efforts to get past Filch would benefit from being a muggle method, something he was unfamiliar with, I mean, he’s lived so long at this school he can’t possibly know the muggle world – no such luck, that time.”
“Why are you interested in muggles?” said Sparrow. “Wizards are cool.”
“Are we?” said Cormac. “Are we really? I don’t feel it. I’m actually insecure about the whole thing. I think that if Wizarding Britain ever revealed itself to Muggle Britain they would look like laughingstocks. Look at what we have around us and what we use. Candles? Coaches? Quills? This world is practically frozen in time.”
“It makes me wonder,” said Sparrow. “If we’d never done the Statute of Secrecy, would we have gotten stuck like this? Or would we have taken the opportunity to integrate Wizard magic with muggle magic?”
“Judging from personal experience I’d say neither. But that’s a story for another time.” Cormac winked. “Keeping my lips sealed about that for now.”
“Just like me, huh? Well maybe when I tell you my story you can tell me yours. For now…I can see that we’ve got our world and muggles have theirs. I can’t say I like it. But at the very least, I understand why it’s worth being hidden at the moment. Thank you, Cormac, for the explanation. That was more about the subject than anyone has ever told me.”
“Glad I could help. Say, where’s Jill got to lately? She used to hang around here more often. I only see her in class now.”
Sparrow sighed. “It’s like I said. She’s got me at arm’s length. I wonder if I can even blame her? Imagine if we cast a fireball at each other. We’d probably blow up the entire castle.”
“Next time I see her, I’ll tell her you’re disappointed.”
“And I will tell her that you understand her actions.”
“Fair enough.” Sparrow rose from the fire, and departed without a word.
In the ensuing weeks, Sparrow had to admit, reluctantly, to herself, that Cormac had helped her by mentioning Lethifolds, even if he had touched a painful nerve. In his blundering curiousity he had given Sparrow the opportunity to name the fear that had haunted her for so long, to give it shape, to set it in the world, such that she could at last confront the matter –
Through study, of course. If Lethifolds were indeed the culprit of the worst night she’d ever had, then they were extremely dangerous, and not the sort of thing one should attack without understanding its patterns.
So she asked Hagrid about these curious black blanket things, hoping for some further explanation. He could offer little more than what Cormac had told her. According to him Lethifolds were tropical things, rarely seen even in the tropics. He’d seen two in the Forbidden Forest during the latter part of the Blooming Season – Sparrow had gone pale at this news, and Hagrid was only able to get her to stop shaking like a leaf when he told her that he’d only seen one Lethifold at a time over two decades, and never again. That information plus a great deal of tea had settled her nerves.
Hagrid didn’t know what the Lethifolds were made out of, because he’d never been able to catch one, nor did he know how they reacted, because he’d never wanted to stay around long enough to observe one. His reaction was the same as that of anyone who had sense – to blast it with a patronus, instead of standing there taking notes like an idiot.
So even big strong old Hagrid didn’t feel safe around these things.
Sparrow then turned her attention towards the Magical Creatures section of the library. One book after another she searched, from thin catalogues to weighty tomes. And yet no matter how weighty the tome, no matter how much it could go on about unicorns and dragons and grindylows and centaurs, there was always the same paltry explanation of Lethifolds: Tropical creature, nocturnal, devours sleeping people, can only be repelled by a strong patronus charm. There was almost nothing more, in any text, than what she could find in any other text. She might as well stick to the Scamander textbook, for all the library was helping her.
So, at the same time that Sparrow was pleased to have an idea of what had happened to her so long ago, she was immensely frustrated to have no further information than that. Typically an entry on any animal would explain its habitat, diet, living arrangements, method of reproduction, and so forth, such that someone wishing to deal with, say, a man-eating lion, or an elephant in Musth, or a Manticore, would have some assumptions from which they could craft a counterstroke. Villagers in India used to wear masks on the backs of their heads because they knew tigers never attacked when someone was looking at them. Doves would fly out of a bush if you beat the ground. Deer were extremely sensitive to movement from the side but could be more easily approached from the front. That sort of thing.
For Lethifolds there was nothing, a blankess, a blackness, like the creature itself. And who could blame these writers? Nobody in their right mind would attempt to study these things up close. Not Hagrid. Not Mr. Scamander. Not Dangerous Dai Llewellyn. Maybe not even Godric Gryffindor. It would be more insane than trying to study a dementor. At least those things had restraint. When you looked at a Dementor, the abyss gazed back; when you looked at a Lethifold the abyss tried to eat you.
The only clues available were personal accounts of attacks form survivors, and those were few. Less than few, in fact: two. One, the ubiquitously repeated tale of Flavius Belby, whose successful repelling of the Lethifold with a Patronus was Sparrow’s one slim hope of defense; and the attack on Lady Warbeck, wherin a Lethifold…disguised itself as a stage curtain, apparently. They could be clever, then. Even devious.
That was more troubling than anything. What if any shadow, any curtain could be waiting to devour her? What if it was right behind – but such thoughts did not bear entertainment, lest she collapse into paralyzing terror once more. The castle had wards. And walls.
