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Willow looked around her to find something to hold on to.  Finding nothing obvious, she grabbed onto her seat with both hands and pulled herself lower onto the bench.  She looked across at Lef, who was also holding on, but with a huge grin on her face.

“This is going to be great!” Lef shouted to her over the increasing roar of the rapids.

Willow shook her head.  “Are you insane?” she called back, but Lef obviously didn’t hear her and instead, had turned around in her seat to face forward.  Willow tried to make herself even smaller.  When they hit the first dip, the wooden boat bent with the rapids just as if it were a rubber raft, although Willow could feel the wooden seat clenched in her hands.  She could see the other five boats following hers into the rushing maelstrom, each twisting and dipping in turn as they entered just behind the lead boat. 

Are they trying to kill us on our first day? she thought, nearly losing her breakfast when the bottom dropped out of the boat as it descended into another trough.  As the spray and foaming water soaked her to the skin, she looked down to see their bags wallowing in six inches of water.  She looked up in time to see two of the students in the back of the second boat get launched into the air.  Willow was sure they were going to be thrown out of the boat and drown, but they just hovered in the air and then landed back down in their seats.  Maybe this school wasn’t trying to kill them on their first day after all.  Willow looked over to yell this to Lef, but Lef was holding her hands up in the air like this was some kind of roller coaster ride.

What have I gotten myself into? Willow thought as another wave crashed over her side of the boat.

By the time they reached the other end of the rapids, they were all soaked to the skin.  About a foot of water sloshed around in the bottom of the boat.  Willow was pretty sure her bag and everything it contained were ruined.  As she glanced back toward the canyon, she saw that all of the other boats were still lined up and were also filled with soaked and unhappy First Years.  Lef and the red-haired woman appeared to be the only two who were smiling.

“That never gets old,” said the red-haired woman as she wrung water from her hair.  

Willow saw that the river appeared to split ahead, flowing around the point of a large island which was covered in thick woods.  The portion of the river flowing to the right side of the island descended into a second set of rapids, but the boats were making their own way to the left side of the island where there was smooth water.  After about five more minutes of drifting along, Willow could see a dock ahead jutting out into the river.

The red-haired woman was looking forward from the boat to this dock and boathouse which were very similar to the one they had just left.  As the boats bumped up against the dock, the red-haired woman again took out her wand and pointed it at the coiled rope at Willow's feet which jumped up and tied itself to the dock.  Looking back, Willow could see the same happen to the ropes in the other five boats.  Willow and Lef grabbed their bags from the pool at the bottom of the boat and stepped onto the dock, their soaked robes and feet leaving puddles everywhere they stood.

“Line up at the base of the dock single file,” the red-haired woman called.  “We’ll go into the sorting from there.” 

“Wasn’t that awesome?” said Lef, water still dripping from her hair and face.

“No,” replied Willow, who was chilled from the river water, but thankful for the advice from Mr. Abrams to wear the swimsuit.

Willow opened up her bag to see how ruined her school books and supplies were only to discover that everything was perfectly dry.  The only water that was in her bag was that which was dripping from her soaked hair as she looked in.

“Everything is dry,” she remarked to Lef.

“Of course,” Lef responded.  “Why wouldn’t it be?” as if it were completely natural for a bag’s contents to be perfectly dry after having been immersed in water for a quarter of an hour.

I have so much to learn, thought Willow as she closed her bag back up and carried it toward the unhappy line of sodden first year students.

As they started to climb a set of stone stairs, Willow tried to remember if she had heard anything about the process of sorting from her visit two months ago.  She couldn’t remember any of the house names, although she knew that Mr. Puterschmidt had mentioned them during the tour with her mom. 

“Which house do you think you’ll be in?” she asked Lef.

“Muratroyd,” Lef replied without hesitation. “Everyone in my family is from Murgatroyd House...although that might be because it's my family name.”

“Oh...does it go by what your family is?  What do they do with...,” Willow trailed off.

