The Sugar Quill
Author: Kizmet  Story: First Step  Chapter: Default
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New Document First Step

by Kizmet

Disclaimer: Property of J.K. Rowling, and I'm only having fun in her sandbox.




The embossed letters were silver, the cover a deep green. An ornate crest tastefully decorated the bottom right corner of the book, with moon and stars on the left side contrasting the right side's bright gold sun over a field of blue. The pages inside were pale green and appeared to be entirely empty.

Alfrieda Edgecombe tapped her wand on the book and the pages flipped noiselessly to rest open. The date magically appeared at the top of a page and she reached for her quill. The final task, she mused again as she had done daily since her mother had given her this journal. A distracted glance showed that her book was less than half filled, even after all these years of daily entries. Mother had always sought to get the best magical value for her Galleons, and it seemed she had. This diary not only concealed everything written in it, but had allowed her to keep nearly forty-five years of personal thoughts without nearing the end.

The journal was little more than a handspan wide and not much taller, and Alfrieda had charmed it long ago to make a soft purring noise if she left her office without it. Not that she thought it might be found and read by another - the hexes preventing unauthorized access had been proven by her brothers and sister during their summers home from Hogwarts. It had become a personal challenge, her brother Philip had said. He'd spent nearly seven weeks on a project with Professor Flitwick trying to determine what sort of spell would overcome the magic of an Erumpet hide, but either the good professor had been less helpful than her older brother had thought, or the magic would not be overcome. In either case, the diary had remained secure, as Philip had discovered; a case of boils had been his only reward after his one attempt to breach it.

There was something right about summing up the day and planning a night with a cup of tea at her elbow. Usually, at the end of the work day, Alfrieda set aside the time to note the day's proceedings, news that interested her or required future attention, and personal comments to vent her spleen or express her joys. For although Alfrieda Priscilla Nigellus Edgecombe was a Slytherin, and it was a maxim in the House keeping a journal was tantamount to providing evidence against yourself, Alfrieda had learned the habit before being Sorted into her school House. As she pulled the teacup toward her, she collected her thoughts for a brief entry.

    "Marietta will be home today from Hogwarts. The reduction of letters from her since spring has concerned me, particularly since Dolores Umbridge's last visit. My department has been assiduous in assisting her in monitoring the Floos in and out of Hogwarts, and her snippy tone was unjustified and unexplained. We have done everything she has asked for, down to the smallest detail. The edicts from Minister Fudge have been precisely followed. I hope that with Marietta home, I'll find out the real cause of this offence.

    "Oswald has been driven to distraction by the gnomes in the home farm. He intends to spend the day working with the farm-elves to try to clear up some of the problem, and it distressed him to remember that Marietta would be coming home today. He's sure he won't get away before dusk, but we'll plan a hearty celebration. Pinksy has already been cooking Marietta's favorites for three days.

The dregs of Alfrieda's teacup were swirled and put into the saucer. She studied them carefully.

    "This afternoon's tealeaves are disturbing. Signs of distress, and a sickle - clearly a warning about a medical problem. I see something relating to my brother here, and a pelican. But then, I see a pelican every time Marietta comes home - as it is the sign of maternal instincts, it's entirely appropriate that I would see it. But my brother? Philip or Maxwell? I'll owl them tomorrow morning."

She closed the book and tapped it once, reactivating the charms, and placed it in her briefcase. A regretful glance at the fireplace across her office was brief. The Ministry had expressly forbidden the use of any fireplace for Floo transportation since the invasion last week. Alfrieda Edgecombe did not break the rules.

A quiet tap on the door was followed by her assistant's voice. "An owl just arrived for you, ma'am."

"Thank you, Mr. Eldon." He brought in the message and waited respectfully beside her desk. "I'll be leaving for the rest of the day. I have to meet the Hogwarts Express shortly."

"Yes, ma'am." He left her to open the note in privacy.

