Eyes of Sapphire Blue
The rest of Anna’s History of Magic class was fairly dull. Their teacher, Madam Bolcher, told them they would be required to find study partners for an end of term project on the legal differences between ‘beasts’ and ‘beings’ and why it was that Centaurs insisted on being called a ‘beast’ when, “As we all know, the Ministry Convention of 1811 tried to grant them ‘being’ status.”
Anna broke the boredom by answering very difficult questions given to them by continually touching the wall next to her, and listening to the magical voices within the stones for the answers. Anna’s knack for always getting the right response, lead TJ to announce, “I’ve found my study buddy!”
Anna’s final class of the day was The Study of the Dark Arts, which was held in a remote section of the castle well suited to their lessons. As Anna and the rest of her class made their way to the furthest north castle tower, it seemed to them the whole structure was specifically built for teaching the Dark Arts. There were quite a few rather hideous ghosts in this section of the castle; their pearl white, translucent bodies hovered aimlessly through the walls and corridors around them. They could hear several far-off moans and the occasional scream throughout the tower, which the older students seemed to ignore as they made their way to class.
Due to her late start on day-one, Anna was unable to make her scheduled morning appointment to meet their Dark Arts teacher, so the entire trip to the north tower was a first time experience for her. The fire-laden torches on the walls seemed to enjoy separating themselves from their holders to follow the students through the corridors, leaving the hallways behind them dark and alarmingly fearsome. After a number of mistaken turns, and one very embarrassing entry into the wrong class, Anna finally found her room and sat. Once again Sarah shared the same class with her, and Anna’s roommate seemed particularly interested in staying very close to her while they waited for the teacher’s arrival.
“Oh, I met her on day-one,” Sarah said, clutching her book close to her chest. “I heard some of the older students say she used to be an Auror, some kind of evil wizard hunter. I think she’s very scary.”
A few moments later, a squeaking door in the back opening slowly by itself announced the arrival of their Dark Art’s teacher. From out of the shadows beyond came… a woman. Or, at least, that’s what Anna was given to surmise. It was rather hard to tell, seeing she was dressed all in black and an open cloak that covered most of her body. Anna could see she was wearing a snug-fitting, black dress that wrapped itself tightly about her ankles more than it did her waist. The hem of the dress seemed to crawl strangely around her feet in all directions like some misshapen spider, completely hiding her shoes. But the strangest thing about the women was the black veil she wore, which covered her head entirely down to her shoulders, giving the impression of someone in deep mourning.
She slowly glided between the desks to the front of the class without saying a word, and several students cringed involuntarily in their seats as she passed. It was like watching a one-woman funeral precession, and it didn’t help that several howling dogs, crying coincidently in the distance, joined her ominous entry. When she reached the front, the veiled figure slowly turned to face the class and then spoke in a grumbled, painfully injured voice mixed with an eastern inflection.
“Rock-climbing,” she said forcefully, the breath from her words scarcely moving the thin, black veil covering her face. The class sat stunned, glancing carefully around the room at each other with puzzled faces. Finally, a plucky young boy in the front row broke the silence.
“Beg… your pardon, Professor?”
“Have any of you been rock-climbing?” Once again, there was complete silence. “In my youth, I was an avid climber. In fact, I traveled all over the world, to the most dangerous places one could find, seeking the thrills of my sport.”
Anna immediately thought this explained everything, why this teacher was covered from head to toe in shawls of black cloth. She must have taken a fall off a cliff somewhere. And, judging by the tormented way she was speaking, she must have hit her head far too many times on the way down.
“There are two basic rules you must follow when climbing with your comrades. The first is this: If anything were to fall from your hand, be it a stone, a piece of equipment, your helmet, or the sandwich from your lunch… you should always yell — ROCK!” the class jumped in their seats. “This will warn those in danger below you, and keep them from getting their heads bashed in.” She paused to take in another rattled breath.
“The second rule is to never let your knees touch the wall.”
Once again, the students looked at each other in utter bewilderment. What in the world did this lesson have to do with the Dark Arts?
“Call it pride, tradition, ego or nobility, the fact is if you want respect among your climbing peers, you must stay off your knees while you work. Using one’s knees while ascending is tantamount to admitting the task is too difficult, that you’ve given up doing things the correct and proper way.” She stopped again, and looked around at the confused faces staring up at her.
“My name is Professor Grushilda Van Doorn, and you will find my methods for studying the Dark Arts quite different than what you may find at other schools in the Wizarding World. Some of these schools concentrate wholly on the use of what we commonly call Dark Magic. Some only teach defense against these dark arts. Here… we will do both. We will start with dark curses and their counter spells; then… we will move on to poisons and antidotes. We will study dangerous creatures used by dark wizards, and then to the psychology of good versus evil.
