Smoke billowed over the platform as Anna stepped from the carriage of the scarlet steam engine after her new friends.
“Hazel! We’re here!” Anna called over the noise of people and animals.
Hazel looked back, a pixie-like grin splitting her face as her blonde hair whipped around. “Finally! You’ll love it, Anna — Mum’s told me so much and I’m sure you will.
“Come on, I don’t want to lose Connor,” though Hazel had no chance of losing her brother despite the steam: his blue hair stood out by a mile. She grabbed his sleeve as people pushed past them and barely had a moment to voice her concern about where to go next when a voice boomed over the platform.
“Firs’ years this way! Firs’ years follow me!” A man at least twice as tall and four times as wide as a regular man towered over all the students milling around. “You three firs’ years?” he asked, peering down at Connor, Anna and Hazel, who all nodded timidly. “C’mon, this way.” He waved a giant arm and the three of them hurried forward to join an anxious cluster of students.
The group of first-years followed the giant man down an earth path. “Yeh’ll get yer firs’ look o’ Hogwarts in jus’ a sec.”
As they came to a bend in the path, Hazel’s eyes grew wide at the sight of the castle, its immense structure perched on a cliff overlooking a shimmering black lake.
“Wow,” Connor breathed, and he wasn’t the only one who sounded amazed. Voices from all around them in the darkness murmured words of wonder and Anna, following behind, gave out a squeal of delight. Connor glanced at his sister, “Hogwarts, Hazel. We’re here.”
The huge man led them to the edge of the lake where a handful of wooden boats were moored, creaking a little in the breeze. Anna shivered.
“No more’n four to a boat. Get in; take care, now.” Connor, Anna, Hazel and a red-haired girl climbed into one boat. “Right,” said Hagrid, checking that everyone was in and taking up a whole boat to himself. “Forward!” he shouted, and the tiny fleet set out into the darkness.
The black water lapped against the side of the swaying boat, mixing with the sounds of the occasional whisper and the creaking timber as people shifted and huddled together. Hazel leaned against Connor, feeling the warmth of his arm through her robes. She could hardly believe how beautiful it all was. The lights of the castle’s turrets and towers, bridges and walls were dazzlingly reflected in the lake underneath as clouds swirled around the waxing moon, stars winking in and out of sight behind them.
They sailed right into the castle’s shadow, entering the cliff through a curtain of ivy. The boats came to a stop at a harbour of pebbles and everyone climbed out.
The group stumbled up steep flights of stairs, following the giant man to a huge pair of oak doors. He knocked heavily and they opened almost at once. A tall, severe-looking witch in emerald-green robes stood before them.
“The firs’-years, Professor McGonagall,” said the giant.
“Thank you, Hagrid, I will take them from here.” They followed the witch into the Entrance Hall, which was the biggest room Anna could ever have imagined. The ceiling was so high she could barely see it, and there was a wide marble staircase leading to the upper floors. Flaming torches lit the room and Anna saw Hagrid, the giant, disappearing through a door to the right where a hubbub of voices filtered through — clearly the other students were already in there. She gulped as small butterflies erupted in her stomach.
Professor McGonagall led them all into a small chamber then turned to face them. Everyone looked rather pale.
“Welcome to Hogwarts. I am Professor McGonagall, Deputy Headmistress and Head of Gryffindor house,” she announced, her sharp eyes surveying them all from behind square glasses. “The start-of-term banquet will begin shortly, but before you take your seats in the Great Hall, you must be sorted into your houses.” Anna shuffled her feet nervously beside Hazel and twisted her hands together. “The Sorting is a very important ceremony because, while you are at Hogwarts, your house will be like your family. You will have classes with the rest of your house, sleep in your house dormitory, and spend free time in your house common room.
“The four houses are called Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin. Each house has its own noble history and has produced outstanding witches and wizards. While you are at Hogwarts, your triumphs will earn your house points, while any rule-breaking will lose them. At the end of the year, the house with the most points is awarded the House Cup, a great honour. I hope each of you will be a credit to whichever house becomes yours.
“The Sorting Ceremony will take place in a few minutes in front of the rest of the school. I suggest you all smarten yourselves up as best you can while you are waiting.”
Anna tried patting down her ginger hair and Hazel tugged at her robes.
