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Chapter 2: The welcoming feast
There were much fewer Thestral-drawn carriages than usual to greet the train when it reached Hogsmeade, and maybe half the normal number of chattering students gathering on the platform to board them. Actually, Neville noticed, they weren’t even chattering – there seemed to be an air of disquiet that enveloped them. They all knew that things were going to be different this year, and it showed.
The only ones who didn’t seem to be bothered by the recent turn of events were the Slytherins. Neville could see Draco Malfoy strutting around the platform like he owned it, and caught a glint of not one but two pins on his pristine robes.
“Don’t tell me Malfoy’s Head Boy,” he muttered to no one in particular.
Ginny laughed sourly. “Who else would Snape have chosen? Bet the Head Girl’s a Slytherin as well.”
Neville wracked his brain to try to remember who the other sixth year Slytherin Prefect had been. “Pansy Parkinson,” he said eventually. “Yep, that’d be right. Though,” he went on, thinking about it, “there may not have been a lot of choice.”
Seamus looked puzzled as the four of them climbed into a carriage. “What do you mean?”
“Look around.” Neville waved a hand at the surrounding carriages. “Ron and Hermione are our Prefects – not here. Hannah Abbott left last year after her mum was killed and I haven’t seen her back again, so there goes another one. That just leaves Ernie Macmillan and the two Ravenclaws, who were all in the DA.”
“Are we starting the DA up again this year?” Luna asked suddenly.
Neville stared at her. “What?”
She pulled a gold coin out of her pocket and smiled serenely. “I’ve still got my Galleon.”
“Me too,” Seamus said, fishing in his pockets for a good while before eventually pulling out an identical coin. His eyes darted to Luna as if to say this proved his dedication to the group.
He looked at Ginny. “Yep, me as well,” she said with a grin before looking serious again. “But really, Neville, we should think about it. Something tells me we might need it.”
Neville felt railroaded. “But who would teach it? It couldn’t be me, I don’t know nearly enough. Are any of you volunteering?”
Three faces fell, and Neville breathed a sigh of relief. While re-forming the DA would have been nice, without Harry he just didn’t see how it could be possible.
They went the rest of the way to the castle in silence, the feeling of foreboding increasing the closer they got. To distract himself, Neville started watching Ginny out of the corner of his eye. He hadn’t seen her since before the holidays and while she was still as pretty as she’d always been, there was a hardness to her that hadn’t been there before. He suspected that the past couple of months were taking their toll on her much more than she liked to admit.
Neville wasn’t ashamed to admit that he’d once had a crush on Ginny, back in fourth year when she’d agreed to go with him to the Yule Ball. It had never got anywhere and besides, it had always been clear that she preferred Harry, something Neville had understood and accepted without bitterness. People like Ginny always preferred the likes of Harry over the likes of him. It was just the way things were.
When they entered the Great Hall the lack of students was even more pronounced. Less than half the seats around the long tables were occupied, the usual sea of black pointed hats a mere trickle, and the group of first years that Professor McGonagall herded in could just about be counted on two hands. Hogwarts’ new ban on Muggle-borns was clearly taking its toll.
“D’you really think that there are that many who are Muggle-born?” Seamus asked as they took their places at the Gryffindor table on the far left of the hall.
Neville shook his head. “I reckon there are a fair few who just didn’t want to come back,” he said.
“What, even with the Ministry looking for them? Isn’t attendance compulsory now?”
Neville just shrugged. “Anyone over fifth year could leave anyway,” he pointed out. “They don’t need a reason not to be here.”
“I’m not sure they’re taking that as an excuse,” Seamus said.
“Right. Good point. And who knows how many more are like Ron and pretending to be ill?”
Ginny cleared her throat noisily beside him. “Ron is ill,” she said in a tone that would book no opposition. “He has Spattergroit, remember?”
“Oh, yes, right. Sorry, Ginny.” Neville didn’t believe a word of it, and he knew that Ginny knew that, but he also understood that they had to keep up the charade. The Weasleys were in enough trouble as it was, as Ginny had intimated on the train, without them making things even more difficult for them.
They were interrupted by a loud thunderclap, and looked up to see clouds swirling angrily above them as a storm raged in. Not for the first time, Neville was thankful that it was just a mirage above them, and that there really was a ceiling to shield them from the weather. He was about to say something of the sort to Ginny, and that he hoped the tempest above wouldn’t be a portent for the year, when a hush came over the Hall as Professor McGonagall brought in the old Sorting Hat. Forgetting about the storm in his curiosity as to what it would say this year, Neville listened to its song intently.
“Welcome all, to Hogwarts where
We greet another year;
A welcome to our newest stars
And those who reappear.
Come ride with me as we explore
The roads you all shall take,
And watch with awe as fortunes rise
Or, conversely, they break.
But this year brings a different trial
With challenges anew
Which makes me wonder, as I Sort
If this is wrong to do.
Oh, bravest go to Gryffindor
As always they must head,
And cleverest to Ravenclaw –
The brightest, most well-read.
