Disclaimer / Author's Note #1: I don't own anything in the Harry Potter world and thus, unfortunately, am making no money from this story. This was written for a challenge on Sycophant Hex, the criteria for which are listed at the end of the story. It was written before HBP came out so is AU now, sadly. 'Echoes' won the Grand Prize in its category.
"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned."
– William Congreve
This is where his life begins and ends. A scrap of life abandoned on a cold step, a tuft of black hair escaping from a blanket, a note. Left with love and hope, perhaps, but abandoned nonetheless. And, ultimately, the well-intentioned act of a person who would love the child but is unable to keep him will lead to years of neglect and misery. A lonely soul, destined for great things, protected by the fierce magic of a dying mother's love.
As the grandfather clock ticked away the evening, Martha stared into the basket at her feet. Maybe she could look after the child... No, she scolded herself. It was all she could do to manage the boarding house on her own, what with George dead these eleven years. They'd never been blessed with children. George hadn't wanted to go off to war and leave her pregnant. "There'll be plenty of time for that later, love. How long can this last?" One year crawled by, then another, then part way into the third year came the telegram. No time for children. No time for laughter, no time for love, no time for joy. The rest of her lonely life for tears and regret. This could be a great opportunity, a gift. But although Martha could have loved poor dead Zara's son with all of her heart, love wasn't enough to keep him fed and clothed. The baby stirred fitfully and Martha rocked the basket absently with her foot. She should be going. She really should. It was getting late. If she left it too long, it would be too late, the child would have her heart completely. So she should be going. In just a moment.
Moment by moment, the clock sliced more time from the day and turned it into night.
Can a single, simple act change the entire course of a person's life? Can a single person change the course of history? The man took just one look at the parchment delivered by an anonymous post owl. Recognising the seal, he threw the letter unopened into the fire. A forbidding glower froze his wife's question on her lips. She knew exactly who the letter was from, would have opened it in a heartbeat had she been alone. Meekly, she offered her husband more tea and tried to keep her eyes away from the last scraps of parchment as they crumbled into ashes. If Alianna had been a stronger person, if she had been able to stand in the face of her husband's power, and more, his stubborn temper, could that have saved one life? And, through that salvation, could a world have been changed?
If she was quiet, the other children wouldn't see her. That was important. She wasn't allowed to make friends without the strict approval of both parents and these children especially would have been forbidden. Nurse would have been horrified by their coarse clothes and rough-and-tumble play, but it was about more than that. It was about their very nature. It was about family, about status, about class. And it was about magic. Watching the other children run and laugh in the playground, the little girl felt stifled in her starched, ruffled dress. Sometimes, she wished she wasn't a witch at all.
One night, laid utterly open by grief and the strain of a difficult pregnancy, Zara poured out a story that was almost a confession. Myriad as the details were, Martha couldn't help but notice the gaps. Where had Zara come from that she had no grasp of money or clothes, that she flinched at the sight of motor cars, that she had only the haziest concept of the War? It was during that night that Zara finally admitted that she wasn't a widow, as she had told Martha. Her husband had abandoned her.
"I didn't want you to think of me as a fallen woman. He swore he would be with me until death, but he left me. He left me because of what I am. Because I..." Zara clapped her hand over her mouth, dark blue eyes wide.
What are you? Martha wondered but only said, "I believe you, Zara. I don't think you're a fallen woman."
This act of kindness, small as it was, was enough to start the tears again. Zara seemed to be weakening as her pregnancy progressed. At first, Martha had thought that the emotional upheaval was due to hormones but lately, she had begun to worry about Zara's sanity. The woman spent hours in the dark, one hand on the precious bump of her belly, muttering to herself. It was almost as if she was deliberately draining her own life into that of her child.
She had torn the hem of her dress, her hands were filthy and the intricate ringlets had gone completely from her tousled hair. Lost as she was, the young woman couldn't help a broad grin. This was brilliant! No more curl papers. No more deportment classes. No more boring, weak-chinned offspring of boring, weak-chinned yet powerful men. Honestly, one more admonition to act like a proper lady or Young Master So-and-so just wouldn't consider a wife like her and she was going to scream. Most of her contemporaries were married or betrothed, after all. Why did she have to be so difficult about it?
How is this for difficult? The woman kept walking. The countryside round here was pretty if a little bleak. There was bound to be a village nearby where she could start a new life. She didn't have many skills, but she could be a governess or something. And she would start by changing her name.