“I shall return when we are ready for you. Please wait quietly.” Swift as a cat, she was gone and immediately whispers broke out.
“What will we have to do?” whispered Anna urgently. Hazel glanced at Connor.
“You’ll be fine,” Connor reassured them, “it’s not too difficult or anything.” Hazel noticed the corner of his mouth twitch mischievously as Anna started turning green.
A squeaky voice at the back of the room carried, “I heard Harry Potter got sorted into Gryffindor last year!” A good deal of muttering broke out at this.
“That’s true,” said the red-haired girl who had shared their boat, “he’s friends with my brother.”
“Can you believe he was brought up by Muggles?” sneered a girl with long dark hair, “I think I would have preferred You-Know-Who to just finish me off!” A few people gasped while the red-haired girl glared at the scornful one.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” But before anything else could be said, Professor McGonagall reappeared.
“Form a line, please, and follow me.”
This was it. Anna’s mouth was dry, but her palms were wet and cold. She clenched her fists around handfuls of her robes as she followed a step behind Connor.
Professor McGonagall led them through a set of double doors into the Great Hall. Four long tables reached down the length of the giant room where the other students sat, watching. The first-years were led along the teacher’s table at the top of the Hall facing the rest of the school. The Headmaster sat right in the middle, his white beard and half-moon spectacles unmistakeable.
Hazel stared around the Hall, amazed. Somehow, even though her mother had told her about Hogwarts, she had not expected this.
Thousands of candles lit the room and the hundreds of staring eyes made it feel even brighter. The candles were floating above all the tables and Anna stumbled as she tipped back her head to gaze at the ceiling. A deep black sky hung over them, swirling clouds blotting out the sparkling pricks of stars.
“Woooow,” breathed Anna, her attention brought sharply back to the room only when Hazel nudged her.
They all came to a stop facing the other students with the teachers behind them. A four-legged stool with a battered old wizard’s hat on top was placed in front of their group. Connor and Hazel exchanged a glance, knowing what was coming. She was only a little nervous: they at least had each other.
Anna wanted to ask Hazel what they had to do with the hat, but she was suddenly conscious of standing in front of everyone. Then she realised everyone was actually staring at the hat — and it became clear why as a rip opened just above the hat’s brim and it began to sing:
I may just look all patched and frayed
And failing at the seams,
But I’ve been here a thousand years
So a thing or two I’ve gleaned.
Some students come from magic blood,
Some come from none at all,
But every person ever sorted
Belonged within these walls.
It matters not, your blood or name,
If you get sorted here,
You’ve come to find a welcome place
To return year after year.
Knowing this the founders four
Constructed for their own,
Houses built not just for learning
But also as a home.
Smart Ravenclaw designed a tower
To birth creative plans,
Where acolytes of learning
Spar wits in friendly clans.
Loyal Hufflepuff preferred a den
So made a cosy lair
To welcome those with trusting hearts —
Resilient, true and fair.
Those chosen by sly Slytherin
Make even chairs seem thrones,
But though ambitious, proud and cunning,
They always protect their own.
Walls of strong and steadfast stone
Reflect good Gryffindors the best.
With a moral code and daring heart,
They’re brave beyond the rest.
While others may try to sort you,
Their advice you shan’t condone,
For there’s no one else can say for sure
Which house you should call home.
So, as the Hogwarts Sorting Hat,
It’s my most worthy task
To find your place within this school
And give you homes at last.
The whole Hall burst into applause and the hat actually bowed its tip to each of the four house tables before becoming still again. When the applause died down, Professor McGonagall stepped forward.
“When I call your name, you will sit on the stool and put on the hat to be sorted.”
“Is that it? We just have to put on that hat? No magic?” Anna clutched Hazel’s robe, standing on tip-toes as she strained to see over the crowd.
“Yeah, I think so. It’ll be okay,” Hazel looked at Anna with a smile braver than her thoughts: would her mother be disappointed if she and Connor were put in Ravenclaw? Or what if she got put in Slytherin?
“Atkinson, Zachary,” called Professor McGonagall and a broad-shouldered boy with blond hair stepped up to the stool. The hat fell down over his eyes, catching on his prominent ears. After two heartbeats, the rip at the hat’s brim opened and a voice yelled to the whole hall, “Hufflepuff!” Zachary removed the hat and walked to join the cheering table, looking far more relieved than a moment before.
