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There was no cheering.  Instead, a general buzz filled the room.  Willow looked around at the confusion and wondered if she had done something wrong.  She glanced up at Miss Mercana.

“Did I break the hat?” she asked.

“No, I don’t think you could have done that,” Miss Mercana said as she removed Amrose from Willow’s head.  “But I’ll be a monkey’s aunt if I could tell you what it means,” she continued.  “You just hang with me a second and we’ll see what’s going on.”

Willow turned to see the Chancellor re-engaged with the older professor in the green and silver trimmed robes.  The elder man looked baffled and when he shrugged his shoulders a few seconds later, the Chancellor came over to where Willow was standing.

“Well dear,” the Chancellor said.  “Let’s just have you step aside for a bit while we figure out where the hat went wrong.”  He then turned to Miss Mercana.  “Ursula, let’s continue and see whether Amrose has lost his marbles.  I’d hate to lose an entire sorting while we get a new hat.”

Willow was led back over to where the first years were waiting and went to stand next to Lef.  Willow wasn’t sure what it meant and didn’t know what was going to happen next.  Just my luck: maybe they will have to send me back home.  She looked up at Lef, who was looking back at her.

“I didn’t expect that,” Lef whispered as Miss Mercana called out the next name on the list.

“Cortana Colebrick!”

At the announcement of her name, a small, thin girl with short black hair started walking toward Miss Mercana and glanced over at Willow as she passed.  Willow watched Miss Mercana whisper something to Cortana before she put on the hat, but Cortana didn’t smile.  The entire audience was silent as the hat pondered Cortana’s fate.

“Featherpenny!”

The blue and bronze table broke into cheers and Cortana headed directly over, not looking back at where the rest of the first years waited.

“Devlin Dolohov!” called Miss Mercana.

Devlin went to Murgatroyd and he was followed by two Hammersmiths, two more Murgatroyds, two Featherpennies, and one Suncorn which were sorted to raucous cheers from their tables.  

So is it just me? thought Willow, wondering if she did - in fact - break the hat.

“Sibelius Hooplander!”

“Pathfinder!” the hat announced after long deliberation.

After more confusion, Sibelius was pointed over to where Willow was standing and the Chancellor gestured for Miss Mercana to continue.  Willow looked at Sibelius, but he was staring at his shoes and didn’t look up.  He was a small but muscular boy with blond hair and tanned skin.  She noticed that he had a large bruise on his face - like he had recently been in a fight.

At least I’m not the only one who broke the hat, thought Willow.

The hat continued sorting, sending one Hammersmith, one Featherpenny and two consecutive Murgatroyd students to their new houses.  As the latest Murgatroyd was announced, the green and silver table were all standing up, both from excitement and from the fact that there was no more room for the first years to sit down.  With three Suncorns, one Hammersmith and another Murgatroyd, Willow could see that the students at the red and gold table were confused.  They had room for at least twenty new students, but only four new Hammersmiths were sitting there and the sorting was half over.

“Maleficent Murgatroyd!” called Miss Mercana.

Lef went over to the hat and turned toward the audience.  Willow noticed that she didn’t jump when the hat was put on her head.  She must have known what was coming, Willow thought.  Lef hadn’t hesitated when she said she would be put in her own family house, so Willow was confused why the hat was taking so long to figure it out.  Instead it thought for a while and then announced: 

“Pathfinder!”

Lef, looking confused, but not upset, walked over to where Willow was without being prompted.  “I really didn’t expect that either,” she whispered to Willow.

Willow didn't know what to say:  Lef, I'm so glad the hat refused to sort you too?  It seemed inappropriate somehow, so she kept silent.  At least the only girl with her was also the only girl in this school she knew.

Miss Mercana continued with the roll call.  Norbert Nuffledim was next and went to Hammersmith followed by Otto Otterbanger - Featherpenny; and Patrick Parkinson -  Murgatroyd.  After this last name was called and the cheering had faded, one of the older students at the green and silver table waved his wand and the table grew another wing to seat all the new Murgatroyds.

“Mabeobsa Ryong!” called out Miss Mercana.  Willow watched an Asian boy cross to the hat.

“Pathfinder!”

He came over to stand with Willow, Lef, and the other unsorted boy, Sibelius.  The newest arrival had a puzzled look on his face, but didn’t say anything.  Willow still didn’t know what was going on, but at least several others were in the same situation.  They couldn’t send all four of us back home, could they?  They’d have to re-sort us somehow.  Maybe we’ll have to wait until the Chancellor fixes the hat.  Her thoughts were whirling as Miss Mercana called another name that Willow didn't catch.

“Suncorn!”

But what will happen to the four of us? As Miss Mercana called out another name, Willow wished she knew more about this new world she was in.  She felt totally out of place...and totally helpless.  Her thoughts were interrupted by the hat's sorting: 

“Pathfind...!”

