Chapter 1: Diagon Alley
One night, a starving girl appeared on the doorstep of Wool’s Orphanage. It was nearly midnight on a bitter New Year’s Eve; not windy or snowing, but so cold that the chill air could freeze the insides of your lungs if you weren’t careful.
The girl was pregnant, on the point of giving birth. She wasn’t the first, and the orphanage staff took her in without question. Within the hour she’d had her baby; an hour after that, she was dead. Before she died, she said that the child was to be named Tom for his father, Marvolo for his grandfather, and that his surname was Riddle.
Those were her last words.
Tom Marvolo Riddle lived in Wool’s Orphanage for ten years, and the matron, Mrs. Cole, told him the story so often that he could recite it with her. Every year on New Year’s Eve, he made her tell it again; afterwards, he sat in his room with all the lights off. He stared up at the ceiling and imagined in details, trying to picture everything exactly as it had been.
His mother had been ugly. Mrs. Cole always made a point of mentioning that, and how his mother’s dying wish had been that Tom would look like his father. “She was right to,” Mrs. Cole would say, shaking her head at the memory. “All skin and bones, and a face like a busted shoe…”
His mother must have gotten her dying wish; Tom was handsome, tall for his age, with dark hair and pale blue eyes. Mrs. Cole had told him once that he had a charming smile, and Tom had spent the better part of a day standing in front of a mirror perfecting it for future use.
Tom propped himself up on an elbow, the bedsprings squeaking loudly in protest. Through the frost-covered window he could make out bits of the street outside. It was snowing; it had been for a while now, and the heavy flakes were gathering on the outside of the sill. If it kept up, the other orphans would go mad with excitement over it in the morning. Tom grimaced at the thought.
Tom had never gotten along with the rest of the orphans. He found them boring, and ignored them because of it; they did the same, mostly. When they didn’t, he ridiculed them and systematically nicked whatever little trinkets they owned until they stopped bothering him. Over the years Tom had built up an impressive collection: yo-yos, pins, playing cards, and, once, a tarnished mouth organ. He kept them in a cardboard box in his wardrobe, next to a couple of ragged books.
Despite her best efforts, Mrs. Cole never caught Tom stealing. This was because Tom wasn’t like the other children; for one thing, he could make things move without touching them. He’d found out when he was quite young, and with time and a bit of practice the skill had become very useful. He could get food from the kitchen wherever he liked, flip up the corners of carpets to trip people who annoyed him—the possibilities were endless. He’d once bloodied a boy’s nose from across the room by shoving his head into a door frame, although Tom had been very angry at the time and hadn’t been able to do it since.
That wasn’t the only thing Tom could do, either. He could make animals do what he wanted to without having to train them first, change the temperature of water, even freeze it completely if he concentrated, light candles without using matches… Almost every summer, they were taken on outings to the country, and on one of these trips, he’d found he could speak to snakes.
Odd things sometimes happened outside of his control, too. Once, after a nasty row with one of the older boys, Tom had snuck into the boy’s room, intending to set his beloved rabbit free into the street. By the time he got there, though, the rabbit was dangling from the rafters by a grubby shoelace, its feet still twitching. Tom figured he must have been a lot angrier than he’d thought, then.
Of course, Tom always knew that these incidents happened because of him. He could feel it when he made something happen, even if it wasn’t quite on purpose. Without any proof, though, Mrs. Cole couldn’t punish him, which made the orphans resent him all the more.
Somewhere in the city, a bell tolled midnight. Tom grinned and squirmed into a more comfortable position on the bed. Downstairs, Mrs. Cole would be pouring over her ledgers, probably well into a bottle of gin by now. Like Tom, her New Year’s routine never changed. In a few minutes she would finish. She’d tiptoe up the stairs and pause in front of Tom’s bedroom, then knock very quietly on the door and wish him a happy birthday before continuing her rounds.
Eleven. He was eleven today. Tom liked the sound of that. He rolled onto his side, yawning hugely.
Tom must have fallen asleep shortly afterwards, because he woke up that morning without any memory of hearing Mrs. Cole pass by.
He dressed without really paying attention to what he was putting on—it didn’t matter, anyway, since all of his clothes were the same—and then flopped back onto his bed with one of his books. It was about a man who could talk to animals and Tom had read it so many times that half the pages were falling out. He liked to think that, someday, he’d have a life as exciting as the one in the book. Tom had barely made it to the second page, though, when someone knocked twice on his door.
Before he could answer, Mrs. Cole pulled the door open and peered in. Her cheeks were flushed, and Tom raised his eyebrows; she usually didn’t drink during the day. “Tom?” she said. “You’ve got a visitor. This is Mr. Pen—” she hiccoughed. “Penrose. He wants to tell you—well, I’ll let him do it.”
Tom nodded, and she stepped aside.
The man who walked into the room wore a very bright yellow suit. For a few seconds Tom could see nothing else; then he blinked, narrowing his eyes as he took in the rest of Mr. Penrose’s appearance. Mr. Penrose was tall and skinny, with a turnip-shaped nose and greying brown hair that stuck out in from his head in uneven tufts.
Mrs. Cole closed the door behind him, and as it clicked shut, Mr. Penrose walked forward. “How do you do, Tom?” he said, holding out his hand.
Tom hesitated before shaking it warily. Mr. Penrose smiled down at him and then walked over to the window. He stared out of it silently, his hands clasped behind his back. Tom waited for him to say something, but he quickly lost patience. “Who are you?” he asked, managing, barely, to keep the irritation out of his voice.
The side of Mr. Penrose’s cheek rose as if he were smiling. “I am Professor Penrose.” Keeping his hands clasped behind his back, Mr. Penrose turned away from the window. His eyes flicked back and forth over Tom’s face.
“Professor?” Tom’s eyes narrowed; he didn’t like the way Penrose was looking at Tom as though he were a fascinating type of insect, and he liked the word “professor” even less. It made him nervous. “Is that like ‘doctor’? What are you here for? Did she get you in to have a look at me?” He pointed at the door.
Penrose blinked owlishly at Tom. “No,” he said.
No, of course not. He wouldn’t have gotten Mrs. Cole drunk first if he was here on her request. Some of Tom’s irritation turned inwards, but he ignored it. He licked his lips nervously and got to his feet. “Who are you, then?” he demanded, folding his arms.
Penrose beamed. “Well, as I said, my name is Professor Penrose. I work at a school called Hogwarts. And I’ve come to tell you a bit of good news.”
Tom watched him through narrowed eyes, waiting.
“You’re a wizard, Tom.”
For a long moment, Tom could only stare, half-expecting Penrose to laugh and say he was joking. Wizard, he thought faintly, hardly daring to believe it. “So Hogwarts… is a magic school?” Tom asked. It sounded ridiculous to say it like that, but Tom’s heart gave an excited leap as Penrose nodded. “Magic…” Tom breathed, still staring at Penrose.
“Yes,” Penrose said.
“Oh,” Tom said. It was all he could say, now, with his blood rushing in his ears and his legs trembling so badly that he had to sit back down or risk collapsing. His fingers clenched and unclenched at his sides, and he pressed them against his chin to steady them.
Tom looked up at Penrose again. Concern showed in the professor’s eyes. “I know this must seem like a lot to take in,” Penrose said, very gently.
Slowly, Tom shook his head. He felt as though he were underwater. “I knew I was different,” he whispered. “Always, I knew… I knew I could do things.” His heart seemed to have lodged in his throat, and he shook his head, unable to say any more.
Surprise filled Penrose’s face now, his mouth falling open for a fraction of a second before he snapped it shut and swallowed noisily. “Ah,” Penrose said. “Most children don’t take it so well.” A cautious, calculating look appeared in his eyes.
Tom shoved his shock and his happiness away as best he could, dropped his hands back into his lap, and straightened up. The last thing he wanted now was for Penrose to start thinking he really was mad. “You’re a wizard too?” Tom asked, hoping to divert Penrose’s attention.
“Yes,” Penrose said. He smiled again, though the caution remained.
“Could you—I mean, if it’s not too much trouble—could you show me some magic?” Tom asked, pleased with the amount of innocence he was able to cram into his voice. To his relief, the calculating look disappeared from Penrose’s eyes.
Penrose dipped his hand into a pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a slender piece of wood. He flicked it casually towards the wardrobe in the corner.
Four stumpy legs burst out of the bottom of the wardrobe. It stumbled wildly back and forth for a second, and then it leapt to one side—tap-danced across the room—and returned to its original position. The legs vanished and the wardrobe hit the floor with a dull thump.
Instantly Tom wanted a wand of his own, more than he had ever wanted anything before. The desire welled up under his ribs, threatening to choke him, and he watched hungrily as Penrose slipped it back into his pocket.
“Where can I get one of them?” he asked hoarsely, raising his eyes slowly to meet Penrose’s.
“I take it you’re convinced?” Penrose asked. He sounded amused, and anger sparked abruptly in Tom’s mind. He shoved it in the direction he’d shoved the shock and the happiness.
“Of course,” he said, his voice trembling only slightly. “Where can I get a—a wand?” His control slipped, and the words came out more like a demand than a question. Penrose twitched as if he’d been stung.
“There’s a place called Diagon Alley,” he said. “You will be able to buy a wand there, along with your books and other supplies. Funds will, of course, be provided, but you’ll have to buy most of it second hand.”
“How do I get there?” Tom asked in a rush.
“I can escort you—”
Tom’s heart plummeted. “You’re coming with me?” he asked.
“Of course, if you—”
The anger rose again, sharper than before. “I don’t need you,” Tom said coldly. “I go round London all the time on my own. You can just tell me how to get there.”
For a few, painful seconds, Tom thought that Penrose would insist on accompanying him anyway. Bits of the professor’s face twitched occasionally, and the calculating look had reappeared. Tom found he didn’t care. “Will a map be sufficient?” Penrose asked at last.
“Yes,” Tom muttered, scowling. He was eleven, not a baby.
Penrose pulled out his wand again to conjure a piece of paper out of thin air. Tom watched eagerly, his anger forgotten, as Penrose plucked the paper out of the air and handed it to him. While he examined it, Penrose pulled a thick envelope from a second pocket and held it out, too. “Your supply list,” he explained, when Tom looked at it blankly.
Tom took it, turning it over. It was addressed to him in emerald green ink that shimmered weirdly when he tilted the envelope towards the window. “You said you’d give me money?” he said as he slit the envelope open. There were two sheets of paper inside, one a letter that explained everything Penrose had just told him, the other a list with things like cauldrons and telescopes and dragon-hide gloves on it. Tom’s attention was drawn immediately to the last item on the list.
One wand. His hands began to shake again.
“Ah, yes.” Tom looked up from the list as Penrose rummaged around in his pockets again. This time, he pulled out a leather drawstring bag and held it out. “This should be enough,” he said.
The bag was very heavy—heavier than Tom had expected based on its size. He opened it slowly and loosened the drawstrings to look at its contents.
It was filled with gold and silver coins. Tom pulled one out, turning it over in its fingers. Like the bag, it was heavier than it looked. It glittered.
“That,” said Penrose, “is a Galleon. It’s worth seventeen Sickles, those are the silver ones, and one Sickle is worth twenty-nine Knuts, which are the square bronze ones you’ll find at the bottom.” Tom nodded without looking up from his examination of the coins. When Penrose cleared his throat anxiously, though, Tom tore his gaze away from the money. “Now, when you reach the Leaky Cauldron,” he said, gesturing towards the map, “ask for Tom the barman—easy to remember, since he shares your name—”
Something else occurred to Tom suddenly, and he spoke without thinking. “Was my father a wizard?” he asked. “He was called Tom Riddle, too, Mrs. Cole told me.”
Penrose looked away. “‘Riddle’ isn’t a wizarding name,” he said.
Tom pushed his disappointment away. “What about Marvolo?” he asked. He saw Penrose twitch again, and he pressed on hopefully. “My grandfather’s name was Marvolo, were any wizards called that?”
“Well,” Penrose swallowed loudly. “I did know a Marvolo Gaunt, once.” Tom’s heart gave a great leap, and he balled his hands up against his knees to stop them from shaking. Penrose turned back to look at Tom directly, his face stern. “I would suggest you don’t get your hopes up, Tom,” he said. “The Gaunts were a very ancient wizarding family, greatly respected, once, but now they are nearly penniless and all but extinct. There are ways that you might prove your relation to them, but it would do less than you might think. And it would be—difficult, very difficult.”
Tom grinned in spite of himself. He never had been able to resist a good challenge. “Where would I start?” he asked. Penrose shrugged.
“A book of magical genealogies, I suppose,” he said. “If you care to pay a visit to the Inheritance Office at the Ministry, they might be able to help you.” At that moment, something chimed, and Penrose started. “Ah,” he said, pulling a golden watch from his pocket and glancing at it briefly. “I’m afraid I must leave you, Tom, I have a very important meeting and I’m going to be late.”
He made for the door, but Tom still had questions. “When I’ve got my stuff, when do I go to Hogwarts? And how?”
To his relief, Penrose half-turned back towards him. “All the details are in your letter,” he said. “You will leave from King’s Cross Station on the first of September on the Hogwarts Express—its first year of operation, in fact.” A nervous grin flickered across his face. “There is a ticket in there too, you’ll find it when you need it.”
Tom nodded, and Penrose dipped his head in a funny little bow and started for the door again. He started to turn the knob and, in the finality of the moment, Tom panicked a little. “I can speak to snakes,” Tom blurted out. Penrose froze with his hand still on the doorknob and slowly looked over his shoulder at Tom. “I found out when we’ve been to the country, on trips,” Tom said. “They find me, whisper things to me. Is that normal, for a wizard?”
Penrose let out his breath in a whoosh. His fingers tightened on the doorknob. “It’s unusual,” he said, “but it’s a talent for which the Gaunts were well known.”
Fierce happiness exploded in Tom’s chest, and he felt another grin spreading over his face. For a second, he and Penrose stared at each other, and then Penrose shook himself. “I really must be going,” he said. “I shall see you this September, Tom.”
He left, letting the door swing shut behind him. Tom stared after him for a moment, his stomach tying itself in knots. Part of him was terrified that Penrose would walk back in to tell him that it had all been an awful mistake, but Tom buried the thought as quickly as it appeared. He lunged over to the wardrobe and pulled on his coat, stuffing the envelope and the money bag into its pockets, and then ran out of the orphanage with the map clutched in one hand.
Tom had to consult the map only once on his way to the Leaky Cauldron. It didn’t take him long to get there—it wasn’t far, and he ran the whole way anyway—and for a moment he leaned against the dingy front, clutching a massive stitch in his side.
As soon as he could, he straightened up and pushed open the door of the pub. His hands were shaking again, but Tom didn’t care.
Tom-the-barman turned out to be a hunchbacked wizard missing three of his teeth. He smiled broadly when Tom asked to be shown to Diagon Alley and led him into a tiny courtyard filled with greyish slush and scattered bits of broken bottles. Tom watched silently—and not without a flash of jealously—as the barman pulled out his wand and tapped a brick on the far wall three times.
The brick shuddered and twisted like a sponge being wrung out. Before Tom’s eyes, a tiny hole appeared in its center and grew larger and larger. In seconds it had expanded outwards into a massive archway. Through it, Tom could see a broad cobbled street that curved gradually out of sight; it was filled with people in brightly colored robes and thick cloaks. Tom stared.
“There you are,” the barman said, clapping Tom on the shoulder. “Next time you want to come through, it’s the brick three up and two across, three times. Tap it with your wand.” He winked and went back into the pub.
The words “your wand” snapped Tom out of his daze. He squared his shoulders and walked into the wizarding world.
Wizards wearing thick fur robes paced through the dirty slush, hawking fresh diricawl eggs and Thermal Hats (“Warm your ears up a treat! Guaranteed non-lethal!”) and goggles that could look through walls and massive, live newts. A sign propped in front of the nearest shops flashed red and green and read, “AFTER-CHRISTMAS SALE!! ALL MARKED ITEMS HALF PRICE!!”
The shops had windows crammed with fragile silver instruments and gleaming telescopes and jarfuls of eyes. Tom passed a trunk shop that had nothing but a single chest in the window; it was almost as long as Tom was tall and dozens of stumpy legs protruded from its bottom. There was a little sign propped up next to it (“Sapient Trunks—Inquire Inside”) which flung itself against the glass as Tom walked by. Across the street, Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions was having a sale on dress robes, advertised in huge blue letters that flashed from the window.
Everywhere Tom looked there were witches and wizards shouting, haggling and arguing with each other. A witch in fiery orange robes brushed past him with three broomsticks over one shoulder, half-dragging a little boy in her wake. Tom had to duck to avoid the broomsticks as she turned sharply, and he almost collided with a bearded wizard who stood nose-to-nose with a portly witch, quarreling over a barrel of something dark red and wet-looking.
Books with titles like Merlin: His Life and Legacy, Tacit Casting and You, and Horklumps, Knarls and Gnomes: a Guide to Common Garden Pests flapped their covers at him from the display in Flourish & Blotts. Tom spent nearly five minutes with his face pressed against the glass trying to read the exposed pages before he finally tore himself away.
Soft hoots and rustles came from the darkened storefront next door; the words Eeylops Owl Emporium were painted over the door in faded red ink. A massive tawny owl dozed on a perch above the sign, clutching an envelope in its beak.
Tom realized his mouth was hanging open and he closed it immediately. He hurried forward, head snapping back and forth so quickly and so often that his neck started to ache. There was simply too much; Tom would have needed about eight sets of eyes to see everything properly. He comforted himself with the thought that he had until September to learn this place as thoroughly as he knew the streets surrounding the orphanage.
Then, at last, at the very end of the street, he found what he had been looking for. It was a small, shabby building with dusty windows; the sign over the door said Ollivander’s: Makers of Fine Wands Since 382 B . C . in peeling gold letters.
Trembling, Tom went in.
Besides the soft tinkle of the bell as the door closed behind him, the shop was silent. Both walls were lined with row after row of narrow boxes, stacked neatly to the ceiling. There were a few spindly-legged chairs next to the door, and a rickety table in the middle of the room, but nothing else.
The air… tingled. It felt like someone was whispering just out of earshot, and it made the hairs on the back of Tom’s neck stand straight up.
For a very long time, there was no sound. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, Tom called out, “Hello?”
There was a very faint click, and a tall, bony man materialized out of the shadows. He walked noiselessly up to the table.
“Mr. Ollivander?” Tom asked, shivering. Mr. Ollivander did not look normal; he was too thin and too tall and too pale, and his fine, black hair floated around his head as if it were weightless. Unlike the wizards and witches Tom had seen outside, Mr. Ollivander dressed not in robes, but in a faded grey suit, which was tailored to his skeletal frame like a second skin.
“I am he,” Mr. Ollivander said softly. His pale, colorless eyes raked over Tom’s face. “To whom do I owe the pleasure of this rare midwinter visit?”
Tom fought down a sudden, irrational urge to flee. “Tom Riddle,” he said. He remembered what Penrose had told him, and, on a whim, added, “My grandfather was Marvolo Gaunt.”
If the wandmaker was surprised, he didn’t let on. “Curious,” he murmured. His eyes misted over, and a faint smile appeared on his thin lips. “It seems only yesterday that Marvolo was in here, buying his first wand. Chestnut and dragon heartstring, seven and a half inches, unyielding. A good wand for wardsmithing.” As he spoke, Mr. Ollivander drifted forward until he was almost toe-to-toe with Tom, who leaned away nervously. “He was the last of the family to do it, you know. His children, I believe, purchased theirs from a wandmaker closer to their home in Little Hangleton.”
Tom forgot his discomfort for a second in light of this new fact. The annual summer trip was months away, and he could probably convince Mrs. Cole of the destination… he would have to consult a map sometime soon…
“Hm,” Mr. Ollivander said, and Tom’s attention snapped back to the present. “Well now, Mr. Gaunt… it is a pleasure to have you family’s patronage once more.”
Tom wished that Mr. Ollivander would blink. His own eyes were starting to water painfully.
“Which is your wand arm?” Mr. Ollivander asked.
“I—left,” Tom said. “I’m left-handed, anyway.”
“I see…” Without warning, Mr. Ollivander darted over to the stacks of boxes. He flitted around between them, pulling boxes down at random, as he spoke. “No two Ollivander wands are exactly the same, Mr. Gaunt. I use a variety of woods and one of three highly potent magical substances in their construction. It is the combination of traits of wood and core that give a wand its character, and each must be precisely matched to its owner. The wand, as they say, chooses the wizard.” He returned to the table and let the boxes fall messily onto it, then opened one of them and pulled out a short, reddish wand. “Now, then, Mr. Gaunt, try this one. Holly and unicorn tail, six and a quarter inches, rather bendy.”
Tom took it uncertainly.
“Go on,” Mr. Ollivander said, flapping his hands in Tom’s direction. Tom could hear the bones in his wrists popping. “Give it a wave.”
Feeling a little foolish, Tom did so, but Mr. Ollivander snatched the wand away, mumbling, “Not that one…” He set it aside and opened another box. “Perhaps… Ash and dragon heartstring, ten inches, nice and whippy.”
Again Tom waved the wand, only to have Mr. Ollivander take it back immediately. “Try this one. Oak and phoenix feather, nine inches, rigid— No, I think not. Ah… Pear and unicorn, ten and three quarter inches, quite supple.”
Tom barely touched this wand before Mr. Ollivander yanked it away. “No, no, no, definitely not. Let’s see, ebony and dragon heartstring, nine inches, brittle. Try—”
He tried, but it was no good. Mr. Ollivander handed him wand after wand, and Tom’s fingers started to go numb as each was pulled unceremoniously away. As the pile of discarded boxes grew, the wandmaker became first cheerful and then manic with excitement. “Tricky customer, eh?” he said gleefully. “Not to worry, not to worry. Let me see… last one of this batch, Mr. Gaunt, and then the real fun begins. Beechwood and unicorn, twelve inches, stiff… and no. Excellent.”
Now Mr. Ollivander returned to the stacks, muttering under his breath and grimacing occasionally as he searched through the boxes. This time he only pulled down half a dozen or so before returning to Tom. “Here we are, Mr. Gaunt,” he said.
“What happens if I don’t find a wand?” Tom asked, trying to rub some life back into his fingers. Mr. Ollivander pursed his lips and hmmed loudly.
“I’ve never had a disappointed customer, Mr. Gaunt,” he said. “I have no intention of sending you away without a properly matched wand.” He opened yet another box and held the wand out. “Walnut and dragon heartstring, twelve and three quarter inches, unyielding.”
It was probably wishful thinking, but Tom thought he felt his fingers tingling as he flicked this wand carelessly. Mr. Ollivander tugged it away as usual, though, and replaced it with “elder and phoenix feather, twelve inches, rigid.” Seconds later that, too, landed on the discard pile.
The third and fourth wands failed too, and Tom watched with dismay as they clattered to the floor. “And… yew and phoenix feather, thirteen inches, inflexible…”
This wand gave a little jerk as soon as Tom reached for it; it seemed to leap straight into his hand. He slashed it downwards, and silvery sparks shot from the end like water from a burst pipe. Mr. Ollivander brought his hands together in a single clap and cried, “Yes! Oh, indeed, yes. Very good. Knew we’d get there in the end.”
Tom paid Mr. Ollivander seven gold Galleons for the wand, struggling a little with the moneybag because his hands were shaking again. The coins disappeared into one of Mr. Ollivander’s pockets as quickly as Tom could count them out.
Mr. Ollivander handed Tom the empty wand box, staring intently at his face. “An interesting combination, Mr. Gaunt,” he said quietly. “Powerful. I think… yes. I think we can expect great things from you.”
Tom fought back a grin, barely, and redoubled his grip on the wand—his wand—while Mr. Ollivander bowed him out of the shop.
Still mulling over ideas to convince Mrs. Cole to take the orphans to Little Hangleton that summer, Tom returned to the bookshop he’d passed on the way to Ollivander’s. He pulled out his supply list and looked over it again. The books he needed were listed right in the middle: A Beginner’s Guide to Charms by Mathilda Jugson; Magic Through the Ages by Arcturus Black; Classical Transfiguration by Aeolus Hartell; One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi by Phyllida Spore; A Compendium of Common Concoctions by Bran Meliflua; and Practical Defensive Magic, volume 1 by Patrick Tane.
Tom committed the list to memory and shoved it back into his pocket. He wandered around Flourish & Blotts for a while until he found a small second-hand section. After some patient searching, Tom found all of his required books. They were all a bit shabby and the pages of Magic Through the Ages dangled from the cover by only a few threads, but they would do. As he browsed, Tom found another book called Hogwarts, a History that looked interesting, and he added it to his stack, too.
Arms full of books, Tom went to the front counter. The witch there smiled at him and said, “Hogwarts?”
“Yes,” Tom said.
She sorted through the books, making notes on a sheet of parchment with a long blue quill. “You’ll want to go to Madam Malkin’s for your robes,” she said with a smile. “Best prices in Diagon Alley, and she does second-hands, if you need them.”
“Right,” Tom said, smiling and wondering privately if she was a relative. He paid her almost as much as he had paid for his wand, and she packed the books into a bag for him. Tom thanked her quietly and left to find Madam Malkin’s.
Madam Malkin turned out to be a short, plump witch dressed from head to toe in mauve. Her eyes sparkled when she saw Tom. “Hogwarts, dear?” she asked. “Got the lot in here.” Her eyes raked over Tom’s threadbare jacket, and she added, “Do you need to buy them second-hand?”
Tom hid a grimace. As calmly as he could, he said, “I do.” Madam Malkin gave him a kind and slightly pitying smile that made Tom grind his teeth together angrily as she led him to the back of the shop, where there were stacks of folded black robes almost as tall as Tom was. Madam Malkin directed him onto a footstool and slipped a long, faded robe over his head.
“Just stand still, dear,” she said as she began to pin it to the right length. “This won’t take long.”
It didn’t; once she’d finished pinning everything in place, Madam Malkin took out her wand and the robe finished itself. She got the rest of his things ready and put them in another bag, which was thankfully not as heavy as the one that held his books.
By now Tom was itching to get back to his room so he could start reading through his textbooks—he was relieved that he had so long to prepare himself before actually getting to Hogwarts—so he decided to leave now and buy the rest of his supplies later, after he’d come up with some way to keep Mrs. Cole from noticing the cauldron and things. And then there was the matter of Little Hangleton…
Tom took his time walking back to the orphanage. By now the fresh snow from last night had been packed down, and the sidewalks were very slippery. The sun was high in the sky, and Tom knew he must have missed lunch as well as breakfast. Now that he thought about it, he really was very hungry.
No one noticed his return, which was lucky. Tom helped himself to food from the kitchen and then slipped up the stairs to his room. He dumped his bags in his wardrobe and draped his coat and a couple extra shirts over them in case anyone came snooping. Then, wand in one hand and Magic Through the Ages tucked under his other arm, he flopped onto the bed. For a few minutes he amused himself by making his shoes fly back and forth across the room. Magic, he found, was much easier to control with a wand.
After the thrill of that wore off a little, Tom turned his attention to the book.
The history of the wizarding world, Tom decided very quickly, was a lot more interesting than the history he learnt in his dull classes at the orphanage. Those were full of boring things like dates to memorize and meaningless names to recite.
Magical history had dates, of course, but the important part was the stories.
Tom read about the court wizards of ancient Egypt, and the wizards of the Medieval ages who were distrusted by Muggles and so went into hiding in the late seventeenth century, and goblin wars and famous inventions and tales of wizards who fought Death himself, and werewolves and dragons and giants and battles fought and alliances forged and ancient customs, and, and… Tom’s head swam with it all. He had no idea how long he sat there reading, only that it was dark by the time he finally finished.
His head throbbed, and his mouth felt dry and crackly. Tom licked his lips and slipped out of his room. He kept to the shadows as he padded down the stairs and into the kitchen, which was deserted. He must have missed dinner, too. Mrs. Cole would probably have Words for him when he saw her next.
Stolen food and a glass of water in hand, Tom returned to his room. He set it all down on the table next to his bed and snapped his fingers, grinning when the candle there flared to life. It was something he’d been able to do for ages, of course, but in light of everything that had happened today…
Tom flung himself onto his bed and picked up his wand. He rolled it between his fingers happily for a moment, then flicked it towards his wardrobe. Another book flew out of it and landed in his outstretched hand with a satisfying thump.
He read all night, finally falling asleep as the sky started to lighten with Classical Transfiguration open on his lap.
Chapter 2: A Flurry of Letters
The next few days were difficult. If Tom had gotten his way, he would have spent every waking hour in Diagon Alley, reading in Flourish & Blotts or simply wandering to absorb the sights. As it was, he had to spend most of his time inside the orphanage, stuck in the damp classroom and listening to Miss Malthus, the schoolteacher, drone on about infernally boring things that slipped out of Tom’s mind as quickly as they entered. After that, he had chores to do for another hour or so, and only then was he free to leave the orphanage.
Ordinarily Tom might have simply left—it wasn’t hard to slip out without anyone noticing—but he had a very good reason for keeping on Mrs. Cole’s good side. He’d gotten his hands on a map and located Little Hangleton, and it wasn’t as far away as some of the places they’d visited before. Plans for getting her to go along with the idea were already buzzing around in the back of his mind.
At long last, Saturday came again, and, as he’d bribed one of the other orphans to do his chores for him, Tom had a whole day of freedom. He wasted no time in running to Diagon Alley, where he spent about an hour in Flourish & Blotts reading about domesticated magical animals before he worked up the nerve to look for a genealogy book. Magic Through the Ages had indicated that all the old wizarding families—pure-bloods, they called themselves—kept detailed family records as a matter of course, and that such things were important enough to be found in a large shop like Flourish & Blotts. If he wanted something really in-depth, of course, he’d have to find it somewhere else, and Tom was planning to contact the Inheritance Office that Penrose had mentioned soon anyway. Finding a book in Flourish & Blotts seemed as good a way as any to start, though.
It didn’t take Tom long to find one, a huge tome with Nature’s Nobility embroidered onto its leather cover with silky threads the color of blood. Tom traced the letters with his fingertips before he opened the book; they felt like little tracks of ice against the relative warmth of the leather.
A shiver raced down Tom’s spine as he let the book fall open in his lap. This book, he thought, demanded a kind of reverence. Perhaps it was only because Tom had read about how important the pure-blood lines were to wizarding society, or because this book was a step towards discovering his own family. Whatever the cause, Tom felt the same prickling feeling he had when he’d walked into Mr. Ollivander’s last week. He’d meant to flip straight through to the Gaunts, but he changed his mind now.
Tom bent his head to read.
Barely ten minutes passed before Tom’s head was spinning from the sheer number of names; most of the families dated back to the sixteenth century, at least, many of them even earlier, and there were hundreds of names listed for each one. The later entries even had annotations indicating the circumstances of each person’s death and sometimes even noticeable accomplishments.
When he reached the Gaunt family at last, he had to stop reading for a few minutes until he got his slightly panicked breathing back under control.
Even by the standards of Nature’s Nobility, the Gaunts were an old family, able to trace their roots to the Peverells—Tom had seen them mentioned a couple of times before, though a glance in the later pages of the book had told him that they’d been extinct for centuries now—and to Salazar Slytherin, one of the four Founders of Hogwarts. For a long time, they had made sensible marriages into families just as prestigious as they, and the line had flourished, and then… Tom turned a page, and stared.
Once, the family had had five major branches; on this page, four of them dwindled to nothing within the span of two generations. One was decimated by a magical plague, one had only one heir who had killed himself on his eighteenth birthday, one produced nothing but Squibs who were all transfigured into earthworms as soon as their lack of magic was discovered, and the last was cursed into sterility by a rival family.
The remaining Gaunts survived for two centuries by marrying their own cousins and, occasionally, siblings, and…
Tom stared at the page, chill disappointment welling up in his chest.
At last there had been only Marvolo Gaunt, and his children Morfin and Merope. Marvolo died shortly after his release from Azkaban, apparently. Merope had died on Tom’s birthday a few months late; the book gave severe magical exhaustion as the cause.
Tom took a deep, shuddery breath. It wasn’t much to go on, of course, but after what Penrose had said, Tom hadn’t really expected much. He flipped through the rest of the book more carelessly than before, making a note to start memorizing the names of living witches and wizards, at least.
After he finished, he set Nature’s Nobility aside and leaned back in his seat, frowning. He got up and wandered through the stacks for a while until he found a very thick book called Madam Gibbon’s Guide to Good Manners and Gracious Living, which he thumbed through for a few minutes before deciding that, dry as it was, he would have to learn this sort of thing sooner or later.
Several hours later found Tom still reading Madam Gibbon’s, though his eyes were starting to glaze over from sheer boredom. He had just turned a page when a sudden movement in the corner of his eye made him look up sharply. Tom’s eyes narrowed a little as he saw a boy about his own age standing a few feet away and staring at him. The boy was bigger than Tom was, and his light brown hair flopped over his forehead messily. Tom got to his feet.
“Is there something you want?” Tom asked, careful to keep his voice calm and polite. It wouldn’t do to offend this boy if he turned out to be important.
The boy took a step closer. “I’m Algernon Longbottom,” he said. Pure-blood, Tom’s mind whispered as he remembered the family tree in Nature’s Nobility. He blinked once. “Who’re you?”
“Tom Riddle,” Tom said smoothly, getting up and offering his hand for Longbottom to shake. He saw Longbottom’s face wrinkle up in concentration, probably trying to recall if he was from a pure-blood family or not. “My mother was Merope Gaunt,” he added, and Longbottom’s face cleared a little.
“I thought the Gaunts had all died out,” Longbottom said, clasping Tom’s wrist briefly.
“Nearly,” Tom said, shrugging, as he let his hand drop back to his side. He decided he didn’t like the way Longbottom was looking at him at all—the other boy looked torn between curiosity and mild distaste.
Tom blinked, twice, chilly anger seeping into his veins. He didn’t need a book of manners to tell him that Longbottom had just said something very rude; the expression on Longbottom’s face made that obvious. “I don’t see that it’s your business to ask,” he said.
“Well, Riddle’s not a wizard name—”
Tom smiled. He suspected that it wasn’t the nice, charming smile he usually used. “That doesn’t make it your business,” he said, and the softness of his voice surprised him. It was barbed and poisonous and wrapped in velvet, and it reminded Tom of the slippery sound snakes made when they talked.
A mulish look appeared on Longbottom’s face as his cheeks turned slowly red. He muttered something, too quietly for Tom to make out anything except the words “my father’ll…”
“Was that a threat, Longbottom? Is that how your father taught you to behave?” Tom asked, clicking his tongue the way Mrs. Cole sometimes did when the orphans misbehaved. The red in Longbottom’s cheeks deepened to a nasty shade of puce.
“At least my father’s a wizard,” Longbottom grumbled.
Tom hissed, so furious that he lapsed into snake-language for a second. Longbottom blanched and backed away so fast that he stumbled against the shelves before regaining his balance and fleeing around the corner.
As Longbottom’s footsteps faded away, Tom became aware of his pulse rushing in his ears, and the way his knees felt like they’d turned to water. He sat down with a thump and didn’t move for a very long time.
I’m going to be a Gaunt by the time I get to Hogwarts, he told himself at last, furiously. And everyone is going to know it.
To: Mr. J. M. Morrison
January 4, 1938
Dear Mr. Morrison:
I am writing this letter because the late Merope Gaunt was my mother and I am hoping for your assistance in becoming the heir to my family. I understand that there will be difficulties in doing this, since I am a half-blood and an orphan to boot, but I remain hopeful that you will be able to help me.
Tom Marvolo Riddle
Tom sat back in his chair to read over the letter once more. He’d gone through about a dozen drafts already, and he was finally satisfied that it was—well, not perfect, but probably as good as it would ever get.
The last couple of days had been infuriating, mostly because Tom had to spend his mornings stuck in the damp little classroom while spindly old Miss Malthus rattled on about Grammar or Arithmetic or whatever else she felt they needed to learn. Then there were chores in the afternoon—Tom had never hated chores so much as he did now, when they kept him away from Diagon Alley. He had managed to get away in the evenings, but it wasn’t enough.
Tom gave the letter a final, nervous glance, and then folded it up and tucked it into the envelope he’d brought home from the Diagon Alley Post Office today. He picked up his wand and cautiously tapped the envelope three times. The man at the post office had said it was charmed to vanish and reappear in the To Deliver bin, but Tom still had to stifle a yelp when the envelope disappeared with a little snapping noise.
He stayed put for a few minutes, drumming his fingers against the side of his chair and working up the nerve for the other, and to his mind more risky, part of his plan. Then, filled with an odd, jittery excitement, he got to his feet and marched downstairs.
His steps slowed down as he reached the bottom of the stairs, though Tom told himself firmly that it was because he didn’t want to irritate Mrs. Cole by stomping down the hallway to her office, and not because he was nervous. As he reached the office door, he paused for a moment to smooth down the front of his shirt and brush his fringe out of his eyes before knocking.
“Come in,” Mrs. Cole called. Tom made sure that his face was still arranged into an innocent, hopeful expression, then pushed open the door and went in.
Mrs. Cole’s eyebrows rose ominously as Tom shut the door behind him. “Is something the matter, Tom?” she asked.
“Not exactly,” Tom said, making his voice quaver on the last syllable. He made sure to duck his head a little as he walked forward. “It’s about the summer trip this year,” he added, peeking up at her.
To Mrs. Cole’s credit, she only blinked a few times before saying, “It’s January, Tom.”
“I know,” Tom said. “But I found out—you remember Mr. Penrose?” Mrs. Cole nodded. Tom curled his shoulders up and dropped his chin a little more, hoping he wasn’t overdoing it. He hadn’t done much of this sort of thing before, but he’d watched the others begging for things often enough and they always looked a bit like scared rabbits. “He said he knew someone named Marvolo who lived in a place called Little Hangleton,” Tom said in a rush. He’d practiced that bit, making sure that it was quick enough to sound nervous but not so fast that Mrs. Cole would mishear him.
