Chapter 34: Not every creature
Time passed quickly at Hogwarts, but this week seemed brutally long for Jack. After Colin was attacked, Merlin got all moody and secretive and didn't have time for anything anymore. Jack was a little hurt by this new indifference, especially when Merlin demanded to know where Jack was that evening as if he wasn't asking himself the same question every hour of every day. He should have ensured that Colin didn't walk alone that evening. He was a useless friend.
Whenever Merlin would disappear with his new friends, the Harry Potter Fan Club, Jack visited Colin. He never realized how much he liked the excitable boy until he was no longer there. Was this what people meant by that expression, taking things for granted? Colin had a superpower. His happiness was contagious. He infected everyone around him with his enthusiasm and positivity. Why did it have to be him?
So, when Merlin actually engaged in a conversation this evening, Jack was glad to have his friend back, even if it was only for a short time before he ran off to Harry Potter again.
They were walking back from the evening feast, and Merlin seemed to be even more clumsy than usual. This time, he tripped so spectacularly, he landed on a suit of armor which fell apart into a hundred pieces.
"Seriously, Merlin. Your clumsiness is magical." Jack wanted to laugh but didn't want to be mean, so he helped him up instead.
"I'm starting to think that it truly is," Merlin said while putting the suit back together. "It's Friday the thirteenth today, and it's like the unlucky forces are trying to prove that there is no limit to how many times one person can trip in a day."
He finished the puzzle that was the suit of armor but was left with one piece. He scratched his head, shrugged, and put it in the suit's hand.
"I was wondering," Merlin said when they were climbing the stairs. "I can't quite place your accent. Where are you from?"
"Not far from here actually."
"Scotland?" Merlin sounded like he didn't believe him. "Which town?"
"It's…" Jack swallowed, "not in any town."
Merlin's eyes were piercing him as if he could see into his soul. Jack had a feeling that his friend would be able to tell if he lied.
"You don't have a Scottish accent."
Jack shrugged. He had no explanation for his accent so he thought it best to deflect further questions. "So where are you from?"
"I live in Wales."
Jack had no idea what Welsh people sounded like. Merlin sounded to him like most students in the school, although, sometimes, a strange pronunciation would slip up in his speech, especially, in moments when he got excited.
Down the hall from them, the tall and grumpy Caretaker was chasing Peeves with an old mop. The poltergeist threw an ink pellet at him, cackled, and disappeared. The man grumbled something about the mischievous spirit and shuffled in their direction, dragging the mop behind him like his victim. His hair was sticking out in all directions, and he looked like he hadn't slept in a few weeks. Out of nowhere, he lunged at a group of students. "What are you so happy about? Was it you? You petrified my cat! I'll have you in shackles..."
The kids gathered their things and got away from him.
"So, Jack," Merlin asked, and Jack looked away from the unstable man to focus on his friend, "how did it go with Snape? Did you convince him?"
Before he could answer, Jack saw out of the corner of his eye that the Caretaker was about to walk into him. He jumped out of the way, flattening himself against the wall while the man passed by, muttering under his nose, completely oblivious to the fact that he almost walked into him.
Jack looked after the man, shocked at the close call he barely avoided. The Caretaker couldn't see him! If Jack let the man walk through him, he would be exposed right here in front of everyone. He got so used to being around wizards and witches, he assumed that everyone in this castle could see him. Pretending to be human had become so easy that he was forgetting that he wasn't.
Merlin eyed him, and Jack realized that his arms were still spread on the wall. He straightened up and tried to hide the shock his face must have held.
"Wow. Filch almost walked into you. Maybe his eyesight is going, huh?" Merlin joked.
Jack tried to chuckle at it. "Yeah. So, what's his story? He doesn't look like much of a wizard."
"My guess is that Filch is a Squib, so yes, that's a good description of him."
"What's a Squib?"
Jack hoped he could resolve the mystery of what a Muggle was doing in this school, but from the look Merlin gave him, he had a feeling that he just asked about something that was common knowledge. He seemed to do that a lot.
"A Squib is someone with wizarding parentage, but who was born without magic."
Now, it made sense. He was essentially a Muggle. "Are there more Squibs in this school?"
Jack sighed with relief. He could manage to avoid one man, but he had to warn Elsa as soon as possible.
"So, why do you think he's a Squib? How can you tell them apart?"
"Peeves. A wizard would just throw a spell at him, but a Squib is as powerless against a poltergeist as a Muggle."
