Riddle Me This
Disclaimer: My driver’s license doesn’t say Joanne Rowling, and this isn’t Scotland, so I don’t own Harry Potter. It also doesn’t say Charles Addams (for which my husband, I am sure, is grateful), so I don’t own the Addams Family either. Darn.
No Goblins, mad aunts or vaporous snakes were harmed in the writing of this chapter.
A/N: Congratulations to all the readers who realized that the Addams Family’s new house in England will be the Riddle Manor in Little Hangleton. You all get a cookie.
For everybody who guessed the Shrieking Shack or Twelve Grimmauld Place: close but no cigar. Thanks for playing, try again later.
I have stolen Marjin Alley from Copperbadge and Origin Alley from someone whose name I can’t remember now. Parti Alley is my own. I think.
Chapter 09: Riddle Me This
The Addams Family, plus two, arrived in London by private jet on Wednesday’s birthday, August 14. They spent some time arguing with the Customs and Quarantine people as to whether Thing was a “possession” (in which case a dismembered hand would certainly be confiscated) or a “pet” (in which case he would be subject to six months’ quarantine). In the end, of course, Uncle Gomez argued them into a decision to forget about Thing entirely and have a drink (or six) on him after their shift was over. They accepted gladly. Uncle Gomez had that effect on people.
Lurch they just ignored.
Before they headed off to their new home, the Family briefly took up residence at Claridge’s. At most hotels, the staff was seriously bothered by the Family’s weirdness. At Claridge’s, they may very well have been bothered, but had the good training not to show it. Uncle Gomez appreciated that in a staff. He also appreciated that the concierge was capable of obtaining just about anything the Family might need (in Muggle London, anyway) even if it was borderline illegal. Large tips further ensured good service.
For the first day, they played tourist. There were many interesting places in London that appealed to the Family’s sensibilities, and primary among them was the Tower of London. Harry led Pugsley and Wednesday in an attempt to sneak out of the hotel after dark to return to the Tower and try to see if the Ghost of Ann Boleyn really kept her head tucked underneath her arm, or, failing that, to take one of the Tower ravens home for a souvenir. They failed on both counts, and were returned to the hotel by the Ravenmaster, but it was an interesting adventure.
The next day, they went to Diagon Alley. With Remus acting as Trusty Native Guide, and Lurch to carry things, they headed off to Charing Cross Road and the Leaky Cauldron.
They paused just in front of the tiny, grubby-looking pub jammed in between a large book shop and a record shop. “All right, can everyone see the place? Gomez, I know you can, but how about Morticia? Grandmama? Lurch?” Everyone said they could see it, the children nodded enthusiastically, and Lurch groaned assent. “Good. I was worried. Some Squibs seem to be able to see the place but others can’t. And I wasn’t at all sure about you, Lurch. But it’s nice to know we can all get here if we need to. Shall we, then?” He offered his arm in gentlemanly fashion to Grandmama, and they entered through the narrow door.
Inside, it was very dark and shabby. Tables seemed to be set up to impede passage through the pub and divert people toward the bar, and the progress of the rather large family group, especially accompanied by Lurch, attracted a fair amount of attention. The elderly bartender looked up at Remus, looked away and did a double take. “Remus Lupin, as I live and breathe! It’s been a long time. Looks like yer doin’ well for yerself. Yeh’ve come quite a way from waitin’ tables, eh?”
“Quite a way, Tom, but I’ll always remember this place with fondness. Is Tilly still making that good Shepherd’s Pie?”
“That she is, boy, that she is. Shall I have her dish ye up some?”
“I’m afraid not now. I’m on escort duty at the moment, but perhaps later.”
Tom nodded, appearing to notice Remus’s party for the first time. “I’ll not keep yeh, then, I … Good Lord,” said the bartender, peering at Harry, “is this -- can this be -- ? Bless my soul, it is. Harry Potter...what an honour.” He hurried out from behind the bar, rushed toward Harry and seized his hand, tears in his eyes. “Welcome back, Mr Potter, welcome back.”
Harry was taken aback only for a moment before he returned the handshake. “It’s good to be back, sir.”
There was a great scraping of chairs, and suddenly everyone in the pub seemed to be pressing forward, wanting to shake Harry’s hand. He did get in a couple of handshakes, but suddenly Lurch was interposing himself between the mob and Harry. “Baack … offf,” he groaned threateningly.
The crowd obeyed rapidly.
“I’m sorry, everybody, but we’re just passing through,” said Remus, smoothly. “School shopping, you know. Harry does appreciate knowing how much you care, though. Thank you all very much.” He led the rest of the family toward the back exit from the pub, and Harry waved at everybody as they left. Lurch very effectively kept the crowd at bay.
The Family crowded into a small, walled courtyard where a few weeds grew around the rubbish tip.
“I think we can expect that to happen whenever we’re out in public,” said Remus, grimly. “Harry, we did warn you about this. You’re a celebrity here, remember. We’ll run interference for you, but everyone’s going to think they’re entitled to a piece of you.”
