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How It All Began - A Christmas Story



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  #1  
Old December 2nd, 2003, 12:48 am
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How It All Began - A Christmas Story

This story will explain a few things about Christmas, hopefully in an original and convincing way. There are 24 chapters (so I'll be updating every day and will post the last chapter here on Christmas Eve) and each chapter will be set in December. The years for each chapter won't necessarily follow in chronological order. A few familiar names and faces from the Harry Potter series will pop up from time to time in cameo roles, but the main characters are my own inventions.

For those of you who read this story last year (or the year before!), I have made slight alterations to a couple of chapters to accommodate the plot developments of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince". It had to be done, but I wasn't happy about it.

DISCLAIMER: I seriously doubt that this disclaimer would be of any use if JKR or her legal minions wanted to take me to court. But, for what it's worth, I'm not trying to make any money out of her creations - I'm just having fun, writing a story.

Here's the link for feedback!



Last edited by dink; December 30th, 2005 at 4:06 pm.
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  #2  
Old December 1st, 2005, 12:13 am
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December 1989

A rook pulled at the entrails of an unrecognisable squashed thing in the middle of Privet Drive. Harry slouched past, wondering briefly if the flattened corpse was one of Mrs Figg's innumerable cats. There were other things on his mind, however, besides dead cats.

It had been his class's Christmas party today. They'd played a few games: pass the parcel (he hadn't won); the folding-newspaper one (he hadn't won, because no-one would be his partner); musical chairs (he hadn't won). They'd had a bit of a disco but the DJ had turned out to be the secretary's unemployed oldest son, and it was rubbish -- all his records were really old, full of drums and shouting, and the teacher in charge had finally had to ask him to stop because some of the children were crying and clutching their ears.

There'd been food -- the high-point of the day, as far as he was concerned. Harry had piled his plate as high as he could with sausages on sticks, cheese and pineapple cubes on sticks, egg sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, meat paste sandwiches, fairy cakes, chocolate biscuits, crisps, and slices of cold pizza. He didn't care if his classmates thought he was a pig, it was wonderful to be able to eat as much party food as he wanted, for a change. Of course, there'd also been...

As he stood at the gate of number four, putting off the moment when he would have to go into the house, Harry snorted to himself. Father Christmas. Yeah, right. It was the school caretaker in a fancy red and white suit, with a fake white beard. The little ones in Year 4 might believe he was the real thing, but Harry's year was a little more sophisticated. Lisa Fletcher had pulled his beard right off, when it was her turn to sit on his knee and be handed a gift, and Kirsty Moore had recognised his voice. And besides, what would the real Father Christmas be doing at his pathetic school party, so near to Christmas? Harry could see, as clearly as if it were happening right in front of him, Father Christmas organizing the elves, putting all the presents in the right order in gigantic sacks -- far too busy getting things ready to be making public appearances. He could see him feeding the reindeer, polishing the sleigh, checking that his boots were shiny, laughing in a jolly way, checking a list of names.

Harry shrugged and sighed, and trudged up the path towards the house. This was going to be his last year for writing to Father Christmas, he'd decided. He couldn't work out why he never got anything. Did Dudley get up early and steal his present before he even knew it was there? Did Father Christmas only visit children who had proper bedrooms? Was he unable to come down the chimney because of the electric fire blocking up the fireplace? Maybe Father Christmas was confused because Harry had a different surname from the people he lived with. Was he, as Aunt Petunia always said, too bad, too naughty for Father Christmas to visit him? There were so many possible reasons, and the very worst one would be that Father Christmas didn't exist. Everyone else in his class at school got presents from Father Christmas, though, so Harry clung to the fact of his existence. There had to be another reason.

He re-read the letter in his mind:

Dear Father Christmas, I am sorry to keep asking you for things, and I am sorry if I have been bad this year, but please could I have a bike for Christmas. If you don't want to come down the chimney then you can come in at the back door. I will make sure to unlock it before I go to sleep. I know it looks as if there is only Dudley living here but I live here too with the Dursleys. My room is under the stairs. Happy Christmas. From Harry Potter

This year he was going to hide it where his aunt and uncle wouldn't find it. He was going to be as good as he could, between now and Christmas Day (although he really didn't think that this was the reason he wasn't getting any Christmas presents -- even the worst-behaved children at school got something from Father Christmas every year). He was going to get up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, after everyone else had gone to sleep, and unlock the back door. He was going to get up early on Christmas Day, earlier than Dudley, and check the name-tags on all the presents in the house -- just in case there was one for him. In short, he was going to do everything he could to ensure that Father Christmas would have no problem visiting him this year. If his efforts proved useless -- no, he wouldn't think about that. Father Christmas had to come, this year.

************

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  #3  
Old December 2nd, 2005, 12:54 am
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December 1687

There was a crackling in the fireplace, as the enormous Yule log -- apple wood, this year -- settled down into the fire. A bough of holly was laid along the length of the mantelpiece, and the tips of the glossy leaves caught the light from the flames of the fire and the few candles placed around the room. In the armchair on the left sat an old man, stout with good food, flushed with good wine, busily engaged with brushing crumbs out of his bushy white beard.

"Thank you, Snidget! I think you've done enough for us now," said Nicodemus, addressing the house-elf who had just been tending the fire.

"Is master sure?" asked the little house-elf, with a fretful expression in its large round eyes. "I is thinking that master needs some more food --"

Nicodemus looked pointedly at a plate that was overflowing with mince-pies.

"-- or maybe master wants more wine --"

A man with sandy coloured hair and a gaunt, deeply-lined face, leant forward, from the deep recesses of the second armchair, and raised his full wine-glass in a mock toast to Snidget.

"-- or perhaps the fire needs tending."

On cue, the Yule log gave an enormous CRACK! and fell into two pieces, letting the now merrily burning flames take hold of the fresh wood within. Snidget's ears drooped. He fidgeted with the hem of his teacloth, and gazed at Nicodemus, the firelight reflected in his big anxious eyes.

"Snidget, dear fellow, I think we can safely say that it is impossible for this room to be any more comfortable than you have already made it," said Nicodemus, smiling behind his beard. "We are warm, we are fed, we are watered. The only thing wrong that I can see is that there are far too many mince-pies upon this plate. Here -- I insist that you take these back to the kitchen with you. Widget, Gubbins and Dory must surely be in need of refreshment too."

As he spoke, Nicodemus removed four mince-pies from the top of the mountainous pile and placed them on a small dish. Grey eyes twinkling with pleasure, he held the dish out to the house-elf. Snidget, his ears drooping, seemed to be on the brink of a tearful explosion. "Master does not need Snidget anymore tonight?" he asked with a timorous quiver in his voice.

"You deserve a rest, Snidget. I know that you and your family have been working hard all week, making preparations for Christmas. And remember, I want you all to sit at the table with me, for Christmas dinner."

"Bu-" began Snidget.

"I think we can forget about protocol for one day, can we not?" Nicodemus sounded almost exasperated. It had, once again, taken most of December to persuade his house-elves that they should share this one meal with him. "Go. Spend this evening with your family. I will see you on the morrow."

The house-elf took the dish, heaving a huge sigh as he did so, and turned to leave.

"Wait there, little fella!" said the second man suddenly. "Completely forgot -- silly of me -- somewhere in this satchel -- a-ha!" He presented Snidget with a small wooden cask, and continued, "Latest thing from the Netherlands -- something called 'butterbeer' -- should put the sparkle back in your ears, eh? No no -- I shan't let you refuse. Take it. Take it! My thanks to you too. Yes. Quite. Off you go. Good night."

And finally, the house-elf departed.

"He's a character, isn't he?" said Ralph. "What was his name? Dingbat? Gadget? Smidgen?"

Nicodemus began to chuckle, a deep rumble that started in his belly and ended in a hearty, ear-splitting roar of laughter. One of Ralph's favourite pastimes, throughout the long years of their friendship, was getting Nicodemus to laugh -- a sound so utterly happy and unselfconscious that it couldn't fail to bring gladness to anyone's heart. They smiled at each other, across the hearth-rug, and shared a moment of companionable silence.

"I always think," said Ralph eventually, "that I'll never go away again, when I get home. I know what it is that calls me back here every time, but I can't think what it is that prompts me to keep on leaving."

"Now then, Ralph," said Nicodemus, the twinkle dying from his eyes, "what news do you bring from your travels?"

Ralph drank half his glass of wine in one gulp and shook his head. "I have nothing good to tell you, old friend. I spent most of my time in the north -- well, it's the only place where my animagus form is inconspicuous --"

"At least you managed to discover your animagus form," said Nicodemus, with a trace of old bitterness.

"-- and there were similar rumours there -- about 'Wizarding Secrecy' or 'Warlock Secrecy'. What we've all been talking about over here. Everyone had a different name for it. But, as I was passing back through the continent (and incidentally you should try that butterbeer -- wonderful stuff), it was confirmed."

"Not really!" exclaimed Nicodemus.

"They passed the statute, had a big meeting in Paris -- 'International Confederation of Warlocks' or something -- and it's been declared the law. I expect they'll send word out along the usual networks from London after the Christmas holidays. You'll have to hide everything. Incidentally, where've you hidden Agnes?"

"Oh," Nicodemus managed a faint smile at this, "I sent her off to her sister's house. We both suspected that something like this was going to happen, and I didn't want her to be involved. No sense in both of us being arrested."

"So, you're still planning to go ahead with it?" asked Ralph, with surprise.

"Of course. After hearing your news, I would say that it's more important than ever."

"In that case," said Ralph determinedly, "I'll help you."

"Ralph --" protested Nicodemus.

"Tish! I'm looking forward to reliving my youth!"

***********

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  #4  
Old December 3rd, 2005, 9:05 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1995

"Good morning, Perkins!" cried Mr Weasley, bustling into the miniscule Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office.

"Hello, Arthur." Perkins was busy shooting paper-chains from the end of his wand, aiming them at the corners of the room, the tops of the filing cabinets, the corners of Mr Weasley's small poster collection. In short, he was festooning.

"Oh, I say! It's very festive in here, isn't it?"