It was annoying how knowledgeable Merlin was about everything. Jack always felt like an idiot next to him. Maybe he was an idiot. McGonagall told him he had to start attending the extracurricular English class. He didn't get it. He already knew English. Why did he have to learn more of it? The only consolation was that Elsa had to take it with him. They were both embarrassed and decided to keep quiet about it and not let their friends know.
Merlin kept glancing at him as they made their way to their dorm, and Jack tried to ignore it. He kicked off his shoes and sat down on his bed. He wasn't tired yet. He'd love to do something fun this evening and wondered if he could keep Merlin in the dorm or if his friend was about to step out for another "tutoring session."
Merlin lingered in the doorway while looking at Colin's empty bed. Colin's side of the room used to be cluttered with his things, he was notorious for dropping everything on the floor, and now, it was too clean and organized as if he'd never been there.
"Jack, I've been meaning to ask you." Merlin sat on his bed so they were facing each other.
Jack raised an eyebrow, wondering what it was now. Merlin had been asking him a lot of questions lately.
"You said that you're a pureblood, right? But how come you're not familiar with wizarding terms? I'm not calling you a liar or anything. I'm just curious why."
Jack never said that he was a pureblood, but he also didn't deny it as he couldn't tell them the truth, and now, he had no idea how to explain himself. Merlin waited for an answer, and Jack's mind was blank. What lie would satisfy Merlin's curiosity? He stumbled over words in his head until a coherent sentence formed.
"I didn't grow up in a traditional wizarding household."
Jack thought his explanation was pretty clever, it was the truth after all, but to his disappointment, Merlin wasn't satisfied with it.
"In what way?"
He'd made a mistake earlier on. He should have pretended to be Muggle-born, though then, Colin could have caught on that something was off about his story. It was so frustrating to always have to lie. Why couldn't he be a normal kid with a normal story like all of those lucky ordinary students?
He smiled uneasily, trying to cover up his nerves. "I don't know. From what I hear, other wizards live differently from how we lived."
"What was so different?"
Jack's hands were getting sweaty and he rubbed them off on his thighs. He looked around him for a way out although he knew that there was no escape from this. It had been so long since Merlin had actually hung out with him. Jack had to give him something, so he wouldn't leave.
"I guess… we were isolated. We didn't have contact with others."
Merlin seemed satisfied with this answer. "That would explain why you don't have a Scottish accent."
Jack exhaled in relief and immediately wished he hadn't. The sound didn't escape Merlin's attention.
"Why are you always so afraid to talk about yourself?"
Jack rubbed the back of his neck and wished he could become invisible at will. He wanted to talk to Merlin but why was he the topic?
Merlin said. "I want to get to know you, that's why I ask." He smiled as if he got a brilliant idea. "Let's play a game." He pulled out a rolled-up parchment from his side table and handed it to Jack. "Whoever is holding the parchment can ask the questions. We'll take turns—an answer for an answer. Your turn. Ask me anything."
Jack bit his lip. He didn't want to be subjected to more questions and be under the pressure to come up with more excuses, but at the same time, he was very curious about Merlin. His friend was unlike everyone else, that was clear. In the end, curiosity won over caution.
"Do you have any siblings?"
"Unfortunately not. My parents split up before I was even born."
That was sad. Jack couldn't imagine how horrible his life would've been if he didn't have a sister. He passed the parchment.
"Do you have other siblings besides Elsa?" Merlin asked.
Oh, Jack fell right into this one. He had heard of Mother having children before they were born, but that was centuries ago, so he never met any of them. It was safer to say he didn't, so he shook his head.
Merlin smirked. "You don't look very convinced in your response."
He was too observant. Jack really had to learn how to control his body language to lie better. He thought of a way to recover. "I never met my father. He could have children for all I know."
Merlin put his elbows on his knees. "My father was absent as well. I met him, but then he died the next day, so I never got to know him."
"Sorry to hear that."
Merlin's eyes glazed over, and he seemed to look nowhere in particular. Jack supposed this was a sad topic. Merlin snapped out of his reflections and gave the parchment back.
Jack mulled for a moment what he wanted to know about his friend. The most obvious question was 'Why do you feel so different?' but that was too strange of a question. As far as he knew, wizards couldn't feel the magic of others the way he could, so he settled on a different magic question.
"Is Old Religion the only type of magic your family practices?"
"My uncle knows wand spells too but prefers Old Religion. It's more powerful magic, Jack. If you knew it, you'd use it too." He extended his hand for the parchment and asked immediately. "Why didn't your mother teach you Old Religion spells?"
Jack was taken aback. "I don't know why you're so sure that she knew it."
