Anna and Gwen slowly made their way to the entrance to the long gangway where a shipmate, dressed in white, was checking names on a list.
“So… all of this magic only started happening within the last week?” asked Gwen, who was still listening to Anna’s story about unexpectedly becoming a witch. “Weird. That’s so strange, and the healers don’t know why this has happened to you?”
“Nope. Nobody really understands any of this. I wish I understood it. Damon even seems to think I might turn back into a Muggle again,” Anna said, frowning.
“Pwau!” Gwen spat. “Since when has Damon been right about anything? But… this ghost, or whatever it is you told me about; do you think it’ll visit you at Castlewood? Do you think it’ll follow you here?”
Anna sighed. She had told Gwen almost everything she had experienced while at home. Everything, that is, apart from the Lethifold. Perhaps it was out of fear that she didn’t mention the creature to her friend. Fear of what Gwen might think about her. Or maybe it was the fear that came with trying to explain why she decided to bring the creature with her to the school.
“I really don’t know if the thing will show up again or not,” Anna said in reply to Gwen’s question, and to the question in her own mind as well. “I’m kind of hoping it’ll just lose me in the crowd.”
“Gwendolyn Reese,” Gwen told the man with the clipboard in his hand.
“Reese… Reese… Reese,” the man mumbled, running his finger down his list of names. “Here it is — Artisan Union — third-year, right! Welcome aboard, miss,” he said with a tip of his cap.
“Name?” barked the man, looking at Anna this time.
“Anna Grayson, of California,” Anna replied. She caught herself holding her breath, as if believing she might still be sent home. The man looked down his list and found Anna’s name. He frowned.
“It says here… you’re a first-year, no assigned union hall as of yet. Is that right?”
“Yes, that’s correct. First-year student at Castlewood,” Anna replied, nervously.
“You… look a little old for a first-year,” the sailor said, looking suspiciously at her.
“Oh… thank you,” Anna replied, hoping not to have to explain. The sailor frowned at Anna again, and then looked down at his list. Flipping the parchment over to the front, he straightened.
“Right… okay, then. Head up the ramp and then turn right. All the first-year students are meeting at the stern of the ship. You’ll receive further instructions there. Good day, miss, and welcome aboard.” He tipped his hat and motioned her up the ramp. Anna smiled as she bounced up the wooden gangway toward Gwen waiting for her at the top.
“Geeze-Louise! Why does everything have to be so complicated with you, girlfriend?” Gwen said with a chuckle. “I mean…you can’t even get on the ship without the third degree?”
Anna hopped down onto the deck. “Hey — can I help it if the guy wanted your phone number?”
Gwen frowned, and then looked down the gangway at the back of the man with the clipboard. “Hmm… always liked a man in uniform,” she said, looking back at Anna and bouncing her eyebrows.
Anna gave her friend a shove. “You’re unbelievable!” she said, with a snort.
“Come on,” Gwen giggled. “I’ll walk you back. We’d better put our robes on.”
As the girls made their way to the rear of the ship, Anna could see some of the students already separating themselves into their Dynasty groups. Her brother Eric, who was now wearing his Servers’ Union colors, was speaking to another small group of seventh-year students displayed impressively in royal blue and black robes. Eric winked at Anna as she walked by.
“So… have any idea what dynasty you might land in?” asked Gwen, who was shoving an arm into her black and turquoise robes.
“No idea. How will we find out?”
“Oh… I guess I figured, with so many brothers and sisters, somebody would have explained it to you. Well… they make you walk through this huge mirror, see, and while you’re inside the mirror, these voices start talking to you. They’ll ask you a bunch of silly questions about your life and ambitions…” Gwen said, rolling her eyes boringly; she stopped. She could plainly see Anna struggling to understand. “Oh-well, we’ll get to the school soon enough, and then you’ll see for yourself. It’s simple, really, easier than putting on a pair of shoes. Here we are.” The two girls arrived at the back of the ship.
“Listen, I’ll check on you after we’re underway. I have to send an owl to my parents telling them I made it to the ship in one piece. You know how they worry,” Gwen said, rolling her eyes again.
Anna smiled; she did remember. Mr. and Mrs. Reese were extremely nice people, but definitely worried in excess about their only child. Remembering Gwen’s family brought a warm and familiar feeling to her heart.
