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“Firs' years over here. Firs' years!”

The great voice boomed over the sound of a thousand murmuring voices and the dismissing hoot of the stopped train, but Shiloh ignored it as she stepped off of the train. She'd been told to leave her luggage in the train, which she was silently thankful for. Dragging a trunk that was larger than herself seemed somewhat of a daunting task, especially since everything outside of her compartment was dark. The only thing she could make out were the backs of the people stepping out around her, even though they were only silhouettes and shady outlines, as well as the distant glow of a lamp. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could make out the dim outline of a tall, hulking man who called out repetitively, “Firs' years!”

Nervously twitching first years pushed past Shiloh in an attempt to gather around the man. A round-faced, dark-haired boy trod rather hard on her foot, although it was only an accident. She winced and inhaled sharply as her face contorted with pain and a bit of anger. She twisted her mouth, about ready to snap out a biting, 'Watch it!' when she saw the boy blush in embarrassment, his cheeks turning such a brilliant shade of red that she could see it in the darkness. The fury went out of her like a deflated balloon as the boy mumbled a stuttered apology. He was just another anxious first year who was having a hard time finding his place. For that she felt sympathy.

Even Shiloh, though she wasn't sure she could describe the emotion as nervous, felt uncomfortable in the situation. She, unlike some of them, knew what lay ahead. She'd been told by her parents about the boat crossing to Hogwarts and the Sorting—the later of which was the only thing that made her feel anything close to apprehension. Alan Sanders had been a Hufflepuff and Elaine had been a Ravenclaw, but since she wasn't their child by blood, she had as much chance as being in Slytherin or Gryffindor than any of their Houses. And, since Ellessa was a Slytherin, wasn't it likely that she too might end up in Slytherin? Not that it would be horrible to be a Slytherin. Shiloh didn't believe the whole 'all Slytherins are evil scumbags' rep, no more than she believed that all Gryffindors were righteous. Someone in one of those groups was bound to break the mold. Still, the uncertainty of where she might end up was tormenting.

But even worse than that was the knowledge that the Sorting Hat would be momentarily privy to everything that was in her mind and body. While she was under that hat she would be completely open to its prodding. It would know everything she didn't want anyone to know. Would it be able see her memories, or the fact that Ellessa Harden was her birth mother? The possibility sent an unpleasant shiver through her gut that quickly turned to nausea. All right, so maybe she was just another nervous first year.

“It's alright,” she assured the boy who had stepped on her foot.

“Last call, firs' years!” the loud voice rumbled.

Instinctively, Shiloh clasped the boy's shoulder and pulled him along with her towards the man. She let go of his shoulder when they reached the crowd, giving him a farewell nod and stepping deeper into the crowd. Closer up she could see the face of the gigantic man illuminated by his lantern. The yellow light splashed across a grizzly, untrimmed beard and long, tangled brown hair. He was even bigger close up and she thought that she barely passed the height of his waist. The sight would have been frightful, the closest she'd seen to a giant, if it hadn't been the way the light splashed across his friendly dark eyes, making them sparkle kindly. If the eyes really were the windows to the soul, then Shiloh could guess that this man was, despite his large stature, an affectionate, pleasant, and perhaps even a bit lovable man inside—like a great, overstuffed teddy bear.

As soon as the rest of the first years had assembled, the gentle-giant led them down a steep, narrow path. They continued in a group, though Shiloh thought it was rather risky, given everyone of them was slipping and sliding on the slant. She herself found her feet drifting in the dirt, but, deft from all those years of going barefoot in slick mud, she knew how to twist her heel to maintain her balance even when one poor girl fell smack onto her bum. Shiloh bent down to help her, pulling her up by her arm.

“Thanks,” the girl said, giving a shy smile as she brushed herself off.

Shiloh nodded politely, before moving on her way. When they rounded a bend, she suddenly stopped, her breath leaving her in a quiet, slow, but blissful 'oh'. She now stood near a huge lake, the water reflecting the night sky and stars, making it look like a rippling onyx with diamond speaks, a large drop of moonlight shivering and dancing placidly. Beautiful, though it was, it wasn't the lake that took Shiloh's breath away; it was the castle on the other side. Loaming towards the sky and towers stretching upward like mighty wands, Hogwarts beamed down at them, the many windows sending rectangles of golden light across the lake in a dancing pattern. It was dark and mysterious, but somehow enlightening, like a flickering flame of hope. It was beyond beautiful; it was divine.