“Some will tell you the study of the Dark Arts should never be allowed as a subject of discussion. I say they’re wrong. These enchantments, spells, and curses can be quite useful at the appropriate time. For just as climbers will work to stay off their knees, in the heat of a deadly moment, they will quite naturally use every trick God has given them to save themselves from being killed. This is not a bad thing, but quite natural and, in fact, sometimes necessary to save yourself and those closest to you. You should use all of the tools given to you, including your wits, experience, and yes… even your knees if that’s what’s necessary to save yourself. Just be sure to yell ‘rock’ to warn the innocent around you, and understand, when the danger has passed, you must return to what is socially proper. You must get off your knees as soon as you possibly can.”
She turned to move back around to the space between her desk and the chalkboard. “You should know… I do not have a problem using the darker elements of magic for the purposes of defending myself or to save an innocent life — especially if that life is my own. Some would disagree. In their mind, it is better to die a noble death, not using dark magic, than it is to save one’s life utilizing this knowledge. But as our Chancellor said last night… truth, and I would also say knowledge, are things we should never fear. In the end, however, the choice is yours to make. I will give you both the tools and the knowledge, and then you must decide between nobility… and death.”
And so they began. By the end of the class, Anna and the rest of the students were moving between two books, The Dark Forces: A Guide to Self-Protection, Grade One, by Quentin Trimble. and Dark Spells through the Ages, by Brewella Cursomal. While one book focused on a very complex array of curses one could use on another, the other taught the students how to defend themselves against wizards intent upon using them. Professor Van Doorn made no moral distinction between the two books, moving easily from one to the other with her passions focused on their self-preservation. Finally, the bell rang and the class made their way down from north tower among the continuing far-off moans around them.
“Wow, I’ve never — ever had a class that remotely strange in my life,” Anna told Sarah as they entered the main castle. “Professor Van Doorn has got to be the creepiest thing walking on two legs.”
“I’m not sure she’s got legs under all that stuff she wears,” Sarah replied fearlessly and well away from the north tower.
Anna spent the rest of the fading afternoon sharing an early dinner with Gwen, and Anna told her about the notice of detention she had received that morning from Captain Dunning.
“I tried to warn you about Debbie Dunning, didn’t I? Now, on top of getting detention, you’re going to have to put up with that hound dog following you all over the school.”
Anna also told Gwen about Sarah’s premonitions the night before. Gwen stared opened mouthed as she told her about the evil one, and how Sarah’s statements compared to the things Anna had heard while inside the Mirror of Enlightenment. When she told her about Sarah’s father, Anna could tell Gwen was fit to burst with excitement.
“Wow, can you imagine telling somebody they were going to die? It’s a wonder the shock alone didn’t kill the poor man. So… did you check on your family? Everybody’s okay, right?”
“As far as I know, they are. Sarah made me send Hobbs around to make sure everybody was all right here at the castle, and then I sent another owl home during the break. I got a sarcastic message back from Damon, telling me I should be paying more attention to my studies than bothering him with questions about how he slept.”
“But you don’t really believe this stuff, do you?”
Anna looked skeptical. “Nah; I don’t go in for all that gypsy fortune-telling stuff. It just never made any sense to me. Everything they say can usually be interpreted to mean just about anything. I’m sure Sarah believes what she’s saying, but it’s just too far out there for me to accept.”
“Yeah, but all that stuff about the evil one. That’s really creepy. It must have sent a chill up your spine when you heard that, eh?” Gwen said, chuckling as she took another sip of her soup. She thought for a moment, and then, “You know… it’s possible Sarah might be a Seer.”
“A Seer? What’s that?”
“Somebody who can see the future and make prophecies. They do exist out there in the wizarding world; I’ve heard of them before now.”
Anna stared at her friend in surprise. “You’re serious? People… who can tell the future?”
“Sure. In fact, before Professor Thordarson became Chancellor, they used to teach a class called Divination here at the school, which supposedly allowed students to study the craft. There was a famous Seer named Cassandra Trelawney back about a hundred years ago; we studied her in History of Magic last year. She was said to be a really accurate prophetess. In fact, she has a relative teaching Divination now at Hogwarts. My dad told me about her once.”
“No… really.” Gwen said, leaning back. “You never know; maybe Sarah has the gift.”
They finished their dinner and, at five o’clock, made their way down to the entrance hall, across the inner courtyard, and over the drawbridge into Spellsburg. The walk gave Anna another opportunity to take in the sights around the city before starting her detention. She could see several older students sitting at tiny circular tables outside Madam Aroma’s coffee shop, enjoying the remaining evening in friendly conversation. They all nodded at Anna and Gwen as they passed by on the street.