    Alfrieda,

    As you will be seeing your daughter shortly, I think it is best that I inform you of her health before you see her at the King's Cross Station. As Marietta came of age in January, I have respected until now her request that I do not contact you but her medical condition will require attention during the summer holiday.

    I have enclosed the medical records of your daughter's condition and the treatments we have tried to reverse the curse. We have studied the method of the hexing - Marietta signed a hexed paper - but as of now, we are still at a loss to find the counterjinx.

    I'm very sure that a suitable course of treatment will be found at St. Mungo's. Please tell your healer that I am available at any time for consultation.

    Yours,

    Poppy
    Poppy Pomfrey, Matron
    Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

    PS. I just heard about Philip's new daughter! Pass along my congratulations, will you?

Alfrieda glanced at the clock. She had no time to reread this curious missive if she wanted to meet the train. She threw a pinch of Floo powder on the fire. "St. Mungo's. Healer Columbus." An appointment was swiftly made for an hour hence, and Alfrieda looked uncomfortably at the letter before putting it beside her journal in her case. As it was, she would be late getting to the station. She would know more when she saw Marietta.




Alfrieda headed out of her office and looked at the lift. The "out of order" sign still hung precariously on the half-closed doors and she glared at it as she passed to the staircase. It had been a week since the Death Eaters had attacked the Ministry of Magic and this particular lift bore testimony to the violence of their visit. But it was nothing compared to the wreckage of the Atrium.

The steps, then, since it was only one flight up to the Floo fireplaces. Until last week, she, as head of the Floo Network, might have used one of the fireplaces in her outer office, but the new rules, decrees, and simple good sense dictated that the Ministry of Magic tighten up security. Yesterday, Daphne Groton had tried to use the Floo in her superior's office to make a quick shopping trip during her tea-break instead of going to the Atrium as was now required. The results had been embarrassing and cause for dismissal. As Alfrieda climbed the stairs, she wondered if Daphne's handbag would show up with the rest of her clothing.

It was earlier than most people left their jobs, but the queue for the Floos was long. She nodded politely at Molly Weasley, who had come to meet her husband before going to collect their children. Alfrieda had authorized the release of several other parents to do the same. Nodding at the various other employees of the Ministry, she took her place and studied what remained of the Fountain of Magical Brethren.

"Looking forward to seeing your Marietta, I'm sure," Molly Weasley said, a happy smile stretching across her face. "I can't remember the last time I saw her. I'm sure she's grown up tremendously over the year. I saw Ginny last week - she's grown three inches at least. And Ron! They all grow up too fast!"

Alfrieda chatted politely, careful to let none of her anxiety show. In fact, it was a positive blessing to have the distraction. The medical records had given her a fright. There was no point in worrying until she saw her daughter.

The tiny office where a Floo had been set up for easy and secure access to the King's Cross Station was crowded and hot. The owners had refused to sell to the representative of Alfrieda's department, forcing them to rely on a long-term lease and a very small fireplace. She glanced down at her business robes and did a quick charm to convert them to a summery Muggle dress. London was hot and she had no desire to draw any attention to herself.

The lease on this property had another sixty years. It had been signed by a former occupant of her very office. Alfrieda made a mental note to study that document when she returned to work. Surely there were options to make some changes to this tiny room. She would find them. Her degree in Magical Law had been more than useful in this position.

Alfrieda waited with the other parents in the Muggle station. Growing more concerned with every passing moment, she passed through the barrier to Platform Nine and Three Quarters and scanned the windows, ignoring the fading mayhem as the students returned to their families. Cho Chang, Marietta's friend, had stepped down from the train and turned to look back up into the carriage. The Weasley children walked past her with their trunks and a cage holding a twittering owl. A bushy-haired girl was with them, as well as him. Harry Potter, the victor of the Battle of the Atrium, dragged his trunk behind him. His pale, grim face made Alfrieda pause.

