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In the Bleak Midwinter

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In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign...

Poem by Christina Rossetti, published in the January 1872 issue of Scribner's Monthly.

 

A comfortable chair by a warm fire, a snifter of brandy, and the financial section of the evening newspaper, and there was no reason for Tom to worry. His investments were all doing great. It seemed like anything he touched turned to gold, like magic, no, not magic, don’t think about magic. The cold outside was no matter to him, here in his warm house. The wind did not sound like an enraged woman screaming. It really didn’t. It was just wind. Everything was fine. Tom was home again. He could relax. It might take a bit more brandy. He poured himself some more.

He spilled some on the table when the doorbell rang. They weren’t expecting anyone, and who would be out on a night like this? He was tempted to tell Fiona not to answer it, but no, that would be cowardly.

Fiona entered the study and made a perfunctory curtsy. “Are you at home, Mr. Riddle?”

“No,” he decided. “If it’s a beggar, he may shelter from the storm in the shed. Give him some food and send him on his way in the morning.”

“Yes sir.”

She left, and didn’t come back for some time, so that should have been that. He wiped up the spilled brandy. However, she reappeared in his study eventually, looking quite miffed. He put his newspaper down.

“She won’t go away, sir,” Fiona reported. “She says she’ll wait on the front steps until you come home.”

He felt a jolt of panic. “She? It’s not—“

“No sir,” she assured him. “Most assuredly not her. It’s a… woman. I don’t know who she is. I’ve never seen her before in my life.”

“A woman, not a lady?” Tom inquired.

“She hasn’t got any gloves on,” Fiona said disapprovingly. “I could see her hands just fine, and she has no wedding ring at all. And she’s got a little baby with her.”

Tom jumped from his chair. “A baby, out in this weather? Why didn’t you say so in the first place? We can’t just leave them on the steps.”

“She refused to go to the shed,” complained Fiona, but her employer was rushing past her to the door. “People will talk, they’ll wonder why you’re entertaining a young woman with a baby. They’ll wonder whose baby it is, won’t they?”

“We’re the only people who know they’re here, and I certainly won’t spread rumors about myself, so if they do spread, I’ll know their origin,” Tom said with a pointed look at his maid. “Not that it really matters, I suppose,” he reconsidered. “There’s no shortage of gossip about me already, so more wouldn't make things worse. If you wanted to work for a reputable family, you wouldn’t be working for the Riddles.”

They had reached the door. He opened it, and indeed, there was a woman who, most importantly, was not Merope. This woman was taller, which wasn’t saying much. Her face was more face-shaped, and both her eyes looked in the same direction. A lump under her cloak was emitting a faint cry. That was really all he needed to know. “Come in madam, please. I’m sorry to keep you waiting in the cold.”

She started when she saw him, and made no move to enter. “Mr. Riddle?” she asked cautiously.

“Yes, we can do introductions inside where it’s warm,” he said. He didn’t want to keep the door open a moment longer than necessary.

She stepped in with surprising hesitancy for someone who’d come through a storm to get here, and he could finally close the door on the wailing wind. She allowed Fiona to take her wet cloak. His visitor was, indeed, a woman he’d never seen before in his life, so not a resident of Little Hangleton. Her clothes didn’t fit right, hanging loosely on her very thin frame. She was quite young. Her dark hair was not bobbed in the modern fashion, but whirled in long, wild curls, where it wasn’t plastered to her face with melting snow. Her cheeks and lips were flushed bright pink, and her dark eyes were wide and bright as they looked around at Riddle House, which was rather nicely furnished if he thought so himself, and still decorated for Christmas.

She was, indeed, carrying a baby, now quiet, in a sling. The baby’s cheeks were pink as well, and blue-black eyes met Tom’s with an eerie intelligence. Tom found himself unwittingly competing in, and quickly the loser of, a staring contest.

He looked back to the woman. “I have a fire lit in the study. This way.” She followed, with Fiona tailing them suspiciously. “Would you like some tea?” he asked.

