For the first three days following her near miss in the library Sarah hadn't seen hide nor hair of Loony Lovegood. As the days came and went she became increasingly desperate; Lisbeth wouldn't hear any excuses and had instead grown increasingly impatient. She'd given Sarah just one more day to prove her mettle, else the latter would forfeit any hope of ever joining the inner circle.
It was with therefore considerable relief that Sarah greeted the sight of Loony Lovegood drifting through the outer courtyard late that evening, an old haversack in hand. Having staked out the location since early afternoon, Sarah's guesswork had at last been rewarded. If there was one thing she'd discovered over the last three and a half days, it was that Loony Lovegood was the antithesis of predictability.
She watched from the shadows behind the fountain as the Ravenclaw strolled dreamily by. Sarah stayed well out of sight – she dared not act so near the castle; even though the grounds were bathed in near darkness there was still a risk that someone might happen by at a most innoportune moment. No, it was much better to follow Loony to the greenhouses, where Sarah would be virtually assured of there being no witnesses.
Sarah waited until the Ravenclaw passed beyond the raised porticullis before setting off, mindful to keep discreet distance lest she be discovered. She strained to see in the gloom; only the scattered moonlight shining through the rare breaks in the clouds prevented her from losing sight of Loony, who to Sarah's surprise ignored the worn path to the greenhouses and was instead making a beeline for Professor Hagrid's hut.
Sarah stopped in her tracks. This was no good; if Loony was going to see the Care of Magical Creatures teacher there would be no chance –
But Loony did not stop there. Instead, she circumvented the structure and then, for reasons unknown, clambered up the weathered old wooden fence which bordered the paddock. Then, holding her arms out on either side for balance, she proceeded to amble along the long silvery logs, humming something Sarah couldn't quite make out. Reaching the end of the fence a scant dozen yards later, she jumped down and resumed her stroll along the path.
Sarah quickly followed, bewildered as to why Loony would choose to walk atop an old and delapidated fence when a perfectly serviceable trail ran parallel the whole way.
Her confusion was quickly dispelled once she realized where Loony was by now obviously headed: the dark and foreboding reaches of the aptly-named Forbidden Forest.
Sarah halted once more, hardly daring to believe what she was witnessing. The forest was strictly off-limits for a reason! There were rumours of terrible creatures lurking within its sinister depths, and although Sarah had generally viewed these with a certain degree of skepticism, the fact that they'd never ventured a great distance inside during their Care of Magical Creatures classes now gave her serious pause.
She glanced back to the castle, then to the forest. Delving into the woods at this time of night seemed foolhardy at best, but –
Her heart began to race as she watched Loony disappear from sight, vanishing into the forest. If she was going to have any hope of following the Ravenclaw she had to make a decision now!
But if she didn't follow...
Biting her lip, she drew her wand and ran to the edge of the forest. At that instant she glimpsed a flareup of light somewhere up ahead, broken up by a multitude of trees and branches, but nevertheless unmistakable. At least Loony needed a wand to see in the dark, just like everyone else, she thought with some relief.
She plunged ahead, mindful to keep her own wand unlit lest she be detected, though this decision engendered no small discomfort, not to mention the difficulty in navigating through the gnarled brush using only a distant light source for reference.
As she progressed further into the woods Sarah began to get the uneasy feeling she was being watched. The cool night air was eerily still and silent save for a few scattered hoots from high up in the branches overhead. She drew her cloak around her snugly and pressed on, her hand gripping her wand ever tighter as she made her way further into the forest.
Not a hundred yards in, she was already having second thoughts about her reckless excursion. The task assigned to her was quite difficult enough even without having to brave the unknown dangers of the woods.
It was therefore to her immense relief when she came Loony Lovegood, stopped in a small clearing no more than a dozen paces ahead. Sarah tensed appreciably as she drew her now visibly shaking wand before her.
She hesitated. Loony was rummaging through her haversack, muttering something that Sarah had to strain to hear.