The girls wound their way down the streets of Spellsburg to the city gates, which lead them through the Union walls and onto the open plateau outside. They traveled across the beautifully manicured lawns between the city gates and the colossal Vollucross stadium, which stood looming high above them and where Gwen said the stables would be found. As they walked along, they talked about the day’s classes and the various teachers Anna had met. They were joking about the funny way Professor Van Doorn dressed when Anna suddenly realized something was very wrong. With each passing and frightening second, the feeling of rising tension seemed to reveal itself swiftly into one single word.
“Duck!” Anna yelled, and she grabbed Gwen by the sleeve of her robe to yank her down.
There was a heavy rush of wind over their heads as something fast and very big flew over them. Anna looked up and her mouth dropped at what she saw.
Sure enough, two large chestnut beasts, the size of elephants, rose high into the air on massive out-stretched wings. Anna got to her feet and stumbled forward as the riders banked into a sharp turn, one chasing the other, back in her direction. Another rush of wind hit her full in the chest, blowing her robes behind her as they passed on either side.
“Amazing!” Anna yelled, as she spun around to watch them fly off toward the edge of the plateau.
“What did you expect?” Gwen said, straightening her disheveled robes and brushing off the grass.
“What? Did you know about them?”
“Of course I knew. I… wait a minute. What did you think you were going to see out here, regular horses?” Gwen started to laugh.
“Of course I thought they would be horses! Doctor Pearl didn’t say anything about these creatures. Is that what they race in the stadium?”
“That’s what Vollucross is, silly. Oh — this is funny,” Gwen said, stepping in next to Anna. They stared into the distance together, watching the horses slowly flapping out of site. Gwen folded her arms and frowned. “You know… now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a regular horse on this mountain.”
“Really? You mean they all fly?” Anna said, taken aback.
“Well, all the ones with wings,” Gwen said teasingly, and then she began to giggle.
“So you’re saying they all have wings?” Anna was so thrilled she started running toward the stadium without waiting for the answer.
“Of course they all have wings, hard to fly without ’em.” Gwen yelled back, but her friend’s voice was fading quickly behind her as Anna headed for the steel gates at the stadium entrance.
“Anna, wait! They’re not going anywhere. Wait for me!”
Anna’s heart was pounding with excitement as she entered the stadium and quickly found her way into its center arena. When she stepped into the light again, Anna looked up and gasped. There were thousands and thousands of empty seats, encircled around an open field in its middle. The sides of the structure seemed to climb straight up, creating enormous slopes of marble high in the air. A strong wind was blowing into the stadium through a huge gap at the end of the wall, which stood open to the Shadowed Forest beyond. In the distance, Anna could see another horse coming into view. The creature was gray, and looked even bigger than the others she had seen on the plateau. It shot over her head with a whoosh, its wings stretching into a slow turn. She could see the rider leaning hard to his right struggling to keep his balance.
“Hold up, you!” Gwen said, finally catching up to her. She fell against Anna’s shoulder holding the painful stitch in her side and wincing up at the flying horse now gliding in for a landing.
“He needs to shift his weight the other way on that turn,” Anna said, pointing at the rider.
“Oh? I didn’t realize you were such an expert on flying beasts,” Gwen said, panting and grimacing to stand straight.
“I’m not, but he’d fall off any horse riding like that.”
Sure enough, a few seconds later, the horse landed hard with a thump, its large rear hooves sliding through the grass and cutting deep groves into the turf. The creature’s powerful wings were beating furiously as he rocked forward to bring his front feet down and, when it did, Anna could see the boy losing his balance.
“Watch out!” Anna yelled, but it was too late. In a flash, the boy was tossed forward, over the reins, and into the air. He landed flat on his back in the mud and wet grass with a deadening thump.
“Ooofff!” he huffed loudly as he bounced onto the soft ground.
Gwen ran over to the rider, as Anna stood transfixed, staring at the beautiful gray horse in golden shoes. The winged creature snorted angrily at the boy lying in the mud before him, and then shook his huge head as if glad to be rid of him. Anna’s first impulse was to jump into the now empty saddle and kick off into the air herself, but a loud voice snapped her attention back again.
“What in the world do you think you were doing, Mr. Durkin?” yelled the voice from across the stadium. It was Doctor Pearl. She was running over with a look of angry scorn carved in her face, a silver whistle and a pair of binoculars bouncing off her chest from her neck.
Gwen was helping the boy back to his feet.
“Thanks,” he said, using her arm to steady himself. He saw Pearl running toward him and whispered, “Oh-Lordy… she’s going to have a few words to say.” He tried to straighten. “Not to worry, Doctor. I’m okay.” But Pearl wasn’t interested in the boy at all. She grabbed the reins of the winged horse, and then squatted down to look at one of his legs. She then whipped around to face the boy.