Behind the children, the train's crew dragged out three large slugs, oddly dressed in school robes. The engineer stood by, scratching his head, until, after conferring with the conductor, cast Finite Incantatem. The slugs became three boys lying on the platform and shaking their heads angrily. They tried to wipe slime from their hands. She knew one of them, of course. Her cousin Narcissa Malfoy's boy, Draco, pulled his wand out when his trunk was tossed down from the train with a careless heave, but the conductor's snappy reminder that they were no longer permitted to perform magic forced Draco to put away his wand with an embarrassed sneer.

Still no Marietta, but Cho loitered beside the train, looking up into the carriage. Alfrieda headed for Cho, knowing that after six years at Hogwarts together, if she found Cho, Marietta wouldn't be far behind.

Alfrieda studied the black-masked woman who stepped down from the carriage. A school robe was draped over one arm and the tight shirt and short skirt showed a shapely figure as the woman pulled her trunk down the steps to the platform. It came to rest on the platform beside her. A burgundy trunk, with the engraved initials A.N. -

Alfrieda's trunk, her own trunk from her days at Hogwarts some thirty years ago, given to her daughter six years before: that meant that the masked woman was -

The tears on Cho's cheeks were probably matching Marietta's, who swiped at her face with the back of her hand, a childlike move that brought back a host of memories to her mother.

"Cho dear, how are you? I'm sure it's been a difficult year for you," Alfrieda said, a gentle hand placed on the girl's shoulder.

Cho smiled weakly at Alfrieda. "I have to go, Marietta. Floo me next week - Mum's planning my trip to Diagon Alley for some new robes. We'll go together, all right?"

The only thing Alfrieda could see of her daughter's face was her red-rimmed eyes, which looked away from her best friend when she nodded.

Cho looked up at Alfrieda, shrugged slightly, and picked up her trunk. "Bye, Madam Edgecombe. Bye, Marietta."

The platform was empty now, and the train released the last of its steam. The station seemed echoic in the absence of the hundreds of children as Alfrieda faced her daughter, gently lifting the mask.

Whatever preparation Madam Pomfrey had intended fell far short of what was needed. The scarring and the disfiguring pustules made Alfrieda pull her daughter against her shoulder.

"We've an appointment at St. Mungo's in just a few minutes, dear. I'm so glad you're home."

Marietta sobbed against her mother's shoulder.




The healers at St. Mungo's had been alternately appalled by the hex that was still disfiguring her daughter and impressed at the strength of it. Reluctant concessions by the top healers on duty, admitting their inability to reverse the curse without more information, had forced both Marietta and Alfrieda to go back to Edgecombe Farm dissatisfied. Healer Dominus Crabtree, the head of the Spell Damage Ward, would be calling on her tomorrow. But the most useful thing would be to find the cursed document for examination. Consultation with the hexing witch was out of the question, it seemed. As a Muggle-born witch, the under-age Hermione Granger was out of reach as long as she resided with her parents. An owl, perhaps, requesting the information….? the Healer's assistant had asked.

"I don't think so," Marietta had murmured. The word "sneak" in flaming red boils across her face, told its own tale.

Edgecombe Farm had been constructed some seven hundred years before Alfrieda had come as a bride to her husband's family manor. Both the tipsy towers and the akilter chimneys had charmed her without magic as she and her new husband arrived for their first visit to his grandmother. Even the house-elves had been welcoming, something Oswald had warned might not happen. But the elves and Grandmother Edgecombe had been wonderful. When Alfrieda and Oswald inherited the farm, it had been as much home as Mount Nigellus, her own family holding.

Mother and daughter sat in the dimming light in the back parlor. Marietta turning her chair to face the French doors, away from the view of her mother, out from her father's sight when he would arrive from his tour of the outer estate. Even the portrait of Marietta's beloved great-grandmother had been avoided, other than a dismal "Hi, Gram." The house-elves had brought tea but were intercepted by Alfrieda before they could approach the tea table. The tray included a small plate of her daughter's favorite pasties, a sign that Pinksy had a good idea that they were needed.