The corners of Mrs. Cole’s eyes softened a little, and Tom knew he’d won. “That’s a very… That is, Tom, I don’t think you should get your hopes up too much,” she said, in a gentle tone that Tom had heard her use with the other orphans but never with him. He ducked his head further, so that his chin was nearly brushing the top button of his shirt, and clasped his hands together as if he were trying to stop himself from fidgeting.
“He’s dead now,” Tom whispered as he stared at his shoes. “But… I thought maybe… we could visit there anyway?”
Mrs. Cole let out a sigh. Tom kept very still, the corners of his mouth twitching towards a smirk despite his best efforts to stop them. At last she reached out and touched his shoulder, and Tom couldn’t help but startle. He couldn’t remember the last time Mrs. Cole had touched him. “I’ll see what I can do, Tom,” she said, still gently.
Triumph seared in Tom’s chest, and he kept his head down to hide his smile. “Thanks,” he said.
He hurried out of the office before Mrs. Cole could see him grinning. As he took the stairs to his room two at a time, it occurred to him that there might really be some use in acting like a frightened rabbit.
The good mood from his triumph with Mrs. Cole lasted until noon the next day, when Tom snuck away after lunch to check the Diagon Alley Post Office for a reply from the Ministry. The young wizard behind the counter gave Tom a bored glance before disappearing into a back room and returning a second later with a crisp envelope in hand. Tom broke the wax seal with trembling fingers, but his heart sank as he read the letter.
To: Mr. Tom Marvolo Riddle
Diagon Alley Post Office
January 5, 1938
Dear Mr. Riddle:
I regret to inform you that, due to your half-blood status, the Ministry is unable to interfere in the matter of inheritance as per the Second Edict for the Preservation of Blood Integrity, Section D, paragraph 9, which states that no half-blood may be made heir to an established pure-blood family except by the decision of the family’s paterfamilias or in the event that no better-eligible relatives are available or willing to accept the role of paterfamilias if the current paterfamilias is eliminated by death or law.
In your case, since Adalbert Mordaunt is related to the Gaunts through his paternal grandmother and the role of paterfamilias would fall to him in the event of Morfin Gaunt’s removal from the family, I would advise that you contact Mr. Gaunt directly and appeal to him to make you his heir instead of Mr. Mordaunt.
I wish you the best of luck in your endeavor.
J. M. Morrison
Tom did not immediately crumple the letter and set in on fire, but it was a very near thing. Instead, he folded it up again and shoved it into a pocket, then stormed out of the post office. He fumed silently as he went, and feeling irritated with himself on top of that because he was fuming even though he’d sort of expected something like this anyway.
He went straight to Flourish & Blotts and, to his surprise, calmed down a little as soon as he set foot in the shop. The quiet murmurs coming from the direction of the till, and the weighty, solemn feel of the air from all the books… Tom took several deep breaths and felt his pulse return to normal.
It didn’t take him long to find a book on magical laws, and he thumbed through it until he found a summary of the Edicts for the Preservation of Blood Integrity. The Edicts were a set of five laws passed during the decade after the Statute of Secrecy went into effect, and they regulated the amount of control the Ministry had over pure-blood inheritance laws. The important one, for Tom’s situation, was the second, which kept the Ministry from being able to force an established pure-blood family to recognize anyone as part of the family—and thus under the command and protection of the paterfamilias—for any reason.
Tom bared his teeth angrily, feeling briefly helpless.
He’d been planning on returning to the orphanage right away, for chores, since he was trying to stay on Mrs. Cole’s good side at least until she’d confirmed the trip to Little Hangleton, but Tom felt that his family was more important. Carefully, he returned the law book to the shelf and slipped farther into Flourish & Blotts, to where the chairs were.
Tom always carried a pen with him, so it was only a matter of borrowing a bit of parchment from a young witch—Tom thought she must be a student of some sort, probably just out of Hogwarts, because she was surrounded by a tower of books and writing what looked like an essay on goblins. When he asked, she shoved a roll of blank parchment in his direction without looking up and kept writing. Tom didn’t bother thanking her, since she looked like the continued distraction would just annoy her.
Then he returned to his usual chair and began to write, more hastily than he had the letter to the Inheritance Office.
Dear Mr. Morfin:
You probably don’t know that I even exist, but I am the son of Merope Gaunt and I am on the advice of the Ministry writing to you about the possibility of my becoming the Gaunt heir. I know that you may be reluctant because I am a half-blood but I hope you will at least consider it.
Tom Marvolo Riddle.
Tom took this letter back to the post office, where he paid three Knuts for its delivery. The wizard at the counter raised an eyebrow, but mercifully said nothing, when he saw the address.
It turned very cold as Tom was leaving the Leaky Cauldron, and he ran all the way back to the orphanage, slipping only once on a patch of ice on the corner. He made it inside just as it began to really snow, and smirked.
Fortunately, neither Mrs. Cole nor any of her helpers were around to notice Tom’s return, and he slunk back up to his room without anyone noticing. There he froze just inside the doorway, because there was an owl on his bed.
It blinked up at him balefully, and made a noise that sounded more like a dog’s bark than a proper hoot as he approached. Tom reached out for the letter tied to its leg, and it fluttered its wings and snapped at his fingers. He succeeded in the end, with a bit of blood to show for it, and unfolded the letter. It was written in a strange, spiky hand that reminded Tom of broken glass.
Are you fond of riddles? You ought to be, with your name.
You’ve certainly caught my attention, this past week, like any good riddle ought to. I’m not the only one, you know. Frightening Longbottom’s heir like that—and you a half-blood, too!—all of the old families are watching you weave.
One hopes that you won’t disappoint them.
Remember, Riddle: the stars are watching, too. The stars always watch—and they are the hardest of all to please. So look to the stars, and weave.
The letter was unsigned. Tom reread it, twice, and then shook his head, unable to make any sense of it. He glanced up at the owl, which was still sitting on his bed and looking pointedly away from him. “No response,” he said quietly. The owl flapped its wings twice and launched off the bed. It swooped out the open window with another bark, and was gone.
Tom stood up slowly, his movements feeling oddly dreamlike, and shut the window after it. He looked at the letter again, frowning. At last he folded it up again and slipped it between the pages of Practical Defensive Magic. He would worry about it later.
Bloody right I didn’t know that my useless lump of a sister had a little Mudblood spawn from that filthy Muggle she made off with. Dirty muckloving Squib. Bet you’re a Squib too, you worthless Mudblood piece of scum—as if you could be a Gaunt with foul Muggle slime in your blood—and a dirty slut for a mother, eh? Disgusting mudwallower—I’ll slit your dirty little throat if I ever see you, I’ll…
Tom closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. The letter went on for three pages, although half of one hardly counted because it had been stained completely black when, Tom guessed, Morfin had knocked over an inkwell on it. After the first paragraph it got a lot less coherent, and on the second page there was a long paragraph where Morfin had mentioned Slytherin’s locket—whatever that was—in almost every sentence and which seemed to have nothing to do with the rest of the letter.
Angrily, Tom crumpled the letter up and threw it against the wardrobe. It bounced away and landed in the corner, and he glared at it for a moment before flopping back onto the bed and passing a hand over his eyes.
That, Tom thought wearily, was a complete disaster.
He couldn’t turn to the Ministry, and trying to contact Morfin again would be dangerous and useless anyway… Tom closed his eyes, picturing the letter from the Inheritance Office—he’d read it and the anonymous letter so many times in the last two days that the words seemed burned into his memory.
His first two options had fallen through. That left Adalbert Mordaunt.
From Nature’s Nobility, Tom knew that Adalbert Mordaunt’s paternal grandmother had been called Medea Gaunt, and Adalbert was nineteen and had left Hogwarts only a year or two ago. A bit or searching in Flourish & Blotts unearthed a bit of the family history; the Mordaunts were one of a dozen Dark families in a series of overlapping alliances, called the Dark Circle, that had existed for nearly two centuries. They were also relatively famous for being one of the few old pure-blood families that didn’t get rid of Squibs at all, which gave Tom hope that Adalbert might be more willing to help than Morfin had been.
Tom hunted through the handful of used book shops in Diagon Alley until he found one with old editions of the Daily Prophet, and he sorted through these in the hopes that Adalbert might have done something newsworthy at some point in the last few years. He saw his name mentioned in the sports section of several papers; Adalbert had been on the Ravenclaw House Quidditch team, whatever that was. Then there was an obituary for Adalbert’s father, Berengar Mordaunt, from six months ago. At last, Tom found a paper from last June had a list of students who had left Hogwarts and what they were planning on doing now; Adalbert had apparently gotten an internship at the Daily Prophet.
Feeling accomplished and a little smug, Tom left the shop and started back towards the Flourish & Blotts. He wasn’t going to rush into things, this time. He would wait, and teach himself more about the wizarding world, and then, when he was ready, he would approach Adalbert and ask for his help.
Despite everything, Tom grinned.
Chapter 3: Family Matters
The next few weeks passed more-or-less uneventfully. Tom went down to Diagon Alley almost every day, except for a few in the middle of January because he’d caught a nasty cold and Mrs. Cole made him stay inside until he’d recovered, and spent a few hours every evening reading in Flourish & Blotts. Mostly he read about recent history, and specific families, and occasionally he’d read about magical law even though it was frightfully boring. Mrs. Cole pulled him aside one night after dinner to tell him that she’d made arrangements for the trip to Little Hangleton that summer, and Tom was torn between exultance and terror as he thought what Morfin might do if they met in person.
He studied out of his textbooks, too, mostly late at night, but this was frustrating because he couldn’t practice any of the magic they talked about. Tom had tentatively concluded that his minor talent for wandless magic was small enough not to break the Statute of Secrecy as long as he didn’t do it blatantly, but he’d read that the Ministry had ways of monitoring underage wand magic and he was rather afraid to try in case they arrested him.
Nearly a month had passed since Penrose’s visit, and Tom had just started to get interested in the mess of theories surrounding Light and Dark magic. He’d found a book about it, A Theoretical Examination of the Fundamental Principles of Light and Dark Arts, and had just settled down to read when a hand descended onto his shoulder.
Tom managed to stop the scream before it left his mouth, and ended up making a strangled noise as he looked up into the stern face of a witch with rectangular silver spectacles balanced on the bridge of her large, bent nose. He recognized her, with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, as the manager of the shop.
She did not, however, immediately throw him out. Instead she nodded slightly towards the book in Tom’s lap and, in a mild, faintly amused tone, said, “Do your parents know you’re reading Profondes?”
“Er, no,” Tom said, startled. “I haven’t got parents. They’re dead.”
The manager blinked down at him over the rim of her spectacles. An emotion that wasn’t quite pity appeared in her dark grey eyes. “Your guardian, then,” she said. Her voice, while still mild, had lost the amused lilt.
Tom raised the shoulder that didn’t have her hand on it in a half-hearted shrug. “Mrs. Cole’s a Muggle,” he said, “and she’s got about two dozen other children to look after.” He frowned up at the manager. “I can take care of myself,” he added, stubbornly.
The manager straightened up and took her hand off his shoulder. “I’m sure you can,” she said calmly. “It’s just…” she gestured down at the book again. “Profondes does seem a bit advanced for someone who’s not even started at Hogwarts yet.”
If she had said it like Miss Malthus would have, like she expected Tom to immediately hand the book over and start reading something simpler instead, Tom would have hated her. As it was, she sounded almost… impressed, and Tom was disarmed into honesty. “It’s hard,” he admitted. “I have to look up a lot of the words.” He tapped the large dictionary that he’d dragged over from the reference section weeks ago and hidden under the chair so it wouldn’t get re-shelved. The way the manager’s eyes crinkled at the corners told him she knew about that. “But it’s also interesting.” He stuck out his chin, daring her to argue.
She didn’t. The corners of her mouth quirked upwards, and she bent a little at the waist in a tiny bow. “You’ll be in Ravenclaw for sure,” she said dryly. “What’s your name, then?”
“Tom Riddle,” Tom said. “Er, Merope Gaunt was my mother, though,” he added. Surprise flickered briefly in the manager’s eyes.
“My name is Muirgen Argall,” the manager said. Tom, recognizing the name from Nature’s Nobility, inclined his head respectfully in her direction. “You may call me Miss Argall.”
“Pleasure to meet you, ma’am,” he said.
Miss Argall smiled again, her lips curling up for a half-second. “You know, Tom, I can explain Profondes in terms you’ll have an easier time understanding.” She was studying his face very closely, Tom noticed, with a very intent look in her eyes.
Slowly, Tom said, “But… wouldn’t that—I mean, don’t you have to work?” He thought he saw approval flicker in Miss Argall’s eyes, just for a second, but he might have imagined it.
“I have a lunch break from one to two every day, except Sunday,” Miss Argall said smoothly. “Besides, I know you’re a dedicated student—any eleven year old who’d willingly touch Profondes would have to be. I approve of dedication, and I think it ought to be rewarded.”
“Well… alright,” Tom said, feeling a bit awkward. This seemed uncomfortably like the sort of thing that would get him into debt and be an annoyance later on. “I—I haven’t got any money, or anything—”
“You can help Mathilda with the shelving, if you’re worried about owing me for it,” Miss Argall said, sounding amused. “She’s the uncommonly tall one, with the freckles. I’m sure you’ve seen her around.” Tom had; he nodded slowly. Miss Argall brought the tips of her fingers together and raised them to her chin. “Excellent,” she said. “I take lunch in the back room. It’s through the door behind the counter. I’ll modify the wards to let you in, and you can start tomorrow.”
Her brisk tone made it clear that the matter was ended, so Tom slid a smile onto his face. “Alright,” he said. Miss Argall gave him a final, fleeting smile and then vanished around the corner of the nearest shelf.
Tom blinked after her for a while, unsure whether he ought to be feeling happy about having proper lessons, or suspicious about Miss Argall’s motives. After a while he shook his head, sighed, and returned to the Theoretical Examination.
Lessons with Miss Argall weren’t at all like Tom had expected they would be. He’d had a vague idea about quietly taking notes while Miss Argall lectured, and maybe asking a question every now and then. What he hadn’t expected was to spend most of the first lesson answering questions about every subject imaginable; Miss Argall said it was so that she could get an idea of what he already knew. Then she’d handed him a stack of books and assigned essays, and when Tom had looked surprised she’d actually laughed.
“I tutored my own children before they went to Hogwarts,” she’d said, still smiling, while Tom put the books into a shopping bag. “I’ve rather missed it, to be honest.”
“Three of them. My youngest, Connor, is in his fifth year now. Prefect.” Pride glinted in her eyes as she spoke.
Tom didn’t mind the homework at all, really, even though it did lead to a lot of late nights and occasional punishments from Miss Malthus when he fell asleep in her lessons. There wasn’t much logic in the reading that Miss Argall assigned him; it covered everything from magical history to dragon breeding to basic arithmancy.
The lessons themselves were varied, too. If Tom had questions about a particular subject, Miss Argall would talk about that. Usually, though, she told him stories about the magical world, commonplace things that Tom probably wouldn’t have found in books, like house-elves, or else current events that were so new that there weren’t any books on them yet, like the controversy over the brand-new Hogwarts Express.
About a week after the lessons started, Miss Argall mentioned the Trace, a charm the Ministry used to monitor magic around underage wizards. It only took a bit of coaxing on Tom’s part to get her to admit that there was a loophole to the charm, and that the Ministry couldn’t tell whether the magic came from the underage wizard or from an adult nearby.
“That’s not permission to use magic in Diagon Alley, though,” Miss Argall said, looking stern. “Underage magic is still illegal.”
Which, Tom thought, later that day as he was settling down in the a tiny gap between Flourish & Blotts and the next-door shop with A Beginner’s Guide to Charms tucked under one arm, really just meant “don’t get caught.”
Tom rifled through the pages until he found the levitation charm. It wasn’t a charm that particularly interested him, because he could accomplish the same thing without a wand, but Tom felt that he should probably start with an easy spell. He found a loose brick—heavy enough that he’d have trouble moving it without a wand, and pulled out his wand with a little thrill of excitement. He hadn’t dared to use it at all since the first day, after he’d read that underage magic was illegal.
With a final glance at the book to make sure he’d gotten the incantation right, Tom flicked his wand at the brick and muttered, “Wingardium leviosa.”
The brick twitched a little, but stayed resolutely on the ground. Tom muttered a curse in snake-language—or Parseltongue, as Miss Argall had told him it was properly called—and consulted the book again. He adjusted his grip on the wand a little, and carefully imitated the movement in the moving diagram in the bottom corner of the page.
Tom ground his teeth together furiously as the brick twitched again. He slashed his wand at it again, not bothering with an incantation this time. It would move, or else.
It did, leaping several feet into the air and slamming into the side of Flourish & Blotts hard enough to chip a few fragments off of the wall. Tom blinked at it for a moment, the sighed and rocked back on his heels. Only a few weeks ago he would have considered that a resounding success—magic was magic, after all—but with all the reading he had done, and what Miss Argall said on top of that…
All power, no control, Tom thought glumly, and returned to the book.
Nearly an hour later, Tom managed to get the brick to rise about a foot in the air, slowly, and stay there for almost a full minute. Exhausted, but very pleased with himself, he tucked A Beginner’s Guide to Charms under his arm and slunk back into Flourish & Blotts. Miss Argall was speaking with a lanky wizard by the Ancient Runes display, and she sent a quick, knowing glance in Tom’s direction as he passed. Tom grinned, unrepentant.
He found a roll of parchment in the back room—one of the benefits of Miss Argall’s lessons was that none of the staff looked twice at Tom any more and he was allowed to go where he pleased—and settled down to write. Miss Argall, by now, knew most of the details of the situation with Tom’s family and what Tom intended to do about it, and she’d seemed to think it was a good idea. At any rate, she hadn’t advised him against it, so Tom felt safer than he might have otherwise as he started the first draft of his letter to Adalbert Mordaunt. The parchment filled up very quickly with a mess of crossing-outs and little notes as he worked.
Tom wrote until his hand ached and he’d run out of parchment, then sat back to examine his work critically. Later tonight, at the orphanage, he’d write up a final draft to send tomorrow. A prickle of unease ran down his neck at the thought; he couldn’t shake the feeling that this was his last chance, and that if Adalbert decided not to help, Tom would be just Riddle forever.
Tom had known the wizarding world long enough to have noticed that there were only a handful of acknowledged half-bloods mentioned in history books, and that the inhabitants of Diagon Alley rarely even bothered hiding their disdain when they saw someone who bore obvious signs of a Muggle background. They certainly didn’t for Tom, even though he made a habit of changing into robes immediately after reaching the Leaky Cauldron.
Even Miss Argall, for all that she tried to hide it, sent Tom pitying glances when she thought he couldn’t see. It had dawned on him slowly, those first few days, that she saw him at least partly as a charity project, someone to be pitied for his upbringing and his father’s blood.
Tom hated it.
He knew that becoming a Gaunt wouldn’t make it stop, because he still had so much to learn about the wizarding world and people would notice that. But if he could introduce himself as a Gaunt, as a member of one of the oldest pure-blood families around, there would be less pity and more… something. What, exactly, that something was, Tom hadn’t figured out yet, but he knew that he wanted it more desperately than he had ever wanted anything, except maybe to go to Hogwarts.
Tom tilted the parchment a little to make sure the ink was dry, then rolled it up and slipped it into his pocket. He had to be back at the orphanage in time for dinner, and he had a lot to get done before then.
As he left the post office the next afternoon, Tom noticed the girl. It was hard not to, because she and two adults who could only be her parents were dressed in Muggle clothing, and carrying shopping bags from Flourish & Blotts, Madam Malkin’s, and the apothecary. The girl, who was about Tom’s height and had a lot of wavy black hair, stared openly at Tom as he walked past. Tom eyed her warily in return.
She was probably a Muggleborn who’d just received her Hogwarts letter—Miss Argall had told him that they were traditionally sent on the eleventh birthday—which meant that she’d be part of Tom’s year at Hogwarts. Tom weighed his options quickly; if he introduced himself now, he’d have an ally in the event that his plan with Adalbert failed. On the other hand, if he did make a point of associating with a Muggleborn, he ran the risk of alienating pure-bloods later on, especially if he succeeded in taking the Gaunt name.
Tom settled for a polite, vague nod in her direction. He could feel her eyes on the back of his head as he continued down the alley. It made his hand twitch towards his wand and the hairs on the back of his neck prickle uncomfortably. As he pushed open the door to go into Flourish & Blotts, Tom couldn’t resist another glance over his shoulder. The girl was still watching at him, while her parents exclaimed over the owl sleeping on the sign over Eeylops’ Owl Emporium. Tom shuddered, and hastened to find a book to take his mind off rude Muggleborns who didn’t know better than to stare at people.
He selected a thick volume titled Modern Magical Alliances in the history section and let it fall open at random in his lap.
…most notably the Aymslowes and the Kneens. In the immediate aftermath of the final battle on the vernal equinox of 1796, Adrasteia Eldritch took steps to initiate a familial alliance between herself, Paramonos Ares, and Eltanin Black. This had the effect of finalizing a mass alliance between the seven most powerful Dark families in Britain at the time. It was known then as the Confederation; it has since been renamed the Dark Circle.
At the point of its highest prominence in the early nineteenth century, the Dark Circle included thirteen families (see Appendix C for a complete list and chart of specific alliances). With the sudden near-extinction of the Gaunt family beginning shortly after the Smoldering Plague of 1834, and the subsequent withdrawal of the Corcorans from wizarding society, however, the Dark Circle’s power and influence began to decline somewhat.
In recent years, distrust and fighting between the families of the Dark Circle and unaffiliated Dark families has served to strengthen the internal alliances within the Dark Circle and to allow a coalition of Light families to gain more standing within certain…
The sound of his name pulled Tom’s attention out of the book. He looked around, and saw Mathilda, Miss Argall’s assistant, holding out a letter. “This just came for you,” she said. Tom took it, bewildered, and noticed that the envelope had been addressed so hastily that his name was barely legible.
“Thanks,” Tom muttered, as he slit the envelope open and pulled out the letter within. It, too, was written in a cramped and untidy scrawl. Tom glanced at the signature at the bottom of the page, and his heart leapt up into his throat.
Tom was hardly conscious of dropping back into his chair as he read.
I hope you won’t object to my replying so quickly or with such familiarity to your request—but I was so elated by your letter that I couldn’t wait. So.
When I was a boy I had very little contact with my grandmother, only enough to know that she was a frigid bitch and I never wanted anything to do with her or her extended family, whom she was fond of comparing to mine in tones of utter disgust. Whenever I visited her it was always the Gaunts this, the Gaunts that, and—well. The point is that I don’t want to be given any kind of responsibility that links me to the Gaunt name any more than I already am, especially since that responsibility would come with absolutely nothing that would benefit me, as I have the Mordaunt wealth and name to fall back on and more than enough stress to be getting on with between adjusting to my father’s death and my job at the Prophet.
I leave work at four today. I’d be happy to meet with you in Diagon Alley—perhaps the Leaky Cauldron?—around then to discuss things in more depth.
Tom let out a long, shaky sigh as he finished reading and folded the letter up again. He glanced up at Mathilda, who was hovering awkwardly and trying very hard to look like she hadn’t been craning her neck to read over Tom’s shoulder, and said, “Can you send a reply for me? Just say that I’ll meet him at the Leaky Cauldron at four-thirty.”
Mathilda nodded at him. “Sure. Good news?”
“Very,” Tom said. He was fairly sure that Adalbert had been honest with him, and he felt an odd mixture of relief and joy and terror at the idea of what they were about to do.
“I heard from Adalbert Mordaunt today,” Tom said without preamble as he walked into the back room of Flourish & Blotts. Miss Argall looked up at him over the rims of her spectacles. Surprise flashed in her eyes for a second before she smoothed it over, and Tom felt a flash of irritation. He wondered whether she’d expected him to succeed at all, or just not this soon.
“What did he say?” she asked, in the expressionless voice she used whenever she didn’t want Tom to know what she was feeling.
Tom stomped on his annoyance and mimicked her tone as he said, “He seemed open to the idea. Apparently he and his grandmother had… disagreements… while she was alive.”
Miss Argall blinked at him, a faint smile on her face. “That’s wonderful,” she said. Tom smiled back at her as the last shreds of irritation evaporated. He reminded himself, firmly, that Miss Argall did like him and respect him enough to make an effort to hide any pity she felt towards him, which was a lot more than could be said for some of the other wizards and witches he’d met in Diagon Alley.
One day, he was sure, no one would have to pity him. The thought threatened to turn Tom’s smile into a smirk, so he distracted himself from it by settling into his usual chair. “Yesterday you mentioned the Founders’ Schism? Can you tell me more about that?”
“Of course.” Miss Argall picked idly at her sandwich as she spoke. “Hogwarts records indicate that the Founders ran their school together for almost a decade before the first signs of disagreement between Slytherin and the other three appeared. It progressed quickly from there—”
“But how did it start?” Tom asked eagerly. He’d read what little he could find on the subject, mostly in Hogwarts, a History, but had found nothing about the cause of the initial disagreement. Miss Argall gave him a stern look, and Tom ducked his head in apology. She encouraged him to ask questions, but interrupting was rude.
“No one really knows,” Miss Argall said. Tom looked up in time to see her shrugging unconcernedly. “They did live over a thousand years ago, after all.”
Tom thought that was no good reason not to know something so important, but he held his tongue this time.
“The commonly accepted theory is that Slytherin became concerned by the levels of suspicion with which Muggles at the time viewed magic, and that he felt that Muggleborn students admitted to Hogwarts might pose a threat to their wizard-born fellows should they decide to side with their Muggle parents. At any rate, a rift grew between Slytherin and the others over the period of about three years, at the end of which Slytherin left the school permanently.” She sighed. “After this, our knowledge of Slytherin’s life becomes far less concrete, since most of what we know of him came from the the journals of his wife, who died prior to the schism, and the other Founders and from the historical records of Hogwarts itself. He was an intensely private man, you see, and disinclined to keep personal notes.”
“But he had children?” Tom said.
Miss Argall smiled. “All adults by the time Slytherin left the school, and he had little contact with them following the break.” She cleared her throat delicately, and Tom grinned, knowing that her story was about to get interesting. “It was around this time that Godelot’s War began. Godelot was one of the first students educated at Hogwarts, and often noted as one of Ravenclaw’s star pupils. Legend has it that, following the completion of his education, he went on to found a school of his own, where he taught Dark Arts. Through the school Godelot recruited dozens of followers, who, in turn, helped him to raise an army of horrifically Dark creatures. Some historians have credited him with the creation of Dementors, spectral creatures that feed on human emotions, although that is little more than speculation. In any case, the remaining Founders gathered followers of their own in preparation for the war they were certain was approaching.
“We know from Godelot’s opus, Magick Moste Evile, that he approached Slytherin—who had a reputation for being the Darkest of the Founders and had taught Dark Arts while still at Hogwarts—in hopes of gaining Slytherin’s support in the war, and that Slytherin refused. Incensed, Godelot brought the full wrath of his army to Slytherin’s home, and Slytherin was forced to flee. What became of him afterwards is a complete mystery, save that he never reconciled with the other three Founders.”
“And the Founders won the war,” Tom prompted, because Miss Argall looked as if she’d finished for the moment.
“They nearly didn’t,” Miss Argall said placidly. “Godelot’s army was better equipped, better trained, and quite a bit larger than the force the Founders managed to raise, and even their own combined strength—the Founders were the most powerful witches and wizards of their day, you know—was not enough to match Godelot’s superior forces.”
“What happened, then?”
Miss Argall smiled. “Godelot was murdered by his own son,” she said. “Hereward, another pupil of Ravenclaw’s, but apparently quite mad. After his death, Godelot’s followers were unable to command the Dark army he had raised, and the creatures went on a rampage. Godelot’s human followers were decimated, and the Founders turned their attentions to the simpler task of containing the out-of-control Dark creatures before returning to Hogwarts.”
Tom drew breath to ask another question, but the clock on the wall chimed two and Miss Argall got to her feet. “Kneen’s The Founder’s War tells the story in a bit more detail,” she said. Tom nodded.
“Thanks,” he said.
He waited until the door had shut completely before letting out a soft, disappointed sigh. He was, after all, a descendent of Slytherin. Naturally he was curious about his famous ancestor, and what little Tom knew of the Founder had only served to make him even more curious.
He knew that, prior to Hogwarts, Slytherin had been a master dueler and an alchemist who supposedly dabbled in blood magic. At Hogwarts, Slytherin had taught Dark Arts and alchemy and was famous for having extremely loud arguments with Ravenclaw over the construction of Hogwarts, which continued well into the school’s second decade of operation.
And then Slytherin had left Hogwarts for good. There was, of course, the legend of the Chamber of Secrets, which Tom had read about in Hogwarts, a History, and dismissed as probably either fictional or a huge exaggeration, and what Miss Argall had just told him of Godelot’s War, but beyond that… nothing. It was as if Slytherin had vanished off the face of the earth.
Tom sighed, and went to find The Founder’s War so he could read it before his meeting with Adalbert Mordaunt.
At four-thirty, Tom entered the Leaky Cauldron from the Muggle side. He’d gone to the orphanage to retrieve the letter from Morfin Gaunt, which was safely tucked into his pocket. From what he could see of the pub, Adalbert wasn’t there yet, so Tom took advantage of the time to change back into his robes and to choose the table. It was close to the courtyard that led into Diagon Alley, far enough away from other patrons to ensure that they wouldn’t be overheard but not so private as to invite eavesdropping charms.
He didn’t have long to wait before Adalbert arrived. Tom had no trouble recognizing him, because he was still wearing a badge that marked him as a Prophet employee and there were ink-stains on his fingers.
Adalbert was rather tall and lanky, with arms that dangled almost to his knees and crooked spectacles perched on the end of his thin nose. Surprise crossed his face for an instant when he saw Tom, but he smoothed it over quickly and hurried over to the table. “Are you Tom?” he asked mildly once he was within earshot. Tom nodded, and Adalbert grinned. “I was expecting someone a bit… older,” he admitted, as he flung himself into the seat across from Tom.
“Sorry to disappoint,” Tom said. He let his eyebrows quirk up a little and Adalbert shrugged easily.
“Eh, regardless, if you want the Gaunt name, far be it from me to get in your way. You’re welcome to it.” Adalbert hesitated, then added quickly, “Not that it’s a bad family, of course, it’s a brilliant family, I just…”
Tom couldn’t quite hide his smirk. “I understand,” he said, and Adalbert relaxed again.
“Right,” Adalbert said. He cleared his throat and reached into a pocket, from which he retrieved a little notebook and a rather crumpled quill. He shook the notebook open and frowned at Tom over the top of it. “You said in your letter that Morfin Gaunt threatened you?”
“Among… other things,” Tom said dryly. He pulled out Morfin’s letter and slid it across the table for Adalbert to read. The older boy’s frown deepened and he chewed thoughtfully on the end of the quill as he read.
At last Adalbert shook his head and jotted something down in his notebook. “Well, you were right,” he said vaguely, still writing. “Insults aside, he did threaten to kill you and I’m pretty sure the reference to the Cruciatuscurse on the third page is an imprisonable offense, since it’s pretty obviously used in a threatening manner.” He finished writing with a flourish and grinned up at Tom. “Can I make a copy of the letter?” he asked.
Tom blinked. “Please do,” he said. Adalbert nodded. He made an odd motion with his free hand, and his wand slid out of his sleeve with a clicking noise. He tapped it against the letter. There was a faint crackling noise, and the letter duplicated itself.
“Now,” Adalbert said, as he folded up his copy of the letter and slipped it between the pages of his notebook, “we should also have some more details about you, specifically, so people will be more inclined to sympathy for you instead of for your uncle.” Tom gave an irritable twitch at that, and Adalbert raised his eyebrows. “What?”
“I don’t want their pity,” Tom muttered, aware that he was being childish and not caring particularly.
Adalbert shrugged. “You’re going to get it whether you want it or not,” he said calmly. “No matter how we spin it, you’re going to get people simpering and going, ‘oh, the poor dear, struggling to overcome adversity like that.’ There’s not much you can do about it, really, except ignore it.” He grinned. Tom glared at him for a moment before sighing.
“Alright,” Tom said. Adalbert’s grin widened.
Over the next half hour, Tom answered a barrage of questions, about the orphanage, and how he’d discovered his magic—Adalbert seemed very interested by the fact that Tom had learned to control it before learning about Hogwarts—and Professor Penrose’s visit and nearly everything that had happened to Tom since he’d first come to Diagon Alley. Tom made sure to mention his ability as a parselmouth, since that was something the Gaunts were known for and, as it turned out, something Adalbert didn’t have.
“That’ll be another count in your favor,” Adalbert said cheerfully. “My grandmother was always going on about how neither dad nor I could do it on account of having Squib blood in us. My great-great grandmother was one, see.”
Tom nodded, remembering what he’d read about the Mordaunts and their peculiar tolerance for Squibs.
They talked until a little after five, and Adalbert promised that Tom would see the results by the end of the week before half-running back into Diagon Alley. Tom took his time leaving the Leaky Cauldron, though, feeling lighter than he had in a long time.
This might actually work. Tom felt his mouth curve into a predatory smile at the thought, and he walked back to Wool’s Orphanage with a spring in his step.
Chapter 4: The Herbology Mistress
Tom knew at once when Adalbert had succeeded, even before he could get to Diagon Alley and see the evidence of it with his own eyes. The owl—wearing a band and a pouch around its right leg that identified it as a Prophet owl—soared into Tom’s bedroom at Wool’s Orphanage very early one morning and dropped the rolled-up newspaper onto his face. Not quite awake, Tom spluttered for a moment before he felt able to sit up and pay the owl, which nipped his thumb lightly before flapping away again. The window slammed shut behind it, and Tom winced at the noise before turning to examine the paper.
Any lingering shreds of sleepiness fled as soon as Tom saw the headline, and it was all he could do not to let out a whoop of exultant laughter.
D ESCENDANT OF P RIMARY G AUNT L INE T HREATENED W ITH U NFORGIVABLES
Tom read the whole article, which continued on three different pages and included a reproduction of the nastier parts of Morfin’s letter, and then he really did whoop. Adalbert—or perhaps Victor Bulstrode, to whom the article was actually credited—had a way with words, and he’d managed to weave the story of Tom’s upbringing into the article without ever explicitly mentioning that Tom was half-blood. It mentioned old traditions about patresfamilias who were determined unfit to govern their families, and made insinuations about the mental health of a man who’d been out of touch with wizarding society for so long, especially after imprisonment with the Dementors of Azkaban. The final few paragraphs were devoted to a furious condemnation of Morfin’s treatment of his heir and a plea to the Ministry to do something about it.
It was brilliant.
Adalbert must have really hated his grandmother, Tom thought, and he laughed.
Even Miss Malthus’ droning couldn’t spoil Tom’s mood that morning, any more than the half-curious, half-resentful glances the other orphans kept shooting him. Tom had only to stare back at them with his face wiped clean of emotion and they would look away nervously, and that made him feel even better.
The second owl that arrived right before Tom left for Diagon Alley, though, made him feel horribly as though his stomach had just tried to leap up into his throat, only to fall back like a sack full of bricks. It was the same muddy-brown one that had delivered the anonymous letter a few weeks ago, and it eyed him just as evilly now as it had then.
Tom approached it warily, but either his reflexes had improved or the owl was less interested in hurting him this time, and he came away with the letter and only the barest scratch along the back of his hand, not even deep enough to bleed.
This letter was written in the same spiky handwriting as before, although the ink this time was a dark red that reminded Tom uncomfortably of blood.
You have neglected your stargazing of late. The stars must be looked to, Mr. Riddle, lest their interest in you should start to wane. Or perhaps not, if your endgame shows improvement over your opening strike.
There is a saying, among the Light, that the sharpest blade is the one that strikes the deepest wound. You are sharp enough, Mr. Riddle, and your adversity is your whetstone, but that is not enough .
The deepest wound is not necessarily the fatal one. Remember that as you direct your game.
Tom folded the letter up, scowling. “No response,” he muttered, and the owl barked once before launching itself out the window. Tom slammed the window shut after it, and went to retrieve the other anonymous letter from its hiding spot in the wardrobe.
He suspected that his hour with Miss Argall was going to be a lot more interesting than usual, today.
“Well, they certainly seem to be warnings, of some sort, but…” Miss Argall shrugged helplessly, and lay both letters back onto the desk between them. Tom hid a smirk; though he was disappointed that Miss Argall couldn’t tell him anything more about the letters or their writer, he was a little pleased that she had no more idea than he did. It meant he probably hadn’t missed something painfully obvious. “Weaving and chess are both common metaphors among pure-blood families for political maneuvering,” she added, after a moment of silence in which they both stared at the letters. “But…”
“They’re so incoherent that I think it must be on purpose,” Tom said. “That whoever wrote them is trying to be vague and unhelpful.”
Miss Argall’s frown took on a thoughtful quality. “That is an interesting possibility,” she muttered, and tapped a finger against her chin. “Certainly these could be the work of someone trying to frighten you or otherwise unbalance you. Testing for weakness is a traditional part of pure-blood interaction, and with your name all over this morning’s Prophet, more people will be paying attention to your actions.”
“The first one came ages before the Prophet,” Tom said. “Someone connected to the letter-writer saw me snapping at Longbottom in Parseltongue.” He thought for a minute, then shook his head. “And they used magic to do it, because I would have noticed if someone was just watching.”
“I agree,” Miss Argall said, her frown deepening. “The question is why?”
Tom stared down at the letters silently, and tried to think. After Adalbert’s article, people were bound to find him more interesting. There would be those who wanted to help him get rid of Morfin Gaunt so they could use him later, and those who thought the idea of an eleven-year-old paterfamilias was laughable, and those who were just curious, and those who wanted to see him fail, and those who hated him because he was half-blood… Tom had been expecting that, and sort of wanting that, too, when he contacted Adalbert in the first place.
