Chapter 6: The sorting
Xander couldn't help but smile at the towering figure.
"It was totally awesome, dude."
Hagrid's big hairy face broke into a broad grin.
"Glad ya liked it, Harry."
He seemed to be doing some mental arithmetic before nodding and calling for the gathered students to follow him.
The half-giant led the gathered students away from the train platform, and down what seemed to be a steep, narrow path paved with stone. To either side of the path was a great looming darkness that gave the impression of a thick forest of trees. Xander found himself thankful of the light shining from the great staff Hagrid was walking with. He could hear Neville taking deep breaths behind him.
Hagrid said something that was muffled by the distance, and the students between them. His words became apparent as the downward trend of the path flattened out into a broad walkway paved in smooth red stone slabs.
Along the walkway, Xander could see railings with orbs of light glowing so softly they might as well not have been there at all. On the far side from where they descended, he could just see the path continued beyond them winding around a bend and out of sight; it was also paved with smaller slabs of the same stone.
Once Hagrid was sure all the other first years had finished descending the steep path, he lead them down the pathway. As they approached the bend in the trail, the looming darkness all around them began to clear away. He could see the stone of the path, receding off into the distance beneath the water's edge, and in the distance, a small mountain on the other side of a great black lake. Partially carved into the stone of the mountainside, and jutting out in great towering spires, turrets, and towers, stood a vast castle. The last rays of the setting sun cast a sharp relief on the smooth white stone of the walls, from the distance, the sloped blue stone tile of the roof gleamed in the fading light.
There were a great many windows, reflecting sunlight on one side, and in the shaded relief glowing from within. Great swirls of golden tracery scrolled their way across the white stone walls, in a way that Xander could almost swear looked like cursive in an alphabet he'd never seen before. Around the edge of the castle and extending out into the forest in the distance he could see stone fortifications and the occasional tower, from which banners of green waved.
Behind him he heard the excited whisper of another first year.
"The banners change color to represent the house that won the previous year's house cup, I read about it in Hogwarts: A History."
Xander's cheeks hurt from the grin of excitement, and he murmured his own exclamation of appreciation with the rest of the students. This, this was exactly the sort of castle one went to, when needing to learn magic, Xander thought.
When, they'd all finished drinking in the sight of the castle, Hagrid called their attention to the wooden rowboats at the water's edge. They were tied to a series of hitching points, each one alternating between the shape of four animals: a raven sitting low on the ground, head cocked to the side, one beady eye facing the path, the other aimed at the lake; a large head of a snake rising from somewhere beneath the stone; a badger sitting up on its haunches, forepaws held off the ground; and a small lion sitting on its haunches; as he drew closer, he noticed that each of the statues seemed to hold a different pose than the previous.
Xander heard Hagrid's declaration, regarding the number of people for each boat and looked around the group, quickly spotting Ron being pulled towards a boat by Hermione. Catching Ron's eye and chuckling at the panicked expression in the other boy's face, he waived.
"Looks like Hermione's got the right idea," Xander said to Neville. "Want to join them?" he asked.
Neville shrugged, he was eyeing the water nervously, but as Xander had already started moving, the other boy had to rush to catch up.
"Hey, wait for me!"
Somewhere up ahead, Xander heard the blond-haired boy from the shopping trip rather loudly complain about how muggle it was to use boats instead of flying carpets, or brooms. By this point they'd drawn up next to Hermione and Ron.
"The ministry banned flying carpets, which included the legacy carpets held by Hogwarts that would have been used traditionally," said Hermione, flushing pink again when the other three turned to look at her. "What? I read about it, in Hogwarts: A history," she said, as if daring them to say something more.
"Everyone in?" shouted Hagrid, once it appeared that everyone had settled into a boat. "Right then," from within the folds of his large overcoat, he withdrew a conspicuous pink umbrella and tapped the first statue in the line, a rather ornery looking lion. "FORWARD!"
The eyes of the statues started glowing and then the ropes came undone, lifting into the air above the water as a pair of glowing orbs for each boat shout away from the statues taking up position at the front of the boats. Without anyone lifting a finger, aside from Hagrid's umbrella motion, the boats cast off from the dock gliding across the lake.