“Oh, for heavens’ sake,” The Chancellor broke in before the hat had even finished.  “Miss Smith, I know your mother, you belong in Featherpenny.  Off you go.”  The Chancellor hustled the girl off to the Ravenclaw table as the table cheered this unusual sorting.  “Ursula, please call the next name.” 

“Oliver Q. Snipplewicket!” she read off.

Oliver went to Featherpenny, as did two more students.  Two others went to  Hammersmith before Zoey Zygax was sorted to Suncorn and Willow stood with the other three unsorted first years in front of the room.

The Chancellor came over to look at the group.  “Miss Murgatroyd, your family has all been in your family's house since the founding of the school,” he said. “So you belong there...I don’t know what the hat was thinking.”  Lef looked back at Willow before she headed over to the new wing of the green and silver table.

The Chancellor looked at the three remaining students.  

“As for the rest, you go to Hammersmith,” he said, gesturing to Willow.  “You to Suncorn,” now pointing at the Asian boy. “And you to Featherpenny,” he said, gesturing to the boy who was still staring at his shoes.

Nobody in the room cheered.  Willow started walking toward the red and gold table.  The section reserved for first years could have easily fit twenty new students, but only seven sat there when she took her seat.

Nobody welcomed Willow to the table and everybody seemed to be looking away from her as if they wanted to pretend she wasn’t there.  She noticed that the trim on her robe didn’t change like it had for all the other sorted students.  It was still the same black it was when she had come in.

The Chancellor spoke to the group again. “Everyone should now go to your house homerooms for announcements and initiation,” he said.  “Meanwhile we will be setting up the club tables and preparing for the celebratory luncheon.  Dismissed.”

Willow looked around to see where she was supposed to go.  One of the older Hammersmiths came over to the eight first year students.  She was much older - probably a senior. 

“Alright, newbies,” she said.  “I’m Pamela Jian-de, house president for Hammersmith.  Follow me up to the Cougar homeroom.”  All of the first years got up and formed a line behind her.  The rest of the Hammersmiths had gone ahead, leaving through doors on three sides of the banquet room.  Waiting until the crowd had dispersed, Pamela led the way out of the banquet room through the conservatory.  Willow remembered this walk from her visit two months previously.  She was listening to a conversation going on just behind her among three other Hammersmith first year girls.

“My dad’s assistant told me all about this,” one of them was saying.  “The Hammersmiths don’t tell the first years the password to get into the homeroom.  They make us figure it out on our own.  Of course, I was able to get the password right away.”

At the far side of the greenhouses, they waited in the main hall for the rest of the students to go up or down the grand staircase.  Willow turned around to the three girls who were talking.

“Hi, I’m Willow,” she said.

“Oh, yes,” said the girl who had been talking.  “You’re that unsorted girl.  Well?... don’t tell me you don’t know my name?”

“No, I don’t,” said Willow.  Should I? 

“I’m Felicity Trueworthy?” she said, clearly looking for some recognition.

“Hi Felicity,” said Willow, who had never heard of that name.

“Daughter of Secretary Trueworthy?” she continued.

“Okay,” Willow responded, unsure of what she was supposed to say.

“Secretary for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement?” Felicity went on.

“Okay,” Willow responded again, feeling more and more like she was supposed to know something she didn’t.

“Oh my God, what am I doing?” Felicity said as she turned back to her friends.  “I might as well be talking to a nomaj.”  The two other girls giggled and the three of them pushed past Willow as the group moved again.

Oh, this is going wonderfully, Willow thought as she followed the others.  I'll probably get eaten by a dragon next.

As they approached the huge main circular stairwell, Willow couldn’t help but notice that the railings were missing on each of the landings.

“Isn’t that a safety hazard?” Willow asked nobody in particular.

“Oh, that’s how most of the upper class students go down,” said a first year boy who was just in front of her.  Second years and up can jump.” 

As they climbed the stairway, Willow could look down and see the bottom, nearly forty feet below.  Looking up, she saw the long climb to the fourth floor more than sixty feet above.

“No thanks,” Willow replied.  “I’ll stick to the stairs.” 

They climbed up the grand staircase, past the second and third floor landings, until they stood at the very top.  Willow and the other first years were all winded as they reached the fourth floor.  There was a classroom to the right marked “Mysticism”, but they turned left, heading toward the back of the school and entered a dead-end corridor.  At the far end of this corridor was a giant painting of a woman dressed in a colonial-era dress.

“Stop here,” said Pamela, halting them about thirty feet short of the painting. 

From the conversation she had overheard from Felicity, Willow could tell that Pamela was going to say the password to get into the Hammersmith homeroom without being overheard by the first years.  She watched as Pamela walked to the end of the corridor.  After Pamela spoke to the painting, Willow noticed a small pink string that was suddenly whipping across the floor toward one of the first year boys.  Willow turned back to Pamela and saw the painting swing open, revealing a doorway behind and Pamela beckoned for them all to walk through it.  As Willow was nearing the door, Pamela pulled her aside.