Before the article, though, nobody should have been paying attention to Tom at all. Oh, there were exceptions, of course, like Longbottom, who was his age and bound to be more curious because of that, or Miss Argall, who’d noticed him because of how much time Tom had spent in her shop, but generally, Tom was little better than that Muggleborn girl he’d seen a few days ago. He wasn’t interesting enough, then, to be worth spying on.
It might have been chance, but he doubted it. He would have noticed if someone had been standing there when he met Longbottom.
All of the old families are watching you weave.
Tom wondered if that was true. Well, it probably was true now, but then? If he assumed that the letter-writer was a pure-blood, and it certainly seemed that way, then the incident with Longbottom had been interesting enough to provoke him—or her—into writing a letter. Tom supposed it might be enough to make some of the old families interested in him, too. At the very least, Longbottom might have told his parents about it.
Briefly, he entertained the notion that the letter-writer was a Longbottom, but he set the idea carefully aside. The first letter made it sound as if the writer didn’t care much for the Longbottoms, and Tom didn’t know any of them well enough to know if that was the sort of thing they might do to hide their identities.
He let out a puff of breath, frustrated. “I don’t know,” he muttered.
Miss Argall looked equally put out. “Nor do I,” she said. “For now, I think, you should keep these letters to yourself and continue as you have been. That’s all you really can do, unless or until more information becomes available. Do tell me if you get another one.”
Tom sighed and scooped up both letters. “I will,” he said. A glance at the clock told him that it was nearly two, and he bade Miss Argall a quiet goodbye. She’d given him new books today, before he’d brought out the letters, and Tom wanted little more than to lock himself up in his room and start reading them. If nothing else, they would distract him from the letter problem.
Tom never got his chance to start reading, though, because Mrs. Cole ambushed him as he reached the stairs leading up to his room. She caught his arm and said one of the last things Tom had ever expected to hear while at the orphanage.
“There’s a lady in my office who wants to speak to you,” Mrs. Cole said. Tom blinked, twice.
“About what?” he said at last.
Mrs. Cole pursed her lips. “She says she’s your father’s solicitor.”
It was very hard not to splutter. Mrs. Cole patted his arm gently while she waited for him to regain his composure enough to speak. “What?”
“A very secretive sort, too,” Mrs. Cole said. Her grip on Tom’s arm tightened a little, and she guided him towards her office. “Said she needed to speak to you alone.” Right before the office door she stopped, and squeezed Tom’s arm unexpectedly. The concern in her eyes startled Tom even more. “Be careful, Tom.”
And she opened the door.
Right away, Tom could see why Mrs. Cole had referred to his guest as a lady. There was pride written on every line of her face, and her clothes were—well, she was rich, that was obvious.
There was also a cold glint in her black eyes that sent a shiver down Tom’s spine, and her otherwise elegant features were marred by two thick scars running down her cheek. Tom thought he knew why Mrs. Cole had told him to be careful, now, too.
He realized that he doubted that she was really his father’s solicitor.
The lady tilted her head a little as she scrutinized Tom, who tried very hard not to squirm. He wasn’t used to people looking at him like this, as if he were rare beetle that she were about to skewer, but he forced himself to meet her gaze as steadily as he could.
The silence stretched painfully, and Tom began to count in his head to keep from blurting out something stupid. He got almost to one hundred before the lady inclined her head slightly in his direction and said, “It is—fascinating to meet you, Mr. Riddle. My name is Lycoris Black.”
Tom stopped himself, barely, from asking her whether she belonged to the wizarding Black family, or a Muggle one. He couldn’t stop the quiver of excitement in his thoughts, because the Blacks were one of the oldest pure-blooded families in Britain, they’d been around since medieval times and they could trace their roots back to Roman court wizards, and if this Black was one of them—
He clamped down on the thought before it could get further out of control, and forced himself to say, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, madam.” He was pleased to hear that his voice had slipped into the polite, emotionless cadence that Miss Argall used sometimes. If Black noticed, she didn’t react.
Black’s eyes gleamed suddenly, and Tom took half a step back. She looked deranged, and it was such a sharp contrast to the cool look she’d had before that Tom almost didn’t realize that she was speaking again. “I’m here on behalf of the Auror Office,” she said, with what Tom thought was calculated carelessness.
“Oh,” Tom said faintly. She was one of those Blacks, then. Tom felt a bit dizzy, like he’d opened a door only to find the ground outside missing. The gleam in Black’s eyes sharpened, and the corners of her lips tugged upwards.
“Yes,” she said, sounding amused. “Generally, of course, an actual Auror would have been sent, but as you are a future student of mine, my presence was deemed more… fitting.”
Tom took a deep breath. “You teach at Hogwarts, madam?” he said. It wasn’t quite the tone he’d managed earlier, but at least he no longer sounded like he was about to swallow his own tongue.
For the first time, Black’s smile looked both genuine and sane. “I’m the Herbology mistress there,” she said. “As well as Head of Slytherin House.”
“I see,” Tom said. He licked his lips nervously, then wished he hadn’t. Black—Professor Black—might see it as a sign of weakness. “May I ask why the Aurors sent you to speak with me, madam?”
Professor Black tilted her head to one side, still smiling faintly, and gestured for Tom to sit down. There were scars on her hands, too, he noticed, including a thick, ropey one that disappeared up her right sleeve. Tom sat, warily, while Professor Black leaned back against Mrs. Cole’s desk. “You are, of course, aware that Morfin’s threats to use the Cruciatus Curse warrant a sentence in Azkaban, albeit a brief one,” Professor Black said, looking to Tom for confirmation. Tom nodded, and thought he saw a tiny glimmer of approval in her eyes. “There is little call for debate, in this case, since your ally at the Prophet was good enough to send a duplicate of the original letter along with this morning’s addition of the paper to the Auror Office this morning.” Professor Black smirked. “An inspired decision,” she murmured, “to enlist Adalbert’s help. Tell me, did you know of his hatred for his grandmother prior to contacting him?”
“No,” Tom said, as calmly as he could manage. “I knew his father had died recently, and I guessed that he would be under a lot of stress as a result, and that he wouldn’t want the responsibilities for that reason.”
Professor Black made a low humming noise in the back of her throat and examined Tom’s face for a moment. “I see,” she said at last. “At any rate, a team of Aurors will be dispatched to arrest Morfin Gaunt as soon as the warrant is cleared by the Wizengamot, which generally takes two days in cases like this.” She drummed her fingers against the end of the desk, her eyes gleaming madly. “He will most likely receive the maximum sentence of three months, since he is known to be unstable and your Adalbert has done such a marvelous job of stirring up public emotion on the matter. I imagine you will be quite the hero for a few days.”
“Morfin Gaunt has a criminal record,” Tom said quietly. “This will be the second time he’s gone to Azkaban.”
“And that puts him in one of the few situations wherein Ministry interference in pure-blood inheritance is allowable under the Edicts for the Preservation of Blood Integrity,” Professor Black said happily. “And, in this case, with Adalbert’s determination to inspire public support, they almost certainly will. Under Ministry law, heirship and the role of paterfamilias will pass to Morfin’s closest blood relative as soon as he is sentenced. Well played, Mr. Riddle.” Tom could hear the rest of that sentence—for someone your age, of course—as clearly as if she had actually spoken it, but he didn’t care.
“Thank you, madam,” Tom said, and he managed to keep most of the wild happiness out of his voice.
Professor Black straightened up and brushed a fleck of probably-imaginary dust off of her sleeve. She inclined her head in Tom’s direction again as she said, “I would ask that you keep the details of this visit to yourself. I placed a progressive memory charm on your Mrs. Cole as she left the office to find you. By now, she will not even remember that I was here. Being reminded of it could cause… complications.”
Tom felt his fingers twitch as he suppressed his surprise. “Alright,” he said, getting to his feet too. He bowed slightly. “It was a pleasure to meet you, madam.”
“I might say the same thing,” Professor Black said, with the barest of smiles. “I shall be in touch. When your uncle has been brought in, you will be the first to know.”
“Thank you.” He blinked, and there was a faint pop, and then Professor Black was gone.
I have got to learn how to do that, Tom thought, staring at the place where she had been. It was the first time he’d seen Apparition up close, instead of simply noticing when a witch or wizard appeared out of thin air in front of Flourish & Blotts, and Tom couldn’t help thinking how useful it would be. Age restrictions be damned.
Then he shook himself, and slunk out of the office before Mrs. Cole could come back and question him.
An owl delivered the next morning’s Prophet to Tom’s bedroom, again, along with a note from Adalbert telling him that if he wanted any more he’d have to pay for a subscription himself. Tom rolled his eyes and thumbed through the paper, raising his eyebrows at the main items on the front page—an imported Erumpet horn that exploded upon delivery, killing four wizards and leveling the row-houses they lived in, and rioting in Leeds after the Appleby Arrows lost to the Ballycastle Bats in the Quidditch League semi-finals—and the giant photograph of the Hogwarts Express over an article discussing parent’s latest concerns that the train, Muggle in origin, simply wasn’t sanitary.
Eventually he found the article that Adalbert had wanted him to see, a gleeful announcement that the warrant for Morfin Gaunt’s arrest was being examined by the Wizengamot and expected to be cleared by tomorrow morning. It briefly rehashed the details from yesterday’s article, and it had a little photograph of Morfin Gaunt. Tom stared at it, fascinated, for a while. His uncle’s head was oddly lumpy, his hair badly cut and grimy, and his eyes went in different directions. Tom wondered if his mother had looked like that, too, and concluded that she probably had, given Mrs. Cole’s descriptions of her. For a moment, he was intensely grateful that, in appearances at least, he’d taken after his father.
…Magic is the thread from which reality was woven. It winds through the very fabric of time and space, it twists inside every stone, every tree, every drop of water, every beam of light. It exists within every living creature to a greater or lesser degree, yes, even Muggles. It is not the existence of magic in a being which makes it magical, it is the being’s ability to access and manipulate this magic…
Tom blinked and rubbed his eyes, which were burning with tiredness, and reached for his notebook and pen. He’d meant to read only the first chapter of the book—a compilation of late nineteenth century writings on the nature of magic by a number of modern philosophers—but it was all too fascinating. It was nearly midnight, and Tom was nearly halfway finished.
He had also come to the conclusion that modern philosophers were even worse than earlier ones about contradicting each other and and making not-so-subtle jabs at their opponents. It was amusing, sort of, but it did get a bit wearing after a while.
There was a very faint pop.
Tom jerked, managing not to cry out as he snatched up his wand and pointed it in the direction of the sound. Professor Black, swathed in a dark blue cloak that seemed to melt into the shadows around it, lifted both hands in a placating gesture. “Admirable reflexes, Mr. Riddle,” she said softly. “But shouldn’t you be asleep?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” Tom said. He tightened his grip on the book as he lowered his wand slowly. “Madam,” he added belatedly.
Professor Black took a step forward and lowered her hands. “Aurors were dispatched to arrest Morfin Gaunt an hour ago,” she said, and Tom could tell from her grim tone that she was not here to deliver good news. “One of them triggered certain—unpleasant—wards, and was rendered instantly blind and deaf. In the ensuing confusion, Morfin fled.”
Tom closed his eyes, cold horror settling in the pit of his stomach. “The Auror…?” he said weakly.
“Has been placed in the care of the Healers of St. Mungo’s,” Lycoris said calmly. “They will do their best.” She pursed her lips for a moment, the scars on her cheek pulling at the corner of her mouth weirdly. “That is of less concern to me than the very real possibility that Morfin will come to London.”
A horrible thought occurred to Tom suddenly, and he asked, “Does he know?”
“Likely not,” Professor Black said. “I am not certain he can read, and there are no wizards near Little Hangleton to have told him. But your very existence infuriates him—the letter is proof enough of that—and his rage is likely worsened now by the attempted arrest.” A nasty smile twisted over her face, and for a moment, she didn’t look entirely sane. “DMLE policy is to wait and see,” she said, scorn falling like knives from every syllable, “but I believe in destroying a problem before it can occur.” She stared imperiously down at Tom, as if waiting for him to catch on.
Tom stared back for a moment. He thought he knew what she was getting at, but he wasn’t sure. Uncertainly, he said, “You’re here to take me away from the orphanage?” Professor Black beamed at him.
“To Hogwarts, if you are agreeable. Until such time as Morfin is no longer a threat.” Her eyes flashed. “It won’t take long. The Aurors don’t like losing one of their own.”
“Isn’t that technically kidnapping?” Tom asked.
Professor Black shrugged. “There is a reason I only consult with the Auror Office,” she said dryly. “They know perfectly well that I can only be trusted insofar as my goals align with their primary objective, which is keeping Dark criminals off the streets. My methods are… rather different than theirs.” Her eyes gleamed suddenly with an emotion Tom couldn’t identify, but which sent a shiver down his spine. “They know better than to look too deeply at my actions.” She nodded towards the wardrobe. “Pack your things. It will take me ten minutes to ward the building, and then we go.”
Heart hammering in his chest and a wild mix of excitement and terror coiling around his thoughts, Tom obeyed.
Chapter 5: Hiding in Hogwarts
Tom looked back only once as he left Wool’s Orphanage, half-jogging to keep up with Professor Black’s long strides. He could just make out the faint, bluish glimmer of magic—the wards Professor Black raised while he packed. “Couldn’t the Aurors do that?” he’d asked over his shoulder, not even slowing down as he shoved clothes and books haphazardly into the suitcase she’d conjured for him.
“They wouldn’t bother,” Professor Black had replied darkly. “It’s just Muggles, after all.” Another loop of blue-silver, translucent chains coiled out of her wand and slithered out the window to wrap itself around the building as she spoke, and Tom had shuddered and turned his attention back to the suitcase.
He had thought that Professor Black would Apparate him to Hogwarts, but she’d shaken her head and explained that Hogwarts was too far away and too heavily warded for that. She herself had Apparated to him from the Leaky Cauldron, but that wasn’t where they were going now. “The Ministry has ways of monitoring the Floo network, and portkeys are inconvenient,” she’d explained. “We’re taking a route they won’t be able to trace.”
The cold air leeched through Tom’s threadbare robes and only slightly thicker cloak—Professor Black had told him to dress like a wizard, and she would see to the Statute of Secrecy. He shivered, and bit down hard on the insides of his cheeks to keep Professor Black from noticing that his teeth were chattering.
She did anyway, of course, and she shot him an amused glance before twitching her wand at him and murmuring, “aestus.”
Tom stopped shivering after that, as a warmth rolled over his skin and blocked out the cold air. “Thank you,” he muttered.
“Hypothermia never did anyone any favors,” Professor Black said, with the barest hint of a smirk.
They walked in silence after that, for so long that Tom’s legs began to ache. He had never realized just how big London was, and how the silvery light of the moon could transform normal buildings into sinister looming things. Tom was not accustomed to feeling afraid, and he made a note to find some way of remedying this.
At long last, Professor Black put a hand on his shoulder and held him still. They were standing at the end of a row of small houses, beyond which Tom could see the dull glint of moonlight off dirty water and then more street lights beyond that. He let his suitcase drop to the ground and sat on it, trying to get his breath back while Professor Black drew her wand and did—something—to a patch of muddy ground in front of him. Ordinarily Tom would have asked her what, but now that he wasn’t moving around, he found it difficult to keep his eyes open at all, let alone talk.
He became dimly aware of a grinding noise, and Professor Black stepping back with a soft grunt of approval. She turned back to Tom and took hold of his elbow, lifting him bodily off the suitcase. “Just a bit farther,” she said softly into his ear, and Tom forced himself to stand up straight and follow her.
The ground where she’d been working had vanished. In its place, there was a dark hole, with stone steps leading down into the shadows. Tom lost count of how many stairs they had taken as they descended, and then the ground closed over their heads as they reached the bottom. Tom experienced a few seconds of panic before pale green light blossomed in front of his eyes.
It came from rows of little crystals set along the earthen walls of the tunnel they were standing in. Tom could see pale strands of hairlike roots poking out here and there, and interlocking white stones that formed the floor of the tunnel and which seemed almost to glow in the weird light. It stretched for several yards ahead of them, before curving gently to the left and out of sight.
“This is part of Gobel’s Labyrinth,” Professor Black said softly. “It’s a network of passages and tunnels and underground cities that spans almost the entire country, built by goblins in the time before wizards crossed the channel.”
“You’d do well to treasure the sight, Mr. Riddle.” The new voice was low, and sounded like rocks scraping against each other. Tom froze, but Professor Black put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed comfortingly. “Very few wizards are allowed to see it.” A small, vaguely human-shaped figure appeared out of the gloom. He was about Tom’s height, with very long arms that ended in spindly, sharp fingers. As he drew closer, Tom could make out a sharp, beaky nose, and a long chin to match. The creature had black, multifaceted eyes that glittered strangely in the dim light. Behind him, there was a large, metal cart, pulled by two slim, grey hounds. They were so large that their shoulders nearly touched the ceiling.
Professor Black bent forward, still holding Tom’s shoulder with one hand. “And I thank you for allowing us here tonight,” she said.
The creature—a goblin, Tom realized dimly, it had to be—returned the bow stiffly. “You have shown respect for our laws,” he said. “And we will extend courtesy for courtesy.” He had drawn nearly level with them, and he stopped, watching Tom with those strange eyes.
“Tom, this is Grenuk,” Professor Black says. “He can take us directly to the school; Gobel’s Labyrinth is connected to the deepest level of Hogwarts’ dungeons.”
Grenuk smiled, showing a mouthful of pointed teeth that flashed even in the dim light.
Tom didn’t remember much of the ride to Hogwarts. What he could remember was a blur of crystals passing by and the soft shushing noise the giant hounds made as they ran, and Grenuk speaking softly about goblin magic, and how it was slower than wizard magic and tied to stone and metal. He remembered being jolted awake by sickening terror when the walls of the tunnel fell away and the cart burst out onto a narrow pathway suspended by nothing but magic over a vast cavern, at the bottom of which Tom could just make out the outline of buildings carved right into the rock. Afterwards, when they had reentered another tunnel and the vertigo faded, Tom slipped back into the half-sleep he’d been in before, curled between Professor Black and the cool metal of the cart.
Then he was being shaken awake by Professor Black, and for a few minutes he stood awkwardly to one side while she spoke quietly with Grenuk. They had left the crystal-lined tunnel at some point, and were now in a large cavern lit by torches. Patches of deeper shadows here and there marked tunnels or corridors leading away from the cavern, and a gaping hole in the floor led back down to Gobel’s Labyrinth.
Professor Black finished whatever she was saying to Grenuk, who climbed back into the cart and made a sound like rocks grinding together. As Tom followed Professor Black out of the cavern, he caught a final glimpse of the floor closing over the entrance to the labyrinth.
“I should warn you now that you won’t be able to tell anyone of the labyrinth,” Professor Black said, as they started up a narrow flight of stone stairs. “The place is so steeped in goblin magic that it is impossible to speak of with anyone who has not been inside.”
Tom nodded wearily. A glance at his watch told him that it was nearly six in the morning now, and he wanted nothing more than to sleep. Professor Black showed him to a small room a few floors up from where they had arrived, and Tom stayed conscious just long enough to pull off his shoes before collapsing into the bed she conjured for him.
It quickly became apparent that, despite her caution in getting Tom away from the orphanage, Professor Black had no intention of keeping his presence in Hogwarts a secret now that he was actually here. The whole school knew by the end of the day, which Tom realized as soon as Professor Black led him into the massive Great Hall and pointed him towards the Slytherin table on his left. Students from all four tables stared openly at him, some even craning their necks or leaning dangerously far back to do so, but their expressions weren’t surprised so much as curious.
Feeling awkward, Tom found an empty seat next to a couple of Slytherins who looked only a little older than he was.
“Are you Gaunt, then?” one of them, a scrawny boy with a ratlike face and a lot of curly blond hair asked, as Tom filled his plate with potatoes and a piece of chicken.
“Yes,” Tom said. The other boy looked suitably impressed, as did his friends. Tom hid a smirk.
“I’m Norbert Parkinson,” said the blond boy. “And this is Polonius Crabbe and Acantha Meliflua,” he added, nodding at the large boy sitting on his other side and a thin, pale girl with red hair across from them. Crabbe muttered a greeting around a mouthful of carrots, and Tom nodded politely at all three of them. Parkinson leaned closer to Tom and said, “Is it true what they’re saying? About your uncle wanting to kill you, I mean?”
Tom shrugged. “I suppose so,” he said, as calmly as he could manage. “Professor Black thinks he is.”
“She’d know,” Meliflua whispered, with a reverential glance up at the staff table. Tom followed her gaze, and saw Professor Black listening intently to a balding man in dark blue robes. Her voice dropped so that it was nearly inaudible. “Professor Black knows everything.”
Crabbe let out a snort of laughter. “Don’t be stupid,” he said. “She knows about plants and Dark Arts and that’s it.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “She probably knows everything about those, though. You wait, Gaunt, you’ll see, she’s brilliant.”
Tom started to say that he’d sort of noticed that already, but Parkinson cut him off. “Well, I think she’s secretly evil.”
“You just don’t like her because her Devil’s Snare tried to eat you,” Meliflua said scornfully. Parkinson glared at her.
“I’ll have you know I’ve still got scars from that,” Parkinson said irritably. He shoved back the sleeve of his robes and held out his arm so they could see. Tom could just make out several faint, pinkish marks running down the length of Parkinson’s forearm.
“What’s Devil’s Snare?” he asked curiously, as Parkinson shook his sleeve back down.
Meliflua leaned closer, grinning. “It’s a type of hunting plant,” she said. “Basically, it’s just a lot of heat-sensitive vines that try to grab passerby and choke them to death before it pulls them into its, er, stomach thing and digests them.”
“Very thorny vines, I might add,” Parkinson grumbled.
“It was your own fault anyway,” Crabbe said, which earned him a dark look and an elbow to the ribs from Parkinson. “You were supposed to be keeping up a fire charm while we repotted it, but no, you had to go trading insults with Kingston—”
Meliflua laughed while Parkinson’s face turned blotchy and red. With what Tom considered to be admirable restraint, Parkinson turned his attention to his plate and said, “So, Tom, what do you think of Hogwarts so far?”
“It’s bigger than I expected,” Tom said, glancing over his shoulder at the rest of the hall. There was room for at least a hundred students at each table, although right now only about half of the seats were filled. He supposed, from the way that students kept coming and going, that mealtimes were not as strictly enforced here as they were at Wool’s Orphanage.
Tom hadn’t quite finished eating when Professor Black stood up abruptly, but he bade a hasty goodbye to the other three and hurried after her anyway. “Have they caught Morfin yet?” he asked, as they left the Great Hall and started down a narrow staircase into the dungeons.
“Are you that eager to go back to the orphanage?” Professor Black asked dryly. Tom shook his head vehemently, and Professor Black smirked. She sobered quickly, though, and said, “They haven’t seen the slightest trace of him since his initial escape. Some reporter at the Prophet got wind of it, of course, and splashed it all over this morning’s paper. ‘Incompetent Aurors Lose Dangerous Criminal,’ that sort of thing. And, of course, most of the DMLE is furious with me for kidnapping you.” Tom thought she sounded inappropriately pleased about that.
“They’re not going to send me back, are they?” he asked.
“They’ll try.” They reached a tapestry depicting a group of wizards fighting an enormous and very angry-looking dragon, and Professor Black pulled it aside to reveal a tight spiral of wooden stairs lit by blue torchlight. “Mackintosh will certainly have Words for me.” Tom could hear the capital letter, and he couldn’t help smirking a little. “Although knowing him,” Professor Black continued, her upper lip curling into an unpleasant sneer, “he’ll put it all in a letter and send it by owl instead of coming here himself. How he got to be Head of the DMLE I will never know…”
Professor Black continued in this vein for a few minutes. Apparently Mackintosh was trying to get her arrested for kidnapping, albeit rather unsuccessfully because her cousin was on the Wizengamot and the Aurors were firmly on her side. Apparently the head Auror, Philip Reeve, had even arranged a watch at Wool’s Orphanage at her request, and there were plans to involve the Hit Wizards if Morfin wasn’t found by noon tomorrow.
“And everyone’s very interested in what you have to say about it, of course,” Professor Black finished smugly. “The Prophet’s clamoring for another interview with you—Victor Bulstrode would be your best choice, I think, if you choose to give them one. I can arrange it, if you like.”
“Er. Alright.” Professor Black beamed at him.
The students, as it turned out, were not the only people at Hogwarts who were curious about Tom. The professors were just a bit better at disguising it, or perhaps they were simply too polite to stare during dinner as the students had.
At any rate, Tom woke up early the next morning to find a house-elf waiting to escort him to the Headmaster’s office; the little creature was wrinkly and grey and had such long, thin fingers that Tom couldn’t help but think how easy they would be to break. He filed the thought away in case it ever became useful, and let the house-elf lead him out of his temporary bedroom—part of Professor Black’s personal quarters, apparently, which usually served as a storeroom for boxes of fertilizer and extra pairs of dragon hide gloves—and up into the higher reaches of the castle.
Headmaster Dippet was a plump, balding man with watery blue eyes. His hands trembled faintly as he directed Tom into a seat across the desk. Tom eyed him cooly while he rambled about the importance of order and discipline in a learning environment, and how disruptions were not to be tolerated. He clearly wasn’t happy with Tom’s presence in Hogwarts, or with Professor Black’s decision to bring him here.
The first of those sentiments, at least, was mutual.
As Tom left Dippet’s office with a final admonition not to cause trouble, he nearly ran into Penrose. The man’s robes were just as bright as his suit had been, although thankfully not quite the same color; these were more of an orange, which was a little easier on the eyes. He beamed when he saw Tom. “You’re making quite the stir, Mr. Riddle,” he said.
“It’s Gaunt, now,” Tom said, unable to keep the ice out of his tone completely. The smile dropped off Penrose’s face. “Or it will be, very soon.”
Inside the office, Dippet coughed impatiently, and Penrose cleared his throat. “Right. Of course. Well, I have things to discuss with the Headmaster.” He winked at Tom, who itched to hex him—never mind that his experiments with hexes so far had all failed miserably—and then strolled into the office. Tom didn’t wait for the door to shut before starting down the slowly rotating stairs.
Upon reaching the bottom, Tom immediately set out to explore Hogwarts. Honestly, Dippet shouldn’t have been put in charge of a school if he thought that telling someone to just sit in their rooms and do nothing when there was a whole magical castle to explore would actually work. Tom smirked, shoved his hands into his pockets, and started down the corridor in the opposite direction from the dungeons. Professor Black had indicated that he shouldn’t venture into the lower floors of Hogwarts without a guide, because even seventh-years were liable to get lost occasionally, but she’d neglected to do the same for the above-ground area. Besides, Tom reasoned, most of the classrooms were above-ground, and it followed that the parts of the castle most frequently used would be easier to navigate.
Tom walked for a while without meeting anyone else, unless he counted a sullen-looking grey cat which hissed at him as he passed. Eventually his corridor met a larger one. A dozen or so older students were milling about along the walls, which were covered by several huge tapestries, while others hurried by in groups of two or three, or occasionally bigger packs of ten or so. Tom lingered in the intersection, feeling unexpectedly shy, until one of the loitering older students broke away from her friends and approached him. She was tall, and a bit squarish, and Tom’s instinct was to cringe back into the shadows. The older girl smiled, however, and brushed a few strands of dark blonde hair out of her eyes. Tom saw a tiny silver “P” pinned to her lapel, just over the Hufflepuff crest. A prefect, then. He affixed a pleasant, and ever-so-slightly awed, smile to his face.
“Hello,” she said. “You’re Tom Gaunt, aren’t you?”
Tom wondered what she would do if he said that, no, he was just wandering around in unmarked robes for the fun of it. He kept the smile in place, though, and muttered an affirmative.
The prefect held extended her hand, and, as Tom shook it gingerly, he noticed that those were also rather square. “Sarah Bones,” she said. “Sixth-year prefect.” Her eyes darted down, towards the Hufflepuff crest on her lapel, and she grinned. “For Hufflepuff, obviously.”
“Obviously,” Tom echoed, raising his eyebrows at her. He wasn’t blind.
Bones shrugged and shoved one hand into her pocket, the other coming up to rest on the strap of her book bag. “Sorry,” she said. “It gets to be a reflex, introducing yourself that way. You were Muggle-raised, right?”
Tom blinked at the sudden change of subject. “In an orphanage, yeah,” he said warily.
“How’re you liking the wizarding world, then?” she asked. Bones clearly noticed his reluctance to answer, because she added, “It’s just—I’m taking Muggle Studies, see, and lately we’ve been talking a lot about Muggleborn integration, and whether the birthdate system lends unfair advantages to Muggleborns who were, um, born earlier in the year. Like yourself, sort of, except that obviously you’re half-blood, and connected to a very old family, which is also an interesting factor.” She said it all very fast, and Tom felt his eyebrows rising higher.
“Muggleborn integration,” he repeated.
“Well, yes. You know. Kids who grow up thinking they’re Muggles, then get visited by someone—the Deputy Headmaster, usually—to tell them about Hogwarts…”
Tom thought about that for a moment. “I never thought I was a Muggle,” he said, half to himself. “I didn’t know the term, obviously, but I always knew I could do—more—than what the others could.” He stopped, because Bones was looking at him with an interest that he found uncomfortably similar to the expression Penrose had worn when he told him the same thing. “What?”
Bones shifted from foot to foot, and shot a longing glance back towards her friends. “It’s just… most people, growing up in Muggle situations, don’t really… realize… their magic until after the visit. Most times it takes them a few months after their first year to really get the hang of things. One of my best friends is Muggleborn, and I know that’s how it was for her.”
Well, perhaps they’re all just stupid then. Or lazy. Tom didn’t voice the thought, wary of offending her. A second idea skated in right at its heels, though. Or maybe I’m just better. Although I suppose if everyone else is stupid or lazy, or both, then I’d be better by default, being neither of those things. “What do you mean, realize?” he asked curiously.
“Learn to control, really,” Bones said, shrugging. “It’s the second phase of childhood magical development.” Now that she seemed to be on surer ground, her nervousness disappeared. She pulled her hand out of her pocket and held up one finger. “The first one is manifestation, which happens usually between six and eight—though it’s been known to happen as early as four, and as late as ten. That’s the first time a child’s magic does, er, anything really. If it doesn’t happen, that means the kid’s a Squib and doesn’t have anything except passive magic, which is like… you live longer, and you can see magical creatures.”
“I know what a Squib is,” Tom said, annoyed.
“Right,” Bones said. She lifted another finger. “The second is realization, which is when a child starts to exert control over their magic instead of just firing off at random when they’re feeling highly emotional. That usually happens about a year after manifestation, if adequate instruction is provided. Which it is, for most wizard-born children. Without instruction, it takes a lot longer, and sometimes doesn’t happen until the child starts their formal education at Hogwarts.”
Lazy, then, Tom thought, and suppressed a smirk.
“Is that all?” he asked.
Bones shrugged. “Nah. That’s the basic stuff, really, and I only know because of talking about Muggleborns in Muggle Studies. There’s books about it in the library, though, if you’re interested.”
Tom was, and he said so. Bones directed him up two stories, and then to ask a painting, because the Hogwarts architecture didn’t like to stay still, apparently. “Talk to Madam Graeme,” she said. “She’s the librarian. Just keep going forward after you go in and you’ll hit her desk sooner or later.”
This did not, on the whole, give Tom much hope of being able to navigate Hogwarts easily, but he hurried up the stairs regardless.
Tom didn’t know how long he stood in the doorway, staring in awe at the shelves and the books and the impossibly vast space that was the library. It dwarfed the Great Hall—well, he thought it probably did, but it was hard to tell because of all the shelves—and, and…
Some of the shelves were so high that they vanished from sight entirely; others arched overhead and came down on the other side. Tom couldn’t even see the ceiling for the books that were floating, spine-down, in neat rows in the space between shelves, and here and there he saw more books flapping back and forth like bizarre, artificial birds. If he craned his neck a little, he could see the odd table or desk tucked between stacks of books, usually covered with parchment and quills and even more books.
It was impossible to see to the far end of the room, because the shelves were arranged at odd angles that turned the massive room into a veritable maze, but if Tom leaned forward and looked left, he could just make out a pair of tall silver gates, beyond which there were, yes, more shelves. And, unless his eyes were deceiving him, a couple of podiums, each of which held a single book that had been carefully chained down.
The air itself seemed to buzz with energy, similar to the way Ollivander’s had felt. It made the skin between Tom’s shoulder blades itch and the tips of his fingers turn cold.
Tom ventured forward. It was impossible to keep going exactly straight, because the bookshelves were arranged so haphazardly, but he managed, more or less, until he found a large, octagonal desk that was almost invisible under the piles of books and papers and boxes and strange silver instruments that were strewn over it. There was a little bronze plaque facing Tom, which read “Mme. Ianthe Graeme, L.T.S,” in neat, blocky letters. A harried-looking woman with no less than seven quills sticking out of her pockets was busily arranging a bunch of violet flowers in a vase, and she was so absorbed with the task that she didn’t notice Tom until he was inches away from the desk.
“You’re not a student,” the librarian—Madam Graeme—said immediately, her eyes narrowing as she took in Tom’s unmarked robes.
“No, madam,” he said, hesitating. “My name’s Tom Gaunt… Er, Professor Black—”
Her lips thinned. “Ah. Yes. I read about you in the paper.”
This was not, Tom decided, a very good start. “I read about this library in Hogwarts, a History,” he tried, and was relieved to see the librarian’s eyes soften just a little. “I didn’t imagine it would be so…” he fumbled for the right word, couldn’t find it, and finished lamely with, “big.”
“The largest in magical Britain,” Madam Graeme said, a trifle smugly. Tom couldn’t blame her. “Large enough that the gathered magical force generated by some of the more, ah, unruly tomes warps regular space in odd ways. Or rather, warps human perception of space.” She nodded up towards the ceiling, where one of the wider bookshelves curved gently overhead.
Tom frowned. “So… the shelves aren’t really laid out randomly at all?” he guessed. “The magic just… makes it look that way?”
Madam Graeme pursed her lips and tapped her fingernails against the vase. “Not exactly,” she said, “but, essentially, yes.” She actually smiled. “You walked in a straight line to get from the door to here, you know, even if you didn’t feel like it.”
Trying to think about that too hard made Tom’s head hurt, so he excused himself and went to wander through the stacks. He figured that if he got lost, he could always call for help, even if it did seem fundamentally wrong to shout in a library. Especially a magical library where, he quickly discovered, he could hear faint whispering if he pressed his ear up against the rows of books.
He wondered if that was real, or just another magically-induced hallucination… thing. And he made a note to read up on the subject, or ask Miss Argall when he got back, so he’d have a more precise term to use than thing.
Another house-elf found him several hours later to tell him that Professor Black had invited him to her office for tea. For a moment, Tom was torn—he’d been in the middle of a very interesting book about magical development in young children, but Professor Black was, well, clever and interesting and a Black, of all things. In the end, he opted for the tea, and the house-elf led him unerringly out of the library, down several flights of stairs and through a room that seemed to be made entirely of mirrors, and then out the Entrance Hall and around the side of the castle to the greenhouses.
It was very warm and a bit damp inside Professor Black’s office. Most of the space was taken up by plants—vivid green vines and pots overflowing with violently pink flowers, strange, foul-smelling ferns with red leaves, tall blue-green stalks covered in vicious-looking spines, and, behind the desk, an enormous, rust-colored plant that bore a startling resemblance to a giant cow’s head, if cow heads had multiple rows of sharp teeth and were attached to a thick but, apparently, mobile trunk. The plant swiveled to face him—or it looked like that, anyway—and several whiplike vines unravelled from the trunk and began to sway.
Professor Black, sitting at the desk right in front of the plant, gestured for him to come forward. There was another, older woman there, too, dressed entirely in faded blue and sipping daintily from a cup of tea. Her eyes, a startlingly dark green in the pale, wrinkly expanse of her face, glittered with something like amusement as Tom eyed the plant warily.
“Don’t mind her,” Professor Black said, tilting her head back towards the plant. “It’s only Phyllis. She won’t hurt you, not with me here.”
Tom didn’t find that very comforting, but he moved forward and accepted his cup of tea with as much grace as he could muster.
“Tom, this is Professor Sylvia Eldritch, our Divination teacher,” Professor Black said. Tom blinked. The Eldritches were another old wizarding family, nowhere near the size of the Blacks but equally prestigious.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, madam,” Tom said, bowing his head, and Professor Eldritch gave him a faint smile. He glanced back at Professor Black and asked, “Phyllis?”
“D. Lagnaphyllia,” Professor Black said, with a fond backward glance at the plant. It rustled ominously. “The most dangerous plant in the world. Famous for its unique method of ensnaring prey, it emits a vapor with effects similar to that of the amortentia potion, luring its victim closer with what amounts to a very pleasant hallucinatory drug. Once they are in range, it will pounce—”
Professor Eldritch cleared her throat. “Well beyond N.E.W.T. standards for Herbology, of course,” she said calmly. Professor Black looked rather put out. “But Lycoris never has been one for restraint when it comes to flesh-eating plants.”
Tom blinked. “I imagine Herbology classes are very interesting, then.”
“Before she came, Potions consistently sent the most children to the Hospital Wing, followed closely by Defense,” Professor Eldritch said. “Now Herbology outstrips both of them put together by a fair margin.”
Professor Black sniffed. “Hogwarts has also become the top school in the wizarding world for Herbology,” she said. “Pain is a powerful motivator.”
It looked like the beginnings of an old argument, and Tom wasn’t disappointed. He drank his tea quietly, making only the occasional thoughtful noise when one of them made a good point, and listened to the two professors debate the ethics of dropping eleven-year-olds into a patch of venomous tentacula, which Tom had never heard of but which sounded nasty.
He made a note to invest in some higher-level Herbology textbooks before his official start at Hogwarts. Also, if he could afford it, some sort of protective wear. He hadn’t forgotten the scars on Parkinson’s arms.
