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Willow didn’t get to ask Miss Mercana about Fred's fire-breathing until Friday of that week when she brought him back.

“Just put him next to your fireplace,” Miss Mercana said.  “He doesn’t mind the heat.”

“I don’t have a fireplace,” Willow responded.

“Don’t have a fireplace?  I thought everyone had one.”

“We don’t,” replied Willow.  “Lots of nomaj houses don’t have fireplaces anymore..or they burn natural gas instead of wood.”  Would floo powder work in a gas fireplace?  she thought, but the idea was interrupted by Miss Mercana.

“Well, you learn something new every day.  I’ll tell you what, Willow.  I’ll work on a special covering that you can put over his cage which will be fireproof.  I’ll have it ready for you before next month.  You shouldn’t have to worry that your house is going to burn down when Fred’s visiting.”  

At least one thing is going right, she thought, walking to her next class.  She dreaded the thought of going back to her classroom - none of her magic seemed to be working at all.

 

As October passed by, Willow still wasn’t able to do much in Alteration, Thaumaturgy, or Alchemy class, but half of the students were having as much trouble as she was.  The fact that she still hadn’t made any friends didn’t help.  Twice she had helped out Norbert and the other three Hammersmith first-year boys who had gotten bad directions, but the four of them seemed to stick together and inadvertently left Willow out.  

At least they’re not trying to exclude me on purpose, she thought, sitting in the Gryffindor homeroom on a rainy late October morning.  She was sitting by herself, as usual, but she was going out of her way to avoid Felicity.  I didn’t think it was possible for her to be more unbearable.  Ever since she walked into school without her ‘Newbie’ badge earlier that week, she had been lording it over Willow and the other first years who still wore theirs.

I wish Lef wasn’t in Murgatroyd...or I was.  At least I’d be able to talk to somebody.  Maybe I could be in Featherpenny with Lily.  She daydreamed about being elsewhere before being brought back to the present by the morning bell.  Oh who am I kidding...this is no more than I deserve.  Besides, Lef and Lily seem to be getting along just fine with their housemates.  She felt alone...she was alone, and there really wasn’t anything she could do about it.



“What are you doing?” Willow asked her mom who was lying on the couch reading one of Willow’s books one evening.

“Pickin’ blueberries,” Willow’s mom responded playfully.

“I mean which book are you reading?” Willow said.

“Why aren’t all mages filthy rich?” her mom said, ignoring Willow’s question.  “If you can transfigure bellybutton lint into gold, why doesn’t everybody have a zillion doubloons – or whatever you call them?”

“Dragots, mom, and I don’t know,” said Willow.

“Are there any poor wizarding families?” asked her mom.

Willow had to think about it.  “I think so.  There’s a first-year boy in Featherpenny who gets teased all the time because he wears second-hand robes and uses his dad’s wand or something.”

Frowning, her mom asked. “Why doesn’t his family just make gold?”

“I...I don’t know,” said Willow.  She had never thought of this before.

 

The next day, she approached Mr. Puterschmidt to relay the question.

“My mom asked me about Alteration yesterday and I didn’t know the answer,” she told him.  “If mages can transfigure objects, why can’t we all just change dirt into gold and be rich?”

“Willow, that’s an excellent question,” Mr. Puterschmidt replied.  “Now that you bring it up, I think that Gamp’s Law and its exceptions would be an excellent topic for today’s class.”

He turned and waved his wand at the whiteboard on which appeared:

Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration: Anything Can Be Anything Else.

Willow took her seat and waited while the rest of the class filtered in.

“Willow here has asked a very important question,” Mr. Puterschmidt began when the class was all seated.  “If this is Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration, why aren’t we all rich after turning dirt into gold?”  

“Yes, Incheon?” Mr. Puterschmidt had called on one of the Suncorn boys.  Willow remembered him as the unsorted boy in her History of Magic class.

“Because the gold doesn’t stick around,” Incheon answered.  “It vanishes, just like leprechaun gold.”

