hag

noun

an offensive word for a woman who is considered to be old and unattractive

~ Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus

She is neither pink nor pale,
And she never will be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.

~ Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Witch-Wife"


I. The One with the Hat

It's a grim little thing, the Sorting Hat thinks as she walks up to the dais.

The child's eyes are set like dull green stones in her narrow face as she seats herself on the high stool. Her feet come to rest on the rail and her hands fold neatly in her lap. She waits, still as a mouse who's sniffed a cat in the grass.

But when the Hat is placed atop her plaited head, it finds she is something else again. Not grim, but determined. Focused. And far too old for her eleven years.

A thought intrudes on the Hat's musings, annoying in its volume.

Ravenclaw.

"What's that you say, girl?"

She is startled, as they always are when the Hat deigns to speak to them, and her next thought is thick with the accent she tried to suppress the first time.

Ravenclaw.

"I didn't hear the magic word."

The Hat enjoys her surprise at having been engaged in conversation by what she'd mistakenly thought of as "a hat", but she quickly regains her equilibrium.

I should like to be sorted into Ravenclaw House, if you please.

The force of her thought is almost painful, and the Hat has to take a moment to regroup.

" 'If you please', is it now, Minerva McGonagall? Well, then . . ."

It feels her relax.

"There's a keen mind in there . . . just the ticket for Ravenclaw," the Hat says. She's ready to spring from the stool as soon as the word is spoken.

The Hat stops her. "But Slytherin would be a fine fit too. Maybe better. You have ambition, and not a little cunning."

No.

It isn't a shout this time; she's learnt quickly to modulate her thoughts.

Not Slytherin.

The Hat takes note of the absence of "pleases" and "I pray yous".

"Why not, my girl? Professor Slughorn would eat you right up. You'd meet the right people. People who could help you get what you want. Success. Respect. A way out of Caithness and your mother's sort of life."

As you know so much about me, the child thinks at the Hat, you know why I don't want to be in Slytherin.

Cheeky!

"Afraid of what your fellow snakes would have to say about your father, eh?"

The Hat knows perfectly well that it isn't that at all. It's just curious to see what she'll say about it. It hasn't enjoyed an actual conversation with a student since young Flitwick begged to be placed in Hufflepuff while the Hat deliberated with itself between Ravenclaw and Gryffindor. It enjoys stringing the livelier ones along a bit—things are very dull in between Septembers, so it likes to drag out the proceedings when it can—but most of the children who sit under its wise brim are too cowed (and, let's face it, too callow) to make for scintillating dialogue, so it usually just renders the obvious verdict and sends them swiftly on their way.

The girl hesitates before answering.

I'm not afraid of words. And I'm not ashamed of my father. I should prefer not to be in Slytherin because intelligence should come before ambition.

She's got you there, old thing, the Hat thinks.

She likes to argue, this one.

Well, let her stew for a while.

The minutes tick by, and the Hat waits for her to speak or show some discomfort with the holdup. Most of the children kick the stool's rails and fidget at even the slightest delay, but the McGonagall girl just sits there, straight-backed and still, waiting for the Hat to render its decision.

A grudging admiration for this flinty, upright child grows in the Hat's felty bosom. It has half a mind to accede to the girl's request and stick Merrythought with her—Ha! That'd be a show and a half—but the Hat hasn't stayed in its post for a millennium by being hasty, so it stops to consider further.

McGonagall's intelligence will take care of itself without being surrounded by smug little know-it-alls. No, what this child needs is Albus Dumbledore. Or vice versa. She's got courage enough, no worries there, but he'll know how to hone that intelligence and give her lessons in cunning that Slughorn can only dream of. She'll be useful to him in dealing with that Riddle boy.

The Hat shudders a little and reminds itself not to think about what it saw in that head. Sticking Riddle in Slytherin rather than, say, Hufflepuff was an error, no sense in denying it now. Best to give Dumbledore what he'll need to deal with him.

"Gryffindor!" the Hat shouts.

The girl twitches, perhaps with shock, then the Hat is lifted from her head, and she slides from the stool, her worn but polished shoes making a sharp smacking sound as they hit the stone floor.

The Hat smiles to itself as she turns to have her hand shaken by her new head of house, and the Hat imagines it sees Dumbledore wink as he says, "Welcome to Gryffindor, Miss McGonagall."