Harry walked alongside Zabini, Greengrass, Parkinson, and Malfoy. The four Slytherins were talking in hushed and stifled tones as they headed to the main doors. They didn't need to be so quiet. The ritual's whispers varied in volume depending on the strength of the magic they represented. Some voices he recognized instantly, others he couldn't place. Molly Weasley's stern commands to stay away from those dangerous Slytherins came first, spurred by his direct violation of the suggestive magic.
You will live up to expectations.
When headmaster's loud proclamation floated through his mind the floodgates opened. Suddenly it sounded like the entire great hall speaking in unison. He was only able to pick out a few in the wild rush:
Gryffindors are noble.
There wasn't a witch or wizard who went bad who wasn't in Slytherin.
You look just like James Potter.
The Boy-Who-Lived is the Champion of the Light.
You will never be better than my Dudley!
"Shut up," Harry gasped, clamping his hands over his ears. Considering the voices were inside his head, he knew it wouldn't help. Distantly, he heard Malfoy say something foul. Someone shook his shoulder, but it took a full two minutes before he could come up from under the flood of magic.
"Hey, are you alright?" someone asked, and it was clearly not the first time he'd asked.
"Getting there, I think." Harry looked around. Fred was standing next to him looking worried. The Slytherins were equal parts disturbed and curious. "As an academic exercise, think about what would happen to someone under a compulsion to live up to other's expectations starting at age one. Then, have him rip it off using a ritual that tells him exactly what he's removing all at once."
"But… but then every piece of gossip you ever heard, or overheard, even if you weren't paying attention to it at the time, would have added another layer to the spell," Greengrass sputtered.
"Yeah," Harry sighed and took a few steadying breaths. "So… what was that you were saying about missing breakfast?" he asked Zabini.
"You have got to be kidding me," Malfoy drawled.
"Did I miss something?" Fred asked.
"I've been meaning to check out the temple in Hogsmeade. Zabini said I can come to the Midwinter service today for three sickles."
"I forgot about that," Fred said to himself. "I'll never forget that first time you had dinner with us. I thought Mum was going to choke to death when you told her you didn't know what saying grace meant."
"Well, I don't know anything about religion so I think I'll work on that while doing something completely and totally against as many of the compulsions I've been under as possible at the same time." Harry turned to the others. Malfoy had started walking down the hall on his own, but Zabini and the two girls were still waiting curiously.
"I think I'll go take a nap, myself," Fred replied as they all started walking. "Ron, George, and I went to check on the girls when we were done. They were already wound up in a full-blown shouting match. Ron and George got themselves involved, so I came to see how you were doing."
"I don't know why I'm not screaming in a fit of rage."
"Maybe it's not your style. I know it isn't mine."
"Who knows what my style is anymore."
"Come on, Harry, it couldn't be that… bad…" Fred trailed off at Harry's wry expression. "Or it could be."
"You are on the opposite end of the castle from George," Harry observed.
"Yeah, there is that. Have a nice time at the temple," Fred conceded with a salute. Harry walked in silence with Malfoy out in front, Zabini casting curious glances from his left side, and the two girls just behind him.
"You know, it's a little insulting if you are only coming to thumb your nose at whoever put a compulsion on you to stay away," Greengrass accused.
"It isn't just that. I have been planning to go to the temple for months now. I just couldn't actually get myself to do it. Now I know why I couldn't think about it for more than five minutes before being distracted by the nearest shiny object."
"You really aren't a Christian?" Parkinson asked.
"I think my Aunt and Uncle technically belong to the Church of England, but I never went with them. They agree with the perspective that a wizard going to a Christian church is hypocritical because of the witch burnings back in the day."
"I suppose even a muggle can have a sensible idea," she snapped. Harry just smiled and held the door for the girls. A fresh layer of snow covered the castle grounds. There was no wind and the sky was a cloudless blue.
In the distance, they heard a clock strike nine. Harry blinked, amazed it was only twenty minutes past dawn. It felt like a lot more than one hour since he'd started the ritual. As everyone's mind operates differently and changes constantly, the ritual couldn't possibly insert the knowledge directly into the mind in a moment of pure understanding the way it's inventors originally intended. It could only drop the lump of tangled facts off in a generic lump of barely organized thought. For Harry, the magic of the ritual had dumped all the information into his brain just outside his flimsy occlumency shields in such a concentrated lump that it would take some time to assimilate the information. Hopefully, moments like the revelation about living up to expectations wouldn't ruin his day. Really, he ought to take the advice of Fred – both Fred Weasley and Frederick Barnius Potter, who had left notes about his own go at the ritual – and take a nap so his unconscious can process the sticky ball of unsorted facts into some semblance of understandable thought. He put his feet on autopilot and worked on bringing the lump of thought to the inside of his mental shields.
