It was cooler when we got off the train. I breathed in the fresh air with a sigh of relief and spread my arms open to let myself cool off. The other girls didn’t seem to enjoy the air as much. Lily was trying to wrap a scarf around her neck, Alice had her arms folded across her chest and was shivering into them, and Charlotte and Mary were huddled together, I guess to try to combine their body heat. It was almost funny to see them so cold on a perfectly fine day.
I hurried after them to one of the boxes that the thestrals were attached to. I wasn’t sure exactly what they were planning to do, but I figured following them was the best policy. Alice must have noticed my confused look when we got in the box because she quickly explained that the carriages were charmed to go up to the castle.
“Actually, the thestrals pull them. I’m surprised Alice, you got one wrong.” broke in a male’s deep voice. Alice looked up and at the door to the box there was a young man; he looked about the same age as the newest of my father’s courtiers. It was time for him to get married and begin active service, maybe even past time. So it was with pleasure that I saw Alice squeal and launch herself into the man’s arms.
“Frank!” She cried. I smiled. Obviously Alice and this man were to get married soon, that’s just as it should be. Alice rose in my sight. I guess first impressions don’t mean anything, do they? Alice is turning out to be very observant, answering my questions before I have to humiliate myself by asking them and doing what she was supposed to at this stage in life, looking for a husband. Of course, I was the exception to that rule, as I had to prepare to establish good relations between the merpeople and humans. Of course, I couldn’t exactly tell anyone that I was acting on behalf of the merpeople, so what good would that do? This troubled me for a bit, I’d never thought about that. I had just come to the conclusion that I would have to ask my father during the next new moon, which was in about a week, when I heard my name.
“This is Erin.” Alice was saying, “She’s new this year and she’s in . . . well, um, what house are you in Erin? Or have you not been sorted yet?”
I shook myself out of my reverie. Time to worry later. Right now I had a job to do.
“I’m in Gryffindor.” I replied, choosing to address myself to Frank. “I’ve been staying at Hogwarts the past week, I came early. Dumbledore had me sorted then.”
Alice smiled and replied, “That’s great. We’re all in Gryffindor too, except for Frank here, he’s in Hufflepuff.”
“Fantastic.” I said, a stiff smile on my face. So he was a happy go lucky sort of person. Well, I guess that explains why Alice was going to marry him. She seemed like she could have been in Hufflepuff too.
The girls chattered on some more as the carriage pulled forward and started moving. I was watching the thestrals, so this time I had some warning and didn’t screech when we started moving. I stiffened a bit, but I don’t think that anyone noticed. Humans were so weird sometimes. I mean, they have these legs, but they let unicorns and thestrals pull them everywhere. What’s the point of having legs then?
Alice was sitting next to Frank. They were both staring at each other; it was as if they were trying to memorize each other’s faces. Maybe the splitting into different houses was going to be hard on them. I guess that once they were married they would choose one house or the other to live in.
The ride up to the castle was relatively short. I wasn’t required to say much, so I just observed. Observed the carriage, the way the girls talked to each other, what they talked about, the way they moved their hands, the way they crossed their legs (WAY too complicated for me to try yet), all sorts of things. I filed away the information for later.
When we got out of the carriages there were a lot of people around so nobody noticed that I moved slowly because everyone was moving slowly. This was comforting, to say the least. Although with so many people packed into the caves inside the castle it was a little claustrophobic. Not as bad as the train or the carriages, but still pretty bad. Merpeople don’t pack so close together when we have counsels or celebrations. Jack would say that humans were like sardines. I used to not understand that expression and when he tried to explain it...it didn’t go well. I was only nine and the idea that humans would take fish and kill them and put them in containers without water, to be honest, it was rather horrifying. I didn't talk to Jack for almost a week. But I remember about sardines.
We sat at the table, I'm sure I don't know why humans are so preoccupied with tables, and some foolish person had forgotten to set out the food. Or maybe not a person. House elves were probably in charge of the food because that's who worked in the kitchen. Dumbledore did seem like the sort of person who might just forget to tell the house elves that we needed to eat tonight. Or perhaps this was his way of making a joke. Perhaps he liked to laugh at people other than me.
I almost turned and asked Alice, who was sitting next to me, but I stopped myself just in time. I hated being ignorant, but when it was only I who was aware of my ignorance it didn't matter as much. I could be patient and wait for some foolish advisor to ask the question. The meal was not worth humiliating myself in front of these strange humans. I could go to the kitchens to get my seaweed later if need be.
None of the other girls commented about the lack of food on the table, but I did hear several of the people in the surrounding area--why these humans were in love with living on top of each other I don't know--complain that they were hungry and that the sorting had better not take too long.
