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I exited the Headmistress’s office the way I’d come in, eyeing the gargoyle suspiciously as I passed it. The walk down to the Hall felt longer than the walk up.


“Your tie,” Professor Longbottom said, handing me a red-and-gold scrap of fabric. “It’s part of your uniform. Those are your House colors.”

I sighed, already hating the uniform. “I have to wear this everyday?”

“Well, yes. It is a uniform.”

I sighed. We reached the ground floor, and Professor Longbottom split off to find the first years. I walked towards the Great Hall with not a little trepidation.

“Where’d you go off to then?” I heard a voice say behind me.

I turned to find Rose walking towards me. “Had to see the Headmistress, didn’t I? I got -- what do you call it? Sorted?”

“Sorted, yeah. What House are you in now?”

“The red-and-gold one,” I told her, holding up the tie.

“Gryffindor?” Rose pulled open the doors for the Great Hall, glaring at a handful of boys who scrambled to open them for us. “I’ve got some cousins there, you met them. I’m in Ravenclaw.”

“All your cousins?” I asked. I could feel my forehead wrinkling with worry.

“Well, most of them. My brother’s in Hufflepuff and Lucy’s in Ravenclaw with me. But other than that, yeah.”

I tried not to groan.

“You sit over there, that’s the Gryffindor table,” Rose said, pointing to the table on the far left.

I made my way over to the table she indicated, crowds separating to let me through. The benches were hard and uncomfortable, and there was no food for the so-called feast. I wrinkled my nose in distaste, and when I noticed all the people staring, I tucked my nose back into the collar of my coat. People stared less the more I covered up.

People shuffled around, no one daring to sit next to me. It took about ten minutes for someone to slide into the seat across from me. It was a girl, about seventeen, with short brown hair hanging around her shoulders, and an upturned pixie nose. She was cute, in an odd sort of way. I could see by the way her shoulders were tensed that her hands were clenched together under the table.

“You’re new, aren’t you?” she said.

“Yes.”

“What year are you?” she asked.

I frowned. “We do things differently at Durmstrang. I don’t know. It’s my last year.”

“Your seventh then. It’s my seventh year too, we’ll be in the same dorm!” She smiled perkily at me.

“Great,” I said flatly.

“My name’s Leah,” she said, fluttering about her hand awkwardly as though not sure if she should offer to shake.

“Asta,” I replied.

“So I heard you’re from Sweden?”

I frowned again. “How did you hear that already?”

“Nothing faster than the Hogwarts gossip mill!” she said with an attempt at being cheery.

“What else have you heard?” I asked curiously.

She hesitated. “Well, erm, it’s not all good. And most of it’s probably not true.”

“I don’t care,” I said.

“Well, er, I heard that you’re from Belarus, that you went to Durmstrang and then you had to leave because you murdered six men in cold blood.”

“I’m from Sweden.”

“That’s the part of that story you have a problem with?” Leah asked, eyebrows lifting. “Is that the only part of the story you have a problem with?”

“Well, if I told you I was a murderer, you wouldn’t believe me because what sort of person admits to being a murderer? And if I denied it you still wouldn’t believe me because, well, what sort of person admits to being a murderer?”

“True,” Leah said, cocking her head to the side. “I guess there’s no real win for you there, is there?”

I shrugged. “I’ll just let it die. It’s not important.”

“That’s a healthy outlook I suppose,” Leah said thoughtfully. “What classes are you taking?”

“Arithmancy,” I said, my forehead creasing. “Potions. Dark Arts, Transfiguration. I forget what else; you have different names for things here.”

“We'll have Potions and Arithmancy together,” Leah told me.

I nodded. The doors swung open and the “gaggle” of first years the headmistress had mentioned stumbled through them, staring at everything with wide eyes. They filed down the centre aisle to front of the Hall, where the grubby little hat sat on it's stool. Everyone in the Hall stared, waiting expectantly. The hat slowly moved, opening at a rip just above the brim. It began to sing.

It rambled on about the four Houses and the Founders, the merits of each House and something about not yielding to the Darkness. I wrinkled my nose in distaste. It was the only thing about this school that was dirty and unkempt. At Durmstrang, nothing was allowed to become that disgusting.

When the first years had all settled in their seats, the Headmistress stood to give a welcome speech. I couldn’t pay attention to what she was saying however, because there was a cluster of small boys staring at me on my left, with eyes wide and jaws hanging open, and another cluster of older boys on my left with lust-filled gazes. The whole thing made me very uncomfortable. People in Sweden and especially at Durmstrang were a little more used to veelas, and I hadn’t felt this unsettled in quite a while.

Eventually, finally, the Headmistress waved her hand and food appeared on the tables. I couldn’t help but let out a little gasp as the food filled the previously empty bowls and platters. The boys, distracted by the food, looked away from me and at their own plates. I smiled just a bit and pulled my coat away from my face to eat, satisfied that people weren’t staring anymore.