“Tea would be wonderful, thank you,” she said, so he sent Fiona off with a look. She stomped sullenly to the kitchen. He couldn’t blame her for trying to protect him from mysterious women, after the last one. But still, the civilities must be observed.

“Please have a seat,” he said, indicating the chair closest to the fire, so she did.

“Thank you.”

He sat near her. “Now we may do introductions.”

“My name is Hermione Granger,” she said. “I’ve just come from London. I brought some news which I think will interest you.” From what must have been a very large inner pocket of her jacket, she drew a folder. She opened it, handed him the paper on top, and closed the folder again.

He’d been expecting some anguished tale of woe from the windswept woman, not this behavior more befitting a solicitor. He didn’t mind the incongruity. He read the paper. It was a certificate of death for Merope Riddle, née Gaunt, dated yesterday, December 31, 1926.

He hid his face in his hands. It would not do to allow this stranger to see his expression right now. He should be saddened by his wife’s death, not greatly relieved. Many would not blame him, he knew, but this stranger wasn’t a resident of Little Hangleton. She didn’t know the whole story. Hell, he didn’t know the whole story. He was free. He was crying. Did tears of joy resemble tears of mourning closely enough that it was safe to uncover his face?

“You have quite a library,” came her voice from some distance away. “I’m enjoying browsing it. So take all the time you need.”

“Thank you.” He drew his handkerchief from his pocket, and soon felt reasonably presentable again. “Please come back to the fire, Mrs. Granger.”

“Miss,” she said as she sat down again.

“My apologies. Thank you, Miss Granger, for going out of your way to deliver this news.”

“I thought you should know.”

“How…”

“The cause of death is listed on the certificate,” she said.

He looked back at it. His wife had died in childbirth. He froze. When he looked at the baby, those blue-black eyes were staring at him again. Perhaps they’d been staring this whole time, for the baby had none of Miss Granger’s discretion.

Miss Granger took another paper from her folder and handed it to him. “Your name is listed on his birth certificate. She named him Tom, after you, with a middle name of Marvolo, after her father.”

“No,” he said, not taking the paper, although recognizing the pointlessness of his protest.

“I’m very sorry to spring this on you, Mr. Riddle. I’m sure it’s quite a shock.”

Fiona arrived with the tea. She’d included some sandwiches and biscuits. She was horrified to find her employer in such a state. “Mr. Riddle sir! Are you all right? Should I call the police? Is this woman trying to blackmail you?”

Miss Granger’s thin hands shook slightly as she helped herself to some tea and a sandwich. She chewed slowly and carefully.

“Stop it, Fiona! Miss Granger brought me important information. Merope is dead. Look, here’s her death certificate.”

Fiona’s face changed slowly until it finally revealed the unabashed joy that Tom could not, with propriety, express himself. “Oh sir! What wonderful news.”

Tom cleared his throat pointedly.

“It’s quite all right, Mr. Riddle,” Miss Granger assured him. “I understand completely. She put you through quite an ordeal. No one could blame you for feeling relieved. 

“So he’s not being charged with abandonment or anything like that?” asked Fiona suspiciously.

Miss Granger paused to rock the baby, his son! With that monster! Who was getting a bit fussy. “That hadn’t occurred to me,” she said eventually. “Although I suppose you have a legal obligation to provide at least financial support to your son, right? I don’t really know. Someone would have to actually take you to court over it, though, and I don’t know who would. Merope’s brother Morfin is in prison, and her father Marvolo, if he isn’t dead already, will be soon. No one else has any interest in this baby. Whether you have a moral obligation is another question entirely, as you never truly consented to his conception. I’d say you don’t. Where it gets tricky, of course, is that this baby has a right to be taken care of, however he was conceived. I’ll need to know if you’re willing and able to do that, or if I need to make other arrangements. You needn’t decide tonight of course.”

The baby was fussing in earnest now, and munching on his fist. Miss Granger put down her sandwich with a longing look and unbuttoned a couple of buttons of her blouse like any common young mother in town on a market day. The baby latched on to her breast, surprisingly full on such a thin frame, and stopped fussing immediately.

