Chapter 32 : Of Knights in Filthy Armour
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I could see him across the room, surrounded by dozens of people who had been fighting for his attention ever since the last song had ended. He was smiling, running his fingers through his messy hair and I could feel my heart beat faster as I got closer.
“You two looked adorable,” Athena Notte sighed as she leaned on James’s shoulder; she looked stunning in a black silky dress with her neat updo slightly coming undone and the straps on her shoulder threatening to slide off.
I stopped, breathing in slowly. Maybe I would have felt more comfortable if I hadn’t been squished into a dress that severely restricted my mobility and threatened to burst with each step I took, but it was too late to turn back now.
James looked up just as I was close enough to hear Freddie complain about his best friend’s uninspired dancing skills and I wished I had been doing something less weird than lingering at the fringe of the group like a stalker; especially when I panicked and, for lack of a better idea, waved at him.
He stared at me for an unbearably long moment and I hugged my arms around my torso, considering flight. But before I could move, James had detached himself from his friends and walked over to me
“I just wanted to say thank you,” I said quickly and tucked my hair behind my ears as my face glowed with heat. “For doing this.”
James shrugged; I had forgotten it for a moment but the sober expression on his face reminded me again that we hadn’t exactly parted amicably the last time. “It’s no big deal. Hector’s my friend.”
“Right. Still, it was nice.” I cleared my throat, already preparing to turn away, when James suddenly grabbed my arm.
“Woodley,” he said quickly and I stopped mid-turn, only vaguely aware that I was holding my breath as I looked at him, “that doesn’t mean I only did it for him.”
He grinned before stepping closer - his hand still grasping my arm - and, despite not having had any alcohol, I suddenly felt mildly drunk as I smiled back at him.
“What the hell are you doing?” The voice wasn’t loud, yet there was an angry urgency to it that made me snap out of my drowsy stupor; Albus Potter was glaring at his brother, his jaw clenched as though he was trying hard to contain himself. “You know you shouldn’t be talking to her.”
He didn’t look at me as he said it, but there was no doubt who he was talking about and I my stomach dropped a few inches.
James shook his head, trying to maintain a casual attitude, but I could see the muscles in his neck tense up. “Just shut up, Al.”
“Mum told us to stay away from her.” Albus hissed, still acting as though I was not standing right next to him, and I felt like somebody had kicked me in the gut. I had, of course, suspected that Albus, like most of the castle, thought I was responsible for what had happened to him and I could hardly blame him, but the reality of it was still crushing.
James’s brow furrowed as he glared at his little brother. “Which part of shut up didn’t you understand?”
“It’s fine!” I said before Albus could retaliate, only vaguely noticing that my voice sounded rather curt. James looked at me - somewhat pitying - and I instinctively lifted my chin up. “It’s – I should be going anyway. So – um – bye.”
James’s voice mingled with the beats of the music, but I had already turned around and walked away, fighting the urge to run.
I let my head drop backwards, allowing it to sink into the soft pillow until my ears were covered completely, drowning out the soft patter of rain against the tall windows. I forced my eyes to close, distracting my mind with - as Katie had put it - happy thoughts, but the voices trickled back in - first slowly then flooding my brain with a plethora of unwanted images that penetrated the darkness.
Did Albus Potter really believe that I had had something to do with his poisoning? We had barely even known each other and, if anything, it had been him who had started talking to me, not the other way round. After years of passing through Hogwarts undetected, I had somehow managed to maneuver myself into the worst possible situation. In just a couple of months had gone from perfect student and law-abiding Prefect to notorious potions dealer and crazy stalker.
‘Elizabeth Woodley, there is a plot against you’.
The words echoed faintly in my head and I groaned and flopped onto my stomach, burying my face in my pillow as though I could muffle my overactive brain. Once again, it looked as though I was going to spend the night trying to pinpoint the exact moment my life had turned into a trainwreck.
There was a bang and something heavy fell onto my legs, prompting me to flail my arms wildly around my head in an attempt to ward off whatever was attacking me.
“Seth,” the voice said again, “relax. It’s only me.”
It took my brain a while to absorb the words as they seeped into my muddled consciousness and I blinked rapidly as Katie’s slightly hazy shape slowly came into focus in front of me. “What - what time is it?”
“Almost noon,” she said and my mind instantly jolted awake.
“What? I’m late!” I cried out, peeling myself out of the cozy blanket before clumsily waddling off towards my wardrobe where I began to haphazardly pull out bits and pieces that mildly resembled the grey school uniform. I had just yanked the sleeves of my white shirt over my pyjama top when Katie called out my name once more, stopping me as I tried to pull my tights over my flannel trousers.
