December, 1975. Twelve days to Christmas…
Winter had come late this year. It had crept in subtly, a pernicious chill which spread slowly through the castle, silent and unnoticed – until the soft white flakes arrived as a gentle reminder that the seasons had changed.
The first snowfall had finally arrived, the light flakes twirling as they tumbled towards the ground, catching the diffused rays of wintry sunlight to create a pretty, sparkling effect. A sudden whirl of feathers caused the dancing snowflakes to spiral as they fell, as a tawny owl took flight from one of the numerous turrets of Hogwarts.
Lily Evans watched appreciatively as the owl bearing her letter soared across the snowy grounds, a charming addition to the portrait of winter before her.
It was certainly therapeutic, standing at the window watching the fresh, clean, pure snowflakes swirling in their own graceful ballet as they made their descent. How easy it was to think happy thoughts as she basked in the morning sunlight streaming in through the Owlery window!
Such as cheerful Christmas decorations adorning the hallways. The Hogsmeade weekend approaching. The end of term. Going home for Christmas. Mum. Dad. Pet.
She wouldn’t have to return to the Great Hall and see the post owls bringing the Daily Prophet bearing more gruesome news of death and destruction, wouldn’t have to think of the terror that had been spreading as insidiously as the winter cold…
And she sighed, because even here, in the Owlery, with the sun lighting up every corner, the few owls present hooting gently and the pretty picture of winter before her, she couldn’t get away from the ugly reality outside of Hogwarts.
The sudden arrival of the mail owls through the open window announced the end of breakfast downstairs in the Great Hall. Lily turned away slowly; she had lessons to get to.
Lily Evans wasn’t in the Great Hall when James Potter arrived for breakfast. A pity, he thought, as his glance across the Gryffindor table turned up no pretty redhead.
Sirius Black noted his searching gaze and nudged him.
‘Don’t even start, Black,’ said James, pre-empting his best friend’s teasing remark.
‘I wasn’t going to say anything,’ said Sirius in an airy but utterly unconvincing tone. James shook his head and took a seat next to Remus Lupin. The other two girls in their year, including Remus’s girlfriend Alice, were directly opposite.
‘Whereís Evans?’ James asked nonchalantly.
Across the table from him, Dorcas Meadowes replied, ‘Left earlier – she’s in the Owlery,’ without looking up as she searched in her money bag for some Knuts to pay the owl delivery her newspaper.
‘Tough luck, Prongs,’ grinned Sirius.
‘Shut it,’ James told him. ‘Pass the toast, Peter, would you? Thanks –’ He caught the stack of toast that the podgy mousey-haired boy sent sliding in his direction and relieved the plate of its generous load.
‘It might help, James, if you quit calling us all by our surnames,’ observed Alice Moody.
‘You know you think it’s cool.’
‘Calling a girl by her surname is not particularly endearing,’ remarked Remus wryly.
‘Exactly,’ said Alice, nodding in agreement. ‘At best, it makes you sound like a professor. But at worse –
‘That’s precisely it, Moody,’ James interrupted her. ‘Like a professor – it’s mature. She’s always on to me about that, isn’t she?’
Alice smiled and shook her head in amusement. Next to her, Dorcas let out a little gasp and slammed the Daily Prophet down on the breakfast table.
‘What, Meadowes? You disagree?’
‘What happened?’ Alice leant over the page Dorcas was reading. ‘Oh no…no…’
‘What’s going on?’ demanded Sirius. Remus’s face paled.
Alice seemed shocked into silence. Dorcas raised her head and nodded.
‘Clancy Darlington,’ she said.
‘’Oo’s zat?’ said Peter through a mouthful of eggs. Dorcas gave him a scathing glance.
‘Have you been living in the Muggle world, Pettigrew?’ Peter swallowed and choked as he attempted to come up with an indignant retort.
‘He’s the Head of the Department of Law Enforcement,’ explained Remus. ‘And a member of the Wizengamot too.’
‘My family hates the bloke,’ said Sirius darkly. James understood the unspoken insinuation of this statement – Sirius’s family was as Dark as they came. An enemy of the Blacks was highly likely to be an enemy of the Dark Wizard Voldemort.