Professor McGonagall proceeded to read down her list. With each name, Hazel got more and more anxious. She reached out discreetly to hold Connor’s hand. He squeezed her fingers, watching the Sorting with a look of interest on his face but no anxiety at all. But Hazel was nothing compared to Anna, twisting her hands and mumbling, “I can’t do this … Oh no, I don’t think I can do this …”
Colin Creevey became the first Gryffindor and Elizabeth Cunningham the first Ravenclaw. Evelyn Graves, the scornful girl, came next as the first Slytherin. Some people took ages to be sorted and some only a second. Cassandra Kettle took nearly five minutes while Luna Lovegood — a small, blonde girl with radishes dangling from her earlobes — was sorted into Ravenclaw almost as soon as the hat touched her head.
Over half of the crowd had been sorted by the time Edward Skinner joined the Ravenclaws, and Hazel gripped Connor’s hand tighter. It would be their turns soon. Stephanie Sleight and Nicholas Spencer were both sorted into Slytherin and Brandon Spotswood became a Ravenclaw before Professor McGonagall called, “Stewart, Hazel!”
Connor gave her fingers a squeeze and Anna took a sharp breath which Hazel thought may have been a “good luck”. She walked shakily up to the stool then turned to sit down. The whole school was looking straight at her and she felt her face grow hot as the hat was lowered onto her head. It dropped down right over her eyes so all she could see was darkness. A small voice spoke in her ear.
“Hmm, a smart mind and plenty of ambition — and even some courage. You’re certainly willing to work for what you want. Yes, I think it had better be — Hufflepuff!” Hazel heard the last word shouted to the whole Hall and she sat for a moment longer, stunned. Hufflepuff? Not Gryffindor like her mother or Ravenclaw like she had suspected? Professor McGonagall removed the Sorting Hat and Hazel walked to join the table on the right filled with loud cheers and welcoming smiles.
She looked back as McGonagall called for, “Stewart, Connor!” and he moved to the stool. He watched her until the hat slipped over his eyes. It took two long, tense minutes before the hat’s brim opened. Hazel scooted over to make room for Connor on the bench beside her and did not understand what she heard at first. Connor didn’t walk to the Hufflepuff table. His eyes were apologetic as he walked across the Hall to the next table over. The Ravenclaw table. Ravenclaw. Connor was in Ravenclaw. Connor was not with Hazel. She was alone. She didn’t even hear Belinda Ward and Ginevra Weasley become Gryffindors. She only stopped looking for the blue hair of her brother when “Young, Anna” was called to try on the hat.
The nerves were too much. There was only one boy left after Anna; she had had to watch everyone else be sorted. All the blood drained from her face as she tried to steady her breathing, but her thoughts dashed from one escape plan to the next. She was absolutely sure she would not get sorted at all. She knew the hat would tell her to go home. She couldn’t be a witch. This was all a dream — or perhaps a nightmare, she wasn’t quite sure on that point yet. And if the hat rejected her outright, well, then she would just have to run for it.
As the hat fell over her eyes, she thought of how lovely it had been up until now: buying her books and meeting Connor and Hazel and being told on her eleventh birthday that she was magical, not just weird.
She started as a voice spoke in her ear, “So, you’re a brave one, aren’t you? Hmm, but you’re also very loyal. Where should I put you?” Please don’t send me home, I promise I’ll do well! I’ll be the best witch — I just want to stay with my friends: Conner and Hazel and everyone! “Ah,” said the voice, “I see. Hufflepuff!” It yelled the house, and Anna pulled the hat off and looked straight at Hazel. She had done it! She was a witch! Anna ran to the table and threw her arms around Hazel.
“I really am a witch! I’m with you Hazel!” Anna was grinning ear-to-ear and waving at people all down the long table. Hazel returned the hug, feeling bewildered, but her heart eased as she looked at Anna. Anna was with her: she wasn’t alone. Hazel caught Connor’s eye across the Hall and smiled at him. It would be okay.
The noise died down as Professor Dumbledore stood, his arms were open wide and he beamed around the hall. “Welcome! Welcome to another year at Hogwarts! I’m sure you are all famished after being so patient. So, without further ado, eat up!” He sat back down and suddenly the tables were bursting with food. Anna squealed with delight and Hazel laughed.
