“Was there a star?”
She turns to look at the child that has scuttled up beside her on the sofa, pressing his downy head against her side like a cat. She cocks one eyebrow, laying her fingers in his hair. “Was there a star where?”
“At the stable,” he says. “Albus says they said at his school there was a star to show them the way. Was there a star?”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” comes another voice, and another head wedges against her other side. “Stars don’t move, how could it show anyone the way?”
His brother sticks his tongue out. “It didn’t have to move to show them the way, stupid.”
“If it didn’t move, how could they know where to go? Just because you swallow everything Albus tells you—”
“Maybe it was really something else, and they didn’t know it wasn’t a star. Could it have been a comet, Mum?” He jerks his head from her grasp and blinks at her beseechingly.
Her lips twitch. “That’s one theory.”
“Mu-um,” says his brother. “If it wasn’t really a star, why do we still call it one? If it was a comet, wouldn’t we just say it was one?”
“It’s just a way of talking, you don’t have to take everything so literally, you great—”
“All right, dear,” she says mildly.
Both children subside, though with exchanged glares.
She looks at each of them in turn. “Would you like me to tell you how it was?”
They nod, eyes huge.
“All right, then.” She lays both hands on their heads, and they squirm into identical curled positions. “This is how it came about. Now, Albus was telling you what he knew, but the only story he had ever heard was the one from his Muggle school, and you mustn’t blame them for not knowing all the facts. The truth is a bit different from what the Muggles know.”
“So there wasn’t a star?”
“There was.” She turns to the head at her other side. “And it did move.”
“You’re quite right to say it was a way of talking,” she says to the head on her right. She turns her head. “But it was also properly a star. You see, it was in fact an extraordinarily powerful Beacon Beam Charm. Or, as the common name among our folk goes, a shooting star.”
Their eyes go wide. “They were wizards?” asks the child on her left.
“They weren’t, no. At least, the parents weren’t. The child, of course, was. One of the greatest and most famous Muggle-born wizards the world has ever known.”
“Jesus was a wizard?”
She chuckles. “Of course, dear. Did you imagine turning water to wine was something a Muggle could do?”
“I thought that was because He’s the Son of God! He rose from the dead! Even wizards can’t do that.”
“Albus’s dad did,” his brother says.
“You know he doesn’t count!”
“Yeah? And why not?”
“I think,” she interrupts, “that that is a matter for Sunday School. Meanwhile, if I could continue?”
They settle down, with some fragmented grumbles.
“Now, as I said, the child’s parents were Muggles, and so they did not cast that very extraordinary Beacon Beam Charm, that shooting star. That came from the Angels.”
“The angels were wizards too?”
“Well, I should probably be more specific. The angels of God weren’t wizards; they were proper angels. Are proper angels, and that is something else altogether. They actually had very little to do with this story. But these angels I’m talking about were actually a society of human witches and wizards. They called themselves the Order of Angels on Earth, but in practice, they were simply known as the Angels.”
“Who were they?” says the boy at her right. “Why did they cast that charm? How did they know to do it?”
“Prophecy, of course,” she says. “The Angels had many talented witches and wizards as members in their time, and that included some very talented Seers. Their Seers foretold of one particular Muggle-born child, and the members who were in Bethlehem at the time were charged with finding out about it and spreading the word any way they could. So they cast the shooting star and alerted the local Muggles as well. They didn’t use broomsticks in those days, of course, but I’m given to understand they had very nice white wool magic carpets they rode to spread the news. They put Illuminating Charms on them to let themselves be seen—I could understand how the Muggles might have got the wrong impression from that . . .”
The boy at her left gives her an incredulous look. “Wait, so the angels weren’t really even . . . angels? Were the Magi even real Magi?”
She only raises her eyebrows. “Well, of course they were Magi; they were Animagi. Silly Muggles.” She shakes her head. “Always missing the true significance of things, bless them.”
Two identical stares meet her eyes, and she laughs. “The Animagus transformation has always been rare among witches and wizards, you know. It was especially rare then, when the world’s population was so much smaller. These three were some of the only Animagi the Angels knew at the time, and they become such creatures as could travel great distances to see the child.” She shakes her head, indulgently. “If they could have, I’m quite sure all of Wizardom might have shown up for that event.”
“What sorts of animals did they become?” says the boy to her right, fascinated.
“One was an Egyptian vulture,” she tells him. “Conventional accounts call him Balthazar, though of course I don’t think we’ll ever know what their names really were. He was the one who followed the star and kept the others on the path.” She ticks off the names on her fingers. “One was a Persian gazelle; we usually call him Melchior. He was supposed to be an unusually large gazelle, so he carried the gifts for the child on his back, though he could still run more swiftly than a horse or a camel. The third, who we usually call Caspar, was a Bengal tiger, and he was able to find food for the rest and guard against wandering bandits and thieves. Together, they were able to travel very quickly and far to see the child and evade that wicked king, who was after all only a Muggle, and had no hope of catching them.”
The boys stare at her in naked wonder. “Wow,” says the one to her right, finally.
She grins. “I know,” she says. She pauses. “And that’s even without the sand-djinn and all the strange creatures that showed up at that stable. Gave the Muggles quite a turn . . . And then there’s the tradition of the mistletoe and how the Nargles wound up playing into it . . .”
“Can I know as much as you someday?” says the one to her left.
She laughs. “Of course. Just keep listening and and reading and finding out and you’ll know all that and more.” She nudges them gently. “But first, it’s time for bed. Father Christmas is coming, and you know how he likes his secrecy.”
“Right,” says the other. “Because nisses are shy creatures.”
“Indeed they are, and he more than most.” She kisses his head, then his brother’s. “Off with you.”
They shuffle off, talking in low voices about tigers and angels and shooting stars, and she stands, smiling. After a moment, she moves to pour a measure of ale into a glass on the hearth next to a waiting mince pie, then outside to chase the humbug imps from the back garden. The fire pops from within the small house, and snow swirls behind her steps.