After quartering the plums Lily left the kitchen. Watching Albert at work was not conducive to a good appetite. She busied herself completing the decoration of the parlor and dining room, which had been interrupted by the crisis, and setting the table with the best china, silver and crystal and a centerpiece of holly.
She had just popped back into the parlor to admire the tree, illuminated with little blue flamed candles, when she heard the sound of bells growing louder as the source drew nearer. Running outside she saw the Hogfather's sleigh, drawn by its four mighty boars, arch gracefully through the hard bright stars of the domain's eternally black sky and come to a perfect four point landing on the Lawn of Eternal Wandering and Croquet.
The Hogfather, big as life and four or five times more natural, climbed out and heaved a large sack over his shoulder. Lily hurtled directly into him and threw her arms around the big belly in tears of relief and joy.
"Ho, Ho, Ho." A big hand mussed her hair. "There, there little Lily, all's well now. Merry Hogswatch!"
"Merry Hogswatch!" She let go, wiped her eyes and saw Death climbing carefully out of the other side of the sleigh carrying a large, angular package clumsily wrapped in a garish red and green paper of dubious taste. A couple of pixies hopped down both carrying huge trays with appetizing smells escaping from under their big gold covers.
Norby met them in the hall, tumbling down the stairs in one of Albert's nightshirts. "Father!" he threw himself into the Hogfather's arms. "Thank the gods, thank the gods!"
"Thank you rather, son. And thank Death and his man and little Lily here. Ho, Ho, Ho!" the Hogfather laughed. "Come, come, no tears. This is a merry day! Help me with the presents and then step outside and let the lads see you're safe and sound. They've been worrying about you."
The Hogfather and Norby disappeared into the parlor with the sack and Lily directed the two pixies to the dining room then looked dubiously up at the package her uncle was carrying. "Is that for me?"
NO. IT IS FOR ALBERT. Death seemed very pleased with himself. WHERE IS HE?
"The kitchen, frying his pudding."
GOOD. Death went into the parlor too.
Lily looked after him for a moment then skipped upstairs to put on her best dress and fix her hair, half tumbled down and copiously shedding hairpins.
When she came down again she found a traditional hogswatch dinner, complete to the apple in the pig's mouth, laid out in the dining room and Albert just coming in with his fried pudding on a silver slaver decorated with the ubiquitous skull and crossbones motif.
"That looks delicious, Albert," she said, and meant it. The pudding was perhaps rather flat on top but it was a lovely glistening brown all over and if it smelled more of bacon than plums that just made it more appropriate to the season, didn't it?
Albert shifted his stub of a cigarette to the other side of his mouth and grinned. "Told you didn't I? frying is good for everything."
"Here, let's put it in pride of place in between the pig head and the centerpiece so everybody can admire it." She looked over the table and saw extra places had been set. "Oh lovely, the Hogfather and Norby must be staying for dinner."
"Mm, better change my coat then," Albert vanished.
Lily closed the door carefully behind him, because of the cats, then went through to the parlor. The tree was now banked with brightly wrapped packages of all shapes and sizes, including the big garish one Uncle had brought, and three lumpy stockings lay on the hearthrug, to full and heavy to hang from their hooks. Looking through the window she saw Norby out on the lawn, now wearing Uncle's black and purple dressing gown brocaded with - you guessed it - a tasteful pattern of skulls and cross bones over his nightshirt, feeding the Hogfather's boars candied apples and sugar plums.
Lily opened the window. "Norby! dinner's on the table." He waved to show he'd heard, gave his charges a last pat and headed round the house to the front door.
Uncle sat in his usual place at the head of the table, a paper party hat perched on his skull. The Hogfather had Lily's usual place at the foot. She sat with her back to the fireplace with Norby opposite her.
"What about Albert?" she asked suddenly, as the Hogfather began carving. "He can't eat alone in the kitchen on Hogswatch!"
HE IS NOT ALONE. THE HOGFATHER'S PIXIES ARE KEEPING HIM COMPANY.
