The boys joined the queue of students filing out of the train. Most of the students were going one way, but a voice cried out from another direction, "Firs'-years! Firs'-years over here!"
Liam followed the voice, beyond the platform cover and into a heavy mist. When he came clear of the crowd, he made an abrupt halt. The man calling out for the First-Year students was by far the largest man Liam had ever seen. He was a head taller at least than the tallest basketball player from the American sports league, but while basketball players tended to be tall and skinny, this man was broad, too. He had a shaggy mane of black hair and a wild tangle of a beard which resembled more of a bush than anything.
Michael said softly to Liam, "That's Hagrid. He's the caretaker, and he teaches the Advanced Magical Creatures classes. Archie said he's a good guy."
Liam took in another deep breath and let his fear seep out of him. "Well, if Archie says he's all right, that's good enough for me."
The giant man was counting heads. "Thir'y five, Thir'y six. That's the lot. Come on, follow me. Down the path, this way. Mind yer step." Hagrid led them with long strides down a dark narrow path, slick with rain. The others followed as best they could. Michael was in the lead now. Little Philip was doing his best to keep at Liam's heels. Around him were other students that he didn't recognize. He looked for blond Lara in the crowd, but couldn't pick her out. Everyone had cloaks and hats on.
Hagrid turned his head and called back to the group, "You'll get yer firs' look o' the castle in jus' a minute." The mist was too thick to see the castle, however. All that Liam could see was a slate grey lake below a curtain of mist.
Liam had doubted he would ever see a man as large as Hagrid, yet, there on the lakeside was someone even bigger - eighteen feet tall and covered in an odd assortment of animal pelts. Several of the young children started and huddled together at the sight of him. Michael was one of the few who didn't seem afraid.
"Who's that?" whispered Liam.
"Oh, it's just Mr. Grawp," said Michael, easily. "They're brothers, him and Hagrid, from what I hear. He's a friendly bloke by all accounts."
"Brothers? How did that one get so bloody tall?"
"He's a giant, o'course."
Before them, on the edge of the lake were several small boats. "Go on, now," urged Hagrid. "No more 'n four to a boat."
The children were beginning to fan out across the edge of the lake to choose their boat. Liam took a quick look to his left and tried again to spot Lara in the crowd. He had a fleeting notion that it would be nice to sit next to her during the ride across the lake, but it was not to be. Instead, Liam helped Philip into the boat, then stepped in himself, with Michael following. The bench seats were slick with rain, but their cloaks kept the boys' pants from getting wet.
Right after Michael clambered another boy. Liam joined Philip on the bow bench to make room. The other two seemed to know the newcomer. "Oi Fortney," said Michael.
"Hey, Mike, Philip." The boy extended a hand to Liam. "I'm Niles Fortney."
"There's another lad 'round here named Niles," said Fortney. "Grew up together, we all did. Been going by our last names since we were wee lads, the two of us."
Liam nodded. "How we going to get across the lake?" he asked. "There's no oars." But just then, the boats started moving on their own.
"Who would row across a lake?" asked Fortney, puzzled.
"Crew teams do," said Liam coolly, not wanting to explain that he was Muggle-born.
"Oh, yeah," said Fortney, though Liam wasn't sure the boy knew what a crew team was. "How 'bout sorting, eh? Right around the corner now, isn't it?"
Michael once again said his spiel about the four Hogwarts Houses. Liam had it down pat, now: Gryffendors were heroes, Hufflepuffs were duffers but that was bunk, Ravenclaws were smart and Slytherins used to be evil but may not be anymore. "If that kid Cyrus Kane ends up in Slytherin," said Liam, "'I reckon they're all still evil."
The other boys laughed. "You met Cyrus, did you?" asked Fortney.
"Got the better of that spoiled little brat, he did," said Michael with a wide grin. "Liam put him right in his place."
"Good!" said Fortney. "'Bout time someone did."
Liam could make out the far shore now, a great stone cliff face. The castle was still shrouded for the most part in mist. A few of the tower lights blinked in the darkness. The lake water was smooth, save for the little rings left by the raindrops. Liam tested the water with his hand. It was cold, but not quite as cold as he thought it might be.
"Be careful," said Philip. "There's Merpeople down there."
"Mermaids?" asked Liam. Philip nodded. "Any cute ones?"
Philip laughed. "I don't think so. I saw a mermaid in a Muggle movie once. Merpeople don't look at all like that."
"How do the older kids get up to the castle?"
"In a carriage," Michael answered.
