Sunday, September 30, 2012

An OWL, Finally (Part Four)

The doors slammed shut behind Spike, and she looked around the empty hall.  It looked just like any anonymous classroom -- wood floors, stone walls -- but utterly, utterly bare.  No desks, not even a lectern for the professor.  Nothing on the walls, it could have been History of Magic, or Charms, or Muggle Studies -- anything at all.  And there was no OWL board of Examiners waiting, either.  A big empty box.

"Hello?  Is there anyone there?"  Her voice echoed slightly from the naked walls. I must be in the wrong room, somehow.  She turned back to the doors, pulled on the handle, but they were locked tight.  "Hey!!"  She pounded on the door.  "Hey!  I'm stuck in here!"  If the assistant was on the other side, she couldn't or didn't hear, because no one opened the door.

"I'm supposed to be defending my OWL!  How can I defend it if there's no board?  Let me out, or send them in, or . . ."  She stamped her foot, vexed,  Tendrils of hair began snaking their way out of her bun, and she shoved them back in place, even more irritated.  The wood in front of her began turning reddish, and she stopped in her tracks.  Touched it.  Oh, not fire, not this time.  Her temper, she really had to get a hold on it.  Ahtyets had been telling her that for ages, and she knew it, but still.  So not fire, then . . .  She turned around.

At the front of the hall, the light was changing, shifting to sunset, through pink and red and orange and the other mixtures of colors that had no real equivalents in language.  It wasn't like the ceiling of the Great Hall, which showed the actual sky above, she could still see the walls quite clearly.  But as she watched, and the lights above flickered into violet, they became insubstantial, misty, and then dissolving as darkness began eating the room.  Overhead, the ceiling vanished into might, and in the dying twilight, she saw four professors appear as if they were walking up one of the hills behind Hogwarts to meet her there. 

She recognized Professors Wildsmythe, Gorre, and Randall.  Professor Wildsmythe winked at her from behind her colleagues’ backs.  Spike’s hand went cold and damp.  Right, the party.  Oh, boy, I hope that doesn’t lead her to expect more from me than I can provide. 

Professor Gorre gave her a dry sort of nod, and a lump grew in Spike’s throat. The Head of my House?  Oh, no.  She’ll have to be really tough in order to preserve the whole “fair” approach and avoid showing favoritism.

Professor Randall smiled sunnily, but she’s a Hufflepuff, she’d smile sunnily to someone climbing the gallows, and wish them a nice day, completely without irony.  Oh, it’s bad when your best hope is the Gryffindor professor, whom you’ve never met before.

The four took their places in a semi circle in front of her, and Professor Gorre handed Spike her star chart, neatly folded.  “Show us what you can do,” she said, waving her wand, and the skies above swirled into glowing ribbons of stars above, completely disordered.

Spike laid her chart out on the ground between them, looking carefully at the beads showing her direction, giving her grounding and landmarks in the sky.  “Okay.  This one here belongs there,” she said, tapping the bead with her wand, slowly picking order out of the chaos the stars had been cast into. 

One at a time, the stars took their places as ordained by her chart, one tiny glowing light at a time.  It could have been hours, it could have been weeks until finally he thought she had them all back in their proper places.  “That’s it,” she said, looking up at the sky and the portion she had charted. “They’re all where they ought to be.”

“Are you sure, then?” asked Professor Wildsmythe, in her cool and slightly distant way.  “Everything is where it belongs?  All the celestial bodies back in their proper places?”

Spike thought it over.  Were they?  The stars matched her chart, but how accurate was that chart?  Had she gotten it right?  Had she maybe rushed too fast in her efforts to get it done my the end of the term, had she missed something vital?  “I think so . . . yes.  Yes, I’m sure.”

Revelatio celestii!” The Gryffindor professor cast the spell, and most of the stars stayed where they were, turning slowly emerald green. A few, but only a few, changed places, winking silver.  Randall frowned up at the sky, tapping her wand on her chin, counting under her breath.