The food itself was some of the best I had ever tasted. It was rich and flavorful, and melted in my mouth. At Durmstrang, the food had been mediocre on the best days, and most days it was barely edible. I closed my eyes with ecstasy at the treacle tart.

“Come on,” Leah said when the plates were cleared. “I’ll show you to the Common Room.”

I stood, following her out of the Hall and up several flights of stairs. One of the staircases moved as we stepped onto it and I squealed. Leah giggled.

“They do this sometimes,” she explained. “Most of them anyway. There’s a few other things you should learn about this castle -- like the doors you’ve gotta tickle or sweet-talk. And the ghosts. Most of them are alright. Steer clear of the Bloody Baron though, he’s a little scary.”

I nodded, a little freaked out.

“Here we are,” Leah said with a contented sigh. She stopped in front of a portrait of a heavy woman in a pink dress. “Pukwudgie.”

I looked at her, still confused. Then the portrait swung open and she dragged me through the hole in the wall behind her and into a cozy, round room. There was a crackling, burning fire at one end of the room and cushy red chairs scattered around little tables. I could understand Leah’s little sigh now. It was very homey.

“The girl’s dorms are up here,” said Leah, leading me up a final staircase.

The dorm was also round, with four-poster beds covered in thick duvets. Our trunks were at the end of the beds. It was warm. I sat on the bed that appeared to be mine. It was soft as a marshmallow.

I groaned with satisfaction, laying back on the bed. I heard Leah’s giggle again.

“Nice isn’t it?” she said, dropping onto her own bed. “I love the dorm.”

“It’s wonderful.”

She laughed some more. “There’s two other girls in here. Ava and Siobhan.”

“Mmm.”

“They’re alright,” Leah continued. “I never really got on with them real well. They’re just a bit -- what’s the word? Cliquey, maybe?”

“Snobbig,” I murmured. “Jag inte gillar sådana typer.”*

“What?” Leah said, confused.

“Nothing,” I said.

I was asleep in minutes.

*   *   *

Morning came too soon. There were no birds outside my window, but there were a few loud seventeen year old girls getting ready for their first day of classes. I rolled over and sat up, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. Leah was still snoring. I quickly dressed, combed my hair and gathered together my school bag with its crisp parchment, new quills and full ink pots.

I stood in the center of the room, vaguely concerned. I wasn’t sure how to get back down to the Great Hall. After a moment of deliberation, I stepped over a small pile of saddle shoes to Leah’s bed and poked her awake.

“Leah,” I whispered. “Wake up.”

She rolled over groggily. “What’s the time?”

“Half past eight.”

“Oh,” she said, sitting up. “Oh dear. Give me just a moment. Are Ava and Siobhan up?”

As if on cue, the two other girls emerged from the bathroom. I still wasn’t sure which was which, but one of the girls was a ginger, tiny and delicate-looking, and the other was taller, broader, with dark hair that flowed to her waist.

“Morning,” the ginger said, almost warily, in a heavy Irish accent. “See you at brekky, yeah?”

I nodded, and the two of them traipsed out of the room.

“We’ll get our schedules this today,” Leah said with a yawn. She hopped about on one foot, tugging a on a shoe.

“Of course,” I said absently.

I looked out the window. The previous night I hadn’t been able to see too far, but in the weak morning light I could see out to the Quidditch pitch and a fog-coated forest on the edge of the grounds. It was stunningly beautiful. When I left Sweden I didn’t think I’d see another sunrise as beautiful as the sunrises at Durmstrang. There, the mountains had formed a sort of a frame for the sun, and the snow had always seemed to glow. This was almost as gorgeous.

“Ready,” Leah exclaimed. She dragged a mascara wand through her eyelashes one last time. “Now I’m ready.”

I nodded and we left the dorm. The castle was warm for an early morning, and my fingers weren’t even numb when we reached the Hall.

“Miss Eld,” Professor Longbottom said, approaching me as we neared the Gryffindor table. “And Miss Bonneville. I have your schedules here.”

He handed us a few pieces of parchment.

“You’re taking six NEWTs?” Leah asked incredulously. “I’m only taking four!”

“How do you only have four classes?” I said with a frown. “Five is the minimum.”

“Three’s the minimum here, actually,” she said, dropping into her seat. “And I’m not really all that academically-inclined.”

“Arithmancy isn’t typically for the non-academics,” I replied.

She wrinkled her nose. “I’m only taking for my father. He thinks Arithmancy is the language of the universe or something. I’m the worst in the class.”

I shrugged and took a few pancakes onto my plate, unsure what to say. We ate in silence for a few minutes.

“What’ve you got first then?” Leah asked.

“Defense Against the Dark Arts,” I replied.