“I know what to do,” said Harry, confidently. “Smile, say hello, keep moving, don’t let myself get boxed into a corner.” In truth, he was a little shaken by his first experience with celebrity. Surely that wouldn’t happen all the time!
“Good boy. Lurch, that was very impressive in there. Two new words, too.”
Lurch beamed with pride. Anybody who didn’t know his expressions would have been terrified.
“Okay. Harry in the middle, Lurch, Wednesday, Pugsley, you stay with him no matter what.” Remus pointed out a particular brick in the wall, which did look a little the worse for wear, and gave it three taps with the tip of his wand. The bricks quivered and wiggled out of the way, and soon a wide archway, tall enough even for Lurch, opened out into a cobblestone marketplace. Across the market, a street twisted and turned out of sight. Several smaller alleys ran off from the courtyard and from the main street. Crowds filled the marketplace, ranging from housewives buying fresh vegetables from vendors’ carts to students thronging stores stocked with cauldrons, brooms, and potions supplies. Some of the shoppers were in Muggle dress, some in full, brightly coloured robes or gowns with bodices, and some in some odd combination of clothing. The Addams party would have no difficulty fitting in. “Welcome,” said Remus, “to Diagon Alley.”
“Whoa!” said Pugsley, his eyes popping out. Harry managed to control his reaction, but would have loved to say “whoa!” as well. They had been to the major shopping areas in Salem (where wizarding shops were often the back rooms of tourist traps) and New York (where there were several appearing and disappearing streets), but the communities there had largely given up on wearing robes, except for special occasions. This looked like they had stepped back in time a century or more.
They made their way across the market and down the street, pausing from time to time so that someone could look at something, but mostly moving steadily until they reached Gringotts. Although the children had all been given little bags of golden Galleons for spending money, there was apparently other work that needed to be attended to at the bank. The children had seen Goblins before at the Gringotts branch in New York, so they weren’t surprised, but instead of queuing up for a teller, they were escorted into a set of opulent offices. Harry was then escorted alone into a private inner office while the rest of the group was offered tea and biscuits in a lavishly appointed reception area.
A Goblin wearing a red velvet suit heavily encrusted with golden embroidery sat behind a wide walnut desk. As soon as Harry was seated in a comfortable chair, he began to speak without preamble. “Mr Potter, allow me to introduce myself. I am Roquat, and I have been the manager of the assorted Potter funds, trusts and properties since your grandfather’s day. I asked Mr Addams to bring you here today to give him your proxies to direct me in investments on your behalf, and to sit on the board of those various funds, trusts and properties. Is this clear?”
“I thought he already was directing things as my guardian,” said Harry. As soon as he was old enough to understand, the legal and financial facts of life had been explained to him, and he was quite happy that he wouldn’t have to bother with the details until he was older.
“Yes, well, there are problems with that. You see, Mr Addams is a Squib, and there are rules about properties being held by a Squib in trust for Wizard heirs. His actions have been severely limited. There are proxies that he will not be able to wield until you confirm them. You are, I believe, eleven years old now, Mr Potter?”
“I turned eleven a few weeks ago.”
“And you have been accepted to Hogwarts?”
“Very well, then. As an acknowledged Wizard and heir to the Potter family, you will need to provide a specific magical proxy to Mr Addams so that he can act in your stead. This will enable him to sign transactions for you and seal them using your magical signature, since he obviously does not have one of his own. If you do not wish him to do this, then you may name any Wizarding adult to act for you. Three other individuals, in fact, have asked that their names be brought to your attention.”
“And those three are…?”
“The first is Augusta Longbottom. She is currently acting on behalf of the Longbottom family in regards to the Diagon Alley Trust, in which you also own shares, and there is a long-term alliance between your two families. She has no history, however, of dealing with any of the other Potter assets. The second is Lucius Malfoy, who is the current director of the Diagon Alley Trust, being the sole shareholder free to act directly. Mr Malfoy also has no history of dealing with any of the other Potter assets, and he wishes to create an alliance between your families at this time. The third is Albus Dumbledore, who is the Headmaster at Hogwarts. He holds proxies for a number of students whose parents were lost in the late war, and offers to do so for you as well, as a courtesy while you are attending school.”
“I think I would prefer Uncle Gomez – sorry, Mr Addams – to act for me. I know him, you see. I don’t know any of these others.”
“Very well, Mr Potter,” said the Goblin. He opened a small drawer in his desk and pulled out a parchment, a gold ring and a silver knife. “In order to give your Uncle your magical proxy, I will ask you to write your name and Mr Addams’ name on this proxy parchment, then prick your thumb and place a drop of your blood on the parchment and another on this ring.” He pushed all three of the items, along with a jewelled pen set, over to Harry. Harry dipped the quill in the ink bottle and neatly filled in the form as requested. Then he carefully pricked his thumb and placed drops of blood where they were needed. The ring glowed briefly, and the blood formed itself into a ruby held tightly in the gold setting. Roquat eased himself out of his chair. “I will ask your Uncle to join us now,” he said.