“Now wait just a minute!” exploded Fiona, so Tom didn’t have to. “You must be that baby’s mother! You can’t come here with this story about Merope—“

“I am definitely not this baby’s mother,” she said. “I just figured it would be easier to take a wet nurse potion than bother with bottles. Especially since I’m not confident about the safety of the mother’s milk substitutes available these days.”

“A… a potion?” Tom asked, hoping he’d misheard.

“I’m sorry, I know your experience with potions isn’t good,” Miss Granger said. “They’re not all like the love potions Merope dosed you with. Many have good practical applications, when used with consent of course.”

Tom found that he was standing, and backing away. “You’re a witch! Another witch! Like Merope!”

Fiona crossed herself.

Miss Granger sighed. “I was hoping I could delay this conversation, but babies have a way of interfering with plans. Yes, I am a witch. No, not like Merope. Merope was criminally deranged, probably as a result of her abused childhood. I, I like to think that I am not. I consider myself a sane, ethical person, thanks to my parents, who raised me right, although of course you have only my word for it.”

“What are you doing here then?” demanded Fiona. “If this isn’t your baby, what’s he to you?”

“I am trying to set things right,” she said firmly. “Merope was a witch who had a terrible childhood, and she grew up to do terrible things. Her son will be a wizard with great power. If he were to grow up unloved, in that orphanage…” She lost her voice for a moment. “It would be bad. He would commit crimes much worse than Merope’s. But if raised properly, I think he could accomplish great things.”

“How do you know this?” Tom asked.

She hesitated. “I know some things that might happen in the future. Because I’m a witch.”

“That sounded very evasive. What aren’t you telling me?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. Tom had the very unsettling feeling that he had reached the limit of this witch’s patience, just as he sometimes had with Merope. He never knew what would set her off. Terror crept icy fingers up his spine as sparks crackled from the coiling snakes of her hair. Something in the room was about to explode.

“Sorry, do you feel deficient in shocking revelations today?” the witch snipped. “Since I do have plenty more in reserve, but I’m trying to dole them out gradually in hopes of sparing your sanity. I could dump them on you all at once if you prefer.” She switched the baby to her other breast. “Sorry,” she said again, sounding sincere this time. She closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, she looked calmer. “I shouldn’t have raised my voice like that. I need to set a better example of controlling my temper, for little Tom’s sake.”

That was her losing her temper? He wasn’t picking shards of glass out of his skin. Nothing was even on fire. 

“I’m glad you have questions,” she continued. “Communication is very important. You’re taking this remarkably well.” She cast a glance at Fiona, then looked back to Tom. “I intend to tell you all the relevant information, so you can make an informed decision about whether you want to be part of your son’s life or not. If you decide not, there’s no need for others to know about this.”

Tom saw the sense in this, and nodded to Fiona. “Leave us.”

Fiona wasn’t having it. “But sir, I can’t leave you alone with that—“

“How do you think you could defend me against a witch? Go.”

Fiona stomped off.

The witch, awkwardly, with the baby in her arms, drew her wand from her sleeve and pointed it at the door. Tom froze, wanting to knock the weapon from her hand, but fearing for his own life as much as Fiona’s, as the witch shot some sort of spell at the door. She sheathed her wand in her sleeve and looked back to him. “Now that we have some privacy—“ 

“What did you do to my maid?”

“Frustrated her, probably. I made the door impervious to sound, to prevent eavesdropping. She’s probably still trying. I know I would. You may check, if you want.”

He did. Fiona fell on him when he opened the door, as she’d apparently had her ear pressed against it.

He set her back on her feet, with irritation and embarrassment on both their parts, then they stepped away from each other. “You should be preparing a room for our guests,” he said. “I’m obviously not sending them out into the cold tonight.” 

“Yes sir,” said Fiona, stomping away.

“Although I will go if you ask me,” said the witch. “I truly do not mean to impose on you, especially after what you’ve already suffered. What Merope did to you wasn’t just immoral, it was illegal by our laws. The Department of Magical Law Enforcement has a lot to answer for, in not arresting the Gaunts sooner and stopping them from tormenting you. You owe the magical world nothing. The debt goes the other way.”

