As the train chugged its way across the vast countryside, the two boys delighted in exhausting every conversation they could think of. Kyle was eager to answer all of Criss's questions about the magical community, though his knowledge seemed limited. (He, too, had never heard of balrogs.) Kyle related his mother's descriptions of Hogwarts in great detail, from the enchanted ceiling in the Great Hall to the mysteriously changing staircases.
He had even attempted to explain to Criss the rules of a dangerous sport known as Quidditch, which was evidently played on flying broomsticks. Criss had paid close attention to this, despite his lack of interest in sports, because he was extremely curious how to do the broom trick. Kyle, as it turned out, already knew how to fly a broomstick, but was unable (or perhaps unwilling) to explain it. He assured Criss that first year students always took flying lessons -- information which simultaneously surprised, excited, and terrified him.
As the conversation continued, though, Criss began to doubt whether Kyle was telling the truth about his ability to make a broomstick fly. It seemed that Kyle knew practically nothing about magic, despite the fact that his mother had been a bonafide magician his entire life. Criss had shown Kyle all of his card tricks, and Kyle had watched them curiously as though he had never once seen anyone do magic before. To be fair, though, he had been able to point out what Criss had done in order to perform most of the tricks; so he must have had some sort of background knowledge there.
Still, he couldn't show Criss a single trick of his own, which made Criss wonder what criteria this school must use in determining which applicants to accept. Clearly the children of prior students were grandfathered in, regardless of their talent. Criss felt no bitterness about this favoritism; much to the contrary, he felt honored to have earned himself a place among the elite. He made no mention of this observation to Kyle, for fear it would hurt his feelings. Instead he tried to be supportive and reassuring. After all, they were going to school, so Kyle was bound to learn something eventually.
At long last, the train slowed to a stop. As it did so, the compartment door slid open and allowed a tall boy with greasy hair and an extremely smug look on his face to lean inside and grunt "put on your robes". Then the door closed again, and he was gone. Criss and Kyle glanced at each other and couldn't suppress wide grins. It was time!
They threw on their robes over their clothes and squeezed out of the door into the growing mob. The mass of students poured out of the train and onto the dark grounds. Criss strained to look over the heads of all the taller students, and although he didn't manage to get a glimpse of the school, what he did see nearly made him squeel. It was a real, live, giant. He'd forgotten to ask anyone if giants were real too! Of course they were, he told himself, but to actually see one, with its awful, scraggly giant hair and beard, and its humongous carpet-looking overcoat… And what was more, this giant seemed actually to be trying to get his attention. In fact, he realized, it was shouting "Firs' years! Firs' years come with me, this way, firs' years…" Criss hadn't exactly expected the giants to talk, or at least not to speak English. He wondered how many of the other magical creatures could talk too, and whether he would get a chance to see them while he was at school.
Criss and Kyle managed to stick together as they made their way through the crowd towards the giant. Once the giant seemed satisfied that all the first years were gathered around him, he began walking in the opposite direction. The group of 30 or so kids scurried along in his wake, until they reached the edge of a dark body of water. Some little boats were lined up on the shore, and the giant wafted the students into them.
"Cool!" said Kyle. "Let's take this one. You take the back, and I'll get the front."
Criss was already stepping into the front of the boat. "I'm already in the front," he said. "You get in the back."
"No," said Kyle, "the person in the front steers, and I'm really good at steering. You're probably stronger than me anyway so you'll be better in the back."
"I'm good at steering too," said Criss, though he was pretty sure he'd never been in a canoe before. "How about we both steer, and you can steer from the back and I'll steer from the front."
"It doesn't work like that. The person in the back has to…" Kyle stopped talking. Two other kids had just stepped into the middle of their boat. Criss was sitting defiantly in the front, paddles in hand. Kyle grunted and sat down in the back, and none of them spoke to each other as they rowed across the lake behind the string of other boats.
Criss savored his view from the front, and didn't hesitate to make audible gasps and "ooh"s when they curved around the bend and caught sight of a huge castle. He had never expected the school to be this awesome from the outside. How could this world of magic have eluded him all his life until now? These people understood. It was all about appearance, flash, majesty… zazz. This was the coolest castle he had ever seen in his entire life. And he had seen plenty of them in movies. None of the others seemed lit by flickering candles from every possible window, or had so many towers, so many pointed peaks. The land around it jutted out into the lake with a commanding presence, as though daring any other land to come near it. This definitely warranted a deep breath.
They docked their boats on the shore and began to climb the slopes up to the castle, which seemed a much easier task for the giant than it was for them. Criss was already out of breath from rowing, and by the time they reached the castle he had fallen nearly to the back of the group. He looked back and saw only Kyle, who hurried forward to catch up with him.