Soon Uncle Gomez was seated next to Harry. “Mr Potter has given you his proxy to act for him,” said Roquat, handing the ring to Gomez. “At any time you sign a document on his behalf which must be sealed, merely touch the stone of this ring to the parchment, and your signature will be imbued with his magical signature.”
Uncle Gomez inspected the ring and put it on his little finger, where it sized itself to fit as if made for him.
“Now,” said Roquat, “we have only to discuss the alliances in the Diagon Alley Trust.”
“You mean like in the street out there?” asked Harry, curiously.
“Exactly. The land on which the whole of Diagon Alley – and by that I mean not only the main alley but also its subsidiary Alleys, such as Knockturn Alley, Marjin Alley, Origin Alley and Parti Alley, is built was a gift from Queen Elizabeth I, the last Muggle ruler who had any connection to the magical world, to her Royal Wizard, John Dee, to be used specifically as a residential and mercantile area for magical persons and businesses. Dee took the land in trust, did not take any personal property from it, and died penniless. An honourable man, Mr Dee. He passed the land, still in trust, to his son Arthur, the only one of his eight children who was a Wizard. Arthur held it under the same conditions. Arthur had twelve children, but the Dee line was failing, and only one of his children was so much as a Squib. In 1693, the rules of inheritance were changed so that Squibs could not inherit magical fortunes, so Rowland Dee, John’s grandson, was forced to sell the land. He sold it to the Goblins, who paid him a fair price for it. Am I clear so far?”
“Of course you are, old man!” said Uncle Gomez in his most jovial tone. “As a matter of fact, you’ve run into my family history! Rowland Dee took the money from the sale and went to the New World, where he partnered up with my ancestor, Charles Adams, a Squib who’d emptied out his family vault and left England one step ahead of that same inheritance law. The extra ‘D’ in our name is in honour of Rowland Dee.”
“And his middle name is Felonius because he stole all that money?” guessed Harry.
“Well, he didn’t steal it, because it was his already, but the Ministry certainly thought he did,” said Uncle Gomez. “The Dee fortune eventually became part of the Addams holdings when Rowland Dee’s daughter married Charles Addams’ son.”
“Yes, well, the loss of those two major fortunes – and several smaller ones that went ‘missing’ about the same time,” the Goblin continued, “forced the Ministry to look for another source of revenue. They looked to the rents from Diagon Alley, which was now in Goblin hands, and promptly created a law to make it illegal for Goblins to own land in Britain.”
“I imagine that wasn’t taken well,” said Uncle Gomez.
“Indeed not. For a time, it appeared that we were on the brink of war, until four wizards joined their fortunes and formed the Diagon Alley Trust to buy the land back from the Goblins. These four wizards were the heads of the Potter, Longbottom, Black, and Malfoy families. Over the years, they recovered their investment and reaped handsome profits as well. In time, alliances between the Potter and Longbottom families and the Black and Malfoy families developed, but there was always balance on the Board of Directors. In recent years, however, that has changed. Currently, the Longbottom shareholder is under a permanent disability, and Augusta Longbottom is voting his shares, but she cannot vote the Potter shares in alliance since her son is not able to give her that proxy. As for the Malfoy-Black alliance …” The Goblin looked shrewdly at Harry. “Your father, young Mr Potter, made a personal alliance with Sirius Black, a friend of his at school. Mr Black, when he came into ownership of the shares, repudiated the traditional alliance with the Malfoy shares in favour of the alliance with Potter. They agreed that if anything happened to either of them, the other would vote their shares, and that the alliance would continue unless specifically repudiated by them or their heirs. Mr Black is currently alive but unable to vote his shares, and despite all that has happened, that alliance still stands. Mr Addams, as your proxy, now has the right to vote Mr Black’s shares until Mr Black either repudiates the alliance or dies leaving his shares to an heir who repudiates it. What this meant, however, was that for some years neither the Black nor the Potter shares could be effectively voted, and Mr Malfoy has been running things as he wished.” The Goblin steepled his fingers and looked solemnly at Harry and Uncle Gomez. “But all that has just changed.”
“Because Uncle Gomez can vote my shares?” Harry was actually finding this financial stuff interesting. He’d never guessed it could be so exciting. There was a Queen and a Royal Wizard and absconding with fortunes in the middle of the night! He envisioned Charles Adams and Rowland Dee slinging huge bags of galleons into a rowboat, and rowing with muffled oars to meet a ship to the mysterious New World.
“And he can vote the Black shares, and call on the Longbottom shares in the alliance. What this means, Mr Potter, is that you now control or influence three-quarters of the shares in the Diagon Alley Trust, and Mr Addams – a Squib, and an American – as holder of your proxy, is now effectively the Director of the Trust, and the most influential person, second only to the Minister himself, in Wizarding Britain.”
“Whoa!” said Harry.