“Very good,” Mr. Puterschmidt said.  “Five points to Suncorn.  There are five known exceptions to Gamp’s Law.”   He waved at the board, on which appeared:

First Exception: Gold (and other precious metals)

“This is also why transfigured gold is illegal to spend.”  He pointed his wand at the room and suddenly, everyone’s quill turned into a shiny dragot.  “It’s not illegal to create the coin.  Many of you are familiar with leprechaun gold created every St. Patrick’s Day, which is nothing more than transfigured gold.  But you also know that if you tried to pass it off as real gold - you’d be in real trouble, because eventually it turns back into the dust from which it was made.  That is why all wise merchants cast a detection spell on gold during a transaction to ensure they are getting the real thing...especially near the middle of March.”  He waved his wand and called out “detego!”  Willow looked down at the gold coin which now appeared to be a quill that had been crushed up into the shape of a coin.  Mr. Puterschmidt flicked his wand a second time and the dragot-shaped feathers turned back into quills. Turning back to the board, he changed the writing to the next exception:

Second Exception: Food

“Most of you are familiar with this one...” Mr. Puterschmidt continued with the lesson, but Willow was thinking of the Featherpenny boy everyone made fun of.  He’s not poor because his family can’t do magic.  They’re poor because...well, because some people are poor.   It’s not like he chose to be poor any more than I chose to be nomaj-born.

 

That night after telling her mom about the exception rule, Willow brought up the subject of the upcoming Quidditch game between Hammersmith and Featherpenny.

“I’d like to go see the game this weekend,” she said to her mom.  “I’ve never seen one before.”

“Sure, I’m interested myself,” her mom replied.  “Wait, is that the one where the ball explodes?”

“No, that one’s called Quodpot,” Willow replied.  “I hear the kids talk about it at school, but I think it’s just for adults and maybe the older kids.  If there was a game with an exploding ball, I’m not sure you’d ever get me to go watch it.”

“That makes two of us,” her mom said.  “Find out how we get there and I’m in.”

“Okay,” said Willow.  “Just promise you won’t embarrass me.”

“Honey, I’m like a fish out of water.  I’m so far out of my element, I am almost guaranteed to embarrass you, but I’ll try.”

 

It turned out that several other nomaj families liked to attend the games and Willow and her mom could just drive over that Saturday.  The ride to the school on roads surrounded by the woods was beautiful as the fall foliage was a riot of red, orange, yellow and brown.  It was fifty degrees and there wasn’t a cloud in the late October sky as they followed the same directions to get to the school that they had used that past July.  After their trip to Narrowway, Willow realized that the signs pointing the way were visible just to her and she was able to watch out for them.

“Whoa!” said her mom after they turned onto the road that led to the school.  “There must be dip in the road or something.  Did you feel your stomach bottom out just now?”

“Yeah,” Willow replied.  “Weird.”

They arrived and entered past the open gate and parked in the driveway by the wizard fountain with about a half-dozen other cars.

“Wow, these people are coming from all over,” said Willow’s mom.  “Look, New Jersey, Maryland, Michigan.  That’s a heck of a drive for a game of whatever it’s called.”

“Quidditch, mom,” Willow reminded her.  “Remember the embarrassment thing?”

“Right,” her mom said.  They walked toward the stadium which was half full already.  More people were streaming in across the grounds, coming out of the front doors of the school building, flying in on brooms and appearing in groups holding on to old shoes and tin cans and other garbage.  Willow’s mom opened her mouth, but Willow spoke up first.

“I don’t know how they’re doing that,” Willow said, referring to the groups of people appearing out of nowhere.  Her mom didn’t respond.  It looks like they can teleport, she thought.  I wonder why they have to carry garbage with them?

The stands were decked out with one side in gold and red and the other in blue and bronze.  The Hammersmith side was almost entirely full already.  Willow wasn’t wearing her house colors, so she suggested they sit on the Featherpenny side as there was more room.

“Fine with me,” said her mom.  “Who are we rooting for and how will I know who’s winning?”  

Willow knew almost nothing about Quidditch except that it was played on brooms, so she said, “I’m in Hammersmith house, so I guess I’ll root for them.  As for the game; I have no idea, mom.  We’ll just have to figure it out together.”

This sport is beyond bizarre, thought Willow after watching the first five minutes of play.  How does anybody know what to watch?  Between what they could observe and hearing the announcer call out the action, Willow and her mom were able to figure out the majority of it.