Mr Weasley happily surveyed the chaotic scene. It looked as though someone had collected all the tackiest muggle Christmas decorations they could find, thrown the ornaments into a big box, jiggled it around a bit, and then scattered the contents haphazardly around the room. Amongst the mounds of tinsel and baubles, various decorations had been given prominent positions: a pink plastic Christmas tree, its branches bent out of shape, toppled vertiginously on the edge of Perkins's desk; fake apples and pinecones were floating a few inches above head height; a small selection of fairies and angels, originally destined to perch on the tops of Christmas trees, were now suspended by their wings from the doorframe.

And there were other things, which had obviously been handed into the office as evidence in previous years. A cuddly snowman toy, sitting on top of a stack of files, was pulling hideous faces at random. There was a box of crackers on the floor, cackling maliciously and shaking from side to side. A purple liquid of some kind was dripping from the sprig of mistletoe that Perkins had hung from the ceiling. Underneath it he had thoughtfully placed a sponge, which was already blotched with violet stains, as if it had been used for this purpose before. On Mr Weasley's desk was --

"A Father Christmas doll!" exclaimed Mr Weasley with delight. "I haven't seen this before. Was it brought in this morning?"

"Yes, but Arth-"

"What does it do, though?" Mr Weasley had a rapturous expression in his eyes.

"I wouldn't --"

"Does it need batteries? Maybe I have the right sort in my collection!"

Mr Weasley grabbed hold of the miniature Father Christmas at the exact same moment that Perkins cried, "Don't touch it!"

Immediately, the office was filled with the sound of a happy tenor voice, bellowing at tremendous volume, "JINGLE BELLS!"

"Oh, wonderful!" said Mr Weasley, setting the doll back down on his desk.

"JINGLE BELLS!"

Perkins shuddered slightly and clapped his hands over his ears.

"WORTHLESS MUGGLE SCUM!"

"Eh? What was that?" Mr Weasley prodded at the doll with his wand. "Silencio!"

It continued to sing, as loudly as ever.

"YOU-KNOW-WHO WILL GO FOR YOU --"

"Quietus!" cried Mr Weasley. "Finite Incantatem! Dulcimio!"

"We haven't worked out how to stop it yet!" shouted Perkins. "You just have to let it finish the song!"

"-- AND BITE YOU ON THE BUM!"

"Hang on!" yelled Mr Weasley. "Christmas decorations? It's December?!"

"JINGLE BELLS!"

"Yes!" cried Perkins, his voice a little hoarse. He had been instinctively backing away from the noise and jumped suddenly as a particularly large purple droplet from the mistletoe trickled down the back of his neck.

"JINGLE BELLS!"

"What year is it?" roared Mr Weasley.

"MUGGLES WILL BE CRUSHED!"

"1995!" Perkins croaked, trying to wipe the lavender-scented liquid out of his wispy white hair.

"YOU-KNOW-WHO --"

"Oh my! Oh dear! The licence!" Mr Weasley seemed quite distressed.

"-- WILL COME FOR YOU --"

"What?" whispered Perkins.

"-- AND GRIND YOU INTO DUST!"

"THE LICENCE!" shrieked Mr Weasley, into the sudden silence. "Oh, good. It's stopped. I was saying, Perkins, we'll need to draft a new licence this year. Christmas, you know. I'd better send a memo to Mafalda at once, in case she's forgotten too."

He sat down at his desk, making sure not to touch the Father Christmas doll again, and started to write.

**************

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  #5  
Old December 4th, 2005, 12:09 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1694

Through the half-open door the low dawn-light was streaming into the stable. Nicodemus's breath, as visible as smoke in the chill winter air, caught the light and swirled away in the draught. He was grooming Mistilber. Agnes didn't approve of this, he knew -- she thought he would overstrain himself -- but it was a task he would entrust to no-one else. Besides, he enjoyed it. The calmness of the stable was soothing, especially at this time of year, when so much of his time was taken up with frenetic activity and planning. The repetitive motions lulled his mind, eased it from worrying, if only for a few minutes. Mistilber deserved some special treatment, anyway: she would be hard at work in a few days' time.

There were memories in the stable, too: memories of setting off on midnight jaunts with Ralph (that was when he had Hollenber, his first Aethonan*) to neighbouring villages, and further afield; memories of talking with his father, enjoying their one shared interest. Agnes had insisted on trying to ride, once (that must have been when Ilober was three years old), but she had been afraid of the height, and had screamed at him to call Ilober down when they were only a few feet up in the air. He smiled to himself now as he remembered how cross Agnes had been with herself. And so his thoughts wandered, his coming task forgotten for a while. Finally, the job was done. He gave Mistilber some oats and patted her neck. She whinnied approvingly and nuzzled the back of his head, before giving her full attention to breakfast.

Agnes was waiting at the door for him.

"There's a lady here to see you," she said, with a worried frown. "She's waiting in the parlour."

"Is she?" Nicodemus stepped into the house, kicking off his snow-covered boots as he did so.

"She said her name was... um... Penelope? I'm sorry, I can't remember. I wasn't expecting anyone. She wouldn't be calling on Ministry business, would she?"

"I think we would have known straightaway, if that was the case, my dear," replied Nicodemus, putting his slippers on.

"Well, after last year..." Agnes bit her lip.

"Let us go and find out, then, my love," said Nicodemus, taking hold of Agnes's right hand.

Together they went through to the parlour. A travelling cloak lay over the back of one of the armchairs, a broom propped up beside it. Standing by the fire, warming her hands at the blaze, was a tall woman, simply dressed. Her red hair was tied up into a plait that fell almost to her waist.

"Thank you for seeing me, Nicodemus," she said. "My husband and I heard of what happened at your tribunal. Forgive our delay in contacting you, but we think we can help."

She smiled, and Nicodemus noticed that, although she did not seem to be very old, there was something about her expression, her movements. She exuded that sense of surety that only comes with age. Her eyes, her smile -- seemed ageless.

"I'm sorry," said Nicodemus, "I do not mean to be rude, but who are you?"

"Oh," she replied, after throwing a confused glance at Agnes, who was smiling apologetically, "I'm Perenelle Flamel -- but, please, call me Nelly."

****************

* Aethonans are a kind of winged horse, chestnut coloured with cream coloured wings, native to Britain.

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Last edited by dink; December 4th, 2005 at 9:28 am.
  #6  
Old December 5th, 2005, 12:08 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1988

On the bottom bunk, Dennis Creevey was wide-eyed with anticipation. Colin had helped him write his letter (was that a scraping noise on the roof?) earlier in the week. He'd got a bit carried away with questions about reindeer, elves, snow, how it was possible to get a sleigh to fly, where Father Christmas had come from, what he had to eat for breakfast, how long it took him to visit every child altogether, and whether he really liked sherry or not. Dennis didn't think it was really possible for anyone to like sherry -- he'd had a sip, once, at some big sombre family gathering, while his dad was too preoccupied to notice what he was doing -- and it had tasted awful. Anyway, he'd nearly forgotten to ask for anything. Colin had produced a catalogue that he had hidden inside the wardrobe -- it had appeared in the post three months ago, addressed to their mother, and he hadn't wanted his dad to see it -- one of the really big, fat catalogues. The two brothers had spent a happy hour (some kind of scuffling sound by the chimney pot?) mulling over the toys pages, trying to find things that would fit through the chimney.

Dennis was of the opinion that, if Father Christmas could fit through the chimney, then so could toys of any size. Colin thought they should err on the safe side and stick with small things. They couldn't agree, but it was inconceivable that they should do anything differently from each other. So they each chose one big toy (a Scalextric set for Colin, a castle for Dennis) and, just in case, one little toy (a camera for Colin, a water-pistol for Dennis) and hoped that Father Christmas wouldn't think they were being too greedy.

Above, on the top bunk, Colin snored suddenly and made some kind of movement. Dennis guessed that he was rolling over, and held his breath for a minute. Once, when Colin had been rolling over in bed, just like this, he had rolled right out of the bed (was that a mouse scratching in the wall, or something else?) and floated six feet above the ground for ten minutes, before rolling back into it as if nothing had happened. Was the same amazing thing going to happen tonight? Dennis waited, hopeful, but Colin stayed safely in his bunk. Maybe that was just too much to ask for, what with Father Christmas coming to visit them that night anyway. He couldn't believe that Colin was asleep, when he knew that Father Christmas was coming. He was going to stay awake all night, and meet him, and get answers to (was that a floorboard creaking on the landing?) all his questions. He was going to see Father Christmas.

A shadow blocked the light from the landing, for a moment, and Dennis inadvertently let out a small squeak of excitement. Father Christmas! The dark figure crept into the room and crouched down by Dennis's bunk.

"You should be asleep," said his father, tousling his hair. "The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner it will be Christmas Day."

Dennis stifled his disappointment as much as he could. If it couldn't be Father Christmas, then the next best thing was his dad, after all.

"Has Father Christmas been yet?" he whispered.

"Nope. Not a sign. He's probably waiting for me to go to sleep too, isn't he?" breathed Mr Creevey. "And I'm not going to bed until I know that you're fast asleep."

"I can't!" said Dennis, as softly as he could. "I'm not tired!"

"Count backwards from a hundred -- always helps me, doing that," said Mr Creevey. "I'll count with you... 100... 99... 98.... 97..... 96...... 95....... 94.........."

Mr Creevey straightened up and stayed a while in the room, listening to the peaceful sound of his two sleeping sons, before silently closing the bedroom door and heading back downstairs to have another cup of tea.

****************

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  #7  
Old December 6th, 2005, 12:27 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1639

"Nick! Where are you? They've already started!" Ralph's voice blew in with a whirl of snow, before being abruptly silenced as the back door was firmly closed.

Standing in the middle of the kitchen floor, staring in disbelief at the closed door, was a twelve-year-old boy, his wavy brown hair pulled into a ponytail, and his face pulled into a scowl. Nicodemus was sulking.

He had woken up that morning and his bedroom had seemed brighter than usual, with a light more dazzling than even a thousand candles could produce. Not that he had ever seen a thousand candles burning all at once -- but he could imagine it. He'd yelped with delight when he had peered through one of the windows and seen the winter's first, most beautiful, and most welcome blanket of snow. Without being told, he knew that the other children of the village would be congregating by the oak tree in the big field: it was the ideal place for snowball fights, building snowmen and rolling around in the snow, as well as sliding on the ice of the duck-pond. This was going to be a perfect day.