“Hogwarts,” she breathed as a shiver of excitement trickled down her spine. “I'm finally here.”

Their guide was calling out directions, gesturing with a large hand toward a fleet of boat in the water. Reluctantly dragging her eyes away from the splendid view, she turned her attention to joining a boat that still at room. As she climbed in and sat, the boat gave a toss, splashing little droplets onto her face. She'd never been on a boat before and the motion caused her heart to still for a moment, but in an instant the boat righted itself. She settled herself carefully on the bench, reminding herself that she was a fair swimmer and that she would eventually gain her sea legs.

The boats gave a lurching start, pushing away from the bank and smoothing caressing across the surface of the lake on their own accord. Shiloh quickly adjusted to the gentle rhythm on the boat, the slicing through the lake and the spraying of cool water that felt good on her nose. When she'd gotten accustomed to the motion, she turned her gaze back on the castle.

This would be her home for the next seven years, and what a wonderful home it would be! As she studied it, she felt the apprehension remove itself from her stomach. It didn't matter what House she was Sorted into. She was here, at Hogwarts! Whether she followed in Alan's, Elaine's, or Ellessa's footsteps, it wasn't important, because she would set her own course, her own path, and become the greatest witch she could be. She wouldn't let her House define her; rather, she'd define it.

The boats carried them toward a cliff and they were forced to duck their heads as they pushed into a great underground tunnel, ivy tickling the backs of their necks. Shiloh tentatively raised her head, blinking her eyes. Her vision had long since adjusted to the darkness, but the black was so thick that she could only make out a few jagged lines in the rock walls on either side of them and the faces of fellow students temporarily lit up by the light of the guide's lamp, eerily reflecting their mixed emotions: excitement, fear, and that sickeningly expression that suggested that they might just vomit.

Finally they reached a ledge and the boats stopped in what looked like an underground harbor. Shiloh sprang out of the side of boat, enjoying the feel of solid ground beneath her feet. The group followed their guide through another tunnel that led them through to the shadows of the castle. Being so close to the giant castle made Shiloh feel tiny, but it wasn't an unpleasant feeling, just a testimony that Hogwarts was even grander up close than it was from a distance.

There was an excited spring in her steps and her lips twitched happily as she was led up a flight of stone steps. They were once again stopped, this time before a huge, oak door. Shiloh stared up at it as their guide raised a mighty fist and knocked. The sound boomed once, twice, three times. Shiloh's lips turned into a smug smirk as she watched the door swing open.

A willowy, black-haired witch stepped forth, her face completely solemn as though it had not seen a smile for years. She looked quite stern, as though her lips might part in a reprimand right on the spot, but she remained silent, looking over the group with a weighing gaze.

“Professor McGonagall,” their guide addressed the woman. So this was Professor McGonagall, Head of Gryffindor House, Teacher of Transfiguration, and Deputy Headmistress, the one who had sent Shiloh her letter. She recognized the name immediately. “I brought the firs' years.”

“Thank you, Hagrid,” said the Professor in a businesslike, but not necessary unkind tone. “I handle it from here.”

With that they were handed from their former-guide—Hagrid, as Professor McGonagall had called him—into the reliable hands of Professor McGonagall. They were led into the entrance hall and Shiloh took in the sight, marveling. It was so great that she thought she could put two houses the size of her own into it, perhaps more, for the ceiling was so high over their heads that she couldn't even make it out. Torches blinked along the wall and a great staircase was before them, silently beckoning for them to follow it to the upper floors.

Professor McGonagall showed them into a chamber. From here Shiloh could hear the rumbling of students voices from a room nearby. As Shiloh was slightly distracted by the sounds around her, she did not pay any attention as Professor McGonagall gave a speech about the coming Sorting and how their Houses would be something like a family. She spoke—for the sake of those Muggle-born—of the four Houses and about House points. Shiloh tuned into that part. It was a good system, because when someone got into trouble they'd be punishing not just themselves, but their entire House as well. Shiloh imagined that there would be havoc for the person who lost too many points. Angry glares from fellow students would be a good incentive to keep noses out of trouble.