“Besides…” Gwen continued excitedly, “I can’t wait to tell them you’re here. They’re gonna freak!”
As Gwen started to walk away, Anna called out to her. “Gwen!” Her friend turned to look back. “It’s really great seeing you again,” Anna said, smiling broadly.
Gwen smiled back and nodded. “See you in a bit, Annie G!”
A few minutes later, the ship’s crew was dashing about the deck as the gangway was hoisted away, and the ropes from the dock were released and cast out. A single officer was stiffly barking orders at the crew.
“Run up the mizzen and belay the halliard. Let’s see some life, there! For God’s sake, Smith, button your shirt. There are ladies about.”
“Is the end of that mizzen sheet made fast below?
“Hoist the mainsail and the fore. Put your weight on that halliard gentlemen; it’ll bear it.
“And get that sail snug up over there! I won’t see it stand out like a board when it gets the wind.
“Mind your post, there!” yelled another officer to one of his sailors, who was mindlessly talking to a pretty sixth-year girl.
Soon, the large sails started to fill with air, and Anna could hear the ship begin to creak and groan loudly as it moved forward. Slowly at first, the ship soon cleared the docks, and began to gather speed.
“Cast off the mizzen sheet and the driver; let the bow fall off a little; there you are.
“Watch her fill gentlemen. Trim the mainsail and the fore; belay the sheet.”
“Aye, Mister Wiggins!”
“Trim the mizzen to the angle and belay.
“Get on deck to windward! Bear away, there.
“Let her have more sheet, Mr. Dotter; yes, mizzen and driver too; run down the wind a bit.”
“Here — what are you doing on deck, there? Never mind the tiller; it won't run away. Well, get that mizzen over first… that’ll do.”
“Haul in on the sheet. Now look out for the mainsail; give me a touch to the tiller.
“You! Haul in that main sheet! Trim in the spanker sheet and bring the wind on the beam again, mister.
“Luff her up a little and trim in number two flat. That will do; no closer, mind the shake along the luff. Keep her there; luff just full, a little more, a little more; no more.”
As soon as the ship cleared the harbor entrance, a gust of wind seemed to come out of nowhere to propel the vessel along, tilting the Allegheny Pride slightly to its side. They were finally underway, and, within minutes, the rest of the ship’s sails were unfurled as the small island dropped down into the horizon and then completely out of site. As Anna looked out over the beautiful ocean around her, she could tell the ship was nowhere near her home or the California coastline. The weather seemed immeasurably sultry, and the smell in the air was entirely unfamiliar to her.
“First-years, gather round over here. Over here, please,” came a voice from behind her. A tall strapping man was standing on a stepped platform in a white uniform and gold braided hat.
“That’s right, gather round us here.
“My name is Commander Wiggins. I am the executive officer on this ship, under the command of Captain Archibald Naughtington. Welcome aboard the WWS Allegheny Pride. I have been asked to give you a brief summary of your activities while aboard ship today, and what you can expect upon our arrival tonight in Spellsburg.
“We will be traveling en route to Pennsylvania for the next two hours. While under sail, you will be allowed the run of the ship, with the only exceptions being that of the helm,” he pointed to the ship’s deck above them, “and the Captain’s quarters below. There are plenty of staterooms on the lower decks if you and other members of your party would like some privacy.
“When walking on the upper decks, we would ask that you travel in pairs. That way, if we lose one of you overboard, you can depend on somebody to sound the alarm. From this point forward, all students will be allowed to practice magic at the discretion of their abilities.” There was a thunderous cheer from the crowd as the sparks from several wands suddenly shot into the air.
“Mind the sails with your sparks, if you please, but there will be no flying!” The cheering was immediately replaced with a loud grumble. “Now, now… you can thank your fellow classmates from last year for that new rule. Seems some of them needed to try out their new doors, and got caught in a sudden gale below the horizon. It took most of the day to round them up out of the drink. Needless to say, the Major of Spellsburg and the Chancellor of Castlewood were not happy,” complained the officer, bending down toward them with an ugly scowl. He stood straight again.
“During the remainder of this trip, you first-years will have two jobs to do. First — look out for the safety of the other students around you, and second, prepare yourself for the joining.”
“The what?” asked a pink-faced boy with blonde hair standing next to Anna.