“Listen, newbie,” she said.  “I’m not convinced you belong in Hammersmith since the hat didn’t put you here, but you’ll need this if you’re coming into our house.” She waved her wand and the trim on Willow’s robes changed to the red and gold of her new house.  “I’ll dole out some advice too,” Pamela continued.  “I saw you talking to that Murgatroyd girl, and I’d stay away from them if I were you.  They’re all cheaters and thieves...always have been, always will be.”  Pamela then turned and walked through the door herself, leaving Willow staring after her.  

I only find one friend here, and now I can’t even talk to her?  How can this day get worse?

Inside the lounge, Willow could see a huge space, extending more than a hundred feet long and at least twenty feet wide away to her right.  Looking up, she could see that a tower extended upward from where she was standing, with balconies ringing the inside two stories in the air.  The room was packed and all the seats were taken by the older students.  Finding a corner, Willow just tried to stay out of the way.  A moment later, Pamela emerged on one of the balconies overhead, touched her wand to her throat and spoke to the room as loud as if she were speaking into a microphone.

“Welcome back House Hammersmith!” she called out and the room erupted into a cheer.  “And welcome new Hammersmiths!” she continued, to another round of cheers.  “A few announcements are in order:  First, Quidditch tryouts will be held a week from Saturday - and as usual, no one under fourth year will be eligible.  All issues you deal with must be handled in-house before you take them to a teacher...”

What's Quidditch? thought Willow, but then realized she wouldn't have to care for another three years.

As Pamela droned on regarding house rules, Willow was barely listening.  Instead, she was looking around at the room thinking, much as she did about the great hall downstairs, that her entire house could fit in this room.  But then again, my house wasn't made to fit a hundred people.  She was startled out of her thoughts by the call to initiate the first years.  

“Let’s have all the first years assembled on top of the table,” said Pamela pointing to a table on the other side of the tower room from where Willow stood.  Winding her way between students, Willow reached the table with the other first years and climbed on top to stand facing the crowd.

This day is getting worse, she thought.

“Now, newbies,” Pamela continued. “You should understand a few rules for being in Hammersmith.  First off, nobody here is allowed to help you.  If you need something, don’t know a spell, need a book, need directions - do not ask your fellow Cougars because we are forbidden to offer you any help at all.  You need to figure it out on your own.”

Great, thought Willow.  Maybe being eaten by a dragon wouldn't be so bad after all.

“Secondly,” Pamela said, “there are certain areas and places that you as first years are forbidden to go.  You cannot use the lifts that the others will use to go up to different floors and instead you must use the stairs to go everywhere in the school.  Don’t even try the jumps before your second year starts.  Nobody here wants to scrape your innards off the floor of the potions dungeons a hundred feet below us.”  There was general laughter at this from the assembled Hammersmiths.  “You may not go into Gampton when the rest of the school has a field trip and you may not get into the restricted section of the library, so don’t bother asking your parents for permission.” 

“Finally,” Pamela continued, “we want to ‘encourage’ you in your studies, so to give you an extra incentive to learn, we’re going to make all of you wear a special first-year badge on your robes at all times.  It will stay there until you can find a way to remove it.”

Pamela waved her wand and eight badges levitated from a table on the other side of the room toward each of the eight first years.  Willow reached out in the air and took the badge that was floating in front of her.  It was neon green and had the word ‘Newbie‘ in glowing orange letters on the front.  It didn’t have a pin on the back or any obvious way to attach it to her robes.  She looked over at the other first years and saw that they were just holding it up to their robes and it was staying in place on its own.  Willow held it up to her robes below her left shoulder and watched as it sewed itself on.  In a moment, it looked like it had always been part of the fabric.

“That’s it, newbies,” Pamela said to them.  “The first and last piece of advice you’ll get before your second year is to watch your back.  Nobody else will.” The crowd around them cheered and broke into a chant, calling ‘Newbie! Newbie!, Newbie!’

Willow could only think of one thing:  why didn't I open the blue envelope?  This certainly wasn’t the warm welcome she thought she would get.  What a rotten place to be.  She didn’t know anybody or anything and now she couldn’t expect help from anyone  She wanted to cry, but held herself together long enough to grab her bag and wind her way through the crowd to the far back corner of the room. 

Do the teachers know that the Hammersmiths treat their new students like this?  She thought for a second about finding out, but then realized that might not be the smartest move.  She wondered how many friends she would make if the first thing she did was to rat out her new house.  After she found a corner, she turned around and watched the second years being herded together to make their first jump down the center of the stairway.  They looked like cattle going to the slaughterhouse; their terrified expressions broadcasting their fear.

This whole place is screwed up.  I don't understand how they think this is a good way to treat people.  As much as I don't want to go back to where I had trouble with bullying, it would be better than this.  There's nobody I can go to for help.  Willow’s eyes were brimming with tears and she reached in her bag to get a tissue without seeing where she was reaching.  Instead of a tissue, she grabbed a Hershey’s chocolate bar.  Wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her robe instead, she muttered:

"I guess I'll just help myself."

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