“I was not concerned with you, Mr. Durkin, but with my horse. This Granian gray has a bad rear leg. I told you that before you set off. A landing like that could very well have caused him permanent damage. And why wasn’t your harness clipped in?” She turned to look at the horse once again.
“There — there, now, Tornado. It’s all right, boy. It’s all my fault for allowing an uncaring knucklehead in your saddle; forgive me. He didn’t hurt you did he?” she said, patting the horse’s shoulder. The horse began licking the doctor’s face.
“No need to make a fuss about me, Doctor. I think I’m fine too.” the boy said, wincing with an undertone of sarcasm. Gwen giggled as the boy winked at her, and then twisted around at the waist to check his back for damage. He was a tall boy with dark, wavy hair and an olive complexion, and, judging by the way Gwen seemed to be fawning over him, he seemed to be just her type… handsome and male.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine, Durkin,” Pearl said, waving him off unsympathetically. “How many times must I tell you? You have to shift your weight opposite during that turn.”
Anna smiled, and then glanced over to Gwen who rolled her eyes.
“That’s just what Anna said during his approach,” Gwen reported, in obvious payback for Anna’s correctness.
“Did she, now?” said Pearl, smiling over at Anna. “Then perhaps the day is not a complete loss; I might find a real rider tonight after all,” she said, scowling at Durkin again.
“I’m glad you decided to join us so quickly, Miss Grayson.”
“Well, actually, I was told to report to Mr. Kingston for, ah… detention,” Anna admitted shyly. “I’m supposed to find him for some… uh… extra duties.”
Doctor Pearl’s face fell. “Detention? Already? Well, that’s not an agreeable way to start the school year, young lady.”
“Yes, Ma’am. I’m afraid my father will probably agree with you.”
Pearl frowned, remembering the stern nature of Mister Grayson back at the estate.
“Yes, you’re probably right. I don’t envy your position when he finds out about this. Well — off you go, then. Mr. Kingston can be found in the stables under those steps.” She pointed behind her. “Come back and see me when you’ve finished. If it isn’t too dark, we’ll see about getting you a mount.”
Anna’s face lit up like a child at Christmas.
“Yes Ma’am!” she said, a bit louder than intended.
“I’ll wait for you here,” Gwen said, her eyes darting animatedly toward the Durkin boy next to her.
Anna leered at her friend understandingly.
“Behave yourself,” she said sternly, and then laughed at the angelic smile Gwen forced upon her face as Anna turned and dashed off in the direction given.
She entered a large group of buildings tucked under the stadium steps on the opposite end of the field. There, she found a tall, thin man in dirty overalls, cleaning the shoes on a beautiful horse in a red velveteen blanket. Anna noticed the shape of the creature’s head was somewhat different than what she expected. His face was broad, with short clumps of hair growing down his forehead, and a series of raised spurs starting from his ears and running down his jaw-line. He also had dazzling opal eyes set deep within lifted sockets.
“Hello,” Anna said, smiling brightly and staring at the horse.
“Why — hello there, missy. What can I do you for?” replied the man, lowering the horse’s foot and wiping his hands on his soiled pants.
“Are you Mr. Kingston? Hi, my name is Anna Grayson,” she said, shaking the man’s dirty hand uncaringly.
“Grayson, you say? Any relation to the Graysons of California?”
Anna nodded. “Yep, that’s us,” she replied proudly.
“Well… I’ll be. Excellent! Good to see another Grayson in the stables. I know your brother, Eric. Best rider in the school, in my opinion.” Anna grinned as Mr. Kingston walked around his horse and glanced over at Anna from the other side.
“So, what do you think of my friend here?” he said, flashing a testing gaze Anna’s way.
Anna smiled, taking the question as permission to have a closer look at the magnificent animal.
“Could do with a good brushing, I suppose,” she said, glancing down at the horse’s feet. “And his stifle looks a little swollen to me; he keeps shifting his weight off the hock.”
Anna continued to inspect the horse, while Kingston tried to hide a surprised grin behind her.
“Care to talk me through a cleaning,” he said, handing Anna a pick. Anna stared at the tool for a moment and then smiled eagerly. She took the pick from his hand as she contemplated on which foot to start.
“Okay. Well, if you're right-handed, like me,” she carefully raised one of the horse’s huge feet to her knee, “it’s best to transfer the foot from your right hand to your left so your right is free to use the hoof pick, which should be fairly blunt,” she said, running a thumb over the tool’s edge. “It doesn't need to be sharp to do its job, and you don't want to risk an accidental injury. Insert the point into the cleft and run it down one side of the frog, then the other, heel to toe, to remove any caked mud and dirt.” Anna worked expertly as she spoke while Kingston looked on. “Then, GENTLY, clean out the cleft in the center of the frog.”