“It’s Saturday,” she said, looking somewhat concerned as she examined my sloppy dressing job. “I didn’t want to wake you. You needed the sleep.”
“Oh.” I looked around the empty room, not quite sure what I was looking for, and then slowly sank back onto my bed, the blue and bronze tie dangling sadly around my neck. “Right.”
“I would have let you sleep but it’s almost twelve and I got the whole day planned out.” Katie produced a glittery pink notebook from her pocket and opened it in her lap, her index finger trailing the page as she read aloud. “I booked us the all-around beauty package at Gisele’s, then lunch at that new place next to Madame Puddifoot’s. If it stops raining, we can stroll around town a bit, check out the shops. If not, we’ll just buy loads of chocolate and have a girls’ night in.”
“Um, okay?” My brain was still sluggish and I struggled to follow Katie’s recital, hoping that she had not been serious about Gisele’s. “What about Tarquin?”
“What about him?” She shrugged nonchalantly but faltered a little when I raised my eyebrows at her. “I just,” she sighed, closing her calendar with a snap. “I feel like I haven’t been a great friend lately.”
“That’s not true, Kat,” I said quickly, ridding myself of the uniform shirt that had gotten stuck on my pyjama top, making me feel as though I was laced up in a straightjacket.
“No it is. I’ve been absorbed in my relationship.”
“Which is totally normal.”
“It shouldn’t be,” Katie said fiercely. “You’ve been dealing with so much awful stuff lately and I haven’t been there.” She took my hand in hers, studying my fingers for a moment before looking up at me. “So will you please let me take you to the beauty salon?”
The little shops were bustling with people, as were the cobbled streets that wound their way through the village. I could see a sea of brightly coloured umbrellas rubbing against each other as I peered out the large ornate shop window of Gisele’s Magical Beauty Salon & Supply, but my head was yanked back instantly by the heavily made-up woman who was running her perfectly manicured fingers through my hair.
“How about an extensions-charm, love?” She said, pinching a strand of wavy hair and critically examining the ends that barely grazed my collarbone.
“Um, no thanks,” I said quickly, sneaking a glance at Katie, who had already been supplied with an impressive dome-shaped updo by Gisele herself. “Just a trim, please.”
Katie grinned, her eyes closed firmly as a young witch with dangerously long fingernails applied liberal amounts of glittery purple eyeshadow not only to her lids but all the way up to her eyebrows.
“Maybe you should dye your hair pink.”
“Oh, no!” The woman who was pulling on my hair, trying to twist the short strands into tiny ringlets, said very seriously as she shook her head, making her chandelier earrings jingle. “That would look horrible with your complexion, sweetie.”
“Can you remember that time we tried to dye my mum’s old cat pink?” Katie mumbled through the attempts of her stylist to put lipstick on her.
“Oh my god, of course.” I snorted. “We stalked him all day.”
“He didn’t know what hit him.”
“Poor Mr. Snuggles.”
“May he rest in peace,” Katie sighed.
“You were right.” I turned my head towards her as much as I was able to with someone pulling and teasing my hair as though it wasn’t attached to an actual person. “This is really nice. Thanks.”
It was getting dark when we finally trudged back up to the castle, blending into the stream of students, some of whom were giving us strange looks as we passed them. Rain was still pelting down hard and Katie and I had huddled together underneath her tiny pink umbrella, which was just enough to protect our horrible hairdos and makeup, but otherwise quite useless against the slanting downpour.
“I’m so hungry I could actually eat a hippogriff.” Katie looked wistfully towards the castle that had just come into view atop the hill; its windows glowed brilliantly despite the rain, radiating warmth and comfort like no other place could.
“Who would have thought that Chez Marco would be such a failure,” she sighed and shook her head, the beehive atop of it moving with her as though it was made of cement.
“It should have been a tip off that they spelled it “Chess”, though.” I laughed, feeling a sort of giddiness that I hadn’t felt in a while. I might not have realised it before, but I had really needed this day with Katie; away from all the drama and the rumours.
“Yeah.” Katie frowned as we joined the queue that was pushing towards the softly lit entrance of the castle, desperate to get out of the rain. “It should have tipped us off.”
We let ourselves be swept along through the wide doors, but as soon as we had reached the Entrance Hall, the excited buzz suddenly ebbed away, fading to a low, ominous mutter.
“What’s wrong?” Katie asked as she craned her neck. “Why are we all standing here?”
“Maybe Peeves blocked the Great Hall again,” I said, balancing on my tiptoes to get a better overview. It wouldn’t have been the first time that the poltergeist had taken advantage of the almost empty castle to wreak havoc. He usually stuck around to watch the confusion and chaos unravel, though; strangely, however, there was no sight of him anywhere.