As they drew closer to the mountain of a castle, the winding path down from the castle became clearer, illuminated against the now dark evening night by globes of orange spaced at regular intervals along the path; and Xander noticed they were drawing closer to a large stone building, hidden behind a curtain of ivy. "Watch yer heads," Hagrid's voice carried across the lake from the front of the line of boats. "The ivy can get a bit shirty sometimes." Several of the first-year students raised their hands to cover their heads.
The wisps of light leading their boats carried them through the curtain of ivy and along a dark tunnel, with only the light from whatever spell was pulling their boats to see by, it felt like they went on for ages, and then they were abruptly within an enclosed harbor which mirrored the one they'd used on the other side of the lake. Hagrid's umbrella made another appearance and the ropes of the boats made their way around the hitching posts. The wisps of light leading the boats darted into the eyes of the statues before dimming to nothing.
Xander clambered out of the boat and then held out a hand to help Hermione, the two of them pulled Ron, and then Neville out of the boat.
They made their way up the flight of stone steps, where everyone was crowded around the entrance to the castle. The massive oak doors were at least two levels in height, and like the walls Xander had seen from across the lake, they were covered with a swirling pattern of metal filigree.
Xander felt the urge to make himself smaller under the imposing gaze of the tall woman behind the door. She was tall, with black hair that was pulled back, and bound in a no-nonsense bun at the top of her head. There was a stern presence about her, that made him feel like he should be confessing everything he'd ever done wrong. As her eyes swept over the crowd of new students, her expression softened almost imperceptibly, and the strict demeanor somehow warmed, making him feel welcome.
"I see the view was just as impressive for this year's first year students, as every other, Hagrid," said Professor McGonagall to their guide, before she turned to the students and continued, "Welcome to Hogwarts, I am Professor McGonagall."
With a wave of her hand, the large oak door swung wide to reveal a grand entrance hall, which Xander was sure could make any king or queen feel poor if they were to ever somehow see it.
The ceiling just kept on going and going, higher and higher, and Xander figured it went straight to the top of the castle, too high for him to make out much in the way of details only that it seemed there were windows based on the line of silvery light on a wall high above.
At regular intervals along the walls, where one might expect torches, there were shards of crystal maybe two thirds the size of a football, hovering enclosed within golden metal cages, each giving off a warm yellow glow. The light from within the seemed to flicker and waver, casting shadows on the walls that oddly enough seemed to emulate the flicker of flames.
"They used to use torches," said Hermione, cutting into his thoughts, and he resolved that he was going to have to get a copy of that book she kept going on about at some point. "A few of the enchanting alumni approached the deputy headmistress at the end of the last war about renovating the castle, something about giving a better impression of the magical realm to new students, there was a whole chapter discussing the arguments for and against the proposed and implemented changes."
Through a door on the right, they could hear the steady hum of conversation from what sounded like hundreds of voices, which was quickly shut out as they entered a large round room at what must have been the base of the tower he'd seen just outside the entrance hall, Xander could tell it was a tower because of steps curling their way around the outer wall of the room until they disappeared behind a wall that went straight up to the ceiling.
Xander listened intently as the professor gave a short speech about the houses. He smiled slightly as she acknowledged the achievements and contributions to society that had come from all four houses, regardless of her own personal bias, she'd made the effort to be fair, and not give an impression that she would favor any one house over another. Though the emphasis she placed on the house system, and its existence bore some heavy implications. Xander's own inference being that, while the houses shared teachers, they acted almost independently of each other outside of classes, almost as if they were four separate schools that were forced to share the same castle.
The characteristics of each house, coupled with the recent observations, gave him the impression that there was more to be said about the reasoning for the existence of each of the houses, not to mention the point system; though he wasn't quite sure just what it was right now. How they were sorted was of more interest.
"How, exactly do they determine what house to sort us into?" he asked, turning to his companions.
The other two turned to Hermione expectantly, and she fidgeted beneath their stares.
"It's all rather secretive, Hogwarts: A history, just said that they like to keep the sorting a surprise," said Hermione hesitantly.
"George, or was that Fred, no, I'm almost certain it was George, said it hurt, a lot. But I'm sure they were joking, because they also said, something about having to swim across the lake to get here, " said Ron.
"Uncle Algie said we'd have to fight a troll," said Neville a little shakily, "He said they decide our houses based on how we fought," and then Neville's expression brightened, "of course my Gran laid into him after overhearing what Uncle Algie said."
The smirk on the other boy's face as he reminisced made Xander want to take a step back.