“Nomaj-born?” Lef finished for her.  “I don't know how that works.  Everyone always ends up in the house their family was in.  It’s all explained by the hat.” 

“The hat?” 

“Yes,” said Lef.  “There is a hat that sings a song that explains the four houses: landowners, merchants, craftsmen, and farmers. My dad told me all about it.  I’m sure you’ll be fine.”  

Willow was as confused as ever and wished she had been able to pay more attention during the tour.  As the first years squished their way single file from the dock up the stone staircase to an underpass through a grassy hill, she tried to remember more about her first visit to the school.  She couldn’t figure out where they were or where they were going.

As they emerged on the other side of the tunnel and into the gardens with the school mansion in the background, she instantly recognized they were approaching the front of the school from the same direction that she and her mother had come two months ago.  Except that instead of the main entrance, they were headed for an entrance just off of the gardens at the far right edge of the school building.   

Many of the other first years were gazing in wonder.  They were obviously seeing Gampton Hall for the first time.  They wound their way through the gardens and into the garden entrance to the school building.  They climbed up the stone staircase and through the double doors.  Just before entering the school, Willow looked behind and saw the trail of dripping water they had left behind them as if a giant snail had just oozed its way up from the docks.  

Once inside, the line of first years snaked its way past two classrooms marked ‘Thaumaturgy’ and a smaller staircase until they were stopped just outside two large double doors.  Willow could hear a large assembly going on behind them.  After the red-haired woman had opened the door and signaled to someone inside, she heard some loud cheering, which apparently was their cue to file into the banquet hall.

Following the others, she walked into the vast room, which she recognized from the site tour.  Waiting inside were hundreds of students sitting at long tables.  There were two tables much larger than the others.  One was decked out in red and gold, stretched the full length of the room and bent to travel along the back of the room too.  The second table, in blue and bronze, was nearly as long as the red one.  Two other tables were in the remaining space.  Less than half the size of the blue table, one was decked in green and silver, the other in yellow and black.  About forty students sat at each of these tables.

The red-haired woman led them in the door and off to the left where they stood at the front of the room beside a raised platform with a fifth table at it.  This fifth table was clearly for the teachers.

“Ursula!” called out the man standing at the very center of the teachers’ table.  He was in his fifties, with silvering hair and middle height. “How good to see you made it.  Any casualties to report?”

“No, Chancellor,” the red-haired woman replied.  “All present and accounted for although a bit wet around the ears.”  There was a cheer and laughter from the assembled students at this.

“Excellent.  Well, let’s fix that right away,” replied the Chancellor, who took out his wand and waved it in small circles at the line of first year students.  Immediately, Willow felt like she was in the center of a small tornado.  Wind whipped about her robes and hair and in a few seconds died away again, leaving her completely dry; hair, skin, clothes and shoes.  The Chancellor then turned toward the students sitting at the tables. 

“Welcome to another year at Gampton Hall Academy,” he said.  “I’m very excited to get started and I know you are too.  Most of you already know the rules, but I’ll go over them again for the benefit of our newest members.” He gestured at the First Years.  

“Each of you will be sorted into one of four houses, which you see arrayed at the four tables in front of you.  These four houses will be your home for the entire seven years of your study here at Gampton Hall.  Everyone is expected to be on their best behavior and to encourage this, we have a competition between houses for the most points.  Points are awarded for good behavior, and deducted for bad behavior.  The house with the greatest number of points at the end of the year will be awarded the House Championship.”  The Chancellor turned to the red and gold table.  “I believe Hammersmith House has won the house cup for…is it fourteen straight years?”

“Fifteen!” called out a voice from the red and gold table.

“Right.  Fifteen,” said the Chancellor and he turned back to the first years.  “Regardless, listen to your teachers, respect the school rules, study hard and you will all do fine.”  He now turned back to the student tables.