It was then that I finally realised what everyone else was looking at: They were standing on the stairs like statues - tall and unmoving as they surveyed the murmuring crowd beneath them - with a stony-faced Minerva McGonagall in the middle, surrounded by the Heads of Houses. Her eyes travelled over the crowd, observing every detail, before finally settling on me. Suddenly, as though on cue, people began to step away from Katie and me, forming a small circle around us, and I could feel my stomach clenching up in fear as more and more faces turned towards me.
“Miss Woodley.” A chill ran down my spine as McGonagall’s voice carried through the Entrance Hall, magnified by the vaulted ceiling, instantly muting the crowd like a magic spell. “Follow me.”
“No,” Katie hissed as she wrapped her hand around my arm. “Seth -”
“It’s OK,” I said calmly, softly prising off her fingers as I tried to ignore the stares and whispers around us. “I’ll see you later.” I tried to smile although the sudden urge to vomit may have interfered with my attempt at reassuring coolness.
This couldn’t be good.
In fact, this probably was a disaster.
There was a new plant on Professor McGonagall’s desk; but it wasn’t so much its writhing tentacles that worried me but the fact that I had noticed. I had been to the headmistress’s office so often this year that I could tell when she got a new potted plant.
“Take a seat,” she said curtly as she walked around her desk and I let myself sink into one of the chairs, simultaneously trying to hide the sleeves of my grey jumper, which glittered with the electric blue eyeshadow I had furiously tried to wipe off my face as I had ascended the stairs to the tower.
Whatever was going on, I was sure that looking like a mid-eighties drag queen would not help the situation.
“Miss Woodley.” The headmistress didn’t sit down but simply stood behind her desk, looking somewhat exhausted. “Can you identify this?” She had dug her hand into the pocket of her swishing cloak and produced something small and glittery. It took me a moment to realise what it was, but when I did, I could feel my heart plummet to my stomach, causing a paralysing wave of nausea that caused my throat to swell.
This was impossible.
It simply couldn’t be.
“I take it you know what this is?” She said drily and, as though in a trance, I nodded.
“I thought so,” she sighed, placing the vial on the desk in front of her, “since it has your fingerprints all over it.”
The silence was thick and heavy as all eyes were on me, waiting for me to confess, but my mouth had gone dry and my head was spinning as I stared at the small glass container that was filled to the brim with Graviditas potion.
How was this even possible? In order for the test to work, Felicity would have had to use it all; there shouldn’t be anything left. There couldn’t be anything left.
“We found this in your nightstand,” McGonagall continued, her voice sounding as though she was standing far away.
“My nightstand,” I repeated lamely, still not fully grasping the situation.
“Yes. We searched your room on an anonymous tip.”
Her words rung in my head as I was seized by panic. This was it. I didn’t know why or how, but my life had spiralled out of control and there was nothing I could do. My family was going to be notified - probably they were on their way already - and I was going to be expelled.
The wave of fear that had paralysed me at first, gave way to my flight instinct that kicked in, making my legs pulse as all my blood rushed to my feet. But I knew that there was no point in running and so - as the image of my mother popped into my head - I decided to do the only other thing I could think of: I was going to own it.
“I - I was desperate,” I finally said, my voice sounding steadier than I felt as I forced myself to look up at the headmistress. “I was in a bad situation and I didn’t know what else to do.”
My cheeks had turned violently red even though, technically, this wasn’t a lie. I had been in a bad situation after Sam had given me the stolen ingredients. From the corner of my eye, however, I could see the disappointed expression on Slughorn’s face as he drew the wrong conclusion; just as I had hoped they all would.
“You - you mean you-” McGonagall didn’t finish the sentence but exchanged quick looks with the other teachers before clearing her throat. “You should have consulted Madame Pomfrey.”
“I couldn’t,” I said quickly, “She would have told my parents, even if the result had been negative.”
Again, this was perfectly true; every administration of a pregnancy test implied the immediate notification of the student’s parents. That I actually hadn’t been the one needing the test really was a minor detail at this point.
“So you admit to stealing the ingredients from Professor Slughorn’s cabinet and brewing a restricted potion?” McGonagall looked at me with raised eyebrows almost as though she was expecting me to suddenly laugh and shout “Psych!”.
“Yes.” I said as firmly as I could, “It was -”
There was a dull bang, followed by a string of muffled swear words, and I swivelled around in my chair, just as the door to the office flew open and a tall figure stumbled into the circular room.
“It was me!” James Potter shouted, clutching one hand to his side and panting heavily. His hair was matted and wet and his usually red Quidditch gear was smeared with dirt. “Woodley made the potion for me!”