"I doubt we'd have to fight a troll," said Xander, throwing an arm around Neville's shoulder and leaning on the other boy. "But it does make for an interesting puzzle. How would you determine the house based off such a fight? If you run to help a friend fight then you're a Hufflepuff, if you try to get behind the troll and take it out with a sneak attack, then Slytherin, if you use magic and it works even though we haven't been taught any yet, you're a Ravenclaw, and if you charge at it head-on, Gryffindor?"
The other three looked at him oddly.
"It was just a thought," said Xander.
There was a shout of surprise from one of the students and everyone turned to see what the commotion was.
"I say, friar, they're getting younger every year it seems," said the translucent figure of a tall man with a Victorian outfit.
"Hum, I do think you're right Gideon," hummed another slightly shorter ghost, this one was wearing a monk's habit.
"What are you all doing in here, there's too many of you for this to be a late-night rendezvous at the Astronomy Tower," the taller one Gideon said.
"Oh, please, Gideon, you can't have forgotten what day it is, they're all waiting to be sorted into houses," the monk said with an exasperated tone, "Welcome young scholars, I'm Frère Fabian, though I've been known to answer to Friar. I hope to see you all in Hufflepuff, my old house you know, unlike this uncouth barbarian."
"Be right back," Xander whispered to his companions, and then he took the chance the distraction offered to slip over to the door to the room.
"You wound me dear Friar, I hope, you're not implying that I'm an uncouth barbarian because of the house I was sorted into, or that mine is the house of uncouth barbarians. Why. I believe Sir Nicholas would be most upset with you," said Gideon.
"If he remembers the last two years with those redheaded twins, Sir Nicholas would agree with me," said the Friar, before the two ghosts trailed off through another wall.
Xander caught her before she could re-enter the room, stepping out into the hall. If the professor was surprised to find the boy with brown hair, startling green eyes, and a slightly fading scar on his brow tugging on her sleeve staring up at her, she didn't let it show, if anything else, she doubled down on the stern expression.
"Yes," asked McGonagall.
"Could you, by any chance call me Xander, instead of Harry during the sorting?" said Xander.
McGonagall eyed him, before consulted a long scroll of parchment she'd pulled out of her sleeve, and gave him a look.
"Name?" said McGonagall.
"Harry Potter," answered Xander.
Her eyes flicked up to his wig of wavy brown hair.
"Mister Potter, the magic of the sorting requires that we use your name as entered on the roll, there may be time later when you can persuade the professors individually of your preferred method of address."
"I understand, I don't like it, but I understand," said Xander.
"I am sorry, Xander, I will of course call you by your preferred name after the sorting," She said, hiding the scroll away again and then gently ushering him back into the room, "Let us gather the other students, shall we?"
The Great Hall, was impressive, and deserving of the somehow uppercase letters he could hear in just the way those two words were spoken. He overheard Hermione comment on the ceiling being enchanted, and looked up gaping in surprise at the impression, that the hall was open to the night sky, that there wasn't a ceiling there at all.
"Impressive, isn't it," came the smug voice of the blond who had complained about the boats earlier.
The noise of something being set on the bare stone called Xander's attention back to what Professor McGonagall was doing. Sitting on top of a stool was an old wizard's hat that looked like it had seen better days. Xander eyed the hat with amusement and consternation.
He wasn't sure if a hat was much better than the troll idea, and then the hat began to sing, and he was positive that his troll idea was better.
As the song finished and the applause died down, he looked along the line of first years and could see similar expressions on a few faces. Amusement, disappointment, incredulity, and a few expressions of genuine surprise and awe.
One by one, the professor called out the names, and Xander tried to pay attention to each name and face and the house they went into, friendly rivalry with the other houses or not, it would be a good idea to know the students he had to compete with. Sometimes, it seemed the hat barely touched the head of the student before shouting out their house, and others it felt like it took forever.
When it was Hermione's turn, the hat spent what must've been a full three minutes, and Hermione's expressions kept changing between pleased self-assuredness, to outrage, and back.
Xander could read Hermione's silent chant of Gryffindor on her lips.
"GRYFFINDOR!" shouted the hat.
And then Neville was called, Xander wondered just how much longer the ceremony would take as his legs were getting antsy from standing in one place for too long.
Neville walked to the hat, like a man condemned, but with a subtle dignity that Xander was sure hadn't been in his gait previously.
An unheard conversation passed, with only the expressions on Neville's face to give a hint of how that discussion went.
