It was during my first year at Hogwarts that I first met her; one chance encounter that passed a pleasant afternoon and sowed the seeds of doubt that would eventually topple a dynasty and leave an unmourned void in the Wizarding World.
It was a cold October, that first term, and although I hadn’t been at school more than six weeks I had already realised the importance of learning my way around the Castle. Not just the routes from lesson to lesson if you follow me. This was a school with secrets, and the only sensible place for secrets is in one’s own care – they can do less damage there. So I’d made it a habit to rise early and sleep late, and spend the spare time this gave me in exploration.
You would be amazed at the things one can see and hear when people think everyone else is asleep. But let that go.
This particular encounter came, as I say, toward the end of October. Having spent fruitless days lurking around the depths of the Castle I decided a change of scene would perhaps revitalise my quest so I headed upward. The Astronomy Tower was really known to the students for two things only – the roof where the heavens could be studied, and the long winding stair that led from the ground floor to the aforementioned roof. Six hundred and seventy two steps, believe me you can’t help but count them. And by the time you’ve climbed four hundred and nine of them you’re not in the mood to go wandering off course. So naturally I did. My reasoning being that the landing so far up would be less explored than others.
I was disappointed at first. A small and rather draughty room was my only reward, with an open window, and an ancient hearth. Sighing at the long climb with such little reward I wandered to the window to look out. The view was splendid of course, the Forbidden Forest reclining over the hills beyond the grounds like some barbarian king sprawled on his furs, compelling yet menacing. But it was simply a view, and I was young enough to be unmoved by mere vegetation so I turned to leave. And she was there.
One became used to ghosts in this castle, so the sudden appearance of a translucent woman in an impressive and stately gown was not in itself cause for alarm. She was obviously a lady, and obviously my elder, so I bowed as I had been taught (manners are what the well bred learn to make up for their lack of genuine goodness) and wished her good morning.
She smiled in delight, thin laughter lines appearing in her features. She had been a beauty once, that was obvious, though she had been approaching middle age at the time she ‘passed’ (as we delicately call it).
“How charming,” she said, “a new visitor! Who are you and what is your story?”
She had a rather pleasant French accent and seemed genuinely pleased to meet me, so I told her my name and then added rather innocently that I had no story worth telling.
In response she gave a sceptical “La!” and batted me ineffectually on the arm with her closed fan.
“Fair’s fair though,” I said, “What’s your story?”
She pouted. “How is that fair? You have not told me yours!”
“I’m eleven,” I replied, “and a few months. You’ve obviously got a lot more to tell. You’re French, yes?”
“Oui,” she replied (as if to prove a point), “and I was born in a village near Rouen..”
I was late for my lessons that morning, and for several mornings afterward as I returned to her room to hear more of her life. She couldn’t remember her own name, so she claimed, but pupils had apparently dubbed her the Taffeta Lady, because of her formal and rather magnificent gown.
She had an insatiable appetite for gossip and knowledge, and seemed to know everything that went on beneath the Castle’s leaky roof. So of course apart from the delightful company, I also enjoyed learning a great many things from her.
When she did speak of her own life it was always in oblique ways. She had not been high born, she said, but she had come to the attention of an aristocratic fellow and ended up at the royal court as his companion. There she had quickly become the centre of one intrigue after another (her fondness for gossip and secrets being no new thing) until finally being taken into the King’s own favour. Which King it was, she would not say. I guessed one of the Louis, but that is hardly a hard guess when it comes to France.
It all went wrong, apparently, when her untrained magical talent burst out one day and transfigured a rose into crystal in front of witnesses. Witches were not, alas, well received in those days. She told the next part of the story quietly, looking out of the window. How she fled for her life, became a wanderer. It was, so much was obvious, a hard time in her life. And finally she had arrived here at Hogwarts, taken in out of hospitality.
And she had died here. But not for long, and she had chosen to remain here - specifically in this room - because she enjoyed the view. Well, perhaps appreciation of vegetation does indeed come with age.
I felt sorry for her, but ultimately I was using her knowledge for my own ends, and I make no apologies for that. I learned far more of current events from her than I ever did of her own history. And for my part I fed her a string of trivial anecdotes and gossipy nothings in exchange for her information. It was a business like relationship, and of my story she learned nothing at all. For that is my way, take it or leave it.
But it seemed she knew more of me than I would have guessed.
It was just before Christmas in that long ago first year when I had visited her room with a gift (a clandestine meeting between two teachers that I had witnessed from a concealed passageway, stifling my laughter so as not to disturb their earnest attempts at romance and bad poetry) when she unwittingly gave me a gift that I did not expect.
“You have a wicked humour, young man,” she told me laughing, “I can see it in your eyes. All that mischief, just like your father’s.”
I laughed then. Of course she would have known my father when he was at Hogwarts, but I could not imagine him being described as humorous or mischievous.
“You’re drunk on Christmas spirit, you Christmas Spirit,” I told her, “I can’t imagine him laughing at anything except car accidents or someone falling through a window.”
“Pish,” she rebuked me, “He had a fine wit, always up to pranks and mischief. You are so like him.”
“Me?” I said slightly offended, “Like Sebastian?”
She looked confused for a second.
“Oh him,” she sniffed, “no, not at all like him. I was talking about his brother, your father. You are so like him. It’s the eyes.”
I didn’t say another word, didn’t show a flicker of concern, I just bowed and left her room.
I'd be going home for Christmas in a couple of weeks. I had a feeling it was going to be an unusual holiday.