James stole a glance at the newspaper. An eerie black and white photo of an enormous skull with a snake emerging from its mouth glared at him. The Dark Mark – Voldemort’s notorious sign. He gazed at it for several seconds, during which a chill ran up his spine, then turned away. The mood at the table had suddenly turned uncomfortably sombre. His first thought was to diffuse the seriousness, but the picture of the Dark Mark seemed to have wiped his mind temporarily blank.
He had reckoned without Sirius, however. A well-launched morsel of oatmeal projected itself from Siriusís spoon – James ducked and it landed on Dorcas’s Daily Prophet, splattering over the Dark Mark. Dorcas looked up indignantly. Sirius gave her his best I’m-not-guilty expression.
‘This isnít funny, Black, this is serious news.’
‘And that’s Sirius’s oatmeal,’ supplied James innocently. For a moment, Dorcas looked like she might explode – and then she did; she started to laugh, along with Alice.
‘Oh – boys –’ gasped Alice. ‘This really isn’t a laughing matter – but – oh, honestly, the two of you are the limit!’
‘Sorry, Meadowes,’ said Sirius cheerfully. ‘I’ll clean your paper, look, Scourgify!’ The oatmeal cleared off the front page and Dorcas quickly folded it away before he could do anymore damage. James chuckled softly; the image of the splattered oatmeal obscuring the Dark Mark was a comforting one.
And if he could laugh about it, then it really wasn’t so bad, was it?
The halls were abuzz with shocked and fearful whispers. There wasn’t a single corner in the school where students weren’t discussing the horrible news that had appeared in the Daily Prophet that morning.
Dorcas Meadowes, who had the Prophet delivered, showed Lily the paper before class. Splayed across the front page was a blown up picture of the gruesome Dark Mark: a treacherous skull with a snake spilling out of its mouth. The rest of the front page, and the first five pages inside were devoted to the attack.
Clancy Darlington was a respected member of the Wizengamot. He had been attacked, along with his family. The Dark Mark had been found hovering over his ancestral home. Inside lay three dead bodies: Darlington, his wife and their nine-year-old son.
It had been a brutal murder. Magical autopsies revealed that the child had been tortured to death, presumably in front of his parents. Mrs Darlington was next to go, and finally Clancy Darlington himself.
There was a girl – a daughter who escaped by virtue of her absence from home. Annemette Darlington was a third-year Ravenclaw. Lily didnít know her personally, but her heart went out to the girl.
When will this terror stop? she wondered. It had been five years since You-Know-Who came to power. It had started with inexplicable disappearances…whispers of a grand scheme to purge all magical peoples…an upsurge in Muggle-hunting…soft, chilling fear of the mysterious being fashioning himself as Lord Voldemort – people said that it was dangerous to speak the name, for it could incur his wrath. And then the attacks. It had started out as isolated cases in the Prophet – brutal murders though they were, but seemingly unrelated to the carefree students at Hogwarts.
Then, suddenly, the problem had escalated.
There was a moving colour photo of two fifteen-year-olds on Lily’s bed stand. Lily herself, waving and winking with her arm around a small golden-haired girl with clear blue eyes. It made Lily’s thoughts fly back to King’s Cross Station, last summer. That was the last time she had seen Aura Banning.
Lily’s best friend never returned to Hogwarts this year. Over the summer, Aura had disappeared, becoming a statistic of the rising number of casualties of You-Know-Who. Lily hadn’t been able to shake off the fear and anxiety since; You-Know-Who wasn’t something that happened to other people anymore – he was a real, terrifying possibility.
She feared for her family, Muggles with a magical child. Everyone knew that Muggles and Muggle-borns were top of You-Know-Who’s list, thanks to the purity of blood doctrines he had perpetuated during the first few years of his rise.
Her watch told her that she had ten minutes to get to Care of Magical Creatures. Lily shook her head, trying to clear away the gripping fear, and retrieved her textbook. As she left the room, there was one last desperate thought running through her head.
I’d give anything – anything – for this to stop.
Care of Magical Creatures was always an interesting lesson, not least because of a pair of Gryffindor boys who always tended to wreak havoc wherever they went. Last lesson, Professor Kettleburn had ended up with his finger bitten off by a Murtlap which had been provoked by a nose-biting teacup that had dropped out of Sirius Black’s pocket.