"I know these aren't your favourite," said Loony in a surprisingly soft voice as she drew out a large red apple from the bag, "but they were all out of blood pudding in the kitchens, so..."
Sarah blinked. Who was Loony talking to? There was no one else within visible earshot. Was she truly so mad as to be utterly delusional?
Regardless, Loony was momentarily preoccupied. Sarah swallowed nervously and took a step forward.
Loony held out the apple before her and smiled dreamily.
Sarah raised the quivering tip of her wand and took a deep breath.
The apple disappeared.
Sarah gasped. Loony hadn't even used a wand!!
But the latter had heard her breathless exclamation. She spun round to face Sarah, her long hair flying wildly.
Their gazes locked for just an instant across the clearing, silver and blue eyes wide with equal surprise.
"A-ACCIO NECKLACE!!" Sarah fairly shrieked, her heart feeling as though it might have overshot several beats.
The spell with which she'd practised so carefully now served her well. Loony's necklace shot up violently from around her neck, throwing her entire mane of long dirty-blonde hair up over her head with such force that she stumbled forward a half step and fell to the ground, hard.
The necklace flew across the tiny clearing with great speed straight at Sarah, who jumped and snatched it with her free hand just as an unearthly screech reverberated through the night air.
Sarah didn't wait around to locate its source. She made off at a sprint back in the direction of the castle, crashing wildly through the woods and quite heedless of the raucous clamour she was creating. She had to get away, and quickly!
She ran as fast as she could through the darkness, countless branches stinging her face all the way. Her scarf snagged on something and was yanked brusquely from around her neck, causing her to stumble and catch her foot on an exposed root. She fell hard, hitting her head painfully off the side of a tree and losing her grip on Lovegood's necklace in the process.
She pushed herself up onto her hands and knees and searched frantically for the ludicrous bauble on the forest floor all around her. Her head throbbed painfully but Sarah ignored it; she could ill afford to delay here.
"L-Lumos," she stammered, and her wand flared to life. The necklace lay in the midst of a mushroom patch about a yard to her right. She snatched it up and scrambled to her feet before bolting once more.
When she finally emerged from the woods, panting, bloodied and dishevelled, she skidded to a stop and spun around, wand levelled at her pursuer.
But, there was no one. The night was as still as a sheltered pond in a morning mist.
Sarah struggled to bring her breathing under control as she strained to listen, but the expected sounds of someone angrily crashing through the woods were inexplicably absent.
She lowered her wand; scarcely daring to believe she'd succeeded. Still, it had been a harrowing experience; braving the Forbidden Forest wasn't something to be taken lightly at the best of times.
She glanced at the bizarre butterbeer cap necklace in her hand. Well, she thought as she rubbed the side of her aching temple, best show this to Lispeth...
She'd hardly started up the slope when an odd sound startled her; from somewhere behind her, what sounded vaguely like a ship's sail catching the wind reverberated thickly through the cool night air. But there was not the slightest zephyr to account for it.
Sarah did not look back. She quickened her pace, the butterbeer caps' edges digging into her palm.
She heard it again, louder, now from somewhere overhead. Something was definitely not right. She glanced up as she broke into a trot. The moon was mostly hidden behind the clouds and she could see nothing, but she filled with a terrible dread. Something was coming!
She took off at a run. If she could at least reach the Gamekeeper's hut –
The next flap of wind she felt more than heard, the gust so close that her hair flew in all directions. She squealed in terror and threw herself down on the ground in instinctive reaction.
But the scaled talons she'd half expected to be impaled upon never materialized. Instead, she heard several more flaps of wind at several seconds' interval, each receding further into the distance, until finally there was no sound except for the discordant chorus of crickets all around her. That, and her rapid, shallow breaths that fairly emulated the Hogwarts Express at full steam.
For several minutes Sarah did not move. She lay in the frigid grass, waiting to see if the sound would return.