“Gently? Why?” asked the stable master, testingly.
“Well, a horse with chronic thrush could be a little tender or sore there. Never hurts to be safe,” Anna said, not looking up. Kingston smiled again while Anna continued working. “Arc your pick around the shoe's inside rim to clean out anything left clinging there. Then put the foot down, and transfer the pick from the right hand to your left. I always let my horse know when I’m moving to the back legs; don’t like to surprise him while I’m back there.”
Mr. Kingston reached in to take the tool from Anna’s hand.
“Okay, you know your way around a horse. I’m convinced.” Anna grinned, before reluctantly surrendered the pick. “So, besides admiring my Aethonan flyer here,” Kingston said, patting the horse on the rump, “What brings you in to see us? Tryouts for the Union teams don’t start until next month.”
“No, actually, I’m here for detention,” Anna said, somewhat embarrassed.
Mr. Kingston smiled and then shook his head. “Had a run-in with old Debbie Dunning, did you?”
Anna was surprised. “Yes, she was involved. But how did you know that?”
“Sending students into the stables to clean out these stalls is one of her favorite punishments. Guess she relishes the thought of her victims cleaning out the filth down here. Doesn’t say much for us common folk who do it everyday for a living, now does it?”
“Well, I don’t see anything wrong with it. I do it all the time at home. Frankly, I’d rather be in here cleaning these stables than sitting in some of the boring classes I have up at the castle,” Anna said, thinking about her History of Magic class and looking down at the horse’s swollen leg again.
Mr. Kingston grinned. “Well… I’d better give you some chores to do, just to keep things honest. Why don’t you head down to the other end of the barn to the stables there on the left. Pick yourself out a half dozen stalls, clean them out, and then come find me when you’re done. I’ll sign your detention slip and send you on your way. That sound fair enough?”
“Yes, sir,” Anna replied, and she grabbed an extra apron off a rail and headed off.
After a few winding turns she found the stalls, which contained some of the most wondrous creatures Anna had ever seen in her life. There were white, gray, and chestnut horses with enormous wings neatly folded to the sides and along their backs. The beasts were enormous, and she completely lost track of the time as she went about, looking in every space to inspect the marvelous creatures within.
She reached a dark corner of the stable and looked in a stall set apart from all the rest. At first, Anna didn’t see anything but an empty space, but as she turned to walk away her feet seemed to come to stop by themselves. She slowly leaned back to look into the stall again, her eyes straining to see within its dark gloom.
Hmmmmm, there is something in there, she thought to herself curiously; she could feel it more than see it. Anna frowned and then closed her eyes to focus her mind, probing again through the musty shadows. She could hear the faint heartbeat of a massive creature in the back of the stall yet unseen. Anna opened her eyes and smiled.
“Hello. I may not be able to see you, but I know you’re in there. Why can’t I see you?”
There was no movement; nothing to suggest something might be there. Anna looked down at the bolt securing the gate below her, and then quickly looked around to make sure nobody would protest. She slid the latch over and opened the squeaking door to step inside. There was a loud snort from the dark corner of the stall and Anna froze.
“So… there you are,” she said, straining to see through the darkened haze. She could see every inch of the space within the stall, but the animal inside was totally invisible to her. “Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you. I’d like to see you, if I can,” she said, stepping into the middle of the space. She heard another loud snort in the back corner and then noticed large dents in the straw moving from the weight of something heavy pushing into it. Anna moved closer and immediately heard an annoyed grunt in the corner once more. She stopped.
“Where are you? How come can’t I see you?” Anna’s eyes raced about the stall, looking for anything that might tell her what was moving near the back wall. She watched carefully as a buzzing fly circling through the air finally stopped to land in midair on… absolutely nothing. There was a sound of rustling feathers and the fly started buzzing about the stall once again.
Trying to think of something that might sooth the beast, Anna slowly sat down on the damp straw, wondering what she might do to get the creature to appear to her. This was amazing. She was almost certain it was another horse, something invisible, but how could she get it to show itself? She sat quietly for a while before looking at the floor around her.
“When was the last time somebody cleaned your stall?” she said, frowning. There was no reply. “Well I should be able to fix that for you.” She stood and opened the gate again. She found a pair of gloves and a pitchfork hanging on a hook, grabbed a fresh bail of straw and a large roller-bin next to it. She slid them across the floor and went back inside. Anna began cleaning the stall, purposely avoiding the far corner where she knew the invisible resident stood watching her. After cleaning the floor and spreading fresh straw, Anna turned to face the empty corner once more.