Merlin smiled wistfully. "Why else would she know Old English? Was she a linguist, a scholar, an archeologist, or someone fascinated with ancient texts?"
Jack scratched his head, trying to think. Mother never struck him as someone who was much into books or studying. "I don't think so."
Merlin tapped his finger on his knee. "Did she use a wand?"
"No, she didn't."
While she didn't need a wand to use her magic, she had a different tool—a small hammer. She never showed them how she used it, but he guessed that the hammer had magic that allowed her to shape the inside of the mountain, to create tunnels, chambers, and even furniture out of stone. But he couldn't tell this detail to his friend without explaining that his house was actually a mountain.
Merlin leaned back, propping himself on his arms. "Everything you've told me points to her being a practitioner of Old Magic of some sort. So the question is, why didn't she teach you more than just how to use frost?"
Jack looked down at his hands, picked on his cuticles, and answered quietly. "She tried, that was the only thing I was capable of doing."
He really wanted to stop talking about this. He did not need a reminder of how he always disappointed her.
"That's obviously not true," Merlin scoffed. "You're doing well at Hogwarts. I'm really surprised she didn't branch out into other disciplines. It's like she wanted you to be an expert at frost and frost only."
Merlin had no idea how right he was because yes, Mother wanted Jack to master his winter affinity. She never taught them anything else. Jack wasn't sure why, but he noticed that his control over magic substantially increased once he escaped with Elsa as if being within the mountain had been inhibiting him. In fact, he could bet Mother would be impressed if she saw what he could do now. He had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, he wanted to show her how powerful he became all on his own without her stupid lessons, but on the other, he would be most happy if he never saw her again.
"Hello," Merlin was waving the parchment in front of his face. "Earth to Jack. You there?"
Jack blinked and remembered where he was.
"I said that it's your turn. Ask away."
Jack took the roll and hoped he could stay on the topic of Old Religion and keep it away from himself. "What's your favorite Old Religion spell?"
Merlin thought about it for a while. How many spells could he know?
"I like healing spells because of how awesome it feels to help someone. It makes me feel useful like there's some higher purpose to my magic."
"Are they difficult to learn?"
"It depends. I'll show you some other time."
Merlin took the parchment back and cleared his throat. "What's your opinion on Muggles?"
That was a huge leap away from their previous topic. "I don't know much about them. I observed them for a short time. Their lives are so different. They have no idea how easy they have it." Jack broke off, aware that he was encroaching on shaky territory. He'd rather get back to talking about spells.
Merlin appraised him carefully but continued their sharing game. "I grew up around them. Some of my best friends were Muggles. What do you think about this whole blood-purity thing?"
Jack had no idea what the deal with the blood-purity thing was so he shrugged. He'd heard the term before and assumed it had something to do with not having Muggle parents but didn't understand why it mattered.
"I think," Merlin offered while surveying him, "that magic chooses which human to be bestowed upon. While it has a tendency to be passed on in blood, blood alone is not the only determining factor." His voice became more urgent. "In fact, I think that many wizarding families have taken the blood-purity so far, a lot of them are inbred."
Jack shrugged again. He didn't know what "inbred" meant, but he wasn't going to admit it.
Merlin continued, "Generations of inbreeding can have disastrous effects. Birth defects, lower intelligence, mental instability, that type of thing. There's quite a lot of that among pure-blood families." Then, he raised his hands up and smiled. "I hope I'm not offending you."
Jack had a feeling that Merlin wasn't genuine. Was he purposely trying to offend Jack to solicit a reaction? This was all frustrating because Jack didn't understand what he was talking about and didn't know if he should have been offended or not. He had a feeling it was one of those things that everyone knew about, and he was going to sound like an idiot again if he asked.
He wanted to change topics so he held his hand out for the parchment. Once it was in his hand, he realized that he didn't know what to ask, so he blurted the first thing that came to his mind, "Do you have any pets?"
"I'm friends with one very special dragon, but she's not a pet. They're too intelligent for that."
That was an impressive animal to be friends with. Jack remembered seeing a dragon on Merlin's shirt. He must have been an avid fan of the creature.
Merlin had the next question ready to go even before he took the parchment back. "What do you think about Muggleborns attending Hogwarts?"
"What is there to think about?"
"Do you think that children of pure-blood families have more right to magic education than Muggleborns?"
Jack leaned back, this time offended. Why would his friend think so lowly of him? "Of course not. I think that anyone who possesses magic should be given a chance to learn how to wield it. The whole nonsense of pure-blooded or Muggleborn is stupid. They're all human. What about all of those who are not and who would like to learn?"
