Disclaimer: The Harry Potter series is the formal property of Scholastic, Inc., while the seven books in the Come-and-Go Room are the acknowledged common patrimony of mankind. (Not that I'm not sure Scholastic wouldn't love to claim ownership of them, too, if it thought it could get away with it.)
"All right, everyone," said Winifred Willkie, clapping her hands with an air of prefectural decision. "It's three minutes till lights-out; time for everyone to be getting to bed."
There was a predictable chorus of protest from the newly inducted Hufflepuff first years, in which Sally-Anne Perks joined with particular fervour, but Willkie, though gentle, was firm. "Protest all you like now," she said, "but, when classes start tomorrow morning, you'll be grateful to have got a good night's sleep. Come on, now; boys to the left, girls to the right."
A good night's sleep, Sally-Anne thought wryly, as she lay, a few minutes later, in the darkened girls' bedchamber. Is she mad? How can she expect anyone to get a good night's sleep, her first night at Hogwarts? For Sally-Anne had fantasised about this day since she was old enough to know what magic meant, and, now that it had come, felt less inclined to fall asleep than she could ever remember feeling before.
She lay for a few minutes on her back, gazing up at the ceiling and wondering how many hundreds of other girls had gazed at that same spot before her. Then, when she realised how little this was settling her, she tried rolling over and shutting her eyes – but that only made her all the more conscious of the thousand tiny sounds about her: the creaking of the ancient walls, the patter of house-elves' feet in the corridors, the faint cries of strange beasts echoing from the forest outside… no, that didn't help at all.
As a last resort, she tried her old trick of reciting the times tables to herself. Twice one was two; twice two was four; twice three… did they teach maths at Hogwarts?… twice four was eight; twice five… no, probably not, or she would have had to pick up a slide rule along with her cauldron and wand… twice six… but, then again, maybe the maths professor didn't believe in slide rules…
So she continued unprofitably on as the minutes whiled by – ten, eleven, twelve of them. And then, just as the grandfather clock in the common room was striking the quarter-hour, and Sally-Anne was trying to remember what nine times seven was, something happened that would dramatically alter the remainder of her life – and those of several others, as well.
It wasn't a very long fall, and the soft carpeting into which she tumbled nicely cushioned what little impact there was, but Sally-Anne nonetheless let out a cry of surprise as her small body struck the floor. She was vaguely aware that hers wasn't the only cry – that two or three other voices, including at least one boy's, had let out similar exclamations more or less in harmony with her – but, in her surprise and puzzlement, she ignored this at first.
Where had the bed gone? Had she been so restless that she had fallen out of bed without knowing it? No, surely not; she had been nowhere near the edge – and, besides, she was quite sure that the dormitory floor hadn't been carpeted. And what was the light doing on?
She raised her head and looked around, and her bewilderment only increased. She seemed to be lying on the floor of a small, brightly lit room, unfurnished except for six small cushions, a tall, high-backed chair lined in red velvet, and a matching table next to it on which stood a pile of thick, leather-bound books. Standing in front of the chair, blinking quizzically, were two of the teachers she had seen at the staff table during the feast – an elderly witch with white hair and coke-bottle spectacles, and a younger one with rosy cheeks and a curvy, cozy-looking figure. And scattered along the floor between the chair and the cushions, looking just as baffled as Sally-Anne felt, were two other girls and a boy – all of whom seemed to be first years like herself, and none of whom she recognised from the Hufflepuff table.
"What's going on?" said the nearer of the girls, her dark hair dancing about her shoulders as she sat up and looked sharply around. "What happened to the common room?"
"Got me," the boy muttered, rising up onto his elbow with a soft groan. "Probably it's one of those hazings Aaron warned me about. I thought those third-year twins looked like trouble…"
The elderly witch chuckled audibly at this, prompting her rosy-cheeked companion to shoot her a sharp look. "No," she said. "I think I can spare you that worry, Mr… Moon, is it?"
The boy nodded. "Calum Moon," he said. "Aaron is my brother."
"Yes, I thought I saw the resemblance," the old lady said. "And you know me, of course, since I'm sure Aaron's told you about queer old Professor Sinistra, who's always ragging him about having such a fine surname and such poor Astronomy marks. But, as I was saying, I don't think you need suspect the Weasley twins in this matter. I've spent two years now observing their hijinks, and I think I can say with some confidence that, if bringing us here were their doing, this room would not be nearly so quiet as it is."
"Then who did bring us here?" said the farther girl, in a voice that seemed to demand immediate and straightforward answers of everything in the universe. "And where is here, anyway? I'm Mandy Brocklehurst, by the way," she added in the same breath.
"Are you, now?" said Professor Sinistra. "Well, Miss Brocklehurst, of course it would delight me to be able to answer your question; that is what I do for a living, after all. To do so properly, however, I must have information on the subject, and I'm afraid I have no more idea of where to find such information than you. Has anyone any suggestions?"
As the four first years glanced at each other helplessly, a dry cough sounded in the air just behind Sally-Anne's head. "Only one, Gudrun," said a thin, wheezing voice. "Perhaps the note atop that stack of books might prove to be of some assistance."