“Oh… sorry,” continued Wiggins. “For you newbies out there, the joining is the traditional ceremony that will unite you to one of the Castlewood Unions,” explained the officer. “To ensure the best match to the proper union, you must take this time to focus on your future ambitions, and the things that interest you.”
“Tommy Moore has an interest in almost every girl on this ship,” hollered a boy standing in the back. The boy next to him turned red in the face and gave his friend a shove. The rest of the students started to laugh.
Commander Wiggins smiled. “Well… I believe most of the unions can satisfy your needs on that front,” replied the officer with a grin. “But, just to be safe, perhaps we should ask the women onboard to keep a safe distance from our Mr. Moore over there.” Everybody laughed again.
“But seriously, now; I cannot emphasize enough the importance of you taking the time to deliberate on your future plans. The joining is a critical event that will place you on a path that could very well affect the rest of your lives. You must take the time during this trip to think about your aspirations. All right?” There was much murmuring in the crowd. “Right then. Any questions?” Wiggins looked around at the sea of faces below him. “Good… enjoy the rest of the trip… that is all.” And with a final wave, he stepped down.
Some time later, Anna was standing against the thick wooden railing, overlooking the infinite ocean in front of her. The view was as vast as the choices for her future. What did she want to be? How in the world was she supposed to know? It seemed so unfair to ask her to decide something as important as this right now. Just a few days ago Anna was in a Muggle school, trying to find her way to her new classes, and now she was expected to plan out the rest of her life? She didn’t have a clue what she wanted to be or do.
“Hey — Super G,” came Gwen’s voice behind her. Anna glanced around and immediately noticed how established Gwen looked in the blue-green embroidery on her robes. She looked down at the three hash marks on Gwen’s sleeve and then at the single black stripe on her own arm.
“What’s the matter, friend?” Gwen asked, frowning. “It’s a big ship, but not big enough to get that lost. What are you thinking about?”
Anna smiled, and then turned to lean back against the railing. “Gwen… do you really enjoy playing the piano?” She hadn’t heard Gwen playing her music in a while, but Anna knew her friend was very talented.
“Sure — it’s great. Why do you ask?”
“I mean… do you really like it? Do you think about it all the time? Is it in your blood? Or… did your parents…”
“No. I honestly… really do love it. Oh, I know I used to complain a lot about it when I didn’t want to practice, or when my dad insisted on all those recitals, but when I got to Castlewood and joined the Artisan’s Union, they helped me to appreciate what I was trying to do. They made me see that it’s more than just placing your hands on the keys and learning the notes. It’s something that comes from your soul. I never knew my music would mean so much to me, and now I can’t imagine living without it.” Anna felt something in her stomach squirm.
“You’re lucky. At least you knew what you wanted when you got to the school. I don’t have a clue. They want me to think about my future in preparation for the joining,” Anna said, pointing at the raised platform from where Wiggins had made his speech. “I don’t know what I want.”
“Oh stop. You think I knew I wanted to continue playing my music when I arrived? That’s rich! I can honestly tell you I was severely disappointed when I was joined to the Artisans.”
“It’s true. I really rebelled. I thought my parents must have somehow contacted the school to ensure I continued my musical training. I actually felt betrayed by the whole process. I wish you had been there in those days, Anna. I could have really used a friend.”
There was a silent pause between the two of them before Gwen spoke again. “Anna… I’m really sorry about not writing to you. I knew I should have, and I really did miss you, but… I just didn’t know what to say. You were so disappointed at being left behind, and having to go to that Muggle School. What was I suppose to say? Dear Anna, Castlewood is great — wish you were here?”
Anna smiled. “I understand. In fact, in the beginning, I’m glad you didn’t write. I was pretty upset at the whole world in those days. I probably wouldn’t have read your letters anyway.”
“Still… I should have…”
“Forget it; I mean it,” Anna said, placing her hand on Gwen’s cheek. “I’m just glad we’re together now, and I’m really grateful you’re still my friend.” Gwen smiled.
“Thar she blows!” came a bellowing voice high above them. Anna looked up to see a man, perched atop the highest mast on the ship, pointing out to sea.
“Starboard the helm ten degrees, mister!” another voice boomed from behind them. Once again, there was a lot of yelling from the scrambling sailors who were working the many ropes and pulleys around them. The great ship began to creak and groan loudly again as it turned slightly to the left.