“So that one that has the ball...the quaffle,” said her mom.  “I get that she’s trying to get it in those hoops.   And that one flying around the goals, he’s the goalie, but what’s the job of the ones carrying the bats?”

“The beaters, you mean?” responded Willow.  “They keep hitting that other two balls - the budgers or something - at the other team’s chasers.  I think that’s their whole point...just to get in the way and make them drop the quaffle thing.”

This really fast, Willow thought, watching the movement of ten of the players around the three balls in play.  They looked like seagulls bombarding a careless boy with a container of french fries.  How do they not ram into each other?  The thought had no sooner entered her head when a Hammersmith chaser slammed headlong into a Featherpenny beater.  The collision threw both of them off their brooms and they tumbled toward the ground, thirty feet below.  Both Willow and her mom took a deep inward breath, anticipating the impact, but the two of them slowed as they neared the ground.  Glancing to her left, Willow saw Mrs. Broombreaker, the referee, holding her wand out at the two unconscious players.  She must have cushioned their fall, she thought.  This game is awesome...I wish I could play.

“Why aren’t they stopping play?” asked her mom.  “Those two just suffered a concussion.”  The school nurse, Mrs. Praecuro, was hustling on to the field to tend to the two boys while the action continued above.  “There’s no way I want you to play this game.”

After a few moments of care, the two boys appeared to be okay, and both were helped from the field as the game continued overhead as if nothing had happened.  One of the Featherpenny chasers had swooped down to grab the flattened baseball bat from his fallen teammate and became the second beater.

After four Hammersmith and two Featherpenny goals, Willow’s mom leaned over and spoke to her.  “What are those two doing up there?” she asked, pointing to two players who had been circling the field above the action.  “They’re just floating around.  Are they observers?”

The mage just in front of them, who was wearing a hat which looked like a giant stuffed owl, overheard and turned around to explain.  His hat had been flapping its wings and hooting every time Featherpenny scored.

“They’re the seekers,” he said.  “They’re looking for the snitch, which looks like a small ball...,” he touched his index finger to his thumb to make a circle, indicating the size “...with wings.  If they catch it, they score one hundred and fifty points and the game ends.”

“Thank you,” Willow’s mom said to the mage.  “So they need to catch a flying walnut while riding a broom before the other team gets up fifteen goals.”

“That’s right,” the wizard continued. “Our seeker this year is a first year.  It’s the first time in seventy years a first year has been made seeker for Featherpenny.  Her name is Lily Smith.”

Willow perked up at the name. “Lily?”

“Do you know her?” asked her mom.

“Yeah, we had broom-flying lessons together.  She was the only one who beat me.” Willow suddenly found herself rooting for Lily instead of her own house team.

It was one hundred to seventy with Hammersmith in the lead when Lily and the oppoosing seeker saw the snitch.  Willow could tell because suddenly, the two seekers started plummeting toward the field like eagles diving after their prey.  Lily had started moving first and the Hammersmith seeker followed a second later.  The crowd started cheering madly and Willow had to stand to see over the roaring, flapping and hooting of the man sitting in front of them.

They’re going to hit the ground!  thought Willow.  “Pull up!  Pull up, Lily!” she screamed.  Willow was sure Lily was going to plow headlong into the turf below when she pulled out of her dive at the last instant.  Willow could see the parallel tracks that Lily’s feet made in the grass as they brushed the ground before she gained elevation again.  Willow let out a heavy breath, not realizing she had been holding it during the last moments.  

The Hammersmith seeker had pulled up sooner and was rapidly gaining on Lily as the two of them drove towards the far left side of the field.  Willow caught just a glimpse of something small and golden that was moving just beyond Lily’s outstretched arm.  With one move, the other seeker pulled even, pushed Lily out of the way and grabbed the snitch.

The crowd on the opposite side of the field erupted into cheers, while the crowd surrounding Willow and her mom let out a collective sigh of disappointment as the match ended.  My house just won, thought Willow, and I couldn’t be less happy about it.

As Willow and her mom grabbed their things to leave, the wizard who spoke to them earlier said good-bye.  “Oh well,” he sighed.  “That young lady can really fly, but there’s only so much you can do on an old Nimbus Two Thousand.”

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