When the cold began to numb her toes and she could lie still no longer, she slowly drew herself up, shaking as much from fright as from the temperature. She half staggered up the slope towards the castle, her mind too frazzled to even begin to guess as to what had just taken place. Her priority now was simply to regain the reassuring safety of Hogwart's massive stone walls, towards which she now trudged.
She'd almost reached the outer gate when a figure loomed in the shadows on the path before her.
The figure moved out from under the portcullis' shadow and into the faint light of the suspended lantern on the wall.
Sarah gasped and came to an abrupt halt.
It was Loony Lovegood!
"Hello," the older girl said with an eerie calmness as Sarah took a step backwards, instinctively hiding the necklace behind her.
Sarah's stomach gave a sickening lurch. How had Loony managed to beat her back to the castle?
The Ravenclaw slowly approached until she was no more than arm's length away. Sarah thought frantically – she couldn't very well run around her, and the only real chance at evasion now lay back in the forest behind her. She was trapped.
"I don't know who you are, but I do think you have one of my belongings," stated Loony serenely, pointing knowingly at Sarah's midsection. "I'll have it back, if you don't mind."
Sarah swallowed apprehensively – she had no choice. She slowly drew out the necklace and held it before her, bracing herself for the furious hex she knew was to come.
The Ravenclaw took the proffered necklace from her shaking hands.
Sarah felt dangerously faint.
"P-please don't k-kill me," she squeaked in a tiny voice.
Loony froze and stared at her, silver eyes wide and unblinking.
"All right..." she said in a tone that sounded slightly uncertain.
They stood there silently, staring at each other for several moments when Sarah thought she detected a barest wisp of a smile play across the older girl's face.
"You know, I normally wouldn't mind so much," stated Loony as she calmly redonned her necklace, slipping her long mane of straggly blonde hair back up and over the decidedly unconventional adornment, "but I am rather fond of this. I really wouldn't want to lose it."
Sarah gazed at her for a few seconds before daring to speak. The girl didn't seem at all upset, despite her fearful reputation to the contrary.
"Y-you...you're not mad?"
Now the older girl did smile, openly, much to Sarah's surprise.
"Well, some people seem to think so," she replied without hint of malice or sarcasm. Sarah was stunned; this was hardly the foreboding Loony Lovegood she'd heard about since arriving at Hogwarts.
The Ravenclaw seemed to consider her for a moment.
"I am a bit curious though," she added inquisitively. "Why did you take my necklace? Normally my housemates do that sort of thing."
Sarah shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another. "Um...it's..."
Her fear gradually gave way to intense embarrassment. What excuse could she possibly come up with? When she'd embarked upon this course several days before she'd never imagined she'd be in a position to have to justify it all to Loony Lovegood, of all people. But she had the distinct sensation that those luminous silver eyes staring at her would see right through any lie she might try to fabricate. She accordingly made her decision.
"There's this...this club I wanted to join," she said carefully, being mindful to avoid revealing names, "and, well, there was...I guess you could call it an initiation...and...so...um..."
"Which was my necklace," said Loony, absentmindedly twisting a lock of hair between her fingers.
"I...yes," whispered Sarah as the full weight of her failure finally began to draw on her.
Loony tilted her head slightly. "You had to give it to this club of yours, then?"
Sarah blinked. "I...no, I didn't," she replied. "I just had to show Lis – show them I could do it. I don't suppose it matters much now, though..."
Sarah tensed at the sound of the familiar flap of wind. This time, however, the sound was quite high overhead and was quickly fading in intensity.
Loony's gaze suddenly fixed on a point somewhere high and behind Sarah, over the treetops in the distance.
"My cookies," she said sadly.
It was only then that Sarah noticed Loony no longer carried the haversack she'd seen her with in the forest.
"It'll probably devour them, I imagine," continued Loony as though holding a conversation with the night. She continued to gaze out into the distance, even though Sarah could see nothing more remarkable than a mass of moonlit clouds drifting slowly across the sky.
"What are you looking at?" she asked.
Loony shrugged. "Well, I suppose it's only fair," she concluded. "He did agree to help, after all."