“Come on… We’re getting close,” said Gwen, pulling Anna by the arm toward the front of the ship. They followed the gathering crowd of students pressed against the railings, looking out over the water and pointing toward the far-off horizon.
“Stand right here,” Gwen said breathlessly. “Do you see it?” Anna looked out, and to her great surprise, she could see what looked like an immense, greenish storm, growing larger by the second. Great bolts of lightning could be seen flashing within its darkening mass.
“Be ready, Mister Wiggins! Another five degrees starboard… steady on my mark,” shouted the Captain, as he watched the raging storm brewing ever bigger through his telescope.
“Aye, sir” replied the first officer, and the ship turned again toward the storm.
“We’re not actually going to sail into that, are we?” yelled Anna, over the now howling wind.
“Sure. Don’t worry, we’ll be fine,” Gwen hollered back.
“Mister Wiggins? Be ready, Wiggins…”
“Ready… aye, sir!”
“Steady… now, Mister Wiggins — now!”
“Helm! Hard down! Put the tiller to leeward, hard-a-lee now!”
As the ship approached the ugly, dark storm, the entire horizon seemed to disappear, as if swallowed whole by the billowing beast before them. The ship was rising high into the air and dropping violently down into the waves as the sea around them crashed into their sides. Anna closed her eyes and grasped the railing, expecting a sudden blast of wind to tip them over. She felt the cold, wet air from the storm hit her full in the face, and then everything suddenly went quiet.
“Aaaahhh!” Anna yelped. Somebody behind her had grabbed her around the waist. It was Eric.
“Ha-ha,” sorry about that, sis, but I couldn’t resist.”
“Eric! You almost gave me a heart attack!” Anna yelled, smacking her brother in the chest. He smiled.
“Welcome to Neptune’s Veil,” Eric said, motioning to space around them. Anna looked out in wonder to see dark green clouds surrounding them like a thick, billowing blanket of fog. Bright flashes of yellow-green and blue lightning shot through the mist in the far-off distance. There was no wind; the great sails were still and limp above them. Even the water seemed to have disappeared. Anna looked down over the side, and could see the same blue-green flashes of lightning miles below them.
“Where are we?” asked Anna.
“Now that’s a very good question, and one without a good answer, I’m afraid,” Eric quipped. “The closest thing I’ve been able to figure is some kind of porthole, but… who knows. It’s a secret, much like the actual location of Castlewood itself.”
“Can the Muggles see this?”
“Oh sure, but the storm is only conjured for this trip. I’ve heard tales some Muggles have accidentally sailed into it in the past, but you really have to know what you’re doing and have an experienced captain to guide you through it. Otherwise, you might find yourself a thousand miles off course from where you started.” Anna looked up at the captain who was pointing the way through the fog with a wand in his outstretched hand, while the sailor next to him tipped the ship’s wheel at his instruction.
“They’ve placed a disillusionment charm on the entire ship, of course, so the Muggles can’t see us.”
“Wow,” Anna whispered. “This is amazing.” Eric winked at Gwen.
“Hey Anna, watch this,” said Gwen, who proceeded to remove one of her shoes. Raising the shoe over her head, she threw it hard over the railing and out into the green mist.
“What are you doing? You’re gonna need that, you know!” Anna said, laughing. Gwen quickly spun around against the rail. Glancing about, she seemed to be scanning the deck of the ship.
Anna grinned. “What are you looking for…?”
“Heads up!” Gwen yelled, as the same shoe dropped out of the clouds high above them and hit the deck with a loud thump.
“What the…?” Anna faded, looking perplexed. Gwen raced across the deck and picked up her shoe. She slid it back onto her foot before turning to face Anna again.
“Cool, huh? I heard there was a fifth-year boy twenty years ago who jumped overboard on a dare. The idiot broke his leg when he hit the deck, of course.”
Suddenly, a cool breeze began to blow around them and Eric looked up. He could see the sails beginning to fill again.
“Hold on… here it comes,” he said, placing a finger to his lips.
“LAND HO!!!” shouted the man at the top of the mast.
The ship suddenly dropped down and, with a mighty slap, the keel splashed down upon the water once again. The students erupted into cheering applause as the dark clouds around them started to clear. A tree-lined shore slowly came into view on either side of the ship. They were traveling on what looked like a river in the middle of a dense forest. The late sun burned away the remaining fog as the ship loosened its sails to slow.
