The strangest week of Harry’s life (and, not incidentally, the longest) began on an ordinary December Wednesday, quickly surpassing even the time a half-giant brandishing a pink umbrella showed up on the Dursleys’ doorstep to give him a squished birthday cake and tell him he was a wizard.
The Wednesday in question began with his two new favourite classes: Defence Against the Dark Arts with Professor Lupin and History of Magic with Professor Ambrose—both of which had, historically, been two of the worst classes at Hogwarts, as the first had been taught by one insane professor after another, while the other had a single professor that they all desperately wished would be replaced, particularly since he was literally dead, which one would think might disqualify him from the job.
So, it had been a bit of a surprise when History of Magic started to become one of Harry, Ron and Hermione’s favourite classes, thanks in large part to their new professor. He was practically the exact opposite of Professor Binns (who had “retired” in order to haunt the environs of the Divination classroom, which seemed to please Professor Trelawney immensely). Martin Ambrose was distinctly sprightly in both character and appearance, at once mischievous and kind-hearted, if a bit odd—and eccentric to the point of being almost worrisome. He was also young and unexpectedly clever, which unfortunately meant that Hermione had quickly begun harbouring a minor but entirely unsubtle crush on him. But, since he was nowhere near as much of a git as Lockhart had been, Harry and Ron politely pretended not to notice.
Between Ambrose and Lupin, it was beginning to look at though their string of bad luck when it came to teachers might finally be ending—although none of them was willing to say as much out loud for fear of jinxing it.
But all that’s beside the point. Despite Harry’s vague but persistent suspicion that Professor Ambrose was hiding something, he also couldn’t help but like the man—and he was beginning to be convinced, by Ron’s and Hermione’s insistence, that he was just being paranoid. So, for once, Harry actually began to make an effort in the class: and that’s where all this nonsense started. Because as unconventional as Professor Ambrose’s lessons tended to be, his homework assignments were sometimes stranger.
“Anything?” said Hermione incredulously—and eagerly. “We can research whatever we want?”
Professor Ambrose arched one suspicious eyebrow at her. Harry and Ron studiously avoided his gaze (though Hermione kept making fun of them for being intimidated by an eyebrow).
“As long as you can defend your choice well in your paper,” the professor answered slowly, then turned back to the blackboard to finish writing out the assignment, smearing chalk on his sleeve in the process.
It hadn’t escaped Harry’s notice that the professor did everything by hand; they had never once seen him do magic, and if they hadn’t watched his wand fall out of his pocket and roll away on several separate occasions, the trio might have believed he was a squib. (Ron still sort of did.)
“AH!” Professor Ambrose exclaimed suddenly, making several people jump. “I’m glad you reminded me. There is, in fact, one prohibited topic. Please do not force me to read yet another research paper on Merlin.”
Hermione looked aghast. She had mentioned an interest in studying the life and feats of Merlin when the prospect of a research project was first brought up a few weeks ago, but knowing her, she had almost certainly already begun extensive research in the library. Oh, who was Harry kidding, she probably had the paper half-done already without even consulting her group partners. (Because of course, as soon as they had heard the phrase “groups of three to five,” Harry, Ron and Hermione shared a glance, exchanged a nod, and the group was formed.)
But she wasn’t the only one who wanted to do her paper on Merlin.
“Why not?” a Slytherin girl cried. “He’s the greatest wizard who ever lived!”
Ambrose cringed slightly, and Harry wondered if the professor knew of some better candidate for that title.
Great, now he was even being sarcastic in his own head.
“The subject has been exhausted,” said Professor Ambrose. “I’m convinced that all possible theories have been posited and debunked and then been written about at length anyway, and besides, no one actually knows much of anything, so it’s basically all speculation. So, I repeat: absolutely no Merlin.”
“That’s discrimination against Slytherin,” Malfoy sneered.
“Again with the Slytherin thing?” Professor Ambrose sighed. “Merlin would have been over four hundred years old when Hogwarts was built, so you can be fairly certain he never even went here, much less got Sorted into one house or another.”
Immediate outrage from the other side of the room.
“How do you know?”
“That’s not fair!”
“My father said—"
“See?” someone called over the commotion. “This is why you should let us research Merlin.”
Professor Ambrose grinned at the last student, but shook his head. He raised a hand for silence—which, as always, fell immediately.