These words were a relief to hear. This witch understood what had been done to him, which no one else of his acquaintance did. Probably because she had the power to do it herself, but still. “I don’t really know… What did she actually do to me?”

“I don’t know the details myself,” she said. “I know she had an unhealthy obsession with you. She must have thought it was love, but I don’t want to use that word for this. She probably dosed you with love potions, or possibly used the Imperius curse on you. The first would be legally defined as aggravated muggle-baiting, I believe, and the second is an unforgivable curse. Either way, it was rape. I’m very sorry that the Department of Magical Law Enforcement dropped the quaffle on this. There’s no excuse for that. Unfortunately, their performance can be lackluster when the victim is a muggle. Sorry, a muggle is a non-magical person such as yourself.”

Some small part of him wondered what a quaffle was, but most of him was stuck on the word rape. He was a man, after all, and Merope was a woman, so that couldn’t possibly be the right word. But it was. He felt a combination of horror at the realization, relief to finally hear his experience accurately described, and shame that it had happened in the first place.

“Perhaps her obsession eventually turned to real love, and she chose to stop giving you love potions. Perhaps she realized that what she was doing to you was wrong. This allowed you to escape. I don’t actually know if that’s how it happened, but it seems most likely.”

“When she served me food or drink, sometimes it smelled strange. Good, but strange. Like—“ He abruptly stopped talking when he realized what it smelled like.

“Amortentia is called the most powerful love potion ever invented,” she said. “It can’t create true love, but it does cause a strong infatuation. That’s probably what she used on you.”

“I knew something was wrong. Sometimes I’d try to refuse what she served me. Then she’d point her wand at me and say this word…”

Imperio?” suggested the witch.

He started, to hear that dreaded word again. He nodded dumbly. 

“The Imperius curse is a form of mental rape. It can be used to force the victim to do anything, to go against his strongest principles.”

“She’d make me drink that potion, and… do other things.”

“That’s horrible. She had no right.”

“And then one day in May, she tried making me drink the potion again, and I… didn’t.”

The witch was staring at him. “What?”

“I didn’t. I just got up and walked away, left our flat, didn’t look back, didn’t pack any of my things, left London, came back here to my parents’ house. I didn’t know she was pregnant. I could feel her grip on me loosening as I got further away. The power fades with distance, I suppose.” 

“No. No it doesn’t, not at all. She must have finally given up, released you from the spell. Or… Great emotional strain has been known to weaken magical power. I knew a witch whose powers were weakened by unrequited love. That may be the case here as well. But for you to fight it off in the first place!” She was staring at him, apparently amazed. “That must have been quite a shock to her. The sheer force of will required to resist an Imperius curse is a rare talent. I knew only one other person who was able to resist the Imperius curse, and he was quite an exceptional wizard. He even resisted the killing curse. Once, anyway.” She gazed into the fire, seemingly lost in thought.

She shook herself out of her reverie. “I’d quite understand if you didn’t want anything to do with a baby who’s the product of rape, as you may wish to put the whole experience behind you. I’d also understand if you do want to raise your son, as he is your own flesh and blood.”

The baby had fallen asleep in the witch’s arms. She carefully buttoned her blouse, retrieved her sandwich, took another small bite, chewed, and swallowed. “This hits the spot, thank you.” Looking at her stick-thin wrist, he wondered when she’d last eaten a proper meal.

“If I say I don’t want him, what will happen to him?”

She’d clearly been expecting this question. “I'll find a wizarding family to adopt him. At least, I think that should be possible. I have no contacts here, and it will take some time to acquire them. Then I would want to very, very thoroughly examine whatever family is willing to take him in, to make sure they’re suitable for the job. I can think of several families I definitely wouldn’t want raising a baby. The only wizarding family you’ve encountered was the Gaunts, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Believe it or not, they can be worse.”

“Worse?”