But the part of her speech that made Shiloh's stomach clinched when she announced that the ceremony would take part in front of the entire school. Shiloh could have handled facing the Hat on her own, but in front of hundreds of eyes was asking a bit much. What if the Sorting Hat blurted out everything that it found in her head to the ears of everyone? That just wouldn't be fair. Though her face stayed blank, Shiloh felt her heart start to race and take deep breaths. Surely that wouldn't happen. Surely nothing, not even a Hat, could be that cruel.

Professor McGonagall left them alone for a few moments and Shiloh found herself in a group of fidgeting first years. Though her face remained as calm as it always did, her eyes were set on the floor and her shoes as she felt her insides trembling. She wondered if any of them had as much reason to fear as she did. She didn't care what House she was Sorted into, just whether a thousand students was about to find out the darkest secret.

She was only slightly aware of people around her jabbering quietly about this and that, making guesses on what the Sorting would be. Some guessed it was some sort of test and some reckoned it would really painful. Shiloh rolled her eyes at them in exasperation, glad for something to do and feel than her agitation and trying to calm her racing heart. But something happened that caused her heart to jump into her throat: people screamed.

Shiloh whirled around, almost expecting to see something fearsome or someone lying crumbled on the ground, perhaps in a pool of their own blood. Instead there were only ghosts. Shiloh was slightly surprised; after all, it wasn't everyday one saw a ghost, but being raised in a wizardry family she was perfectly aware of the existence of ghosts and it seemed only befitting that they would house such a majestic place as Hogwarts. Each one was white and slightly transparent, the imprint of a life passed.

The ghosts stopped their conversations when they noticed the first years. They paused for a moment and studied the children—who, in return, studied them. After a moment, they spoke to the students and Shiloh listened and watched, the distraction causing her worry to disappear, but it quickly returned upon the reappearance of Professor McGonagall who began to usher them into a line.

As Shiloh moved with the rest of the students into the Great Hall there was no confident skip and no excited sparkle in her otherwise still eyes. In fact, she felt quite like she was going to her doom and she tugged anxiously at her left collar. Not even the sights and wonders of the Great Hall---the four long tables stuffed with students who eyes watched the first years intently, the flickering candles, and the ceiling that looked precisely like the night sky, even with wispy, dark clouds, their outlines lit with silver moonlight---could take away the deep feeling of dread.

Professor McGonagall stopped in front of a stool and then set a battered, old hat upon it. It was frumpy and brown, looking as though it could crumble into dust by the slightest touch. It was the ugliest hat Shiloh had ever seen, but she also knew it was the greatest. The entire hat gave a tiny shudder, as though waking from a sleep. A rip near the front moved, parting like lips, and the hat began to sing.

Shiloh listened to the deep voice, memorizing what it had to say about Houses: Gryffindor for the courageous and chivalrous; Hufflepuff for the patient, hardworking, and loyal; Ravenclaw for the smart and witty; Slytherin for the cunning, determined, and ambitious. Shiloh's mind reeled, wondering which one she would possibly be. She wasn't a coward, she knew that. She couldn't have faced explosions of potions as fearlessly as she did if she was. She knew she wasn't patient, but she wasn't afraid to get her hands working and she'd fight for the people she loved—Annadel's bleeding nose was proof of that. Shiloh wasn't dumb, but she wouldn't call herself wise; she was only eleven, for goodness's sake. And Slytherin...Shiloh stopped her thoughts; because no amount of speculation would ease the uncertainty she was feeling.

Professor McGonagall began to call the first years by alphabetical order and Shiloh forced herself to pay attention so she could distract herself from her own desire to bolt or—worse—vomit. She paid so much attention in fact that she didn't notice the familiar face behind her until someone pinched her elbow, not hard or painfully, just a squeeze to get her attention. Shiloh glanced behind her and felt a different kind of nausea. Annadel stood there, and gave a little confident flip of her hair and a wave that was more of a wiggle of her fingers. Leaning close so that her lips were an inch from Shiloh's ear, Annadel whispered, “I bet I'll be in Slytherin,” she hissed so quietly that no one but Shiloh would hear her above the Sorting Hat's voice. “My whole family was. But I'm sure you couldn't get into that House. It's only for purebloods.”