Finally, after a pause, the hat shouted, "GRYFFINDOR!"
A few more students passed under the brim of the hat before moving onto their seats, and then Xander learned the name of the blond boy with the attitude from earlier.
"Malfoy, Draco," the professor called.
Xander was finally able to put a name to the face and had to stop himself from leaning forward in interest to see where the other boy would end up. He could remember quite clearly the comments the other boy had made in Madame Malkin's shop, and wasn't all that impressed by the other boy.
Malfoy struck him as just the type to be a bully, and it always paid to keep an eye on bullies.
The hat had barely touched the blond boy's head before it shouted, "SLYTHERIN."
Xander applauded with the rest of the hall, knowing the boy had gotten exactly what he claimed he wanted.
He was barely paying attention for the next few names as line of students rapidly dwindled, as they were sorted. Such that, he almost missed it when McGonagall called his name, still not used to being called, Harry. He stepped forward. His scalp suddenly itching something fierce underneath his brown wig, it was all he could do, to not rip the wig from his head and start scratching.
The whispers when she called out, "Potter, Harry!" broke him from his musings though, there seemed to be some consternation over the wig he was wearing, making people wonder why he didn't have the expected black hair.
"Potter, did she say?"
"He can't be Potter, Potter has black hair."
And then there was the shout of the red-haired boy back in the line. "He didn't tell me he was bloody Harry Potter!"
"Mister Weasley, that will be quite enough!"
By the time he'd reached the stool with the hat, the hall was filled with whispers. Xander turned and sat down feeling a little annoyed.
"Difficult. Yes, very difficult," said a small voice in his ear, and he nearly jumped up and threw the hat off. "Plenty of courage, or possibly reckless foolishness. Oh, ho, now this is interesting, what are you doing beneath my brim, Alexander? I was certain I was supposed to be sorting Mister Potter. Ah, I see now, so there it is, I had wondered what made the lazy wizards do something about the state of this castle after nearly nine centuries. Why, they even replaced my inner lining with a nice high-end silk."
"Hmm, I imagine you'd fit well into any of the houses, Mister Potter, yes, you're Mister Potter, now. No, it wasn't anything you did, at least not from what I can tell. However, you should take it as an easily learned lesson, never interrupt a ritual, with or without magic, unless you know the consequences. Unexpected things can happen."
"Now where to put you, Slytherin is out, a shame really, you could do great things with that house. Alas, I fear it would require too much of you in the end. Too much bloodshed, no, best not put you there. Might never get the blood stains out, let alone find all the bodies. You have the brains for Ravenclaw, and I see within you the thirst to learn all you can of your gift of magic. But no, knowledge isn't your world, Ravenclaw is not the fit for you either."
"Greatness, is well great and all, but I strive to be mediocre. If it's all the same to you, I'd prefer Gryffindor, with my friend," Xander whispered back.
"Gryffindor, you say? Ah yes, that friend, he's already changed so much just from your friendship, you know. There's no doubt that you have enough loyalty for Hufflepuff, Mister Potter, but that wouldn't help you with your friend. Ah well, there was never any doubt that you had enough courage and bravery for the house of the lions. I had just hoped that one of your other qualities would be enough to sway the balance. Since you're so sure—better be GRYFFINDOR!"
There still seemed to be some confusion in the hall, as to whether he was really the Harry Potter, and for a moment Xander himself was confused as to why before remembering the wig he was wearing. Xander lifted the hat from his head, and made his way over to the Gryffindor table to sit next to a grinning Neville, while his new house collectively shrugged and were now leading the applause with the rest of the hall.
Now that he was seated, he found it easier to look around the hall without feeling odd for looking away from the crowd of students. His attention fell on Hagrid sitting at the High Table, the large man grinned at him, and Xander gave a quick thumbs up.
The remaining four people were sorted relatively quickly, into Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, and finally Hufflepuff.
Xander felt his stomach grumble, and looked around the hall, it hadn't really been all that long ago that he'd shared his sack lunch on the train with Neville, but he was undeniably feeling hungry again.
The was a commotion at the High Table, and the aged wizard sitting in the center stood, Xander recalled the acceptance letter and realized this must be Albus Dumbledore.
His long flowing beard did little to hide the smile adorning his face.
"Willkommen, and Bienvenue, as our friends on the continent say," he said. "I see we have a bright bunch for the new school year at Hogwarts! Before we commence the feast, I have a few words to share with you all; and here they are: Blocky! Gibber! Stubby! Pluck!"