The walk was long, but not too cold for the five students armed with warming charms. The temple grounds were on the far side of town from Hogwarts. There was a high wall on either side of the four story building enclosing a large area behind the temple plastered in a warm golden cream. Wreaths decorated the top of the wall and every window. It didn't look too much different from a Christmas celebration, from the outside. Quite a few owls were perched on and around the building, and a very large tree behind the wall dwarfed the building. The temple itself was built to look like a cozy cottage, with a straight walls and simple plaster façade in the same golden color under a thatched roof. Slate pavers lead out from the main door to the cobblestone street. Harry had only walked past it once or twice, despite it being on a main road, but it had always struck him as a supremely inviting place. The scent of delicious breakfast foods wafting out the open front door made it especially alluring.
Hedwig swooped over to Harry's shoulder when they approached. He hadn't spent nearly as much time with her as he used to, and she clearly missed him. From time to time she would show up in his dorm and he'd spoil her mercilessly with one hand while playing chess or cards with the other. She was still his most faithful companion, after all, and deserved to be fussed over. With his body still mostly in automatic, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a treat for Hedwig.
"Where did you get bacon?" Zabini asked, snapping Harry fully out of his mental landscape.
"You just pulled out a strip of bacon for your owl."
"Oh… I always have something for Hedwig in my pocket." Harry pulled out a recycled owl treat bag he'd been using for the last few months to keep bacon in. "She loves rare steak and bacon the best and I think real meat's better for her than the store bought treats."
"Wow, that's… I knew some people went barmy for their pets…"Zabini just shook his head. They were nearly at the front door. "Anyway, there should be someone watching the door just inside. He'll be writing down who shows up. Give him three sickles and we'll get over to the tables."
"I'm right here. Running a little late, aren't you?" a tall man wearing white with red and green trim interrupted, stepping out onto the doormat.
"Zabini accidentally switched off Draco's alarm and it took us ages to scrape them out of bed!" Parkinson grouched.
"You haven't missed too much, so go on inside. Zabini, who is your guest?" The wizard checked off the names of the Slytherins on a list. The others left Harry and Zabini standing just outside the door.
"Harry Potter," Zabini announced, and the taller man had a good laugh.
"Ah, I really am Harry Potter," Harry explained when the laughter was getting ridiculous, offering the door fee to him.
"Sweet Circle…You're Pagan?"
"I'm not anything, but I am open minded."
"Zabini, go get Lady Mansfield. I'll get our guest set up with breakfast."
From there things started moving quickly. Breakfast was nearly over, but from the size of the buffet table it was quite the spread. The doorman, whose name was Frank, loaded Harry up with a sizable plate and parked him at a round table in the corner furthest from the exit. There were many families milling around the room, some groups with young children and others centered on elderly parents. The room was decorated in evergreens, poinsettias, rosemary, holly, mistletoe, and ivy. Red, green, and white candles filled the room with golden light. On the whole, he didn't see where this was any different from a Christmas celebration. There was even a tree covered in candles and tiny silver bells, though it didn't have any gifts under it. He could spot several Hogwarts students scattered through the crowd. Zabini was currently in a heated discussion with a woman Harry guessed was his mother. Those who were finished eating were grouping up. Suddenly a woman wearing a bright silver robe with long blond hair braided with red and green ribbons sat down across from him and observed him like he was some newly discovered insect.
"Hello," Harry said after hastily swallowing some very delicious potatoes.
"Hello Mr. Potter. I am Lady Mansfield, one of the priestesses here at the Temple of Hidden Lines. What questions do you have?"
"Well… This is the first time I've… just… What is it all about?" Harry asked at last.
"What is Yule about?"
"What is any of it? I know absolutely nothing about religion." Harry watched the priestess shift in her chair for a moment, looking for a starting point.
"Well, there are five points to our belief. The first is the Rede: Do as you will, if it harm naught; if it harm some, do as you ought…" she began. In short order Harry desperately wished he had a notebook, his breakfast mostly forgotten. Lady Mansfield talked for over an hour before several people in silver robes started to round everyone up. The groups of family and friends filtered out the back door.