But he had reckoned without his mother, who had taken no notice of the snowdrifts piling up against the side of the house. Chores still had to be done and lessons still had to be learnt, irrespective of the wonderful snowflakes still lazily tumbling from the sky. And so he had wasted the entire morning blacking the cauldron, working his sums, and bringing in more logs for the fire. He wished they had a house-elf to share some of the work.

"One last task left to do, Nicodemus, and then you can join your friends," said his mother, giving his ponytail a friendly tug, and leaving the room. If he hadn't been so mutinously cross, he might have noticed the sympathy in her voice.

He sighed. He hated doing this particular chore -- collecting all the new eggs. It took forever to complete because the hens kept finding new places to hide, and the hen shed was dark and freezing inside. Last time, his fingers had been so numb that he had accidentally smashed three of the eggs -- unable to tell how hard he was gripping them. There was a quicker way of doing it, of course, but ... Nicodemus crept into the front hall, checking to make sure no-one else was around. With extreme stealth he tiptoed over to the grandfather clock that stood at the foot of the stairs and released a catch concealed inside the number "6".

There was space in this tiny hidden cupboard for three wands -- but only one was in there at the moment. His father's was gone, presumably taken for the Big Meeting that he had been summoned to three days ago. His mother's was gone too, as she suspected that a bundimun had moved in underneath the parlour floor. Nicodemus reached for his wand (eight inches, oak, with a mistletoe sprig as the core -- one of Madam Ollivander's experiments) and softly closed the small hatch. He slipped it into his pocket, although not before giving it a quick admiring glance, and headed back to the kitchen to pick up a basket for the eggs.

In the dusty shadows of the hen-house, he carefully drew his wand and whispered, "Accio eggs." The peace was instantly disturbed by a cacophony of squawks and disgruntled clucks: the hens didn't seem to like feeling their new-laid eggs soar out from underneath them. Wishing he had thought this through before starting, Nicodemus dropped the basket and his wand and spent a frantic five minutes, diving left and right, catching the eggs before they could land and break on the floor at his feet. Several eggs flew in through the shed door, confirming Nicodemus's suspicions that some of the hens had taken to laying their eggs outside. One poor unfortunate hen had been in the middle of laying an egg when Nicodemus entered the hen-house, and it gave an almighty shriek as the spell took hold.

"Nicodemus, what are you doing in there?" called his mother from the open back door, evidently alarmed by the noise.

Hurriedly, he picked up the now full basket, stowed his wand away, and trotted back to the house.

"Eggs!" he said, showing her the basket.

"Very well, my son," said his mother, "I give you leave to go."

Nicodemus grinned and wrapped his mother in a brief, bear-like hug. "Thank you."

"But mind you return before sunset!"

These last words were addressed to the back of Nicodemus's head, as he ran down the lane, heading for the sound of laughter.

****************

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  #8  
Old December 7th, 2005, 10:05 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1639 continued

Hours later, as the sun sank down behind the steeple of the village church, a solitary figure tramped back up the lane. The tips of Nicodemus's ears had turned bright red with the cold and he could barely feel his own arms and legs. His fingers and toes had, with icy numbness, vanished from his internal radar ages ago, during the first snowball fight. He was tired and he was happy. Particular moments of the day were replaying themselves in his mind: the satisfactory 'THUD!' as his second snowball landed squarely on the back of Agnes's head; the new game he had invented using the Wingardium Leviosa charm and a blindfold; matching Ralph's record for the longest slide along the ice; giving the already-completed snowman a snowdog companion, complete with sprigs of berried holly for eyes.

His mother was standing at the door, a silhouette against the warm glow of candlelight shining from the front hall.

"Shake the snow from your shoes before you come in, Nicodemus," she said, looking past him at the darkening sky with an anxious frown, "and I will make us both a cup of hot spiced wine."

With the promise of a warming drink in the immediate future, Nicodemus hurriedly dislodged the miniature snowdrifts from amongst the buckles on his shoes and quickly removed his battered old jacket, hanging it on the rack just by the door. As he pushed the front door shut behind him, he thought he heard an odd clattering sound -- but he paid it no heed, intent on nothing but the kitchen and warmth. He turned to his mother, wanting to ask her whether she'd had any luck finding the bundimun, and as he did so his foot kicked something across the hall.

"Oh!" he said, "I think you dropped something, mother-of-mine. Let me get it for you."

He had expected to hear her laugh as he said his old pet-name for her, and was puzzled when it received no reaction at all. Still, he stepped unsuspectingly towards the whatever-it-was and fumbled, with his numb fingers, to pick it up.

It was his wand.

How could he have forgotten about the wand? Nervously, he glanced up at his mother and was horrified to see how all the light had gone out of her eyes. In a flurry of movement, she strode towards him, knocked the wand from his hand, and slapped him across the face.

"You used that wand today," she said, grabbing him by his shoulders and shaking him, her own voice quivering with emotion. "Nicodemus Upnor, you will look at me when I am talking to you! You took your wand, and you used it in front of the other children. You used magic in front of muggles."

"I -- I --" but Nicodemus did not know what he could say. "I did not -- I meant for -- I --"

The shock of the slap -- he could still feel it, as if someone were pressing ice against his face -- and the violence of the shaking... It was all too much for Nicodemus. He could not think. There were no excuses. His mother had never hit him before. He burst into tears.

"Pah!" snapped his mother, finally letting him go. "Have you no idea of the danger our family now faces? Could you not heed the warnings that I and your father have repeatedly given to you? It is not safe to practise magic in front of muggles."

"But -- but they liked it," said Nicodemus, between sobs. "Everyone was laughing. We were only playing games."

His mother seemed to slump. She sighed and asked, "What was the first spell they taught to you at Hogwarts? Come on -- three months is not that long ago. The first spell?"

Nicodemus was trying to keep up with his mother's erratic train of thought, and at the same time stifle the tears that he could still feel building up inside. He sniffed, wiped his face with a dirty hand, and answered, "The F-Flame Freezing charm."

"Yes!" she cried, "Exactly! And why did they teach you that particular charm? Witches and wizards are being burned, and not just in Germany anymore, Nicodemus. There have been trials in England too, these last few months."

The illogic of this argument spurred Nicodemus on to reply, "But it is safe for us, because we can do the Flame Freezing charm. None of us will be burned to death, mother. We are safe."

"I am not thinking of our safety," she said. "What if someone like -- oh, someone like your friend Agnes, for example -- was reported as being in an area where magic was happening? What if a witch-finder was to accuse her of being a witch? She could not save herself, Nicodemus. And we could not save all the muggles who would be accused of witchcraft. The more magic we do in public, the more likely it is that anyone, any innocent muggle, could become a target for the witch-finders. I am not thinking of us. I am thinking of the muggles. We must keep them safe. They fear magic."

"The grown-ups fear it, you mean," muttered Nicodemus under his breath. "I know the children do not."

***************

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  #9  
Old December 8th, 2005, 12:31 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1990

"Dear Father Christmas," wrote Justin Finch-Fletchley, and then he stopped. What did he want, really? He could ask for a BMX bike -- but he knew that his parents were buying one for him. He could ask for a new saddle for his pony -- but the stables at his prep school were pretty well equipped. Prep school. This was his last year, and he couldn't wait to leave. Despite his hopes, the teasing had not stopped once he reached the upper form. If anything, it had become more spiteful than ever. It hadn't been his fault! He still didn't know what had really happened on that night -- when Cholmondley Major had held his head under the water in the wash-basin, demanding his tuck money. All he knew was that he had suddenly been released and Cholmondley had screamed and run away. Since then, the bullying had been nothing but name-calling and taunting. It still hurt, though, no matter how many times Justin might repeat, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."

Still, at least it was his last year. Eton beckoned, next September. Justin knew that his parents were keen for him to do well, make them proud, and follow in his father's footsteps. He knew this, and yet he also knew that he didn't want to go (although he would never confess this to his parents -- how could he let them down?). He might hope for a 'fresh start' at a new school, but Eton would be like his prep school multiplied by a million: he couldn't possibly guarantee that something strange wouldn't happen there as well. His classmates were right. He was weird. He wished he could just fit in. What did it feel like, to be normal?

A voice called from the bottom of the stairs, "Justin, darling?"

"I'm coming, matro -- mummy!" Justin called in return, hoping she hadn't heard his mistake. It always took him some time to adjust between school and home. During his first week at Beaconhill, he had repeatedly called his house-master 'daddy' -- an excruciatingly embarrassing slip to make. Anyway, trying to put this from his mind, he looked down at the letter he had started. He'd better finish it quickly. What could he ask for? An idea was forming in his mind. Father Christmas had never let him down. Could he give Justin the thing he desired most? It wouldn't hurt to ask...

He picked up the pen, and wrote in his best joined-up style: I don't know if you can give me what I want this year but I am going to ask anyway. Please could you make me normal? I want to be like everyone else. I want to fit in. And please don't tell mummy and daddy, but could you do something so that I don't have to go to Eton? I hope that Rudolph is well and that the elves are helping you to get ready. Happy Christmas. Love from Justin.

He slid the letter into an envelope, already addressed to 'Father Christmas, The North Pole, The Earth', and left it on the fireplace in his bedroom.

****************

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  #10  
Old December 9th, 2005, 10:10 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1648

He took two handfuls of powder, put one in a pocket, and stood nervously in front of the massive departmental fireplace. Three words ran through his mind: throw-speak-jump, throw-speak-jump, throw-speak-jump, throw-jump-speak, no, throw-jeak-pump, no, no, NO! He was beginning to regret volunteering for the Experimental Floo Network Trials, even if his father thought it was a good way of getting a permanent job in the Ministry of Magic.

The office was sparsely furnished: a wooden settle against one wall, a carved cupboard on the opposite side of the room, and of course Madame Brownpenny's massive walnut desk. The sole concession to Christmas was the band of ivy wrapped twice around the brim of her hat.

She leant forward now, her chubby arms folded across her decidedly plump belly, and said, "In your own time."

Throw-speak-jump, speak-jump-throw, NO. He tried to get a grip on his thoughts. Throw. Speak. Jump. Taking two steps towards the hearth, Nicodemus flung the powder at the grate, said, "St. MunSHOO!" as half of it went up his nose, and jumped.