It was only then that I noticed the filthy wad of leather Dumbledore had the nerve to call a hat sat on a stool at the front of the hall. Many of the humans were looking at it as if waiting for it to do something. Ignorant people. Didn't they know that you were supposed to put the hat on your head before it could tell you what house you were supposed to be in?
So it was to my utter astonishment when the hat began to sing. Out loud.
Now, let me make this clear, it wasn't the fact that a hat was capable of singing that astonished me, after all it had read my mind only a week before, but it was the fact that it would choose to do so in front of all of these people. And that the people sat patiently, politely, listening to the hat sing. I felt my face heat up, which was odd as I was expecting it from my tail, no, legs, and turned away. I couldn't believe how rude these humans were.
I know, I know. Mermaids are supposed to have beautiful voices. They sit on rocks and comb their hair and sing and humans fall in love with them, dive into the sea and drown. I KNOW. That's how it used to be, back when normal humans believed in merpeople. Back in the days when we could reveal ourselves. Now it's just too dangerous. We've heard of what humans do to rare creatures. House elves have been enslaved, elephants have been killed off by the thousands for their tusks. Countless other animals are kept on reserves, like the centaurs, or in muggle zoos. Unicorns and dragons are kept under tight control. We know better than to let everyone know that we’re still alive, hidden underneath the lake. That’s why the secrecy is so important, for in secrecy we can retain our liberty.
But none of that has to do with singing. The shame of listening to others sing dates back only a thousand years or so. I’m not sure how much of the myth we tell at our councils is actually truth, but here’s how the story goes.
Loretta was a mermaid princess. She fell in love with a peasant human, a complete muggle who knew nothing of the existence of mythical creatures. He cut wood near the lake every day for his little log cabin that was in the forest. And as he chopped wood he would sing. Loretta loved his singing and loved to sing herself, but she knew that her peasant woodcutter couldn’t know about mermaids, and her friends and parents warned her every day against going to the surface and watching the peasant. Loretta loved the peasant though, so she disregarded the council of her elders and continued watching the woodcutter.
One day the woodcutter was singing one of Loretta’s favorite tunes and she simply could not contain herself any longer. She joined in his song, harmonizing and blending her voice with his. She felt as though all had to be right with the world and soon became caught up in the song, not noticing that the ringing of the hatchet had stopped and the voice was approaching her hiding place amongst the rushes of the lake. The woodcutter found her and screamed when he discovered that she was a mermaid. He raised his hatchet above his head and slashed at Loretta, attempting to kill her. She was almost hit, but the rushes stopped the woodcutter from reaching her once she was out of the shallows. She returned home in despair, broken hearted and vowing that she would never listen to another sing again. Ever since this time it is considered one of the deepest shames to have heard another sing. No mortification could be greater.
So listening to the horrible leather twisted hat singing on top of it’s stool throne was awful. I couldn’t leave my seat though, not because the embarrassment of walking out of the cave in the middle of a particular special meal would be too much to bear, but because with these horrible legs and the humans all crowded so close to me I really couldn’t get out of my seat.
My pain was relatively short-lived, thankfully. It felt like I had waited for the changing of the tide, but it really didn't take all that long before the hat fell silent again. The sorting then proceeded as I had expected it to. The hat was placed on children's heads, covering their whole faces at times, and after a few minutes the hat would shout out the name of one of the houses. After the last child was sorted Professor McGonnagal took the hat away and I breathed a sigh of relief. No more signing.
Dumbledore stood for a minute and my fears returned temporarily, but he merely welcomed us and then told us that it was time to eat. The food appeared on the tables and I started hunting for my seaweed as everyone began serving themselves.
My relief was short-lived. As conversation rose up in a swell about me I realized that I wasn't very good at this small talk sort of thing. Charlotte and Mary were discussing what they had done over their summer vacation, while Alice and Lily were chattering on about which classes they were looking forward to and which they thought would be more difficult and so on. I sat quietly in the middle nibbling on my seaweed and avocados, wondering just exactly I was supposed to say. The train ride had been taken up with the discussion of the Marauders, but now that we were at the school I was painfully aware of how extremely unprepared I was to make small talk with these girls. I was brought out of my musings when a rather chubby small girl with her blond hair pulled back into two tight braids squealed,
"Ew, what is that?" while pointing a short, fat finger at my seaweed.
I glared at her. That was, to say the least, very impolite. I flicked some of my hair over my shoulder, seeing as it was impossible to flick a tail in impatience when one didn’t have one, or to swirl your hair about you in the thin air, and glared at her some more.
“Dinner.” I replied shortly. Then I returned to poking at my seaweed with my fork.
Regrettably, the squealer had brought the attention of the girls around me back to, well, me. Normally this was desirable, in fact, expected, but I found that I didn’t seem to enjoy being the center of attention of this crowd of human girls as much as I had amongst the other mermaids.