It was raining. Zara rubbed her hand over her belly and wondered whether the heat there meant that the baby was safe. The rest of her was freezing. She could cast a warming charm, she supposed, but she was weak from cold and hunger, and the magic would just make things worse. In a few more miles, she could stop. Maybe there was a town somewhere that she could find a refuge, maybe even somewhere that she could get in touch with the Wizarding community. Send an owl. Ask for help. Surely the world couldn't be cruel enough to let a woman and her baby die out here on the road. Surely someone wanted her even if he didn't. The rain was hot on her face, and Zara realised that she was crying again. How could he abandon her and the baby? He had said that he loved her, that he would be with her for all time. How could all time have passed so quickly? The look on his face when she had told him was etched on her mind. He had been horrified, betrayed, disgusted. As though she was some piece of filth, not the woman with whom he had danced, laughed, made love.
It struck Zara suddenly that it was very much the same look, the same tone of voice which her father used when he talked about Muggles and, worse, Mudbloods. She started to laugh. The sound shook with her sobs, high-pitched to the point of hysteria. It wouldn't stop. Zara staggered off the road and crouched under a tree, rocking back and forth. Through the night, she was taken by fits of sobbing and laughter. She screamed, she howled, but she couldn't dull the pain. For a long time after, the woods had a reputation for being haunted.
The governess idea had gone out of the window pretty quickly when the topic of qualifications and references came up. Making vague allusions to being part of a wealthy family wasn't good enough for a small Muggle village. She was glad that she had asked in the pub before she walked up to the big house and made a fool of herself. Her father's connections couldn't help her here.
"So, you're lookin' for work then?" the landlord had said. "But you ain't got no papers or nothin' to prove how good you are." A cautious nod in response. "I need a barmaid. Young Janet left cos she's in the family way. You reckon you're up to it?"
"I reckon I can try." The young woman's eyes refused to lose their sparkle.
"Right, you're hired. M'name's Pete." A large, brown hand shook a small, white one.
"S… Zara. My name's Zara."
It took the people in the village a little while to get used to her, but her accent was reasonably local and she was such a bright, sunny girl that she was soon the darling of the bar. Despite how nosy the locals were, they treated her with respect and never asked too many questions about how she had come, seemingly out of nowhere, to slip easily into their lives. Months passed. Zara used her wand so little, she almost started to think of herself as a Muggle.
It would have been better if she had screamed, Martha thought. Anything would have been better than the blank eyes and the silent, grim determination with which Zara bore down on the pain. The doctor was getting worried, talking again about moving to a hospital. Women did not have children at home, and they certainly didn't have them in respectable boarding houses. Regardless, this was happening here and now, and it was probably do more harm than good to move Zara at this stage. Martha wondered whether Zara had deliberately held off letting anyone know she was in labour until the last minute. She winced as Zara's grip on her hand tightened again. The long black hair was soaked with sweat, the eyes darkened with pain, but still the only sound from the set, white lips was a low hiss of breath.
When it was over, when the child lay against Zara's breast as she lay propped among clean bedding, the doctor drew Martha aside and attempted tact while talking about money. Zara finally broke her silence.
"I don't have any Mu… money. But I can give you this." Awkwardly, because she was horribly weak and trying not to disturb the baby, she pulled at the silver chain around her neck. With Martha's help, she managed to undo the clasp. "I won't give you the chain, Doctor, but you can have what's on it. It's worthless to me now unless it can help my son."
She had taken the ring off once her fingers had begun to swell. Once, she had sworn never to take it off but that was months ago, another life. A life where she had been loved. Martha didn't ask Zara if she was sure. Silently, she handed Zara's wedding ring to the doctor.
"I can't marry you. Not right now. Not without my parents' say so. You know what they're like."
She didn't really know what they were like, but she knew they didn't approve of her. Their first question to her had been, "So, what do your parents do?" It was the sort of question her father would have asked, as if a person could be defined wholly by Connections and Family. Zara's vagueness about her origins had not impressed her lover's parents in the slightest. If she had been honest, she suspected they would have either laughed or demanded that she be burned at the stake. It didn't help that their darling boy had met her when she was working behind a bar.
"I do love you, you know that. I'll love you forever, and I want to marry you, but I have to talk Mother and Father round first. Anyway, I've got you a present."
Zara smiled as the silver chain was clasped at the back of her neck. She knew she presented a beguiling picture, slender pale hands holding that great sheaf of black hair away so that the column of her throat looked long and graceful. Her smiled broadened as she felt a warm kiss at the junction of neck and shoulder.
"You shouldn't," she said, not meaning it.
"Shouldn't I?" Another soft kiss. "Come on, sweetheart, we're as good as engaged."
Back in her world, with its rules and conventions, it was unthinkable that a woman should give herself before her wedding night. But she had forsaken her world. Zara let her lover pull her down into the long grass.