For a while there was nothing but sickening spinning; soot forced its way into his eyes; the taste of soot lined his mouth; the clean shirt his mother had insisted he put on that morning was now doubtless ruined. Did anyone in the Ministry know how horrible this was? The urge to sneeze overwhelmed him again and, as his nose exploded with sootiness, his head automatically jerked forwards. Miraculously, the spinning stopped. He raised his head with a hopeful half-smile. The spinning started again. He slumped forwards in defeat. The spinning stopped. It took a few moments for Nicodemus's addled mind to arrive at the obvious conclusion: he could stop the spinning by simply leaning forwards. As soon as he realised this, he leant forwards with all his might.

A narrow chimney-breast settled down snugly all around him; there was enough space to swing a kneazle, but only if you didn't mind holding a concussed kneazle by the tail. It seemed unlikely that he'd actually arrived at St. Mungo's, since he'd been assured that their hearths were easily big enough for ten people to stand in together. In which case, where was he?

Keeping his head firmly pressed against the interior of the chimney, Nicodemus tried to bend down. Bent almost double, he was just about able to get an upside-down view of the room. There were people in there. They looked a little shocked.

Nicodemus straightened up quickly, which turned out to be a mistake.

When he next opened his eyes, he found he was lying on his back among the fire-irons, his head resting on a cold slab of slate. A crowd of puzzled faces were gathered around him, all apparently mouthing silently. He closed his eyes again.

Something was prodding him in the side. He groaned and opened one eye. An old man was jabbing at him with the poker.

"What do you want?" said Nicodemus.

"..." said the man.

"Forgive me, but you will have to speak louder than that."

"..."

A young woman in maid's clothing said, "..."

Raising a hand to his temple, Nicodemus tried very hard to think useful thoughts in between the throbs of pain that were shooting through his head. Clearly they were muggles. He had to get back to the Ministry. They were mad. He'd probably lost his chance of a job. They were mad muggles. He had to get back. Before his brain had properly worked out what his mouth was going to say, Nicodemus found himself saying, "I beg your pardon, but do you think you could perhaps fetch a doctor for me?"

"..."

It was like magic, as far as Nicodemus was concerned. Everyone left the room, still mouthing silently to one another, and he immediately scooped up the handful of powder that was left in his pocket.

Here we go again, he thought: throw-speak-jump. No. Throw -- speak -- step very carefully. Holding his nose with his left hand, he threw the powder into the tiny grate, said, "Madame Brownpenny's office," and stepped into the fireplace, taking care to keep his head well away from the bricks.

The spinning wasn't quite as horrible this time, although that may have been because Nicodemus's head already felt like it was spinning in the opposite direction.

"..." said Madame Brownpenny, when Nicodemus tottered towards her desk.

For Nicodemus it was the last straw. "Not you as well!" he moaned.

Making no attempt to hide her amusement, the stout little witch reached for a piece of parchment and wrote something down.

"What?" said Nicodemus as she handed it to him. He looked at the scrap of parchment and felt a blush start at the base of his neck. The note said: Calle yn at thif Office on Monday weeke to beginne permanent Employment with our new Floo Network Departmente. And please do make sure to cleane all ye Soot oute of your Ears, Mafter Upnor.

It wasn't until he'd left the room that the full import of the note dawned on him: he was in!

**************

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  #11  
Old December 10th, 2005, 8:51 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1985

"Dear Father Christmas," wrote Hermione, in painstakingly neat handwriting. It was her first ever attempt to write a letter to someone, and she was determined to do it all on her own. Her father had looked over her shoulder, after half an hour, and tried to make a helpful suggestion about the shape of the letter "M" but she had snorted with annoyance and hidden the rest of the page with her hair. So now she was finishing it off in peace, sitting at the big desk that her parents used for their business paperwork.

"I have been good and please can you give me --" Here she scrutinised a scrap of paper, upon which were neatly printed the titles of a couple of promisingly fat books that she'd seen in the Children's Library, "-- the Big Book of Facts and 1500 Things To Know."

What should she write at the end, though? She thought hard for a moment and then, making sure her parents couldn't hear the rustling of the paper, she looked through the stack of letters piled up beside the lamp. There was one letter with lots of words on, which looked promising. She copied out the last paragraph.

"If you have any further problems, please do not hesitate to contact me at the above address."

It looked better, somehow. She didn't need to copy the next bit, anyway; her mother had taught her how to write her own name before she started school.

"from Hermione"

She knew, from listening to the chatter of the other children in her class, that all she had to do now was leave the letter by the fireplace and it would get to Father Christmas by magic -- maybe one of his elves would come and fetch it! Solemnly, Hermione folded her letter and carried it over to the warmth of the hearth. She stood on tiptoe and reached up to tuck the letter behind the brass clock on the mantelpiece.

*************

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  #12  
Old December 11th, 2005, 12:49 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1670

Nicodemus popped his head around the kitchen door and said, "Snidget? Oh, sorry, Dory! Can you repair it?"

The tiny little house-elf, clad in a freshly pressed pillow-case, hastily swept the fragments of glass away. She grovelled on the floor, visibly shaking, and squeaked, "I is apologizing, master, for being so clumsy."

"Don't be silly, Dory," replied Nicodemus, slightly nonplussed. "It was only an accident. Quite understandable. I must have given you a nasty shock, barging in here unannounced. How are you settling in, anyway? Is Snidget being kind?"

"Oh yes, master!" cried Dory. "He is showing me where everything is, and is teaching me how to make a Christmas pudding. I is so happy!"

Giving a tremulous little smile, Dory curtsied at Nicodemus, and then went back to her task of measuring out the dried fruit for the pudding.

"Yes. Er. Very good," said Nicodemus. "You carry on then, Dory."

He strode through the ground floor of the house, looking for Snidget, and eventually found him in the study, scrabbling for something under the oak sideboard.

"Snidget! Whatever are you doing?" asked Nicodemus.

There was a sudden bumping sound and a high-pitched groan, and then Snidget emerged, rubbing his head with one hand and holding a silver sickle aloft with the other. "We needs this for the Christmas pudding, master," he said. "It rolled away when Mistress Agnes gave it to me."

Nicodemus glanced over to where Snidget was pointing and saw Agnes, sitting hunched up on the window seat. He sighed quietly to himself and then turned to the house-elf once more.

"I wondered, if it is not too much trouble, dear chap, if you could bring some refreshments through to us? Nothing too elaborate, of course."

"Yes, master! At once!" said Snidget, heading immediately for the door.

"Oh, wait a moment," said Nicodemus. "Dory seems a little ... twitchy. Has anything happened that I should know about?"

"Oh no, master," replied Snidget. "She is used to harsher treatment, if you will forgive me for saying so. I is telling her that Master Nicodemus and Mistress Agnes is not cruel but she is not yet believing me."

"Will she settle down soon, do you think?"

"I is thinking that she feels the same way I did when I came here, master."

"Good point," said Nicodemus. "Well, I hope that the two of you get on together, anyway. Here, have a few more sickles to stick in that pudding."

He rummaged around in his pockets for a moment, produced a selection of coins, and handed all the silver ones to Snidget. The house-elf, with both hands full of coins, bowed deeply and dashed out of the room.

"Agnes?" said Nicodemus, taking a couple of tentative steps forwards. In all the fuss of preparing for Christmas, he had forgotten the significance of today's date. Clearly, Agnes had remembered.

Agnes wiped her eyes on her sleeve and said, with a catch in her voice, "Our little Dorcas would have been eighteen today."

"I know, my love," said Nicodemus. He sat down on the window-seat beside her and engulfed her in an embrace. "She would be a young woman now, choosing her own way in life. I wonder what she would think of our Christmas activities?"

"Surely she would agree that Christmas is a time for children," and Agnes's eyes overflowed with tears once more.

"My dear," said Nicodemus, holding her tight, "please, my love, you must not torture yourself like this every year."

"But there should be children! This house should be filled with noise and laughter and mess and life. We should be thinking of our own children at Christmas, instead of --"

"I know, dear heart," Nicodemus interrupted. "We have had this conversation many times."

"I feel as if I failed you," sobbed Agnes.

"Well, you know what I think about that," said Nicodemus, planting a kiss on the top of her head. "Besides, I think we do good work, keeping magic alive in their hearts. I almost believe that this village takes it for granted now."

Agnes managed a smile as she said, "I was meaning to talk to you about that."

"What, my love?" asked Nicodemus, kissing her dimpled cheek.

"I was talking to Mary -- you know, John the smith's son's wife -- and she had heard from her sister -- the one who moved away three years ago -- that there were rumours flying all over the county. It's not just the village anymore."

"Rumours?"

"Quite funny, some of them. A 'magical flying stag' was one, I believe. And -- oh, this is the best one -- a 'Christmas chimney sweep'!"

There was a knock at the door, and Snidget came in, carrying the requested tray of refreshments.

****************

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Old December 12th, 2005, 9:31 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1987

Mrs Weasley was frowning at the grandfather clock: the Christmas season wouldn't really start until all the hands were pointing at 'home'. Since Percy had started at Hogwarts the Burrow had seemed unnaturally empty. Of course, with Fred and George constantly thinking of new ways to tease Ron and Ginny, it could never be what you would describe as a peaceful house.

But it was quieter this year. Right now, for instance, the dinner dishes were washing themselves in the sink; Fred and George were building a snow-gnome in the garden; Ginny was having a nap; and Ron was sitting by the fire, huddled over a piece of paper. It was hard to imagine the chaos that would undoubtedly ensue when the school term ended -- in only two days' time. Bill and Charlie professed a quasi-grown-up independent air when they came home these days, but Percy surely would still be her little boy, her good boy. Choosing not to remember that most of the noise and clamour of previous years had been due to Percy squabbling with Fred and George, Mrs Weasley allowed herself a few quiet minutes of nostalgia.

"Mum?" said Ron, breaking the silence.

Mrs Weasley smiled down at her youngest son. He looked so innocent, writing by the hearth, his face glowing with warmth behind the freckles.

"Where does Father Christmas live?"

"He's not real, dear," she said. She'd be having a few words with Mr Weasley when he got home tonight: those Mervin comics, or whatever they were called, were confusing Ron's mind. And she suspected, with good reason, that Mr Weasley bought them each week as much for himself as for Ron.