“Oof. Have fun there. That James Potter there --” she indicated a tall, dark haired boy with her fork. “-- he’s always showing off. Thinks that just because his dad killed Voldemort he gets a free pass in this stuff. And he does sometimes. No one wants to piss of Harry Potter.”

I rolled my eyes. “At Durmstrang he’d be hexed behind the kitchens until he learned to keep his mouth shut. Not even the Professors would protect someone like that.”

Leah snorted. “Really? That might be taking things a bit far. He’s not a bad bloke, really. Just a bit annoying.”

I shrugged. “Things are different there.”

“Were you ever hexed behind the kitchens then?”

“A couple times. Only in my first few years though.”

“Merlin’s saggy pants that’s awful.”

I chewed on my pancake, disappointed by its flavour. “Not really.”

“You’re an odd one Asta Eld.” Leah stood, swinging her bag over her shoulder. “I’ve got to get up to the North Tower, so I’d better head off. The Defense classroom is on the third floor corridor, second door on the left. Next to the bust of Elfric the Eager.”

“Who?”

“Follow Potter if you get lost. Or ask one of the ghosts, they’re usually alright.”

Leah ran off. I looked after her, feeling a little lost. In that moment I realized I quite liked her. It was a new feeling for me. But she was warm and welcoming, and didn’t mind showing me around, which was nice. Everything here was so . . . nice. As unsettling as the niceness was, it was also sort of pleasant, and the sort of unsettling that’s easier to get used to.

However, the Greeks always said “there’s no such thing as free lunch.” This pleasantness had to come at a cost. I just hadn’t found it yet.

I studied James Potter from the corner of my eye. He was boisterous, and surrounded by equally energetic friends, including Freddy Weasley. The group shot glances over at me, trying to play it cool, but hoping to grab my attention. I rolled my eyes. For the children of public figures and politicians, they weren’t subtle at all. But of course, out of all the people here, they would be the most useful. So when Potter and Weasley looked over again, I gave them a small, sexy smile and stood up, tossing my hair as I scooped up my schoolbag. My hips swayed as I left the Hall.

Out in the corridor, I paused. Third floor, I thought, must be up a few flights, mustn’t it? I headed towards the stairs.

Did the British call this the first floor or the second? I thought with a pause as I reached the top of the first flight.

I started up the second flight. They moved as I climbed and I chewed on my tongue with worry. I started on the third flight cautiously, unsure if this was the right way. Halfway up, my foot slipped and I fell into the stairs, getting stuck up to my knee. I let out a small cry.

“Need help there?” I heard an eager voice ask. I looked up to see Jack-the-prefect standing over me.

I gave him a smile. “I’d love some help, thank you.”

He took my hands and tugged. My foot popped free. I could feel his hands shaking as he held onto me just a moment too long. I suppressed a rather mean-spirited laugh.

“Do you mind telling me where the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom is?” I asked him sweetly.

He smiled up at me. “It’s just down this corridor, I’ll take you there.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ll carry your bag,” said a little voice.

I turned to see a tiny boy holding out his hands eagerly. I figured it would be cruel to turn him down, so I smiled and handed it to him.

“Thank you,” I said again.

He turned crimson.

The two boys led me to class. A handful of the other students hung around the second door on the left, watching me approach. I looked them dead in the eye, unwavering and unafraid. Eventually they all looked away, embarrassed. I smirked.

“Thank you both,” I told the boys.

The nodded and bounced on their toes a bit, unwilling to leave. I arched my eyebrows.

“Do you not have class?”

They scattered, embarrassed.

“Good morning class,” came a masculine voice.

A dark-skinned man I assumed to be the Professor approached us.

“You must be Miss Eld,” he said to me. “I heard I had a new student.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well then, welcome to Hogwarts.” He smiled at me.

I pressed my lips together in semblance of a polite smile. The Professor unlocked the room and held open the door. We all filed in, and settled into the desks. I sat at a very neutral table in the middle of the room.

“Hope you all had a nice holiday,” the Professor said. He moved to the front of the room, looking out on all of us. “But it’s your NEWT year, and holidays are over. We’ll be starting immediately. I want to do a quick assessment of your dueling prowess before we move into the curriculum proper, so let’s all partner up, and wands out!”

I looked at the scrawny boy next to me. He had a cruel glint in his eye and a green-and-silver tie. He smiled at me.

“Partners?” he offered.

I shrugged my consent and we stood. The tables and chairs moved to the edges of the room with a flick of the professor's wand. We faced each other, ten steps apart.

“Bow,” the professor said. We bowed. “And begin.”

I leveled the tip of my wand at the boy’s chest. He did the same, and with a slash, sent a curse towards me. I threw up a shield, and the curse dissolved into it. He shot another, and I could see from the weak light it wasn't worth my energy so I side-stepped and quickly lifted him into the air.

