John Lyon, keeper of the Ellesmere Fire, held both hands out to the glow of the much smaller indoor fire that lit the room. Behind him, the Hersheban beetle clock struck twelve.
He sighed. Just when he was starting to get properly warm. . . not that the Firekeeper's home wasn't built to withstand the cold of an Ellesmere winter, but he'd been outside for several hours, and he'd brought the cold in with him. Leaning back in his chair, John watched the fire silently. He wasn't disappointed; barely a moment later, the fire flared green and a familiar face appeared among the flames. "Paavo, old friend," said John with a smile. "Good to see you again."
Paavo- a man of indeterminate years, his face worn more by hard living in far Northern places than by time- nodded. "The same, John. Is everything ready?"
"Just about. I've built the stack for the bonfire, I have the hay bales at the ready, I've rigged the Luminary Charms to go off the second he arrives-"
"What about the Time-Turners?" asked Paavo tersely.
"Lumos," said John, waving his wand at the far side of the room. The flare of pearly light illuminated a panel of glass nearly as tall as John himself, emblazoned with the words IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK CHARM. Behind the panel, on a waist-high pedestal, sat a pair of simple golden hourglasses. Coiled about them like so much copper wire were extra-long, extra-strong golden chains.
Paavo grunted as John tucked the wand away. "Dressed for the occasion, I see."
"Well, of course." John grinned. "When else am I going to get the chance to show off a Finnish tietaja's regalia?"
"He's not much of an audience. He's only one man."
"He's the right man."
Paavo did not seem inclined to argue with this. "He'll be there soon. He's just about to leave Kalaallit Nunaat."
"Bloody-" John jerked himself upright. "Then what am I sitting here talking to you for? I've got to go stoke the fire!"
"You do that." With a pop just audible over the sounds of the fire, Paavo's head vanished.
Hurrying outside, John drew the caribou-skin parka about him. December was no time to be out and about on Ellesmere Island if you didn't have to; even the Muggles at Alert had enough sense not to try. Sense, however, played no part in John's decision. Tonight was different from all other nights; tonight, and tonight alone, the Canadian Ministry of Magic's decree was in effect. For the next twenty-four hours, the Firekeepers in the Territories had not only permission, but official approval, to violate the International Statute of Secrecy. In extremely limited ways, it was true, but still.
One such violation was the Fire. Canada's Floo Network, of necessity, was enormous. There was simply no other way. No sane wizard could last for long if they tried to cross the country by broomstick in winter. The same perils that waited for broomstick riders applied to those who opted for winged horses or other such creatures, with the added dangers of windigos and their cousins chasing the beasts down for their supper. Apparating from one end of the country to the other- even from one end of a province to the other, sometimes- was more than all but the most powerful wizards could manage. The only way around the problem had been to organize the Firekeeper Service: wizards and witches willing to spend six months or more at a time in houses strategically placed throughout the country, tending fires of sufficient size and power to permit Floo connections over enormous distances. A wizard willing to smudge his robes a bit could get from St. John's to Whitehorse if he wanted to, with a minimum of fuss and bother. It was simply a matter of knowing the Floo Fire names, then hopping from one to the next to the next across the national grid.
John's was the only fire on Ellesmere Island. The local Inuit wizards used it sometimes. Occasionally there were emergency travelers. It was definitely popular for supply relays. In World Cup years he saw a lot of service- more than a few Moosejaw Meteorites fans made their way to Europe partly by way of the Arctic Fires. From Manitoba it was literally a hop, skip, and a jump to Ellesmere, and John's fire was powerful enough to reach Kalaallit Nunaat. Even if you flew part of the way, John's fire was counted a tremendous help.
There was wood stacked outside- no, not so much stacked as built. There was plenty of wood- and incense, and aloes, and other things that John had laid in over the course of the year. Strictly speaking, all you really needed was the wood. It was the Floo Powder used by the traveler that made the connection possible. The Fire Service, however, had found that a few additions here and there improved the Powder's performance enormously. Besides, John rather liked the smell; it took the edge off the tang of smoke that clung to everything on the premises.
He looked up at the stack again. The Muggles in America had built a fire this size once, he'd read. It had taken nearly an hour to start, and thirteen days to burn itself out. Smiling faintly, he slipped his wand out of his parka. "Incendio," he said calmly, and the flames obediently lit up the arctic Canadian night.
John held his hands out to the impossibly vast flames. Oh, it was a lovely fire, all right. It'd burn all night, if such a time frame meant anything this far north, this close to the end of the year. For as long as his incoming guest needed it, and then some. Likely it could be seen for miles, but the Muggles at Alert were so far away that John doubted they'd take it for anything but a distant star.
He glanced over his shoulder at the near-invisible lines of Luminary Charms he'd so carefully laid all about. The tiny bundles of inert glowstones radiated in painfully neat lines in all directions. All it would take to activate them would be a traveler's emerging from the flames; then they'd light up in pairs, showing the safest open path to take away from the great Fire. John had seen it done at the Great Swamp Broom-Port down in the States, and he'd never been one to waste a good idea when he saw it. Particularly not when his guest traditionally travelled at the kinds of speeds tonight's visitor did. Oh, the Time-Turners John kept in reserve would make most of his work easy, but he still had to stop now and again to run back to the Pole and pick up the next load, and that meant speed-
Without warning the light cast over the snow turned emerald. John wheeled about sharply, drawing himself up to full attention as the first of the flying reindeer burst through.