Jack nearly choked on his own words. He didn't say that right. That stupid tongue of his always said the wrong thing. He hoped Merlin didn't notice his mistake.
"Nonhumans?" Merlin tilted his head curiously. "What type of nonhumans do you think should be allowed into Hogwarts?"
"I mean," Jack stumbled over words. "I don't know what else is out there, but I was thinking about elves and goblins. You said so yourself, they want to learn wand magic but are forbidden by the law."
Merlin smiled. "I don't think house-elves would want to. They're not very ambitious. Goblins—yes, but I can't imagine them going to school with all of us."
"Why not? It's a large school. And did you ask the elves what they actually want? It seems like wizards want to keep magic education away from house-elves just so they would remain weak enough to be their slaves. And what about other beings? There must be others who possess magic who would benefit from education like this."
Merlin chuckled at him. "It's funny that this is the topic you're passionate about. Alright, it's debate time. Let's take vampires—they can be civilized when they want to be, but do you really think it would be safe to have them walk dark castle corridors alongside us?"
He paused, and Jack had nothing to add. He wasn't like a vampire. No one had to be worried about their safety with him around.
"What of Merpeople?" Merlin continued. "We'd need to switch our classes to be held underwater. It would have been an interesting experience, but really, don't you think a school designed specifically for them taught by their kind would be more suitable? The same argument can be made for every magical creature."
Jack stared at his friend, wishing him to understand just how wrong he was. If only he could say it.
"Truly," Merlin went on without a break, "you must see that their needs are different from ours and specific to each species, and sometimes, their presence could be dangerous to the human students. If they want to learn magic, they need to make their own schools. It's not up to us to dictate their education."
He said it so lightly, and so sure of himself as if he was an expert on the matter. He was completely convinced that the possibility of a magical creature who could walk among humans, posing no threat to them, and having the same needs as them was impossible. Was Jack's kind really this rare?
"You think you know everything, don't you?" Jack's voice shook against his will, betraying his emotions. He needed to end this conversation before he made any more blunders.
Jack ran out of the dorm, ignoring Merlin's call to come back, jumped the staircases five steps at a time, and sprinted down the hallways, heading for the grounds. His vision swam and he wiped his eyes with his sleeve. He didn't want anyone to notice him, so he kept on running away from the castle. Merlin laughed. He laughed at it all like it was nothing. "The same argument can be made for every magical creature." No. Not every creature!
Jack's head was buzzing with things he wanted to scream at his friend. 'What about someone like me? Where do I fit in your whole theory? What if you belong to a race that is so rare, that you never met another one like you and probably never will? So how can there be a school created just for you? Why can't I be given the same chance you get? Am I not a child too?'
He fell on his knees and sobbed, letting out his anger at the invisible hands of ignorance that crushed his hopes. It was obvious, wizards saw nonhumans as something beneath them. Was his whole life going to be like this? He had to hide everything that he was and couldn't even voice his thoughts for fear of being discovered and cast away like a criminal. He was unwelcome in their world, but what other choice was there? He could walk among humans, knowing well that they could never truly know him or leave them all behind and walk forever alone. Why were those his only choices?
He raked the ground with his fingers and welcomed the pain when his skin caught on something sharp. The ache in his heaving chest was worse than any physical pain he could experience.
"You do not belong here," someone said behind him, and Jack sobbed harder.
Wasn't this a perfect summary for it all? Where did he belong if not in the world of magic? He'd come to think of Hogwarts as his home, but what type of home was it if he couldn't even be himself in it?
"Stop this magic!" the deep voice sounded again, and Jack rubbed his nose on his sleeve.
Was this a real voice? Was someone really here with him? He blinked the tears out of his eyes and took a look around him. He gulped. Where was he?
He was surrounded by a thick line of trees that obscured all light. The leaves shimmered with faint magic. It smelled wonderful, like earth, herbs, and water. Little insects buzzed around him, checking him out but not daring to land. The place was teeming with the magic of life, the magic of nature. I had to be the Forbidden Forest—home to many magical creatures, creatures he could feel all around him. He sniffed and turned around to see who spoke. And he immediately wished he had imagined the voice.
A fierce creature stood on four legs and looked at him in an aggressive grimace. His lower half resembled a horse. The top was human-like but there was something goat-like in his features, especially because of his short beard. His long brown hair fell on his bare muscular chest. He wore no clothes, only a metal necklace swung from his neck, and his torso was wrapped in a leather strap to hold up the arrows on his back. He looked powerful and vicious.
He was a centaur, and his arrow was pointed right at Jack's heart.