“Well… there you go. I hope one day you’ll let me see you,” Anna said, in a somewhat pleading voice. She turned to leave, but another loud snort from behind made her stop.
Anna looked back, and saw the empty footsteps moving forward toward her, and she watched hopefully for something to walk out of the shadows. The steps stopped in front of her, and now she could hear the beast breathing somewhere above her head. She reached up into the blankness to touch a face on an enormous head. She stroked him gently and then began to brush his powerful neck and shoulders. This was, by far, the biggest horse Anna had ever seen or, in this case, not seen in her life. She placed her hand on the side of his cheek and concentrated on the creature’s nervousness, trying hard to find a way to ease his tension. She could feel a powerful sense of loss, loneliness, and the impression of being completely out of place.
Closing her eyes, she began to see a vision of a large, black horse, standing in front of a paned window gazing outward. The window was foggy and somehow blurred, even with the bright light pouring in from the other side. Anna walked up to the horse in her mind, which didn’t acknowledge her presence as he stood staring out and into the milky haze of the glass. Anna peeked out, trying to understand what the horse was trying to see. She stepped up and used the sleeve of her robe to wipe away the fog from his view, and there, standing on the other side, was another horse trying to look in. Immediately, the black horse behind her seemed to come alive upon seeing the other through the window. It was as if they knew each other.
The vision ended and Anna slowly opened her eyes and looked up at the still invisible horse above her.
“I’ll bet you’re very beautiful,” she said quietly.
And then, it happened. The room in front of her started to ripple and distort. It shimmered, as if giving off a tremendous amount of heat. Anna stepped back as the light started to bend in different directions around a huge object now coming into view. And then, suddenly, from out of the darkness, two very large, blue eyes the size of apples appeared and moved forward. A second later, a massive black horse appeared behind the eyes from out of nothingness.
“Oh — my God.” Anna gulped. “It’s… you! The flying stallion from my dreams!” Anna reached forward without thinking, and threw her arms around the horse’s neck. “I can’t believe you’re real,” she said, looking into his huge face. Anna could almost see the shimmering waters of her far-away home deep within his sapphire blue eyes.
“What in blue-blazes are you doing, there?” yelled a man’s voice behind her. Both Anna and the horse looked up. Mr. Kingston was standing there in a dirty apron with a look of disbelief etched on his face.
“I was… ah… his stall was very dirty. I just finished cleaning it out for him.”
“Well, I’ll be…” the man said, staring at the black horse. “Swooper!”
He dropped the bucket he was carrying, splashing the soapy water within all over his pants and soiled boots. He quickly fumbled at the gate’s bolt, pulled it open, and then ran over to the horse to grab both sides of his head.
“Swooper! I can’t believe it! It’s wonderful to see you again! Oh Swooper!” He hugged the horse, and the creature shook his head and ruffled his huge wings like a bird just landing after a very long journey. Kingston looked over at Anna.
“I thought we’d lost him forever. What did you do?”
Anna wasn’t sure what to say; was she in trouble again?
“I didn’t do anything, really. I could tell he was in here. He seemed a little shy to show himself, so I… just kind of coaxed him out of his shell.”
“A shell he’s been living in going on two years now.”
“That’s right. Coaxed him out, did you say? Huh! You must have done more than that. He’s been invisible to all of us for more than a year.”
“Really? That long? But…why? What happened to him?”
“He lost his mate a while back. She was killed during a race two years ago. Accidentally ran into a tree in the Shadowed Forest. Since then, he’s never been the same. And after a while, he just faded away into invisibility. He’s a Thorse, part Threstral and horse. Powerfully magical creatures, these Threstrals, but very rare and highly sensitive to diffused light. Most of the winged horses have limitations that keep them from being good Vollucross fliers, so Doctor Pearl and I breed them, you see.” He looked back at the horse again. “And Swooper here was one of the best. He has the power of invisibility, which makes them a force to be reckoned with in the skies over the Shadowed Forest. But nobody has been able to ride Swooper since the day of the accident. Oh Swooper… it’s so good to see you again, boy. Bloody good to see you,” the stable master repeated, hugging the horse again.
He turned to Anna. “I can’t thank you enough, Miss Anna,” Kingston said through red, swollen eyes, before reaching out to squash her in a very rough hug.
Anna smiled. “I really didn’t do anything… honestly.”
Kingston wiped the tears from his eyes and sniffed. “Rubbish, there’s no doubt I owe you big for what you’ve done for our Swooper, here. Tell you what,” he said excitedly, “since you’ve already cleaned out this stall, why don’t you put away your tools, get yourself cleaned up, and we’ll call it even.”
Anna smiled again. “Now that’s a deal,” she said, picking up her fork and gloves.