She’s counting the silver ones, Spike realized.  The ones I got wrong.  Were there too many?  She held her breath.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

An OWL, Finally (Part Three)

She followed the moving staircases carefully to the third floor, down the halls, walking past crowds of students each anxiously peering at lists posted in front of huge iron banded doors.  Arithmancy, Divination, Defense Against the Dark Arts, Potions--a sudden clap sounded and the doors actually shuddered in their frames, opening to let a whiff of evil-smelling smoke drift into the hallway.  Some of the upper-classmen snickered and fanned their hands elaborately.  "Told Stibbins he'd never be able to recreate that one," a Ravenclaw announced smugly to a brace of his friends.

"He'd been going on and on about how he was some kind of natural Potions genius," another agreed, pushing her glasses up further on her nose.  "He'd have to sort Slytherin next term in order to get all the Potions help he really needs."

"Maybe even Hufflepuff -- kitchen chemistry.  You have to start where you really are, right?"  They all laughed, whistling past the gallows while their own examinations were pending. 

"So . . . you really do sort fresh each term?" Spike said, standing near the edge.  The others looked down at her, taking in the green trim on her robes.

"Yeah.  We each sit down with the Hat every term and get Sorted again.  Some students tour the Houses, spending a term in Ravenclaw, a term in Gryffindor. I think your Head of House spent some time in Hufflepuff, learning management skills."  He smirked.  "Coals to Newcastle there, I would think.  I don’t believe Slytherin's heirs distinguish between management and manipulation."

Spike smiled, just half a smile, looking carefully at the faces of the older students as they snickered.  One day, not so very long from now, one day we will meet and have a discussion about management, manipulation, and coals.  "Thank you for your insight," she said, coolly, dropping a precise curtsey, and continuing down the hall.

Care of Magic Creatures, Herbology, Ancient Runes, Charms . . . Sorting every term?  She shivered a little, pulled the collar of her robes a little higher around her neck.  How was this accomplished; did they all file into the hall ahead of the firsties and sit under the Hat once more?  Did they decide who went where by how well they did?  What if she failed her OWL at the last minute, would she be Sorted to Hufflepuff?  One last chance before being shown the door?  Had she taken enough classes, won enough points to get her a seat in Slytherin?  Should have taken Divination this term, she thought ruefully, squeezing through the crowd.  It would be nice to know for sure.

The crowds were getting thinner, clustered around the last few doors.  History of Magic, Muggle Studies, Transfiguration--here it is, Astronomy.  She found her name on the list and informed the assistant that she was here, waiting. 

The doors swung open, and a dazedly grinning Hufflepuff came out,  Spike tried to peek inside, but all she saw was a large, empty hall with wooden floors, just like any of the classrooms with the desks taken out.  There's not even a chair for the Examiner to sit on, she thought.  How am I supposed to--  The other student grabbed her, whirling giddily.

"I did it, I did it, I did it!"  she was chanting.  "Oh, I didn't think I could, but I made it!  I got my OWL!!"  In one hand she held a chart, and on her robes was an elaborate pin of diamonds in a galaxy, spinning slowly, winking between topaz and brilliant white.

"Well played," Spike said automatically, trying to gracefully disentangle herself from the Badger. 

"Hufflehugs!!  Hufflehugs for everyone!!"

"Have we, er, met?"

The other peered at her closely.  She had sandy blonde hair, a round moon face, and a gap in her front teeth when she grinned.  Her grin was infectious, Spike found herself smiling back.  Really smiling, not baring her teeth with another layer beyond it.  "Appolline Hopkins," she said, letting go enough to pull one arm loose and proffer her hand between them.  "Pleased to meet you--"

"Nikolevnischka von Schaedelthron.  But everyone calls me Spike," she added as the other's eyes widened at the string of syllables. 

"I see why they would!  Oh, it's a great day!  I passed my OWL, and I made a new friend!"  She squeezed Spike one last time before letting go.  "I can tell we're going to have lots of fun together!  But right now, I have to get back to the Den to let everyone else know the good news!"  And down the hall she went, robes askew, boots clattering.

Spike watched her, re-arranging her garments and hair, picking up her book bag.  Friends with a Hufflepuff.  Well, maybe.  They were always talking about House Unity, after all.  "Perhaps," she said, fiddling with the hairstick holding her bun in place.  "Perhaps this sorting thing . . ."