"No, he is, mum," said Ron eagerly. "And if I write to him before Christmas then he'll bring me a present when I'm asleep on Christmas Eve. That's what Martin does, and it always works."

"Oh Ronny," sighed Mrs Weasley. "Not everything you read in those comics is true, you know. Just because muggles believe in something as silly as Father Christmas -- it doesn't mean they're right."

"But they are," insisted Ron. "He always visits Martin at Christmas."

It was time to be firm. "It's just a comic, Ronald. Be sensible. If this Father Christmas person really does give presents to children, then why has he never given anything to you? Think about it."

"Fred said it was because I was doing it wrong," said Ron, "and George said --"

"What?!" Mrs Weasley felt a quick stab of heartache. He'd done this before, and not told her about it? As for Fred and George, well...

Unaware that he was slipping down a dangerous slope with every word he uttered, Ron said, "Last year I didn't put an address on the envelope. I just wrote 'Father Christmas', and I think I spelt it wrong too." He looked a little anxious. "How many I's are there in 'Christmas', anyway?"

"One," said Mrs Weasley automatically, most of her mind being occupied with the few choice words she would be saying to Fred later on.

"Oh!" said Ron. He turned back to his bits of paper and crossed something out.

Of course, if Fred was involved then George was bound to be mixed up in it too. Preparing herself for something very bad (she had, after all, had years of experience of the twins' schemes), Mrs Weasley said, "Ronald? What did George say?"

"About what?"

"About THIS! This Father Christmas nonsense!"

"He said that Father Christmas lived so far away that I'd have to spellotape a knut to my letter, to pay him for coming all the way here to see me."

It was worse than she'd thought. "And then what was supposed to happen?"

"Fred said they'd deliver it for me," said Ron brightly, not noticing the ominous tone of her voice.

"Right! That does it!" She sprang out of her seat and marched through the house to the back door. Wrenching it open, she screamed, "Fred! George! Come here RIGHT NOW!"

****************

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Old December 13th, 2005, 10:43 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1650

Nicodemus answered the door, half-squinting at the snowman squinting back at him.

"Oh my!" he said, breaking into a smile. "Is it...? Can it really be ... Ralph Rubenare, our very own 'Scandinavian Correspondent'? I barely recognised you, under your very fetching snow suit. Is that the regular Daily Prophet uniform?"

"Enough of that," grinned Ralph, causing a little blizzard as he shook the snow from his travelling cloak. "And besides, I too would find it difficult to pick you out of a group anymore, Mr 'Floo Regulator'. Why the fluff on your face?"

Nicodemus self-consciously stroked his chin. Last time he had been near Agnes he had heard her say how much she liked men with beards, and he had started to grow one straightaway -- hoping that she would notice it and take the hint. But he wasn't about to tell Ralph that little secret. He laughed instead and beckoned his friend into the house. Ralph flung his travelling cloak onto the floor by the door, and left his broomstick and bag on top of it ("To remind me to pick them up when I leave," he said), and they went through to the parlour.

"How are you, anyway?" asked Nicodemus, settling into an armchair by the fire.

"A tad -- ooh -- broom-sore, to be honest. It was a long journey," replied Ralph, wincing a little as he sat down. "Is your father not at home tonight, Nick? And, come to that, why are you here and not at a party somewhere? Christmas Eve, you know."

Nicodemus stopped smiling for a moment, and said, "Father's up in his room. I expect he's drafting another proposal to take to the Wizengamot. He's been doing that more and more, lately, ever since... As for parties -- well, do you not know of the situation here, just now? No more Christmas. No more carols. No more revelry. No more exchanging of gifts. No more games. Muggle laws, strictly enforced."

Ralph's face fell. "No more Christmas?"

"No more Christmas."

"Why did my colleagues at the Daily Prophet offices keep this from me!" said Ralph, indignantly.

"Probably they knew, as I did, how much you enjoy this time of year, and they did not see the need to spoil your happy thoughts whilst you were not in England."

"What does everyone else think about this, Nick?" Ralph asked, distractedly trying to run his hands through his hair -- but succeeding only in entangling his fingers in the mass of knots. "The old crowd? Agnes? She always loved Christmas."

Nicodemus could feel his face grow red at the mention of Agnes, and he leaned closer to the fire so that Ralph would think it was the heat making him glow so brilliantly.

"Nobody likes it, you know," he said. "I haven't seen Agnes for a while -- no, I'll explain about that in a moment -- but of course we're all upset about it. There should be festivities at Christmas! Fun! Laughter! Joy in living! But instead we have to sit quietly and be thankful and think 'good thoughts'. It's certainly impossible to think good thoughts about Cromwell, anyway."

Nicodemus felt a surge of anger as he said the name. It was about time somebody stood up to this kind of over-bearing spoil-sporting. Something had to be done.

"Tell me about Agnes, then," urged Ralph, alarmed by the fierce expression growing on Nicodemus's face.

"Oh, yes," said Nicodemus, his face clearing, "Sorry. I have not seen her for a while, as I said before. Mother never approved, which I am sure you already knew, because of Agnes being a muggle. Although I rather think she was beginning to come round to the idea, but then you know she ..."

"Yes -- go on. What about your father?" said Ralph, who was as anxious as Nicodemus not to openly discuss that particular event just yet.

"Father was, and still is, thoroughly against all muggles -- including Agnes. He does not trust them, and suspects conspiracies on all sides. He fears them almost as much, I think, as they begin to fear us."

"And Hopkins dying did not --?"

"Hopkins dying made no difference at all, unfortunately. Witch-trials have continued. I had hoped that things here might change for the better but Father still refuses to acknowledge my muggle friends. He has completely banned me from seeing any muggles at all. I feel trapped. Everywhere I turn there is restriction!" Nicodemus slammed his hand down onto his knee in emphasis of the word. "There is my job as well. I thought I might gain a measure of independence when I began work with the new Floo Regulation Panel -- but he seems to think that he has licence to keep track of my every movement within the Ministry, now that we're both employed there. I tell you, it would not take much for me to break out of this -- right now -- and do something, anything, to stir things up."

Ralph gazed worriedly at his friend. He had never seen him like this before. Usually Nicodemus had a sunny nature, able to see the good in most things, and happy to go along with whatever chance befell him. To see him so twisted up with rage like this -- it was a shock. He tried to think of something to take Nicodemus's mind off his awkward situation.

"Any chance of some food and drink, old-friend-of-mine?" Ralph asked.

***************

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Old December 14th, 2005, 12:41 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1650 continued

Hollenber's powerful wings beat the air on either side of Ralph's head. Between each 'whoomph!' of freezing air that wafted over him he could just make out Nicodemus's voice, bellowing out the words of a carol.

"AAAAAANNNNNNNDDD therunningofthe DEEEEEERRRRRRR!"

"Nick Nick Nick, frien'-o-mine, Nick," said Ralph, pleased with his own coherence, "Sssshhhhh, ol' chap, sshhhh!"

"THE playingof THE merryorgan," sang Nicodemus, turning around to give Ralph an encouraging smile, "Sweetsinginginthe CHOIR!"

"No' s'loud, eh, Nick, eh?" said Ralph feebly. He was trying to work out how he had got here -- there seemed to be some gaps in his memory. Nicodemus had prepared a 'meal' of apples and boiled chicken. Ralph had prepared a cauldron of mulled wine, with extra brandy 'to keep out the cold', tasting it several times during the making to ensure that he got it just right. And then here they were, having a midnight flight on the back of Hollenber. He patted a chestnut flank carefully -- enough to reassure himself that the winged horse was real but not enough to distract it from the all-important business of not crashing to the ground.

"THE hollybearsa BERRY!"

"Nick Nick, sh'up a min't!" said Ralph as he tugged at Nicodemus's shoulder. "Wha' we doin'? Flyin' horsh? Wha'?"

"I LOVE AGNES!" Nicodemus yelled.

Ralph felt that Nicodemus had missed the point a little, and replied, "Wunnerful, ol' boy, 'smarvellush, butbutbut why onna -- onna horsh?"

"Ah!" said Nicodemus, turning around to face Ralph again and suddenly speaking very softly. "I love Agnes, and I'm going to tell her."

"But ... on a flyin' ... thing?"

Nicodemus frowned for a second, and said, "Well, it was your idea. I LOVE AGNES!"

Ralph glanced downwards for a moment. "Whish ish her house? Th'all look th'same, t'me."

"That one, down there," said Nicodemus, pointing one way and looking another. "C'mon, Hollenber, down we go. OOOOHHHH therisingofthe SUUUUUNNNN!"

The Aethonan followed a wide and graceful spiral, letting Nicodemus guide it towards the snow-covered rooftop. It hovered for a moment when it was a yard above the roof and then, with a muffled yelp of surprise from Ralph, it furled up its wings and dropped suddenly onto the tiles. Ralph rolled off, his head still enveloped by his travelling cloak, and Nicodemus jumped down after him.

"Right," said Nicodemus, having given Hollenber an apple to eat, "the plan is that you hold my legs while I look in her window and see if she's still awake. Got that?"

"I hold legs," said Ralph.

"Good. Right, here we go."

Nicodemus moved to the north edge of the roof, where the slope was quite steep, and dropped to his belly. He wormed his way forwards through the snow until his shoulders were out past the edge. "Ralph?" he called, softly.

"Legs, yes," said Ralph, grasping Nicodemus's boots.

Nicodemus pulled himself further out, until his entire torso was over the edge. He could almost see into the window... Only a few more inches. Grabbing hold of the window frame, he pulled himself a bit lower. Just a little more would do it... Yes! He could see -- he could see -- not Agnes -- nothing like Agnes -- two little children fast asleep! He craned his neck around, to whisper to Ralph to pull him back up, and was surprised to see Ralph's face, with a snowy beard, appear at the edge of the roof.

"What are you doing there?" he hissed, beginning to panic as he felt himself slipping down. He'd gone right past the window now.

"Holding legs," said Ralph, his face purple with effort.

"Why are we slipping?"

"No-one's holding my legs!" cried Ralph.

There was a small avalanche.

****************

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  #16  
Old December 15th, 2005, 9:53 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1650 continued

The mound of snow piled up against the side of the house gave a sudden shiver and erupted into two staggering, lurching figures. Nicodemus was shaking his head, trying to empty his ears of the freezing water that had settled inside them. Ralph was jumping up and down energetically, as if this would solve the problem of the snow now melting inside his clothing. They caught each other's eye for a moment and, bursting into uncontrollable laughter, collapsed into the snow once more.