“This is weird,” Anna said in amazement. “First, we’re in the middle of the ocean and now we’re here?” She looked at Eric. “Where are we?”
Her brother pointed toward the high mountains surrounding them. “Those are the Allegheny Mountains; we’re in Pennsylvania, Anna.”
As the ship slowed around a final turn, the work of the crew became more frantic. Within minutes, they were approaching a massive old dock with dozens of waiting sailors, holding thick ropes. The great ship slid expertly into place and groaned loudly as it bumped and scraped its dock stops. Ropes were thrown back and forth between the sailors on the ship and those on the dock, and were quickly tied down. The gangway was raised high into the air once again and fell neatly into place. The railing doors were opened and, one by one, the students started heading down the ramp. Anna was still looking around them in astonished wonder.
“I’ve never seen so many trees in all my life!” she said, marveling at the thick forest and twisted old growth between them.
“Yes, it’s quite a bit different from where we come from, Anna. The air can get very humid in the summer and the trees you see stretch for hundreds of miles across New York and New England in the north, and down into Maryland and Virginia in the south. Just wait until you see the leaves change in the fall,” Eric said knowledgeably. Anna couldn’t seem to take it all in at once. Like the rest of the first-year students, she was wide eyed with awe.
The students followed each other in a long line across the docks and into a wooden building, where they climbed a series of steps toward several cable cars waiting for them at the top. Anna, Gwen, and Eric piled into an open car, along with a number of other first-year students. With a sharp lurch, the car started to ascend upward along its cable toward the mountains high above them.
As the car cleared the tops of the trees, Anna gasped at the sight below them. As Eric had said, there were hundreds of square miles of forested hills and mountains all around them for as far as she could see. She watched the Allegheny Pride dropping away, and spotted the miles of twisting river leading away from the dock on the other side.
They continued traveling higher in the tram, and finally flattened off as they reached the summit of the first mountain. Crossing onto the other side, Anna could see dozens of earthen peaks far below them.
“It’s so beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Anna said, and for the first time in her life she suddenly realized there might be other places in the world as beautiful as her far off home.
They rose again into thick white clouds, which blocked her view of everything beneath them. Within minutes, she could feel them leveling off once more and then begin to angle down. All of the students were straining to see through the clouds as they continued to descend.
“Look!” hollered a boy in the front. They all peered out the window again and could see the clouds thinning. The trees began to appear through the fog and what looked like a flat plateau suddenly fell into view.
“There it is! I can see it now. Over there, look — look! It’s Castlewood!” screamed a girl to their left. Everybody in the car dashed over to see where she was pointing. Looming out of the clouds below them, and into the late afternoon sun, stood the most incredible sight Anna had ever seen in her life. Finally, it was there.
“Castlewood!” Anna whispered. “It’s… it’s….”
“It’s unbelievable!” said another girl behind her. Anna looked at her brother standing next to her; she could see he was watching her every reaction.
“Exactly,” she said, softly.
The castle was huge, easily dwarfing everything else that might be standing on the plateau. More than a castle, Anna was amazed at the size and the area in which its foundation spread. Considering what she envisioned, the structure should have been called a complex rather than a building. Its stone walls rose high into the air and contained many spiral towers, and cobbled walkways joining them. The stone of the castle and its surrounding buildings took on a pinkish glow in the late evening sun, and the many angled roofs were covered in black slate. The castle’s inner and outer baileys where filled with tall structures, classrooms and assembly halls, no doubt, which contained hundreds of brightly lit mullion widows. The entire castle was set upon a hill, overlooking the rest of the plateau surrounding it.
As the tram dropped lower, the clouds around them eventually gave way and more of the grounds around the castle came into view.
“Wow, look at that!” said a boy pointing down on the other side of the car. Everybody moved as one to the opposite window to see more structures coming into view below them. Several buildings appeared within the castle’s shadow, with streets and walkways connecting them. And then, suddenly, there they were, the five great Union walls. Encircling the castle, they were arranged in the shape of a pentagon, with round towers protruding high into the air at the corners where they joined. The city rose upward on sloping hills between the Union walls and the huge castle set in its center.
“Is that Spellsburg?” asked Anna, pointing at the small buildings and streets dotting on the hills below the castle. She noticed all of the other first-years in the car were looking eagerly toward Eric for an answer.