But the assistant was calling her in now, and it was her turn to step up and defend her work of the term.  Spike took a deep breath, and walked into the empty hall. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

An OWL, Finally (Part Two)

Spike was playing a game of exploding snap in the Common Room, but her heart wasn't in it. She was waiting to find out if her OWL had been approved. Every time an owl flew in, everyone would watch out of the corner of their eyes to see if it carried a purple-bordered message from an Examiner, informing the student that their OWL did not meet the required qualifications.

Was it really kinder this way, to cull the herd first, to clear out anyone whose work didn't measure up privately, and then to invite the remaining students in for the oral part, where they would defend their OWLs to the board of Examiners? She wasn't sure.

On the one hand, how awful would it be to go in, thinking you might just squeak past with a brilliant defense, only to be rejected at the eleventh hour and sent right back out to face the gauntlet, with everyone knowing you hadn't even had a chance to start. On the other -- a barn owl flew uncomfortably close, executing a barrel roll on silent wings -- on the other, the tension was driving her absolutely mad. "Every owl a harbinger," she muttered, as three cards in her hand blew into confetti.  This deck was over-used, the explosions were hardly more than poofs; the hearts were shading from crimson into black, while the clubs had taken on a reddish tint.  The cards reassembled slowly, like an old man getting out of bed in the morning to face a long and empty day.

Munificent took three cards from the pot. "No news is good news, think of it that way."

"I wish I could be so complacent."

"But by midnight tomorrow, if you haven't got notification that you failed your OWL outright, then you get to go to the Hall and defend your work."

"That's what I'm afraid of." Spike explained about the parchment that she'd been working diligently on, that suddenly bore no relation to what was in the skies. How she'd had to start from scratch just before mid-terms, picking a whole other swath of stars to plot from the very beginning. "I'm not sure I'd know where to begin explaining my work, never mind defending it."

The game ended when the deck disintegrated one last time, leaving shred of confetti swirling in the air.  Spike looked at them in dismay.  “That was the last deck!  And it’s lights-out; there’s no way to leave the dungeon to fetch a fresh pack.  The game ended when the deck disintegrated one last time, leaving shred of confetti swirling in the air.  Spike looked at them in dismay.  “That was the last deck!  And it’s lights-out; there’s no way to leave the dungeon to fetch a fresh pack. How are we going to kill the hours until--"  The chiming of the clock cut her off, and Munificent stood up and stretched.  

"It's midnight.  There's no more time to kill; we've neither of us failed outright.  So I am going to bed, where I can finally sleep, and that's how I'm going to pass the hours until dawn.  I suggest you do the same."  She turned at the head of the stairs that led down into the bedrooms.  "You'll need it, what with that OWL of yours."

Spike occupied herself for a little while levitating and vanishing the shreds of playing card, but when the house elves' night shift came in, the sidelong dirty looks put her off her game, and so she went to bed.  Lying there, wide awake in the dark, she was certain that she would spend the entire time tossing and turning . . . until she was awakened by the tapping on the ceiling that was the giant squid alerting the house that it was time to get up and make ready to face the day.

She grimaced at the mirror as she brushed her hair and fought to contain it in its customary bun.  Her green-tinted mane was sensitive to magic, attempting to climb the currents like a morning glory vine climbing strings.  At home it wasn't so bad, but in a school devoted to learning magic, the temptation was apparently too much for the locks.  And this being OWL day, there was more in the air than usual.

She finally got it all tied down out of her face, and followed at the tail of the line as they trooped up to the Great Hall for breakfast.  Oatmeal, toast, and fruit, a mellow bland breakfast for nervous stomachs.  Spike toyed with her bowl of porridge gloomily, then deigned to nibble some toast and fruit.  She'd celebrate or drown her sorrows at lunch. 

Sunday, September 09, 2012

An OWL, Finally (Part One)

It was nearing midnight on the last day of the term, and Spike was in the Common Room frantically working on her OWL.  The heads of house turned the traditional blind eye to the need for bed check during the last week of the term to allow students the maximum time to complete their homework.  As long as they're in the dorm rooms, we know where they are, and have a pretty good guess what they're doing.  After all, they had all been students once. 