“The evil that the Gaunts could do was limited by their poverty, lack of education, and perhaps insanity and feeble-mindedness caused by inbreeding. They also had no connections, as they weren’t really part of wizarding society. They isolated themselves from everyone. They should not be considered typical examples of wizards and witches. Most other wizarding families are unhampered by these limits.” She stopped to reconsider this. “Well, inbreeding is pretty common, but not usually this extreme. And insanity, definitely. Depending on how you define it, since if your whole society is insane, and you fit into it… Anyway, there are also some wizarding families that are really quite nice. I’d just have to find one.”

“If you know of some nice ones already, surely you could ask them? Even if they don’t want to adopt a baby themselves, perhaps their friends?”

She looked into the fire again. “I knew some very nice ones, yes. They… They aren’t available for me to ask now.” At the sight of tears welling in her eyes, he didn’t pursue this line of questioning. She shook herself out of whatever thoughts had been haunting her. “So you’ve made your decision then? I’ll get to work finding an adoptive family tomorrow.”

“No, I’m just examining my options. So if I do decide to raise him?”

“Then you’re committing to raising a magical child, and a very powerful one at that. He will do magic accidentally before he learns to control it. His tantrums will have the added complication of magic. I recommend hiring a magical nursemaid who knows how to deal with such things.”

“And where would I find a magical nursemaid?”

She shrugged. “I can’t claim I have any experience caring for small children, but I’m a quick study, and unemployed. I don’t mean to lay claim to the job of course. I could help you put a want ad in a Wizarding newspaper, so you can choose from a larger pool of applicants. As with choosing an adoptive family, you’ll want to screen applicants very carefully.”

“A wizarding newspaper?”

“Yes.”

“I’d like to read that, regardless.”

“I’ll get you one. If you’re going to be involved in your son’s life, you should know a bit about the wizarding world. Although if you’re not, the less you know about us, the better. Anyway, raising a magical child gets easier the September after he turns eleven, as he’ll qualify for Hogwarts, Britain’s boarding school for magical children. He’ll come home only for holidays. He’ll be eighteen when he graduates. Now, the difficulty there is that you won’t be able to brag about his academic accomplishments to your muggle friends, as they’d think you mad. Perhaps you and he could make something up.” She sipped her tea. “My parents were muggles. They told their friends I attended a very exclusive school for the gifted. That worked. It would have helped if they’d had more of a guide to the magical world, though. Perhaps I could be that guide for you.”

“Your parents were muggles?”

“Yes.”

“Past tense? So they’re not anymore?” Could muggles learn magic and become witches or wizards? That was quite an interesting idea.

“They’re not anything anymore. They were murdered by a very powerful wizard who was raised in a loveless muggle orphanage and developed a hatred of muggles there.”

“Good God! I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault. You couldn’t have known.”

“Still, I’m sorry for bringing it up. And I offer my sincerest condolences.” 

“Thank you.”

“And I think I now do understand your interest in this baby. You’re quite right, something needed to be done. It certainly wouldn’t do for any son of mine to lead a life of crime. Thank you for taking the initiative to save him from that risk.”

“Ideally, the Ministry of Magic would have a program to help muggle-borns like me and magical foundlings like this, to integrate them into wizarding society, both for their own sake, and to prevent them from inconveniencing others, but they don’t. The Ministry of Magic… I could say much more on the subject than we have time for tonight. I’ve given you quite enough to think about already.”

“That you have. Thank you very much, Miss Granger. Aside from the news, it’s a relief to get some confirmation of what happened to me. When I suspected I’d been bewitched, I thought I must be mad to think such a thing.”

“Of course you can never tell any other muggles this, as they’ll think you mad.”

“I understand that, Miss Granger. There is no need to remind me.”

“Sorry.” She stared into the fire. She looked terribly tired. The haunted look in her eyes contrasted sharply with the angelic perfection of the sleeping baby in her arms.

“I’m afraid I’m not being a very good host. Can I offer you some brandy, Miss Granger?”

“No, thank you, I can’t drink alcohol while I’m breastfeeding a baby.”

“What? Why?”

She blinked, then, surprisingly, laughed.

“What did I say?”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry, I’m very tired. I should be more coherent after a good night’s sleep. Which I don’t suppose little Tom here will allow me, but whatever. Do you think that guest room is ready for us?”

“I should have asked Fiona to prepare two rooms for the two of you.”