Shiloh felt anger burn the insides of her collar and she glared at Annadel. She wanted to inform her that Annadel was a liar. There weren't enough purebloods for everyone in Slytherin to be pure. But Shiloh pressed her lips closed; Annadel wasn't worth the breath it would take to contradict her.

“Besides, I think I know what House you'll be it,” Annadel continued to whisper, matter-of-factly.

The feel of Annadel's breath on her earlobe was beginning to annoy her and disinterest was taking control as Shiloh felt her attention being drawn back to the Sorting Hat. “Is that right, Delamb?” Shiloh whispered absently, not sure if Annadel could hear her. “Are you a seer now?”

Annadel ignored the last comment and giggled under her breath. “I'm positive you'll be a Hufflepuff.”

The way she said Hufflepuff made it sound like the scum of the earth and Shiloh knew it was another insult on Shiloh's father. She looked back at Annadel and said quietly, but venomously, “There's nothing wrong with being hardworking and loyal. Not that you would know anything about that.”

Annadel's eyes flashed, but she said nothing as Professor McGonagall called her name.

“Delamb, Annadel.”

Annadel's black eyes refilled with that smug expression and as she passed Shiloh, she brushed her shoulder and hissed discretely, “Don't worry,” she comforted mockingly, but with laughter in her tone. “You'll look fabulous in yellow.”

Shiloh pretended like she hadn't heard and watched as Annadel replaced the newly-made Slytherin, Millicent Bulstrode, on the stool, perching proudly and haughtily like a queen overseeing her unworthy court. McGonagall lowered the Hat, but it had barely brushed Annadel's scalp before it called out, “Slytherin!”

Annadel beamed and jumped down from the stool as the Slytherin table erupted into catcalls and thunderous applause. The rest of the hall gave praise politely, but there were a couple of loud, mischievous boos from the Gryffindor table. Shiloh glanced at them and saw the smirking identical faces of Fred and George. She felt at twinge of something, perhaps like regret, because if she was made a Slytherin she didn't see how it would be possible to ever be friends with them. But there was no great feeling of loss, because if they could be so prejudiced she wasn't sure she wanted to be their friends.

Shiloh tuned back into the Sorting. There was a Hufflepuff and three others—a boy named Seamus, a girl with bushy, brown hair, and the round-faced boy who had stepped on her foot on the train platform, Neville—who were placed in Gryffindor. A white-haired boy named Draco Malfoy was placed into Slytherin along with Pansy Parkinson. Names passed as they were all one by one placed into their Houses, the Hat saying nothing but the House names and Shiloh began to feel hope that it would indeed keep its mouth shut when it came to the things of Shiloh's own mind.

Finally there came a name from McGonagall's lips that they all recognized.

“Potter, Harry!”

The Hall went silent for a brief moment a though every person didn't believe that the name had been called, but when a skinny, dark-haired kid stepped away from the remaining group and moved uneasily toward the stool, excited murmurs picked up into it was a dull roar in Shiloh's ears. Harry Potter sat on the stool and Shiloh saw a flicker of nervousness go through his eyes before McGonagall set the hat on his head and his eyes disappeared beneath its large brim.

So that was him? Shiloh wondered to herself. The Harry Potter was a scrawny, little kid with a lightning bolt scar? He didn't look like that amazingly powerful wizard that everyone claimed him to be. He looked normal, not to mention malnourished. He certainly didn't look special. If Shiloh had met him anywhere else, she would have pegged him as the least likely person to be involved with the downfall of a Dark Lord. The last thing she would have guessed was that he was anything other than what they all were, anything other than common. And perhaps he was average. Perhaps he was just a boy who's lost his parents, been orphaned at the hands of You-Know-Who and survived by something completely outside of his control.

No. Shiloh certainly wasn't impressed by him. She felt another emotion, a slight sadness and familiarity. She pitied him because things outside of his hands—sad things, yes; cruel things, most definitely—had happened, because of You-Know-Who. Sort of like her.

It took the Sorting Hat a long moment to decide Potter's fate, but finally it boomed, “GRYFFINDOR!”