“Whoa, indeed. Mr Addams, you may wish to take precautions to ensure your own safety. There are those who will not take kindly to a Squib controlling the Alley. I also strongly suggest that matters be undertaken as soon as possible to secure a succession. The Black matter is bad enough, but if the Potter line were to be broken without a clear successor, there could be financial chaos.” His tone implied that the financial type was the only sort of chaos worth bothering about.
“There’s a Betrothal Contract in place between Harry here and my daughter. Will that help?”
“I’d have to look at it to be sure, but if it’s the old form, yes, unless the contract is broken, an affianced spouse is an heir. Is she of age?”
“No, she’s the same age as Harry.”
“That’s unfortunate. Well, you secure the line of inheritance from her. Are there other children?”
“Yes, I have a son as well.”
“Good, good. I know humans look at things differently than Goblins do – if they were Goblins, Mr Potter and your daughter would already be in the ritual room – but I would advise that Mr Potter and Miss Addams wed and produce an heir as soon as possible. Your son should do the same, to secure a possible cadet succession.”
“My children will marry where and when they will, Mr Roquat. As will Harry. But I’ll make sure they all know how important it is. Is there anything else?”
“I will send you copies of the statements by owl next week, and when you have reviewed them, we should speak again. Do you have any questions, young Mr Potter?”
“What happened to Sirius Black? You said he was my father’s friend, and that he’s alive but can’t vote his shares. Remus – that’s our tutor – has mentioned him, too, but he always looks sad when he does. So what happened to him?”
“Mr Black has been imprisoned by the Ministry – without a trial or record of a conviction – since two days after your father died. Some say that he was responsible for your parents’ deaths.”
Harry caught his breath. “But doesn’t anybody know for sure? Don’t you know?”
“Goblins deal with facts, Mr Potter, not speculation. If there isn’t the requisite paperwork filled out, it never happened. All we know is that Black never repudiated the alliance, which is curious if he indeed turned against your father. Until someone asks him, we cannot know.”
“Why doesn’t someone ask him, then?”
“Mr Black is currently held in the depths of the Prison of Azkaban, Mr Potter. It is a terrible place, and prisoners frequently go mad there. After almost ten years, I am afraid there will be no asking Mr Black anything.”
Harry and Uncle Gomez left Roquat’s office in quite a solemn mood. It was a lot to take in at once. Harry paused at the top of the steps outside Gringotts and looked both ways up and down Diagon Alley. All of this was his to take care of, and all these people, one way or another, depended on him. It was a heavy burden, and he was glad Uncle Gomez and Roquat were there to help him. He remembered reading something in a comic book once: “With great power comes great responsibility.” He shivered. Even Spiderman didn’t have this much responsibility! First Voldemort, and now this? He’d almost rather have to do the crime-fighting thing. Then he envisioned himself swinging down Diagon Alley on web lines, and laughed, and the mood passed. He was still only eleven, after all. Uncle Gomez was being disturbed enough for both of them, glowering and muttering odd words like “Bastille” and “habeas corpus” to himself.
Wednesday stood beside Harry and took his hand. She was smiling and her eyes sparkled. “Come on, Harry! Let’s go shopping!” Harry laughed. They had most of the day ahead of them, and a lot of things to buy. Time to get busy. He wondered how the staff at Claridge’s would react when they came back with an owl.
Two days of travel and tourism brought them to their new home. It was in the middle of nowhere in northern England, just short of the border with Scotland. Little Hangleton was a tiny farming community not far from Greater Hangleton, which wasn’t much bigger. Little Hangleton boasted two churches and a pub. Greater Hangleton had two churches and two pubs.
One thing Little Hangleton had that the other town didn’t was its very own haunted house. Two of them, as a matter of fact. One of them had just acquired new tenants.
“Oh, Remus, it’s wonderful!” said Aunt Morticia as the Rolls they’d leased pulled around a bend and the great house on top of the hill came into view. The three children immediately piled onto that side of the car and stuck their heads out the window to get a good look at their new home. It was a huge pile of brick, vaguely reminiscent of a cross between a castle and a factory, with multiple chimneys and an elaborate topiary garden and no charm whatsoever. Ivy crawled unchecked up its face, and its many stone framed windows were dark and cheerless.
“I thought you’d like it,” said Remus. “It’s called the Riddle House. Partly because the family that used to own it were named Riddle, and partly because there was some mystery about them … how the last of them died. All I got in the pub were hints and whispers; I suppose I’ll be able to find out more now that we’re living here and they don’t have to worry about scaring me off.”
At the base of the hill, between the house and the village, there was a disused chapel and a small cemetery, whose tombs and monuments, or what could be seen of them in the gathering gloom, were large, pretentious, and wrought by sculptors with evident tastes for the gothic. The caretaker’s cottage huddled by the side of the long, winding drive as if trying to get further away from the cemetery.
“Pull up here for a moment,” said Remus. Lurch stopped the car just in front of the cottage and Remus got out and knocked on its door, talking briefly with the elderly man who answered. He returned to the car with a large ring of keys. “Here we go. Keys to everything from attic to cellars. Frank – that’s the caretaker – was in and did a bit of cleaning to get it ready for us, and he said he’d be up in the morning to help us unpack. I think we should have most of it done by then. Shall we go have a look at the old heap?” He jumped on the running board of the car and rode the outside as Lurch drove slowly up the drive.