“That’s right,” Eric replied. “Actually… you could say everything below us sitting on top of this plateau is Spellsburg. The castle and Union walls that form the Academy reside within the city. “Those large stadiums outside the walls are the Quidditch, Slalom, and Vollucross fields.”
Anna looked in wonder at the huge stadiums and their bleachers rising around the beautiful green and well-manicured fields within their middle. One of the stadiums was u-shaped, with the open end offering a clear view of the forest to the north.
As the cable cars bumped and rattled along, Anna noticed their route would take them down over one of the Union walls and directly into the city. As they crossed over, they could see the battlements and walk ways running its entire length.
“That’s the Labor Union Hall,” yelled another boy, pointing at the emerald green flags waving in the brisk wind atop some of the merlons. “My dad was in that Union!” he said with pride. Anna smiled and looked up at Eric, who was nodding at the boy.
The cars continued to drop into Spellsburg, and finally entered another wooden building, much like its twin down on the docks. With a loud ker-chunk, the car came to an abrupt stop and the doors slid open. The students made their way down another long series of groaning steps, leading to the exit below. There they found a large gathering space where the students mingled in a circle, waiting for the rest of the tramcars to arrive.
“Anna… come with me,” called Eric, grabbing her by the hand. Gwen was laughing as she followed along. “Stand here — next to these doors. This is where you’re gonna want to be when we enter the city streets.”
Anna looked at Eric and Gwen suspiciously and then frowned. “What’s going on? What are you two up to now?” she said, distrustfully.
Then, all at once, the doors behind her flew open. She turned, and was immediately pushed forward into the light by the crowd of students behind her. She stepped out onto a massive stone porch overlooking the street below. An immense crowd began cheering and clapping as the students stepped outside. Anna smiled. It seemed the whole town of Spellsburg had come to welcome them back to school.
A band in the back began to play, and the sparks from several wands shot into the sky. A very fat man, with a gray goatee and a bright yellow cloak, waded forward from the railing overlooking the crowd. He too was clapping madly. Eric pushed Anna in the back toward the fat man, who instantly grabbed her around the shoulder and walked her over to the edge of the railing. Anna didn’t exactly like being heaved around by this strange man, and she glanced back to give Eric a look of dismay at being placed into his clutches.
“Be nice, Anna,” Eric whispered. “He’s the Mayor of Spellsburg.” Anna quickly looked in shock at the man holding her captive, as Eric and Gwen started chuckling behind her. The Mayor raised his hand to quiet the crowd.
“Welcome! Welcome, one and all, back to Spellsburg. As the Mayor of this wonderful Wizarding city, it is my privilege and immense pleasure to tell our returning students how wonderful it is to see them among us once again. It is an honor to have you back in our midst.” The large crowd cheered loudly and started clapping all over again. Anna was happy about the excitement, but very embarrassed at being singled out and placed in the front. As the crowd continued to clap joyously, the Mayor leaned in to whisper into Anna’s ear.
“What is your name, my dear, and where are you from?”
“Anna Grayson, sir,” replied Anna fretfully.
“Are you a first-year?”
“Yes, sir, from California.” The Mayor looked somewhat surprised, and then glanced around to find Eric standing behind them. The man tilted his head toward Anna to confirm the family connection and Eric nodded. The Mayor smiled and then cleared his throat before raising his hand to silence the crowd.
“This here… is Miss Anna Grayson of California, and she’s obviously a very long way from home.” The Mayor overacted an exaggerated chuckle. “I guess it would be natural for somebody like Anna to feel… a little out of place. After all… she’s coming into a new school, with new students and teachers, and now… a new town. But the citizens of Spellsburg would like to tell Anna, and the rest of our first-year students arriving today, that you are most welcome here. We’re excited to see you, and we are looking forward to meeting each and every one of you personally. We are your community now, and thus, your new family.
“For the next ten months, you will call our great city your place of residence. But, speaking for the good people here before you today, we hope you will eventually call Spellsburg your home. Welcome home — one and all!” And with these words, the crowd exploded into thunderous cheers, and the band began to play once again. Anna smiled politely, even as the Mayor yanked her arm above her head along with his own. She could hear Eric and Gwen laughing madly behind her. She turned to glare back at them.
“Remind me to kill you two later,” she said, through her clinched, smiling teeth. The Mayor eventually let Anna go, and then escorted the new students down the stone steps and into the streets below.