“Come out to the stadium when you’re done, and we’ll see if we can find a rider to get Swooper into the air before it gets dark.”
“Yes, sir!” Anna yelped excitedly, as she turned to set off.
“Come on Swooper. Just wait until Pearl sees you! You’re going to send her to tears,” he said, blowing his wet nose into a very dirty handkerchief as he carefully walked the horse outside.
Ten minutes later, Anna was racing onto the stadium grounds. There, in the middle of the grass, stood the black horse along with Kingston, Doctor Pearl, Gwen, Durkin, and several other students. Anna couldn’t help noticing how much bigger the horse looked outside in the evening glow of the falling sun. His huge black-feathered wings gave off an array of beautiful iridescent colors; they were shimmering with blue, purple and green as he flapped over his shoulders, eager to fly. He hardly seemed like the same horse that, just a while ago, stood quiet in his stall, miserable and lost.
“Ah — and here is our hero of the day,” Doctor Pearl said, seeing Anna running toward them. Anna could see Pearl had been crying, but was almost giddy with happiness.
“Miss Grayson, I don’t know how we can possibly thank you for what you did for poor Swooper,” she said, hugging the horse again. But the horse’s impatience was obvious as he flapped his wings madly, wanting to go up. “Calm yourself boy; we’ll get you in the air soon enough.”
The doctor narrowed a stare at Anna as if struggling with a difficult decision. “I’d like a word with you, Grayson, if you please,” she said, putting her arm around Anna’s shoulder and directing her away from the others.
“Anna… this is a critical moment for Swooper. He’s just awakened from a sleep of deep despair. It’s very unusual to get a second chance with a Thorse after they’ve been gone this long. His awakening must be reinforced now!” Pearl said animatedly, her fists clinched.
“He needs an experienced rider, somebody who knows how to handle a creature with this much power. But I’m afraid by the time I get somebody out here, it’ll be too dark and we’ll miss our chance. He’s got to fly tonight to reinforce this positive turn. Normally, I would never ask a first-year to do this, but you’ve made a connection with this creature. That cannot be denied. I would take Swooper up myself, but he never took to me being in his saddle.”
Anna held her breath not daring to assume what she was about to hear.
“I’d like you to consider taking him up.”
Anna’s mouth dropped as she looked at the massive horse jumping and kicking wildly behind them.
“Yes… please!” Anna whispered back. “Oh — my God — yes,” she said, eagerly grabbing Pearl’s arm.
“Good. I appreciate your spunk, but courage is needed here as well, Anna. This is an enormously powerful animal. What I’m asking of you is way out of line, and risky, because I can’t guarantee he’ll adhere to his training once he’s in the air again. He’s been down for so long,” her voice trailed off, and a look of deep concern appeared on her face.
“Doctor, I know you won’t believe this,” Anna said, looking back at the horse again, “but I’ve dreamed my whole life about this moment. You’ll have to trust me when I say we’ve taken this ride a thousand times before today.”
Pearl considered her and then smiled. “I’ll escort you to the locker room and get you fitted with the proper riding clothes.” She turned suddenly. “Mr. Kingston, would you get a saddle on Swooper for us?
“Come along, dear,” she said, rushing Anna forward by the elbow, “we’re losing the light. While a Threstral’s sense of direction is legendary, Swooper is nearly blind at night and easily lost. We’ve got to hurry.”
Anna followed Pearl inside the building and then emerged minutes later wearing leather pants, boots, a long-sleeve, coarse-haired shirt, and carrying a bright yellow harness. Swooper was saddled and more than eager to go. The horse was floating a few feet off the ground, flapping his wings and kicking wildly around him. Kingston was trying his best to anchor him by the reins.
“Whoa — boy,” yelled Kingston. “He’s very excited, Doctor! Are you sure this is a good idea? Perhaps we should wait for Eric. It has been two years since Swooper’s been up.”
“Yes — yes, that would be sensible, but it’ll be dark by the time we can get him out here. We need to get Swooper up now with what light we have left or we might lose him again to his despair. If Anna is half the rider her brother is, then we’ll have all we need for the moment.”
Kingston seemed unconvinced. “He seems a creature possessed, Pearl. I’d be concerned for any student…”
“Anna is the one who made contact and brought on this awakening. If she takes him up, I know it will bolster him further.”
Kingston reluctantly nodded, before being temporarily yanked off his feet. The Durkin boy rushed in to help with the reins.
“Now Anna, listen to me very carefully,” Pearl said eagerly. “You’ll be hooked into the saddle with the harness, so there won’t be any chance of you falling off. We want to start off slow and low; under twenty feet. Do you understand? He’s trained to stay low until he hears my whistle. If I see your riding abilities are up to the task, I’ll sound the whistle again, and allow you to climb to one hundred feet. But keep him inside the stadium. Then, if I’m confident you’re working well together, I will blow the whistle a final time, raising your ceiling to five hundred feet. Then you can take him out onto the plateau. All right? Do you understand?” Anna nodded vigorously as she pulled the harness over her shoulders and worked the many buckles in the front. Pearl quickly inspected her work.