"It wasn't -- oh dear -- wasn't Agnes's house," said Nicodemus, wiping his eyes.

"Oh," panted Ralph as he struggled to quell a giggle. "Whose was it, then?"

"Robert Cooper's, I think. They looked like his children, anyway. Did you happen to see them, on your way -- on your way -- your way past?" He hooted with laughter once more.

"No, you know very well that I saw nothing!" said Ralph and, before Nicodemus could dodge out of the way, he threw an enormous snowball at him. "Let us see how you look with a face covered in snow, eh?"

During the snowball fight their midnight mission was temporarily forgotten. It was Ralph who, ducking to avoid a trio of snowballs that zoomed over his head in rapid succession, said, "So, were the children actually in their room? Asleep?"

Nicodemus took a moment to gather two more fistfuls of snow before replying, "Yes. And all the windows are dark. I think Robert and Lizzy must be asleep too."

"Asleep? On Christmas Eve? You weren't joking before, were you? No parties at all, anywhere." Ralph dropped the snowball he had been about to hurl at Nicodemus, and waded through the snow towards the nearest window. His tumble into the snowdrift seemed to have knocked some of the brandy out of his system -- certainly he was thinking more clearly now. He peered in through the glass at the gloomy interior. "Look at this," he said. "No Yule log, no decorations, no candles burning, no friends visiting, no singing, no games, no fun. It's not right, Nick."

"I know," sighed Nicodemus. "The children's room seemed almost completely bare, from the short glimpse I had of it. There's no joy in anything. They need cheering up."

Nicodemus looked down at the two snowballs compacted in his hands, and up at the children's bedroom window. He looked very serious for a minute, placed the snowballs carefully on a nearby wall, and rummaged in his jacket pockets.

"What are you doing?"

"Going to leave gifts for the children," replied Nicodemus, finally finding his wand. "It's lucky that transfiguration was always my best subject, eh?"

Ralph pulled his own wand out of a pocket inside his robes and, whispering as softly as he could, said, "Alohomora."

The nearest window creaked open, giving Ralph enough room to stick his wand-arm inside the house. He made a sweeping motion in the direction of the mantel above the fireplace and said, "Festivitas ilex."

A long bough of many-berried holly erupted from the end of the wand and draped itself artfully along the mantel. Ralph muttered the charm again, this time swooping in the direction of the door-frame, and smiled with satisfaction as the holly laid itself across the top of the frame and drooped neatly down either side. What else should there be in here? His smile became twinkling and mischievous as, pointing his wand directly at the oaken beam in the centre of the ceiling, he said, "Decoratus viscum album!"

A sprig of mistletoe shot from the end of his wand and fixed itself firmly in place in the beam. Perfect! He pursed his lips for a second or two -- he didn't know of any charm for creating a Yule log. He'd have to try and find one outside and levitate it into the house. Turning around, intending to ascertain which particular snowdrift concealed the woodpile, Ralph noticed that Nicodemus looked far from happy.

"Everything alright over there, old chap?" said Ralph.

On the wall, where the two snowballs had been, were two small toys -- a wooden sword and a catapult. Nicodemus gazed at them with deep bewilderment. "They don't look right," he said. "I cannot remember ever seeing Agnes playing with toys like this but then, neither can I remember ever seeing her with any toys at all. What do girls like?"

Ralph tramped over to the wall and inspected the sword and catapult. "Seems fine to me. Wooden sword? Great fun, having pretend fights! Catapult? Think of all the exciting adventures you could have with a catapult! Who wouldn't want toys like that?"

"Oh well, I suppose you're right," sighed Nicodemus. He scooped the toys up, shoved them into a pocket, and prepared to climb up to the children's window. "But I'm going to ask Agnes when we get to her house, so that I can be sure to get it right, next time."

"Next time?" asked Ralph, raising an eyebrow. Nicodemus, standing on the downstairs windowsill, stared down at him with a defiant expression upon his face. There was a moment of silence and understanding between the two friends before Ralph nodded and went in search of a suitable log.

Nicodemus murmured, "Alohomora," to the children's window and hoisted himself inside. He tiptoed across the room: there was no sense in waking them up. There was a doll on the floor beside the girl's bed, the sight of which caused Nicodemus to clap his hand to his forehead. A doll -- so obvious! Still, too late for that now. With great care, he left the wooden sword at the foot of the boy's bed, and the catapult on the girl's. Ralph was right about catapults, anyway. And why shouldn't girls have adventures? He crept quickly back to the window, not noticing the trail of wet footprints that he'd left all over the dusty wooden floor, dropped back down onto the ground outside, and shut the window with another charm.

Ralph was just coming around the corner of the house, struggling with a huge lump of wood. "Oak -- root -- found it -- nearby," he puffed. "Need -- help -- heavy!"

Nicodemus grabbed a conveniently knobbly bit of wood and together they manoeuvred it into position just underneath the open downstairs window. "How are we going to get it in there?" he asked.

"Would -- mob'licorp's -- work?" said Ralph, still out of breath.

"It's not really a person, though, is it?" said Nicodemus. "It's just an old bit of root. Erhmmm... Confound it! This is when I wished I'd paid attention during Herbology lessons!"

"What d'you mean?" said Ralph.

"The word for root. I know it, I know I do. Let me think for a moment."

Ralph took the opportunity to sag down onto the prospective Yule log and pat handfuls of snow onto his head. "Ah, that's better!"

"Radix!" said Nicodemus, raising his head. "We'll have to say 'Mobiliradix', I think."

Looking doubtful, Ralph pointed his wand at the oak root and said, "Mobiliradish. No, Nick, it's not working."

"It's 'ix', not 'ish', you dimwit," said Nicodemus, pointing his own wand at the root.

Ralph pushed himself to his feet. "Whoops! Sorry! On the count of three? One... two... three..."

Caution forgotten for the moment, they both pointed their wands at the lump of oak and shouted, "MOBILIRADIX!"

The tree root wobbled in the snow and rose jerkily into the air. It just managed to clear the bottom of the window frame before dropping to the floor on the other side. "We need to be able to see it, to keep the charm going," said Nicodemus.

Three rather frenetic minutes later, Ralph's head and arm were wedged into the open window-pane and Nicodemus was perched on the windowsill, his head and arm jammed on top of Ralph's.

"Again," said Ralph. "One two three."

They didn't shout this time, some of their enthusiasm having waned by now. Eventually, with agonizing slowness, the Yule log was in position in the fireplace. They had finished.

Nicodemus carefully closed the window and said, "I think we had better get back onto the roof. Hollenber will be worrying, and we still have to go to Agnes's house."

"Would it not be easier to call Hollenber down to the ground?" said Ralph. "I'm awfully tired, you know."

"Theoretically, yes," said Nicodemus slowly, "but it would take such a long time! She really hates being on the ground, once she's had a taste of the open air. It would be so much easier if we just shimmied back up to the roof and took off from there."

"Right you are," said Ralph, too tired to argue anymore. "After you, then."

Nicodemus was halfway up the wall, clinging to a drainpipe, when he heard a sound from the children's bedroom -- a thudding noise. He glanced in and was appalled to see that the girl had got out of bed and was examining the catapult. He held his breath.

"Hurry up!" called Ralph, from the ground.

"Ssshhh!" Nicodemus hissed, but it was too late: the girl had looked over to the window. "Someone's coming. Get out of here! I'll meet you behind the village hall."

"Are you sure you don't need my help?"

"No, it's fine. Just go. I'll see you in five minutes, if not sooner."

In one fluid movement, Ralph transformed into a reindeer and dashed away down the main street. Satisfied that his friend was out of danger, Nicodemus carried on up the drainpipe and managed to get his chin over the eaves of the roof. "Hollenber! Pssst! Hollenber! Here!"

She whinnied in greeting, trotted across the roof to Nicodemus's head, and playfully nibbled his hair.

"No time for that!" spluttered Nicodemus. He could hear the catch of the window being lifted. "Pull me up, please!"

She bit into the collar of Nicodemus's jacket and effortlessly swung him up onto the roof. He gathered his breath, kissed her nose in gratitude, and then jumped up onto her back, tucking his legs in behind her wings. Leaning forwards, he whispered, "Here we go again."

Hollenber leapt into the air, snorting and neighing with exhilaration, and seconds later they were just another pale speck in the clear night sky.

*********************

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  #17  
Old December 16th, 2005, 12:18 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1650 continued

Two small figures stood at the window, their bare feet curling up against the cold.

"Deer."

"Horse."

"Deer."

"Horse! And try not to mist up the window, will you?" Jane wiped a couple of the small diamond-shaped panes with the sleeve of her night-dress, and peered out at the disputed creature as it rounded the corner at the end of the street.

Taking his thumb out of his mouth once more, Michael said, "I saw it and it looked just like a deer."

"You didn't see everything, though, did you? There was a man at the window and I bet he was the horse-rider. And I heard it up on the roof, neighing."

Michael considered this for a minute and then said, interestedly, "How did a horse get onto the roof?"

"Maybe it flew."

"Maybe," Michael nodded. "But I still think it looked like a deer."

"How do you explain the man at the window, then? And the footprints? Look there!" She pointed dramatically to the floorboards, just behind her brother. "You're not going to tell me that a deer was wearing shoes, are you?"

"Well," said Michael slowly, "he might've turned into a deer, after he delivered the toys."

"Oh," said Jane, unwilling to admit that she hadn't thought of that.

"And it did look like a deer."

"But it sounded like a horse."

There was a good chance that this argument might last the entire night. It had happened before on several occasions (arguing was a favourite activity of theirs) and both children had thoroughly enjoyed themselves. It wasn't necessary to actually reach agreement on anything -- the important thing was to have the last word. Tonight, however, Michael felt that there were more interesting things to be discussed. "I'll trade you all my conkers for that catapult."

"No," said Jane, firmly.

"All my conkers and my hobbyhorse?" It was the best offer he could make.

Jane smiled, already planning which bit of the garden wall would be the best place to set out her dolls for target practice. "No! It's mine, and I'm keeping it."