Nearly a week passed. Tom kept to the library, mostly, with occasional excursions down to Professor Black’s office in the greenhouses or, once, a tour of the Potions classroom with Professor Slughorn, the Potions master. Slughorn was a rotund little wizard, generally unremarkable in appearances except for his mustache. Tom couldn’t decide whether he liked him or not; Slughorn made it clear that he supported Tom’s attempts to take over the Gaunt family, but he also went on at great length about the dozens of famous ex-students who went out of their way to do favors for him.
Victor Bulstrode showed up on Friday, and conducted an interview with Tom over tea and under the strict supervision of Professor Black. The reporter seemed inordinately excited about the whole affair, and twice put his quill straight through the paper he was writing on. Based on several remarks Bulstrode made after the interview, Tom tentatively put his excitement down to a nasty rivalry between Bulstrode and another reporter, but he made a note to be wary of further interviews in the future, just in case.
And still there was no sign of Morfin Gaunt.
A few days after Bulstrode’s article appeared in the Prophet and nothing new happened, the staring and whispers that had so far followed Tom wherever he went began to taper off. He was quietly relieved; the scrutiny had been very unnerving.
He’d continued to sit with Parkinson, Crabbe, and Meliflua at mealtimes, and that payed off rather spectacularly when they invited him to sit in on some of their classes. There was a worrying few hours during which Tom thought Dippet or the other professors might object, but he needn’t have worried. As long as he sat quietly in the back and drew no attention to himself, Tom was allowed to view the first-year Charms and Defense Against the Dark Arts classes.
Penrose taught Charms, and Tom didn’t like him any better as a teacher than he had before, but Defense was interesting. The first-years were in the middle of learning a handful of mild defensive hexes—strong enough to protect themselves against Muggles and non-magical wild animals, Crabbe had explained after the first day, although what that had to do with the Dark Arts none of them knew—and although Professor Merrythought strictly forbade him to attempt to join in on the practical part of the lessons, merely watching the older students practice was educational enough for now.
Almost two weeks had gone by since Tom’s arrival at Hogwarts when Professor Black and a stocky wizard in blood-red robes caught him after lunch. Professor Black introduced the wizard as an Auror named Cathair Rade, apparently one of her closest contacts within the DMLE and the Auror in charge of the search for Morfin Gaunt.
“Did you find him?” Tom asked anxiously, worried by the grim expression on Rade’s face.
“We did,” Rade said. “But there’s some bad news, too, I’m afraid.”
“He broke through the wards around Wool’s Orphanage,” Professor Black said. “He had some kind of magical artifact that let him do it.”
Tom’s stomach contracted into an icy mass. “Mrs. Cole,” he said.
“Unharmed.” Tom let out a soft sigh of relief. He didn’t like to think what would happen to him if the orphanage closed, or if someone else took over and refused to allow him the same leeway that Mrs. Cole did. “Several of the orphans were hurt, though,” Rade continued. “Penelope Weeks, Peter Semple, and Donald Franks have been moved to St. Mungo’s for treatment. Dennis Bishop and Robert Davidson were killed in the attack.”
Tom didn’t really know any of them, except Dennis Bishop, a boy a year older than Tom was and, in Tom’s opinion, a petty thug with all the brains of a brick. At least Morfin had had the good taste to kill at least one person who deserved it. He shoved the thought away, because he doubted the Auror would appreciate it, and quickly arranged his expression into one of horror. The corners of Professor Black’s mouth twitched in such a way that Tom knew she saw right through him, but Rade seemed to buy it. The Auror reached down and squeezed Tom’s shoulder in a gesture that was clearly meant to be comforting.
“Don’t worry,” he said kindly. “The injured ones will survive, and they’ll be no worse for wear after their memories are modified. We can’t bring back the dead—no magic can do that, I’m afraid—” Tom bit back the urge to snap I know, and just barely kept his irritation off his face. “But we can bring Morfin to trial, and in the current political climate, he’ll be convicted for certain. He’s going to Azkaban for a long time.”
“Good,” Tom muttered.
Chapter 6: Little Hangleton
The trial took place almost two months after Tom returned to Wool’s Orphanage. Tom was allowed to attend, hidden behind several glamors and a notice-not charm so that Morfin couldn’t see, and Tom had to admit he was impressed with the Wizengamot’s brutal efficiency. Morfin was led in by several Aurors and all but thrown into a chair, which was wrapped in chains that came alive and bound him as soon as he sat down.
Morfin looked even worse than he had in the one picture Tom had seen of him; his hair was more unkempt, mostly tangled up in a matted clump on one side of his head, and his beady eyes kept rolling back and forth, like a frightened horse. He was filthy, his clothes hanging off him in tatters.
“Dirty Squibs—foul—blood-traitors and Mudbloods—slime-wallowers—” Morfin kept screaming, spittle flying from his mouth every few seconds, until one of the Wizengamot sighed and cast a silencing.
Tom felt a little sick, looking at him. This… thing… was not what pure-blood wizards were supposed to be like. The Wizengamot evidently agreed; Tom could see revulsion etched onto every face.
Professor Black’s cousin—a reedy man called Pollux Black—read off a list of the crimes he was accused of. They heard testimony from Cathair Rade and another Auror who had been on site when Morfin was captured, and from the Healer in charge of the injured orphans’ care. Then Morfin was given a chance to speak, which he wasted by refusing to answer any questions, instead ranting near-incoherently about the purity of his blood.
The whole process took several hours, and at the end, Morfin was sentenced to Azkaban for five years. Three months for the Unforgivable threats, six for evading arrest, three for breaking an entering, one year for possession of the unregistered magical artifact that he’d used to break Professor Black’s wards, one year for Muggle-baiting, and one year each for the dead orphans. The last sentence would have been longer, Professor Black explained later, had the dead children been wizards, even Muggleborn ones, but as they were Muggles…
Tom hadn’t known Robert Davidson, and he’d actively loathed Dennis Bishop, but the thought that, between them, they were only worth two years in Azkaban still rankled.
He comforted himself with the thought that Morfin’s clear ill health meant he would probably die before his sentence was up.
The orphanage was quieter now than Tom could ever remember it being. The Ministry had sent Obliviators to modify the children’s memories of the attack, but they’d left behind the grief and fear that resulted from it. Tom thought that the cover story had been something about a robbery-gone-wrong, but he hadn’t been paying much attention when Mrs. Cole told him about it.
Some of the other orphans were in near-constant tears; Tom could only assume that they’d been close to one of the dead. At some point a rumor that Tom had had something to do with the attack got started, and afterwards, the orphans regarded him with more than their usual suspicion.
Tom, for his part, kept ignoring them. He spent as much time as possible outside of the orphanage, even avoiding Miss Malthus’ dreary classes as often as he could get away with. His lessons with Miss Argall started again, and Tom redoubled his efforts to catch up as much as possible before he went to Hogwarts officially. If Miss Argall noticed this, she didn’t say.
The Prophet kept up a steady stream of updates about Morfin’s imprisonment and the Inheritance Office’s slowly-progressing decisions about the Gaunt family’s future, courtesy of Victor Bulstrode, and Tom slowly got used to the odd glances that the denizens of Diagon Alley occasionally threw his way.
Once or twice, Tom was actually approached by curious passerby. Mostly they were from other pure-blood families, and Tom suspected they were trying to decide whether he was really worth taking seriously, or simply lucky.
Among these was Alexius Longbottom, who strode up to Tom with his son in tow. Tom inclined his head towards the older man, stiffly because both Longbottoms were looking at him with the same mild distaste that Tom remembered from his first meeting with Longbottom.
“Good day, sir,” Tom said, studiously ignoring Longbottom in favor of his father, who looked every inch the imposing pure-blood paterfamilias.
“Mr. Riddle,” Mr. Longbottom said cooly. Tom hid his annoyance at that; after all, the Inheritance Office hadn’t yet finalized their decision on his new name. Mr. Longbottom had every right to call him Riddle, even if it was appallingly rude. “I heard about your uncle’s attack on the… orphanage.” Mr. Longbottom sighed and made a show of examining his fingernails. “Most tragic, of course,” he added, sounding bored.
Tom smiled coldly at him. He recognized the statement for what it was—an attempt to goad him into a display of childish temper—and he had no intention of doing so. “Unfortunate, certainly,” Tom said. Mr. Longbottom’s eyes narrowed a little. “Of course, my uncle was caught during the attack. It was hardly a complete loss.”
The barest of smiles crossed Mr. Longbottom’s face, and he dipped his head forward in a shallow bow. “Indeed,” he said. “Good day, Mr. Riddle.”
Tom watched him go, feeling half-unsettled and half-smug.
Of course, it wasn’t only pure-bloods who were interested in Tom, as he learned one day as he was leaving Flourish & Blotts. He was nearly run over by a girl with impossibly curly brown hair and thick glasses, who squealed as soon as she saw his face. Tom stared at her, taking in her distinctly Muggle clothing and feeling the back of his neck heat up as whole shop went briefly silent.
“You’re the boy in the paper!” she whispered excitedly. “Oh, wait till mum sees—mum!”
Tom closed his eyes for a second as a tall woman, also dressed like a Muggle and wearing glasses, strolled over. “What is it, darling?” she asked, in such a sickeningly sweet tone that Tom felt a brief urge to vomit.
“It’s that—Tom Gaunt boy,” the girl whispered. “The one that was in the wizard paper!” She seized Tom’s hand suddenly. “I’m River,” she said, “River Trask. And I’ve only just found out about the wizarding world a few days ago—it’s marvelous, isn’t it—anyway mum took out a subscription to the newspaper and I recognize you from the pictures—”
She finally let go of his hand and Tom took a step back hurriedly, trying to massage life back into his fingers. To his relief, Trask’s mother put a restraining hand on her shoulder. “Don’t frighten the boy, River,” she said. Tom scowled. He wasn’t frightened, just… surprised.
“It’s very nice to meet you,” he said quickly, and before either of them could say anything else, he stepped around them and out of the shop.
If most Muggleborns were like that, Tom wasn’t really surprised that most of the wizarding world looked down on them. At least he had had the sense to keep his head down until he’d learnt how to act like a wizard.
Adalbert had renounced his claim to the Gaunt family before Morfin’s arrest, which meant that the entire (if meager) Gaunt estate would go to Tom as planned. It was really only a matter of time before the Inheritance Office came to the same conclusion. At last, several weeks after Morfin’s trial, they did, and they sent Tom a letter confirming that he was now legally the Gaunt family paterfamilias.
The letter also held a brief summary of what he’d inherited, which wasn’t much. A run-down hovel in Little Hangleton. An vault at Gringotts with a tiny supply of Galleons—little more than the allowance he’d gotten from Hogwarts, really. The artifact that Morfin had used to break down the wards—a chipped ring with a faded and illegible crest. An old trunk inside the shack, which the Inheritance Office agents had been unable to open.
They’d sent a box along with the letter, and Tom opened it to discover the ring, along with another note telling him that it had been properly registered now and a copy of the license that allowed him to keep it. As far as anyone at the Ministry could tell, the ring collected and stored ambient magic, whether from powerful spellbooks or the tiny traces of magic that all wizards gave off or other magical artifacts that sometimes leaked magic, and Morfin had tapped into this store of power to eat through the wards. It was empty now, apparently, but it would fill up again in about a year. What, exactly, it was meant to do with all the collected magic, the Ministry didn’t know.
Tom had read about this sort of thing, though. The enchantments necessary were lost, now, and the newest objects with the capability were estimated to be at least several centuries old. A pity, really, because everything Tom had read about them had indicated that they were dead useful. The ring would be no different, especially if he could work out what it was actually supposed to do.
He slipped the ring onto his finger, pleased to find that it was also enchanted to fit perfectly.
Between studying and spending almost every waking moment in Diagon Alley, Tom spent so little time at the orphanage that Mrs. Cole’s reminder that the summer trip to Little Hangleton was in a few days took him completely by surprise. He’d nearly forgotten about Little Hangleton anyway, in the wake of Morfin’s trial and imprisonment, and he’d sort of assumed that the trip would be canceled out of respect for the dead. Mrs. Cole, however, insisted that the rest of the orphans needed to get out of the orphanage, even if it was only for a day.
Tom spent the days leading up to the trip carefully toeing the line in the orphanage. He did his chores without complaint for the first time in months, and even offered to do extra ones occasionally. For the most part he stayed inside the orphanage, reading in his room instead of going to Diagon Alley. Mrs. Cole had been known to leave misbehaving children behind in the past, and while Tom may have forgotten about the Little Hangleton trip before, that didn’t mean he didn’t still have a very good reason for wanting to go.
He was not going to be left behind. The Gaunt ring—which he’d taken to wearing all the time—seemed to grow a little heavier on his hand at the thought.
The train ride into Great Hangleton passed uneventfully, and from there, it wasn’t far to Little Hangleton. Tom double-checked the time at which they were to board the train back to London, and wasted no more time in slipping away from the group.
The Inheritance Office had, at Tom’s request, sent him directions to the Gaunt shack. It took him a while to find it, because the path that led to it was badly overgrown and almost invisible. At last he did and, with a final glance over his shoulder at the village nestled in the valley below, Tom hurried down the little path. It was slow going, steeply downhill, crooked, and rocky where it wasn’t choked with weeds. The hedgerows on either side of the track were larger than those that had lined the road and badly overgrown.
Eventually the path opened up at a small, dark copse of trees, which did a surprisingly good job of blocking out the bright sunlight. Tom squinted as his eyes adjusted to the sudden change of light; he could just make out a shape that looked more like a jumbled pile of rocks than an actual house. He ventured closer.
There were holes in the roof, and the windows were thick with grime where they hadn’t been broken. Nettles had grown up along the edges of the mossy walls, some of them obscuring the windows completely. The half-rotted door hung precariously off its hinges. It was hard to believe that someone had lived here only half a year ago.
Inside, the place smelled of mold and rot, the latter of which, Tom discovered, came from the decaying body of a snake that lay by the decrepit fireplace. From the look of it, Morfin had taken a knife and cut it open from jaw to tail. Tom’s eyes watered from the stench.
There were three rooms; the first had a filthy kitchen on one side, and the fireplace and a couple of mildewy armchairs on the other. Tom opened the door on the right first; it was even darker than the first room, since both of the windows had been boarded up, but he could just see the outline of a bed against the far wall.
The third room was by far the most interesting. In one corner, there was a rusty cauldron with a hole in the bottom and a crust of light purple-green paste around the top. Dried bits of leaves and a strange pink powder were strewn on the floor around the cauldron. An ancient-looking broom with most of its twigs missing leaned against an empty bookshelf on the opposite side of the room, and next to it was the trunk.
Unlike everything else in the house, the trunk was not decomposing or broken or even very dirty at all. It was difficult to tell in the poor lighting, but Tom thought it was probably black or very dark brown, and there was a tarnished silver lock on the front of it. As he knelt to examine it more closely, he could see that the lock had been carefully carved to look like a snake eating its own tail.
On a whim, he hissed at it. (Open.)
There was a soft click, and the snake unwound itself. Carefully, Tom lifted the lid, which creaked in protest.
It was, disappointingly, almost empty. There was a handful of scummy Sickles lying on top of a set of moth-eaten silver robes, and a little silver brooch shaped like a snake coiled to strike. Tom pocketed the Sickles and the brooch—it might be valuable, after all, or enchanted somehow.
He would have liked to have brought the trunk with him, too, since it was the perfect size to carry his school things and it would have looked a lot better than the old suitcase he had, but, as Tom couldn’t think how to get it back to the orphanage without any Muggles noticing, he left it there.
After making absolutely sure that there was nothing more of interest in the house—his house, now, he supposed, and laughed at the thought—Tom started to scramble back up to the road.
He had almost reached the end of the trees when he heard hissing. Tom couldn’t pick out individual words, because whoever it was spoke too quickly, but he recognized it as Parseltongue nevertheless. He looked up.
There was a snake in the branches directly above his head. She was small, probably no longer than Tom’s forearm, and so vividly green where she wasn’t gleaming copper that Tom was surprised he hadn’t seen her earlier. Before he could react, she slid off the branch and dropped into his hair.
(What are you doing here?) she hissed, tapping her tail against his eyebrow. (Answer me now or I’ll bite you.)
Tom couldn’t help rolling his eyes at that. Snakes could be very blunt, sometimes. (I was exploring my new house,) he said. The snake slithered out of his hair and coiled loosely around his neck.
The snake said nothing for a moment, considering this. Then she said, (My name is Scylla. I’m bored here, so you will take me home. Or else I will bite you.)
(You’ll have to be careful,) Tom said, amused. (I live with Muggles and they’re not allowed to know that I’m a Parselmouth.)
(But then how will they praise my beauty and admire my scintillating wit?) Scylla asked. She twined more tightly around Tom’s neck and nudged her head against the bottom of his chin.
Carefully, Tom reached up and stroked her neck. (They can’t. They wouldn’t understand anything you said anyway. I will, though, if you want.) Scylla hissed wordlessly, evidently pleased.
(Very well. What is your name?)
Tom told her, and started walking again. Scylla slipped under his collar and down his right arm, ending up curled just below his elbow. She kept up a steady stream of questions about himself, which Tom answered softly. This stopped as they got closer to the village and Tom started to see other people on the road, but by that time Scylla seemed content to stay silent.
Once in the village itself, Tom found himself drawn to the graveyard. It was fairly large, and situated along one of the hills that stood on either side of the village so that most of the other buildings were hidden from sight. The only ones that Tom could see from his vantage point by the church was the edge of a few houses and, on the opposite side of the village and high on the other hillside, a fine old house that looked like it was probably worth more money than the rest of the village put together.
Most of the headstones were rather plain, but there were a handful of tall, elaborately-carved marble headstones, which Tom assumed belonged to past owners of the house on the hill. He examined one of them, and got a rather pleasant shock when the name registered.
Tom spent so long in front of this headstone that Scylla poked her head out of his collar and demanded to know what he was doing. (This was a relative of mine, I think,) Tom told her, after glancing around to make sure it was safe to do so. (My father’s name was Riddle, too, and he was probably from here.)
He moved on after a while, wandering aimlessly up and down the rows until he came to an overgrown little plot in a badly cared for corner of the graveyard. He knelt down and carefully pushed the weeds away from the cracked headstone so that he could read the weathered script. It was simple, no dates or other information, just the name Marvolo Gaunt carved over a crude image of a circle surrounded by a triangle. Tom traced the mark with his fingers, wondering idly what it meant. (Do you recognize this at all?)
Scylla slithered the rest of the way down his arm and peeked out of his sleeve. (No.) Her tongue flickered out for a second. (I recognize this grave, though. This was—)
(My grandfather, yes.) Tom sighed, and drew his hand away from the headstone. The weeds flopped back over it, hiding the name once more. He scrambled back to his feet and started to make his way slowly back to the church. It was nearly noon, now, and he had a about an hour before he had to rejoin the rest of the orphans.
As he left the graveyard, Tom passed an old, slightly bent Muggle man. He wouldn’t have thought much of it, but the man made a shocked noise and seized his arm. Tom jerked away, startled.
“What was that for?” he demanded. Scylla stirred on his other arm, hissing angrily.
The Muggle looked nearly as startled as Tom was. “You’re the very image of Master Riddle,” he said, peering at Tom curiously. Tom blinked. “’S uncanny.”
“Tom Riddle?” Tom guessed, barely restraining himself from adding he’s my father. He doubted the Muggle would take that well.
“That’s the one,” the Muggle said, his eyes narrowing. “How d’you know?”
“I know a lot of things,” Tom said quickly. “Do you work for the Riddles? They live in that big house on the hill, right?”
“Yes,” the Muggle said. “Yes, they do. I worked for them all my life,” he added, proudly. “’S a funny thing,” he added, still staring at Tom. “You really do look just like him, ’specially when he was younger. Less now, o’course, after all that nonsense ten years ago.”
“What nonsense?” Tom asked, in his best innocent voice.
The Muggle shrugged. “Eh, it was the talk of whole town for years,” he said. “Master Riddle ran off with that queer Gaunt woman—no one knew why. I know, peculiar, innit?” he added, as Tom made a startled sound. “Came back a year later, babbling about being hoodwinked.”
She didn’t—she didn’t use magic to make him fall in love with her, did she? The horrible thought raced through Tom’s head before he could stop it, and he muttered a thank-you and left the Muggle behind.
(You smell upset,) Scylla informed him matter-of-factly. (Is it because of what that man said?)
Tom shrugged. (It just—seemed strange. My father coming back suddenly like that, I mean.)
(I could bite him for you,) Scylla offered. Tom could feel her flicking her tail against his wrist, and he snickered in spite of himself.
(No thanks,) he said. (We don’t really have time anyway. We need to get back.)
All in all, though, it wasn’t quite the perfect trip he’d been hoping for. What answers he’d found seemed to have just created more questions.
Chapter 7: Black Encounters
By the time the orphans arrived back in London, it was far too late for Tom to visit Diagon Alley, but he slipped away as soon as the sun rose the next morning with Scylla coiled sleepily around his wrist. He wanted to know what sort of snake she was, and as she had stubbornly refused to tell him, Miss Argall was his best hope.
Even at this early hour, Diagon Alley was abuzz with activity, although, fortunately, Flourish & Blotts was nearly deserted, having only just opened for the day. Miss Argall herself was sitting behind the counter instead of roaming around like she usually did, which suited Tom perfectly. She raised an eyebrow as he hurried over to her. “Tom? You’re here very early. Is something the matter?”
“No,” Tom said, shaking his wrist a little to wake Scylla up. She grumbled and curled around his arm more tightly. “Mrs. Cole took us to Little Hangleton yesterday. I found Marvolo’s grave and met someone who I think works for my father’s family. And I found her.” He held up his right hand. Scylla had woken up enough to slither down a few inches, twine between his fingers, and promptly gone back to sleep again.
Miss Argall jerked away, nearly bouncing off the wall behind her. She looked absolutely horrified.
“Her name’s Scylla,” Tom said, choosing to ignore her overreaction until she decided to explain it to him. “And she won’t tell me what kind of snake she is, so I was hoping you might tell me…”
“I… Tom, that’s a Seps,” Miss Argall said. She mumbled something, and Tom caught the word “illegal” repeated a couple of times.
“Dangerous?” he asked.
(Don’t be stupid. Of course ’m dangerous,) Scylla hissed drowsily.
“I should say so,” Miss Argall said, still looking quite shocked. “They’re one of the most venomous snakes in the world—only slightly less than a basilisk—”
Perhaps because they were talking about her, Scylla actually woke up. (I’m much prettier than a basilisk, though,) she said. Tom rolled his eyes and stroked her neck lightly. Her tongue flickered against his fingers.
“—can dissolve human bones,” Miss Argall said. She was starting to regain her composure, and she sniffed as she straightened her glasses, which had fallen askew when she’d hit the wall. “They’re five-X creatures, completely illegal to own, except for registered Parselmouths and even then it’s strictly regulated—”
She was babbling. Tom hid a grin; he’d never thought he’d see the day when Miss Argall babbled.
“How do I get registered as a Parselmouth, then?” Tom asked, pitching his voice to cut through her slightly hysterical monologue. Miss Argall checked herself, and then took a very deep breath.
“I can take you to the Department for the Control and Regulation of Magical Creatures,” she said very calmly, although Tom noticed her fingers trembling.
“If you don’t mind,” Tom said.
(They’ll have to let you keep me,) Scylla said, twisting so that the light glinted off her copper bands and turning back to admire them with evident satisfaction. (Tell them I’ll bite them if they don’t.)
Tom sighed and began to explain why that was a very bad idea while Miss Argall led him out of the shop.
“First the Inheritance Office, now the Beast-speakers Registration Committee, my, my, Mr. Gaunt, you’re developing the most extraordinary talent for causing an uproar in our Ministry, aren’t you?” The witch who ran the Beast-speakers Registration Committee beamed at him. She’d introduced herself as Andrea Hawksworth, and she’d taken the news that Tom was a Parselmouth who’d been, in Miss Argall’s words, forcibly stuck with a Seps snake surprisingly well. She’d won Scylla’s affection, at any rate, by immediately cooing over how lovely the little snake was, albeit from a distance.
Tom smiled his most innocent smile up at her. “I don’t mean to, madam,” he said. “I suppose I just lead an interesting life.”
“Quite,” Mrs. Hawksworth said. She finished filling in the form she’d been working on with a flourish, and handed it over to Tom. “You just need to sign here, and here, and here,” she said, indicating three blank spaces on the form before jerking her hand away as Scylla moved to nudge her fingers.
(Be nice,) Tom muttered. (She’s helping us.)
(I am being nice! Even though she smells like an owl.)
Tom bit back a sigh and signed his name three times. (She doesn’t know that, though,) he said, knowing it would be useless to explain that Mrs. Hawksworth didn’t understand snake body-language any more than she did Parseltongue. “Of course, if she injures or kills someone, you’re legally responsible, as you’ll see if you read clause eight,” Mrs. Hawksworth said, looking suddenly nervous. Tom nodded. “Good. Right. Well, I’ll just draw you up a proper license and you can be on your way.”
Tom ducked his head to hide his grin. (Although I’ll admit that fear can be useful, sometimes,) he hissed under his breath, and Scylla laughed softly.
Fifteen minutes later, Tom followed Miss Argall into one of the Ministry lifts, the newly-legal owner of one of the most dangerous snakes in the world. He felt justified in being a bit smug about that, even if it had happened by accident.
There were only two other people left on the lift. One of them was a tall, dark-robed man who reminded Tom vaguely of Professor Black, if only because his eyes were the same pitch-black color; the other was a girl who looked about Tom’s age. Her eyes locked onto his face as soon as the door shut.
“Miss Argall,” the man said cooly.
“Mr. Black,” Miss Argall said, in more or less the same tone. The girl’s eyes flickered briefly down to Scylla and then back to Tom’s face. She raised a single eyebrow questioningly, and Tom grinned at her. After a few seconds, the girl did too.
“May I ask what brings you to the Ministry on this fine morning?” Mr. Black said.
“Tom here had to pay a visit to the Beast-speakers Registration Committee,” Miss Argall said. “And you?”
Mr. Black heaved a sigh. “Arranging things for the upcoming Oakby trial,” he said disinterestedly. His hand descended onto the girl’s shoulder, and her grin took on a distinctly smug edge. “I don’t believe you’ve met my daughter? This is Bellatrix.”
“Is the Department of Magical Law Enforcement really the best place to bring a child?” Miss Argall asked, with what Tom deemed to be unnecessary force. Bellatrix’s eyes shuttered immediately, and she glared up at Miss Argall.
“Bellatrix is my heir,” Mr. Black said, unruffled. “She must experience these things early.” He glanced down at Tom, and then added, “Of course, children must have an opportunity for fun, as well.” The lift clattered to a halt at the Atrium, and they all got out. Mr. Black brushed an imaginary speck of dust off of his sleeve. “Now, Miss Argall, I understand that you deal in rare books as well as the more common fare in your bookshop?”
Miss Argall blinked. “I do, yes,” she said. Mr. Black smiled.
“There is one in particular which I am after. Perhaps we could discuss it, unless you have any pressing obligations this morning?”
“None,” Miss Argall said.
“Excellent,” Mr. Black said. He led the way to the Floo fireplaces along the side of the Atrium, and gestured for Miss Argall to go first. Tom noticed Bellatrix grinning again. “Then I shall accompany you to Flourish & Blotts and we can talk.”
“Tom, you first,” Miss Argall said. Tom went without question, and the last he saw of the Atrium was the golden letters rearranging themselves on the pale blue ceiling. Seconds later, he spun out of the fireplace at the Leaky Cauldron and staggered out of the way so that Miss Argall could come through. The two Blacks followed close behind her, with greater dignity than Tom could have managed.
Mr. Black murmured something to Miss Argall, who shot Tom a warning look as she followed Mr. Black towards the entrance to Diagon Alley. Annoyed, Tom rocked back on his heels.
It took him almost half a minute to notice that Bellatrix had stayed behind, too. She was eyeing him with open curiosity. “Is that a Seps?” she asked.
“Her name’s Scylla,” Tom said.
“And you’re evading the question,” Bellatrix said, peering a little closer. Scylla hissed at her curiously. “I’ve never seen one before, except in pictures.” She laughed suddenly and curled her arm around his, tugging him gently towards the back of the pub. “Come on,” she said. “They’ll be in there for at least an hour.”
“But—what are you—”
“Or would you rather go back to the Muggle world? That is true, isn’t it, all the things the Prophet’s been saying about you?” Bellatrix smirked. They’d reached the courtyard by now, and she pulled out her wand to tap the brick wall.
“Most of it,” Tom muttered, resigned now. She had a point, anyway. Wandering around Diagon Alley, or whatever it was she had in mind, was better than going back to the orphanage and just reading.
Bellatrix beamed at him. “Good,” she said.
She led him farther down the alley than Tom usually went, almost to Ollivander’s. Here, the alley started to branch off into several smaller ones, most of which looked a lot grimier and darker than Diagon Alley. For one terrible moment, Tom thought Bellatrix would turn down one of these; he needn’t have worried, though, because she veered into one of the shops instead.
It was a tiny, grim-looking establishment, with dusty windows and old paint that was peeling off in long strips. The sign over the door said Obscurus Books, but it was so faded that Tom had to squint to read it.
Tom felt the magic as soon as he set foot inside. It was—sharper, somehow, than magic in the Hogwarts library or even Ollivander’s; it felt like tin rubbing against his teeth. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, and Scylla lifted her head off his shoulder and tasted the air curiously.
(I like it here,) she hissed as her tongue disappeared again. Out of the corner of his eye, Tom saw Bellatrix glance at her with an expression that was halfway between delight and something like longing.
“What is this place?” he asked softly. His eyes were starting to adjust to the dim light now, and he could see the tightly clustered bookshelves just ahead. The aisles were narrow, bent in the same way that those in the Hogwarts library had been. A lot of the books that he could see from here had been bound shut; a few had even been chained to the shelves.
“It belongs to my aunt Vulpecula,” Bellatrix said, her voice barely audible. “She collects Dark books…” She pulled him closer to the stacks as she spoke, and the feeling of tin against his teeth intensified. It was not, Tom decided, entirely unpleasant. Just… strange. “Whether she actually sells them is up for debate, of course,” Bellatrix added dryly.
Tom examined the nearest row of books. Faint whispering, similar to what he’d heard in the Hogwarts library, buzzed in his ears. He was painfully aware of Bellatrix’s gaze boring into the back of his head, so it was almost a relief when she spoke. “So you’re a Parselmouth.”
“Yes,” Tom said.
“What’s it like?”
Tom blinked. It wasn’t something he’d thought about, really; it seemed to him no more unusual than the rest of his magic. He knew that wasn’t the kind of answer Bellatrix wanted, though, so he cast about for something more detailed to say. “It’s just like speaking English,” he said at last, shrugging. “I had to practice a lot to even be able to distinguish between them, at first.”
“Uncle Orion won’t be happy about that,” Bellatrix told him matter-of-factly, looking smug. “He was convinced you were lying to get attention, and that you weren’t really a Gaunt at all. He doesn’t approve of half-bloods.”
“Really.” Tom kept his voice utterly expressionless, and raised his eyebrows a little. Bellatrix flushed, but held his gaze.
“He gets into awful fights with Aunt Lycoris over it sometimes,” she said. “Father keeps telling her it’s only a matter of time before she’s disowned for it, but she won’t listen. Or possibly she doesn’t care,” she added thoughtfully. “It’s difficult to tell with her, sometimes. She took you to Hogwarts, didn’t she, while your uncle was still free? Was it as wonderful as everyone keeps telling me it is?”
“Yes,” Tom said firmly. He spent the next few minutes telling her about the weeks he’d spent at the school, with frequent interruptions when she asked him questions. Tom might have found this annoying if he weren’t enjoying the attention so much. When he’d finished, Bellatrix sighed wistfully.
“I’ve been trying to get Aunt Lycoris to let me visit for ages,” she said, “but she insists it’ll be more satisfying if I wait.” She scowled. “And I’ve had to wait almost a year longer than most people, since my birthday’s in September and I wasn’t old enough last year.”
“But you must know lots of magic already,” Tom said soothingly. “Since you grew up in the wizarding world.”
Bellatrix brightened a little. “That’s true,” she said. “Father doesn’t believe the nonsense about children under the age of eleven not having wands or using magic. I’ve been using an old family wand for years now.” She smirked. “It belonged to my Aunt Elladora originally. She made all sorts of innovations in the Dark Arts while she was alive, you know.” Tom bit the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning at her smug expression.
“You have your own wand now, though?” he asked.
“Of course,” Bellatrix said. “That’s tradition, and anyway new wands always work better. They bond more closely to their owners that way, or something.” She shrugged. “I didn’t listen terribly closely while Mr. Ollivander explained it last year. It’s creepy, the way he stares at people.”
“Glad it’s not just me then,” Tom muttered, grinning. Bellatrix snickered and tugged on his arm again.
“Come on, there’s more interesting things further in.”
Perhaps Bellatrix could sense a difference between the books at the front of the shop and the ones in the back; it would certainly explain why she became more animated the further back they went. However, the only difference that Tom could see was that the number of books wrapped in chains or locked onto separate podiums increased dramatically. Eventually they reached the far wall, which was undecorated save for a large, cracked mirror with a tarnished silver frame that hung between two doors. As they drew closer, Tom realized that the mirror reflected, not the shop, but a field of crumpled, brown grass beneath a dark grey sky. Shadowy figures moved in the distance, where the field gave way to some kind of forest. He stole a glance at Bellatrix, but she looked just as intrigued as he was.
They came within an arm’s length of the mirror. Tom leaned a little closer to it, but shoved his hands in his pockets, strangely reluctant to actually touch it. Bellatrix appeared to have similar reservations, although he could feel her practically vibrating with excitement. Scylla shifted uncomfortably around his neck.
Tom had just worked up the nerve to break the increasingly uncomfortable silence when the door on the right swung open and a tall witch with dark red hair strode out of it. Bellatrix seized his arm and dragged him behind the nearest bookshelf; together, they peeked around it to watch. The witch had a little hand-mirror in one hand and she spoke into it furiously as she slammed the door behind her. “Tell them I don’t care about their petty little power squabbles. They stole what was rightfully mine and so long as they refuse to return it to me, they ought to at least provide some recompense. I’ve named my price. They can take it, and no more will be said on the matter by anyone involved.” She made a sharp motion with her wrist, and then slipped the mirror into her pocket.
Another step, and the witch froze. Her head tilted to one side, and she inhaled softly, her nostrils flaring. Then she laughed, rather nastily, Tom thought. “Come out, niece,” she called, in a sickly sweet voice that put Tom in mind of rotting fruit. “Introduce me to your new friend.”
If Bellatrix was surprised to be found out, she didn’t show it. She straightened up, twining her arm around Tom’s once more, and stepped out from behind the bookshelf. The witch—Bellatrix’s aunt Vulpecula, Tom supposed—stood directly before them, one hand perched on her hip while the other tapped her wand against her skirts. Her lips were pursed, although whether it was in anger or amusement Tom couldn’t say. “Aunt, this is Tom Gaunt,” Bellatrix said calmly. Vulpecula’s eyebrows arched.
“Truly an honor to have such a conniving young man in my shop,” she said dryly. She gave a little bow, a mocking smile on her face, and added, “My name is Vulpecula Black-Eldritch, master Gaunt, and I have followed your public affairs with some… amusement.”
Scylla hissed angrily, lifting her head from beneath Tom’s collar. Vulpecula eyed her with the same faint amusement with which she had just addressed Tom. “I hope, master Gaunt, that you will continue to prove yourself amusing. I would so hate to have to rely upon the petty affairs of foreign wizards to liven my mealtime conversations.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” Tom said coldly.
Vulpecula gazed at him through half-closed eyes for a few seconds. Then she made a sharp, high noise that sounded halfway between laughter and a scoff. “Very good,” she said. “I look forward to it.” Then she held out a hand towards Bellatrix and smiled like a shark. “Come. My shop is no place for children to be wandering around unattended.”
Tom realized fairly quickly that Vulpecula was less worried about him or Bellatrix being hurt in her shop than she was about them failing to properly appreciate her wares. She led them through the maze of shelves, stopping every now and then to wax poetic over particularly rare volumes, most of which held horrible curses that would attack any unwary readers or even passerby if they thought they could get away with it. One, a slim book barely the size of Tom’s hand, held a particularly violent curse which would, if Vulpecula was to be believed, infect its reader’s family with a virulent strain of the Smoldering Plague.
“It’s rumored to be the source of the 1834 outbreak,” Vulpecula said cheerfully. “An entire branch of the Gaunt family was destroyed.”
“So I’ve been told,” Tom muttered, eying the book nervously. Unlike many of the individual books Vulpecula had shown them, it wasn’t chained to its podium, but surrounded by a haze of yellow light. Bellatrix, on the other hand, leaned as close to it as she could, looking fascinated.
Tom was starting to honestly wonder if all Blacks were insane, or just the ones he’d met.
Their tour of Obscurus Books was about half over when they were interrupted by Bellatrix’s father. He exchanged a few sharp words with Vulpecula, who eventually scoffed again and vanished into the back room. Then Mr. Black turned back to Bellatrix, although Tom saw a glitter of amusement in his eyes now as he said, “It is unwise to wander off without warning like that, Bellatrix.”
“I shall endeavor not to be caught next time, father,” Bellatrix said, with great dignity.
“See that you don’t,” Mr. Black said, equally grave. He nodded to Tom. “Mr. Gaunt. Good day.”
Tom bowed. “Good day, sir,” he said. Bellatrix grinned over her shoulder at him as she followed her father out of the shop.
Tom didn’t linger in Obscurus Books for long; the shop seemed far more sinister now that he was alone. He made a quick stop at Flourish & Blotts as he left Diagon Alley, to thank Miss Argall for taking him to the Ministry and to reassure her that Bellatrix hadn’t murdered him or anything of that nature. Then he returned to the orphanage, which was abuzz with unusual activity in the wake of the trip to the country; Tom estimated it would take until the end of the week for the residual excitement to fade completely.