Alfrieda didn't talk much, other than news about the birth of another Nigellus niece and Cousin Narcissa's recent party. The pink light of dusk highlighted the lamp chimneys and the glass frames before Marietta asked her first question.

"Mum…" She looked down into her teacup, swirling the leaves around. "Someone from Hogwarts told you, didn't they?"

"Marietta, you are of age, at least you were just after Christmas. Madam Pomfrey respected your wishes. She merely sent your medical records. Poppy and I were at Hogwarts together. She knew - she was right - that I should be notified if something serious had happened to you, even if you are seventeen now."

Marietta sighed and turned her teacup over, letting the leaves settle into the saucer. "I know."

"You signed a paper, then."

Marietta studied the tealeaves before carefully putting the cup over top of them and replacing the cup on the tray. "I signed it, yes. Cho wanted to go, but didn't want to go alone…"

"Go where?"

Marietta blinked, a blank look crossing her face. "A meeting. Dumbledore said he'd invited me to attend a meeting - an illegal meeting - and I guess I'd told Umbridge."

Alfrieda knew that. Dolores Umbridge frequently visited the Ministry of Magic when things were less hectic at Hogwarts. After accepting the position of Headmistress, Dolores had only returned to the Ministry once, and had sought out Alfrieda in her own offices. The visit had not been pleasant, laced with innuendo and hints that Marietta had been less than cooperative.

"But when did you sign the paper, Marietta?"

Marietta blinked several times. "I don't remember."

At Hogwarts, Alfrieda's best classes had been Divination, Arithmancy, and History of Magic. Reversing a Memory Charm wasn't a task undertaken lightly, and the consequences of doing it poorly or incorrectly weren't worth the attempt. Perhaps when the Healer visited tomorrow, it could be addressed as well.

"Why would you have signed, and then…" Alfrieda longed to reach out and touch her daughter's chin and bring her child's eyes to meet her own. "And then told?"

"It was… it must have been because it was illegal, Mum." Marietta pulled a tattered piece of pale green parchment from her pocket. "I must have gotten this that day, it's dated that day…"

Alfrieda looked at the folded and creased parchment, her uniquely made stationery that had been designed for her by her mother, Ancilla Nigellus, for her coming-out party. For thirty years, she'd written on nothing else.

"My daughter," she read,

    "Your last letter has me concerned more about what you didn't say than what you did. Our family has always been law-abiding and faithful to the Ministry of Magic. You know that I do not need to work, but I took this job when Minister Fudge offered it to me as a way to give back to our community in some small way for all the benefits I have received as a witch in our society. As director of the Department of Magical Transportation, I feel that I have a responsibility to uphold the laws of our society. You know that my father always said that 'the greatest power in the land is the rule of law.' I want you to feel the same responsibility and privilege as it is, not as a heavy weight but as a… "

Alfrieda didn't finish reading the letter; she knew what she'd written all those months ago. At the time, she'd believed every word she'd written about the honesty of the Ministry and its veracity. The concerns about Harry Potter had even led Alfrieda to suggest, that in spite of Cho's reckless interest in the Potter boy, Marietta should perhaps attempt to point her friend in another direction. The apparent result was that her daughter had broken her word, been Obliviated, and been hexed for the following several months without hope of a cure. The ensuing ridicule and distress, Alfrieda could not imagine.

"I thought," Marietta continued, getting up and walking over to the portrait of her beloved great-grandmother. "I thought I was doing what you wanted me to do. I was following the rules."

"The price of following the rules is sometimes very high," Alfrieda answered softly. The great-grandmother smiled down at her namesake.