“As you know, the kitchen and the third floor north corridor are strictly off limits and will remain so for this year.  Furthermore, no student is to enter the North Woods,” he continued.  “Since you’ve been here last, we are concerned about increased sightings of the Wendigo near the four brothers...”

Willow leaned forward to whisper in Lef’s ear.  “I don’t know what those things are.”

Lef shook her head.  “The Wendigo is really bad news.  I’ll tell you later.” 

The Chancellor was continuing to talk about limitations for the students.  “These rules are for your protection.  Furthermore, possession of any objects from Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes is not allowed and all items will be confiscated upon discovery.”  There was a general groan from the gathered students.  The Chancellor looked around and responded to their disapproval.  “After what happened in the gallery last year, you should not be surprised!  Mr. Vernon, the custodian, was cleaning that up for months!”  A few snickers were heard from the student tables.  “Finally,” the Chancellor continued, “parental permission will be required for admission to the restricted section of the school library and field trips into Gampton.  No exceptions.”  

The Chancellor made a gesture toward an alcove above the teacher’s table and organ music began to echo through the banquet hall.  “Let us now sing the school song!” he called above the opening notes.  

Willow didn’t know any of the words, but as she looked around at the other first years, they didn’t seem to know it either.  They were all staring around at each other as the rest of the school sang their way through three verses of something that sounded to Willow like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  At the conclusion of the song, the Chancellor opened his arms toward the students.  

“Now, without further ado, let us commence the sorting ceremony,” he said and then he turned and spoke directly to the first years.  

“The sorting hat was a gift from the Headmaster of Hogwarts School in Scotland who was serving there when Gampton Hall Academy was founded in 1720,” he explained.  “It is a replica of the hat that Hogwarts has been using for the better part of a thousand years to sort students into one of four houses.  Our hat, which we have nicknamed ‘Amrose’ after that headmaster, has been doing the same for the past three hundred years.  I would go into the nature of the houses, but you’ll hear it from Amrose, so I’ll refrain from mentioning it here, other than by saying that in general it will place you in the house relating to whether your family are craftsmen or women; merchants; farmers; or landowners.”

“Miss Mercana will call you by name.  Once called, you will proceed to stand next to Amrose and it will be placed on your head.  The hat will look into your mind and will announce the house to which you belong.  Once announced, you will sit at the table with your classmates and you will remain in that house for your full seven years at Gampton Hall.”  The Chancellor turned to address the hat, which was sitting on a stool, “Amrose, I yield the floor to you.”

The hat, which appeared to Willow to be an old rumply witch’s hat made of grey felt, suddenly moved.  A slit opened along the cone of the hat which she saw was a mouth and it started to sing in a melodious tenor voice:

 
Another year at Gampton Hall,

We shift our brains from stop to crawl.

Before our roast, assembled host,

We should start with a roll call: 

 

Hammersmith and bright Suncorn,

Featherpenny greets the morn, 

Teachers here, ghosts reappear,

Murgatroyd - they seem reborn.

 

Wake your brain from its long rest, 
Dress robes on and bold house crest;
Shining bright, a guiding light,
Don’t dread the coming mental test.

 Instead witches, wizards cheer,
We bring hope and new frontiers.
The floors are wet and the stage set,
To start sorting our first years.

We greet once more as through the door,
Walk those who would seek magic lore.
First imported and then sorted,
Fully into houses four.

But this hat now sees things anew,

A fresh perspective coming through.
Dark fog lifted, I'm now gifted,

With new rules for sorting too.

 

Let us call to craftsmen wearing,

Fire and metal, rarely sharing.

Hammersmith, but now forthwith

Ever stronger, brave and daring.

 

Suncorn, old, was those who farm,

Embracing soil's hearty charm, 

Now protecting and affecting,

Ways to save each mage from harm.

 

Featherpenny, silver rings,

The merchant class will change to bring, 

Wit and knowledge at this college,

To cause their great house flag to swing.

 

Murgatroyd, under duress,

Land and flocks did they possess, 

Now are cunning and have stunning,

Sources of resourcefulness.