The boot of the car was filled with boxes in which the miniaturized belongings of the Family had been shipped via an international Portkey courier. It was mostly clothes and personal belongings, since the house came with furnishings that had remained untouched for almost fifty years.
“Hmm,” said Aunt Morticia, looking at a perfectly ghastly chintz sofa in the drawing room. “I can’t say much for their taste. Typical nouveau riche.”
“Tish,” said Uncle Gomez, sweeping her into his arms, “you spoke French!”
“Oui, mon cher,” she replied, running her hands up his arms.
“Cara mia,” he responded, pulling her closer into a passionate dip.
“Oy vey,” said Harry, putting his hands over his eyes.
Thanks to the fact that the children weren’t going to completely unpack, since they’d only have to pack again a week later, and that four people in the household were using magic to unshrink everything and put it away, things were well on their way to being settled by midnight. The next morning, the adults were working on arranging the knickknacks they’d brought to give the house the personal touch, and the children were free to explore the place. They decided to start at the top and work their way down, and spent a delightful morning pawing through old trunks and boxes in the attic before moving on to what they assumed were the servants’ quarters or rooms for the poor relations. The caretaker had only done a cursory job of cleaning on this floor over the years, and dust lay thick all over everything.
At the end of one long hallway, Pugsley came upon a door that wouldn’t open. All of the other doors were standing open, so this was a bit odd. He didn’t feel like going down to get the keys to see if one of them worked, so he just pulled his lock picks out of his pocket and went to work, while Harry held up the flashlight – or torch, he had to remember that things went by different names here – so he could see properly and Wednesday speculated on why only this one door was locked.
“Maybe this is where they locked up their mad aunt to keep her from bothering the family with her moans and screams. And maybe when they moved away, they didn’t want to send her to the asylum, so they just left her here. And then she died, clawing at the door with her fingernails and trying all the while to get out, and her spirit is still trying to get out …”
“Damn it!” said Pugsley as one of his picks snapped, interrupting her musings. “This lock is just too old and stiff. Rusted solid, too, probably. Maybe this will help.” He drew his wand – his real one, they had long since left the red children’s wands behind – and pointed it at the lock. “Alohomora!” he said briskly.
“That’s weird. Alohomora!” he said, trying again.
“Huh. Let me try,” said Harry, reaching out to give the door a tentative push.
As soon as his fingertips touched the wood, there was a loud click, and the door swung open with a groan. Harry stepped in through the open door, shining the torch around, and then stopped, suddenly. Pugsley ran right into him.
“What is it?” asked Wednesday, who couldn’t see at all around the boys and was dancing on her toes in impatience. “Is it the mad aunt? Is she dead?”
“It’s not a mad aunt,” said Harry, quietly. “Remember those fake Satanist circles at home?”
“This is the real thing. Take a look. Don’t come past the door. Just look.” He stepped aside just enough that she would be able to see. The light of the torch played over the floor. There were no furnishings in the room. Thanks to the locked door and closed window, there was also very little dust. There was a double circle drawn with chalk on the bare floor boards, and strange symbols drawn around the edge. Seven dark, mottled pillar candles were spaced roughly equidistantly around the edge. In the middle of the circle was a purple pillow with gold tassels on each corner, and on the pillow rested an ornate dagger; its sheath and hilt were silver, and there was a large ruby in the pommel. Next to the pillow, resting on the floor, was a small black book.
“Okay. I’m going to stay right here,” said Harry. “I’m not going to go in any further. Pugsley, you watch my back, and if the door tries to close, you block it. Wednesday, run down and get Remus and your parents. Now.”
“Why am I always the one who has to go get the grown-ups?” she complained, but she was already moving.
Remus prowled around the room, carefully looking at everything before he touched anything. His magic-revealing spell had shown traces lingering around the candles, and strong magic remaining on the book, the dagger, and the door to the room. Now Harry, Pugsley and Wednesday held their wands aloft with their tips lit to provide extra light; the little bit that came through the single narrow window in the north wall did little good. All of the Addams adults were standing at the edges of the room to stay out of the way.
“Blood candles,” he muttered. Harry strained to hear every word he said. “Never lit … pretty much no magic left in them … Egyptian hieroglyphs, not runes. Need to look these up to be sure, looks like some kind of seal. To keep something out? Or keep something in?” He crouched over the book and pillow. “The knife is silver – not touching that, thanks much.” He cast a series of analytical spells which flashed varying colours over the knife and the book. “Well, everything I can do says this is all clean. It was obviously set up to do something Dark, but aside from the candles themselves there’s nothing here that’s a problem.”
“You’re sure?” asked Uncle Gomez. Magic he was comfortable with, Darkness he was comfortable with, but it was obvious that Dark Magic of unknown origin in the house with his children he was not comfortable with.