Today, the lesson seemed to reflect the dark mood of the Wizarding world. Kettleburn led the NEWT class in the direction of the Forbidden Forest. There were dark looks exchanged between a few students; creatures that were kept near the Forbidden Forest were almost always certainly the more dangerous kind. However, no magical creatures, dangerous or not, awaited them when they arrived at the edge of the Forest.
‘We’ll be going into the Forest today,’ announced Professor Kettleburn in his wheezy voice. There were several gasps of alarm; most students looked thunderstruck. James Potter and Sirius Black, however, merely looked excited. Potter caught Lily’s eye and winked.
She didn’t deign to reply him.
‘I’m here to protect you, if you need,’ he grinned. ‘If you’ll go out with me to Hogsmeade…’
Lily felt a twinge of exasperation. Potter was probably the only person who could carry on in such an ignorant and insensitive manner after the morning’s news. And she was sick of him asking her out. As if she hadn’t refused every request since fourth year, when he first started!
‘No, Potter,’ she said coldly. ‘I’m not going out with you. Not now, not ever!’
‘Quiet over there!’ Professor Kettleburn called, before continuing with his lecture. ‘The creatures we will study today are generally taught as a theory lesson only, as they are formally classified by the Ministry of Magic as “dangerous”. But since we have a trained herd here in Hogwarts, I thought it would be a good opportunity to actually observe…well, not quite observe, but you’ll see what I mean.’
‘Hey Hagrid!’ said Black suddenly. The rest of the class turned to behold Rubeus Hagrid, Hogwarts Keeper of Keys and Grounds, stomping towards them, carrying a dead carcass (which was still dripping with blood) in his massive arms. Several girls turned pale. Lily felt slightly apprehensive – whatever they were to study certainly appeared to fit the description of ‘dangerous’.
‘’Lo, James, Sirius,’ said Hagrid. ‘All righ’, Lily?’ He beamed at her, and she managed a grin in return. Hagrid had always been friendly to her, ever since she’d found and brought him an injured puppy back in first-year.
‘Hagrid will be – ah – helping me in this lesson,’ said Professor Kettleburn. ‘Lead on, Hagrid.’
‘Righ’ – in here, everyone!’ said Hagrid cheerfully, heading into the Forest. ‘These creatures prefer the dark.’
Hesitantly, the class followed him. They walked for ten minutes or so before arriving at a dark, woodsy area, which the falling snow did not seem to affect. Hagrid dumped the carcass on the ground, and, following a nod from Professor Kettleburn, gave an odd, shrieking cry.
Lucinda Stebbins pointed to the sky, her eyes wide. The rest of the class, on the other hand, were bemused.
‘Todayís lesson is on Thestrals,’ said Professor Kettleburn, who was also looking edgily around and standing well away from the carcass. ‘Can anyone tell me –’
He was cut of by a loud shriek from Jade Heaney, as something invisible started tearing the bloody carcass apart. It seemed as though bits of flesh were being stripped off the bones of the dead animal, and disappearing into thin air. Lily watched, with a sort of horrified fascination.
‘Beautiful, aren’ they?’ said Hagrid proudly. ‘Can anyone see ‘em?’
Lucinda nodded, her eyes still wide and terrified. Potter gave a quick nod. Everyone else shook their heads, gaze still fixed on the quickly disappearing carcass.
‘Yes – Thestrals,’ said Professor Kettleburn, waving his hand in the direction of the carcass. He jumped, as though something had brushed past him – which a Thestral probably had. It was evident that he couldnít see them any more than the students could. ‘The first question is, what are they?’
‘Winged horses,’ supplied Potter, no longer bright and bumptious, but – amazingly – serious.
Black, however, was his usual self at least. ‘I think I’ve got one here!’ he called with glee. He had his hand stretched out, as though stroking something firm.
‘That’ll be Tenebrus,’ said Hagrid, beaming. ‘Firs’ one born here in the Forest – my special favourite, he is –’
‘Are they invisible? Like the Diricawl?’ asked a Hufflepuff girl, surveying the stripped carcass with new interest.
‘No – only people whoíve seen death can see them,’ said a Ravenclaw boy knowledgeably. ‘It’s supposed to be really bad luck…’
A solid form brushed past Lily, as another invisible Thestral approached. For a moment, she wished she could see it, then checked herself as she realised the implications of her momentary wish.