"Eleven o'clock already?" Lady Mansfield remarked. "Well, we have a ritual starting soon that climaxes at high noon. It is the second of three today: one at dawn and the last at sunset. Today is all about the rebirth of the sun, after all. Just follow along and you'll be fine."
The ritual itself was interesting. An area had been cleared of snow and ringed in gold and silver ribbons. There was a lot of singing and dancing in circles. Harry mimicked the dance moves as best he could, but wouldn't risk trying to sing along. It left Harry a little tired, but with a wide grin. When it was over Harry was passed around being introduced to half the congregation. He answered questions honestly, but didn't ask many of his own for fear of being insulting. Near as Harry could tell, the morning was for family and the afternoon was for community. After a half hour of that, all the youngest children were gathered in one area of the yard at tiny desks. Harry was invited to listen to one of the Priests tell the children stories since he wouldn't have heard them growing up the way others had. He sat at one of the tiny desks.
"You don't have to use the desk, Mr. Potter," the Priest, Lord Harvey, laughed at how neatly Harry folded into a desk next to a four year old girl.
"Why not; I fit in it, don't I? Look kids, this is why you need to drink your milk. You don't want to be as short as I am!" Harry laughed right back, fully at ease. It was amazing how welcoming everyone had been. Sure, there were skeptics like the Malfoys and Parkinsons, but most people were happy to talk to him about magic, ethics, and tradition. The children's stories were simple and fun. There were games after story time, and the youngest children insisted that Harry take part. One game was similar to football or hacky sack, but played with an enchanted soap bubble that popped if you used your hands on it. It was a baby game, and he was sure his classmates were going to tease him about it later, but the novelty made it fun.
Lady Mansfield came around to free him from the band of tiny kidnappers. She handed him a pair of slim books: one a primer written for small children, the other a more grown-up book about the history of the eight days of power. It was just gone half three at sunset this far north on the shortest day of the year. The end of the final ritual kicked off a party. There had apparently been some wild revelry last night at various homes, and this was supposedly a much quieter gathering. Some musicians set up on one side of the room. Harry's violin case had been moved from his chair, where the Priests had assured him it would be safe, to the side of the stage with the other instruments. Harry tried to cut through the crowd when he noticed one of the musicians holding it up in confusion.
"Oi, be careful with that violin, it's irreplaceable," Harry shouted when his path was suddenly blocked by a pair of very large women and their kids.
"Is this yours?" an older man asked. Harry jumped over a dollhouse and skidded to a halt in front of the stage, immediately taking the case from the young man who was holding it up to the older gentleman with an eye patch.
"No, I'm just shouting for my health. Of course it's mine," Harry snapped, gently looking over the case for evidence of damage. The bigger concern was the snake's venom, but he wasn't about to admit his violin had psychotropic poison and a mind of its own. Harry was actually surprised the violin hadn't enchanted him. He was sure it had compelled him somehow, but according to the ritual it was clean. That made it all the more precious: he honestly loved its music.
"You here to play?" the man asked, adjusting his green robes. Harry hadn't been introduced to him yet.
"No, I'm just curious. I had the violin with me when I was invited this morning."
"You play well?" The older man was probably forty, and gruff. The other musicians clearly deferred to him and were flitting around in the background getting everything set up.
"I'm alright, I guess," Harry shrugged.
"Get setup over there," he ordered, pointing at a patch of stage near the back next to a woman with a Cello.
"I don't know the songs."
"You've heard them every year since you could stand. If you know anything about that instrument, you can play."
"This is my first time in a Temple."
"This is my first time in a Temple. I was invited this morning," Harry repeated slowly.
"Get off his back, Gerry," one of the other musicians, a very old man named Therin who introduced Harry to his great-grandkids earlier, chimed in. "Harry here is new to the fold. I heard a rumor you played; never put much trust in things I don't see."
"Muggleborn convert, then, yeah?" Gerry grunted.
"No, just muggle-raised," Harry said with a smirk. "My name's Harry Potter."
"Heh, unfortunate; same name as the Boy-Who-Lived." Therin and Harry laughed.
"Same body, also," Harry quipped. Gerry didn't seem to understand, but Therin barked out another laugh.
"Here son, come over by me," Therin said, taking Harry by the elbow. "The fiddle's my instrument. You can watch and learn from me, and if you want to get out on the dance floor you'll be in a prime location."