Xander at this moment wasn't watching the Headmaster, as something niggled in the back of his mind, and he was looking around the room. As Dumbledore said his few words, Xander spotted a small creature with huge eyes and floppy ears, pop into existence at the far end of each of the house tables from the High Table. The diminutive beings were wearing tunics died with the colors of the house table they stood next to.
"Thank you!" said Dumbledore.
Xander's eyes were still on the creature at the end of the table, who with the final word from Dumbledore, made a light snap with its fingers and suddenly the dishes in front of him were now piled with food, and the creature was gone. Xander set his thoughts about the small beings aside for the moment, there was something about the names of the chosen servants, that bugged him, not the veiled method in which they'd been called, but the names of the ones that had been called and the houses they were stationed to serve.
He was pulled from his thoughts back to the table when a ghost pushed its way up from beneath the table through the roast ham he was just reaching for.
"That does look good," said the ghost, in an echoing melancholy tone.
"Death does put a damper on the joys of the living," said Xander.
"Indeed, it's been nearly four hundred years since my passing," said the ghost, "but one does miss it. Pardon me my good sirs, I believe I've failed to introduce myself. Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington at your service. Welcome to Gryffindor."
Xander recalled the conversation between the ghosts before he'd slipped away to confront Professor McGonagall before the sorting.
"Friar Fabian mentioned you earlier," Xander said. "He was talking with another ghost Gideon, I think."
Sir Nicholas eyes lit up at the mention of the other ghost.
"Ah young Gideon, a delightful prankster when he attended. He's my apprentice you know. Such a shame about that severing curse. He still claims it was but a flesh wound. But at least he won't have to put up with the accursed nickname like I have."
When the feast transitioned to the desserts, Xander noticed the odd little creature again before it disappeared. Examining the mountain of sweets and confectionaries in front of him he took a slow breath and wondered if he still had room left in his stomach.
As the plate of chocolate eclairs in front of him was moved away by Neville, his eyes alighted upon something he was afraid he wouldn't be able to source in the castle.
Across from him Hermione gave a look of disgust. "Please, Ron is bad enough."
Xander finished chewing and swallowed. "At least I don't talk while I'm chewing."
Xander grabbed another of the golden snack cakes and consumed the dessert at a much more sedate pace than before. He let the conversation wash over him, and was starting to feel the effects of stuffing himself and was feeling quite tired.
When he looked up again, the table had been cleared of the desserts and the Gandalf look-a-like was standing at the lectern.
"Thank you, thank you. No, Miss Eddington, I'm not colorblind. I'm perfectly aware just what shade of purple I'm wearing. Now, where was I."
"Your usual cryptic warnings, I imagine," came a dry response from one of the professors.
"Ah yes, thank you, now that you have all been well plied with meat and drink. I have a few, start-of-term notices."
"Students should note, the forbidden forest is, as its name should imply, forbidden; which I remind a few of you would do well to remember."
Xander thought he caught a hint of amusement directed towards a specific section of the Gryffindor table but it was gone as quickly as it came.
"I have also been asked by our caretaker, Mr. Filch, to kindly remind you all that the use of magic in the corridors in between classes is punishable by up to a month of detention per infraction. I hope you all understand my desire that it not escalate to the point where I have to step in."
"As usual, your heads of house will negotiate an appropriate time with their chosen team captains for team tryouts for the second week of term; those interested in making their sacrifice should get in touch with Madame Pomphrey, so she knows what you're supposed to look like when she puts you back together. It might also be appropriate for you to actually talk with your team captain and Madame Hooch. First years, Mister Malfoy, if you will recall your acceptance letters specifically mention that you are not allowed to bring your own broomstick. And as Madame Hooch has continuously requested that the board of governors approve replacement brooms for her flying instruction and has been thoroughly denied each time, on the off chance that you ignored this directive, the staff have been instructed to confiscate such brooms to be added to her stock."
"And finally, due to some regrettable damage at the end of last year, which resulted in the defense professor disappearing into a dimensional rift, the third-floor corridor of the east wing on the right-hand side is closed for remodeling, and is still quite dangerous to venture into. As I doubt you all are curse breakers being paid to untangle the mess, I hope you will all understand when I tell you not to go there, unless you want to experience a most painful injury."
"And on that note, I believe it's time for bed."