*************

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  #18  
Old December 17th, 2005, 8:58 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1992

Low winter sunlight was streaming in through the windows of a classroom on the third corridor of the second floor at Hogwarts. Sitting on desks, and standing in groups, the sixth year students were chatting animatedly about their plans for Christmas. Professor Fairday frowned briefly as she entered the room. The students were always so excitable at this time of year, and she knew that some of them were going to have a shock today.

"Settle down, class," she said, above the noise and confusion of the students. "Come on. I know it's the last week of term, but we still have work to do. Settle down! In your seats, please."

The din subsided as everyone sat down, and Professor Fairday carelessly waved her wand at the blackboard. The words 'Father Christmas -- a muggle phenomenon' appeared in red and green letters. Several of the students laughed appreciatively as they read the words, but there were a few who looked a little puzzled.

Professor Fairday, pushing her straggly mousy hair back behind her ears, made a mental note of the students that had displayed the latter reaction and checked their names in her register -- all muggle-born.

"Right," she said. "To get us going, I'd like to quickly go round the class and hear what everyone thinks about Father Christmas. Serious answers only, please -- especially from you, Miss Mantifori. But before we start, let me remind you that the Ministry of Magic is quite keen to shut this subject down. As far as you are concerned, Muggle Studies is a privilege, not a right. Please bear in mind the Agreement To Secrecy Contract that you signed at the start of your NEWT course: severe penalties will apply if the details of our lessons are revealed. So. Today we will be studying a complicated aspect of muggle behaviour. By the end of the lesson, you should have a truer understanding of muggles and their relationship with the wizarding world."

No-one was laughing now.

"Mr Weasley," said Professor Fairday. "I think we'll start with you. What do you know about Father Christmas?"

"Not a great deal," replied Percy promptly, from his desk at the front of the class. "He's a muggle myth, isn't he?"

"Wrong," said Professor Fairday, privately enjoying the moment -- it wasn't often that she was able to catch this know-it-all student out. "He is -- or was -- as real as you, me or anyone else in this room."

She ignored the collective gasp that followed this statement, checked her register once more, and said, "Miss Hopkins, what are your thoughts on Father Christmas?"

Listening to her pupils' remarks, she could see that she was going to spend the rest of the lesson dispelling misconceptions on all fronts, but then again, that's what the Father Christmas lesson was nearly always like. Taking a moment to arrange her thoughts, she settled back against the desk and began, "In the year 1693..."

Half an hour later -- during which time her students had surprised her by being almost breathlessly silent -- she drew her lecture to a close. "Records show that in the spring of 1695 the Wizengamot held a private meeting with Nicodemus and Agnes Upnor, and Nicolas and Perenelle Flamel," said Professor Fairday, pausing briefly to allow the students to write down the last few sentences. She was sitting on her desk, legs crossed in the lotus position, eyes closed as she re-read in her mind the notes she had prepared for this lesson. "No actual minutes for this meeting were kept but, whatever was said, the Wizengamot were evidently satisfied that the Upnors did indeed intend to continue, in perpetuity, the task they had set themselves."

A student at the back of the class raised her hand.

"Yes, Miss Hopkins?"

"When you say 'in perpetuity'," said the girl, frowning as if she'd missed some part of the puzzle, "do you mean that ... well, Nicodemus and Agnes are still doing it?"

"Ah," smiled Professor Fairday, "No-one actually knows. Certainly, new licences -- to break the various wizarding secrecy laws -- have been issued every 20 years since 1695, but the Ministry are very secretive about where the licences are sent, or who signs them. All we can say for certain is that muggle-born children are given a gift every Christmas Eve by someone. As for Nicodemus and Agnes: they have not been seen since 1695 and were recorded as 'Missing, Presumed Dead' in their local Parish Registry in 1702."

The class stared at her in disbelief.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I know you were all hoping for a nice tidy ending to the story, but I'm trying to tell you the facts of it. You can make assumptions in your own time."

She jumped down from her desk and walked towards the blackboard. "Now, for your homework, I would like you to write a 15 inch essay -- there's no point groaning about it (and 15 inches means 15 inches of proper writing, Miss Mantifori, not big block capitals with an inch between each line) -- on this."

On the board, in the same cheery red and green writing as before, were the words, 'What effect has the belief in Father Christmas had on the muggle attitude to magic?'

Professor Fairday reached into her briefcase, pulled out a handful of plastic pens and threw one to each student. "As you are an advanced class, I will of course expect you to use muggle ball-point pens to write your essay -- but can you all remember, this time, that these pens are already filled with ink and do not need to be completely saturated with quill ink before use? And that's all. Off you go!" She grinned at the students as they began to file out of the classroom. "And have a good Christmas!"

Percy Weasley, who had been much quieter than usual during this lesson (Professor Fairday made a mental note to remind herself to squash his self-importance at the beginning of every lesson from now on), hung back after everyone else had left, and said, "Are there any boo-?"

"I strongly recommend that you use 'Home Life and Social Habits of British Muggles' by Wilhelm Wigworthy for at least part of your research," said Professor Fairday quickly. Percy was the kind of student who always stayed past the end of the lesson, if he could, trying to get as much information as possible out of the teacher. She was keen to cut him off before he could get going: there was time for a cup of tea before the next lesson. "There is an excellent chapter on their various festive traditions, including several interesting insights into the Father Christmas tradition."

She steered him towards the door, saying, "Have a good Christmas, Mr Weasley. Yes, thank you, I will too. I look forward to reading your essay -- your theories sound very interesting. Excellent. Thank you. Merry Christmas, again. Look after that pen! Good-bye!"

She pushed him out into the corridor, shut the classroom door in his face, and checked her watch. Yes, she still had time for a hot drink and a biscuit.

**************

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  #19  
Old December 18th, 2005, 8:45 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1693

Agnes could hear a rumbling noise -- voices in the corridor? She reached across the arm of her chair for Nicodemus's hand, and he nodded at her reassuringly. In the cavernous chamber, beyond the glare of light, there were one or two wizards sitting in stony silence. In fact, nobody had said anything at all, yet. She and Nicodemus had been escorted to this room, and left standing uncertainly in the middle. It was sheer exhaustion (she was 68, after all, and the morning's events had used up all her energy for the day) that had prompted her to sit down, finally, and Nicodemus had followed her lead.

In the stillness and quiet, Agnes let her mind wander -- a habit she had increasingly indulged in during the past few years. This was her first visit to the Ministry of Magic, despite the fact that her husband had worked here for most of their married life. A rebellious little voice in her mind snorted contemptuously: how typical of the wizarding world that they would only allow a muggle into their headquarters in order to administer a punishment. She hadn't been very impressed so far. There were cobwebs hanging in the corners, and along the ceilings of the corridors; dust lay on every flat surface; the floors were scuffed and scratched. Snidget and Dory, and their children, would have been appalled with the dirt. Agnes felt a sudden pang of anxiety. What had happened to the house-elves? Had they been arrested too?

She turned to Nicodemus and mouthed, "House-elves?"

He responded with a very slight shrug but, after more than forty years of marriage, Agnes knew the warning signs to look for in his face -- a partially raised eyebrow, a deepening of one particular wrinkle on his forehead and ... yes, he had started chewing his lip. Still, hadn't he once said that house-elves were powerful, strong with their own kind of magic? And, unlike most house-elves in the wizarding world, Snidget, Dory, Gubbins and Widget were free to do whatever they wished. She was still trying to convince herself that the house-elves would be able to take care of themselves when the door burst open and the rumbling noise became a torrent.

At least twenty wizards and half a dozen witches stormed into the room, many of them wearing quite ridiculous hats. Some were so outlandish that Agnes was quite sure they were definitely not part of a wizard's usual wardrobe. One man had what appeared to be a small bowl of vegetables on top of his head.

"This is outrageous!" the man cried, shaking his head so violently that a potato came dangerously close to falling out of his hat. "This could quite easily have waited until tomorrow! I hadn't even read the joke in my cracker!"

"My dear Mellifer, I'm afraid it couldn't be helped," said a calm, quiet voice immediately in front of Agnes. So, Mandamus Gaderian, the Minister of Magic, had been sitting there all that time, waiting with them?

"I hope you have a good explanation for this, Gaderian!" snapped a witch, just shutting the door behind her, a bird's nest perched where her hat should have been. Agnes peered closely at the nest and, sure enough, two little birds' heads appeared, peeping over the edge. Her mouth wanted to break into a smile and, from the strange squeaking noise that he was making, she could tell that Nicodemus was having trouble holding his huge belly-laugh in. Clearly, the ministry's call had come right in the middle of these people's Christmas dinners.

"Well, yes, I do, as a matter of fact," replied Gaderian smilingly. "I have the very great pleasure of announcing that we have at last caught the Christmas Saboteurs."

The newly-assembled witches and wizards gasped unanimously, as if they were the chorus at a play. Evidently this was the last straw for Nicodemus. With a final, futile squeak, eyes watering, he rocked forwards in his chair and exploded with laughter.

"Oh dear!" he spluttered. "Oh my! 'Christmas Saboteurs'? Glory! What a title!"

A dark-haired man sitting in the front row barked, "Silen-!"

"Thank you for your comments, Mr Upnor," said Gaderian, speaking over the other wizard's outburst. "I would in due course be very interested to hear why you think it so amusing that we should accuse you and your wife of sabotaging Christmas. However, as is typical on occasions such as this, we will begin by listing the accusations brought against you. Do you have the list, Foss?"

"Yes, sir. Here it is," said a little man, thin and nervous, handing a scroll to Gaderian as he spoke.

"So, let me see..." Gaderian adjusted his spectacles, held the list out at arm's length, cleared his throat, and said, "Very well. Nicodemus Upnor and Agnes Upnor, you have, upon this day December 25th 1693, been brought before the Council of Magical Law to answer charges relating to offences committed under the International Confederation of Warlocks' Statute of Secrecy and the International Warlocks' Convention on the Protection and Concealment of Magical Creatures. We hereby make the following accusations: that you did on the night of December 24th 1693 ..."

Agnes's thoughts gradually began to float adrift again. Where was Ralph? They hadn't heard from him since the start of the summer, when a very tired snowy owl arrived with a letter full of chatty bits of news and ridiculous jokes -- nothing ominous in there at all. For the previous six years, ever since the Statute of Secrecy was instituted, he had arrived on Christmas Eve, ready to help them with their task. His presence had given Nicodemus renewed vitality ("It's just like the old days -- or should I say the 'young days' -- when the three of us first started doing this," he had said) and he had been invaluable as a decoy when the Ministry started being more watchful.