Loony blinked, shifted her misty gaze back on Sarah and smiled.
"Well, here you are then," she said, removing her necklace from around her neck and handing it back to Sarah, "you can give it back when you're done."
Sarah was stunned. "But...really? You don't mind?"
"No," replied Loony softly after a moment's hesitation, "but I really would like it back."
With that, and before Sarah could even utter any kind of thanks, Loony gave an airy wave of her hand and drifted off in the direction of the courtyard.
Sarah stood there with her mouth was hanging open – she could scarcely believe her stroke of good fortune! She looked down at the odd necklace in her hands as though it were one of the Crown jewels. She would definitely get into the Society now, she was sure of it!
Melinda Barrow's going to be so furious, thought Sarah with satisfaction. It'll serve her right for ribbing me.
She opened the flap of her cloak pocket and jumbled the necklace together in her hands.
She happened to spy a tiny image on the underside of one of the old tin caps; holding it up to the glowing lantern for closer inspection, she saw it was a miniature photograph of a pretty red-headed girl. She didn't know who she was, though she seemed vaguely familiar.
How strange, she thought, and turned over another butterbeer cap. Like the previous one, it too had an image, though in this case she immediately recognized the tiny visage of Harry Potter, of all people! Was Loony some sort of fan, or –
She strung out the necklace. Most of the reverse sides of the caps were blank, though she did find a few other images. One was the brown-haired girl who Sarah recognized from Loony's table in the library some days before. There was another redhead, a boy this time, while another showed a smiling, sandy-haired man with a slightly frazzled look to him. But it was the picture of the young woman that Sarah took most notice. The resemblance to Loony was striking; Sarah concluded that the image of the man and woman, in adjacent caps, must be her parents.
Sarah dropped her arms to her sides, the necklace dangling loosely from one hand. Her stomach was feeling a bit queer; she couldn't quite put her finger on it, but she realized she was holding more than just a mere necklace. She ran her thumb and forefinger along one of the caps' bevelled edges and gazed up at the brightly illuminated Great Hall to her left.
She couldn't do it, she realized with a sigh. Taking the necklace to Lisbeth suddenly seemed much less exciting than it had been only a few short minutes ago. What if the others were to decide to keep it? How could she tell Loony? No, there was something strangely distasteful now about the whole affair.
Sarah took off at a run, sprinting through the outer courtyard and making her way through the large doors that led into the castle proper. Upon entering the main hall she spotted the Ravenclaw making her way up the staircase to the second level.
"Wait!" shouted Sarah as she scampered down the hall, drawing questioning looks from a pair of passing Gryffindors. She quickly made her way up to the mid-level landing where Loony was waiting, gazing at her curiously.
"Here," said Sarah a bit breathlessly as she handed the necklace back to the older girl "I won't be needing it after all. You keep it."
Loony cocked her head slightly.
"You won't get into your club," she observed.
"I know," said Sarah. "It's...all right. I just think...some things are more important, that's all."
"Yes," agreed Loony serenely. "I've always felt that clubs are rather stifling, actually. I've only ever been in one myself, but that was for a very good cause. Anyway...I still don't know who you are."
Sarah hesitated for just a moment. She hadn't counted on revealing her identity to Loony Lovegood. But then, so much had changed...
"I'm Sarah...Hale," she said finally, deciding there was little to lose by speaking the truth. Besides, after everything she now knew, the idea of lying to Loony seemed strangely unpalatable.
"Hello, Sarah Hale," said Loony dreamily.
Illogically to Sarah's perception, Loony then smiled and chose this particular moment to depart, proceeding up the stairs while humming softly to herself, necklace in hand.
Sarah stood there on the landing, looking a little dumfounded. In Sarah's book of social graces, greetings were not typically interchangeable with farewells.
Still, she'd learned something on this night, she realized as she slowly made her way back down the stairs. About halfway down she stopped abruptly and looked back up, though the Ravenclaw was by now out of sight.
Loony Lovegood's in a club??
Sarah bit her lip.
No, not Loony...