There was a moment of stunned silence as both McGonagall and the Heads of Houses stared at him in complete shock. For the first time in my life I saw the headmistress flustered, her eyes wide as she seemed to struggle for words.
“James? How did you- ? What are you- ?”
“I asked her to help me,” James said firmly, now breathing more evenly as he walked further into the office, leaving blotches of sludge in his wake. “For – um – a friend.”
“No! No he didn’t,” I said quickly, not quite sure what the hell was going on. “Potter has got nothing to do with this, headmistress.”
James simply shook his head as he turned to me, a pitiful expression on his face. “It’s OK, Woodley.” His voice was low and soothing, as though he was talking to an agitated toddler. “You don’t have to lie anymore.”
“I’m not lying,” I stuttered lamely, still unable to fully grasp the situation. “The potion is mine.” I turned back to McGonagall and gave her an imploring look. “I stole the ingredients. I made it. All by myself. Why would I lie about this?”
My reasoning seemed to jolt her out of her perplex silence, for when she spoke again, her voice was as fierce as ever. “Yes, James. Why would Miss Woodley take the blame if it wasn’t hers to take?”
I watched James bite his lip, his brows furrowed as he stared at the headmistress. A streak of drying mud was smeared across his cheek, hiding the yellow of the emerging bruise underneath.
“Because – well,” he finally said, “Woodley’s in love with me.”
There was a second of silence, but I hardly noticed as I spun around in my chair, almost hurling myself off the seat.
“What?” I practically shouted. “What are you talking about?” I turned back to McGonagall, unable to conceal the panic in my voice. “I am not in love with him.”
Unfortunately, no one seemed to be very impressed by my indignation - least of all James Potter.
“I knew that Woodley was in love with me and that she would help me if I asked her.”
What on earth was he doing?
This entire thing was so ridiculous, I was sure McGonagall wouldn’t buy into this cock-and-bull story; but - to my horror - she suddenly sighed, comprehension dawning on her face.
“James, I thought we got past that phase.”
“I know, I’m sorry Professor.”
I was shaking my head before actual words came out of my mouth. “It’s not true!” I sounded desperate as I addressed the Heads of Houses that stood behind the headmistress, all looking slightly uncomfortable. At least Flitwick and Slughorn had to believe me; they had to know that I wouldn’t do something like this to impress a boy. “I don’t know why Potter is doing this, but it’s not true.”
A sort of wrinkle appeared on Slughorn’s forehead and, for a moment, I was sure they were reconsidering. However, before they could make up their mind, James had walked up to McGonagall’s desk, his dirt-caked Quidditch boots squelching almost comically with every step he took.
“If you examine the vial again, you will find my fingerprints on it.”
It was true. I had completely forgotten about this, but James was right; the vial would have his fingerprints all over it. After all it had been him who had delivered it to Sam.
“OK, well… you – you might, but – “ I stammered, frantically searching for a way to explain this without dragging Sam into the whole mess, but McGonagall’s voice cut right through my lame excuses.
“I have heard enough. I think I don’t have to express how very disappointed I am; in the both of you.” She paused for a second to remove her glasses and placed them on her desk, not looking at James or me. I hadn’t noticed before how exhausted she looked, but as the candle light flickered on her face, the lines around her eyes seemed deeper than ever. “Mr. Potter will lay down his captaincy as he is banned from the Gryffindor Quidditch team for at least the next game. Miss Woodley is relieved of her Prefect duties effective immediately. Both of you are asked to return your badges to your Heads of Houses by tomorrow. There will be additional punishment, of course, which will be in the form of –“
I blinked as McGonagall’s voice faded to mere background noise and the reality of the situation hit me, leaving a sour taste in my mouth. I was no longer a Prefect; what was worse, however, was that I had dragged someone else down with me.
As I glanced at James’s profile, I could see the tension in his jaw, the line on his forehead as he stood tall, listening to the rest of the sentence. I could only imagine how it must feel for him to lose Quidditch.
But I hadn’t asked for this; for him to take the blame. I hadn’t asked him to put himself on the line when I was trying so hard to keep everyone else out of my mess. I felt a sudden bout of anger about his reckless behaviour; about the fact that he had put me in the awful position of costing him so much.
Looking back at it, it all seemed like a blur; I had only half-listened to the rest of McGonagall’s punishment, which included a couple of delightful hours of manual cleaning chores. Now that the door to the winding staircase had closed behind us, the sudden silence felt smothering. I glanced at James, whose face seemed unusually pallid in the gloomy light that trickled through the narrow windows; he looked somewhat sick, as though he was going to throw up, and I felt another wave of anger crawl up my spine. He had acted as he always did; thoughtlessly. And now he had gotten himself into this awful situation and, ultimately, it was all my fault.