"...fly a fully-grown and undisillusioned Aethonan in the sky above twelve different muggle villages; that you did on the night of December 24th 1693 perform, or assist in the performance of, magic in front of several hundred muggles -- said magic including transfiguration, various temporary decorative charms, transformation into unregistered animagus forms ..."

Smiling to herself, Agnes remembered the confusion Ralph caused with his antics. For several years the wizarding community had believed that it was a Scandinavian animagus who was causing so much mayhem over the Christmas period. Ralph took care to be seen by several muggles, and contrived to leave obvious and misleading footprints at strategic sites, in order to confuse matters further. There had been a slight blunder, two years ago, when Nicodemus forgot to obliterate his own footprints, and it must have been then that the Ministry realised there was more than one person involved.

"... and the levitation of a small child; that you did on the night of December 24th 1693 connect or cause to be connected more than a score of different muggle fireplaces to the floo network; furthermore that you did on the morning of December 25th 1693, by your cowardly attempt to evade justice, cause two ministry officials to splinch themselves in a public place, necessitating ..."

Agnes was utterly tired out after the exertions of the previous night: it had been doubly hard, this year, trying to complete the task. There were even more muggle children hoping for a visit from the 'Christmas man', as word continued to spread from village to village, and even more Ministry wizards on the look out for signs of unusual magical activity. Without Ralph to help them, they hadn't stood a cha-

"NO!" shouted Nicodemus, leaping up out of his chair.

Agnes started, brought suddenly out of her reverie, and stood up next to him.

"What is it?" she asked, clutching his arm.

The dark-haired man (was it the one who had snapped at Nicodemus earlier on?) pointed his wand at Agnes and lazily said, "Silencio."

****************

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  #20  
Old December 19th, 2005, 9:04 am
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Re: How It All Began - A Christmas Story

December 1693 continued

Before the spell could reach her, before even the shock of finding that someone wanted to rob her of her own voice could hit her, Agnes was knocked sideways by Nicodemus. He took the full force of the spell -- and perhaps it was just as well because, judging by the way he was gesticulating so wildly, and by the rage so evident in his face, none of the things he was trying to say would have won him any friends in the Wizengamot.

Gaderian turned to the wizard who had cast the spell and said, in a voice as sharp as an icicle, "Mr Black, perhaps you need to be reminded that, as Minister of Magic, I am in charge here."

The wizard gruffly muttered something which sounded like, "Of course!" but which could just as easily have been, "Pshaw!"

With a flicker of a smile, Gaderian waved his wand in Nicodemus's general direction. A cloud of snowflakes floated down, one landing on the end of the finger that Nicodemus was pointing at Gaderian. As the snowflakes began to melt, the effects of the spell diminished, and the volume of Nicodemus's voice gradually rose.

"... and it's equally inconceivable to me how you can justify either altering my wife's memory, or attacking her with spells within the Ministry building itself, when the only thing you have against us is that we have performed magic in a muggle environment. You're breaking your own laws! And breaking them to a greater degree than I ever have!

Seeing Gaderian's choice of special effect, Agnes had a sudden conviction that he was on their side. But how could he help them, when they had so unquestionably broken the law?

"What is it?" asked Agnes again, this time looking to Gaderian for an answer.

"He had the gall to say--" began Nicodemus.

"Mr Upnor, please," said Gaderian, holding up his hand. "let me answer this question. I was just explaining to your husband, Mrs Upnor, that the punishments put in place for transgressing the new secrecy laws are rather, er, draconian. The Confederation of Warlocks cast a vote strongly in favour of coming down hard upon anyone who might offend under the new legislation. The maximum sentence for a wizard would be a life-term in Azkaban, and of course we would have to alter the memory of any muggle who had witnessed the use of magic."

"But -- but -- I'm his wife!" Agnes was shocked and bewildered by Gaderian's words. Had she been wrong about him? "How can I not know about magic?"

"Yes," replied Gaderian, "Quite. But I am trying to help you both to understand the seriousness of this situation. You have become infamous within the Ministry of Magic, given the name which you found so entertaining earlier on, because every year at Christmas you seek to undermine the one thing which wizards throughout Europe have been striving for throughout this last century. Every Christmas you undo the efforts of the Ministry of Magic to keep our presence in England a secret."

Nicodemus, growing red in the face with irritation, said, "From our point of view, every year your ministry employees damage the relationship between wizards and muggles, and make our Christmas festivities that much harder to arrange."

"Nicodemus, every year you break the law," said Gaderian. "What are we supposed to do about that?"

"Change the law," said Nicodemus simply.

"Impossible," said Gaderian. "Representatives from every country in Europe attended that conference, and voted on the issue of secrecy. Without the full co-operation of each individual country, it would be impossible to maintain the security of witches and wizards throughout the continent."

"How many muggles were there, at the conference?" asked Agnes.

"Irrelevant!" snapped Mr Black.

"None," said Gaderian.

"So, you simply decided to remove magic from our lives, without even consulting us?" Agnes said, indignantly.

"Many muggles had already made their animosity towards magic quite clear, especially in northern Europe. Have you forgotten Matthew Hopkins already?"

"No," said Agnes, "but I haven't forgotten me either, and I know that I want to keep magic in my life."

"We cannot change the law just for your sake, Mrs Upnor. We cannot change it just for England's sake either. The vote was taken, and the decision was made. We must abide by that. And you yourself were witness just now to the more unpleasant side of magic: you were defenceless against Mr Black's spell, were you not? Surely you can see that you would be safer altogether if witches and wizards were prevented by law from casting spells upon muggles?"

"Oh," sighed Agnes miserably, "I do see what you mean. But consider what happened in England when the wizarding world began to withdraw from everyday life. Within a decade the muggles were in the middle of a civil war! Life is harsh without magic. What you've done is like slamming a door in our faces. And now it seems there's no way out for any of us."

Throughout this exchange Nicodemus had been sitting in his chair, scowling silently at his hands. As Agnes slumped into her chair next to him, he looked up at Gaderian and said, "Have you no hope, then?"

"I always have hope, Mr Upnor," replied Gaderian. "Did you have something particular in mind?"

"Do you not think that maybe one day muggles and wizards will be able to get along amicably, without it degenerating into one-sided magical attacks or witch-trials?"

"As I said, I always have hope, but sadly I am not a seer."

"No, of course not," said Nicodemus carefully. "Let me put it another way. Agnes talked of 'slamming a door'. Perhaps it's unwise to be closing that door so firmly? How can the muggle world and the wizarding world ever be reconciled if one is never to know about the other?"

"That's a very interesting point," said Gaderian, looking keenly at Nicodemus. "Would you care to elucidate?"

"Maybe we could leave the door ajar, reach a compromise of sorts?"

Mr Black rounded on the Minister of Magic. "Have you forgotten that these people are on trial, Gaderian? Are you seriously contemplating making a bargain with them?"

"Must I remind you again, Mr Black, that I am in charge here?" said Gaderian, still looking steadily at the Upnors.

"Perhaps," said Nicodemus, ignoring Mr Black's outburst, "we could give muggles a reminder of magic, whilst they're still young enough to be open to the idea? If they can believe that magic is possible... My Christmas routine is really quite successful, you know. The children love it. You should have seen the look of delight on that little boy's face when I made him float up to the ceiling."

"A compromise would be ideal," said Gaderian, "but I do see one or two problems with the solution you suggest. First of all, you would have to be untraceable. The tracks of one wizard could easily lead an inquisitive muggle to another wizard and so on and so on. Would you both really be willing to live in total seclusion for the rest of your lives?"

"And the other problem?" asked Agnes, noticing that Gaderian's eyes had clouded over slightly.

Gaderian hesitated a moment, and then said, "Ah. Yes. I can think of no tactful way of putting this. Um. Would I be right in saying that you are both nearly seventy years old?"

"Yes," said Nicodemus, confused.

Wretchedly, Agnes nodded. She knew what Gaderian was going to say. It was the same thing that had been secretly worrying her since last Christmas.

"And you are not alchemists?" he asked.

"No," said Nicodemus. Agnes, watching the rising awareness make Nicodemus look suddenly aghast, did not hear the question.

Gaderian smiled gently at them both, and said, "I am sorry to be so blunt, but have you given any consideration to the effect your deaths will have upon the muggle children who will be expecting you to visit them?

"No," said Nicodemus.

"Yes," said Agnes.

Nicodemus stared at her in shock for a few seconds, and then said, "Oh, my love."

"I know, my dear, I know," said Agnes, holding his hand.

"It would be a good idea, I would suggest, to start a rumour to the effect that the Christmas visitors have gone to another country for a while -- to lessen expectations."

"Oh!" said Nicodemus, in some surprise. "Am I not going to Azkaban, then?"

"I do not think so, no," said Gaderian.

Within the chamber, the atmosphere immediately relaxed. Agnes could hear murmurs of approval from many of the witches and wizards ranged upon the seats, and she caught brief flashes of smiles and grins from faces that she had been unthinkingly ignoring for the past hour. Had everyone been on their side, in the end? No, not everyone. There were a few, down on the front row, who were staring furiously at Gaderian. He appeared not to notice them, however, and continued to speak.

"Being only mortal," and for a moment Agnes thought she saw him wink, "I am sure you understand that this state of affairs cannot continue. As sympathetic as many people may be to your cause, it is doomed to come to an end, for you cannot carry on making Christmas visits forever, can you?"

"No," said Agnes, wishing she had had the courage to say this to Nicodemus herself.

"I'm sure there's a book in the study," said Nicodemus vaguely. "I wonder how big the stone would have to be?"

"I can see that you have a lot to discuss," said Gaderian and, raising his voice above the general hub-bub that had ensued, announced to the whole chamber, "This meeting is now adjourned, and will not be reconvened unless Mr and Mrs Upnor are at any time able to provide fresh evidence which would allow us to reconsider their case."

"Fresh evidence?" Agnes said, wondering what could possibly happen that would change their situation. How could you stop time, or old age?

Gaderian stepped forward and shook both their hands.

"You are free to go," he said, "and -- Merry Christmas!"

*****************

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