Her star chart seemed to be taking forever.  It grew larger and larger under her hands, each row representing the vastness of space itself.  The beads sparkled like stars, slipped and hopped with evil minds of their own as she worked to charm them into the web of spaces and places.  Finally, the last bead, the last stitch, all was in place.  She pulled it taught for display, and whistled for Gwenhyfar to come and carry her work to her Examiner. 

The owl carefully wrapped her claws in the lace, delicately holding it up and peering at the shiny bits in the soft fiber. 

"Don't tear it,  Spike chided softly, opening the owl-sized door in the wall.  It opened up into a shaft, as if for a dumbwaiter.  Hogwarts was honeycombed with these shafts, too small for a student, but just about the right size for an owl.  They had to be pulled open from the outside, but were balanced to be easily nudged open from the inside.  She watched as Gwenhyvar vanished into the darkness, carrying three month's of hard work in her claws. 

"Not'ink for eet now," said Totenberg from behind her.  She jumped.  I should be used to how quietly they move by now.  I should know to expect them when I least expect them.  But that would become the time I most expect them, and then I'd be expecting them and   . . .  "Bother,"  she finished under her breath.

"Time for bed," he advised.  "Hyu done all hyu can."

Spike spent a long night tossing and turning.  When she woke, Gwenhwyfar was perched at the foot of her bed.  She searched the owl thoroughly, checking her legs twice and under each wing until the bird nipped at her fingers.  No note.  Nothing.  Hopefully the owl hadn’t decided to drop her work somewhere in the mazed tunnels before reaching the Examiner. 

The days at the end of term, between the last class and the final feast before leave-taking, Spike found, were absolutely nerve-wracking.  She found herself taking the long way around in order to walk through the hall of hourglasses, counting and re-counting the emeralds.  Comparing them with the sapphires and rubies of Ravenclaw and Gryffindor.  Was it enough?  I should have found a way to cram in one more class.  I should have started an essay and handed it in for partial points. Too late now.

At lunch, she overheard a couple of students discussing someone who’d received a Troll on their OWL – had actually failed to meet the OWL standards, and she had sat, soup growing cold in the spoon halfway to her lips, ears pricked attentively, hoping for more information.  She hadn’t even considered the possibility that one could finish all that work and still be judged unworthy.  And a hundred points for the House!  That’s six classes and a Detention, she thought.  You could catch up with that kind of loss early in the term, but now the points were gone forever. 

She couldn’t settle down and turn hand or mind to anything useful.  Nothing held her interest for more than a moment, she was floating aimlessly.  Waiting for her letter from the Examiner.  Waiting to see if she’d passed her OWL.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

A Table Turned (Conclusion)

Professor Umbridge had just finished teaching her class and was settling down to begin grading when the door burst open and Spike marched briskly in, followed by Begonia Hoddington. Professor Umbridge smiled widely. “Why, Spike,” she purred sardonically, “It’s always such a pleasure to see you here. Are you trying for an OWL in Detention? You’re certainly leaning that way.” To Prefect Hoddington, she asked, “And what has our naughty little snake done this time, hmm?”

“She was impersonating a Griffindor. Philandria Duntisbourne, actually. We suspect she used polyjuice potion.”

“Indeed? One could almost commend such studiousness if it were only applied to books, and safe forms of learning. Theory, Miss Spike, not the more … practical aspects you seem so fond of.”

“Yes, Professor,” Spike mumbled. “I’ll just take my customary seat, shall I?”

“Yes, dear. I believe you know where the special quills are?”

Spike nodded, slouching over and selecting one. Better to get a sharp one if you could, it hurt less and carved deeper.

Later that night in the Dungeon, Mallory Chambers spotted Spike. “Hey, I heard you got Detention for playing that polyjuice potion trick on Griffindor. How come you’re out so early?”

Spike smiled. “I just happened to have a little goodie for Professor Umbridge—a lovely pair of complex socks in her favorite color.”


Chambers thought for a moment. “Wasn’t that the pink yarn we used to mop up the Amortentia spill last month?”

Spike grinned. “Yup. Professor Umbridge—or ‘Lolly’ as I am now to call her—apparently has a new class pet.” She sipped her absinthe, admiring the opal over emerald. “Of course, until she’s WASHED those socks a few times.”