That thought was driven out of his mind entirely, though, when he entered his room. Sitting incongruously at the foot of his bed was the trunk from the Gaunt home, crouched upon a dozen or so silver, spidery legs. It lifted itself several feet into the air as it noticed him, its legs making little skritching noises against the scuffed floor.
“Um,” Tom said.
(It followed you home,) Scylla hissed, lifting her head over his collar to see. Her tongue flickered against Tom’s ear. (How cute.) If snakes could roll their eyes, Tom thought, she would be doing so. He frowned at her sidelong, keeping most of his attention focused on the trunk. Somehow, despite having no discernible features, it gave the impression of being excited to see him.
“How did you get in?” he asked it, at something of a loss. Half of its legs bent slightly, so that one end of the trunk nearly touched the floor, and then straightened up again. Then, with surprising speed for something so large and with such spindly legs, it skittered past Tom and out the door, into the hallway. Tom swore and dove after it, but not quickly enough; by the time he regained his balance, it was down the stairs.
(Through the front door, evidently,) Scylla said, with every sign of great enjoyment.
(Shut up,) Tom hissed furiously, straining his ears for some sign of the panic that an apparently sentient trunk with spider legs would incite in the Muggle occupants of the orphanage. There were none, although one of the maids was coming up the stairs now and had certainly passed the trunk. She glanced sidelong at Tom as she passed, and he endeavored to look innocent.
The maid had just rounded the corner out of sight when the trunk followed her, coming to a halt just in front of Tom. It looked for all the world as if it were looking up at him for approval; wordlessly, Tom stepped back into his room and held the door open so the trunk could come through, too.
Scylla nudged Tom’s jaw with her nose. (Anti-Muggle enchantments, perhaps,) she said. Then, dryly, she added, (It’ll be rather difficult to misplace, I imagine.) She slithered the rest of the way out from under his collar and coiled on Tom’s shoulder, angling her head to catch the afternoon sunlight through the window. (But, as familiars go, it’s a bit dull. And certainly not as pretty as me.)
(It’s a trunk, not a familiar,) Tom said, exasperated, but he stroked her neck anyway.
The trunk retracted its legs and landed on the floor with a resounding thunk.
The trunk’s arrival finally allowed Tom to finish his school shopping; previously, without anything in which to adequately conceal a cauldron, telescope, and the rest of the magical equipment that the Hogwarts curriculum called for, he had been reluctant to risk bringing any of it to the orphanage. The trunk, however, was both large enough to hold the entirety of Tom’s Hogwarts shopping list, and, to the best of Tom’s knowledge, spelled against Muggle discovery, and so Tom felt secure in making the remainder of his purchases.
He spent nearly forty minutes inside the cauldron shop, where the ancient little witch who ran the place told him in excruciating detail how a Gaunt had saved her life at the cost of his own when she was barely old enough to have manifested. Tom would have been a great deal more irritated by this if she hadn’t sold him a brand-new cauldron at half the price afterwards.
At the apothecary, a dimly lit establishment with rows upon rows of jars and barrels and boxes full of foul-smelling ingredients, Tom had a far less pleasant experience. He had found the Hogwarts potion kit easily enough, along with a cheap set of vials, and made his way to the counter without incident, when—
“What are you doing here?”
Longbottom was sitting on a stool behind the counter, reading a book with a garishly colorful cover, but he put it down when he saw Tom.
“School shopping, Longbottom,” Tom said, struggling to hide his irritation. Scylla stirred fretfully on his wrist. Mr. Longbottom, who, Tom saw now, was running the register, raised an eyebrow.
“There is no need to be rude, Algernon,” he said, frowning faintly in his son’s direction. “Twelve Sickles, three Knuts, Mr. Gaunt.”
Tom paid Mr. Longbottom, revising his opinion of the man up a few points.
Miss Argall was becoming busier as the summer wore on, and, as the frequency of Tom’s lessons with her dwindled, he spent more time exploring the rest of Diagon Alley. Once he ventured into Quality Quidditch Supplies, which was very crowded and very noisy, long enough to thumb through a rulebook for the game. It seemed to him to be overly complicated and with some very strange rules (why was it even necessary to have a rule banning battle-axes on the playing field?), but Tom bought a copy of the book anyway and decided to reserve judgement until he’d actually seen a game.
Across from Quality Quidditch Supplies and almost as crowded was Gambol & Japes Joke Shop, where those possessing a certain brand of humor could buy as many dungbombs or self-loading miniature catapults as they pleased. Tom left quickly. He spent much more time inside the Magical Menagerie, situated about halfway between Flourish & Blotts and Obscurus Books.
Inside, the Menagerie roared with the squawks, yelps, hisses, and squeaks of dozens of animals in tanks and cages, which were stacked ceiling-high in haphazard order. It was a favorite destination of Scylla’s, who had quickly developed a fondness for perching on Tom’s shoulder and hissing insults at the caged animals, regardless of whether they could actually understand her or not. For Tom’s part, he found the more obviously magical creatures—the little blue jabberknoll that perched silently in its hanging cage towards the back of the shop, or the bejeweled fire-crab in the big tank near the counter, or, towards the end of July, the litter of crup puppies with their forked tails—fascinating.
Of all the shops he explored, though, Tom’s favorite was a dusty little antique shop called Quigley & Sons, which was tucked into the shadows next door to Mr. Ollivander’s. It was always stiflingly warm and stuffy inside, and most of the wares were useless or broken, but Tom loved it anyway. Old trinkets, tarnished amulets, chipped tea sets, books with their pages falling out or their bindings unravelling, umbrellas, swords, disused Quidditch balls and ancient broomsticks, broken wands, a cracked crystal ball the size of Tom’s head; one table was devoted to an arrangement of animal skulls. There were stacks of worn cauldrons and telescopes with cracked lenses, broken chess sets and patched robes and hats, shattered and dirty mirrors and worn packs of cards. The shop was three stories high and Tom was almost convinced that there was nothing that couldn’t, eventually, be found in its shelves. The wizard who ran it, a frail man with a mop of silver hair and pale yellow eyes, could be relied upon to have an interesting story to tell about every item he sold, on the rare occasion that Tom managed to catch him not working.
Thus engaged, the rest of the summer passed quickly. Tom had just begun to wonder how he would get to King’s Cross on September first, when he received an owl from Cygnus Black. It was quite brief, only a sentence or two, but Mr. Black indicated that Bellatrix had insisted that her father offer to escort Tom to the platform. Tom penned a hasty acceptance and thank-you, grinning at the thought. In a quick exchange of notes, he reached an agreement with Mr. Black to be at the Leaky Cauldron on the morning of September first; the Blacks would meet him there, and then they would all take a portkey to the platform.
With that question settled, Tom had only to wait a week or so before he would be off to Hogwarts.
Apologies that this chapter took so long! I hit the end of summer vacation and my calendar blew up in my face. I'm still very very busy, so I'll be updating less frequently than I was before.
Chapter 8: The Hogwarts Express
When Tom awoke on the morning of September first, it was to find the sky dull and overcast. He stared anxiously out the window for some time before going down to breakfast, and then found that his appetite had deserted him entirely. He picked at a piece of toast for a while, intensely aware of the covert, curious glances being directed his way. Mrs. Cole had recently announced that Tom would be going to some far-off, exclusive school, and the orphans seemed torn between relief at his departure and a strange kind of awe.
The dwindling time before ten o’clock found Tom pacing in his room and making frequent searches of his trunk to ensure that everything was packed. Scylla had curled
When Tom awoke on the morning of September first, it was to find the sky dull and overcast. He stared anxiously out the window for some time before going down to breakfast, and then found that his appetite had deserted him entirely. He picked at a piece of toast for a while, intensely aware of the covert, curious glances being directed his way. Mrs. Cole had recently announced that Tom would be going to some far-off, exclusive school, and the orphans seemed torn between relief at his departure and a strange kind of awe.
The dwindling time before ten o’clock found Tom pacing in his room and making frequent searches of his trunk to ensure that everything was packed. Scylla had curled up on the window sill, and Tom was certain that, had she possessed a human face, she would have been smirking at him. She did, however, refrain from commenting on his behavior, for which Tom was grateful.
In the end, unable to stand the orphanage any longer, Tom left for the Leaky Cauldron a half hour early. Once there, he found he could no longer pace without disturbing the pub’s patrons and his nerves promptly worsened. He hunched against the wall, next to his trunk, and shoved fists into the pockets of his robes, which he’d changed into as soon as he got to the Leaky Cauldron. His stomach churned uncomfortably.
The minutes slogged by, and when ten o’clock came at last, Tom was so intent on watching the clock over the Floo portal that he was badly startled when the flames turned bright green and roared up to twice their previous height. He straightened away from the wall and smoothed down the front of his robes as Mr. Black stepped neatly out of the fireplace. Bellatrix followed right behind him, her cheeks flushed and a wild, manic gleam in her eyes.
“Mr. Gaunt,” Mr. Black said cooly, inclining his head ever so slightly in Tom’s direction.
“Mr. Black,” Tom said, bowing.
Bellatrix was far less formal in her greeting; she seized Tom’s arm immediately and said, “The rest of the family’s at the platform already. They’re very interested to meet you.” Mr. Black made a tiny noise that might have signalled exasperation, and pulled a long, silver ribbon out of his pocket. He flicked one end of the ribbon in Tom’s direction. Bellatrix caught it and held it out to Tom, who took it dubiously. He had read about portkeys, and they didn’t sound like the most pleasant way to travel.
Then again, he’d thought the same thing about the Floo network before he’d tried it, and that wasn’t so bad—
“…Two, one,” Mr. Black was saying, and Tom realized that he had been counting down since Tom had taken hold of the ribbon. Several disjointed sensations registered at once: Scylla tightening around his neck so suddenly that he choked, a feeling that someone had grabbed the middle of his spine and yanked firmly backwards, and a sharp blow from his left side which, he realized later, was the result of his trunk lunging after them. His vision went white, struck through with streaks of red and purple, and then cleared again.
Tom’s feet slammed into the ground with such force that it drove him to his knees. His head spun as he got back up, but it settled after he was upright again and he looked around with interest.
The Leaky Cauldron had vanished; in its place was the platform. Tom blinked, briefly forgetting Bellatrix and her father as he took in the sight. Steam billowed from the front of a cherry-red steam engine, and perhaps thirty people milled about in the haze. Most of them had trunks, some of which were so normal in appearance that they might have come from Muggle stores, while others had legs and scuttled after their owners on their own power. Across from where Tom was standing there was an enormous wrought-iron archway, through which Tom could see the Muggle side of King’s Cross. The sign above the archway read, in neat, large letters legible even from this distance, Platform Nine and Three Quarters.
“Is this how all Muggles travel?” Bellatrix hissed in Tom’s ear, and he jumped badly. She tilted her head in towards the train, clearly nervous and just as clearly trying to pretend she wasn’t.
“Well, they generally don’t bring toads with them,” Tom said, nodding towards an older boy in a hideous orange sweater, who was just passing with a huge yellow toad perched on his shoulder. Bellatrix relaxed incrementally and smirked. Mr. Black sniffed disapprovingly, though whether it was due to Tom, Bellatrix, or the toad boy, Tom didn’t know.
“Ah, there you are!” A tall and slightly plump witch was hurrying towards them, two young girls in tow.
As she drew closer, Tom could see that her lips were curled into an ugly sneer, although this seemed to be directed at the train itself rather than anyone present. “This seems like such an undesirable method of travel,” she said unhappily, swooping down on Bellatrix, who accepted her embrace with a grimace. The two girls—Bellatrix’s sisters, Tom supposed, exchanged grins. “I hope it won’t spoil your first evening at Hogwarts too much.”
Bellatrix pulled away from her mother, looking disgruntled. “I’m sure I’ll survive,” she muttered. Her expression darkened further when the two girls lunged at her next, each one latching on to one arm.
“Don’t go!” said the younger one, who, like Mrs. Black, had a lot of golden-blonde hair and large blue eyes, which were currently welling up with tears..
“We’ll be so bored without you,” added the other. Bellatrix tried, futilely, to shake them off. “How will we torment Sirius without you? Or sneak food out of the kitchen, or—”
Bellatrix snarled at her, and both girls let go, the younger one laughing hysterically, tears forgotten. “Be nice to your sisters, Bella,” Mrs. Black said.
“I will if they are,” Bellatrix muttered, glaring at them.
The older one, who would have been identical to Bellatrix had it not been for her lighter hair and more rounded nose, peered around her sister to look at Tom. “You must be Tom,” she said, sticking out a hand gravely. “I’m Andromeda.” Then, as Tom shook her hand carefully, she added, “I’m much more mature than Bella, really.”
“Says you,” Bellatrix said, but she smiled faintly. “And this is Narcissa, who doesn’t talk to strangers.” She draped her arm over the blonde girl’s shoulders and then twisted to avoid the elbow that Narcissa tried to drive into her ribs.
“Pleasure to meet you,” Tom said, intensely aware that the elder Blacks had finished whatever murmured conversation they had been pursuing until now and were now scrutinizing him.
“Same,” Andromeda said. Narcissa smiled and nodded.
The Blacks began saying their goodbyes in earnest, and Tom wandered a few steps away to give them their privacy. While Mr. and Mrs. Black spoke seriously to Bellatrix (who listened with equal sincerity), Tom watched the increasingly busy proceedings on the rest of the platform. There was the Muggleborn girl Tom had met in Diagon Alley with her parents—River, that was her name, he remembered abruptly—her curls bouncing around her shoulders as she nodded in response to something her mother had said. A short distance away, a group of three boys who looked a few years older than Tom were huddled awkwardly around a magazine, talking and gesturing so wildly that Tom was surprised they managed to avoid hitting one another.
He saw a portly witch in pale green robes hugging her son, who looked mortified as he patted her shoulder awkwardly. A sleek mahogany trunk with hundreds of tiny human feet loped past him in pursuit of a fluffy golden cat. More people kept arriving in ones and twos through the archway, while others portkeyed in on the other side of the platform.
Tom peeked over his shoulder at the Blacks. Narcissa had caught hold of Bellatrix’s hand and was speaking urgently; as Tom watched, Bellatrix knelt down to hug her sister, murmuring something in her ear as she did so. Tom looked away, feeling the back of his neck heat up unpleasantly.
Bellatrix bade a final goodbye to her family and rejoined him a few minutes later, now looking rather pale and apprehensive. She eyed the train dubiously as they boarded; Tom pretended not to notice. The corridors were quite crowded, a situation made worse by the way students kept stopping to exclaim over perfectly ordinary things like the sliding compartment doors. He and Bellatrix shouldered their way through the crowd, although Tom declined Scylla’s suggestion that she climb onto his head and frighten everyone out of the way on the grounds that it might incite panic.
At last they found an empty compartment towards the back of the train, and Tom flopped into a seat by the window with a sigh. His trunk extended its legs to their fullest length and, in one fluid motion, hoisted itself up into the luggage rack. Bellatrix’s followed it.
“I pity anyone who has to do that the Muggle way,” Tom said dryly, watching the trunks while Bellatrix sank into the seat across from him.
“How do Muggles do it?” Bellatrix asked curiously.
Tom shrugged. “Brute force,” he said. Bellatrix wrinkled her nose briefly.
“I can’t imagine living without magic,” she said.
“It’s not that bad, I suppose,” Tom said. “Muggles do all right, anyway.” He grinned. “Even if trains are slower than portkeys.” After almost a year spent frantically trying to catch up to his wizard-born peers, Tom felt he was justified in enjoying his superior experience in this situation. Judging by the sharp glance Bellatrix directed his way, she knew what he was thinking and didn’t like it a bit.
They had not been in the compartment long before the door slid open and a pale boy with a long face came in. Another boy, this one much taller and with messy brown hair that flopped into his eyes, peered over his shoulder. “Hello,” said the boy in front. “I’m Antonin Dolohov. This is Rabastan Lestrange.” He cocked his head to one side, dark green eyes flicking rapidly back and forth from Bellatrix to Tom. “Can we sit here?”
“If you must,” Bellatrix said.
“I don’t mind,” Tom said, at the same time. “I’m Tom Gaunt,” he added, as the boys found their seats and directed their trunks up to the luggage racks.
“Yeah, I recognize you from the papers,” Lestrange said carelessly. Dolohov rolled his eyes. “And of course we know who you are,” Lestrange said, nodding towards Bellatrix, who sniffed.
“Your tact hasn’t improved since last year, I see,” Bellatrix said.
“Rabastan believes that tact is overrated,” Dolohov murmured.
“Shut up,” Lestrange said, without rancor. He had been slumped over in his seat, but he straightened up now, blue eyes flashing with excitement. “So! Hogwarts!” He grinned. “What House d’you think you’ll get? My whole family has been Slytherins for ages, so that’s what I’m expecting. If not, I dunno.”
Dolohov muttered something under his breath, but said, “I don’t know. I haven’t given it much thought.” He shrugged. “But I have a family history of Slytherin as well.”
“Tom’s going to be in Slytherin,” Bellatrix said confidently.
“Am I?” Tom asked, raising his eyebrows. Bellatrix tossed her hair over her shoulder and sent him a superior look.
“Yes,” she said, “you are. Don’t worry, I have it on good authority that Slytherin’s the best House.”
“Professor Black’s authority, you mean,” Tom said.
“She is a good authority!”
Tom grinned. “I agree,” he said. “It’s just that, well, in your case, it’s less ‘good authority’ and more ‘family bias.’ Especially if you have an additional family history of Slytherin…” Lestrange snickered.
“We tend to Hatstall, if you must know,” Bellatrix said primly.
“But Blacks are always Slytherins,” Dolohov protested. Bellatrix glared at him.
“Not always,” she said. “My aunt Lucretia was a Ravenclaw, and we’ve had a few Gryffindors—”
“Out of how many relatives?” Lestrange asked, grinning.
“Shut up, Lestrange.”
They fell into silence for a while, and then Lestrange said, “So… do you suppose your aunt will favor you very much?”
Bellatrix shot him an imperious glare. “I’m sure she won’t,” she said. “I’m perfectly capable of handling a few plants on my own, thanks.”
Lestrange held up his hands placatingly. “I’m only thinking that she might favor your friends, too, because, well, my brother tells all sorts of horror stories about her classes.” He leaned forward, his voice dropping conspiratorially. “He says he knows someone who lost a hand during her fourth-year exam.”
“Someone whose name he can never quite recall, yes,” Dolohov said with a superior sniff. “This is the same brother that spent two years trying to convince you that the Sorting is performed by a dancing troll, too.”
“But everyone knows—”
“—That she would have been let go had a student been injured so badly as to require treatment at St. Mungo’s,” Dolohov finished smoothly.
“I don’t know,” Tom said, affecting a look of great thoughtfulness. “She told me that she thinks pain is a powerful motivator for teaching.”
Lestrange went rather green, and Dolohov cleared his throat loudly and said, “So, did you hear about the Ilkley Moor Quidditch game last night? The Kenmares won by over two hundred points—”
Quidditch sustained their talk—mostly between Dolohov and Lestrange; Tom got the impression that Bellatrix didn’t care for the sport very much, and Tom himself didn’t know enough about it to comment—until eleven o’clock precisely. The train’s shrill whistle brought a violent end to the conversation; the other three all startled badly, Lestrange nearly falling out of his seat because of it.
“Eleven already?” Tom asked, with what he considered to be impressive calm. He could hear shouts coming from somewhere else in the train, which jolted forward as he spoke. Tom bit down on the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing as Lestrange shut his eyes and ground his teeth together; Bellatrix and Dolohov had both gone several shades paler, too.
“I don’t see how Muggles can live like this,” Dolohov muttered, after the train had hit its full speed and houses began to flash past the windows.
Tom settled back in his seat, still feeling a little smug. “You’ll get used to it,” he said, unable to quite keep the amusement out of his voice. Bellatrix glared at him, then rolled her shoulders back and sighed.
“Gambol’s going to be getting a lot of Howlers in the next few days,” she said, with great dignity. Lestrange let out a short bark of laughter, and the tension eased a little.
A few minutes passed in increasingly awkward silence. Lestrange fidgeted, plucking at a loose thread on the seat cushion while Bellatrix stared moodily out the window. Dolohov let out a long sigh and pulled a thin book called The Amateur Arithmancer out of his pocket. He held it so close to his face that Tom wondered if he was really reading it, or merely using it as an excuse not to attempt further conversation.
The train had just left the city behind, the houses giving way to fields full of cows and sheep, when the compartment door opened for a third time. The newcomer was a boy with a round, happy-looking face, framed by sandy hair that stuck out around his ears and a large cage with an owl asleep inside tucked under one arm. He grinned at Bellatrix as he stood in the doorway. “Hullo, Bella,” he said, then nodded to Dolohov and Lestrange in turn. “Dolohov. Rabastan.” His gaze landed on Tom. “And… you’re Tom Gaunt, right?”
“Yes,” Tom said.
Bellatrix leaned forward slightly. “Tom, this is Columbus Crouch. My cousin.”
“Really.” Tom glanced at Crouch, who had taken a seat between Bellatrix and Dolohov. He couldn’t think of two people who looked less likely to be related.
“Distant cousin,” Crouch said, apparently guessing at Tom’s thought. He squirmed on the seat. “Bellatrix could probably tell you exactly how distant, but I don’t care enough to keep track.” He shrugged. “Anyway, can you believe this?” He gestured expansively at the compartment. “The train, and everything?”
“It’s a perfectly ordinary train,” Tom said.
Crouch goggled at him. “Have you been on one before?” he said, looking so impressed that Tom had to laugh.
“Loads of times,” he said. “It’s the fastest Muggle way to get anywhere, and, well…” He trailed off, shrugging.
“My father says they’re filthy and we’ll all catch horrible Muggle diseases from riding in one,” Lestrange offered. He eyed Tom critically for a moment. “You look all right, though, so it can’t be that bad.”
“My father just thinks it’s really degrading for wizards to use Muggle inventions, but I think it’s brilliant,” Crouch said, sticking his chin out as if daring them to contradict him. “You should’ve seen the corridors when the train started; people fell over and everything.”
“We heard the shouting,” Tom said.
They were quiet for a while after that, watching the scenery fly past or, in Dolohov’s case, still reading intently. Crouch hummed softly under his breath. After some time Tom became aware of a rattling coming down the corridor, getting louder all the while. A few minutes later, the compartment door slid open and a plump, elderly witch peeked in.
“Anything off the trolley?” she asked.
“Merlin, give me a bit of everything,” Lestrange said, leaping to his feet and pulling out a money bag. Bellatrix caught Tom’s eye and smirked.
“You’re sharing,” Dolohov said without looking up from his book.
“Fine,” Lestrange said. To the trolley witch he added, “Extra chocolate frogs, then.”
Tom watched, fascinated, as the wizarding sweets were transferred into the empty seat between him and Rabastan. There were some that looked almost normal, like Tatham’s Tremulous Taffy or the packets of licorice wands, but others were simply bizarre, like the chocolate frogs or Bertie Bot’s Every Flavor Beans.
Crouch apparently noticed this, because he declared that Tom had to eat one of everything. When Tom protested that he wasn’t nearly that hungry, Lestrange pointed out that they were a long way from Hogwarts and he could certainly spread it out a little if he preferred.
Tom, who had never been one for sweets anyway, found that most of it was functionally indistinguishable from its Muggle counterparts, provided he ignored the moving pictures on the wrappers and the fact that Bertie Bott had apparently thought it would be a good idea to produce mud-flavored sweets.
“I mean, what’s the point?” he asked, raising his voice a little because Dolohov had just swallowed a bean of his own and was choking on it. Crouch pounded him on the back. “Sweets that taste like—like liver. Why would anyone enjoy them?”
“’Cause it’s fun,” Lestrange said. He pulled a handful of beans out of the bag and popped them all into his mouth at once, grinning.
Dolohov got his breath back and reached for a chocolate frog. “Pepper,” he wheezed, shaking his head.
“I collect the vomit flavored ones and slip them into ’Meda’s food when she’s not paying attention,” Bellatrix said, looking up from the licorice wand that she had been absentmindedly shredding.
“Charming,” Tom said.
“I’ve tried to do the same to Cissy, but she caught on too quickly,” Bellatrix added, smiling innocently.
“What interesting family dinners you must have.”
The landscape outside the train was becoming wilder, turning from cultivated fields to forests and rolling hills. Storm clouds were gathering on the horizon, too, and thunder rumbled ominously in the distance.
The noise woke Crouch’s owl, which made an angry buzzing noise. “Sorry,” Crouch mumbled, reaching through the bars of the cage to stroke the bird’s wing soothingly. “This is Strix,” he added, proudly. “Mother bought him for me when I got my Hogwarts letter.”
“Wish I had an owl,” Lestrange said wistfully. “All I’ve got is this mangy old kneazle—Lucy. Father’s sending her to me with one of the house-elves tonight. She, um, doesn’t travel well.”
“Kneazles are all right,” Crouch said consolingly.
“Better than toads, anyway,” Lestrange said, with a superior glance towards Dolohov. “Show them your toad, Andy, go on.”
Dolohov sighed and put aside his magazine. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a lumpy, dark-green toad, which blinked balefully at them all. “This is Toad,” he said.
“Antonin’s very boring about naming things,” Lestrange muttered.
“Merely practical,” Dolohov said calmly. He put the toad down on top of The Amateur Arithmancer, where it absolutely failed to do anything interesting.
“I don’t keep pets,” Bellatrix said. “I tried, once, when I was little. I found a Boggart under my bed and it wasn’t sure what to turn into because—well, never mind. I put it in a shoebox and kept it for a few months, until mother found out and had it destroyed.”
They all stared at her.
“What? I thought it was funny!”
Crouch cleared his throat awkwardly, clearly struggling to hide his laughter. “So, what about you, Tom?” he asked.
“Well…” Tom began hesitantly, wondering how best to explain the situation with Scylla, who could not, he thought, truly be called a pet, not unless he wanted to risk her biting him. Scylla, naturally, chose this moment to lift her head over his collar and announce her self.
(I’m not a pet,) she said.
(I know you’re not,) Tom hissed, annoyed, while Crouch, Dolohov, and Lestrange watched with mixed horror and fascination. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Bellatrix grinning. (You’re a wonderful lovely snake who attached herself to me against my will. But there are more tactful ways of telling them that.)
(Don’t care,) Scylla hissed back cheerfully.
Tom sighed. “This is Scylla,” he said. “She’s a Seps, and, yes, I’m licensed with the Ministry and all that. Er, she’s not really a pet though.”
“The Prophet certainly failed to mention that,” Crouch said, grinning.
“It’s not really common knowledge,” Tom said. “And I’d like to keep it that way, thanks.”
It didn’t take much to convince the other four to keep the secret; they all looked rather excited about the intrigue of it. Scylla, after some coaxing, coiled up out of sight, underneath Tom’s collar again. The talk turned to families after that; Tom was about halfway through a thorough description of his visit to Little Hangleton when the compartment door opened and Algernon Longbottom walked in.
Longbottom was flanked by two other boys, one tall, freckly, and red-haired, the other shorter and with long, messy brown hair. “Hullo, Gaunt,” he said, folding his arms.
“What do you want, Longbottom?” Tom asked coldly.
“Only to say hello,” Longbottom said, with a nasty smile. “’S only polite, after all. Not that you’d know anything about that, being practically Muggleborn and all.”
“Tom knows more about manners than you ever will,” Bellatrix snapped. Longbottom sneered at her and began to reach for his wand.
“Well, you’ve said hello,” Tom said, hoping to avoid an actual confrontation. He didn’t fancy getting into trouble before even arriving at Hogwarts. “You can go now.”
Longbottom snorted. “You want to be careful about the company you keep, Gaunt,” he said, even as he backed out of the compartment. “Dark wizards never come to good ends.”
Lestrange got up and shut the door as Longbottom and his friends left. “Prat,” he said.
“He’ll run the Longbottom family into the ground one day, with politics like that,” Crouch said mildly. “My family’s Light, too, but even my father realizes that most Dark wizards are all right.”
Lestrange rolled his eyes. “And we’re so glad you think so,” he said.
“Oh, shut up.” Crouch grinned.
The storm that had been gathering since early afternoon just as it was beginning to get dark. Heavy sheets of rain pounded against the windows, obscuring the outside world completely. Rabastan groaned. “Imagine crossing the lake in this,” he said.
“There’s such a thing as an Impervius charm, you know,” Bellatrix said.
“Good thing, too,” Columbus said, as he pulled a watch out of his pocket and checked it. “It’s almost five o’clock; we must be nearly there.”
As if on cue, a tinny voice echoed through the train. “We will arrive in Hogsmeade Station in five minutes,” it said. “When you disembark, please leave your luggage on the train. It will be taken to the school separately. Please exit in an orderly fashion. Thank you.”
Tom’s stomach gave a funny lurch. The others were looking nervous, too. Thunder growled as they filed into the corridor, where other students were already crowding by the doors, muttering anxiously and jostling against each other.
The train began to slow down and eventually squealed to a stop. Ears still ringing from the noise of the brakes, Tom pulled his wand out of his pocket and tapped it against his robes, muttering, “Impervius.” It was the first time he’d tried that particular charm, and he could only hope it worked.
Outside, the rain was so heavy that Tom could barely see, and, although the Impervius charm seemed to be mostly working, it did nothing to keep out the cold. Tom shoved his hands into his pockets, shivering.
Professor Black’s voice rang out from Tom’s left, carrying surprisingly well over the noise of the storm. “This way, first years. Follow the light and try not to collide with one another.” Tom looked up, squinting. He could just make out a faint, bluish glow coming from the direction of Professor Black’s voice.
“She volunteered for this, the lunatic,” Bellatrix muttered in Tom’s ear.
Tom grinned, not surprised in the least. He shuffled through the crowd of older students—who were being slowly herded in the opposite direction by several sodden house-elves. At last, they reached Professor Black, who, despite the foul weather, looked utterly calm. Both her greying hair and her robes were quite dry and untouched by the wind. She held her wand above her head, and it was from this that the blue light glowed.
She smiled when she saw them. “Hello, Bellatrix. Columbus. Tom.” She inclined her head slightly towards Rabastan and Antonin. “Mr. Lestrange and Mr. Dolohov.”
“Hello,” Tom said.
Professor Black’s smile lingered for another few seconds, then she lifted her eyes to study the rest of the first years. Tom looked around, too; most of his new classmates looked thoroughly soaked and miserable.
“I believe this is everyone,” Professor Black said. “Follow me, and mind your step.”
She strode away so quickly that the first years nearly had to jog to keep up. They were led down a narrow, winding path that had turned slippery with mud in the rain, and more than one person stumbled or fell. Tom’s feet kept threatening to slide out from underneath him, and he gritted his teeth and thought longingly of Gobel’s Labyrinth and the goblin’s carts.
They walked for perhaps five minutes, and then Professor Black stopped so suddenly that several more students fell over. Someone collided with Tom; it was a girl he didn’t recognize, and she mumbled an apology as she scrambled away. Professor Black smirked over her shoulder at them.
“Now then,” she said crisply. She gave her wand a little flick, and the blue light at the end of it floated into the air, expanding to the size of a football as it went. As it rose, it illuminated the black water before them. A dozen or so small wooden boats were tethered to a dock that was in very real danger of being underwater.
“I’m afraid the rain has deprived you of the ordinarily spectacular view of the castle,” Professor Black said, “but rest assured you will see it soon enough. Provided, of course, that none of you are unintelligent enough to capsize one of our mighty vessels.”
Tom snickered, but he was one of the few who did. A glance at some of his classmates told him that many of them were unprepared for Professor Black’s peculiar brand of humor.
“No more than four to a boat,” Professor Black said. “Hurry along.”
Tom followed Bellatrix to the nearest boat, which had nearly three inches of frigid water at the bottom. They were quickly joined by Rabastan and Antonin; Columbus got into the boat right next to them, along with three other bedraggled-looking students.
“Everyone in?” Professor Black called, and there was a murmur of assent from the students. “Excellent.” As one, the ropes that tethered the boats to the dock vanished. They glided forward onto the lake.
The wind had turned the water choppy, and every few seconds the front of the boat would tip forward and a spray of cold water would fly up at their faces. Tom hunched deeper into his robes and clenched his teeth together to stop them from chattering. He could barely see the other boats, even with the blue light that Professor Black had conjured.
After what felt like an eternity, the boats glided into an opening in what Tom guessed was a large cliff face. The temperature rose, and Professor Black’s blue light made everyone look several shades paler and sicklier than they really were.
The tunnel led them to an underground, torchlit harbor. The boats crunched against a low, pebbly incline, and the first years scrambled out of them. Anyone who hadn’t cast an Impervius charm on themselves was soaked to the skin, and even those who had were still damp. Only Professor Black was completely dry, and she looked, Tom thought irritably, rather amused by the situation.
It was very warm in the cavern, probably because of the dozens of torches that lit it, and Tom felt his shoulders relaxing for the first time since he had left the Hogwarts Express. A flight of stone steps led up from the shore to a huge wooden door. Professor Black led them up to it, her robes swirling dramatically behind her. Tom wondered idly if she did it on purpose. Probably, he thought, and grinned.
Professor Black tapped her wand three times against the shiny bronze handle, and the door swung open without a sound.
Chapter 9: The Sorting
There was a collective gasp from the first years as the room beyond the door came into view. It was massive; the entire orphanage could have easily fit inside. The vaulted ceiling rose so high that the details were lost in the distance. Like the harbor, the Entrance Hall was lit by hundreds of flaming, smokeless torches. At the far end of the hall stood a great oak door, easily twice the size of the one that they had just come through; between them and it a magnificent, black marble staircase led to a third and equally enormous door.
Professor Black gave them a few seconds to take in the sheer magnificence of the hall, and then she said, “Welcome to Hogwarts.”
Tom thought he might explode with happiness.
Without another word, Professor Black led them across the hall. There was no sound but the clicking of footsteps against the polished stone floors, and Tom could hear his blood rushing in his ears. When they reached the far door, Professor Black whirled around to face them so suddenly that a girl in the back of the group screamed. “The rest of the school is through these doors, awaiting your arrival,” she said crisply. “The start-of-term feast will begin shortly, but first you will all be Sorted into your Houses. The ceremony is of utmost importance because, for the duration of your stay at Hogwarts, your House will be your family… for better or worse.” Her pitch-black eyes swept over them, her expression unreadable. “You will eat, sleep, and attend classes with the rest of your House.”Se was silent for a moment as he looked at each of them in turn.
“There are four Houses at Hogwarts,” she continued, more softly. “Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Gryffindor, each named after one of the Founders of Hogwarts, each with its own distinguished and noble history. Countless outstanding witches and wizards have come from each House since the foundation of the school.” She raised a thin eyebrow at them, the scars on her cheek stretching weirdly.
“Have no doubt that you will be held to very high standards here,” she said. “Whilst you are at Hogwarts, you will be rewarded with House points for your notable achievements and punished with loss of points and detention for any inordinate rule breaking.” Tom smirked, as did several others. Rabastan snickered openly, and Columbus—who had rejoined them after they left the boats—muttered, “Slytherins.” Professor Black offered them a brittle smile and continued, “I trust you will all prove a valuable asset to whatever House you are Sorted into. And now, I believe, they are ready for us. Form a line, and do try to smarten yourse—”
Tom glanced around to see the River Trask pointing towards the nearest wall. Several people gasped; Tom stepped back nervously as he realized why.
Twenty or so pearly-white, translucent ghosts had glided into the entrance hall and were plunging towards the first years. As they passed overhead, the one in front, a portly man in a monk’s robe, stopped short. “Hello,” the ghost said. “Is it that time again already?”
“I’m afraid so,” Professor Black said, her eyebrow quirking upward again. “Now—”
Another ghost drifted forward. This one was tall and wore an enormous ruff around his neck. “New students!” he said joyously. “Welcome to Hogwarts!”
Professor Black cleared her throats, eyes half-closed. “Yes. Thank you, Sir Nicholas,” she said. “The Sorting is about to begin, however, so if you will excu—”
The ghost called Sir Nicholas beamed. “Of course! Naturally!” He saluted. “Hope to see you in Gryffindor, young ones!”
The ghosts, led by Sir Nicholas, floated through the door. Tom was glad to see them go, and Professor Black seemed to share his sentiment, because she snapped, “Enough chatter. Get in line, all of you.”
Tom fell into the line between Rabastan and Columbus, smoothing down the front of his robes and trying, with little success, to rid his shoes of mud.
Professor Black waited until they were in a straight line and standing mostly still. Her eyes flicked down the line critically. “Follow me.”
The grand doors swung open as she strode forward, and a rush of whispering met Tom’s ears. He did his best to ignore the stares of the older students as the first years filed into the Great Hall. It hadn’t changed much since the last time Tom had been here, except that it was fuller than Tom could remember seeing it. There was hardly any space at any of the House tables. The staff table was completely full, too, except for Professor Black’s empty seat. He saw Penrose sitting next to Dippet, wearing ghastly orange robes and waving merrily at the first years. Slughorn, sitting near the end of the staff table, caught Tom’s eye and winked.
Professor Black led them to the front of the hall and told them to arrange themselves parallel to the staff table. Immediately in front of them was a stool with a patched, ragged old hat. Everyone stared at it expectantly, so Tom did too.
Without warning, the Hat split open at the brim and began to sing.
“I’ll tell you of the Houses four,
established in the days of yore
and then when I'm done,
we'll have lots of fun;
this Sorting will not be a chore.
The bold belong in Gryffindor;
those proud folk are never a bore.
The lions are brave
and constantly crave
adventure and things to explore.
On Hufflepuffs you may depend,
No one will make a better friend.
The badgers are kin,
through thick and through thin,
they're true until the bitter end.
A Ravenclaw finds their allies
among the well-read and the wise
An eagle must learn
to get their return;
the knowing itself is the prize.
