"Songbird," whispers Valerie Fleming. The rest of us take it up, me last.
"Pretty bird." That's Sarah.
"Go on, then, sing for us." The echoes bounce off the bathroom walls. Ssssongbird.
Celia Pascoe huddles in the middle of the circle, trying to cover her face with her hands. Such slim little hands. Val, or maybe it was Nicole MacKinnon, had suggested we bind her wrists with her own red-and-gold scarf. Pascoe had whimpered at that, and Sarah had patted her shoulder. And Nicola Portman had said it was too dangerous if we were caught, which had decided it.
We've even left her her wand. Not that that can help. Everyone knows Pascoe can't do a scrap of magic with her mouth shut.
"See here, Pascoe," Val begins, walking slowly around the outside of the circle. "We wanted Larkin. And we've had to settle for you. Makes us fairly tetchy, it does."
"Downright bloody-minded, you might say," adds Nicole.
"So, then. What shall we do with you?"
"Oh, poor you. You can't answer." Sarah again, sugar sugar sick sweet. "We'd better do something about that. Tacitus inversens." She taps her wand on Pascoe's shut lips and they open. Pascoe gasps and sputters.
We aren't supposed to know how to do that one, of course, or, rather, we're not supposed to know the charm Sarah cast earlier tonight and reversed just now. There's something to be said for patience, and plodding, and always having one of your dorm-mates keeping watch for you. All the teachers remark on it, how well the five of us have got on since we were Sorted. Never a quarrel, they say. All working together for the glory of the House, they say. A lot they know.
Nicola clears her throat, and Val and I look at each other quickly. It's not always a good plan to let Nicola do the talking. "I know," she says, as if she's just thought of something wonderful. She probably has. That's the problem. "What do you do with songbirds?"
"I don't know," I answer her shortly. "What do you?"
Nicola smiles, the sort of smile that tends to land us all in detention. "Songbirds," she says softly, "belong in cages. Who's seen the linen closet lately? The one with the winter curtains?"
"It was near the portrait of the Goatherd yester--" Nicole stops because Pascoe throws her head back and shrieks.
"Bloody hell," shouts Sarah over the noise. "We'd better clear out. She'll have half the school down here in a minute." Val and the Nix take off at top speed towards Hufflepuff's common room. Their footsteps are echoed by others, from several directions.
"Elizabeth! Come on!" Sarah grabs my wrist, drops it. Stares at me. I stare back at her. She pulls her gaze away first, and races clumsily after the others. Just me now. And, of course, Pascoe.
I drop to my knees next to her. She's wrapped her arms round her head. Most people, when they scream, do it in sort of long howls, and then have to take these sobbing gasping breaths. They sick up, if they do it long enough. Not our songbird, though. Trained lungs, this one, hence the name. The noise just goes on and on and on.
I try to peel her hands away from her face, but she's impossibly strong and the footsteps are getting closer. I have to give it up in the end, have to stand and run and leave her behind. One last look to see if anyone's arrived, and while I'm looking the other way I crash into someone.
I only have time to notice that he's taller than me and smells horribly of something chemical, before he grabs my wrist like Sarah did. Like Sarah did, except this person doesn't flinch. He just yanks me out of the corridor and into someplace extremely dark.
He strikes a match. By the time he's lit the lamp behind him, I know who it is who's rescued me. There are only two men in Hogwarts castle who'd need a lamp for lights. And the other one would've marched me straight back to face the music. This one can't even seem to face me.
"Mr. Filch," I begin, and stop. What do you say, anyways, to someone who hates you and everyone like you, but has just almost certainly prevented you from being expelled? "Er. Thank you. I think."
"No thinking about it, Miss Carey," He's staring resolutely at the opposite wall. His voice sounds odd, and I can't see his hands, and I really don't want to think about this.
We stand there for a moment in the dark, him still not looking at me, me staring at the thoroughly disgusting back of his head. Finally, something comes to me. "Mr. Filch? Not to look a gift oh no horse in the don't say teeth, don't say teeth face, but why did you fetch me out of there?"