“Wow I thought I was going to throw up a minute ago and now I’m so hungry I could eat it all!” Anna helped herself to roast beef with gravy, potatoes and vegetables (though steered clear of the Brussels sprouts) while Hazel piled her plate with spaghetti bolognaise, garlic bread and was good enough to even eat some broccoli. Neither of them noticed Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall leave the Hall with a tall teacher who had a large, hooked nose and greasy, black hair.
“So,” Anna started between mouthfuls, “when do we start? And what do we learn first?”
“Yeah!” answered the blond-haired boy, Zachary, “Do you reckon we’ll get a few days to settle in?” An older boy down the table laughed.
“You’ve got to be kidding! No, it’s straight into lessons tomorrow I’m afraid! I’m Gabriel, by the way,” he said, offering a wave to the first-years, “Gabriel Truman, Prefect.”
“Oh no — but how are we supposed to find our classes?” A brown-haired first-year girl leaned in to look down the table at Gabriel.
“You’ll be fine. Most people are friendly enough to ask for directions — well, except maybe for Filch, the caretaker. And,” he added as a translucent, pearly-white ghost in monk’s robes drifted over to sit between two people who hurriedly shuffled to make room, “even the ghosts are really helpful. The Fat Friar here,” he nodded at the ghost, “has helped me out more times than I can count!”
The Fat Friar chuckled so that his large belly jiggled. “Anything to help, old boy, anything!”
“Wow!” Anna gaped at the monk, “You’re really a ghost!” Hazel smiled at Anna’s frank naivety and a couple of people laughed. Anna didn’t blink an eye but promptly offered her hand to the ghost across the table. “I’m Anna, and it’s an absolute honour to meet you!”
The Fat Friar chortled so hard that he nearly fell off the bench, but then he reached across and shook Anna’s hand. Hazel, curious to know what a ghost felt like, watched Anna closely for a reaction — as did several of the people around them. Anna’s face became fixed in a shocked expression and Hazel noticed goose bumps erupt up her arm. Some of the older students who had been watching sniggered and turned back to their meals.
“You’ll be Muggle-born, then?” asked the Fat Friar, still chuckling as he released her hand.
“Yes,” said Anna, quickly returning her hands to her lap and rubbing them together for warmth. “Is it that obvious?”
“It’s okay — I am, too.” A boy with curly hair sitting to Hazel’s right spoke up. “Name’s Justin Finch-Fletchley; second year. My parents nearly sent me off to Eton before I got my Hogwarts letter!” He lowered his voice to a more serious tone, “Lots of people come from Muggle families and anyway, everyone starts at the beginning here. Besides, you’re in Hufflepuff! We’re the best house, I’m telling you.” He finished grandiosely to many nods of approval and proud, happy smiles.
“Do siblings usually get sorted into the same house?” Hazel spoke up this time, blushing as the attention shifted to her. Justin looked thoughtful.
“Well, no, not always. But, I mean, I think usually they do. The whole Weasley family is in Gryffindor but there’s a pair of twins in my year that were separated.”
“Was that your brother?” asked Julia, the pretty brown-haired girl. “The one with blue hair?”
“Yes, we’re twins.”
The girl looked meaningfully at her first-year friend. “See, Paige, I told you they were!”
“Why is his hair blue?” asked Paige.
“Well, I don’t really remember because we were five years’ old, but Mum said Connor had stolen my favourite teddy and wouldn’t give it back. As he stomped on the teddy it began changing colour. I grabbed his hair and was pulling so hard I made him cry but he wouldn’t give the teddy back. I got so angry that as I pulled on his hair it started turning blue.
“When Mum found us, she said we were both balling our eyes out. Apparently, it was the first time we had shown any magic and Mum was so happy she started crying too.” Hazel looked down at her plate with a small smile. “So, they kept Connor’s hair blue and my teddy is still orange with purple polka-dots.”
“Well I guess he’s luckier than the Teddy … just!” said Zachary and everyone laughed.
As dinner vanished from the table and was replaced by mounds of different desserts, the conversation continued with stories of magical accidents.
“I turned my neighbour’s dog red by accident, too — when I was little, I mean.” One of the other first-year boys spoke up. “My parents had to lie and tell our neighbour the dog had wandered into our yard on his own but really they had kidnapped him so they could change him back! But I wonder when they’ll start teaching us how to change colours deliberately.”