“Well, as sure as I can be without having a professional curse-breaker on hand. You could probably get Gringotts to send one up if you really needed it, but they don’t come cheap. Or you could call for the Aurors. But that would bring you more attention than you want. They’d take a look at the rest of the house, and Lurch, and Thing, and even me, and then they’d realise who Harry is and have a fit. The Ministry would have him out of here in nothing flat.”
“They’d try,” Uncle Fester growled.
“They’d do it, if they thought it would benefit them. And they’d see all of you in Azkaban if necessary. No, I think it’s best if we clean this up ourselves. The candles have got some blood of the caster in them, so they could be saved and used against him, her, or it. Or you could just burn them. Outside of a ritual setting, they’re just candles. They’re likely to smell quite noxious, though.”
He stood and scuffed the chalked ring with the toe of his boot. “This is just chalk. I’m going to copy down all the symbols, but after that it can be scrubbed off. The knife is clean. It’s probably got an ever sharp charm on the blade or some such. I can’t touch it, but the rest of you can. As for the book …” He picked it up and flipped through page after page of gibberish. “Some kind of spell to keep it from being read by anyone except the owner, would be my guess. I can try to crack that, but it’s not harmful.” He tucked the book into his pocket.
“Then there’s the door. It’s got a mild Muggle-repellent spell on it. Muggles wouldn’t even want to come down this end of the hall. And it’s got a locking spell on it that only the touch of certain individuals can undo. That’s not what I’d call major security, though, just some basic precautions. The puzzle there is why it unlocked at Harry’s touch but not Pugsley’s or Wednesday’s. He didn’t even cast a spell. Harry, did you feel anything odd when you touched the door?”
“Now that you mention it … there was a little tickle on my forehead. Around my scar. I thought it was just cobwebs in my hair.”
“Your scar, eh? That’s just a little bit unsettling. Have you ever felt anything like that before?”
“No.” Harry stepped over to the door and touched it again. “I don’t feel anything now, either. It was just that once.”
“Mm. All right, plan of action. We clean this up, burn the candles. Gomez, I think the knife should be put in your vault at Gringotts – or maybe in Harry’s family vault, it’s got marginally better security. And we should go over every room in this house just to make sure there are no more surprises. I never got up this far when I was checking the place out this spring. I should have been more thorough.”
Somehow Harry and his cousins found themselves shunted outside, instructed to stay out of the way until dinner. Disgruntled, they wandered down the hill to the graveyard, and sat on one of the tombs that stood like stone tables on its outskirts. “Send us out to play like little kids!” grumbled Harry.
“Harry, we are little kids,” said Pugsley, pragmatically.
“We are not either. You’re almost twelve. That’s practically a teenager.”
“Let’s go exploring out here, then,” said Wednesday. “The Tribe of the Snake, come to a new homeland. We need to search out its secrets and find hiding places in case our enemies come to find us.” Of the three of them, Wednesday had always been the most into their Indian games, but all of them still enjoyed them. At least on some level, they realised that what looked like innocent play was helping them learn skills that could save their lives some day. Uncle Fester had always known this, and Remus, once he’d got over his own rather traumatic introduction to the game, understood also. The children and the adults took turns hunting each other all over the hills near home, until the children could tell exactly where they were by the shape of each tree. Here, they were in unfamiliar territory. In one direction was the hill and Riddle House and the moors rising up beyond it, stark and treeless. In the other was the valley where the town of Little Hangleton nestled, and a belt of forest on the other side before the land rose to hills again.
“You’re right, Little Blackbird,” said Harry. “We should start out here as long as the weather is good. Leave the house for rainy days. We’ve only got a few weeks, so let’s make ‘em count.” He cocked his head at her with a wry grin. “You know, we ought to make you chief instead of me.”
She shook her head solemnly. “Squaws are in charge anyway. We just let the chiefs think they’re running things.”
“You know, that makes sense. Okay, Wild Moose says let’s go see what that old guy who lives down by the road is up to.”
The summer weather continued fair, although it was cooler for August than the Tribe of the Snake were used to. Over the next few days, they explored all of the territory near the house, and Frank Bryce ran them out of the cemetery twice, before he realised that they weren’t desecrating the graves. They took rubbings of the gravestones and spent the evenings trying to figure out who was related to whom, and made up elaborate stories about how these strangers had lived and died. Wednesday found a grave all alone on the other side of the road, the carving on the stone so worn it was illegible, and immediately decided that it was the “mad aunt”, who had died by her own hand, desperate and alone. She trimmed the lank grass and weeds around the stone, and sometimes went there without the boys to talk to the nameless woman. The boys rolled their eyes and chalked it up as one of the crazy things girls did.