The loyal flock to Hufflepuff
Where they shall congregate,
And cunning go to Slytherin
To help them mould their fate.
But I feel a difference in the Hall
Beginning this fine year
And deference to a newer force
That once we used to fear.
So even I must hesitate
When separating all
Because I fear the day will come
When divided, they will fall.
And so I urge the Hogwarts folk
To unite for the best
And thus warned, I feel now I may
Sort those who join our nest.”
Seamus let out a low whistle. “Now there’s a warning if ever I heard one,” he said under his breath as “Burke, Constance” was Sorted into Slytherin.
Ginny nodded almost imperceptibly. “I didn’t like the sound of it either.”
Neville’s eyes were on Snape at the Head Table. The new Headmaster was sitting in Dumbledore’s place in the centre, watching the Sorting impassively and flanked by two new staff members who looked vaguely familiar. “I’m not sure Snape heard it,” he said slowly. “I’d have thought he’d have been up in arms about a message like that, but he’s just letting it go.”
Seamus looked hopeful. “Well, maybe things won’t be as bad as we’d thought,” he whispered as “Croaker, Digby” joined Ravenclaw.
“Let’s just wait and see. Maybe he couldn’t hear it over the storm.” Neville set his jaw grimly. Even though he suspected Snape had indeed let the Sorting Hat get away with what it had said, he still didn’t like the feeling he had about this year. Suppressing his feeling of dread, he scanned the staff table to see who was still there.
Fortunately, Professor McGonagall had been retained. Neville breathed a sigh of relief as “Gudgeon, Miriam” was welcomed to the Hufflepuff table – McGonagall was like the bastion of a bygone era, proof that this had once been Dumbledore’s realm. He was pleased, too, to see Professor Sprout there as well; Herbology would hopefully be untainted by the new regime. Slughorn was back as Potions master, Flitwick kept Charms, and Hagrid seemed to still be in charge of Care of Magical Creatures … even Professor Trelawney, whose Divination was the laughing stock of the school, was still there. Indeed, aside from the new arrivals – who Neville assumed must be taking the Muggle Studies and Defence Against the Dark Arts roles – the staff seemed remarkably unchanged.
He was still mulling that over his mind when “Worple, Ignatius” was Sorted into Gryffindor, and the Headmaster stood up.
As always, Snape’s face was totally unreadable. He neither smiled nor frowned, and nor did he have the triumphant look Neville had almost expected him to wear. “Welcome to a new school year,” he said silkily, his voice immediately silencing the room. “I know you are all weary and hungry from your journey, so enjoy the feast. I will detail the changes to your schedules once you have finished.”
Ginny sat up straight, her face alarmed. “Changes? What changes?” But her concerns were drowned out by the appearance of mountains of food on the table in front of them, it almost groaning under the weight.
“Well, one thing hasn’t changed,” Seamus said as he piled a plate high with roast chicken, dumplings and mashed potatoes. “No one’s told the house elves that there are less of us this year.” He heaped a forkful into his mouth appreciatively.
Neville was as bothered as Ginny about what Snape had said, but without any more information they couldn’t even really speculate. Shrugging, he got himself a plate and started following Seamus’ example. Even if Hogwarts had gone to mud, at least they would eat well.
Soon enough, though, with the storm settled and the feast – half of it uneaten – over, Snape again stood, drawing everyone’s attention. When he spoke, his voice was quiet yet commanding.
“It is time for me to introduce some new members of staff,” he said, his face still inscrutable. “Amycus Carrow has agreed to take on the role of Dark Arts professor.” A short, lumpy looking man with a lopsided stare stood up, to be greeted by less than a smattering of applause. Snape went on regardless. “We are also fortunate to have obtained the services of his sister, Alecto Carrow, who will be the new Muggle Studies instructor.”
As the equally short and ugly woman stood, Neville suddenly knew why the two newcomers looked familiar. “They’re Death Eaters,” he whispered to no one in particular. “They were here at the battle last term.”
The Headmaster, unfortunately, had noticed him speak. “Is there something you would like to share with the school, Longbottom?”
Neville gulped. Snape always had this effect on him: making him forget everything and appear the fool. “No, sir.”
“Then perhaps you should remain silent.” The contempt in Snape’s voice was palpable, and Neville wished the ground would swallow him up. He only looked up when Ginny placed a reassuring hand on his arm.
The Headmaster was continuing. “Both Professor Carrows will also be acting as my deputies. In addition, there will be a minor change in the curriculum: Muggle Studies is now a compulsory subject for all students. Your class schedules have been amended accordingly.”
Three seats down from Snape, Professor McGonagall’s lips formed the thinnest line Neville had ever seen. It was clear that she, for one, did not approve of the new arrangements.
“You should also be aware that anything purchased at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes is not permitted on the school grounds.” Neville stifled a smile – he was under the impression that it pained Snape to have to actually name Fred and George Weasley’s shop. “If you have brought any of these items with you, you must surrender them to Mr Filch after the feast. There are no exceptions to this rule.”