The Slytherins are leaders, lords,
as their cunning and guile affords.
A snake must strike high
but always is sly;
be cautious, and earn your rewards.
My job’s to make the choice for you
which House you'll best be added to.
So now put me on
(and it won't take long)
and you'll see just what I can do!”
When the Hat finished, the assembled students and teachers burst into applause. Tom joined in, feeling a strange mix of exhilaration and terror.
With a grand flick of her wrist, Professor Black unrolled a long scroll of parchment; the end of it fell nearly to the floor. She cleared her throat loudly, and the rest of the school fell silent at once. “When I call your name, you will come up to the stool and try on the Hat. Aimes, Verence!”
A stocky boy with bright red cheeks and wire spectacles sloped up to the stool. The Hat sat lifelessly on his head, drooping over most of his face for a few seconds before it screamed, “HUFFLEPUFF!”
The table beneath the canary-yellow Hufflepuff banners applauded politely while Verence padded over and sat down.
Tom was reminded forcibly of a rat as he watched the scrawny boy stumble up to the stool. He was deathly pale beneath his freckles, but the Hat screamed “GRYFFINDOR!” almost instantly and his color returned. He half-ran to the cheering table at the far end of the Hall, grinning hugely.
The Hat dropped over the boy’s rust-colored hair. Barely a second later it screamed, “SLYTHERIN!” and the table beneath the emerald banners applauded politely. Avery smirked as he joined his new House.
“Good luck,” Tom muttered as Bellatrix swanned up to the hat. There was a faint smirk on her face and no sign of the nervousness that he’d seen earlier that day. The Hat dropped over her head and stayed silent.
It took a very long time for the Hat to reach its decision. Tom could hear his fellow first years shifting uncomfortably, and intermittent whispering from the rest of the school. Professor Black watched her niece inscrutably as the seconds ticked by. Once, Bellatrix’s hands clenched into fists and then relaxed a second later.
At last, the rip at the Hat’s brim opened wide and it screamed, “SLYTHERIN!”
Bellatrix’s smirk deepened slightly as the Slytherin table applauded. As she went to join them, her eyes slid over to meet Tom’s. He smiled faintly at her.
“Blishwick, Jacob” went to Ravenclaw and “Clarke, Bellona” became a Gryffindor, and then Columbus was called up. He marched up to the Hat, looking resolute, and almost immediately became a Hufflepuff. He joined his table, grinning.
“Dolohov, Antonin!” Next to Tom, Rabastan fidgeted anxiously as Antonin walked up to the Hat and started to lower it onto his head; it hadn’t even passed his eyes before it screamed, “RAVENCLAW!”
Antonin blinked, then put the Hat back on the stool and proceeded to his table, looking surprised but not disappointed.
“Doyle, John” went to Ravenclaw too, and then it was Tom’s turn. A rush of whispers followed him up to the Hat. Tom ignored them as best he could; the last thing he saw before the Hat fell over his eyes was Bellatrix watching him, looking more anxious now than she had during her own Sorting.
Then he sat in the darkness under the Hat, waiting.
When it started to whisper, Tom managed not to flinch, but it was a near thing. “Hm…” said the Hat in his ear. “Now let me see… a brilliant mind, yes, immensely clever. Oh, hardworking, too, and plenty of courage. A fine thirst to prove yourself.” The Hat chuckled. “A good fit in any House, I daresay. Any preference?”
Bellatrix had gone to Slytherin, Columbus to Hufflepuff, and Antonin to Ravenclaw… and Tom suspected that choosing based on nothing but a tenuous friendship would be unwise.
“You might find it easier in Ravenclaw,” the Hat whispered.“Being in Slytherin would, I am certain, be damaging for your… shall we say your moral health?”
Tom blinked. What?
The Hat chuckled darkly. “It is a warning I give to many,” it said. “Slytherin would help you on your way to greatness, oh my, yes, but at what cost?”
I really don’t know what you’re talking about.
The Hat gave the impression of having shrugged. “You might become a Dark Lord,” it said. “A practitioner of deepest evil, interested in your own power at the expense of all else. A, not to put too fine a point on it, not very nice person.”
“Oh, the potential is in everyone, but in you it lies particularly close to the surface,” the Hat whispered. “Remember Billy Stubbs’ rabbit?”
Tom closed his eyes, the scene playing behind his eyelids as clearly as if he had been transported back in time: walking into the older boy’s room to find the rabbit already dead, a small puff of white and black fur, dangling from a shoelace above his head. The initial shock, and then the vicious glee he’d felt as he ran away.
“Or Dennis Bishop?” the Hat said.
What about him?
The Hat said nothing for a long moment before letting out a long, wheezy sigh. “I rest my case,” it said, its voice heavy with what Tom could have sworn was sadness. He wondered what on earth it was on about. “I ought to put you in Hufflepuff,” the Hat said. “It would be good for you.”
But I don’t want to go to Hufflepuff, Tom thought irritably.
Because. Tom couldn’t find the appropriate words to explain the feeling of distaste sliding through his thoughts now; it wasn’t that Hufflepuff was a bad House, he just… didn’t want to go there.
“That’s not a good enough reason,” the Hat said, its tiny voice thick with disapproval. Tom rolled his eyes. “Come now, be honest.”
Tom considered a while longer. Because I wouldn’t fit in there, he thought at last. I’m not afraid to work hard, that’s true, but… Hufflepuffs are supposed to be loyal and self-sacrificing and willing to consider others over themselves and… I’m not. The very idea of it was making him feel rather ill.
The Hat sighed again. “You are very like your ancestors,” it murmured. “Which brings up an entirely different cauldron of newts, I suppose.”
Again the Hat was quiet. “Do you know, Godric Gryffindor was opposed to the idea of Houses from the start? He believed it would cause division among the students. And yet, the number of students became too great for the original, unified system to handle, and he was forced to concede the necessity of the House system. See that you bear that in mind, won’t you?” And before Tom could ask what on earth it meant by that, the Hat screamed, “SLYTHERIN!”
Tom lifted the Hat off his head slowly while the Slytherin table cheered. He went to join a smiling Bellatrix at the table, feeling oddly lightheaded.
Across from them sat an older boy with auburn hair and a prefect badge pinned to his lapel. As the applause died down, he stretched a hand over the table and whispered, “Welcome to Slytherin. I’m Evander Prewett.”
“Hello,” Tom whispered back, shaking his hand.
Hitchens took nearly as long to be Sorted as Bellatrix had, but eventually the Hat screamed, “GRYFFINDOR!”
It was much easier to pay to the Sorting now that Tom had his own out of the way, and Tom listened attentively as the next few students were Sorted. “Hooper, Patrick” became a Ravenclaw and “Harkiss, Olivia” and “Kirkpatrick, Geoffrey” both went to Hufflepuff, and then—
Rabastan looked faintly green as he marched up to the stool and jammed the Hat into his head. It stayed motionless for a few long seconds, and then it bellowed, “GRYFFINDOR!”
Rabastan lifted the Hat off his head, looking horrified, while scattered applause came from the Gryffindor table; most of the students there looked rather confused. At the next table over, Antonin looked almost as disappointed as Rabastan.
“Levitt, Lysander,” was called up while Rabastan staggered over to the Gryffindor table and flopped into an empty seat, still deathly pale.
Levitt turned out to be the brown-haired boy who’d come into their compartment with Longbottom. He went to Gryffindor, too, as did Longbottom, whose name was called right after him. Tom saw Rabastan bury his face in his hands.
With the Sorting about halfway finished and all of Tom’s new friends Sorted, it became a lot more difficult to really pay attention. Tom idly straightened his silverware as “Lynwood, Morwenna” became a Hufflepuff. Most of the other students, he noticed, were looking rather glazed as well. The only times he tuned back into the Sorting ceremony were when “Ryans, Terpsichore,” a tall and rather gangly girl with thick black glasses and, later, “Tollemache, Elspeth,” who had a thin, pointy face and short hair the color of copper joined the Slytherin table. Tom applauded politely for both of them.
At last, there were only three people left to be Sorted: “Weasley, Bilius,” Longbottom’s red-headed friend, who went to Gryffindor right away; “Wragge, Georg,” who spent almost four minutes under the Hat before going to Hufflepuff, and, finally, “Zabini, Serena,” a tall black girl whose smirk upon being Sorted into Slytherin rivaled Bellatrix’s.
As Professor Black cleared the stool and the Sorting Hat out of the Great Hall, Dippet got to his feet at the center of the staff table. He spread his hands wide and smiled pleasantly around at them all.
“Welcome,” he said, “to another year at Hogwarts. For those of you who do not know me, I am Headmaster Dippet. Before we begin our feast, I would like to go over a couple of rules. First, the Dark Forest on the north end of the grounds is strictly forbidden to anyone not accompanied by a teacher. Second, our new caretaker, Lincoln Kingsbury, would like me to remind you that dueling is not allowed in the corridors, and that the list of banned objects has been amended to include Quick Quotes Quills, temporally delayed ink, and biting plants of any kind without express written permission from our Herbology mistress, Professor Black.” A couple of students a few seats to Tom’s left whooped, and Professor Black raised her hand in lazy acknowledgement. Dippet frowned before continuing, “The complete list is, of course, posted in each common room, and I would advise you to examine it closely.” His watery blue eyes stayed fixed on the Slytherin table as he spoke.
“Following its resounding popularity last year, Professor Black and Professor Merrythought have agreed to continue running the new dueling club—” Several students cheered, especially at the Gryffindor table, and an elderly witch dressed in maroon robes inclined her head in their direction while Professor Black smirked. “Sign-up sheets will be posted in the common rooms soon. Further, anyone interested in trying out for their house Quidditch team should speak with their house captains immediately. That is, I believe, everything, so let us delay the feast not a second longer.” He clapped his hands twice, and immediately the tables groaned under the weight of more food than Tom had ever seen.
Enormous slabs of beef, piles of chicken legs, a roast pig with an apple in its mouth, baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, boiled carrots, lamb chops, peas, four kinds of gravy, applesauce, sausages, bread rolls… Tom even saw a plate of what looked like peppermint humbugs.
Suddenly ravenous, Tom took a little bit of everything. He had just started to eat when an older boy—Tom thought he must be about thirteen—with whispy golden hair loomed suddenly over his shoulder. He had a plate piled with blueberries in one hand, and with his other, he elbowed the girl sitting next to Bellatrix.
“Move over, Bulstrode” he said cheerfully. The girl obliged, rolling her eyes and muttering something to her friend as she did so. The boy sat down in the vacated space, and grinned. “Evening, cousin,” he said to Bellatrix.
“Hello, Evan,” Bellatrix said cooly. She turned to Tom. “Tom, this is my cousin, Evan Rosier. He’s a third year.”
Rosier turned dark blue eyes on Tom, a faint, crooked smile appearing on his face. “I see you both managed to avoid the deluge,” he said. “I’m surprised they let the ones that didn’t in, really.” He nodded towards the Hufflepuff table, where River Trask was siting in a miserable, wet huddle. Bellatrix snickered.
“I think it’s better to teach them how to use their magic so they don’t lose control and expose our world to their Muggle relatives,” said Evander Prewett as he speared a piece of ham with his fork.
Rosier made a clicking noise with his tongue, but said nothing. The girl—Bulstrode—that he’d displaced leaned forward now to speak to Prewett. “My father says the Allgemeinwohl have the right idea,” she said quietly. “They want to set up separate schools so that Muggleborns can be educated safely without tainting pure-blood society.”
Prewett snorted. “Yeah, and they’ll have a hard job convincing Minister Heidrich of that.”
Tom blinked, feeling suddenly out of his depth; Bellatrix noticed, and turned slightly towards him. “The Allgemeinwohl is a new political movement in Germany,” she muttered. “It’s very popular, but the German Minister for Magic doesn’t like them. Father says it’s because he feels threatened.”
“Right,” Tom said. Bellatrix smiled feetingly at him.
“…escalate into violence if he’s not careful,” Prewett was saying, frowning at Rosier. “I’ve read some of Grindelwald’s speeches, he’s really serious about this stuff. Dumbledore, too, although he’s not much of a public speaker.”
“Those are the movement’s leaders,” Bellatrix murmured in Tom’s ear.
“Well,” said the girl next to Rosier, “I asked father about it and he says that he doesn’t believe the rumor that they’re building an army. He says Heidrich’s just trying to rally the public against them—”
“Oh, come on, Bulstrode, they’re openly recruiting members of the Strafjäger to fight for them!” Prewett said. “That’s been confirmed by several reliable sources. What else could they be doing?”
“Planning on joining the dueling club?” Rosier asked suddenly, turning to Bellatrix, while Bulstrode snapped angrily at Prewett.
“Of course,” she said, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “I wouldn’t dream of passing up an opportunity to thoroughly humiliate my classmates.” Rosier snorted.
“Are you good at dueling, then?” Tom asked.
Bellatrix stabbed her fork into a potato slice rather more viciously than necessary and smiled. “I’ve been dueling for almost four years now,” she said. “I made aunt Lycoris teach me for my eighth birthday.”
“She’s a fantastic dueler,” Rosier added. “She’d be teaching Defense if she weren’t so enamored with man-eating plants.”
“Ah,” said Tom.
“Mm-hm,” Bellatrix said. “It’s fun, you know. Dueling. You ought to try it.”
“I’ll think about it,” Tom said.
Long after Tom had eaten his fill, the remains of the food vanished from the plates. Seconds later, desserts appeared in their place: thick blocks of ice cream, fruit pies, chocolate cake, treacle tarts, jell-o, strawberries, puddings… Tom stared at it, wondering how anyone could possibly still want dessert. When he saw that most of his House-mates were filling their plates again, though, he helped himself to a piece of cherry pie and picked at it unenthusiastically.
He didn’t speak much as the talk turned to the Hogwarts Express; he had been on trains too often to find this one interesting. Instead, he looked out over the rest of the Hall. At the Hufflepuff table, Columbus was talking animatedly to the rest of his first year House-mates. When he saw Tom, he waved cheerfully before returning to his conversation. Antonin, on the other hand, was ignoring his classmates in favor of staring curiously up at the enchanted ceiling. Rabastan picked at his food, looking miserable. He sent a furtive look in Tom’s direction, and Tom sent him an encouraging smile.
After a while the buzz of conversation began to dwindle. The desserts vanished and the headmaster got to his feet. Tom, who was struggling to stay awake by now, groaned, anticipating another long-winded speech. He wasn’t the only one, either.
To his relief, however, Dippet only smiled at them and said, “And now, I believe, it is time for bed. Prefects, please lead the way to your house common rooms. Lights out in half an hour. Good night!”
There was a great scraping of benches as the students vacated their tables. Prewett shouted for the Slytherin first years to stick close to him, and the entirety of Slytherin House proceeded to the dungeons in a disorderly line.
It was a long walk down to the Slytherin common room, and Tom was grateful that most of it was down; he felt horribly sorry for the Gryffindors and Ravenclaws with their high towers. There was a minor incident as they were passing from the upper dungeons, where Potions classes were held, and the lower dungeons, which were more or less Slytherin-only, when Avery got his foot stuck in a trick staircase. Two older students pulled him out, and the group of first-years proceeded with a little more caution than before.
Eventually Prewett stopped in front of a bare stretch of wall. Over his shoulder he said, “This is the entrance to our common room. First years, you will get lost for the first month or so. These dungeons are confusing enough even before you take into account the fact that they change once a day. So. If you can’t find an older student—and there’s no harm in asking, we Slytherins look out for our own—ask every portrait you can find, or a ghost if you can catch one. The Bloody Baron’s our House ghost, and I know he’s frightening, but as long as you don’t ask him about his bloodstains he’ll be polite to you.”
“Oh, shut up and give us the password, Prewett,” one of the older students grumbled. Prewett made a rude gesture at him without looking around.
“Password’s ‘mandrake,’” he said calmly. “It changes every fortnight; check the noticeboard for the new one.”
The wall in front of them split open and a wave of chilly air rolled out to meet them. Tom shivered as Prewett herded them in.
The Slytherin common room was built on the same overlarge scale as the rest of the castle. The walls were dark grey stone, illuminated by spheres of white light that floated high above their heads. Several enormous windows opened onto what Tom realized must be the lake, and eerie, blue-green light filtered through the thick glass as well. Comfortable-looking armchairs upholstered in dark green leather were scattered throughout the room. Tom counted three chessboards, one of which had a game in progress for some reason. One of the bishops waved at them excitedly.
Prewett clapped his hands together as the older students surged past them and through two doors at the far end of the common room—the dormitories, Tom assumed. “Right,” Prewett said. “Granted, it isn’t the most welcoming of places, but rest assured it’ll feel like home in a week and it’s usually a lot warmer in here. The house elves always forget to heat this place on the first day; the Bloody Baron scares them, I think.” He grinned. Tom didn’t find this very reassuring; from the looks of them, the rest of the first-years didn’t either.
“Now, there’s a few things you need to know about Slytherin House before bed. I know,” he added, when Avery groaned, “I know. But it’ll only take a few minutes. First, you’ve all probably noticed that we’re the smallest House. That’s been the case ever since the Founder’s time; Salazar Slytherin was notoriously picky about which students he chose, and the Hat reflects that tendency. It’s not a sign that we’re the ‘worst’ or the ‘evil’ House, like some of our rivals will try to tell you.
“Second: like I said before, Slytherins look out for their own. If you have trouble from someone in another House, get older students to help you. If you have problems with another Slytherin, come to me or one of the other Prefects—that’s Lilith Burke, Gregory Boot, Cymbeline Finkley, Hortensia Lympsham, and Galenos Woolf, who’s also the Head Boy—or our Head of House, Professor Black. I’m not saying we’re all best friends here, but we also don’t tolerate intra-House bullying, alright? Slytherins stand together; that’s why we win the House cup more frequently than any of the other Houses.
“And lastly, you should be aware that Slytherin House is a lot more relaxed about the Dark Arts than Hogwarts as a whole. Slytherin himself was a Dark wizard, and Professor Black’s a Dark witch. If you want to practice Dark Arts on the sly, you’re free to do it in the common room. No one’s going to report you. But I would strongly recommend you find an older student to help you, because Dark spells are nasty when they go wrong. Alright?”
There was a general murmur of assent, and Prewett nodded.
“Good. That’s all you need to know for tonight. Boys’ dormitories are through the door on the right, girls’ through the left. Your dorm is the one with your year number on the door and your bed is the one with your luggage in front of it. No arguments, please, trading is against the rules and all the beds are the same anyway. Clear? Good. Good night.” He strode over to the fireplace and began prodding at the grate with his wand.
Tom followed Avery to their dormitory, neither of them speaking as they found it and went in. Unlike the common room, the dormitory was small and quite warm. Two enormous four-poster beds bedecked in House colors were arranged on opposite ends of the room. At the foot of the one on the right was Tom’s trunk. Its legs were curled beneath it, but it skittered upright excitedly when it noticed Tom.
“Calm down,” Tom told it, exasperated, and it sank back down to the floor. He patted its lid before opening it and pulling out his pyjamas.
Avery snickered. He’d flopped onto his bed without bothering to change. “Nice trunk, Gaunt,” he said.
“Family heirloom,” Tom said.
“I’ve heard they tend to go a bit mad with age,” Avery said, kicking his heels against the foot of his bed. He yawned. “Well. Great food, isn’t it?”
Tom made a noncommittal noise and collapsed onto his own bed.
“Good night, anyway,” Avery said, not seeming bothered by Tom’s lack of response.
“’Night,” Tom muttered.
He was very tired, but he found he couldn’t sleep; the Hat’s cryptic last words kept playing through his mind. What had it meant? And it seemed very strange to talk about Godric Gryffindor right before putting him in Slytherin, too. And even before that, it had been odd, that stuff about becoming a Dark Lord and the rabbit and whatever it had meant about Dennis Bishop…
Tom must have drifted to sleep at some point, because he had a very strange dream. He was sitting, alone, in the Hogwarts Express, which flew over an endless expanse of green water. The Sorting Hat appeared on the seat opposite him and began to taunt him—“you should have settled for Hufflepuff,” it said, “but it’s too late now…”—Tom tried to protest, but it cackled at him and refused to stop. Then the Hat became the chessman that had waved at him in the common room, and it grew larger and larger until it filled almost the whole compartment. It stared at him silently for a long time, and then lunged at him, stone hands extended as if to strangle him. Tom screamed, and the train jerked to one side and plunged into the water, which poured into the compartment with enough force to pin Tom against the floor. He struggled, futilely, as icy water began to fill his lungs and—
Tom awoke, choking and sweating. One of the sheets had gotten wound around his neck while he slept, and he untangled himself carefully. Quiet, even breathing from Avery’s side of the room told him that the other boy was still asleep. Groaning, he rolled over onto his stomach and tried to get to sleep again.
Why does my version of the Sorting Hat sing in horrible limericks, you ask? Because I can, that's why.
Chapter 10: The First Week
“Am I allowed to sit here?”
Tom looked up from the piece of toast he’d been buttering, startled. Rabastan was standing a short distance away, holding a glass of pumpkin juice and looking apprehensive. “Er… as far as I know, yeah,” Tom said, exchanging shrugs with Bellatrix, who was sitting next to him.
Rabastan let out all his breath in a loud whoosh and flung himself into a seat across from Tom. “Brilliant,” he said. He jerked his chin in the direction of the Gryffindor table. “That lot’s a nightmare. Levitt especially—he keeps going on about how I’m a Slytherin spy out to sabotage Gryffindor’s chances for the cup. Like I care about that.” He rolled his eyes and filled his plate with sausages and a large stack of pancakes.
“Levitt’s a prat,” Tom said.
“You know him?”
“I know Longbottom and they’re friends, aren’t they?” Tom shrugged. “Stands to reason.”
“Ha. Yeah.” Rabastan glowered at his plate. “Him and Longbottom and Weasley.” He shook his head. “Alder’s alright, though, I guess, even though he’s an idiot.”
“Ah, are we all eating together? Excellent.” Columbus had arrived in the Great Hall, too, and made straight for their table; he took a seat on Tom’s other side and reached for the eggs. “Lance—our prefect—says there aren’t enough inter-House friendships.”
“I’d have though Hufflepuffs would care more about House unity,” Bellatrix said, quirking an eyebrow at him. Columbus shrugged.
“Well, yeah. But that’s no reason not to have friends in other Houses,” Columbus said.
“The Hat said something like that to me last night,” Tom said with a yawn. “Or at least, I think that’s what it was getting at. Something about Godric Gryffindor not wanting to establish Houses at all, because he thought it would encourage division.”
“There you are,” Columbus said, grinning. “Even the Founders think we ought to be friends.”
For the first time since the sorting, Rabastan smiled. “Right,” he said. The smile slipped off his face as he glanced at the Gryffindor table again; Tom followed his gaze and saw several other Gryffindors glaring openly at them. “Wish my House saw it that way,” Rabastan added. Then he brightened again and waved towards the entrance. Tom looked around, and saw Antonin returning the wave as he swerved towards them.
“Good morning, everyone,” he said, as he sat down next to Rabastan. “You wouldn’t believe our common room,” he said excitedly. “There’s bookshelves everywhere. I looked over some of the titles before bed yesterday, and there’s some very obscure and specialized information available—”
“Ravenclaw,” Rabastan grumbled, but he grinned.
“Quite right,” Antonin said cheerfully. Then, rather more seriously, he said, “What’s your House like?”
“Horrible,” Rabastan said. “They all hate me.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” Columbus said soothingly.
“Just most of them.” Bellatrix smirked; Rabastan glared at her.
“Thanks,” he said. Antonin patted his shoulder sympathetically.
“Well, you can rely on us, anyway,” Antonin said. “We don’t hate you.”
They all murmured their agreement. Rabastan looked marginally more cheerful afterwards and dug into his pancakes with renewed enthusiasm.
“Speaking of classes,” Antonin muttered, “They’re starting to hand out schedules.” He nodded towards the end of the table, where Professor Black was distributing sheets of parchment to a group of older students. It didn’t take her long to reach their group; she paused, evidently surprised, when she saw Columbus, Rabastan, and Dolohov.
“Are we not allowed to sit here?” Rabastan asked anxiously, darting another nervous glance at the Gryffindor table.
“Technically, no,” Professor Black said, handing a schedule to Tom. Bellatrix received hers next. “But if you should, in the future, arrive earlier than the average student and finish quickly, I doubt anyone will mind. However, I would suggest you return to your own tables soon, as I don’t have your schedules.”
“Right,” Rabastan said glumly. Professor Black smiled kindly at him and moved on to the next group of students.
“Cheer up,” Tom told him. “She as good as gave us permission to eat together if we do it early. That’s better than nothing.”
“Suppose so,” Rabastan muttered.
Antonin pushed away from the table. “I’m going to go get my schedule,” he said. “Perhaps we can meet somewhere after lunch?”
“There’s the library,” Tom suggested. “It’s on the fourth floor. Or at least it was the last time I was here.”
“The library, then,” Columbus said, standing up too. “See you then.”
“Bye,” Rabastan said. He trudged back to the Gryffindor table.
“Poor thing,” Bellatrix said as she watched him go. “I don’t think the Lestranges have ever had a Gryffindor before. Certainly not in the last few generations.”
“It wouldn’t be so bad if his House-mates didn’t hate him,” Tom said. Rabastan had reached the Gryffindor table by now and was clearly trying to pretend he hadn’t.
“Mm,” Bellatrix said absently. She had started to examine her schedule, and she smiled. “Looks like an interesting day. Double Defense and then Transfiguration, and then Double History of Magic and Potions after lunch. Although I’ve heard that History’s rubbish…”
Tom glanced at his own schedule. “Astronomy tonight, too.”
“And Defense starts in twenty minutes,” Bellatrix added. “We should probably go.”
Although Tom had never navigated Hogwarts by himself before, he took the lead as he and Bellatrix left the Great Hall. They had to stop several times to ask a painting for directions, but the one time they might have gotten truly lost, a ghost floated through the corridor and pointed them in the right direction. They made it to the first floor Defense classroom with several minutes to spare. Tollemache was already there, leaning against the wall with her nose in a book called Jinxes for the Jinx-less. The rest of the first-year Slytherins arrived shortly after they did, Zabini and Avery arguing quietly and Ryans wandering more slowly behind them, trailing her fingers along the wall. About two minutes before the start of class, the entirety of the Hufflepuff first-year class rounded the corner, led by Sarah Bones, who waved at Tom when she saw him.
A bell rang, so loud and deep that Tom could feel it reverberating in his chest, and the classroom door swung inwards. Merrythought stood in the doorway, blinking shortsightedly at them over the tops of her spectacles. “Come in!” she said jovially. “Come in.” They all took their seats, the two Houses not mingling much, although Columbus showed no qualms about sitting next to Bellatrix.
They were given a short test to determine how well they had read their textbooks. Tom breezed through it and was done in ten minutes; he had to hide a snicker when he saw one of the Hufflepuffs—Harkiss, he thought her name was—chewing her lip worriedly when Merrythought called time. Then Merrythought launched into a rather dull lecture about their course aims; they would, she said, learn a great deal of Defensive theory, and some history of the Dark Arts and the Defensive Arts that were developed to protect innocent people against them (Bellatrix snorted derisively at that, but Merrythought didn’t notice). “Finally,” Merrythought concluded at last, “in the latter half of our second term, you will begin to learn basic hexes and counter-hexes which will allow you to adequately defend yourself against minor threats, such as Muggles or non-magical animals.”
“Because those are both very Dark,” Bellatrix muttered, and Tom snickered. Columbus shot them a mock-reproving glance, his lips twitching as he tried not to smile.
Their Transfiguration class was quite a bit more interesting. Professor Greengrass admitted them to the classroom with a grudging leer that might have been an attempt at a smile—his face was covered with so many scars that it was hard to be sure, and he gestured them into their seats with a hand that was missing three fingers. The classroom felt very large with only six of them in attendance; they would not, apparently, be sharing this class with another House.
“Welcome,” Professor Greengrass said in a cold monotone. “I am Professor Greengrass.” He clasped his hands in front of him and looked at each of them in turn. “Transfiguration is the most precise and dangerous magic you will learn whilst at Hogwarts. Accidents can cause debilitating and painful injury, even be fatal if left untreated.” His eyes swept over them again. “Can anyone tell me why that is?”
Zabini raised her hand hesitantly.
“My father says that Transfiguration is unsafe because it’s old,” she offered.
Professor Greengrass nodded slowly. “Correct. Take a point for Slytherin.” Zabini sat up a little straighter in her chair at that.
“Of course,” Professor Greengrass continued, “the older a magical art is, the more dangerous it will be; the oft-cited examples are the Dark Arts and Alchemy, which have generally been around the longest.” He narrowed his eyes. “You have just come from your first Defense Against the Dark Arts class, so you ought to know the reasons for this trend—yes, Miss Black?”
Bellatrix’s hand had risen lazily into the air while Professor Greengrass spoke. She leaned back now and smirked. “Older types of magic require stronger magic and ritualized casting,” she said, “and often have more individualized methodology, so they’re both more volatile and more permanent than most modern forms.”
“Another point to Slytherin,” Professor Greengrass said, and Bellatrix’s smirk deepened. “Transfiguration is all of those things, although the permanence in this case is one of the most difficult parts to achieve. And, as with other ancient magical arts, when it goes wrong, it goes extraordinarily wrong.” He lifted his mangled hand and waved it in front of his face. “This is what can happen if you play with Transfiguration without knowing what you’re doing. It is the most dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts.” He glared around at them. “Anyone mucking around in my class will leave and not come back. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Professor,” they all chorused. Professor Greengrass nodded.
“Good,” he said.
Then he turned his desk into a pig and back again, to much applause. “You’re a long ways away from your first attempt, of course.” He tapped his wand against a stack of papers on his desk, and they floated up into the air. One flew to each student, and Tom leaned forward to study his eagerly. “We’ll begin with the basic theory…”
Professor Greengrass went on to explain, in great detail, the process of turning a match into a needle. Tom filled up almost half of a roll of parchment with notes, and by the end of the lesson his wrist was aching.
(He smelled angry,) Scylla mumbled sleepily as they left the classroom.
(He didn’t strike me as someone who likes students very much,) Tom hissed. Several times throughout the lecture, students had tried to ask questions, and each time, Professor Greengrass had made no other response than to glower at them and keep talking.
“That’s really not fair, you know,” Bellatrix said. “Speaking Parseltongue when you’re the only person in the school who can understand it.” She grinned. “You might be saying horrible things about me and I’d never know it.”
Tom rolled his eyes. “It’s a pity you don’t speak it,” he said. “You and Scylla would either get on beautifully or have really amusing fights.”
After a quick lunch in the Great Hall, they made their way back up to the fourth floor and, after a few false doors and a brief run-in with a bust of Andrikopoulos the Learned (which screamed insults at them until they were out of sight), found the library. Antonin was already there; they found him at a table near the Restricted Section, already halfway finished with a Potions essay. Tom’s attempts to pry details of the class out of him proved futile; Antonin told him, in no uncertain terms, that he would have to wait until after he’d finished his essay.
Columbus showed up a few minutes later, and, unlike Antonin, was more than happy to delay his homework to swap details with them about his History of Magic class; it was taught by a ghost, apparently, and the most boring hour Columbus had ever experienced.
Rabastan did not appear for another half hour or so, shortly after Antonin had disappeared into the stacks to find another Potions text (“to cross-reference the textbook’s information about the properties of goosegrass,” he’d said). His hair was disheveled and his robes were dirty.
“What happened to you?” Columbus asked.
Rabastan moaned and collapsed into a chair, letting his head drop onto the table with a thunk. “Herbology happened,” he muttered.
Rabastan looked up. “African Stranglers,” he said. “African Stranglers. We were supposed to be feeding them mice, but they had a good try at our fingers instead. Alder’s in the hospital wing, one of them came this close to taking out his eye.” He dropped his head onto the table again with a dull thunk. “Your aunt’s a nutter, Bellatrix.”
“Runs in the family,” Bellatrix said absently as she turned a page in Classical Transfiguration and making a note in the margin. “Aunt Cassiopeia’s worse.”
The next week passed in a similar manner. They all got better at finding their way around the castle, although it was still difficult because everything moved around constantly; a door that opened onto the grand staircase on Monday might lead to a broom cupboard on Tuesday. By the end of the week, Tom had developed a quiet dislike for nearly all the ghosts that haunted Hogwarts; there was nothing worse than having one glide unexpectedly through a stubborn door while he was trying to open it. Of course, most of them were friendly enough and happy to give directions, but seeing them floating around the castle always made Tom’s skin crawl.
Their first day of classes had not, in Tom’s opinion, counted much, because it was a Friday and followed immediately by the weekend; on Monday, it started to become clear just how much work they could expect to do.
Professor Jugson was a tall, lanky wizard who drilled them endlessly on the minutia of charmwork, so that Tom started waking up in the mornings with his fingers twitching through the four primary wand motions: swish, spin, flick, and jab. Tom’s initial impression that Professor Greengrass didn’t like his students very much only strengthened when he exploded at a shy Ravenclaw girl named Abigail Martin during their Monday-morning double session, for no greater crime than asking for clarification on a particularly complex point; even Antonin, who hero-worshiped Greengrass, could admit that he was a terrible teacher.
In Potions, they brewed forgetfulness potions and sleeping draughts under Professor Slughorn’s watchful eye. They always shared these classes with the Gryffindors, and the combination of Longbottom’s frequent attempts to sabotage Rabastan’s cauldron and the delicate nature of the work itself meant that a day that went by without a single meltdown or explosion was considered a resounding success.
Three times a week at midnight, they climbed twenty-three (or, on Fridays, twenty-four) flights of stairs to get to the astronomy tower, where they studied the night skies and took notes while Professor Sylvanus rattled off lists of star names. On Wednesdays, they gathered with the rest of their year-mates on the Quidditch pitch where the flight instructor, a sturdily built but very short wizard called Astor Ingram, drilled them on basic broomstick maneuvers.
Tom was lucky enough to avoid the school poltergeist, Peeves, until Thursday of his first week. He and Bellatrix were on their way to their double Herbology class with the Ravenclaws when Peeves exploded out of a broom closet, scattering bits of wood in every direction. He followed them down the corridor, pelting them with bits of broken broomsticks, before getting bored and leaving to find someone else to harass.
Bellatrix was still muttering darkly about the incident when they reached the greenhouses.
As Rabastan had warned them, Professor Black’s Herbology classes were easily the most dangerous of their lessons. During their first class, she had told them matter-of-factly that the Ministry’s recommended curriculum was so fantastically dull that “a five-month-old blind monkey could grasp it without much difficulty. Therefore,” she’d said, her eyes gleaming wickedly, “I will spend the first fifteen minutes of each class telling you about fertilizers and the wisdom of pulling weeds and other ludicrously simple concepts that you will find on your exams at the end of the year. The rest of our time together will be spent learning things that are actually interesting and useful.”
Since Professor Black’s idea of “interesting and useful” apparently involved throwing unprepared first-year students to large, carnivorous plants called African Stranglers, this was not a terribly reassuring way to begin class. By the end of their first session, Tom had lost all of his concern about accidentally damaging the plant in favor of pinning it bodily against a table so that Antonin could feed it the mice. The other groups adopted similar strategies, but not before Avery and a worried-looking Ravenclaw girl whose name Tom couldn’t remember were sent to the hospital wing to have their cuts tended by the nurse, Madam Sauber.
“How does she still have a job?” Rabastan demanded later that day, during one of their now-daily meetings in the library. “She’s absolutely barking!” Columbus snorted loudly, which earned him an elbow in the ribs from Rabastan.
“She has a lot of friends on the Board of Governors,” Bellatrix said. “And I’m pretty sure she’s bribing Dippet at least a little.” She shrugged. “Aunt Lycoris has always had a certain disregard for the rules, and no one’s ever died or even been seriously injured in her classroom, so…”
“Great,” Tom said. “That’s really comforting.”
History of Magic, by contrast, was so boring as to be a reliable anesthetic; the ghost of Professor Binns spoke in a dry, reedy voice and his lectures consisted of little more than a litany of dates. Oddly enough, Rabastan—who was generally the least studious of all of them—was the only person Tom knew who was immune to the sleep-inducing affect of Binns’ voice.
“Rabastan’s always been very interested in history,” Antonin explained after Tom expressed his bewilderment on the matter. “Best to just copy his notes without asking questions, though, otherwise he’ll ramble on about it for hours.”
The library, they decided towards the end of the week, was in many ways a poor meeting-place; they were too likely to be interrupted by other students (Longbottom and his friends in particular seemed to enjoy showing up to needle Rabastan), or to be harshly reprimanded by Madam Graeme if they spoke too loudly. That afternoon, they set out to explore the castle, hoping to find somewhere more suited to their needs.
After some time, their wandering led them to a quiet region of the lower dungeons. Here the smooth, regular stone walls of the castle melted into the rougher, darker natural stone of the cliffside that Hogwarts was built into. “We must be close to that harbor we came in through,” Tom said, running his fingers over the cliff. It was warmer than he’d expected it to be. “Or at least on the same level, more or less.”
“D’you suppose the castle goes very far down after this?” Rabastan asked.
“Well, Slytherin’s under the lake,” Bellatrix said.
“In the middle of a maze that we’ll have to explore sometime,” Tom added. There was also, he thought, the entrance to Gobel’s Labyrinth, but the magic prevented him from mentioning that; his tongue curled back on itself at the very idea. He cleared his throat softly to make it stop.
Antonin had knelt to examine a design carved into the floor; he stood up now, dusting off his knees. “I read that the Chamber of Secrets is thought to be somewhere under the lake, as well,” he said.
“If it exists,” Tom said. “And I’m the Heir of Slytherin, if you believe Nature’s Nobility, and so if anyone has a right to doubt its existence, it’s me.”
“Ah, but you’re only saying that so that we won’t suspect you when a bloody great monster starts killing students,” Columbus said wisely. “That’s exactly the sort of thing a sneaky Slytherin would do.”