They settled on the far corner of the stage right at the front. Therin had Harry set up his violin and transfigured a stand for him. A quiet but happy hiss signaled the violin's wholehearted approval of the arrangement. The music was old, ancient even. Celtic songs and spinning dances had the floor packed almost from the first note. Harry held his violin loosely in his left hand, but left the bow hanging from the stand. The magic of the violin tingled against his fingers as it helped him commit the songs to memory. The singers passionately filled the room with songs of love, life, and hope – some followed the story of the Wheel of the Year Harry heard earlier, but most of them didn't seem religious.
"You just going to stand there like a post?" Therin asked after a few songs.
"I'm learning," Harry answered.
"You won't learn much standing still as a statue staring holes in my hands. Take up your bow if you dare, the next song is much like the one before last. Simple chords and slow, good for new blood to test. If you don't feel up to that, get out there and dance. I could get my youngest granddaughter over here, she's home schooled and I worry she doesn't meet many…"
"How's it go?" Harry asked, fumbling to get the bow in his hand as quickly as possible. Therin grinned like the twins in full pranking splendor and signaled Gerry with a few hand motions. As the spinning song about dancing in a snow-covered forest extended into an extra repeat of the chorus, Harry copied Therin's finger positions as he silently showed Harry the progression. The old man was right, it was simple. Three measures repeating, follow Therin's lead as the tempo rises with each section, and a short a cappella section in the middle.
The little snake cheered Harry on, even though it was doing most of the work, and Harry gave himself over to playing a background part in a large group – something he hadn't ever done. With some prodding from both violin and Therin Harry joined in three more songs, playing 'the rhythm' according to Therin's direction, before the set ended and the musicians took a break. It was basically repeating the same few bars over and over in time with the drums to give the melody something to back it up, and if Harry wasn't trying to learn on the fly it would be horribly boring.
"Alright, maybe you can learn by staring holes in my hands," Therin laughed. "You pick it up quick, make no mistake."
"I made plenty of mistakes!" Harry laughed back, giddy from the stress of keeping up. "I'm glad so many of the songs are similar or I'd be so lost a point me spell couldn't help me find the next note."
"Well, since we're on break why don't you play me something you do know."
"Er… I know a lot of pop music and some classical pieces…"
"You know Christmas songs?"
"Wouldn't that be a little… ah…," Harry wasn't sure what to say to that.
"Deck the Halls is all about our traditions, they bled over into the Church and someone wrote the song for Christmas. Someone changed the words of a few verses to suit the Temple, and we'll play it later on tonight."
"Oh… I know Deck the Halls," Harry admitted feeling shell-shocked.
"Then play," Therin ordered. Harry nervously lifted the violin, aware that Therin wasn't the only one paying acute attention to the newcomer getting ready to play at the corner of the stage while most of the musicians grabbed a drink or a plate. The violin sang out the simple, well-known melody and stopped after a single verse.
"Not half bad; a bit wrote, but that's to be expected in a young man," Therin praised. An approving murmur backed him up from the other watchers.
"Are there other songs that carry over?" Harry asked. Therin's answer was drowned out by those gathered around them. The assembled witches and wizards started talking over one another, suggesting songs or making snide comments about his skill, while Harry stood frozen in front of them. Most of them had had a bit to drink by now, and without the Priest or Priestess as a guide and buffer he felt vulnerable in a room full of purebloods. Suddenly made aware of how far into hostile territory he'd strayed, Harry took an instinctive step back and bumped into Therin.
"Don't crowd the boy," Therin chastised. "Go grab something to eat, son, and then skitter back over here."
Harry quickly hung his violin on the stand and all but ran to the buffet table. Lady Mansfield caught his elbow and made sure he had five times as much food on his plate than he wanted to have. To say the woman was stunned to see a young man pile a plate high with potato salad and green beans when there was perfectly good roast beef, ham, and turkey to be had would be an understatement. She made a few vague comments about the morality of meat and how the animals were all well cared for during their pre-entrée lives, but Harry just kept focused on how delicious everything else looked. A few of the witches responsible for cooking the side dishes tittered at the compliments, and he returned to Therin's side with a heavy plate and a trail of older women.
Over the hour break Harry ate (the casserole is fantastic,) avoided agreeing to dance with anyone's granddaughter (curfew is at nine after all,) accepted a short stack of replicated sheet music (I promise to copy it out tomorrow before the charm fades,) and listened to gossip about people he didn't know (glad to hear your daughter didn't actually marry that thief.)