"Can't wait for the feast," said Kyle.
"There's a feast?" Criss panted. "Awesome."
"Yep, right after the sorting."
"Ugh," said Criss. "How long does that take?"
"I don't know," said Kyle. "Probably not very long, they just… put a hat on you, and tell you what house you're in."
Criss didn't bother to explain that he was confused by that statement.
Finally, they reached the castle doors, which must have been built to account for giants, Criss reasoned. The giant opened the doors, and the students piled inside a bright, warm entrance hall big enough for at least fifty of these giants. He felt small.
Once all the first-years were standing huddled in the light, Criss was able to size them up for the first time. He wondered who his new friends were going to be… they would have to be Ravenclaws, of course, so Kyle was out. Kyle was bound to be in Hufflepuff, like his mother. Kyle had said Slytherin was the snake, and Criss spotted three or four that seemed perfect for that. Gryffindor was the lion. He eyed the remaining faces for a trace of boldness or pride. Most of them looked nervous and weak, like they were under some kind of pressure they hadn't expected to be dealing with. Criss felt quite good about this-- could it be that he, himself, was more prepared for magic school than anyone else here? He laughed at the thought that he might be the most Gryffindor-esque one of them all! He decided he'd better tone down his smug look, so as not to confuse whoever would be judging them.
And it was at that moment, while Criss was trying to figure out what a beaver/badger-type person would look like, that a large kid moved out of the way to reveal a girl that Criss instantly knew he would one day fall in love with. She had long, silky dark hair that waved and curled ever so slightly toward the ends. Her face was thin and angled and she wore a hint of eyeliner that said "I know how beautiful I am." Her eyes were sharp and intelligent. She was pure Ravenclaw, perhaps more so than Criss himself. In fact he wouldn't be surprised if her name was Raven.
He was just about to approach her suavely and introduce himself, but at that moment the doors to the side of the room opened, and a stern-looking woman marched in and addressed them.
"Good evening, first-years. My name is Professor McGonagall. The Sorting Ceremony is about to begin. If you would please line up and follow me into the Great Hall…" and with that, she turned and walked back through the doors.
Inside the Great Hall were four long tables filled with older students in black robes, and another table along the front filled with adult magicians. Probably the teachers! Obviously the boats were the stupid way to get here, Criss thought. These people looked like they'd been there for half an hour at least! They could be eating already. But, he realized, it was probably more dramatic and impressive the way they'd come. All about appearance, he reminded himself.
"Look at the ceiling," whispered Kyle from behind Criss's head. He looked up. Just as Kyle had described on the train, the ceiling was a fantastic illusion of a night sky; much better than the glow-in-the-dark star stickers he's placed all over his own bedroom ceiling. He smiled broadly and wondered how soon he'd be able to learn that trick… it certainly sounded like the school would move along pretty quickly, since making broomsticks fly was apparently something they'd do in their first year. A chill of excitement ran through him, for about the hundredth time that day.
They followed Professor McGonagall to the front of the Great Hall, and soon they were lined up between the teachers' table and the students' tables. Gradually the hall fell silent, as Professor McGonagall conjured a stool out of thin air.
"Wow!" Criss whispered to Kyle. He heard some of his fellow first years giggle, and hoped it wasn't the Raven girl. He tried to seem unimpressed after that.
McGonagall placed a ratty old wizard's hat on the stool, and then walked away as if no more explanation was needed. Criss stared at it, confused, until, miraculously, a tear near the brim began to open and move like a mouth, and the hat spoke! Criss resisted the urge to applaud for whoever was doing the trick. It was really quite believable. It took him a moment to tune into what the hat was saying. Or rather… singing!
Welcome all, sit down for a spell,
and hear this old hat sing!
It's time to look into your souls
and see what skills you bring.
This school, of course, was founded by
four wizards long ago,
who thought they'd bring young wizards here
and teach them what they know.
On this much they agreed, and yet
one thing remained unclear:
Exactly how would they decide
whom they should teach each year?
The founders all had different plans
for how they should decide,
and so it was that Hogwarts school
would into four divide!
Gryffindor, the brave and strong,
to him, there's no comparing...
He valued valiant valor so
he took those bold and daring.
Slytherin, on the other hand,
chose not by skill, but birth.
To him it was pure wizard blood
that determined wizards' worth.
Ravenclaw liked those who were
most clever, quick, and smart.
To her it was their brains and wits
that set the kids apart.
Hufflepuff, and bless 'er heart,
cared not for who was best,
she sat back as the others chose,
and then took all the rest.
Whichever house is right for you,
I'll easily surmise.
So step up as your name is read,
and try me on for size!
The hall erupted into applause. Finally, some respect, thought Criss, as he joined in, clapping vigorously for the unseen magician.