They proceeded in silence for a while. The floor angled very slightly downwards, and, after a while, the sound of running water became audible.
“Look at this!” Rabastan, having the longest legs out of all of them, had gradually drifted ahead; now he stopped and leaned closer to the wall. “There’s an opening—it’s small, though.”
They crowded around the gap that Rabastan had found; it was about a foot high and not much wider, but through it, Tom could see a large cavern, dimly lit by blue fire from the torches spaced at regular intervals along the wall. Part of the cavern floor glimmered weirdly, and it took Tom a moment to realize that there was a pool of water set into the center of the floor.
“Suppose there’s a way in?” Columbus said.
Antonin put his face very close to the gap and craned his neck. “There is a little light on the right side,” he said. “It might be a doorway—we should check around the corner.”
His suspicions proved correct; there was a small, inconspicuous door just around the bend in the corridor, almost hidden behind a moth-eaten and faded tapestry. It was unlocked, and Tom pulled it open. There was a narrow hallway beyond it, and another door at the end. This, in turn, led to the cavern they’d seen before.
It was almost perfectly circular, perhaps twenty feet across. The torches flared to life as soon as they walked in, and the light increased sufficiently for them to be able to make out more details. The pool was perfectly round and surrounded by a short barrier of black marble except on the end opposite the door, where a little stream flowed out of an opening in the cavern wall and into the pool. The tips of Tom’s fingers tingled as he walked up to the pool and looked down.
“This is brilliant,” Rabastan said, coming up behind Tom and peering into the pool, too.
“Bit inconvenient for meetings, though,” Bellatrix said. “Although if we ever need to do anything really secret…”
“We needn’t limit ourselves to just one place,” Antonin pointed out. “There’s an abandoned classroom on the sixth floor that I don’t think anyone else is using—it’s very dusty, anyway. We could use that, too, along with anywhere else that we find.”
They all agreed that this was very sensible, and, after dropping a marker-stone so they could find the cavern again with a navigation spell Antonin’s mother had taught him, they returned to the upper regions of Hogwarts for dinner.
At breakfast on Saturday, Bellatrix told them that Professor Black had invited her—and, by extension, the rest of them—for tea in her office. Rabastan was terrified of being forced to tend to some horrifyingly dangerous plant, but he gave in in the end.
“Don’t worry,” Tom told him as they made their way to Professor Black’s office later that day. “I’ve had tea with her before, and it’s not as bad as you’re thinking.”
Professor Black’s office looked the same as it had the last time Tom had been there, except that the desk was half-buried under several thick stacks of parchment. There was also a large pot sitting on the desk, holding a rather wilted shrub. Tom eyed it warily as they approached, but it didn’t seem inclined to do anything threatening, other than wheezing slightly when they got closer.
“What is that?” Rabastan was staring, aghast, at Phyllis, and Tom rolled his eyes and tried to read the paper nearest him as Professor Black launched happily into a thorough description of the plant’s feeding habits. It was difficult, because he wasn’t very good at reading upside-down and it was partly obscured by other papers, but he made out enough to make him curious.
…reports that…Allgemeinwohl…unconfirmed, but rumors that Mandelbaum has… …likely true. Awaiting… …news from… …reason to believe the Minister is… …may come to nothing. Further—
Professor Black saw him looking, then, and smiled thinly as she twitched a blank sheet of parchment over the top of the one Tom was trying to read. “I believe you are here for tea, Tom, rather than to read private correspondences that don’t concern you,” she said, sounding amused. She offered him a cup, which he accepted without fully meeting her eyes.
“Sorry,” he said, not feeling sorry at all. Quite the opposite; he glanced longingly at the stack of papers and the interesting information he had no doubt they contained.
“It’s perfectly alright, of course,” Professor Black said, with a smirk that told him she knew exactly how he really felt. “It’s no more than I would have expected from any of my Slytherins. But there is a time and a place for illicit gathering of information; this is not one of them.” She tilted her head to one side and surveyed the five of them. “You five have caused quite the stir among my colleagues, you know.”
Judging by the looks on his friends’ faces, they all found this statement as surprising as Tom did. Antonin recovered first. “In what way, ma’am?” he asked, looking worriedly at Professor Black over his tea.
“Your… unusual… willingness to form friendly bonds with one another,” she said slowly, clearly choosing her words with great care, “has not gone unnoticed by the faculty any more than it has, I imagine, gone unnoticed by the rest of the students. It is not, of course, unusual for friendships to form between Houses, but…” Here she paused to to sip her tea, her eyes shuttered and unreadable. “…I believe it is the speed with which you have formed your little alliance, and the fact that it contains at least one member from each House, which concerns them most.”
“Why?” Columbus demanded, at the same time that Bellatrix said, “Them, but not you?” Professor Black glanced at her approvingly before turning to Columbus.
“Galatea—Professor Merrythought—in particular fears that it will foster, ah, resentment between each of you and your respective Houses. Indeed, that very sentiment has replaced her incorrigibly misbehaved third-year Ravenclaw class as her favorite topic of mealtime conversation.” Professor Black’s lips thinned, but she made no other sign of anger. “For myself, I approve, for reasons which—forgive me—I would rather remained private for the time being.”
“That’s rubbish,” Rabastan muttered. “The other Gryffindors hated me right from the start. And none of the other Houses care what a couple of stupid first years do.”
“A very good point, Mr. Lestrange,” Professor Black said, “and one which you should, perhaps, take up with Galatea. This very morning, in fact, she informed me that she was specifically worried about your standing with her House and hoped to have a word with you about it at the first opportunity.”
Tom cleared his throat. “Professor, if you approve of what we’ve been doing, why bother telling us all this?”
Professor Black smiled brittlely at him. “Consider it a recommendation of caution, and of forming intra-House relationships as well. One can never have too many allies, you see, so long as they are all trustworthy.” She drained her tea and set the cup down carefully. “Now.” She put a hand on the edge of the pot on her desk (Tom heard Rabastan choke and grinned). “Oh, do calm down, Mr. Lestrange. This is a Hiccoughing Hydrangea; it’s one of the most boring plants in this greenhouse. I’m only raising it as a favor to Professor Slughorn, as its leaves are a common ingredient in certain healing potions. So. This specimen needs repotting—very dull work, I’m afraid, but you aren’t likely to be injured should you choose to help.”
Rabastan refused to come near the shrub, but the rest of them spent the next half hour helping Professor Black to transfer it into a larger pot. It was not, perhaps, as dull a job as Professor Black had made it out to be—the hydrangea didn’t seem to want to leave its pot and clung stubbornly to the sides with its lower branches—but it was refreshingly easy work compared to their actual classes (and Tom wondered, later, if that mightn’t be the point).
It wasn’t until several hours after they’d said their goodbyes and gone to examine the sixth-floor classroom that Antonin had mentioned the day before that Tom realized he’d forgotten all about the papers on Professor Black’s desk.
Chapter 11: The Dueling Club
Tom didn’t say anything about what he’d read in Professor Black’s office to any of his friends until about a week had past. They were gathered for a later-than-usual breakfast in the Great Hall when owls began to arrive with the post. Rabastan had his head pillowed on his arms, apparently asleep, but he sat up when an owl dropped a copy of the Daily Prophet on his head.
“Anything interesting?” Tom asked as Rabastan began to thumb through it.
“The Falmouth Falcons topped their personal foul record in their last game,” Rabastan said absently. “One hundred and thirty-nine fouls in a two hour match…”
Across from Tom, Bellatrix grimaced. “I think Tom meant real news, Lestrange,” she said derisively. Rabastan stuck his tongue out at her but examined the paper more carefully all the same. After a moment, he grunted in surprise.
“Look,” Rabastan said, folding over the paper to the foreign affairs page and holding out so that Tom could read the headline: ALLGEMEINWOHL MEMBER CONFESSES TO MURDER OF MUGGLEBORN AND FAMILY . “Read it out,” Rabastan said. Tom obliged.
“‘The search for Agna Bohn, an eleven-year-old Muggleborn witch who vanished from the Munich Institute of Magical Education last week, came to a tragic end this morning when her body, along with those of her Muggle parents and twin brothers, was found along the banks of the Isar River,’” he read, raising his voice a little at the end of the sentence to be heard over Bellatrix’s surprised squeak. “‘The Strafjäger—’ What are those?”
“Germany’s version of Aurors, I think,” Columbus said. “Go on.”
Tom cleared his throat. “‘The Strafjäger assigned to Miss Bohn's case did not have to wait long to identify the culprit. Fester Fruehauf (18), also a student at the MIME, turned himself in only a few hours after the bodies were discovered. “I killed them,” he declared, "for the greater good of the wizarding world!” In his official confession, Mr. Fruehauf intimated that he had committed the crime in service of the Allgemeinwohl movement, which focuses on the superiority of wizardkind over Muggles and has recently gained popularity among German youths like Mr. Fruehauf. When asked to comment on Mr. Fruehauf's actions, one of the movement's founders, Mr. Albus Dumbledore, stated that “We do not condone Fester's actions, well-meaning though they may have been. It is true that Gellert and I seek societal change, but we do not believe that violence is the answer.” Mr. Gellert Grindelwald, the movement's other founder, declined any further comment.’”
Antonin let out a low whistle.
“Look at Professor Black!” Columbus said in an undertone. Tom peered up at the staff table, where Professor Black was reading her own copy of the Prophet; from here, he could just make out the headline of the article he had just read. Her expression had turned stony.
“Aunt Lycoris isn’t overly fond of the Allgemeinwohl,” Bellatrix said softly. “She says Grindelwald and Dumbledore are just a few poor decisions shy of turning into full-blown Dark Lords.”
“Well, my dad’s always going on about them,” Rabastan said. “He thinks they’re brilliant—keeps telling Roddy to join up with them, he’s studying in Germany, you know—”
Tom was still staring at Professor Black and he missed what Antonin said in response to that. His thoughts had returned to the papers on Professor Black’s desk; he was sure they had mentioned the Allgemeinwohl…
“Does the name ‘Mandelbaum’ mean anything to any of you?” Tom asked.
Antonin broke off mid-sentence, looking momentarily blank before shaking his head. Rabastan grunted and propped his chin on his hands. “Nope,” he said. “It’s not a pure-blood name.”
Bellatrix, too, looked blank, but Columbus had an intent, thoughtful look on his face. “I think I do remember something,” he said after a moment. “Father’s a lawyer and he’s always going on about things. I’m sure I’ve heard that name in his lectures a couple of times. But I don’t remember anything specific,” he added, looking a little sheepish.
“That’s helpful,” Tom muttered.
“Sorry,” Columbus said, flushing.
“Why do you ask?” Bellatrix asked.
Tom told them about the papers on Professor Black’s desk and what little he’d managed to read before she’d covered them.
“You think this Mandelbaum person has something to do with this?” Rabastan asked skeptically. “Because of something that you read on a professor’s desk? Something private, I might add?”
Antonin snickered. “Oh, it was private. What sort of a Gryffindor are you?”
“A bad one.”
“You do have a point, though,” Columbus said, rolling his eyes. “There’s got to be loads of people named Mandelbaum. We’re not going to be able to find anything out just from that.” He paused, looking thoughtful. “I guess you could ask Professor Black about it? She does seem to like you.”
“There is a vast difference between ‘liking’ and ‘trusting,’” Bellatrix said dryly. “Which you would know, if you weren’t a Hufflepuff.”
Columbus threw the last remnants of his toast at her, and, as Bellatrix retaliated by threatening to steal and then rip up his Charms essay and Antonin tried to quiet them down, Tom turned his attention back to the Prophet, feeling disappointed but not exactly surprised.
The next few weeks passed in a blur; between classes, and their ongoing explorations of the castle, Tom barely had time to think about the papers he’d seen on Professor Black’s desk, let alone try to find out what they meant, and soon he had all but forgotten about them. As October drew near, Tom’s classes were becoming much more interesting as the professors finished teaching them the basics. His homework load had increased as well, and much of his free time was spent either in the library or in the sixth-floor classroom that Antonin had found.
Sign-up sheets for the dueling club appeared in the common room and Tom, although initially reluctant to join, allowed Bellatrix to coax him into it. The rest of his friends had, too, although Rabastan told them dismally that Longbottom had been one of the first Gryffindors to sign up.
“Cheer up,” Antonin told him bracingly as they made their way to the first meeting, about an hour after dinner on Wednesday evening. “At least this way you’ve a chance to hex him without getting in trouble…”
The meeting took place in the Great Hall, which had been cleared of tables for the occasion. There were, Tom estimated, about fifty students in all, most of them gathered around a raised, circular platform upon which Professor Merrythought stood. As Tom watched, Professor Black strode in from the other end of the hall and strolled up to the platform.
“This way,” Bellatrix muttered, nudging Tom in the ribs. She led them unerringly through the crowd until they were right at the edge of the platform, next to Evan Rosier and another boy that Tom didn’t know.
“Hullo, cousin,” Rosier said, lifting one hand in lazy acknowledgement. “You should be more careful. You’ve got spies.” He nodded towards Columbus, Rabastan, and Antonin and smirked.
“They’re my friends, not spies,” Bellatrix said coldly.
Professor Black lifted her wand, and a sound like thunder ripped the air. The assembled students fell silent at once. “Thank you,” she said. “I do hope this is everyone, as it’s time to start and I cannot abide tardiness, so—” Another flick of her wand, and the doors of the Great Hall swung ponderously shut. “—Let us begin.” A couple of students cheered. Merrythought cleared her throat.
“It would be prudent to explain the rules of this little club for those who are new before we allow any actual duels to proceed,” she said dryly.
“Killjoy,” Rosier muttered.
“Slytherin,” retorted the boy next to him.
“You’re just jealous, Foster.”
“Of course,” Professor Black said smoothly. “Allow me.” She took a deep breath, her eyes gleaming madly. “There will be no Dark magic or Transfiguration used because Dark spells are banned at Hogwarts and Transfiguration is too dangerous to use in duels unless your life is literally at stake and even in that case a stunner will usually do you more good. Furthermore you should all keep in mind that we are aiming to disarm and stun in these duels, not to injure or kill.” She said this all very quickly, and tilted her head to one side when she finished, as if waiting for Merrythought to add something. When she didn’t, Professor Black smirked. “That covers it, more or less. Perhaps, Galatea, a demonstration of the correct dueling procedure is in order before we leave them to their own devices?”
Merrythought sighed and pulled out her own wand. She flicked it downwards, and a thin, silvery thread shot out of it and surrounded the platform.
“That’s a dueling ring,” Professor Black said. “Complex bit of monitoring magic. Exiting it during a duel is tantamount to forfeit, as is using illegal magic inside it. Now, to start, you face your opponent… like so… and then turn and walk ten paces.” She and Merrythought demonstrated as she spoke. At the edge of the platform, just inside the dueling ring, they both spun in perfect unison, wands out but pointed downwards. “And then you bow. As you come up, you may point your wands at each other thusly… and the duel begins any time after eye contact is reestablished. Often, between amateurs, this is signaled by a referee. So, if someone would be so kind…”
“Begin!” someone shouted from the opposite side of the platform.
Merrythought struck first, slashing her wand towards Professor Black and shouting, “Reducto!”
Professor Black’s wand twitched. A shield charm so thick that it was nearly opaque materialized in front of her and Merrythought’s spell bounced off of it, spiraling up to the distant ceiling and dissipating about ten feet above their heads. Professor Black stepped forward and made two quick jabbing motions. “Glacius! Aguamenti!”
A thin sheet of ice appeared beneath Merrythought’s feet and was immediately coated by a thin sheen of water. The Defense professor scrambled for balance, firing off a round of curses.
“In a real duel, of course, protego! your greatest ally is your unpredictability,” Professor Black said lazily. “Neither ‘glacius’ nor ‘aguamenti’ are commonly used in combat, and protego! both are relatively easy charms, but as you can see—” she swayed to one side and a lime green curse sped by her cheek. “—They are very effective if used together. For another example, accio Galatea’s shoes.”
Merrythought snarled wordlessly as her feet were yanked out from under her. She slashed her wand towards her shoes, which stopped trying to fly towards Professor Black, and put up a shield charm while she got to her feet again.
“Summoning charm,” Professor Black said happily. “A typically fourth-year spell that has a number of uses in combat.” She paused, looking thoughtful, absently deflecting another of Merrythought’s spells. “Although I don’t recommend summoning internal organs. It can get terribly messy.” Several students giggled nervously; others looked disgusted. “Of course, actual combat spells are very good, too. Expulso!”
The portion of the platform that Merrythought had been standing on blew up, and she flew backwards. She rolled onto her knees again, grunting. “Confringio-reducto-stupefy!”
Professor Black leapt out of the path of each spell, grinning. “Of course, in the event that you feel you cannot continue, you can use the universal symbol of surrender,” she shouted while bits of the platform exploded around her. “Like so!” She raised her wand and shot off a series of brilliant red sparks. Merrythought got to her feet, panting, while Professor Black beamed around at them all.
“Simple as that,” she said, as if she had done nothing more exciting than one of her usual start-of-class lectures. “Now. Whilst dueling, you shouldn’t hesitate to use any advantage you might have over your opponent. Nonverbal magic, multiple wands… biting plants…” Nervous laughter rippled through the crowd. Behind Tom, Rabastan whimpered. “As last year, you will be divided up into teams by House, and each team will be divided into halves—third years and below, fourth years and up. There will be a field trip—details to be announced—at the end of the year.” Several students groaned. Professor Black clapped her hands together. “So! Get to it. Those of you who were with us last year, I expect you to look after any newcomers should it become necessary.” She waved her wand and conjured eight dueling rings, which divided into pairs and then drifted into each corner of the Great Hall. “Galatea and I will make rounds between each team, to supervise and offer advice. Do take care not to be caught in the crossfires while you observe the duels…”
This turned out to be easier said than done. The dueling rings kept magic out, but weren’t nearly as good at keeping magic in, so errant spells could fly into the audience at any time. One of the older students, a stocky boy with a squashed nose, put up a shield charm after the fourth near-miss and Tom sidled a little closer to him to take advantage of it. He didn’t seem to mind.
“Dimitri Prince,” the boy said abruptly a few minutes later. Tom blinked up at him.
“That’s my name,” the boy said. “I’m a fourth-year.”
“Oh. I’m Tom Gaunt.”
Tom couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say in response to that, so he said nothing and kept his eyes on the duel. The duelist closest to them, a thin girl with pale brown hair, had just fired off an impressive volley of stunners; her black-haired opponent blocked them all, looking bored.
“You’re friends with Bellatrix Black, aren’t you?” Prince said as the black-haired boy did something that made the girl sink into the floor up to her knees.
Prince snickered. “Well. If she’s anything like Professor Black, you have dangerous tastes.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Tom said.
“Ah, well, you’ll soon find out that Slytherins don’t get the luxury of plausible deniability,” Prince said, patting him on the shoulder. “So enjoy your delusions while they last.”
“…And if I said that I actually don’t know what you mean?” Tom asked, bemused. “Hypothetically, of course.”
“Then I’d assume that you’re pretending not to know due to some nefarious secret plot. Obviously.” Prince grinned. “Ordinarily I’d give you the benefit of the doubt, because you’re a first year and Muggle-raised to boot and it’s barely October, but you proved yourself a true Slytherin before you even started at Hogwarts, which means you always have at least two secret plots running at once.”
“But I don’t!”
Prince tapped the side of his nose and winked knowingly. “Of course you don’t.”
Tom could hear Scylla muttering from where she was coiled above his right elbow. She fidgeted briefly, so he brushed his fingers against his sleeve. She hissed sleepily and went still again. “…I actually don’t,” Tom said. “Really!” he added, because Prince had raised his eyebrows skeptically. “But I’m going to have to now, because what’s the point of having people assume I’m always plotting if I’m not actually plotting?”
“Exactly,” Prince said, seeming pleased that Tom was catching on. “But, back to my original point, is she anything like Professor Black?”
It took Tom a few seconds to work out what Prince was talking about, during which time the duel ended with the blonde girl being disarmed. “Well, I’m pretty sure the entire family’s insane,” Tom said. “Have you ever been inside Obscurus Books?”
Prince shuddered. “Once. Never again.”
The black-haired boy from the duel strolled over to them, looking smug. “Two for nothing, Dimi. Scared?”
“Sod off,” Prince said carelessly. “Gaunt, this is Maxim Nott. Max, this is Tom Gaunt.”
“I know,” Nott said.
“I’m going to get that a lot, aren’t I?” Tom said. Prince patted him on the shoulder again.
“’S not our fault you’ve got a recognizable face,” Prince said. “Or that you were the Prophet’s go-to human interest story for ages.”
“Anyway,” Nott said, rolling his eyes. “Ever dueled before, Gaunt?”
“No,” Tom said.
“Excellent! We’ll teach you.” Nott beamed at him and pulled out his wand again with a flourish.
“…You will?” Tom asked as the older boys steered him a short distance away from the dueling ring, where a couple of seventh-years were taking their stances. “Why?”
“Reasons,” Prince said.
Nott squinted at Tom, tapping his wand against his chin. “ I do believe he doesn’t trust us,” he said, with mock surprise. “Why ever might that be?”
“There’s no such thing as plausible deniability?” Tom said. Prince guffawed.
Nott rolled his eyes. “True. But: Slytherins look after their own. I know Evander gave you lot that spiel your first night. So. I assume you know some proper spells even though Merrythought’s first-year classes are rubbish until after the holidays?”
“Of course,” Tom said, indignant.
“Slytherin to the core, this one,” Prince said proudly.
“Good. Then mostly what you need to know is that you should never stop moving. Ever. Stillness is death. But, also, don’t use too many spells because magical exhaustion is the most humiliating way possible to lose a duel.” Nott jerked his head back towards the duelling ring, where the blonde girl he’d just beaten was standing behind a shield charm of her own. “That’s Ana’s problem. All quantity, no precision.”
“Hit ’em once where it counts and you won’t have to tire yourself out with unnecessary casting,” Prince added. “Timing’s key.”
“Comes with practice,” Nott said. “So really the only thing to do—”
“—Is to duel your friend in the full understanding that you’ll lose, because she looks pretty scary, honestly, for an eleven year old,” Prince finished, nodding over Nott’s shoulder. Bellatrix was indeed approaching, wand in hand.
“She’s twelve, actually,” Tom muttered absently. Her birthday had been a little over a week ago, and, although Tom was pretty sure she’d been joking when she’d threatened him the day after it, he was never ever forgetting it again.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take it easy on you,” Bellatrix assured him a minute or so later, as she half-dragged him into one of the dueling rings.
“Thanks,” Tom said dryly.
From the start, it was clear that Bellatrix was a lot better than him. Tom dove out of the way of her first curse, desperately wishing that he knew a decent shield charm. “Iacio!” Bellatrix side-stepped the blue streak of the hurling hex and smirked at him. Tom groaned.
The spell grazed Tom’s knee, and his legs began to jerk in a weird, rapid dance. He collapsed, managing to roll out of the way of another spell that he didn’t recognize, and frantically muttered, “Finite!” at his own legs. The spell broke after the second time, and he scrambled up just in time to avoid a disarming charm. “Infligo!”
Tom had about a second to think that it was really not fair that Bellatrix knew a shield charm and he didn’t before she sent a hurling hex at his feet. It knocked him over and he felt his breath whoosh out of his lungs all at once as he hit the ground.
“Petrificus totalis!” he gasped.
Bellatrix smirked at him again as she stepped out of the way of his latest—and admittedly very weak—spell. “Doleo! Expelliarmus!”
Pain exploded across his face for a second before it faded to a dull throb along his jaw. His wand leapt from his hand and Bellatrix caught it neatly, still smirking.
“That hurt,” Tom muttered. He’d only been punched once before—the orphans had learnt very quickly not to try it again—but the pain was more or less the same. Bellatrix handed him his wand and tried—badly—to look repentant.
“I win,” she purred. Out of the corner of his eye, Tom saw Nott and Prince both grinning at him, Prince mouthing something that looked suspiciously like “I told you so.”
As they left the dueling ring, Tom asked, “Should I be insulted that you so clearly enjoyed that?”
“Enjoyed what?” Bellatrix asked innocently.
Tom rolled his eyes. “You punched me in the face with magic and then stole my wand,” he said. “I mean, it was in the context of a school-sanctioned dueling club, but still…”
“Like you wouldn’t have enjoyed beating me,” Bellatrix scoffed. “Don’t pretend to take the moral high ground, you’re only sore because you lost.”
“I don’t like losing,” Tom muttered.
“…So are you, so why are you using our House like it’s an insult?”
Bellatrix rolled her eyes. “Shut up.”
“Ah, you’re only saying that because you know I’m right…”
They took their places behind one of the shield charms at the edge of the dueling ring. The group between them and the ring were mostly older students, and Tom, unable to see the duel properly, turned his attention to the other side of the hall.
Directly across from them were the Gryffindors, all of whom had grouped around one of their rings. Two students—Tom thought they must be sixth or seventh years, judging by their heights—were dueling furiously within while their audience cheered and, unless Tom’s eyes were deceiving him, took bets. After a moment of searching, he located Rabastan at the very edge of the crowd. He seemed to be making himself as small as possible, no easy task given his unusual height.
As Tom watched, the Gryffindor duelists finished, and Longbottom stepped into the dueling ring. He exchanged a few words with an older student, who laughed before approaching Rabastan. Rabastan shook his head, looking angry, but the older boy latched on to his elbow and dragged him towards the ring.
Rabastan stumbled a little as he crossed the magical border, but he quickly straightened out and glared daggers at Longbottom. They both took their stances and bowed jerkily—little more than a strained nod, really—and then the duel began. The rest of the Gryffindors watched intently, some of the younger ones jeering whenever one of Rabastan’s hexes landed.
Bellatrix snickered suddenly, pulling Tom’s gaze away from the Gryffindors. She jerked her head towards the Ravenclaw side of the hall, smirking. The duelists in the ring closest to them had stopped moving, and Tom immediately saw why: the taller of the two was grappling with a pair of enormous antlers. Her opponent, a blonde girl with enormous round glasses, stood warily on the other side of the ring; she seemed unwilling to let her guard down or to press her advantage.
“The blonde one’s a cousin of mine, Agatha Prewett,” Bellatrix said. “I don’t know the other, but it’s only a matter of time before—there.” The girl with the antlers had lost her balance completely and gone sprawling. The Prewett girl helped her up, the other one looking a bit sheepish. Tom turned his attention back to the Gryffindors.
Rabastan had just been disarmed, and he trudged out of the ring, scowling. He glanced towards the Slytherins wistfully and happened to catch Tom’s eye; Tom shrugged, hoping that Rabastan would understand that it meant “better luck next time” and not merely apathy.
Tom dueled twice more that day, once with Bellatrix and once with Polonius Crabbe, who had told him before they started that he’d known Tom would be a Slytherin ever since the kidnapping incident last year. Both times he’d been beaten quite thoroughly—although without the magical-punching this time, thankfully—and had resolved to practice a lot before the next meeting.
He, Bellatrix, Antonin, Rabastan, and Columbus had all agreed to meet afterwards in the abandoned sixth-floor classroom, which was covered in so many scorch marks that they were sure it had been used for Alchemy classes in the days before the subject was banned. He and Bellatrix were the first to arrive, although the other three followed within a matter of minutes.
Rabastan was still fuming about his duel with Longbottom when he arrived with Columbus and Antonin in his wake. “Levitt threw something at me!” he snarled as he stalked into the room.
“What?” asked Tom, surprised.
“I think it must have been a piece of that platform that Professor Black blew up at the beginning,” Antonin said quietly as he dragged a dusty desk away from the wall and sat down. “Judging from his descriptions, anyway.”
“I would’ve beaten that stupid prat if it weren’t for his cheating friends!” Rabastan was shouting now. “Idiots! Gryffindors are supposed to be brave and- and noble! Cheating’s for Slytherins!” He paused. “Er, no offense,” he added, glancing sheepishly at first Bellatrix and then Tom.
“None taken,” Tom said cheerfully. “Apparently we don’t have any plausible deniability at all. Or so I’ve been told.” Antonin snorted.
“I guess we know why you were put in Gryffindor, now,” Columbus said dryly, and Rabastan’s anger seemed to leak out of him all at once. He sagged, leaning against the wall and letting out his breath in a loud huff.
“I guess,” he muttered glumly. “Wish they saw it that way.”
Bellatrix patted his shoulder. “I’m sure they’ll come round as long as you keep being stupid and, ah, noble. Or brave, rather, forgive me.”
“Oh, very funny.” Rabastan dragged a hand over his face and sighed again. “If you must know, Longbottom’s group actually believes that rubbish about me being a Slytherin spy. They take it bloody seriously, too.” He scowled. “They ambushed me in the stairs going up to the dormitory last week and raided my bag, that’s why I had to rewrite my Potions essay during lunch that day.”
Silence. Tom could remember the day in question quite clearly—they had all teased Rabastan a little about his habit of putting off homework until the last possible minute, but now that he thought about it, Rabastan had seemed unusually touchy that day.
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Columbus demanded. “A prefect—” Rabastan snorted, from which Tom deduced that the Gryffindor prefects were probably not nearly as friendly as the Hufflepuff or even the Slytherin ones were. “—Or Professor Merrythought, then? Professor Black told you to talk to her anyway!”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Rabastan snapped. His voice dropped into a nasty sing-song as he continued. “Hufflepuffs all love rules so they’re all teacher’s pets, and Ravenclaws are snotty know-it-alls so they’re always teacher favorites, and Slytherins lie to teachers to get special treatment, but if a Gryffindor goes to a teacher for help it’s because they’re so stupid they can’t even fend for themselves.”
“That’s rubbish,” Bellatrix said coldly.
“I know!” Rabastan pushed away from the wall and began to pace again, running his hands through his already messy hair so that it stuck up in weird directions. “But it’s all that prat Levitt ever talks about, and Longbottom and Weasley are almost as bad, and I know if I tell they’ll just hate me even more, and if I don’t tell they won’t stop, and—” he broke off with an incoherent snarl and sat, abruptly, on the desk next to Antonin.
The others gathered around him, alternately making outraged comments and expressing sympathies. Tom’s thoughts, however, were on Wool’s Orphanage, and specifically Dennis Bishop. He had never gotten along with the boy, who was three years older than Tom and nearly twice his size. It had been Bishop who’d punched him for the first—and only—time, after a nasty argument they’d had, the cause of which Tom had long since forgotten. Having seen the way Bishop treated his other victims if they went to one of the helpers or even Mrs. Cole, Tom had gone instead for a more direct approach.
During that year’s summer outing a few days later, he’d lured Bishop and another orphan who’d happened to overhear the initial conversation into a cave some distance away from the group. There, he’d threatened them, at great length, in Parseltongue. The effect of his furious hissing in the echoey cave had been chilling, even for Tom; the other two had been terrified, and become more so when he'd used his magic to fling a fist-sized rock at Bishop's chest hard enough to send the taller boy stumbling back.
He’d left them there, and it had been nearly nightfall by the time they found a way back. Although Mrs. Cole never learnt quite what had happened, the story circulated through the orphanage nevertheless, and thereafter Tom was left more or less to his own devices.
“Are you alright, Tom?”
Tom blinked; his friends were all looking at him curiously. He shook his head, shoving the memory away, and went to join them by the desk. “I think Rabastan’s right,” he said slowly. “Going to a prefect or even Merrythought’s not going to solve everything. Better to cut the problem off at the source.”
“What, like revenge?” Columbus said skeptically.
“It’s what they’d do,” Antonin put in, sounding equally dubious.
Tom shrugged. “I think it might be the only language they’d understand.” He glanced at Rabastan, who looked thoughtful. “It’s up to you, of course,” he said.
For a long moment, Rabastan said nothing. “I say we do it,” he said at last. “But it has to be spectacular.”
Bellatrix grinned. “I think, between us, we can manage that,” she said.
“It’ll have to be done so that they know it was you,” Tom said thoughtfully, “but so there’s no actual proof. Can’t have you getting in trouble.”
“I wouldn’t actually mind a detention, if it came to that,” Rabastan said, shrugging.
Tom rolled his eyes. “Right. But still better to not be punished at all, right?”
“I still think we should tell a teacher,” Columbus grumbled.
“Not going to turn us in, are you?” Tom asked cooly. Columbus held his gaze for a moment before looking away.
“No,” he said. “I just want to state, for the record, that I think this is a terrible idea and I’m only helping because you’re my friends.” Antonin nodded his agreement.
“Duly noted,” Bellatrix said.
They spent the rest of the evening plotting, although they didn’t get much further than a handful of extravagant, half-formed ideas, all of which were fun to talk about but completely impractical.
sociopath!Tom makes a solid appearance in this chapter. This pleases me.
Chapter 12: Vengeance Victorious
Halloween came to Hogwarts with an air of festivity that surprised Tom. Holidays at the orphanage were usually no different than any other day, since money was always scarce and Mrs. Cole could hardly afford anything more than, perhaps, a cheap card for each orphan at Christmas or similar. So when he woke up on the last morning of October to the smell of pumpkin wafting through the corridors and carved pumpkins in every windowsill, Tom felt perfectly justified in feeling a bit jumpy. Especially because the number of ghosts seemed to have tripled overnight and he could have sworn he saw a skeleton clatter past on his way up to the Great Hall for breakfast.
As usual, Tom arrived in the Great Hall before the majority of the students and hurried over to the Ravenclaw table, where Rabastan, Antonin, and Columbus were huddled together over bowls of porridge.
“Morning, Tom,” Columbus said as Tom sat down and reached for a slice of toast. “Where’s Bellatrix?”
“Not in the common room,” Tom said. “I assumed she’d gone up already.” He shrugged and began to butter his toast. “Probably still asleep, she was up late finishing her star chart last night.”
Rabastan leaned forward, his eyes gleaming. “Weasley found a secret passage that he thinks leads out of the school,” he said. “I heard him telling his friends about it in the common room last night. They’re going to sneak out tonight at one to see where it leads.”
Antonin rolled his eyes. “I told him to tell somebody,” he said. “They’d get a detention and he wouldn’t even have to do anything, but no.”
“I want to ambush them instead,” Rabastan said, studiously ignoring Antonin’s interjection. “See how they like it when they’re unfairly outnumbered. They couldn’t report us, either, since that would mean admitting that they were out after curfew,” he finished triumphantly.
“Except that the penalty for attacking other students and being out at night is a lot worse than being out at night and defending yourself against an apparently unprovoked attack,” Tom said, and Rabastan deflated visibly. He thought for a moment. “How do they get into this passageway, did Weasley say?”
“It’s behind that big mirror on the fourth floor,” Rabastan said. “There’s a little Hogwarts crest carved into the frame and you tap it with your wand, then the mirror swings inward, apparently.”
“What’s this about a mirror?” Bellatrix had arrived, and Rabastan quickly filled her in about the passageway and Longbottom’s Halloween plans. A smirk passed over her face. “We could go by there after dinner and put a stickfast hex on the floor in front of the frame,” she said. “And if one of us could work out that caterwauling charm Jugson mentioned the other day, we could set it off after they’re stuck—there’s a broom cupboard near that mirror that we could hide in—someone will catch them and they’ll get into horrible trouble.”
“Or we could just bribe Peeves to be there around the right time,” Tom said quietly. “Promise to get the Bloody Baron off his back for a day or two—not that we can actually do that, but he doesn’t need to know—”
Rabastan looked really excited now. “Or we could just attack them from the broom cupboard,” he said. “They wouldn’t be able to see us there—”
“They would when we left, though,” Antonin pointed out. “So unless you’re planning on all five of us spending the night in a broom cupboard…” he trailed off meaningfully, and Rabastan sighed.
“I looked up the caterwauling charm after Jugson mentioned it,” Tom said. “It didn’t seem too complicated and I still have the book—we could try it out over lunch. Meet in the old Alchemy classroom at eleven-thirty?”
They all agreed that this was very sensible and, as the rest of the school was starting to arrive, they bade each other good-bye and returned to their own House tables.
It was a good thing that Tom had the lunchtime meeting to look forward to, because his morning classes were both disastrous. He lost thirty points in Transfiguration when he accidentally squashed his ant instead of turning it into a grain of rice like he was supposed to. Then, in Charms, Jugson announced that they were ready to start making objects fly. Since Tom had been able to do this even without a wand for years now, he expected to spend the lesson in boredom. However, about halfway through the lesson, Tollemache managed to make her feather explode, badly singeing herself in the process. Jugson wearily told Tom to take her to the hospital wing, and Tom had to endure ten minutes of awkward silence as they made their way through the castle. He left the hospital wing and headed for the old Alchemy classroom, planning to spend the remainder of the hour practicing the caterwauling charm. Before he’d even got to the fourth floor, though, the caretaker, Kingsbury, pounced on him from behind a suit of armor.
“Shouldn’t you be in class?” Kingsbury asked suspiciously.
“I had to take Elspeth Tollemache to the hospital wing—she blew up her feather. I’m on my way back to Charms now,” Tom lied, rather lamely considering that the Charms classroom was in the other direction.
Kingsbury glowered at him. “A likely story,” he said, shaking the damp rag he’d been using to polish the suit of armor at Tom. “Why’re you on the fourth floor, then, eh?”
“It’s true!” Tom protested. “Ask Professor Jugson!”
It was no good. The caretaker insisted on escorting him back to class, and Tom had no choice to comply. Jugson, upon finding out that Tom had been attempting to skip the rest of the hour, promptly put him in detention.
“Cheer up,” Bellatrix said bracingly as they started up the grand staircase a half hour later. “At least he didn’t deduct any more points.”
“I’d rather lose points than be in detention,” Tom grumbled. “I can always win them back by being brilliant later.”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, of course you’re very brilliant, but detention’s not all bad. You’ll probably just be doing lines or something.”
Tom groaned. “But it’ll be boring!”
Bellatrix only laughed.