“Onward to Castlewood!” he bellowed loudly, as he led them through the cobblestone streets and up the winding hills toward the castle. Many of the shopkeepers lining the streets reached out to shake the student’s hands as they passed by.
“Welcome to Spellsburg, my dear,” said a kindly old lady in a soft blue apron, standing in front of one of the stores.
“Thank you,” Anna replied, allowing herself to slowly fall back so as to inspect the small shops and businesses along their route. It all seemed so incredible. There was The Wompum Emporium, makers of fine robes and clothing, Mister Banshee’s Parchment and Stationary, Turner and Steele Books, Ms. Rigger’s Sporting Goods and Supplies, and several quaint looking restaurants.
“So… you done speechifying to the masses, Annie-G?” laughed Gwen, sliding her arm around Anna’s waist.
“Ha-ha-ha, you two are a riot. Where’s that brother of mine? I owe him a right hook to the jaw.”
Gwen snorted. “He’s gone ahead, said he’d meet you inside the castle.”
Humph! “Coward!” Anna snorted. Then, looking down the street in front of them, she said, “Look at all of this. I had no idea there was so much here.”
“Oh, this is nothing. There are two more streets running parallel to this one just a block over. They follow the Union Halls all the way around the castle. They weren’t kidding when they called this place a city. It’s absolutely huge; one of the biggest Wizarding cities in the world.”
The girls made their way through streets with odd names like Wizards Way and Dragon Drive, and Gwen took the time to show Anna some of her favorite places to shop. Eventually, they found their way to the castle entrance, where the rest of the students had gathered to wait for the front doors to open. The Mayor, now carrying an ornate walking staff, crossed over the drawbridge lying flat across a moat surrounding the castle. As he reached the immense double doors, he lifted his staff and gave the wood three heavy raps. With a loud rumble, the massive doors began to swing open, revealing another arched, iron gate inside. Two scarlet-cloaked guards stood at attention within.
“Who goes there?” yelled one of the guards, sounding somewhat rehearsed.
“It is I, Ulric Prower, Mayor of the fine city of Spellsburg.”
“What is your business here, sir?”
“I have come to deliver this year’s students into the hands of the Chancellor of this wizarding school. Does the Chancellor accept the responsibility of these young souls left in my care?”
“He does indeed, sir. On behalf of the Chancellor, the guards of Castlewood thank you for your watchful care.”
And with that, the massive chains attaching the gate to its counterweight went taut and began to rattle as they lifted the spiked portcullis high into the air, removing the last barrier into the castle. The crowd of students standing on the drawbridge began to cheer loudly.
“Whelp… you’ll be going in with the other first-years to orientation,” Gwen said to Anna. “I’ll see you again at the joining tonight, all right?”
“Okay… and thanks for the tour.” Gwen smiled and turned to follow the other students through the iron gate.
As the rest of the students filed passed the gatehouse, a lone figure stood watching from a window high above them. An old wizard, with shockingly white hair and very dark glasses, gazed out as the crowd made their way through the doors and into the castle grounds. Finally, he noticed one student standing alone on the drawbridge. He could see the young girl, with flaming red hair, looking skyward toward the highest parts of the castle above her. The old wizard curled a small smile.
Anna stood there on the drawbridge watching the other students walk through the gate. She stared straight up at the castle’s gigantic edifice and smiled. She made it; she was finally here. Anna dropped to her knees and, with a single, final prayer, she asked God to give her the strength she needed to keep her father’s trust and bring honor to her family.
As the old wizard watched, a knock was heard at his door.
“Chancellor Thordarson… the students have arrived, sir,” said a young man wrapped in a red cloak, now standing inside the door. The wizard turned and smiled.
“Ah, yes… young minds full of potential have come to us for molding. The responsibility boggles the mind, don’t you think?”
“Yes, sir,” said the man with a guarded smile. There was a long pause as the wizard began collecting a few items from his desk.
“Every year we see more and more of them come though our doors,” the guard said, “but very few ever leave their mark. Do you believe such a person exists in this new batch, Professor?”
The Chancellor looked outside again, and watched the red headed girl rise from her knees and walk slowly through the front gate. He smiled again as he turned.
“You know… I believe so. In fact, I expect this school will never be the same after this year.” The old wizard walked out of his office, leaving the young man standing alone and looking very surprised.