And open windows.
The days would have become difficult to bear, if a certain someone had not been distracting Sparrow from her darkest thoughts. For Jocasta was trying everything she could to get on Sparrow’s bad side. She disguised a plate of rocks as cupcakes and gave it to Sparrow. She stole Sparrow’s potions textbook. She tried to trip the girl. All of it happened, but none of it worked. Sparrow knew what Jocasta was trying, and couldn’t muster any hatred for her. The girl had put herself at Sparrow’s mercy. Unless she really was suicidal, there was no way Jocasta would risk any lasting harm. She was trying to help.
In point of fact – Sparrow had been speaking somewhat in jest, when she had said that Jocasta fancied her. Yet only because she found the situation amusing. Not because she thought the concept unlikely. She had hoped that Jocasta would think Sparrow was joking, if only because the entire conversation had been so unsettling that Sparrow needed that sort of laugh to shake it off. She didn’t want to get involved in anything yet. And yet – she hadn’t exactly said no to the Animagus business, nor did she entirely dislike the idea of Jocasta fancying her.
In idle moments Sparrow even missed her company, annoying as it was. Just a faint disappointment, really. Nothing serious, nothing strong, not in the least bit as strong as how she missed Jill’s affections, nor even half as strong as missing her fireside chats with Cormac. A faint wisp of longing now and then.
But more frequent. Just because Jocasta paid her more attention now, surely. The girl had seemed to atone for the incident with the ink bottle, or seemed like she wanted to. But she had not apologized.
Nor did Sparrow feel very forgiving when Jocasta started going after other students. Finny Wambsgans, for example, missed the content of a Muggle Studies class because he’d been slipped a Daydream Chocolate. Percival Bulstrode had his favorite shoes turned barf orange. There were at least three Fanged Frisbees per week. That was Jocasta losing her touch. She must have known that there would always be a shield to block a Frisbee.
Then the Quidditch teams started finding their brooms missing, the quaffles acting strangely, the snitch let loose on the pitch. Not the bludgers, though. Nobody in their right mind would mess with a bludger.
And still Sparrow knew that Jocasta was trying to help her. So no matter what frustration Jocasta could inspire, none of it became a true hatred. It was enough frustration to let Sparrow fire off a stunning spell for Professor Budge once, and thank goodness he didn’t ask her to repeat the effort, because frustration was not enough for her to do the spell again. Perhaps she did need hatred. But it did not come.
The staff was beginning to get more than a little annoyed, and they were watching the students much more closely in the hallways now. The pranks, at least the violent ones, began to dwindle.
And then, they ceased altogether.
Jocasta had given up.
Sparrow felt sorry for the girl. She had tried so hard, and none of it had stuck. Sparrow wished she could offer an apology, but after the end of her pranks Jocasta did not visit Sparrow, nor stop to talk to her in the halls. She simply walked away, as quickly as she could.
The student body breathed a sigh of relief.
All save one.
One fine December morning, in about the middle of the month, there was frost on the windowpanes. It was one of the few frosty days in the year. A pretty scene, and Sparrow was in high spirits for once. She was in high spirits as she traipsed to the library, past the curious glares of her classmates. She was in high spirits as she dragged a history tome off the shelf and opened to the seventeenth century. She was in high spirits as she read passages about wizards in the royal court of William and Mary.
She was in high spirits as she looked up from the book at Rubeus Hagrid, standing there at the end of the table.
“Perfesser Binns tells me,” said Hagrid, “That yer’ve been asking after the Statute of Secrecy like I told ye not to.”
“Hagrid, I – ”
“’E said ye said yer’ve been thinkin’ o’ letting muggles know about us.”
“How on earth did – I’ve never spoken to the man.”
“’E said ye asked him all kinds o’ questions about the statute.”
“And when was that?”
Professor Binns never lied. He had no interest in lying, nor, as far as anyone knew, any capacity to do so. “It must have been someone in his class who looks like me,” said Sparrow.
She realized how silly that sounded when she said it, but too late to take it back. Then again, there was such a thing as polyjuice potion. Was that it? Jocasta hadn’t yanked one of Sparrow’s hairs, had she? That would have been remarkably difficult to do. Sparrow wore her hair cropped close to the scalp just in case someone tried that. So how would Jocasta have managed to look like her?
“I’ve never asked Professor Binns about it, Hagrid. I mean, I talked to Cormac McKinnon, but – ah. I shouldn’t have said that. I should not have said that.”
“If yer interested in steppin’ over the line I set, Miss Jones, I think it’s high time ye had a lesson only a Care of Magical Creatures perfesser can teach ye.”
“I’m not going,” said Sparrow, and a glowing dome settled around her. “You cannot move me. No one can.”
Hagrid brought out his umbrella and made a circular motion in Sparrow’s direction. A section of floor beneath her chair separated from the rest of the library, and Sparrow found herself picked up and borne out of the room despite her best efforts.