Still, his mood improved pretty rapidly once they were in the old Alchemy classroom. Columbus was there already, and Rabastan and Antonin arrived shortly afterwards. Tom pulled the library book out of his bag and propped it up on one of the desks, flipping quickly to the right page. “The incantation’s quiritatio… The wand movement’s pretty complicated, though, see?” He pointed to the diagram in the book; it had five steps and involved a very precise arrangement of the fingers.
“You try first,” Columbus said, frowning at the book. “You’re the best at Charms.”
“Am not, Antonin’s loads better than me,” Tom said.
“I’m better at theory,” Antonin said quietly. “You forget, I’m not the one who instinctively figured out how to perform a levitation charm without a wand. When you were seven.” This, while true, did not mean that Tom was any better than the rest of them at learning new charms; he debated whether or not to say that, but quickly decided that it would do nothing but waste time.
“Fine,” he said, and peered closely at the book. He adjusted his grip on his wand so that it looked identical to the diagram, then carefully copied each subsequent movement until he was sure he’d gotten them right. Then he closed his eyes and focused as hard as he could, imagining the ear-splitting wail that he wanted the charm to create, imagining his friends with their hands over their ears and their faces twisted in pain from the noise.
There wasa sound similar to the squeak of chalk on a blackboard, if slightly louder. Tom frowned and adjusted his grip on his wand.
“I think the ‘a’ needs to be a bit longer,” Antonin advised him. Tom nodded absently and stared up at the ceiling.
“Give me a minute,” he said.
“Right,” Rabastan said. “Let me try, then.”
For a while, his friends took turns attempting the charm. None of them had much better success than Tom’s first attempt. Tom, for his part, kept out of the way, slowly turning his wand over in his hands. Charms, he had found, were the type of magic that came most easily to him. It was all a matter of blending the perfect amount of determination with enough precision that the spell wouldn’t be dangerously out-of-control.
He practiced the wand motions carefully until he could perform them quickly and without thinking before he tried again. “Quiritatio!”
Blood-curdling shrieks filled the classroom, rolling from one wall to the other like a wave of sound, so loud that Tom could feel it reverberating in his chest. “Finite Incantatem!” he shouted, and the noise ceased instantly. His ears still ringing, he turned to grin at his friends, who were staring balefully back at him.
“A warning would have been nice,” Antonin said tonelessly. Bellatrix giggled, although there was a hysterical edge to the sound.
“Sorry,” Tom said. “I wasn’t sure it would work any better that time.”
Rabastan swaggered over to him and flung an arm over Tom’s shoulders. Tom staggered under the sudden weight. “Well, that’s settled. You’re sneaking out with me tonight!”
“You’re coming along, then?” Tom asked dryly.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Rabastan said. “The rest of you should probably stay in, though,” he added. “Wouldn’t want to risk any more of us getting into trouble than necessary.
“Right,” Columbus said. He looked, Tom thought, unduly relieved. Bellatrix, on the other hand, scowled.
“I don’t see why you and Tom should get all the fun,” she muttered darkly.
“We are going to be hiding in a broom cupboard,” Tom said. “It’s not as if there’s going to be a lot of room—and you were the one who said it should just be one of us, anyway.” She kept glowering at him, and, irritated, he kept talking. “The point of this whole thing is revenge, anyway, not to have an adventure. There’s no reason to risk ourselves unnecessarily.”
Bellatrix folded her arms, her eyes flashing dangerously. “If we get caught together we’ll say that one of us got sick so the other’s making sure we get to the hospital wing alright.”
“Which would work if we shared a dormitory,” Tom said. “We don’t.”
“We were doing homework in the common room when you collapsed,” Bellatrix said promptly.
“If I’d fainted you’d have called a prefect.”
“I tried, but nobody answered and you woke up after a minute or so anyway, so we figured it would be best to go straight to the hospital wing without waiting for one to show up.” Her face hardened further. “I’m coming with you, Tom.”
“But we don’t need three people,” Tom said, exasperated.
“You don’t need two people, either, but Rabastan’s coming all the same,” Bellatrix snapped.
“Rabastan’s coming because he’s the reason we’re doing this! Longbottom attacked him!” Tom shouted.
Bellatrix’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I’m your friend,” she hissed.
“So? There’s still no point in bringing you along!”
Silence. Bellatrix’s face froze for an instant, draining slowly of color. For a second, she held his gaze, and then her lips curled into a nasty sneer. “Fine,” she said, turning on her heel and making for the door. “Enjoy your detention.”
The door slammed behind her.
“She’s not going to turn us in?” Rabastan asked weakly.
Tom stared at the door where Bellatrix had been only seconds before, feeling utterly thrown. “I don’t—I don’t think so,” he said at last. “Probably she meant the detention Jugson gave me in class today. Tonight, at four.” He shook his head slowly, trying—and failing—to figure out what, precisely, had just happened.
Since neither Columbus nor Antonin had any interest in sneaking out that night, there seemed little point in lingering in the classroom. Rabastan agreed to meet Tom in front of the mirror at midnight. None of them mentioned Bellatrix as they left.
In Defense Against the Dark Arts that afternoon, Bellatrix was the last to arrive and very pointedly chose a seat as far away from Tom as possible. He barely paid attention to Merrythought’s lecture, instead devoting most of the hour to staring as discreetly as he could at Bellatrix and plotting how best to corner her after class. She was being unreasonable, and it wasn’t until that thought drifted through his mind that he realised how furious he was.
Despite his efforts, Bellatrix managed to leave the classroom before he did, and by the time he made it to the corner, she was nowhere to be seen. Tom hissed under his breath, drawing a startled look from Avery, who was just ahead of him. Ignoring the other boy, Tom stormed down the corridor in the direction of the nearest staircase. If she was determined to ignore him, well, he’d just have to do the same. He had a lot of homework to do anyway.
Tom was a bit late arriving to the Halloween feast that night; his detention with Jugson had been spent alphabetizing old student records and it had taken him longer than he’d expected. By the time he reached the Great Hall, the rest of the school was assembled and had begun to eat. He was pleased to see that there was an empty seat next to Bellatrix, but his satisfaction was short-lived because she refused to acknowledge him even after he’d sat down.
He gritted his teeth. (You’re only angry because you know I’m right,) he hissed quietly, and he was rewarded with a sharp, irritated glance before Bellatrix turned away from him again. On his arm, Scylla stirred.
(What? I’m not angry.)
(Not you. Her.) Tom stabbed his fork into his slice of ham rather more forcefully than was necessary, and glared at Bellatrix out of the corner of his eye. (She’s being stupid.)
(Hmmm… I smell fried chicken. I want some!) Scylla slithered slowly down his arm until she was curled around Tom’s wrist, barely hidden by the sleeve of his robe. He rolled his eyes and reached for a chicken leg, then surreptitiously pulled a piece of meat off and dropped it in front of her. She snatched it immediately with a smug, wordless hiss. There was a long silence from her end while she swallowed, which Tom spent mainly scowling at his plate and shooting occasional glances at Bellatrix. (Perhaps you shouldn’t provoke her,) Scylla hissed suddenly as she began to slither back up Tom’s arm to her usual spot just over his elbow. (Then she wouldn’t be angry with you.)
(I am not—It’s her—I haven’t done anything!) Tom snarled, louder than he should have done because several of the surrounding students looked at him strangely. Scylla didn’t respond, and Tom spent the rest of the feast in resentful silence. He hadn’t done anything wrong!
“Of course you hadn’t,” Rabastan said several hours later, after they’d laid the stickfast charms on the fourth-floor corridor and Tom had told him about the feast. “I mean, you had a good point… mostly…” Tom grimaced. “But so did Bellatrix.” Rabastan eyed him closely, as if worried that he might explode; when he didn’t, Rabastan said quickly, “It’s not like she’s very likely to get you caught, after all—it wouldn’t have hurt for her to come along, you know—”
“Broom cupboard,” Tom said flatly, gesturing around at the cramped space they were currently huddled in.
“We could fit three,” Rabastan said.
Tom scowled. “Not comfortably.”
Rabastan rolled his eyes. “Whatever,” he said. “The point is, I think the last thing you said to her, well, it was kind of…” he trailed off.
“Well, kind of mean,” Rabastan mumbled. Tom stared at him incredulously for a moment.
“Yeah,” Rabastan said. He flapped his hand through they air vaguely. “You made it sound like you didn’t care that she’s your friend. And I know that’s not what you meant,” he added hastily, because Tom had started to splutter angrily, “but that’s what it sounded like and I think that’s mostly why she’s mad at you.”
Tom growled under his breath and turned to glare at the door of the broom cupboard. He tried—with little success—to ignore the nasty, slightly sick feeling currently welling up under his ribcage. Guilt was not an emotion to which he was accustomed, and he decided very quickly that he hated it. For a while, neither of them spoke; Tom glanced at his watch once or twice, watching as the minute hand crept slowly closer to twelve.
“D’you really think that’s what she thought?” Tom asked at last, quietly.
“Yep,” Rabastan said.
“’S not what I meant,” Tom muttered, half to himself. Rabastan didn’t answer; he had tensed suddenly and leaned closer to the door.
“I think I hear them,” he whispered.
Carefully, Tom cracked the door of the broom cupboard and peeked out. He could make out only the tiniest sliver of the corridor, the slightest corner of the mirror, but now that Rabastan had mentioned it he could definitely hear footsteps and, as he strained his ears, he caught the sound of Longbottom’s voice.
“…Sure about this?”
“Shut up, we’re nearly there,” Weasley replied. A few seconds later they came into view, heading towards the mirror. Then they passed out of Tom’s vision again, only for Longbottom to yelp suddenly.
“My feet are stuck!”
There was a scuffling noise, and then Levitt hissed, “Mine too!”
Tom grinned over his shoulder at Rabastan, who grinned back. He pulled out his wand and aimed it carefully out of the broom cupboard, towards the mirror. “Quiritatio,” he whispered. Any further cries from Longbottom, Levitt, and Weasley were drowned out by the wails that filled the corridor. He leaned back, pulling the door shut behind him, while Rabastan struggled to contain his laughter.
It wasn’t long before they heard someone’s approaching yells mingling unpleasantly with the noise of the charm, and then a voice that belonged unmistakably to Professor Greengrass screamed, “Finite Incantatem!”
All noise stopped abruptly. Tom held his breath; beside him, Rabastan bit down on one of his knuckles, a look of utmost concentration on his face.
“What,” Greengrass said, in a voice that was barely louder than a whisper but sent a chill down Tom’s spine nevertheless, “is the meaning of this?”
Longbottom immediately began to babble, speaking so fast that his words blended together and Tom couldn’t tell what he was actually saying. This went on for less than a minute before Greengrass snarled, “Enough! Fifty points from Gryffindor! Now return to your dormitories at once.”
“But, Professor—” Weasley began in a whine.
“Another fifty points! And detention! Now go!”
Three pairs of footsteps hurried past the broom cupboard and faded slowly down the corridor. Tom waited, hardly daring to breath, for Greengrass to follow, but he did not. Carefully, Tom eased the broom cupboard door open a fraction and put his eye to the crack; he was just in time to see Greengrass open the mirror and go into the secret passage behind.
“What’s he doing?” Rabastan breathed.
“No idea,” Tom said. “We should get back before he does, though…”
“Right.” Rabastan grinned. “A hundred points down and they’re in detention! This was brilliant!” he whispered. Then he paused. “Well, I suppose I could have done without the lost points. But still.”
Tom rolled his eyes. “Good night, Rabastan.”
They went their separate ways, and Tom decided that the day had not, perhaps, been a complete loss after all.
Chapter 13: Confrontation and Competition
Under different circumstances, Tom might have been overjoyed by the despondency at the Gryffindor table the next morning, and specifically that of Longbottom, Levitt, and Weasley. Bellatrix, however, did not appear at breakfast until much later and in the company of Zabini and Tollemache, and Tom’s victory soured somewhat when she refused to so much as look at him.
Bellatrix’s success in evading him continued well into the next week, much to Tom’s frustration. She still took her meals and with Zabini and Tollemache and managed, somehow, to be surrounded by at least five people whenever she and Tom were in the same room. Several times, he almost caught her with one of their friends, usually Antonin or Columbus, but each time she vanished as soon as she saw him approaching.
“I’m not going to apologize for you,” Columbus told him exasperatedly after the fourth time this happened.
“I can’t tell her I’m sorry if she keeps avoiding me,” Tom said, equally exasperated. Columbus had the decency to look sympathetic before he changed the subject.
It was not until Friday—shortly after an exultant Rabastan told them that Longbottom, Levitt, and Weasley had served their detention by scrubbing out cauldrons without magic for over three hours—that he finally managed to catch her alone. He, Rabastan, and Columbus were taking advantage of the unusually nice weather to relax on the shore of the lake and idly skip stones across the surface of the water in hopes of getting a glimpse of the giant squid when Antonin strolled over to them from the direction of the greenhouses. As usual for any student leaving one of Professor Black’s classes (particularly one that had run late), Antonin was more than a little disheveled, although he also looked rather smug.
“Professor Black said we’d be ready to start repotting our mandrake sprouts next week,” Antonin said as he reached them and flopped down on the grass next to Rabastan. “Oh, and Tom, I just saw Bellatrix. She said she was going to go practice curses in the old Alchemy classroom for the next hour.”
Tom dropped the rock he’d been holding and scrambled to his feet. “Thanks,” he said. Antonin raised a hand in lazy acknowledgement.
“Wait ’til after she’s cursed your knee-caps on backwards before you thank me,” Antonin called as Tom started for the castle.
Tom reached the sixth floor in record time, although he paused outside of the classroom until he’d gotten his breath back and prepared himself to dodge a curse if necessary. Then he spent some time smoothing the front of his robes and making sure he looked presentable, until he realized that he was only stalling and forced himself to open the door.
His friend offered him a poisonous glare, although fortunately she seemed disinclined to hex him. “What?”
Tom ran a hand through his hair. The sick feeling he’d experienced on Halloween had returned in full force and, this time, it left a bitter taste in his mouth. “Look…” he said, at a loss for words. Bellatrix raised an eyebrow scornfully at him, which didn’t help in the slightest. “I’m sorry,” he managed at last. “For Halloween.”
Some of the anger bled out of Bellatrix’s eyes, and she looked away, huffing. “It’s about time,” she said coldly.
Irritation burned away a large portion of the guilt, for which Tom could only be grateful. “So sorry that I couldn’t do everything according to your schedule,” he snapped, fumbling behind himself for the doorknob. Apologies always were more trouble than they were worth. “I’ll just be going, then.”
“Don’t.” Tom looked back at her, hand still on the doorknob. Bellatrix had squeezed her eyes shut; when she opened them again, they were noticeably softer. She took a few steps towards him, a humorless smile appearing on her face. “I shouldn’t have snapped, it was rude.”
“It was,” Tom mumbled, but he let go of the doorknob.
Her lips curled up in a real smile this time. “I’m sorry, too,” she said wryly.
They were both quiet for a few long minutes, Tom because he had no idea what to say and Bellatrix seemed more than happy to stare at him with that maddeningly cryptic smile still in place.
“Let’s not do it again, yeah?” Tom said at last, feeling awkward but unable to take the silence any longer. Bellatrix made a short, sharp sound that might have been an attempt at laughter.
“Yeah,” she said, and Tom felt tension that he hadn’t known existed flow out of his shoulders. He grinned.
“What were you doing in here, anyway?” he asked. “Antonin mentioned something about curses…?”
Bellatrix tossed her braid over her shoulder, smirking. “Do you, by chance, remember what I told you about my Aunt Elladora, the day we met? I’ll understand if you don’t, of course,” she added, in a tone that said quite clearly that she would be irritated all the same if he didn’t.
Fortunately, Tom had had the sense to look up Elladora Black after he and Bellatrix had become proper friends, so he had an answer that she would find acceptable. “She was Phineas Nigellus Black’s sister,” he recited dutifully. “Him being a former Headmaster of Hogwarts. Apparently he kept her locked up in one of the family homes—can’t remember which—because she was a lunatic, and she invented practically an entire book’s worth of Dark spells. And killed loads of house-elves.”
“I didn’t tell you all that,” Bellatrix said archly, although she looked pleased. “And it was twelve Grimmauld Place, for the record.”
Tom rolled his eyes. “I’ll bear that in mind.”
“Anyway. I was planning on practicing a few of them. For the dueling club, of course.”
“Even though Dark spells are explicitly against the rules?” Tom asked sweetly. Bellatrix stuck her tongue out at him.
“Not all of her curses were Dark,” Bellatrix said. “Just most…” She shook her head. “ Anyway. There’s one I was looking at in particular. Shall I demonstrate for you?” With a slightly manic gleam in her eye, she held up her wand and twirled it between her fingers. Tom snorted.
“So long as you don’t demonstrate on me,” he said.
“Hm. Debilito!” Bellatrix snapped her wand towards the desk at the front of the room. A half-dozen tendrils of dim yellow light shot out of it, spiraling around each other as they flew, and enveloped it. There was a nasty crunch as the desk collapsed. Splinters went flying in all directions.
“It’s supposed to go through shield charms,” Bellatrix said as she examined the results through half-lidded eyes. “Although I haven’t tried. I imagine it’s also very difficult to dodge, being so broad.”
“Does it do that to a person?” Tom asked, as he walked over to examine the ruined desk. He picked through the wreckage carefully; the debris was warm to the touch. “And how, exactly, is that considered not Dark?”
Bellatrix sniffed. “It’s nothing a bit of skelegro won’t fix,” she said idly. “And not all violent spells are Dark, you know, just the ones that have to be fueled by emotions. This one’s no different than casting a minor blasting curse that happens to target only wood or bone.”
“I still doubt it’ll go over well in the dueling club,” Tom said dryly. “The point being to disarm rather than confine to the hospital wing, and all.”
“Blasting curses are allowed,” Bellatrix said with a shrug. “They’re more dangerous than this one, you know; take one to the ribs and your whole chest might be crushed.” She grinned nastily. “Lots of important organs in there.”
Tom wasn’t sure whether he found the statement itself or the fact that he couldn’t tell if Bellatrix was serious or joking more worrying.
It began to get very cold as November drew closer. The landscape surrounding Hogwarts slowly lost its color; the distant mountains turned dark gray and the lake looked more and more like steel with each day. Frigid drafts crept into the corridors and the classrooms, and although the fire in the Slytherin common room burned constantly, it barely kept out the chill.
Quidditch season began, to the delight of all of Tom’s friends except Bellatrix. The first match of the season would take place between Slytherin and Gryffindor, and from what Tom gleaned from listening to Rabastan’s enthusiastic babbling, the Gryffindor team hoped to recover from their abysmal performance last year by thoroughly trouncing Slytherin in the match.
“They won’t, though,” Rabastan told him during breakfast on the day of the match. He picked idly at the threads of his scarlet scarf. “I snuck out and watched a couple of their practices last week, and they’re terrible. Still, House pride and all that.”
Tom rolled his eyes. “At least you haven’t smeared red paint all over yourself,” he said, glancing towards the Gryffindor table, where there were indeed students painting each others’ faces with their House colors. Weasley in particular looked as if his whole head had caught fire. Rabastan snorted.
Columbus (who, like Antonin, had decided which House to support by flipping a knut and was therefore dressed in Gryffindor colors) grinned at Tom. “Your first Quidditch match! Are you excited?”
“A little,” Tom admitted.
“Don’t be,” Bellatrix said calmly. “It’s the most boring pastime ever invented.” She yawned. “The Seekers ruin it, see, they defeat the entire purpose of the rest of the team.”
Rabastan looked horrified. “You can’t say things that,” he gasped. “It’s the best sport in the world!”
“So? It’s not as if I’m going.”
Columbus leaned over the table urgently. “But you’ve got to! It’s the first match of the year!”
Bellatrix shot them both a withering glare. “No.”
Neither Rabastan nor Columbus would let the matter rest, and after Antonin joined in, Bellatrix finally agreed, albeit reluctantly.
“I don’t know how I let you lot talk me into this,” she growled as they walked out of the castle later that afternoon. It was freezing; Tom felt as if his face were being rubbed all over with shards of ice. He screwed up his eyes against the cold and tried to disappear into his cloak.
“Bloody freezing,” Columbus muttered as they trudged towards the Quidditch pitch.
“I hadn’t noticed,” Tom said through chattering teeth. They reached the pitch, and he bade Columbus and Rabastan goodbye as they turned towards the Gryffindor side of the stands. He was the only one who did; Bellatrix, still fuming, refused to acknowledge either of them, and Antonin was doing his best to disappear into his fur-lined cloak.
The cold was even worse in the elevated stands; what had been a breeze on the ground was a biting wind fifty feet in the air. Tom hunched over miserably, his hands clenched against his sides and his hood yanked up over his face. Bellatrix and Antonin huddled close to his sides, which at least made him a little warmer.
“Anyone know a good warming charm?” Antonin shouted.
“Try aestus,” Tom replied, fumbling for his own wand. “Professor Black used it on me once…”
“What, when she kidnapped you?” Bellatrix asked.
“Mm.” Tom managed to get his wand pointed at himself and mumbled the charm. It wasn’t as effective as it had been when Professor Black cast it, but it took the edge off the chill nevertheless. He heard his friends do the same, and their shivering decreased somewhat.
Tom squinted as seven scarlet-clad players filed onto the pitch. The spectators on the other side of the stands went wild while the Slytherin-supporters around Tom booed loudly.
Far away, the commentator, a fifth-year Ravenclaw named Ephraim Spencer, shouted, “Here comes the Gryffindor team! Looks like Captain and Keeper Fabian Prewett has made some changes to his lineup this year, unsurprising given his crushing defeat last year.” The Slytherins booed more loudly at that. “It’s Wood! Gamp! White! Prewett! MacDougal! Max! Aaand DeFluiter!”
The crowd roared as the Gryffindor team jumped up and down and pumped their fists and generally made fools of themselves. As the Slytherin team appeared on the opposite end of the pitch, Spencer bellowed, “And here’s the Slytherin team! Burke! Selwyn! Pond! Davies! Frey! Simms! Aaand Woolf!”
Tom clapped along politely as the crowd around him began to cheer. Bellatrix groaned and dropped her head onto his shoulder, muttering under her breath. Tom caught the words “talentless pigmen” and grinned.
Astor Ingram strode onto the field, a large box and a broom in tow. He dropped the box in the center of the field and kicked it open as he addressed the players. All of them mounted their brooms.
A whistle blew shrilly, and the fourteen players shot into the air, most of them arranging themselves into a loose ring around the center of the pitch while the Keepers flew off to the goal posts. The Bludgers sprang out of the trunk and pelted away a few seconds later. Ingram himself floated up more sedately, the Quaffle held carefully in both hands. He looked between the two waiting teams and then, with a great heave, threw the Quaffle into the air over his head.
“AND THE QUAFFLE HAS BEEN RELEASED!” screamed Spencer as the Chasers broke formation and streaked across the pitch and the Seekers shot up into the air above the stands. “Burke takes possession right away, passes to Selwyn, who shoots down the field—Ah, nice bludger from MacDougal, Selwyn takes it right in the back of the head and drops the Quaffle, Gryffindor in possession.”
Boos and hisses from the Slytherin side were all but drowned out by the triumphant screams of the Gryffindors. MacDougal punched the air and shot off in pursuit of another Bludger.
Tom quickly lost the thread of the commentary and focused instead on the players themselves. He found himself tracking the Slytherin Chasers in particular; they flew across the pitch at speeds that had to be very dangerous, weaving in and out and around each other almost too quickly for Tom to follow. The Quaffle changed hands every few seconds, and Tom didn’t have to listen to Spencer’s commentary to know that the Gryffindor Chasers simply couldn’t compete. It was only the spectacular aim possessed by both Gryffindor Beaters that kept the Slytherin score fairly low.
He wished he had a pair of binoculars; the players were often too far away for him to see properly.
The game had gone on for perhaps half an hour when the Gryffindor Seeker abruptly went into a spectacular dive. The crowd gasped and screamed as his Slytherin counterpart shot after him. Both of them were pressed flat to their brooms as they rocketed almost straight down. Tom could just make out a glitter of gold near the base of the Slytherin goalposts, and the Seekers were aiming straight for it. He spared a glance for the rest of the players; all of them had stopped moving in favor of staring at their Seekers. Beside him, Bellatrix snorted derisively.
“THEY’RE GOING TO CRASH!” Spencer screamed, and he wasn’t the only one. Even Bellatrix perked up a little, looking hopeful. “THEY’RE GOING TO—”
But the Gryffindor Seeker pulled out of the dive and swerved so sharply that he only grazed the metal post. His fist was raised and clenched triumphantly around the snitch. The Slytherin Seeker was not quite so lucky; he clipped the goalposts and spun wildly out of control, looking ill.
“I DON’T BELIEVE IT, HE’S PULLED IT OFF! GRYFFINDOR WINS ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY POINTS TO NINETY!”
Far below, the Gryffindor team converged on DeFluiter, who was hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammates. He grinned and waved the snitch at the Gryffindors in the stands, and the cheers reached a new, indescribable volume.
As they met up with Rabastan and Columbus a at the bottom of the stands a few minutes later, still surrounded by excited chatter, Bellatrix muttered, “I rest my case.”
Rabastan glowered at her while Columbus rolled his eyes. “Honestly, Bellatrix,” Columbus said, “Quidditch isn’t as bad as all that.”
“Besides,” Antonin offered, “it’s watching the game unfold that’s interesting, not seeing who wins.” Bellatrix merely scoffed.
Rabastan turned to Tom and said, “What did you think, then?”
Tom shrugged. “The flying was brilliant,” he said. “But I’ve never much cared for sports.”
“Heathen,” Rabastan muttered as they began to trudge back to the castle.
They were nearly back to the school when Antonin stopped suddenly and said, “What’s Professor Black doing with an Auror?” He pointed towards the greenhouses; Tom followed the line of his arm and saw Professor Black disappearing into Greenhouse Eight with a wizard in the distinctive blood-red robes of an Auror at her heels.
“Come on,” he said, and broke into a run. His friends followed him without question, all as curious as he was. Tom slowed down as they reached the greenhouses and crept along the wall until they were next to Greenhouse Eight, hidden from view of the interior by mass of emerald-green vines.
“—the point,” someone hissed in a deep, guttural voice. “It’s only natural to try to reach an agreement.”
Tom leaned as close to the glass as he dared, feeling his friends crowd in behind him.
“Agreement?” Professor Black snarled, sounding angrier than Tom would have believed possible. “Reeve, they’re building an political party solely on the oppression of a minority group and the pursuit of mythical objects. We cannot afford to try reasoning with them, because they aren’t reasonable people.”
“There isn’t much the Aurors can do about—”
“That isn’t the point! This is only the beginning. Once Grindelwald and Dumbledore have solidified their power in Germany they will come here. They have every reason to believe they’ll find the rest of their precious Hallows in England. My sources—”
There was a thumping sound, as if someone had pounded a hand against the desk. “Damn your sources!” Reeve snapped. “Until you tell us who they are we cannot act on their advice! As far as the department is concerned they don’t exist! I tell you—”
“Don’t you dare make this about me,” Professor Black said, her voice suddenly very soft. A chill raced down Tom’s spine. “Rade has never had problems with my sources in the past. You know as well as I do that this is happening because Mackintosh is being unreasonable.” There was silence for a moment, and then Professor Black spoke again, even more softly. “My terms are the same as they have always been. I will tell you what I know, but not how. On that, you must trust me.”
There was another silence, longer than the first. At last Reeve said, “Alright. I’ll take your word for it this time, Black, but I swear, soon you’re going to have to give us answers. Proper answers.”
“I will,” Professor Black said evenly. “In time. Now, if you will excuse me, my plants need tending to…”
Tom exchanged a look with his friends, and they all nodded and began to retreat. Once they were a safe distance from the greenhouses, he asked, “What are Hallows?”
Antonin shrugged. “They’re part of a Beedle story,” he said. At Tom’s look of blank incomprehension, he elaborated. “Beedle the Bard wrote a load of children’s stories during the fifteenth century.”
“Moralistic rubbish, mostly,” Columbus put in helpfully. “That’s what my dad always calls them.”
“Right,” Antonin said, rolling his eyes. “Anyway, Rabastan tells it the best.” They all looked to Rabastan, who cleared his throat importantly.
“Right,” he said. “Once upon a time there were three very powerful wizarding brothers who decided to seek their fortunes. They came to a deadly river, the crossing of which had killed countless travelers. The brothers, however, used their magic to create a bridge and crossed safely.
“What they did not know was that the river was tended by Death himself, and he was furious that they had managed to slip through his boney clutches.” Rabastan reached dramatically for Tom’s neck, wearing an expression that he clearly intended to be terrifying. Tom snorted and batted his hands away.
“Go on,” he said.
“Death appeared to the brothers and congratulated them on their cleverness in evading him. In return, Death offered them each a reward. The first brother asked Death for a wand that could never lose a duel, so Death planted an elder tree on the banks of the river and, from its first branch and a hair plucked from his own head, he fashioned a wand for the eldest brother.
“The second brother asked for the power to recall others from Death’s clutches, so Death picked up a handful of mud from the river bed and squeezed it until it turned stone. He gave it to the second brother and told him that the stone would have the power to bring back the dead.
“Finally, Death asked the third brother what he would like. This brother suspected treachery, so he asked for something that would allow him to go on from the river without being followed. And Death, reluctantly, handed over his own invisibility cloak.”
“And those are the Hallows,” Tom guessed. “The wand, the stone, and the cloak?”
Rabastan frowned at him. “Yeah,” he said. “Don’t interrupt, I wasn’t finished.”
“Soon after, the time came for the brothers to part ways. The first brother hunted down an old enemy of his. With the Elder Wand as his weapon, he killed the other wizard, then went to an inn. He got very drunk and bragged about his unbeatable wand before going to sleep in one of the rooms. A few hours later, a thief slipped into his room and killed the first brother before stealing his wand.
“The second brother found a village in which to settle down. He used the stone to call back this girl he’d been engaged to before she died. She, however, wasn’t happy because she didn’t belong in the mortal world any more, so the second brother went mad and killed himself.
“The third brother spent his whole life under the Cloak of Invisibility, and Death could never find him. He grew old and eventually passed the cloak on to his son, then greeted Death as an old friend and they departed this life together.” Rabastan stopped, smiling serenely, and let the ending sink in.
Bellatrix cleared her throat. “Some people think that the story’s actually a historical account of Antioch, Cadmus, and Ignotus Peverell, who were three powerful brothers who lived around Beedle’s time. They think the Deathly Hallows actually exist and that, were one to unite them, one would become the ‘master of Death,’ whatever that means. It’s nonsense, of course.” She frowned.
“You ought to read some of Beedle’s other tales,” Columbus said cheerfully. “I’ll bet the library has a copy somewhere… or I could get my mum to owl me mine, it’s annotated.”
“I’ll do that,” Tom said absently. He frowned. “Professor Black made it sound like Grindelwald and Dumbledore already found one of the Hallows, though, remember? ‘They think they’ll find the rest of their Hallows…?’”
“More power to them if they do,” Rabastan said, shrugging. “They’ve got the right idea, after all.”
“They’re letting their followers kill people, Rabastan,” Tom said. “For no good reason, even.”
“They’re killing Muggles,” Antonin corrected pointedly.
Tom said nothing.
Bursts of white light filled Tom’s vision as pain seared past his left eye. He squeezed his eye shut as blood began to bubble out of his new cut, jabbing his wand blindly in the direction of his attacker, and snarled, “Incendio!” His opponent, a ratlike Ravenclaw boy called Tobias Scarlett, yelped as the sleeve of his robe caught on fire. Tom took advantage of his distraction to wipe the blood from his face and choose his next curse. “Contorqueo!”
A spiral of yellow-green light shot from the tip of his wand and reached Scarlett just as he’d managed to put out his robes. Scarlett yelped as his legs twisted together. He toppled over, his wand dropping out of his fingers.
“Yield!” Scarlett shouted frantically. Tom grinned and stepped out of the dueling ring, to scattered applause from the handful of onlookers. Professor Black, who stood at the edge of the crowd, raised an elegant eyebrow at him.
“I see that the point of not aiming to injure has been lost on you as thoroughly as it has on my niece,” she said. The corners of her lips quirked slightly, as if she were hiding a smile.
Bellatrix had, in fact, used debilito during a duel earlier today, which had the effect of sending herself out of the Great Hall for a lecture with Merrythought and Weasley to Madam Sauber. The grin she’d worn as she left the Great Hall suggested that she felt her punishment had been worth it.
“At least give me credit for moderation, Professor,” Tom said with an ingratiating smile. Professor Black snorted softly, her gaze shifting to Scarlett who, with the help of an older student, had gotten his legs untangled.
“As Mr. Scarlett will evidently not be spending tonight in the hospital wing, I will do so,” Professor Black said dryly. Her eyes flicked back to meet Tom’s, then lowered fractionally to his cheek. She tapped her wand against the cut there, and it started to itch as a scab formed instantly. “You’re due a visit with Madam Sauber yourself,” she said. “Run along.”
“Thanks, Professor,” Tom said. He waved to Rabastan and Columbus, who were standing along the border of another dueling ring and watching Antonin prepare to duel Lavinia Selwyn, as he strolled towards the exit.
Bellatrix was leaning against the banister of the grand staircase, idly making purple smoke rings with her wand. “Who did that?” she asked as she took in the scab on Tom’s cheek. She banished the rings with a casual flick.
“Scarlett,” Tom said smugly. “I set him on fire and then used a leg-twisting curse on him. He dropped his wand.”
“Served him right,” Bellatrix said. As Tom started up the stairs, she fell into step next to him, tucking her wand into her sleeve. “I’ve detention with Merrythought tomorrow at six.”
Tom grinned, but stopped quickly when it made the left side of his face give a nasty twinge. “Serves you right,” he said. Bellatrix slapped his elbow, not quite hard enough to hurt.
“Columbus told me you’d borrowed his copy of Beedle’s tales,” Bellatrix said with great dignity. Tom winced inwardly; it had been nearly a week since the Quidditch match, and he still experienced an uncomfortable, hollow feeling in his stomach whenever he thought about the casual way Antonin had dismissed the Bohn murders. He pushed the thought aside.
“I did, yeah.” Tom had spent an evening lounging on his bed and flipping idly through the book of stories. Most of them had been quite similar to the fairy tales he’d read in a book back in the orphanage, except that magic was more rarely treated as the root cause of all evil in the wizarding stories, and he said as much.
“Muggles have fairy tales?” Bellatrix said blankly.
“Not with real fairies,” Tom said. “Usually it’s either a young prince getting sent on a quest to save some girl or else a pauper boy succeeding at stupid tasks and winning the princess’s hand. You know. Good Hufflepuffs triumphing effortlessly over greedy, stupid, and evil people by dint of sheer luck.” Bellatrix giggled and Tom, feeling suddenly brave, stopped walking. “Can I ask you something?”
He must have sounded more serious than he’d intended, because Bellatrix’s face promptly lost all traces of humor. “Of course,” she said, studying him minutely as if trying to pluck the question right out of his mind.
Best to get it over with quickly. “D’you think less of me because I was raised by Muggles?” Tom said, taking care not to meet her eyes. He still saw the color rush out of her face, and he looked away, feeling ill.
“No!” Bellatrix seized his arm (and Tom felt a flash of relief that Scylla was off hunting mice and not curled around his arm as she usually was; Bellatrix would have upset her otherwise) and pulled him around to face her. “No,” she said again, much softer, and then, quite unexpectedly, she hugged him. Tom, unsure of how best to respond, held very still and tried not to think about the fact that she was pinning his wand arm to his side.
After what seemed like an agonizingly long time but was probably only a few seconds, Bellatrix released him. Tom gaped at her, aware that he probably looked pretty stupid but too nonplussed to do anything about it. “Why would you even think that?” she whispered.
“Well,” Tom said, and stopped. He couldn’t shake the feeling that this was going to turn into another awful row, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to start another one so soon after the last. It seemed a bit late to get cold feet now, though, so, reluctantly, he said, “It’s just… Rabastan thinks Muggles ought to be killed and Antonin doesn’t even consider them people, and…” He spread his hands helplessly.
“You’re not a Muggle, though,” Bellatrix said patiently, as though explaining something obvious to a very small child.
Tom raked a hand through his hair. “I lived like one, though—well, practically—for ten years,” he said. “I didn’t even know there were other wizards until last year. I— you don’t—” He took a deep breath, feeling oddly as though he were teetering on the edge of the Astronomy Tower. “If you only hate Muggles because they don’t have any magic, then you shouldn’t hate Muggleborns, but you do, so—”
“I never said that!” Bellatrix had gone, if possible, even paler.
“Agna Bohn was a Muggleborn witch!” Tom said. He grabbed her shoulders and squeezed, willing her to do something more than just stare at him. “Not that any of you care about that because she’s just another Muggle to you, Antonin said…” Tom closed his eyes. “It’s not just because Muggles don’t have magic,” he whispered. “It can’t be, or else nobody would care what anybody’s parents were.”
“Muggleborns aren’t as powerful, everyone knows that,” Bellatrix told him, her voice quavering slightly. Tom looked up at her, to find her eyes wide with poorly-concealed fear. He let go of her as if he’d been burned and backed away, guilt coiling in his chest. “That’s why we can’t intermarry with Muggles. They’d dilute the magic and eventually there wouldn’t be any left. We’d lose our powers, lose everything that makes us special…”
“My father,” Tom said, so quietly that he could barely hear his own words. “My father was a Muggle.” His lips pulled away from his teeth in a feral grin as Bellatrix flinched. “So you do think I’m worth less than you because of that.” He started walking again, faster than before, trying hard to ignore the way his chest had seized up and his eyes burned.
“I don’t!” Bellatrix whispered miserably. Tom could hear her following him but he didn’t look around. He gritted his teeth; Tom could not remember the last time he’d cried, never cried, would not start now. “Tom, please…”
“Just leave me alone,” he snarled, still not looking around.
Her footsteps slowed to a halt, and by the time Tom reached the hospital wing a couple minutes later, his eyes were quite dry.