"Erin, what are you eating?" Lily asked with, was that horror in her voice?
"Seaweed and avocado, of course." I responded, frowning.
"Seaweed?" Mary shrieked.
"And nothing else but avocados for dinner?" Charlotte added with obvious disdain.
"Something wrong with eating avocado for dinner?" I responded with a huff. Charlotte looked like she could be a mermaid with her dark hair, but she sure didn't act like one. No merperson would dare speak to me with a disdainful voice.
“Nothing wrong, of course.” Alice jumped in and was glancing anxiously between me and Charlotte.
“Just totally...” Charlotte began, but Alice cut her off again.
“Hey Mary, are you continuing with NEWT Transfiguration? I could really use someone to study with.” Mary looked carefully from me to Charlotte to Alice, trying to decide if it was best to answer.
“Alice, you can study with me, just like usual.” Lily said, sounding puzzled.
“Oh, but you know, it’s always good to have extra study partners, and I thought with your head girl duties and all...” Alice trailed off, but Charlotte decided to break her silence as I spooned more seaweed onto my plate.
“Freak.” She muttered.
I’m not sure who tensed up faster, me or Lily. Next thing I knew my face was growing hot and angry, just like it had with Jack. But before I had a chance to do anything more than glower at Charlotte Lily spoke up.
“What did you say, Dunford?” Her voice was low, dark, and almost menacing.
Charlotte met Lily’s gaze stonily, resolutely, but didn’t say anything.
“What did you call me?” Lily said again after a breathless silence. I felt my anger slipping away as I took in Lily’s expression and realized that she had misinterpreted who Charlotte was speaking to. She looked rather, well, murderous to be honest.
Charlotte’s expression totally changed. To what, I wasn’t quite sure. “Oh, no, Lily, I wasn’t say that you are a, well...”
“Save it Dunford. I don’t want to hear it.” Lily tossed her hair back over her shoulder and got up. It looked as though she was going to stalk right out of the Great Hall, but instead she settled on the very end of the Gryffindor table among a group of boys that looked as though they were in their third or fourth year. They also looked rather thrilled to have Lily sitting amongst them, but she didn’t pay any attention, instead glaring at the wall opposite her.
“Oh dear.” Alice said, shaking her head slowly. Mary’s eyes were wide and her mouth lay slightly open, her hand holding a fork frozen in midair.
“I....I didn’t mean Lily, she’s got to know that I would never call her a freak, she knows that, what with Petunia and all, I....” Charlotte stammered.
“Yes, dear, we know.” Alice said, reaching across the table to pat her hand. “It was terrible timing, and you know how sensitive Lily is to that particular word...”
“Yeah.” Charlotte said darkly. “Nice going Walker.” It took me a minute to figure out that this last part was addressed towards me. I’d forgotten the whole Jack and Dumbledore gave me another name thing.
“It wasn’t my fault.” I snapped. “If you weren’t criticizing my eating habits and calling me names, then it wouldn’t be a problem.” That’s right, this girl that looked like a mermaid had called me a freak. Excuse me, but I’ve worked my whole life trying to learn how to fit in to this place, and then she has the nerve to call me a freak? Me, Erin, the daughter of the king of the merpeople, a freak? I don’t think so.
“Well, it is super weird stuff that you’re eating.” Mary piped in. She giggled. “I mean, who eats avocados just plain? And seaweed is gross. My mom made me try it once and I nearly puked.”
I decided it was time to bring out the ice princess. These people disgusted me, all of them, even Alice who was looking very concerned at everyone.
“Such a shame that you don’t enjoy seaweed. Your hair looks exactly like the sort of seaweed I like to eat most.” Mary gasped, and I grabbed my satchel from off the floor. I was so done with this. I knew it was stupid to be squashed up like sardines. But I couldn't resist one last parting shot at Charlotte.
“It was perfectly lovely to have met you Lottie.” I said as cheerily as possible. “But I’m afraid that your hair isn‘t quite there yet” I had stood up by this point, and leaned across the table, kissing each of her cheeks swiftly. “It’s a good thing I’m not hungry anymore.” I added with a smirk. “Or else you would be bald all too soon.” I turned as quickly as I could, and began walking out of the hall. I heard a shriek behind me, and I knew that Charlotte had figured out that her hair was now, well, seaweed.
It wasn’t until I had reached the Gryffindor tower and had entered the shower again, creating as much steam as I possibly could, that I remember what my objective was. Learning about humans and making friendly connections.
This was going to be a whole lot harder than I had originally thought.
A/n: Okay, so this chapter was supposed to be a little bit longer with at least one more scene in it, but I just got tired, had a change in direction, and decided it was unfair to leave everyone hanging so long, so here's the update! I can't promise that they next chapter will come quickly, but I would be much more motivated to work on it if I had some feedback. Reviews anyone?