“All right,” he said, “I’ll compromise. As long as no one writes their paper about Merlin, I’ll teach one whole class on the topic later on in the semester. Agreed?” He levelled the eyebrow at them again.
“Well—” said Hermione, her hand shooting upward again, “what about Camelot? Could we do our project on that? Or on the Druids?”
He hummed. “Those are both fine, I suppose. Just… leave Merlin out of it, please.”
So it was decided. During dinner, Hermione suggested (firmly) that they do their project on Camelot, and that was that. She was apparently convinced that Merlin—and by extension, Camelot in general—held untold treasures of knowledge as yet undiscovered. Harry privately doubted that was possible, given the wizarding world’s obsession with him, but he agreed to do it; as he was still adjusting to the idea that Merlin and King Arthur had really existed, the topic seemed interesting enough. Ron went along with it mostly because it was easy, as he had grown up with bedtime stories about Camelot.
“Could you tell us one?” Hermione pressed him when he told them as much.
Ron was momentarily startled at having abruptly become the centre of her considerable academic attention, but eventually he began, “Well… I suppose—I mean, there was the one about what happened to the city after it fell. No one really knows, of course, but the story I heard as a kid was that someone—probably Merlin, depending on who’s telling it—someone hid it so that no one could ever find it.”
He looked between Harry and Hermione, and seeing that he still had their attention, carried on with renewed confidence. “Well, based on all that research Professor Ambrose was talking about, they’re pretty sure Camelot was located in north-eastern Wales, but they’ve never been able to find any ruins in that area. So, the story goes that Camelot fell not too long after King Arthur was killed by Mordred, and eventually everyone sort of drifted away, I guess. Some people say Merlin had already died by this point, but others think he was able to live longer than most people because he was so powerful. If that’s true, he cast such powerful Disillusionment Charms and other protective wards around the city that no one since then has been able to get past them.” Ron shook his head and picked his fork back up. “Just goes to show you how powerful Merlin really was—if, still, no one has managed to get around a spell he cast centuries ago.”
Hermione frowned. “But spells start to wear off or weaken eventually, especially after the caster has died. Shouldn’t someone have found it by now?”
Ron shrugged, mouth once more full of food. “Dunno. I guess ma’be ‘e really is the mos’ powerful wizar’ ever.”
Hermione cringed at Ron’s table manners.
“Wait!” she exclaimed, slapping her hand onto the table. “Maybe that could be our project. We could try to find it!”
Harry raised his eyebrows. “Come off it, Hermione. Assuming that’s even what actually happened, do you really think a couple of thirteen-year-olds could outsmart centuries of powerful wizards looking for it?”
Hermione’s mouth twisted as she picked at her food.
“What’s the harm in trying?” said Ron. “We could take a trip there over the Christmas holiday and look for clues. Even if we didn’t find anything, it’d be fun! More fun than research, anyway…”
“But how?” Harry asked. “I already told McGonagall I was staying at Hogwarts for the holiday. I thought you were staying too.”
Ron shrugged. “We’ll just tell her my mum invited you to stay with us. I’m sure she’d be thrilled to have you. I mean, she already sends you presents anyway! She won’t mind us travelling a bit for a school project—especially if we make it sound a bit more necessary than it really is…”
Hermione cast a perfunctory glare in his direction at the suggestion of lying to an authority figure, but she still looked excited. “My parents want me to visit them for Christmas, but if we go afterward, I could just tell them I’m coming back a bit early to work on a school project. And if we don’t find anything, we can just write our paper on comparing theories of where it might have been and what happened to it.”
“All right,” Harry agreed. “Let’s do it, then.”
They agreed to stay behind after their next lesson with Professor Ambrose to ask where the most reliable information could be found (though they planned to keep the “practical” aspect of their investigation a secret for the time being, for fear that he would protest). And while Professor Ambrose’s lessons could generally be expected to be weird and/or exciting—often with a sizeable helping of chaos—the very next one only reaffirmed Harry’s private conviction that their professor was really an eccentric old man in the body of a needlessly energetic twenty-five-year-old.
So, when he lugged an honest-to-goodness Muggle projector into the room, they all just went along with it. (“No cable,” said professor by way of explanation.) The Slytherins put up a bit of a fuss once he told them what the device actually was and where it came from, but they were quickly hooked once he started to play grainy, black-and-white videos that were nonetheless much more detailed than moving photographs.