Sally-Anne turned to locate the speaker, and then started back and yelped involuntarily – for, floating about a foot above her, where she hadn't thought to look in her earlier survey of the room, was the ghost of a plump, balding wizard in the sort of robes that her great-grandfather might have worn as a boy.
A moment later, she recovered herself and blushed hotly. Stupid, Sally-Anne, she thought. What kind of Hogwarts student are you, getting scared by a ghost? She mumbled an apology – which the ghost, however, seemed not to hear, any more than he seemed to have noticed her original reaction. (Indeed, judging by his expression, she imagined that he didn't make much of a habit of noticing things in general.) Insofar as his attention was directed at anyone, it appeared to be Professor Sinistra – who, in her turn, was occupied with reaching up to the top of the stack of books (which, because of the height of the table, the thickness of the volumes, and Sinistra's distinct stoop, lay just above her eye level) and withdrawing a yellowed piece of parchment covered with ornate handwriting. "Hmm, yes, so it might," she said. "Thank you, Herodotus. It's lucky you were floating there, or we might never have noticed it." She grimaced wryly. "The joys of being short, eh, Charity?"
The rosy-cheeked witch – who was, indeed, quite petite – coloured and shrugged. "Oh, I'm sure we would have found it eventually," she said. "Sooner or later, it would have occurred to one of us to start taking those books down to examine, and we could hardly have missed it then."
"Well, perhaps so," said Professor Sinistra. "Anyway, let's see what we have here." She adjusted her spectacles, coughed daintily, and began to read aloud:
"To Whom It May Concern:
"I write these words from a crystal chamber in a castle of iron, through which flow all the memories and echoes that magic has left upon the Earth. At one time – some three thousand years ago, as I must now reckon – I was the History of Magic master at Hogwarts School; then, on 28 June 1843, while consulting a certain reference in the school library, I carelessly ruptured the barrier between time and eternity, and found myself cast forward into the year A.D. 5000.
"In this age, the school where I once taught no longer exists; in its place stands a vast fortress, peopled with august figures that seem to be neither wizard nor Muggle. These, upon discovering what I was, directed me to this chamber, which they speak of as the Cell of Always, that I might see by its virtue what had transpired on the Earth betwixt my time and theirs.
"I dare not speak plainly of the things I have learned, to you in whose future these things yet lie – for history is remorseless in defending her integrity, and men have been destroyed ere now through fear of what is to come. Yet I may say that I was grieved to see what had become of my people, and of wizarding folk throughout the Earth, through their single-minded concern with increasing their natural powers, to the neglect of wisdom and of the cultivation of virtue. And so, recalling the ancient spell by which a Hogwarts teacher may send seven books across the æons and summon denizens of Hogwarts to read them, I determined to make use of it, that at least some handful of young wizards and witches might become acquainted with the good that has rightly been called liberal.
"Thus, beginning on the first day of term in the year 1991, the Come-and-Go Room shall draw seven souls into itself regularly after school hours – to wit, the then professors of Astronomy, History of Magic, and the course in Muggle Studies instituted sixty years after my expulsion, as well as one pure-blooded first-year student arbitrarily selected from each House. These seven shall find waiting for them seven illustrious works of Muggle literature, which they are to read, in installments, over the course of the students' seven years at school. When the end of an evening's installment has been reached, they shall be returned to those places whence they came, no smallest moment of time having elapsed; until the installment is read, there shall be for them no returning. Thus do I command, by the power that is in me as successor to Rowena Ravenclaw, and thus shall it assuredly be.
"God speed you, my colleagues, and you my pupils that might have been. May your hearts be moved, your minds nourished, and your souls enlightened through your commerce with the wisdom of the ages; so may I rest easy in this latter-day soil, which has so long awaited my humble bones. Till that day, I remain,
"Yours most sincerely,
"Prof. Vortigern Adley
History of Magic
When Professor Sinistra had finished reading, there was a long moment's silence as she and her six companions considered this remarkable missive. To Sally-Anne, the picture it had drawn seemed horrifying, almost blasphemous: a world without Hogwarts? A world where magic had ceased to operate through spells and wizardry? Even in the 50th Century, how could they stand it?
The ghost's wheezing voice broke in on her childish thoughts. "So that's what happened to old Adley," he said. "I remember hearing about him when I first came to Hogwarts as a boy in '76; back then, his disappearance was still one of the great unsolved mysteries of the school."
"'76?" Mandy Brocklehurst repeated, staring at him. "You have to be older than that. My parents had both graduated by '76. Or are you a time traveller, too?"
"He means Eighteen-Seventy-Six, Miss Brocklehurst," said Professor Sinistra mildly.
"Naturally," said the ghost. "Of course, by the time I joined the faculty, everyone who had worked with Adley had long since retired or died, so his mystery was less vivid in people's minds – and, this being Hogwarts, of course there were plenty of more recent enigmas competing with it for attention. I don't believe I've so much as heard his name in a hundred years."