‘Five points to Ravenclaw,’ said Professor Kettleburn approvingly. ‘Yes – Thestrals are visible only to those who have seen death, which accounts for their association with bad luck. However, whether they are indeed a bad omen remains to be proven. The Thestrals here at Hogwarts are rather useful – I’ll leave Hagrid to tell you about that, then…’
‘Righ’,’ said Hagrid. ‘Er – yeah…theyíre dead useful, they are…got a ‘mazin’ sense o’ direction, they can find any place, jus’ tell ‘em…this herd here’s the only trained herd in Britain –Ė I reckon I’m probably the on’y person in Britain who’s managed ter do it!’ He grinned proudly around the class, some of whom were looking dubious, others in awe. Sirius Black gave him a thumbs-up.
‘Anyway…they don’ do much work aroun’ here, jus’ pull the school carriages, or when Dumbledore’s takin’ a long journey…’
‘So that’s what makes the carriages move!’ said Jade Heaney, looking a little less terrified.
‘What do they really look like?’ asked Lily, intrigued.
‘Black,’ said Potter, staring directly at what was probably one of the Thestrals. ‘With wings, and really white eyes that sort of shine. And its face looks something like a dragon.’
‘Quite an accurate description,’ agreed Kettleburn. ‘At least, according to most books. Hagrid, would you like to tell the class about how you bred this herd here?’
‘Oh, yeah…yeah, we started with five females an’ a male, an’ we got Tenebrus first, like I was sayin’, an’ it sorta jus’ built up slowly…they take abou’ a year or so to breed. We’ve got abou’ tweny or so now, an’ five o’ the mothers are expecting babies in March. There’ll be even more in a few years, though some won’ live past the next few – on’y live fer ten years, Thestrals.’
It was altogether a very informative lesson. When it was over, Hagrid strolled with them as they trooped back across the Hogwarts grounds, alongside Lily, telling her stories about how he had found the first six Thestrals and raised Tenebrus and other Thestral babies. He had a name for all of them; apparently each had its own distinct characteristics. The way Hagrid said it, Lily could almost believe that raising Thestrals was something commonplace…like keeping a cat or dog. Until she thought about their association to death.
‘People say they’re unlucky an’ such but it’s jus’ the death thing, yeh know?’
‘What does it mean, actually, when you say people who have seen death can see them? You mean you actually have to see someone die?’
‘S’why so few people can see ‘em. Like today ’ on’y two in the whole class.’
Lily prayed she’d never see the Thestrals. And then she thought about what Hagrid had just said. Two people in her class – two students her age had actually watched someone die
It hit her like a gust of wind. She didnít know why – usually she never thought of arrogant, bullying, trouble-making James Potter if she could help it. But now she realised…
Potter could see the Thestrals.
‘Potter,’ The name flew out of her mouth before she could stop it. Hagrid looked at her in surprise.
‘Of course – his sister. Ever so nice a girl Ė died when he was abou’ eight.’
‘Potter has – had – a sister?’
‘Didn’ yeh know? Nice little thing she was — I remember when she was at Hogwarts…’
‘What happened to her?’
‘S’not my place to tell. If James wants people ter know, he’ll tell ‘em,’ said Hagrid firmly.
Lily knew better than to pry. She thanked Hagrid, and let herself be caught in the stream of students entering the castle. Imagine, Potter watching his own sister die! If Pet…
Lily squashed the thought immediately. She wondered if Potter missed his sister. He’d been unusually quiet during the lesson. Maybe he was thinking of his sister.
Instinctively, she glanced around when she was inside.
Neither Potter nor Black was around.
They didnít turn up at lunch, but were back in Transfiguration, more boisterous than ever, and Lily was angry at herself for worrying. She should have known that nothing could affect Potter. He probably didnít even care about his sister. When did he ever think of someone else besides himself?
Oh he might have, once – but that was years ago. He had changed since then, and the likelihood of him ever becoming something other than the contentious, self-satisfied prat that he was now was less than zero.
She didnít even notice that, in her anger and frustration with him, the morning’s attack had been pushed out of her mind.
A/N: Thanks goes to Birgit for sorting out the odd expressions and highlighting the html-coding-gone-wrong!