“Ha!” Ginny whispered next to him. “Fat chance I’ll be handing those in.”
“The message boards in your common rooms will have all information about any clubs or societies.” Snape paused. “I trust you will not make things difficult for the staff. Be aware that there will be consequences if you do.” He sat down again, his speech clearly over, and the room erupted into chatter.
“He said Dark Arts,” Ginny said quietly, looking nervously around her. “Not Defence Against the Dark Arts, but Dark Arts. Does that mean that we’re going to be learning dark magic this year?”
Neville started; he hadn’t noticed that. “Are you sure?”
Ginny nodded, a hard, determined look on her face and her fists in tight balls. “I think that’s the main change. Instead of Defence, they’re going to be teaching us the actual Dark Arts this year. They’re training us to be Death Eaters.”
Up in their dormitory, Neville and Seamus looked around in silence. It was strange being in that familiar round room, with the scarlet wall hangings and high windows and ceiling, and seeing Harry’s bed, and Ron’s, and Dean’s, knowing that all three of them would be vacant for the full year.
Seamus felt it too. “Weird, isn’t it?” he said, his voice indicating that he wasn’t sure whether he should be sounding upbeat or depressed about their situation. Neville could understand that, because he wasn’t sure how he should be feeling either. Resigned, really, to how it would be this year – that was it. Seamus was probably the same.
“I guess the question is whether we should leave these beds for them, just in case they do come later, or just spread out and make ourselves at home,” he said, then regretted it immediately. Did he sound too callous? Or was he just being practical? He didn’t know any more.
Seamus looked like he was considering this. “Leave them be for now,” he suggested. “But we’ll probably spread out anyway, won’t we?” He grinned suddenly. “I don’t mind having a bit more room. It is pretty crowded in here usually.”
Neville sat down on his bed, then stood up again quickly as he realised that Trevor had parked himself there already. Moving down the bed a couple of feet and picking the toad up fondly, he looked at the trunk at the end of it and wondered how much space he would really need. “Do you think Ginny’s right?” he asked to change the subject. “That they’re going to be teaching us the Dark Arts?”
Seamus nodded. “I noticed it too. No mention of Defence, just the Dark Arts. And with things the way they are, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
“What about Quidditch? Do you think that will be allowed?” Neville wasn’t particularly interested in Quidditch himself, but he recognised its significance to the school community. If Quidditch was being played, it all felt normal. If it was banned, then that was when the students started fighting back.
It wasn’t clear whether Seamus shared this recognition, but he was certainly a Quidditch fan and Neville’s words startled him. “Dunno. Maybe that’s what Snape meant when he said to keep an eye on the common room boards.” They’d both checked when they’d arrived, but the board was, at this stage, empty.
Neville had a feeling that Quidditch would not be allowed to proceed this year: it was something that Snape would never be able to control. He could understand, though, why the new Headmaster may not have mentioned that at the welcome feast. There was enough for people to digest without the potential for a Quidditch-based mutiny.
“I don’t like this. I don’t like it at all.” It was stating the obvious, but Neville had to say something. “Death Eaters teaching us …”
“Are you absolutely sure about them being Death Eaters?” Seamus looked sceptical. “Surely even Snape wouldn’t be that obvious.”
“I saw them last term. At the battle in the tower when Dumbledore …” Neville’s voice trailed off. He couldn’t finish the sentence, instead swallowing and starting again. “I’m positive it’s the same two.”
Seamus didn’t say anything, but his eyes widened. Not wanting to think about it, Neville opened his trunk and started putting things away, keeping to his own fifth of the room. Seamus watched him for a while, then followed suit. The silence lasted for several minutes, the only noise being the rain clattering on the windows, until Seamus broke it, his eyes on Neville’s bedside cabinet.
“You brought that?”
“What?” Neville followed Seamus’ gaze. “Oh, that. Yes, Gran bought it. She thinks it’s good to know what the other side are saying.”
“Is Rita Skeeter really on the other side?” Seamus came over and picked up Neville’s copy of The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. “I thought she was just a hack.”
“She writes for the Prophet. And whose backs are the Prophet scratching now?” Neville sat down again. “I’ve read most of it, and I reckon most of it’s rubbish. But it’s what they’re going to be saying about him so we have to know.”
Seamus was thumbing through the book. “You really feel like you can’t trust anyone now, don’t you? Except Ginny and that Luna.” His own name was conspicuous by its absence, something both of them realised.
Neville felt defensive. “Well, do you blame me?” He couldn’t shake off his doubts about Seamus, and the way he’d abandoned Harry so easily in fifth year.
Seamus sat down, facing him, the book open on his lap. “Okay, I get it, you don’t really trust me because I believed that stuff in the Prophet a couple of years back. But this is different. This is the real thing. And I hate it.” He shook his head. “Do you really think I could possibly want any of this? Everyone gone, Harry with a price on his head?” He bit his lip, and Neville got the impression he was trying to stay calm. “I just want things back the way they were.”