After they’d been living in the Riddle House for a week, the Tribe of the Snake made contact with the native inhabitants of the area, and it was anything but friendly. Somehow, Harry was never exactly sure how, he and Pugsley were challenged by a small gang of local boys to prove their bravery in order to be accepted. This wasn’t surprising, since boys had been challenging each other to such tests for centuries; nor was the fact that Wednesday was left out of it, since girls were generally considered to be ‘beyond the pale’ as far as friendship went for boys of that age. It was precisely Harry and Pugsley’s willingness to be seen in public with Wednesday that led to the challenge. While they could have fought with the other boys, they were seriously outnumbered, and they couldn’t use magic to even up the odds because the others were all Muggles, and it had been drilled into them that one shouldn’t use magic where Muggles could see it (much less using it on said Muggles).
The challenge was classic. Harry and Pugsley were to sneak out of the house after everyone thought they were asleep, and go down to the forest on the other side of the village. There they would find an old tumbledown shack that used to belong to a family of tramps, but that had been standing alone and untenanted for years. The shack was supposed to be haunted, the boys said with ghoulish relish, by the ghost of the tramp’s daughter, who had got herself ‘in a family way’ and been cast out and died, but supposedly her spirit had returned and dragged her brother down to Hell, since he had disappeared mysteriously. She was said to still walk the night, seeking vengeance on her family. Harry and Pugsley expected that the boys would talk somebody’s teenaged sister into dressing up in a bed sheet and trying to scare them, and smirked at the notion of anything that silly frightening them.
Accordingly, just after moonrise that night, all three members of the Tribe of the Snake crept out of the back door of Riddle House and down the road to the village. Wednesday wasn’t about to be left behind on an adventure like this, even if the village boys hadn’t invited her. They all had their wands in forearm sheaths covered by their shirtsleeves, as they had been taught to do when in Muggle territory. They also had their flashlights and knives, and had raided the kitchen for some snacks and a bottle of water.
They met the village boys at the crossroads; they scowled at Wednesday, but didn’t tell her to go home. The boys led them into the woods beyond the village, up an overgrown track to what had probably once been a clearing but was now thickly overgrown. A tumbledown shack nestled between the trees. Its door stood agape, the interior thick with darkness.
“Now remember, yeh’ve ta stay till dawn, righ’? We’ll be back ta get yeh … or ta carry out yer remains,” the oldest boy of the gang said, leering at Wednesday in what was probably supposed to be a frightening manner.
“What’s that on the door?” asked Pugsley, shining his torch at it. There was a vaguely sinuous shape of something attached to the old wooden panel.
“Dead snake,” said one of the other boys. “‘S always been there. Lots of snakes ‘round here, did we forget to mention that?”
“Cool!” said Harry, discomfiting them a bit. “Let’s go look at the rest of it!” The other boys didn’t seem to want to get any closer to the house than they already were, so the Tribe shrugged and walked up onto the narrow porch. Harry reached out to touch the poor dead snake, surprised it was still there all those years; in this damp climate, it should have rotted away. Somebody had gone to some effort to preserve it, though, as its skin and flesh had been dried to a tough leathery consistency. The skull peeped through breaks in the skin on its head, and rusty nails poked through its neck and tail.
The hinges of the door creaked loudly as Harry pushed it open. Wild Moose, the leader of the Tribe, crept silently into the room, checking out what could possibly make an excellent new Den for them. Or a Lair. Yes, this place looked much more like a Lair.
The main room appeared to have been the main living space of the house. There was an ancient cast-iron stove against the north wall, and shelves that had most likely served to hold pots or dishes, but anything portable had long since been removed, probably by souvenir-hunting boys as proof that they had actually gone into the house. There was a rickety table and three chairs, and one larger rocking chair in the corner. Two doors led to two tiny bedrooms, most of the space in each being taken up by a crudely built wooden bed frame. It looked like the mattresses had been simple bags filled with straw, suspended on a mesh of ropes which had long since rotted out, and the bedclothes were little more than shreds of grey rags. Wednesday poked at the mattresses with a stick and made a face as she heard something scurrying away from her.
“Yuck,” she said. “We should have brought blankets or something.” She had nothing against mice and other small scurrying things, but she didn’t want to sleep with them if she didn’t have to.
“We’ll clean it up if we decide to come back,” said Harry. “I think we can sleep sitting up in the chairs if we have to.”
Back in the outer room, Pugsley set out their snacks on the table while Harry poked about in the shadowy corners.
Wednesday said she was chilly, and decided to see if the rusty old stove would still work. They certainly had enough kindling, and there was a stack of wood, covered with cobwebs, nearby. She scraped a layer of ashes and charcoal out of the stove’s firebox and expertly arranged some fresh tinder so that it would catch, then crossed to the stack of wood. There was a ripping sound as floorboards weakened by years of dry rot gave way under her weight and she disappeared into a hole underneath. The stack of wood tilted and fell in after her. The boys heard her cursing in Russian, so they knew she was all right. If she was actually hurt, she’d be using Chinese.
With a creak, the rest of the floorboards shifted and tilted, rusted bolts sheered, and the massive stove threatened to tear loose from its moorings and fall in after her. If that happened, witch or no, there would be Wednesday pancakes down there.
Harry whipped out his wand. “Levinare!” he shouted, with a brisk flick of his wand. The stove lifted about six inches off the ground, and Harry carefully floated it away from the hole, setting it down safely on the other side of the room. The floor creaked in protest, but held.
