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The Riddle Game
by Liz Barr
Feb 2002
Summary: They think it's just a game.
Notes: HP Improv #2: tell an existing story using HP characters, or use elements from an existing story in a HP fic. Future-fic.
Disclaimer: Harry Potter and related characters are the property of J. K. Rowling. The game was created in "Playing Beatie Bow" by Ruth Park. I don't own a copy of the book anymore, so I had to reconstruct the game from memory -- some of the details are different.
Rating: PG-13
Feedback: please.
HP fic:
HP Improv:
Thanks to Sara for her enormously helpful beta. I can safely say this would be far rougher without her help.

"Oh, Muddah, what's that, what can it be?"

This is the game: everyone stands in a circle around Muddah. There's pushing and giggling, but it's mostly because they're nervous. They all know what's going to happen, and they're all scared, but they like it. They play because it scares them, even though our mums and dads say we can't.

I don't play, though, because I don't like being scared. Not like Joseph, who plays for hours, and comes home all red and shaking. He says he's not scared of anything, but that's not true. He just likes being afraid.

There's a noise, the most horrible, scary noise you can imagine, and even though I'm not playing, and I know it's only Jessie Gudgeon hiding behind the schoolhouse, I get all shivery.

"Oh, Muddah, what's that, what can it be?"

"The wind in the wood, the wind in the trees."

Muddah is a mummy, like my mummy, only pretend, so it's always a girl. She has to be brave like a real mummy, because that's the rule, only you can tell that Mary Swann is as scared as everyone else -- more scared, because she's not in the circle, she's out there on her own, and we all know what happens to Muddah.

Jessie makes another noise, a kind of wailing, like she's being tortured.

Someone in the circle giggles, but they're all scared now.

"Oh, Muddah, what's that, what can it be?"

"The cow in the byre, the horse in the stall."

You don't know when she'll come out, you see, that's what makes it scary. It could go on for ages, Jessie making noises and Mary having to think of new things to say. And you have to say it properly, that's a rule too.

Even a few big kids are playing, older brothers and sisters who are home from Hogwarts for the summer. I can see David Flint, taller than everyone else, and a couple of Weasleys -- I can't tell which ones, all I can see is the hair. Everyone says that Gryffindors are really brave, but those Weasley kids are just as scared as everyone else.

Jessie howls like one of the werewolves in the Forbidden Forest.

"Oh, Muddah, what's that, what can it be?"

I don't want to watch, but it's so scary that I can't even move -- Jessie comes bursting out from behind the schoolhouse. Her cloak is pulled over her face, but she knows the rules: she runs straight towards Mary, who yells, "It's the ghost of Tom Riddle, back from the dead!"

Mary's screaming as Jessie catches her -- because you *have* to catch Muddah first, because Muddah always dies first -- and everyone else is shrieking and running away, but Jessie's too fast, Jessie's the fastest Tom Riddle we have, and she catches Maeve Black within minutes. So Maeve has to be the next Tom Riddle. But first, you have to let everyone run around screaming for a few minutes, because they're so scared that they *have* to, you can't just go back into the circle without running away, and you have to be totally, completely sure that you won't get caught.

It takes longer than usual for the next game to start, because Joseph punched David Flint, and that's not something a second-year Slytherin can just ignore. Joseph has a bloody nose by the time it's all finished, but *I* don't mind, because that means he'll probably leave me alone after the game is over and everyone's gone home.

There are more people in the circle this time: I wave at Margaret, who's in my class at the Hogsmeade school. Her daddy works at Hogwarts, and he's just about the scariest grown-up I know. He said she was never, ever allowed to play the Riddle game. But she's playing anyway, because she's really brave, even if everyone reckons she's going to be a Slytherin like her parents.

I'm not brave. I try to be, but I can't, I just *can't* play the Riddle game. I'm sitting on the wall and hugging my knees and thinking about this, when a grown up walks up and sits next to me. For a second, I think it's someone's daddy, but he's not old enough. He sees me looking at him and smiles, so I smile back.

"Hi," he says.


We sit in silence, and I can't decide whether I should watch the game or look at him. He has a nice face, and messy black hair that falls in his face, and glasses. I like people with glasses, like Madam Honey, my teacher at school. He looks at me, and I turn back to the game.

Maeve isn't a fast runner like Jessie, but she makes really awful sounds that kind of echo in your ears long after the game's over.

"Oh, Muddah, what's that, what can it be?"

It's a quick game this time, because Maeve doesn't really like being Tom Riddle. But she's doing a pretty good job, shrieking like a banshee as she comes after Muddah.

"It's the ghost of Tom Riddle, risen from the dead!"

The man next to me looks up suddenly, and I wonder if grown-ups can be scared of the game, too. He watches closely as Maeve runs around, and I explain how Muddah has to die first.

"Did you play the Riddle game when you were little?" I ask.

He has what Margaret calls a Grown Up Face, like he's thinking a kid wouldn't understand.

"It wasn't like this," he says.

"Was it scarier? Because this is the scariest, most horrible thing I've ever seen."

"Yeah. Much scarier."

The sun is setting, and everyone will be going in soon. *No one* plays the Riddle game after dark, not even Margaret would be brave enough.

"We're not really allowed to play it," I say. "The grown-ups say it's too scary. The big kids say it's just a game, but even *they're* scared."

"Just a game," he says, and smiles. "Well, that's something, I guess."

The game's over now, and they're all coming over here. He stands up and waves; Maeve and the Weasleys are shouting at him, he's like their uncle or something, but Joseph grabs me and pulls me away. His hand hurts my arm, but I don't think he can tell. He has dried blood all over his face and shirt, and he's angry, because he knows he's going to get in trouble when we get home, and because he was scared, and it's just a game.

Even if it *is* the Riddle game.


(Of course, in the book, the sound of her name enables Beatie -- *not* an evil overlord in training -- to travel through time into the future, so maybe the grown ups have a point when they ban the game. Madam Honey's name comes from Roald Dahl's "Matilda" -- I figured that if I was referencing one beloved book from my childhood, I might as well throw another one in as well.)

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