Martha would be worried. Zara hadn't meant to be out quite so late but, once again, she had mistaken quite how large London was. It had taken her forever to find the Leaky Cauldron and crossing back into the Wizarding world for the first time in a year had been harder than she had anticipated. She had sat for quite some time in the dingy pub until she summoned the courage to open the wall to Diagon Alley. In a whirl, she was back ten years, clinging to Nurse's hand amid the bustle, staring at the shops in wonder. Now she had no one to cling to. Resolute, Zara had scraped together every last Knut in her possession. It was enough for a letter. Not a plea for help, exactly, but maybe an attempt at a reconciliation, at resolution. Zara kissed the seal of the letter for good luck then hurried outside the Post Office to watch the owl soar out of sight.
The transformation, the snap between adoration and disgust, between love and hate, happened one sunny afternoon. As had become a habit, they were lying in the long grass down the hill from the forbidding bulk of the house, hidden by a convenient hedgerow. They made love less these days, but Zara supposed that was normal given her condition, and she had felt so sick lately that it was a relief. Stroking the soft brown head which lay against her still flat abdomen, Zara felt her lover go rigid with fear.
"What?" she asked softly. When he didn't answer, she followed his gaze. A short distance away, a blunt red-brown head uncoiled to watch her back.
"They're poisonous. I've never seen one before, but I know they're poisonous," her lover whispered hoarsely.
Zara wasn't afraid. She tilted her head and smiled as the adder mimicked her gesture. "It's all right, we won't hurt you," she told the creature. "We're just enjoying the sun. Would you mind leaving for a while?" She gestured to the man in her lap. "He doesn't understand snakes."
"Fffair enough. Men are ssssuch cowardsssss." Zara could swear the adder rolled her eyes as she slithered away into the hedge.
"It's fine, she's gone, but she was harmless enough," Zara said brightly. "They only…." She stopped. Despite the blue sky, the world was suddenly very cold.
"What the… what the bloody hell was that? What did you do? What the hell did you do?" The words spilled out as her lover stumbled to his feet, putting a distance between them that felt like a chasm.
"I… I just told her to leave us alone, that's all."
"You told it to leave us alone? You spoke to it? How? Were you brought up in a circus or something? Dammit, Zara, what the hell is going on?"
Zara fumbled for words but couldn't find anything that wasn't the truth. Maybe this was the time for it. If he was going to marry her, he had the right to know, after all. "I have to tell you something," she said slowly. "It might seem a bit strange, but we love each other and I don't want us to have secrets. I promise you this is the truth."
It was the truth. It turned her life upside down. It brought the sky crashing down. It changed the world.
Martha started violently at the knock on the door. She had fallen asleep in the rocking chair again, the photograph clutched against her chest. For a moment, she wasn't sure what had woken her, then the knocking came again. Sighing, Martha pulled her housecoat tighter. It was past eleven. She was sure her two guests had come in hours ago – surely they hadn't gone out again. This was a respectable boarding house, people knew they couldn't come and go at all hours. Maybe she should ignore the noise, let the selfish individual realise the consequence of his actions. On the third knock, Martha's soft heart got the better of her.
She hadn't realised it was raining. The young woman on the doorstep looked like a drowned rat. Martha opened her mouth to send the woman away. She couldn't be taking in waifs and strays at the dead of night.
"Help me," the woman said. "Please."
Without doubt, without question, Martha let Zara in to the last home she would ever know.
His parents never called him by name, he noticed. It had been 'young man' when he was a little boy and now it was just 'son'. This time, it was in tones of deep disapproval.
"Look, son, I know you're quite keen on the girl but marriage? She's just a common barmaid."
"Father, it's a little more complicated than that. She… er, that is I…"
"She's knocked up, isn't she? God, do you have no sense at all? There are ways and means, if you know what I mean." His father gave a man-to-man wink, which made him cringe.
"I'm sure there are, but this isn't the town. I can't just walk into the barber and ask for 'something for the weekend', can I?"
"Are you sure it's yours? You know these village girls - she's probably just after some money. String her along a bit then if she really is expecting, you can buy her off. But you're not to be an idiot, son. You're from a good family. Don't ruin yourself on some little tart."
He should have known better than to expect sympathy from his father, but the old man had a point. There wasn't any need to marry Zara just yet. Maybe she was mistaken. She was so naïve about everything, hadn't known a thing about men before she met him. She was an amazing girl, beautiful, bewitching, but he didn't really want to marry her. She was meant to be a diversion. He was fond of her, though, and too lazy to deal with the problem just now. It was easier to buy a plain gold ring, to tell Zara that he loved her absolutely and had every intention of marrying her as soon as his parents came around. Consider this a promise, sweetheart. I'll love you forever, death us do part and all that. Meanwhile, she was still gorgeous, willing and besotted with him. He had family, connections. He'd had a charmed life so far. Things would work out just fine.