Pugsley stuck his head down the hole. “Are you all right?”
“I twisted my ankle a little bit, but I’m okay. You guys should get down here, though! There’s a whole secret room down here!”
The boys didn’t have to be asked twice, and both of them slipped carefully through the hole, hanging by their hands from the edge and dropping the rest of the way to the floor, which wasn’t far. Wednesday already had her torch shining on things around the room. “Are you going to make me go get the grownups again?”
“Hell no! They took our adventure away the last time! This one’s ours!”
They were in what looked like a basic potions workroom, with several worktables and a rack of shelves filled with bottles and jars. One wall had a fireplace, where a large cauldron dangled from an iron crane. A bed of coal lay underneath it, as if ready for someone to start a brew.
In the centre of the main worktable was the skull of a huge snake, with a candle mounted on it.
Pugsley reached out to pick it up. “Hey, Harry, this would look great in your room!”
“Pugsley, don’t–” But it was too late. With a roar, the coals in the fireplace burst into flame, something in the cauldron started boiling instantly, and threads of green smoke in the shape of serpents curled up out of it. The vaporous serpents slithered rapidly through the air towards them. Harry could hear the serpents hissing. “Bite the intruders! Kill them! Protect the secret!”
Harry looked at Pugsley with a look of utter disgust on his face. “Did you just forget everything we’ve been learning about unknown objects?”
Pugsley looked sheepish, and Harry yanked the skull out of his hands. The snakes stopped immediately, looking as puzzled as snakes can. “Massster?”
“Shall we bite? Kill? Poison?”
“Err. No. I shall deal with the intruders.”
The snakes looked vaguely disappointed, and then dissipated into clouds of malodorous mist. The flames kept going, though, and the cauldron kept boiling.
“What was that about, Harry?” asked Wednesday.
“I’m … not sure. This whole thing is just weird.” He put the skull down and went to take a closer look at the fireplace, rubbing his forehead as he went. He was feeling that weird tickle again, and he didn’t like it.
By rights, the fireplace should have been blazing hot, but it seemed only warm. He swung the crane with the cauldron out and looked into the cauldron. It was full of something blue, which continued boiling enthusiastically, and he could see glimmers of something golden at the bottom. He touched the liquid tentatively. It was luke warm, and nothing seemed to happen, so he reached in to pick up whatever it was. His scar was tickling like mad now.
Wednesday shrieked. “Harry James Potter, did you take a stupid pill today too?”
“What?” he said as his hand closed around the unknown object.
She pointed at the floor, where spattered drops were eating holes in the flagstones. “That’s acid!”
Harry removed his hand from the cauldron with all due haste, to find that it was completely uninjured, although his shirt sleeve had dissolved completely. “Oops.”
“Oops! All you can is ‘Oops’?! What was so important you’d risk your hand?”
Harry opened his hand, revealing a gold ring with a dull black stone. There was a coat of arms of some sort carved on the stone.
“Well. That’s ugly,” she said.
“I’ll say,” Harry agreed. “But it was the strangest thing. It was almost like the ring wanted me to find it. And it wants me to put it on.”
“Well, don’t,” she cautioned.
“I’m not completely thick,” he said, annoyed. “I read the Lord of the Rings too, you know. And even if it isn’t anything in the same league as that, it could be dangerous. The next time I get a chance to go to Gringotts, this is going right in my vault next to that knife.” He wrapped the ring in some fabric he tore off his already ruined shirt sleeve, and stuffed it in his pocket.
Pugsley looked into the cauldron. “It’s empty. How come it’s empty? And how come there was anything in it when it’s been sitting here all these years? Shouldn’t it have evaporated?”
Wednesday sighed. “You’re thinking with the wrong half of your brain again. What part of ‘it’s magic’ do you not understand?”
“Oh,” said Pugsley.
“Honestly. They’re going to eat you alive at Hogwarts.”
“Can I watch?” asked Harry. “Seriously, you slip more than either of us. You’re going to have to do better.”
“I’m sorry, but when I’m in the Muggle world, it’s easy to think like a Muggle. It’s hard to stop. Maybe once there’s nothing around but magic, it’ll help.”
“Maybe. Now let’s get ourselves out of here,” said Harry. “I think it should be about time for those idiots to come back and try to scare us, and I have a plan …”
The boys of Little Hangleton never bothered them again.
Harry had new room decorations, and the Addamses (being what they were) never asked him where he got the snake skull with candle or the leathery dried serpent, only if they would be missed.
Two days later, the tramp’s shack in the woods quietly burned down, with the ruins falling into the pit of the basement that no one had ever suspected was there. If anyone thought it odd that the trees nearby weren’t even scorched, they didn’t say anything.
The ring was carefully stashed in Harry’s vault. It had stopped insisting that he wear it after he had threatened to throw it into an active volcano.
And soon, the summer was over, and it was time to go to London and catch the Hogwarts Express for the first time.
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