The Gryffindor table erupted in wild cheers as though they had been awarded the House Cup and the Quidditch Cup all at once. As walked towards them, there was grand applause and banging on the tables that thundered like a storms. Shiloh swore she heard the Weasley Twins yell triumphantly. “We got Potter!”

It made Shiloh feel partly exasperated and partly sick. Harry was just a first year at Hogwarts, something that was hard enough without people worshiping the ground he walked on.

Shiloh took her eyes off Potter and dragged them back to the Sorting. There was a Thomas and a Turpin and then...Shiloh's heart stopped.

“Sanders, Shiloh.”

Shiloh's heart thundered painfully in her chest, making her ribs ache and her stomach felt so tight she was nearly sure she was going to be sick. This was another moment she wasn't ready to face. She was about to be judged in front of a hall of people by something that could see into the deepest corridors of her heart and mind, into places that Shiloh herself didn't dare venture into, let alone let others see. She stood planted in her spot for a long moment, before a resolution allowed no more room for the agonizing emotions. If she was going to judgment then she would go without showing fear. She would be calm and confident, even if she felt like turning and running.

With fearlessness that she didn't quite feel, Shiloh squared her shoulder and raised her head. She could feel the many eyes upon her as she strode forward and she did not allow herself to consider what they all thought of the lithe eleven-year-old with short hair like black silk as she marched determinedly toward her destiny on the stool. She sat on the stool, her back straight and her face expressionless. Though she was perched quite like Annadel—something like a queen or princess—she, unlike Annadel, didn't appear for a moment to be conceited, only brave and confident. Shiloh caught a glimpse of near a thousand heads before the brim of the Hat being lowered over her head obstructed her view.

The Hat stirred to life on her head and spoke into her ear. “Mmm...interesting... very interesting.” Unable to see past the brim of the Hat, Shiloh could only listen to the husky voice of the Sorting Hat as she felt people gazing at her somewhere past the darkness. She wondered if they could hear what she was hearing, but the words were whispered against her ear, not booming throughout the hall.

The Hat's talking to me...just me... Shiloh realized and blessed relief poured through her. There would be no secrets spilled to all of Hogwarts. Her relief was so great that if Shiloh had been able to express her emotions the way others could she would have had a hard time deciding whether to laugh or cry.

But there was still one thing sorting through her mind. She could feel it, shifting through her thoughts and emotions, her entire personality open to the Hat. As it spoke, it seemed to be enjoying going through her head, liking the appealing to see the very essence of her being, because its deep voice hummed slightly. Still Shiloh didn't even flinch.

“There's a good mind on you, intelligent and plenty strong---perhaps it's to Ravenclaw with you.” Shiloh held her breath, wondering if that was the decision, but after a seconds pause it chuckled. “But, no, no. That's not right at all. I see a great fearlessness within you; courageous and bold. A great would do your all for those you love, no matter the cost to yourself, and would never hesitate to defend those weaker than yourself. Yes, you'd make a grand Gryffindor.”

Shiloh blinked, feeling her eyelashes brushing against the fabric of the Hat. Was that it ? Was she going to be a Gryffindor? The Hat seemed sure and Gryffindor would be respectable, but somehow it didn't seem quite...right.

“But there is something, I think, that you would be even greater as.” The Hat was delving deeper, into uncharted territory and Shiloh stiffened, feeling dread at what it could be looking at. “You indeed are a curious mix. For I see a high ambition, the thirst to prove yourself, and a dearest desire---” He means not wanting to be like Ellessa. Shiloh suddenly had a grand desire to get him out of her head, but she remained still. “...Along with the determination to do anything to achieve it. You are independent for one your age, the want to chart your own path, no matter if people tell you it's wrong. I see distrust and...” He pushed and them hummed in amusement. “Hate.” Shiloh flushed cold. “And...” The Hat nearly purred. “A dark secret.”

Shiloh gritted her teeth and wrapped her fingers around the seat of the stool to keep herself from yanking off the Hat and throwing on the floor. No one could hear him except herself, Shiloh reminded herself. She forced herself to take a deep breath. It would be over in a moment.

There was a triumphant ring in the Hat's voice as he announced to the entire hall. “Now I know exactly what to do with you...”

The next word rang in her ears and reverberated throughout the hall, being greeted by applause, as the Hat Sorted her into the House where she was destined to be.


chapter image by caren

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