He does turn, this time, and has a horrible look on his face that I think is meant to be a smile. I can see, behind him, the empty space on the wall where there must have been a hidden door. His left hand is wrapped around something that's got a chain dangling from it.
"Saw you in the Hall," he wheezes. "Not supposed to wear jewelry, are you? So I saw yours and I saw you've got this." He opens his left hand to show a small square of wood, elaborately carved with three letters. It matches the one I wear around my neck. Mine's a bit of carved white jade, on a black silk cord, but the three letters are the same: JWW.
"John bloody Wellington bloody Wells," I whisper. Ignoring the smell, I turn my face up to look at his. "You too?"
"Me too." Filch spits. "Him and his bloody Family Sorcerers. Took money for it, didn't he? For love potions and bits of curses and nothing that did anyone any harm? But no. High-and-mighty wizards wouldn't have it, one of their own doing magic for Muggles for money. Said they wouldn't have it known that there was real magic, sorcerer or wizard, but we know, don't we? All about the money. Ran him down in a village in Somersetshire. Memory Charmed all the villagers to think they'd seen him get dragged off to Hell." Another wheezing laugh. "Hell! Azkaban, more like."
"I heard this bit from my grandmum," I tell him. "There were a few who didn't think Azkaban was enough punishment. They said, if he'd claimed the Wells Family to be sorcerers, let them do sorcery if they could, because none of the Wells name would ever be wizards again."
"Bloody Wells curse. No boy child with the name ever born to wizard powers. Thought they did me a favor, didn't they, giving me a job here because I was of such good wizard family." Filch looks at me sharply. "The other four that were with you, they're Family too, aren't they?"
"All those generations of Wells daughters and their daughters and theirs, at Hogwarts under other names," says a new voice, a woman's voice. I don't even have time to be ashamed at my startled shriek before I'm trying to draw breath to shriek a second time at the feeling of something touching my ankles.
"If you try to kick me," continues the voice, "I shall see to it that Professor Sprout finds out who tipped over the pot with Longbottom's Venomous Tentacula in it."
Filch leans down and scoops Mrs. Norris into his arms. He looks much more familiar that way. "Well said, my dear," he murmurs into the top of her head. "Daughter of the Family, after all. She's told us her secret, she may as well know yours."
"You're not so sharp as you think, Argus. She hasn't told us all her secrets." Mrs. Norris fixes me with an utterly familiar cat stare. "Have you, dear. Will you show Argus what else you have around your neck? Or will I find some way to make sure you show everyone? And I do mean everyone, dear."
Slowly, hoping now that someone will find Pascoe, find me, I reach back and untie the cord from around my neck. It drops to the floor. The white jade pendant gleams in the lamplight, and the green jade ring beside it.
I hold out my hands and Filch, Mrs. Norris and I watch as the radius and ulna slowly corkscrew around themselves. The charm in the ring hides it, but if you grip my wrists hard you can feel the misshapen bones under the illusion. I'll have to explain to Sarah, somehow, and if I'm going to do that it's no use trying to keep it from the others.
They know, of course, all four of them, that we're all Wells descendants. They don't know about what my mother did before I was born, hoping for a wizard son. They don't know about my younger brother, who'll never leave Saint Mungo's.
It's not hard to hide things at Hogwarts, not really. With all those Weasleys dancing about going "Look at me!", not to mention Hermione Bloody Brilliant Granger and the Boy Who Lived, quite a lot of us have been doing all sorts of things these last few years and no one notices a bloody thing.
"Best put those back on, dear," says Mrs. Norris. It's only now, the third or fourth time, that I realize how chilling that word sounds in her rusty-hinge voice. "Your cousins will have got back to Hufflepuff by now, and you mustn't open up too many questions about where you've been."
I pick up the cord with the two charms on it. By the time we're out of Filch's office and back in the corridor, my hands are facing the right way again. I walk back to my dormitory guarded by a custodian and a cat, and no one gives us a second look.