“Well you start small and work your way up,” said Justin knowledgably. “I’ll tell you though, it’s Defence Against the Darks Arts I’m most looking forward to this year now that they’ve got Lockhart teaching us.” He gave an admiring glance at the staff table and they all turned to look. The professor was sitting a few seats to the right of Dumbledore and talking very animatedly to a dumpy witch who looked rather tired. “Did you read his books yet? Amazing stuff! Bound to be better than last year with that Professor Quirrell.” A girl next to Justin made a sound in agreement.
“I wish all the teachers were that good-looking!” Julia sighed, still looking up at Lockhart, and she and Paige giggled while Zachary and the other boys scowled.
The Hall fell silent as Professor Dumbledore got to his feet.
“I have just a few start-of-term notices before I let you go. First, I would like to introduce your new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lockhart.” Lockhart stood up and waved his whole arm magnificently at the hall, to loud applause. He was very handsome, with wavy golden hair and the brightest smile Hazel had ever seen.
“Second,” Dumbledore continued, “first-years should note that the Forest is out of bounds to all. Our caretaker, Mr Filch, has also asked me to remind you that magic is not permitted in the corridors and that Paralysing Pogs have been added to the Banned Items list.
“Quidditch will start in the second week of term. If you wish to play for your house team, please contact Madam Hooch or your house captain.
“And at long last, bedtime. Off you trot!” And with that, everyone got noisily to their feet.
“First-years please come this way!” called Gabriel the Prefect down the Hufflepuff table. “Follow me!”
Feeling so full and sleepy she could barely keep her eyes open, Anna joined the throng of students pushing towards the doors. In the Entrance Hall, she noticed vaguely that the Slytherin students branched off and went in the opposite direction, down a dark flight of stairs, and most of the other students went up the wide marble staircase. Sleepy though she was, Anna felt a strong desire to go with them and explore the whole castle from turret to turret. Instead, she turned to continue down the steps to the left of the staircase with the other Hufflepuff first-years but nearly walked into Hazel, who was looking at the other students, too.
Following Hazel’s gaze, Anna saw Connor’s blue hair vanish from sight. Hazel let out a small sigh and met Anna’s eyes. “Come on, let’s go see our common room.”
They went down a wide, stone corridor brightly lit with torches and stood at the back of the group, all clustered around the Prefect, listening. He was standing in front of a stack of barrels.
“This is the entrance to Hufflepuff House. To gain access, simply tap on this barrel in the rhythm of ‘Helga Hufflepuff’.” He knocked on the second barrel from the bottom, in the middle of the second row, and the lid swung open. He ushered the group inside as he said, “Now it’s important to note that members from other houses are not allowed in.”
Hazel followed Anna into the barrel, down an earthy passage and emerged in a low-ceilinged, circular room. Fat, squashy, yellow-and-black armchairs and sofas were draped with patchwork blankets, and a plate of warm cookies sat on a wooden table. Plants hung from the rafters and tumbled down the stone walls, nestled in copper kettles and sprouted from heavy clay mugs. Round windows lined the room and a merry fire blazed at the far end under a portrait of a kind-faced witch hung in a frame of gambolling animals. She raised a cup in welcome as the first-years entered.
Gabriel crawled out of the passage last, straightened up and smiled around.
“Welcome home, everyone.
“The boys’ dormitory is through the door to the left of the fire and the girls’ is to the right. Have a good night and I’m sure I’ll see you all at breakfast in the Great Hall tomorrow morning.” Gabriel left through one of the doors on the left of the fire and Anna and Hazel went through the door on the right. Down through an earthy passage they stepped into another circular room. This one was cosily lit with copper lamps illuminating the four-poster beds. Copper bed warmers hung on the walls and each bed had a unique patchwork quilt. Their trunks had been taken in already and sat at the foot of each of the four-posters.
Anna, Hazel and the other two first-year girls got changed into their pyjamas and climbed into their beds. They were all so full and sleepy after such an exciting day that they hardly talked at all.
Anna snuggled under the covers, breathing in deeply. The dorm had a friendly, earthy aroma that was simultaneously smoky like a fire and fresh like clean sheets. Her last thought before she was overcome by sleep was of how lucky she felt to be at Hogwarts.