Lily silently hoped that the pixies liked fry up.
While they tucked into roast pork, fried sausages, and of course fried plum pudding Uncle told the Hogfather and Norby and Lily everything they had missed. It was quite a lot.
"He used the children's teeth?" Lily was half shocked, half impressed. "That was clever. Evil but clever."
THE TWO OFTEN GO TOGETHER.
"But what about the Tooth Fairy? We've got to keep that going too." Norby worried.
DO NOT FEAR. SHE - IT - HAS BEEN REPLACED. THE BUSINESS WILL CARRY ON AS USUAL.
"Ho, Ho, Ho! Excellent, everything back to normal then," the Hogfather chortled through a mouthful of Albert's cranberry jelly.
Uncle sounded a bit sad, Lily thought. He had enjoyed playing the Hogfather. Being Death was rather a downer, he needed these little holidays.
After eating as much as they could hold the party adjourned to the parlor. Lily rang and they were joined by Albert, looking cheerful and smelling of his 'Mcabre Single Malt', and the two pixies who seemed rather unsteady on their little feet.
Everybody opened their presents. Lily's were mostly clothes - which would have disappointed her dreadfully just a few years ago but now delighted her - and books. Lots of books. There a was a black velvet smoking jacket with quilted satin collar and a pair of matching slippers for Uncle, and a miniature sleigh with four tiny boars that actually flew and seemed to delight him. Albert was immensely pleased with his new copper bottomed pans and clothes wringer.
Death pushed the big, clumsily wrapped package towards his man. THIS IS FROM ME, ALBERT. MERRY HOGSWATCH. HO. HO. HO.
Norby jumped, the Hogfather did his best not wince, and Lily sighed. Death just wasn't constructed for Ho, Ho, Hos.
Under all the layers of paper was a rocking horse. A very large and wonderfully realistic rocking horse. A splendid present for a small child but for an aged man servant and former wizard, not so much.
Albert stared at it, jaw sagging so that his perpetual butt fell out onto the carpet. That didn't worry Lily, she knew with Uncle's help the carpet would be good as new. Anyway she was to busy worrying about what Albert would say. Uncle was looking at him so.. so expectantly. If he didn't get just the right reaction he'd be crushed. Death, Lily had learned in the months she'd lived with him, was really very sensitive. His ribcage might be empty but his metaphorical heart bruised easily.
After what seemed like a very long time Albert closed his mouth, swallowed, and piped his eye. "That's...that's nice, Master. In fact it's... well it's probably the nicest thing anybody ever did for me."
Death beamed. Lily sighed in relief.
After that everybody relaxed and enjoyed themselves. Albert rode his rocking horse, knees drawn practically up to his ears. The pixies went to sleep in the piles of wrapping paper. The Hogfather drank sherry and smoked his pipe. Lily tried on and showed off her new clothes and once, as she came through the door, Norby grabbed her and kissed her - because of the mistletoe and because of what they'd been through together - which gave her a very pleasant tingly feeling right down to her toes.
After a while, and a number of sugar piggywigs, Lily noticed that Uncle was no longer lying on the carpet playing with his sleigh and went looking for him. She found him by the terrace wearing his new smoking jacket over his robe, his pipe between his teeth, grey-white smoke coiling upward from the bowl and his eyeholes.
"Uncle, I thought you meant to ask Susan to join us?"
I DID. SHE COULD NOT COME. HER EMPLOYERS NEEDED HER.
"On Hogswatch?" Lily asked incredulously.
Death looked down at her. The blue points of light in his sockets infinitely distant, infinitely lonely. SHE PREFERS IT. SHE WANTS TO BE NORMAL.
Lily looked through the big bay window into the parlor. Norby was riding the rocking horse now and the Hogfather was laughing, his rich, full 'Ho, Ho, Hos,' clearly audible through the glass. Albert was finishing off the last of the plum pudding and the pixies had woken up and were folding the discarded wrapping paper into ships, houses, trees and a dozen other shapes.
Lily looked back up at Death. "Why?"