“No,” she said firmly. “This baby will not feel lonely. He will know love all his life.” She drew her wand and pointed it at the door. “Finite Incantatem.”

“—ister Riddle!” came Fiona’s frantic voice from the other side of the door, along with some pounding. “Are you all right?”

“Fine, Fiona,” he said, rushing to open the door. “Keep your voice down. Don’t wake the baby.”

“Sorry, sir.” 

“Is the guest room ready?”

“No sir. I tried moving your old crib down from the attic, but it was too heavy for me, sir.”

“Ah. We’ll move it together.”

“Is this crib painted with lead paint?” interrupted the witch.

Tom and Fiona stared at her. “I believe so,” said Fiona. “It’s quite a nice crib.”

“Please don’t trouble yourself to bring it down,” said the witch, after a fairly long pause.

“Oh, it’s no trouble,” said Tom.

“I said don’t,” she said quite firmly. Tom and Fiona looked at each other. Neither was willing to press the point. 

“As you wish,” said Tom.

They settled her in her room, and she closed the door.

Tom and Fiona looked at each other as they walked away. They were both at a loss for words.

“If you ask me—“ Fiona said eventually.

“I didn’t,” said Tom. He went to bed.

So. He was, at once, free of Merope, and encumbered by a son. It was a good trade, really. An innocent baby was obviously better than an evil witch.

For complex decisions, he often found it useful to consider the factors independently. Had Merope not been a witch, but merely an unsatisfactory wife of an ordinary sort, there would be no question at all. Of course he would acknowledge and raise his own son! He tested this idea. What if his wife had been an ordinary sort of criminal? What if she had committed some truly horrible crime, murdered his parents for example? No, no difference. He could not blame a baby for the sins of his mother.

The only complication was that his son was, apparently, a wizard. Miss Granger had claimed that, at least. She hadn’t had to tell him that, she could have just dumped the baby on him and left him to figure it out on his own, but she had volunteered this information. That was a thought worthy of attention. It said something about Miss Granger’s honesty. Assuming it was true, and it was too ridiculous a lie for anyone to try to get away with, wasn’t it?

The main problem he could see with raising a wizard was not knowing how to do it, not being able to set a good example for his son to follow, not understanding his son’s concerns and accomplishments. He supposed that wasn’t significantly different from fathers whose sons had vastly different interests, coal miners whose sons insisted on becoming playwrights or whatnot. He considered that. He knew this in advance, so he wouldn’t be disappointed by unrealistic expectations. His son would not follow in his footsteps. He could accept that right now. Many fathers had to do this even without the advantage of advance notice. That didn’t seem to be a barrier. He was still his son.

He had at least a vague idea what playwrights did, or hairdressers, or farmers, yet had no clue about wizards. Aside from fairy tales, he was drawing a complete blank. He needed more information. He got out of bed and went to his writing desk, got some stationery and a fountain pen. He wrote a note.

Dear Miss Granger,

I am extremely grateful for your assistance to my son, and for the news of my wife. I would like to provide you an answer, yet I lack sufficient information to make a decision. I have never met a wizard of a type I would wish my son to grow into. I need to know that a better outcome than the Gaunts is possible before committing to a pursuit of this goal. Could you please introduce me to some better examples of wizards?

In the morning, you will meet my parents. You didn’t meet them last night as they retire earlier than I. Please tell them the truth, just as you told me. In particular, your explanation of the techniques Merope used to ensnare me would be most informative to them. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Tom Riddle

 

He slipped the note under her door and went back to bed, feeling rather better than he had before this witch had arrived.

It made sense that there were different sorts of witches, just as there were different sorts of people in general. But if this witch was so different from Merope, so sane and ethical, why did she smell like Amortentia? She smelled like a storm, powerful and terrifying. That was a scent that he should certainly know to avoid by now.

Perhaps it was the smell of potions in general. She had mentioned taking a potion so she could breastfeed his son. He couldn’t criticize that. Still, he felt unsettled by the scent.

He fell asleep eventually, disturbed by a different set of worries than usual. It was a rather nice change.