Decisions, decisions. As the clock passed eleven, Martha remembered Zara's arrival all those months ago. She hadn't really intended to let the young woman stay that long, certainly not free of charge, but how could she throw a pregnant widow into the streets? Zara seemed so bewildered by everything, struck by her lonely state. No family, no husband, no friends. It was as though she had been dropped from a different world. The baby stared up at Martha with Zara's solemn expression. There was something slightly unsettling about the child, which was ridiculous. It was only a few days old.
Martha wished that Zara could have left something for her son. It was strange, but the silver chain was gone. Two days ago, she had come downstairs to make a cup of tea and some broth for Zara who hadn't spoken a word since the day of the child's birth and was still frighteningly weak. When she had returned to the room…
…the tray crashed to the ground. Zara love, are you all right? Zara? Oh god, Zara...
When she had returned to the room, Zara was dead. She looked strangely peaceful, as though a great struggle had finally been resolved. The strain of childbirth, the doctor said later. The circumstances weren't suspicious at all, no need to worry. It wasn't until Martha was braiding the long dark hair so that Zara would be decent when she was taken away that she noticed the silver chain was missing. Horrible as the thought was, the doctor had probably stolen it.
Tick tick tick. Decisions, decisions.
She'd had a charmed life. She'd had family and connections. What had happened? In the darkness of the parlour, Zara rocked in Martha's rocking chair and thought about the father of her child. She had been so happy, so much in love. Yet he had left her, cast her away because of what she was. Because she was a witch. So, into every night, Zara reclaimed her witchood. She had deserted her family and they would not take her back, but she could pour every scrap of her history and blood into her child. He would not forget that, he would never forget what he was. Zara had given everything up for the love of a worthless Muggle, but she had been a very powerful witch. She could give her son that power. She had nothing else to give him except a name.
Zara wasn't sure when she decided not to live. It seemed simpler, somehow. She remembered her mother's last pregnancy, remembered the Dark Magic that her father had used to make the child more powerful. It hadn't worked. The child, Zara's younger brother, had died when he was only two days old. Alianna had nearly died with him.
"You have to be willing to sacrifice your life, precious," Nurse had told Zara. "If a woman gives her whole life to her child, it's very powerful magic."
It had horrified her, at the time. Now it seemed fitting. Power, that was what was important. Her father had been right all along. "You have a great family line, you are descended from one of the greatest wizards of all time. His blood runs in your veins, you are named for him, Salazara."
So simple. She gave her son life, his life and hers. The last of the magic went into the silver chain, which was wrapped around the child's wrist and spelled so that it couldn't be seen or removed. It would tell him a few things when he was old enough to know. And that was all. Enough now. Enough.
It was better this way. Zara hadn't asked anything of Martha. Her last words, spoken just after the doctor had left from delivering her child, hadn't been a plea for help. Martha would have understood that. Instead, the simple words, innocent enough in themselves, had chilled Martha to the bone. She was ashamed to admit it even to herself on a cold, rainy night, but that was a tiny part of the reason she allowed herself to part with the child in the end. The hours of indecision had ended on the last stroke of midnight. Martha had carefully inscribed Zara's last words onto a piece of paper and tucked it into the basket. Then she had walked the long mile down to the orphanage. The baby never made a sound, which made it worse, somehow.
Martha turned her back on the dark stone building, the basket, all that was left of Zara in the world. Abandoned with love and hope, perhaps, but abandoned nonetheless. A scrap of life on a cold step, a tuft of black hair escaping from a blanket, a note. His name is Tom Marvolo Riddle – Tom for his father, Marvolo for his grandfather. These are things that must be remembered. This is his legacy. Past, present and future. Never let him forget. A lonely soul, destined for great things, protected by the fierce magic of a dying mother's love.
This is where his life begins and ends.
A/N #2 and the challenge criteria:
Summary: Write a short story focusing on the progress of any kind of crisis--personal or otherwise--using any narrative point of view.
1. The story must contain original characters. (Note: view Chaos standard submission rules for full details)
2. The story can revolve around any type of crisis (i.e. internal/external) the author chooses.
3. The author chooses the narrative type and point of view.
4. The story cannot follow chronological order.
5. There must be some form of connection or order to the story. Apparently random scenes must fit together in some reasonable way: theme, character, language-use, etcetera....
This story is now utterly AU. I wrote it before HBP came out and was pretty convinced that JKR had said all she was going to about Voldemort's parents - just goes to show what I know and it explains why I never gamble! Anyway, Martha is entirely my own creation and I've let her loose in JKR's history to create havoc and, possibly, be an instrument that changed that world forever. Kisses to Scattered Logic for a super-fast Beta job.