"For a long time, Mum, I thought it wasn't fair. I thought that Granger was wrong. I thought Potter was wrong." She waved at her great-grandmother, who looked up from her book and waved back. "But in fact, the problem wasn't with her, or Potter. The problem was with me."

The mature tone was new. Marietta had taken after Alfrieda's mother, a woman who tended to shift the blame for everything wrong on her Muggle neighbors. Cho had reinforced that bad tendency to place the guilt on others, much to Alfrieda's dismay.

"I must have gone to some meetings, Mum. You see, after a year with Umbridge as Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, there is no way I could have done as well on my Defence exam if I hadn't been a part of some secret training. When I get my marks next month, you'll see. I got an O on the Defence test. There's no doubt about that."

Alfrieda suppressed the surge of pleasure that her daughter was so confident about a test that Alfrieda herself had not passed.

"I must have gone, Mum.. And I must have ratted them out, I must have. But I was wrong. When the edict came down banning the groups, I should have said no, I'm not going. I should have followed the rules then."

"Why didn't you?"

She sighed. "Cho, of course." But she straightened up suddenly. "No. I can't blame Cho. I went. I don't know why I went, since I don't remember going, but I must have had a reason. I went. I decided to go."

"And?"

"And I decided to betray them." The portrait great-grandmother clicked her tongue, shaking her head. Marietta swiped her hand across her eyes. "I reread my journal, Mum. I can't remember it at all, but I saw all that I'd written, about Cho and her thing about Harry, about the DA and the horrible classes with Umbridge. About how you, as a Slytherin, would have been proud of me even if I was sorted into Ravenclaw. I was doing something that wasn't right… but I justified it by saying that I would never pass that final without getting some practical experience…"

The great-grandmother shook her head again. "We Gryffindors would never betray our friends or our words."

"Being Slytherin doesn't mean we break the rules because we dislike them. I know that there are many who do, Slytherin or not. But not every Slytherin disregards the law. Some of us have even found that we gain more within the structure of the rules than going outside them." Marietta's sigh made Alfrieda stop the lecture. "I'm sorry. This isn't the time for my old rant. We've never thought less of you for being Ravenclaw, Marietta. Your father was Hufflepuff. Your grandmothers were both Gryffindor. It's not the House but your character that concerns us. Your decisions come from that, not from your House affiliation."

Marietta stroked her great-grandmother's portrait frame. "I must have made the decision to betray them. But I learned something from that, even if I don't remember it."

"What's that, Marietta?"

"That it was my own fault, what happened to me. I don't think it's right that Granger hexed the paper, but my betrayal… that was my own doing. I shouldn't have done it. If I wanted out, I should have just stopped going."

Her great-grandmother nodded and Alfrieda rose. "Marietta," Alfrieda said, putting her hands on her daughter's shoulders, "Dearest, you've learned a great deal."

Alfrieda turned Marietta around, and narrowed her eyes. "Your face, Marietta."

Marietta's hands came up to her cheeks. "I know, they're horrible."

Alfrieda put a gentle finger under her daughter's chin. "No, dearest, I think they're fading."

"You always had my best features, Marietta," the portrait said.

Marietta ran to a mirror and studied her face from all angles. "They are! They're fading!"

"Is my girl here?" a hearty voice from the hall called.

"Papa!" Marietta ran from the room to her father's waiting arms, and Alfrieda looked up at her husband's grandmother.

"My brother's boils didn't fade until he'd confessed he'd tried to read my journal and accepted the responsibility for his actions."

"Perhaps the same curse was on that paper that Marietta signed as is on your journal." The portrait picked up her own diary and a pen.

"You're probably right," Alfrieda said, listening to the happy sounds of a father welcoming home his youngest daughter. She'd need to send a note to the Healer after dinner was served. Pinksy could get quite upset if the family made her hold a meal too long.

-end-

Thanks also to Falco, Achimella, Ashavah, and Ara Kane for beta reads and to Chary, my extraordinary SQ beta. Who could ask for better?
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