He held tight to his wand but kicked his legs. I smirked. I let him undo the jinx himself and watched him crash to the ground. He scrambled to his feet and just before he regained his balance I hit him again.

He gasped for air, dropping his wand to bring his hands to his throat, scratching at the hand that wasn’t there. I pressed forward, his face turning purple. He dropped to his knees.

“MISS ELD!”

I whipped around, releasing the spell.

“What do you think you are doing?” the professor loomed over me, furious.

“What do you mean?”

“He dropped his wand. You had already won. Why did you keep going?”

“Because he was still standing.”

“I don’t know how things are done at Durmstrang, but that is unacceptable here.”

“When do you stop then? How do you know who’s won?”

“When you’re opponent drops his wand. If you must, use a Stunner, but we do not kill.”

“He wouldn’t have died,” I insisted. “I would’ve stopped before he died.”

The professor shook his head. “When do duels end at Durmstrang?”

“When someone is in the infirmary.”

“I see. Well, I won’t take any points from you this time, as this incident --” he waved at the boy still gasping on the floor. “-- can be chalked up to simple ignorance. But if I catch you harming another student in this way again, you will be in a load of trouble. Do you understand?”

I nodded.

“Now,” the professor said. “Let’s get you a new partner; see if we can give you more of a challenge.”

I had to suppress yet another giggle. He thought I would be challenged here.

“Mr. Potter?” He waved over the dark haired boy. “You’ll duel Miss Eld now.”

Potter studied me. “Alright then.”

Again, I faced him, bowed, and lifted my wand. He did the same. The class quieted. They were all watching.

I waited for him to make the first move. He didn’t. We stood for while, sizing each other up, waiting patiently for any opening. He started to look uncomfortable. I didn’t move. We stood for almost two minutes before his eyes shifted briefly from me to the professor, uncertain.

I struck. He flew across the classroom, smacking into the wall. He fired back before even climbing to his feet and I deflected his hex easily. He struck again, before I had time to respond. A stinging hex hit my arm just above my elbow, and I hissed in pain and anger. He had hit me.

I fought back, slashing my wand through the air. A brilliant burst of light swept through the room and I heard Potter yelp with pain. There was burn on his shoulder.

The volley began. We settled into a rhythm. Cast a spell, deflect a spell. Cast, deflect. Cast, deflect. We moved in an approximation of a circle, sidestepping and pressing forward then back. He was predictable and I studied his patterns. Finally, when he had just begun to grow comfortable with the rhythm, I changed it.

Instead of deflecting the hex he sent at me, I dodged it, and in that split second when he realized what I was doing, I broke four fingers on his wand hand.

He yelled again, dropping his wand. The class remained silent. Finally, the professor spoke up.

“Very good, Miss Eld.”

He stepped over to where Potter stood, hunched over, and fixed his fingers. Potter picked his wand up off the floor. I touched my own wand to my arm, clearing up the stinging hex.

“Is there anyone else?” I asked. “This wasn’t too difficult.”

“No Miss Eld. Mr. Potter was the best in this year.”

I looked at the two of them incredulously. “You must be joking. Isn’t this class called Defense Against the Dark Arts? And your students can’t defend themselves at all! What kind of shit professor are you?”

“Ten points from Gryffindor!” the professor said angrily. “There are many things we’ve had to learn, not just dueling. In this class we’ve dealt with dark creatures and even plants infused with Dark magic. We haven’t had the time to dedicate to dueling the way you did at Durmstrang.”

“That’s ridiculous!” I protested. “You have classes about creatures and plants already, you don’t need more of that here! Your students are unprepared for any fight. If another wizard wants to do them harm, they’re screwed! You’ve taught them nothing worth while!”

“Another ten points!” the professor seemed livid. “And there is nothing and no one out there wishing harm on these students. Durmstrang has made you paranoid.”

“It wasn’t Durmstrang that made me paranoid.” I could feel a red-hot anger bubbling through my veins. I had to focus on my words, trying to speak English and not revert back to Swedish. “It was real life that made me paranoid. It was watching people die that made me paranoid. It was my mother telling me to watch my back; it was reports of murders and kidnappings in the news; it was Mördaren Manifest that made me paranoid. And if you think your students have nothing to be afraid of, then you are too stupid to be called a professor!”

“This is not Sweden,” the professor said. He seemed to have a quiet rage building inside him. “And I’m sorry for whatever it was that you experienced there. But you are safe here, and so are your classmates. Do not insult me again, or it will be a hundred points from Gryffindor.”

I pressed my lips together, holding back the angry words that wanted to come out. “Yes sir.”

“Good.” He looked around at the class, who had been watching our argument with trepidation. “Class dismissed.”

We left.

_____________________________________

*“Snobby,” I murmured. “I don’t like those those types.”



 

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