“Are you insane?”
I was surprised by how aggressive my voice sounded as it bounced off the stone walls around us. For a moment James looked at me, bewildered; there was a dried smear of dirt across his slightly crooked nose and it just hit me that he must have come here straight from practice.
“You’re welcome!” He snarled, sarcasm oozing from every word. He looked like someone had dragged him through the mud and I once again I wondered how someone could get that dirty flying around on a broomstick.
“Why on earth would you do something so stupid?”
“I was saving -“
“Don’t you dare say it, Potter!” I snapped at him before he could finish his sentence, my arms knotted tightly in front of my chest. Deep down I knew that I was overreacting, but logical thought wasn’t exactly reigning my faculties at the moment.
“Without me you would have been expelled!” James was yelling by now, his brow furrowed as he glared at me.
“I was handling it, okay?”
“Oh sure, you were doing great, Woodley!”
I could tell by his tone that he was livid with me, but the feeling was mutual. I didn’t know why I was so angry, but the sensation was so strong that it cancelled out every ounce of reason I possessed.
“I was before your ridiculous performance!”
James shook his head so violently that actual drops of water lodged themselves from his hair and were now dripping down his dirt-caked face. “I can’t even – how can one person be that stubborn!”
“I’m not stubborn!”
“You!” He pointed at me and I was sure that if he had been holding his wand, it would have emitted a couple of sparks. “You are driving me mad!”
“Well, back at you!”
James opened his mouth and I was sure he was going to retaliate, but, instead, he just shook his head again before suddenly turning around and walking away.
“Your friend is a nutcase!” He muttered as he passed a thick stone pillar against which – and I only just realised this – Katie was standing like a statue, her face white and anxious as she watched James vanish into the darkness of the corridor.
The rain was hitting the ground hard, only slowly seeping into the still frozen earth. Technically, it was still winter in Scotland but, came March, there was a sort of vacuum when it didn’t quite feel like winter anymore but spring was still too far away to even imagine walking outside without being wrapped into a thick coat.
“OK,” Katie broke the silence that had settled between us while we had been watching the rain from the porticoed hallway that circled the courtyard. She had led me here – away from possibly prying crowds – and I had simply followed, unable to even think straight. “You’ve got to fill me in here. What happened?
I took a deep breath, feeling somewhat disoriented as I tried to arrange the rogue thoughts in my head in the proper order. “They found out about the Graviditas.”
I nodded, experiencing a mild rush of panic as realisation hit me once again. “McGonagall had the vial. The exact vial I put the potion in before giving it to Sam.”
“But – that’s impossible,” Katie whispered even though we were quite alone in the courtyard, her brow furrowed with concern; she was still wearing the flashy beauty salon makeup and I suddenly remembered that all this time – during McGonagall’s lecture and the fight with James – I must have looked like a very shabby clown with powdery blue blotches around my eyes and unnaturally pink cheeks.
“Did James rat you out?” She asked and I could hear the indignation in her voice. “Because if –“
“No – no, he – he didn’t,” I said quickly before taking a deep breath, the cold, wet air stinging in my throat as it travelled to my lungs. I had trouble getting my jumbled thoughts to form a coherent account of what had just happened, but the entire thing didn’t make much sense to me, no matter how long I thought about it. “He – he claimed that he asked me for the potion. He said I made it to help him because I was in love with him.”
Katie faltered, “He – what?”
“I mean, can you believe him?” I knotted my arms tighter around my torso.
“Seth.” Her voice was calm, sober and I knew what she was about to say.
“No.” I shook my head as I tried to avoid Katie’s eyes. I simply wasn’t read to hear it.
“He saved you.”
“No!” I said again, this time a little sharper, but my voice cracked oddly as a large lump grew in my throat.
“I know you hate to hear this, but he did,” Katie said, her breath fogging up as it mingled with the damp air. “They would have expelled you.”
“I had it all under control.”
Katie threw her arms up in a sort of exasperated manner. “For god’s sake, Seth, they would have EXPELLED you!”
I bit my lip as I stared at my dirt-caked trainers, wondering if the horrible feeling in my stomach would ever go away, before saying very quietly, “He had to give up his captaincy”.
“And he is banned from playing for at least the next game.” I turned to Katie, hoping that she would understand; that she knew I hadn’t meant for this to happen. “I didn’t ask him to do this.”
She nodded and put a hand on my shoulder. “But he did.”
I looked up at my best friend and suddenly – before I even realised it – I had started to cry.
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