"A carriage? And we're stuck out here in the rain?"
Micheal shrugged. "It's tradition."
The great cliff drew nigh. Liam looked up, trying to get a better view of the castle, but he could see nothing but the rain falling down upon his cheeks. The boat in front of them was swallowed by the cliff face. They passed through a veil of ivy into a dark tunnel, dank and smelling of algae but they were finally free of the mist.
Up they came to a stone wharf. Hagrid was waiting for them with the first of the students. When the boat came astride, Liam leapt easily onto the stone platform, then he reached a hand out to Philip. Michael disembarked without mishap, but Fortney slipped on the wet stone and nearly tumbled into the water.
"Easy there, now," said Hagrid. "Watch yer step."
Beside him the next boat drew up, and there was Lara. Liam offered her his hand. She blushed and stared at it without moving. "Come on," he urged. "I owe you the favour from earlier."
Reluctantly, she took his hand, and he pulled her up to the pier. Her friends followed, but neither Michael or Fortney rushed forward to help them. Her feet on solid ground again, Lara deftly pulled her hand from Liam and scurried away from him.
Hagrid made a quick count again. "Thir'y six. Good. No one drowned." There was a twinkle in his dark eyes as he said that, though Liam didn't think it particularly funny. Beside Hagrid, a lantern was hanging from a post. He took it in his great hands. "Follow me, now, up the stairs we go."
He led them up a narrow, winding stone staircase, leading to a soft, damp lawn. The rain had stopped, and all was still and quiet. Before them was a great wooden door. Hagrid gave it three firm knocks. The sounds echoed in the still night air.
The door opened, and there stood a thin bald man. He was tall, but Hagrid made him look average-sized. "The Firs' Years, Professor Gregor," said Hagrid.
"Thank you Hagrid," said the man in a low voice. "I shall take them from here."
Professor Gregor led the children into the Entrance Hall, a room as grand and airy as a concert hall. Before them was a magnificent marble staircase, and two their left were two tall wooden doors. Beyond the doors, Liam could hear the clatter of many voices. The rest of the students were there already and waiting for them.
Professor Gregor did not lead the First Years through the door, but to a small chamber off to the side. "The Start of Term Banquet is about to begin," said Professor Gregor, his voice low and strong. "But first, you must be sorted into Houses. The House to which you are sorted will be your family while you are here at Hogwarts. Some of you will have the privilege of joining me in Slytherin, but each of the Houses have produced their share of great wizards. Where ever you land, you should be proud, and know that you belong.
"Please wait here. When we are ready, I shall return for you."
The children had been bunched tightly together. Once the professor left, they began to spread out some, and to separate, with the girls ending up on one side of the chamber and the boys on the other.
Liam found Cyrus Kane in the crowd of boys. He was standing beside another boy, but he was not nearly as confident without his older friend. Liam gave him a warning glare and then turned his back on him.
Lara was watching him. He flashed her a smile, a copy of the roguish smile his father often wore. She blushed and turned away from him.
"You fancy that one, do ya?" Michael commented, quietly.
"Yeah, but I don't think she fancies me." Liam figured he would say it before Michael did.
"There's a platinum blond 'round here somewhere," said Michael. "She's a real looker, you know, for eleven."
Professor Gregor was back. His dark eyes swept the room, and settled on a tall boy in the back, leaning against the stone wall, a black hood over his head. "You there," said Gregor, pointing. "You're head should be uncovered. It is not raining here in the castle. He stared and waited for the boy to comply, then swept the room once more. Satisfied, he said, "Follow me." The students fell into two more or less equal lines of boys and girls, and followed the professor into the Great Hall.
At first, all Liam was aware of was the hundreds of faces gazing curiously at him and the others. Some of the students looked as young and small as Philip. Others were as grown-up looking as Michael's cousin, Archie. The gazes were friendly, for the most part, yet it was still intimidating to be in front of everyone.
The students gathered in two rows in front of the teacher's table, with the girls in front and the boys behind them. The girl in front of Liam was fairly short. He could easily see past her to the students seated on their four long tables.
Directly in front of them was a stool, on which sat a tattered hat. A rip opened at the base of the hat, and suddenly, the hat was singing a funny little song about the Hogwarts founders. The older students clapped along and nodded their heads as the hat sang, and when it was done, they all burst into applause.
They quickly fell silent, however, as Professor Gregor stood before them with a long scroll. "First years, listen for your name," he intoned deeply. "When I call for you, please sit on the stool and place the hat on your head." He gazed at the list and called out in a loud voice, "Ables, Vanessa."