 

For those conflicted deep inside,
Among the houses yet untried,
Those in balance, many talents,
No longer will this hat decide

An ancient house that once was part,
Of Gampton's founding shall restart.
Of old vacated, reinstated,
To get back what is at heart.

That house shall use the ancient ways,
To find the path that once was blazed,
By ancient ones, the first to come,
To make whole what has decayed.

So with the Fox, the Cougar too, 

Snapping Turtle and Owl, the new,

Elk shall stand, no longer banned,

Four houses are just one too few.

Old rules
I will at last revive,
To ensure our school survives,
And while imprudent sort these students,
Fully into houses five.
 

As the hat finished its song, Willow could tell that this was not how they expected it to go.  There was nothing but silence in the room.  She was watching the teachers as they stared at each other, as puzzled as the students on what this sorting song meant.  The Chancellor had gone over to the teachers table and was in a lively, although whispered conversation with a very old man in green and silver tipped teachers' robes.  After a moment, the room began to buzz with excited conversations at the other tables.  

 

Willow took the break to look more around the banquet hall.  She noticed the banners hanging on the wall and recognized the animals from the song.  The cougar was on the red and gold Hammersmith banner withe the owl on the blue one for Featherpenny.  Suncorn's yellow banner had a turtle on it and the green banner of Murgatroyd displayed a fox.  She didn't see an elk anywhere.

 

Two minutes of conversation passed before the Chancellor turned back toward the hat and spoke up as the room settled down.  "Well, that was...enlightening, thank you Amrose," he said.  He then turned toward the room.  "Let's proceed with the sorting then shall we?"  Hearing no objections, nor any noise at all from the completely silent hall, he continued. "Miss Mercana, you may begin."

The red-haired woman walked toward the hat, picking up a roll of parchment from a side table along the way.  Unrolling it, she called out to the first years.  

"William Abbott!" 

A blonde haired boy approached the hat, and Miss Mercana spun him around so he faced the student tables.  When the hat was put on his head, he jumped.  The students throughout the hall laughed at this - obviously it was something that happened every sorting.

Maybe you get shocked when it’s put on, thought Willow.  After a moment the hat called out.

“Suncorn!”

The table decked out in yellow and black let out a loud cheer and Miss Mercana pointed William Abbot in that direction.  As William walked toward the table, his robes changed and yellow and black trim appeared to match the students who were sitting at his table.  Miss Mercana called out the next name.

“Mohammed Azazi!”  

After walking to the table and having the hat put on his head, Mohammed also jumped a moment later, which made the students at the tables laugh again.  When the hat called out "Featherpenny!” the blue and bronze-decked table yelled and clapped their hands as Mohammed went over to sit with them.

Miss Mercana called two more names; Lauren Beaudelaire, who went to Murgatroyd and Babbity Broombreaker who was sorted to Suncorn.  Each house name was greeted by more loud applause and yelling from those two tables before Willow heard her own name.

"Willow Carter!"  

Willow stepped forward and approached the hat.  She turned toward the student tables as she had seen the others do and waited for Miss Mercana to place the hat on her head.  "Don't worry," Miss Mercana whispered to her "this doesn't hurt...much".  Willow knew she was kidding by the smile on her face and immediately a smirk appeared on Willow’s face in spite of her nervousness.  Miss Mercana placed the hat on Willow's head and Willow jumped just as several other students did because there was a loud voice inside her head that wasn't her own.

Well, let's see now, the voice said.  I think we can rule that one out right away.

What one?  Willow thought.  But the hat ignored her question - or didn't hear it and continued on.

But these others...not quite so clear, it said.  I can hardly see a winner... 

What does that mean?  Willow thought.  

Hmmm, really quite balanced, the hat continued, ignoring her.  Yes...yes, I think you'll be the first.

The first what?   Willow thought again.

You'll see, said the voice and now out loud to the room: "Pathfinder!"
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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