"And so now he just suddenly appears again out of nowhere," said the dark-haired girl, "and whisks us out of our beds and tells us that we have to read a bunch of stupid old Muggle books? Where does he get off?" Her tone was one not uncommon among children of privilege suddenly imposed upon; it suggested self-absorbed panic disguising itself as moral outrage. "I say one of you grown-ups curse the door off its hinges, and we all go back to our dormitories and forget the whole thing."
Calum Moon gave her a long, low look that brimmed with scorn, and Sally-Anne, thinking he was about to start a quarrel (which she couldn't bear to see, on her first day at Hogwarts), inflated her lungs to intervene. But that turned out to be unnecessary, because all he said was, "What door?"
And this, when everyone looked around, proved to be a fair point. Not only were the walls of the room they were in solid and perfectly smooth, but they had a tendency (as the rosy-cheeked witch discovered when she tried to feel them) to recede as one approached them – without, curiously, making the room seem any larger. It was plain that Professor Adley, however clumsily he might have handled the barrier between time and eternity, knew quite well how to design a room that would keep two women, four children, and a ghost securely inside it until he wished otherwise.
Once this was clear to everyone – even the dark-haired girl – Professor Sinistra popped her lips thoughtfully. "Well," she said, "as we seem doomed to be weekly companions for some time to come, it seems to me that we ought to acquire some idea of who we all are. I, as you have heard, am your new Astronomy teacher, Professor Sinistra; the gentleman floating above you is Professor Binns, who has succeeded our remarkable host as History of Magic teacher; and this charming creature –" (she indicated the rosy-cheeked witch, who had returned from her fruitless quest for the wall and was now inspecting the seven books with a satisfied smile) "– is Professor Burbage, of the Muggle Studies course that some or all of you may begin taking in your third year."
"I won't," the dark-haired girl muttered.
Professor Sinistra shot a glance at her that Sally-Anne couldn't quite read, and then continued. "As for the four of you," she said, "Mr Moon and Miss Brocklehurst have already introduced themselves; they didn't specify which Houses they represented, but I seem to recall Miss Brocklehurst being Sorted into Ravenclaw – and presumably it was at the Gryffindor table that Mr Moon made the acquaintance of the Weasley twins. But that still, most regrettably, leaves two strangers in our midst." And she glanced enquiringly at Sally-Anne and the dark-haired girl.
Seeing that the latter showed no particular anxiety to volunteer her name, Sally-Anne rose to her knees, cleared her throat, and ran a nervous hand through the tangled mess that her tossings and turnings in bed had made of her hair. As she did so, it was borne in upon her (what had hitherto, in the general strangeness of things, quite escaped her notice) that she had been transported to this Come-and-Go Room in precisely the same state as she had been lying in bed – which meant that she was kneeling in a room full of strangers, half of them teachers and none of the other half her Housemates, while wearing a pink nightie with Nora Niffler embroidered across the front. The sudden shock of embarrassment almost rendered her mute; it took a couple deep swallows before she was able to come out with, "Sally-Anne Perks, Hufflepuff."
Professor Sinistra bobbed her head. "A pleasure, Miss Perks. And you, my dear?"
"Morag MacDougal," the dark-haired girl said sullenly.
"House?" said Professor Sinistra.
Morag gave her a quizzical look. "Isn't it obvious?" she said. "It's the only one left."
"Yes, but I'd prefer you to identify it, all the same," said Professor Sinistra. "It happens to have been my own House, and I dislike seeing its residents shy about naming it."
This remark seemed to touch a nerve in the young Scotswitch; her elegant nostrils flared, and she lifted her chin and said distinctly, "Slytherin."
"Thank you." And Professor Sinistra clapped her hands together. "Well, now that that's established, I suppose we ought to see about these books. That's your department, Charity; what do you say?"
"Oh, they're lovely," said Professor Burbage with a grin. "I think I would have liked this fellow Adley. To be sure, one or two of the titles aren't quite what I'd have picked for those slots, but they're all excellent pieces of…"
"Well, that's good to know," said Professor Sinistra. "So, then, will you be entertaining us with the first installment, or shall we give that honour to one of these charming youngsters?"
"Hmm?" Professor Burbage blinked. "Oh. Oh, I see, yes. Um…" She turned and examined the four students, tapping her forefinger thoughtfully against her upper lip as she did so; then she pointed at Sally-Anne and smiled. "How about you, Miss Perks? You've quite a pretty voice, and we haven't heard very much of it tonight."
Sally-Anne blushed. "Well… all right, I suppose."
"Excellent," said Professor Sinistra. "Up here, then, dear." She indicated the great chair, and Sally-Anne rose to her feet, came forward, and, with the assistance of the two corporeal professors, clambered up awkwardly into the seat. Then Professor Burbage handed her the topmost of the seven books, and, as everyone settled down upon (or, in Professor Binns's case, just above) the cushions, she ran her fingers over its gold-embossed cover, opened it with a sense of reverence, and delightedly breathed in the ink-and-paper odour of the opening pages.
Professor Sinistra cleared her throat softly. "Whenever you're ready, Miss Perks."
"Oh," said Sally-Anne, and coloured faintly again. "Sorry." She glanced down at the title page, cleared her throat, and read aloud: "The Iliad of Homer, translated from the Greek by Samuel Butler."