Here was the platinum blond that Michael had noticed earlier. She was indeed beautiful, with white blond hair flowing halfway down her back. She had a graceful, dainty walk and did not seem to be at all intimidated by being first. She set the hat lightly on her head and waited. There was a moment of hushed silence, and then the hat cried out, "Slytherin!"
Liam watched the girl walk over to the Slytherin table, where she was greeted warmly by the prefects, their cloaks trimmed in green and silver. "Like a veela, she is," whispered Michael. Liam nodded in agreement, though he had no idea what a veela was. Vanessa was so captivating, in fact, that Liam entirely missed the next name. He was only aware that another girl had taken Vanessa's place when the hat cried out, "Ravenclaw!"
As this girl took her place among the purple hued Ravenclaws, Professor Gregor called out, "Bendrix, Michael."
Michael made his way up to the stool, sat down and plopped the hat awkwardly down on his head. It was hardly there a moment when the hat called out, "Hufflepuff!" This caused a murmur of laughter amongst the students, but Michael ignored it, or simply didn't hear it at all. He happily took a seat at the Hufflepuff table next to his cousin.
As the names were called one by one, Liam took the time to examine his surroundings. The hall looked for all the world to be open to the night sky, but this was clearly not the case. The rain continued, but none fell onto the floor. "Nice bit of magic, that," he thought to himself. Another thing that impressed him were the candles floating in mid-air. "Bet they don't have none of this at Smeltings or Thursgood's."
"Guishar, Lara." This snapped Liam back to attention. Lara fell out of the line and went over to the stool. The hat sunk down onto her head, right to her eyebrows. She sat perfectly still on her stool, but gave a start when the hat called out, "Hufflepuff!"
Lara for a moment sat glued to the stool. Slowly, she rose, set the hat down, and walked to the table where Michael and Niles Fortney were already sitting.
The next name was Harkenborough, Philip, and he too was quickly placed into Hufflepuff. "Everyone I've met so far has been a Hufflepuff," Liam mused to himself.
Kane, Cyrus was the one exception. The hat had barely settled on his head when it called out, "Slytherin!"
The only other name amongst the middle students that stuck out in Liam's mind was the tall surly boy who had been scolded for wearing his hood indoors. His head now uncovered, Liam could see that McLaggen, Roan, had shaggy blond hair and slightly bucked teeth. He went to Gryffendor.
Soon, there were only a handful left. A spirited red-haired girl, Roycester, Gillian, ran up to the hat with a wide grin on her freckled face. She set it on her head without sitting down. The hat called out immediately, "Gryffendor!" The girl jumped and shot her fist into the air as the Gryffendor table broke out in applause. There were even some wolf whistles. Gillian just did remember to put down the hat before she ran over to the Gryffendor table, where she was given hugs by several tall, red-haired freckled boys. "Her brothers, I hope," thought Liam.
Ruel, Ronald was next, a short boy with round spectacles. He went to Ravenclaw. Sumner, Gordon, who Liam recognized as the boy that Hermione Granger was speaking to on the train platform, went to Slytherin. And then there were two.
Thompson, Sadie, was the short girl with dark brown hair who had been standing in front of Liam the whole time. When Sumner's name was called, she turned and gave Liam a nervous smile. He smiled encouragingly back at her. The hat made a quick call on her, too: Ravenclaw.
Liam walked slowly up to the stool. He was sure at this point that most of the students had lost interest in the proceedings and were simply impatient for the feast to begin. He sat down and set the hat on his head.
Immediately, he heard a soft voice in his ear, "The last one, and finally, a bit of a challenge. The others have been so easy to place. But, what have we here? Some decent brains, good nerves, and a hint of ambition. You have a strong affinity with magic, too. So, where shall I put you?"
Liam had a ready answer. "I would like to go to Hufflepuff, please."
The hat was quite taken aback by this request. "Hufflepuff? Why there?"
"My friends, the boys on the train, they're all in Hufflepuff." And Lara too, he thought to himself, though he was too shy to say it.
It crossed Liam's mind just then that, if the hat knew about his brains and ambition and all that, it might know about Lara, too. If the hat had read his thoughts, however, it gave no indication. "You haven't known those boys very long," said the hat, evenly. "I could put you in Gryffendor, and you'd have new friends by the end of the night."
"I like my old friends fine, thank you," answered Liam, nervously.
"So," said the hat softly, "above all, you are loyal." In a loud voice it called out, "Hufflepuff!"
[Next up: The Badger's Den!]
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