Somehow, Ambrose had managed to come by Muggle footage of magical devices, creatures and spells. Often, these were in the background or otherwise obscured, but sometimes Muggles could be seen pointing at or talking about them. One video even had what looked suspiciously like Dementors in it, though none of the Muggles in the shot could see them.
Professor Ambrose also showed them footage of Muggle cities, mechanical devices and weapons to demonstrate how far they had advanced since wizarding society had split off—though Harry suspected he had an ulterior motive or two.
When the bell rang to signal the beginning of lunch, Professor Ambrose said, “Don’t forget that your projects are due two weeks after we return from the holiday. If you haven’t found a group yet, you can come see me after class or in my office and we’ll work something out.”
Harry, Ron and Hermione pushed their way through the exodus of students up to the front of the class as the professor attempted to pack his things: despite never visibly using a wand, everything he owned seemed to be imbued with some sort of magic that made it act… funny.
“Hoi!” Ambrose admonished when one of his quills started hopping away across the table. He needn’t have bothered, though, because a very old-looking book scrambled across the surface like a crab and snapped shut over the offending instrument.
“Thanks,” he said, and put them both in his briefcase.
Ron eyed the rest of the books nervously as Hermione spoke up.
He smiled at her, blue eyes twinkling not unlike Dumbledore’s. A blank sheet of parchment tapped him on the hand with one corner, reminding him to continue packing.
“Erm,” she said again.
“We were wondering,” Harry cut in, “if you knew where the most reliable books were about the city of Camelot and where it might have been located.”
Ambrose glanced between the three of them, a slightly suspicious look in his eye, but it disappeared so quickly that Harry almost thought he had imagined it.
“I’m always happy to recommend good scholarly resources,” he said brightly. “As a matter of fact, I have some in my office that might be of use to you… Why don’t you follow me and I’ll show you?”
Once he had succeeded in wrangling his belongings into his bag, they trailed behind him as he led them to his office. “Most scholars believe the citadel to have been located somewhere near Shrewsbury,” he told them as they walked. “They’ve scoured the entire area for ruins, especially to the west.”
“But you disagree,” Hermione surmised.
The professor grinned and opened his office door, gesturing for them to enter. “I’m afraid I do,” he said. “Based on the distances described between Camelot and various landmarks, there are a few people who maintain that it’s actually closer to Llwythan.”
As he spoke, he climbed up on a dangerously wobbly chair to reach the highest shelf on the wall, pulling out and replacing several books as he searched. The office was full of books, in fact: it seemed that once he had run out of space on the bookshelves, he had simply begun piling them on his desk at random, as well as on one of the chairs. The only book not in a stack or on a shelf was a large, leather-bound tome with clasps, but no label. It looked ancient, and despite sitting on its own on a corner of his desk, was covered in a thin layer of dust.
For some reason, Professor Ambrose also had a couple of wands sticking out of a drawer, a white staff leaning against the back wall, Muggle pencils scattered all over his desk, and a variety of other instruments Harry didn’t recognise.
“Here we are!” said Ambrose, jumping down from the chair and handing Hermione a small stack of books. “There are a variety of theories in there, so you’ll see some evidence for both Shrewsbury and Llwythan and you can come to your own conclusions. Anyway,” he continued, brushing dust off himself, “why are you so interested in the exact location?”
“That’s not the only thing we want to research,” she assured him. “Just part of it. We were hoping to find something new about it, or at least something that isn’t talked about very often.”
“Well, if you’re looking for ideas, you could always choose a specific person who contributed to Camelot in some way. I mean, Merlin wasn’t the only wizard who lived there, you know.”
Ron snorted. “Honestly, Professor, do you have something against the greatest wizard who ever lived?”
Ambrose winced. “No. Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. I just think the blind hero worship is a bit… misguided. I mean, maybe he was a bit of an idiot. Or maybe he… couldn’t swing a sword to save his life. Maybe he was a bad friend. You don’t know.”
“That’s really specific,” said Harry.
“All right, you lot,” said Ambrose, waving his hands vaguely, “you’d better get to the Great Hall before everything’s gone.”
“Huh,” said Ron as they were ushered out of the office. “Weird bloke.”
Hermione sniffed. “I like him.”