“All right then, saddle up!”
Kingston pulled down on the reins, and Durkin gave Anna a leg up. She clipped her harness into the metal loop on the front of the saddle, and then took hold of the reins.
Pearl smiled up at her. “She looks like a pro already. Anna — another thing; by Spellsburg law, you are not allowed to go above five hundred feet. Do you understand?”
“Yes Ma’am,” Anna replied anxiously. “Five hundred feet.”
“I mean it. No higher! Five hundred feet is the limit everywhere on this plateau. Also, you should stay away from any other flyers you might see around you. These aggressive males don’t like to share their air space with any other, and the Swooper I knew two years ago made many enemies who may be out tonight. Stay clear of any other horses you might see?”
“Yes Ma’am. I’ll stay clear.”
“What is your ceiling?”
“Five hundred feet!”
“Excellent! All right, you’re ready to go. Listen for my whistle. Mr. Kingston — she’s all yours!”
The stable master moved in and grabbed the clip on the reins under the horse’s chin. “Have a good flight, boy,” he said, looking up at the horse. “Show them what you’ve got!”
“Be careful, Anna!” Gwen said worriedly, holding onto the Durkin boy’s arm.
“Mr. Kingston! The light — we’re loosing the light. Quickly now, let him go!”
“Okay —Anna; just say up, down, left and right, and Swooper will do the rest. Good luck.”
Anna pulled the reins tight and nodded.
“Mr. Kingston!” yelled Pearl.
He unclipped the harness and waved his hands up in the air. “Up! Swooper… up!” The horse reared high on his hind legs, and Anna leaned forward to center her balance.
“Up! Swooper… up!” she repeated.
The horse started flapping his massive wings, blowing down on those watching as he began to rise.
“Up… up… up!”
His shimmering black wings beat furiously as they rose higher and higher into the air. There was a sharp shriek from a whistle, and Swooper pitched down, tucked his wings, and dove. They dropped like a stone before he unfurled his wings and took off like a gunshot across the lawn. Without thinking, Anna moved her feet high in the saddle so they wouldn’t impede the horse’s wing-beats. She found iron posts behind her, like foot pegs, and used them to push herself forward again. They rose steadily higher until Anna knew they were at the twenty-foot ceiling.
“Left, Swooper!” She instinctually pulled the reins sharply to the left to enforce what she wanted him to do.
“Don’t yank the reins, Anna,” called Pearl from the ground. “Make the turn with your command and then add a slight bit of tension. That’s all it takes.”
“Left!” Anna repeated, and gave a light tug with the left hand. The horse dipped his left wing and dropped suddenly. Anna yelped as she felt her seat lift out of the saddle, and immediately hooked her heels behind the iron posts to set herself once again. Sensing Anna’s inexperience, the horse seemed to catch Anna beneath him as he finished the turn and began climbing once more. The sudden burst of speed was incredible. They shot across the stadium, and as they passed, Anna could see Kingston shaking his fist in triumph as Pearl reached out to hug the stable master joyously. They were jumping up and down and whooping with excitement.
Anna and Swooper rose again. “Right,” she said expectedly, and then lifted herself off the saddle in preparation for his turn. He banked hard right. “Down,” Anna said, letting the reins slide through in her hands. The mighty horse finished the turn and then dove. They dropped twenty feet in a second and the horse hit the ground with two galloping strides before leaping up to take off again. Within seconds, they were at the ceiling once more.
Anna heard the whistle sound below her, and she looked back to see Pearl waving her away, giving permission to go to one hundred feet.
“Up, Swooper, up!”
The horse flapped hard, his feet kicking back as they gained more altitude. Straight up they climbed, and in all of Anna’s dreams, nothing had prepared her for this experience. She was flying, soaring through the cool evening air streaming through her hair, the wind whipping around her body like a storm. Swooper finally leveled off and now Anna could see high over the walls of the stadium and to Castlewood beyond.
Anna couldn’t contain herself any longer, and he squealed in jubilation as they jived left and right, and then dropped suddenly into a dive.
Anna leaned forward along his black back as she had done so many times in her dreams to reduce the resistance as they fell. She looked back and could see his blue-black wings folded into a perfect delta, his every muscle in total control.
“Up… up!” she called, as they completed a flawless sweeping arc just a few feet above the ground.
“She’s really quite good,” Durkin said longingly, staring at Anna above them. “I’ve been riding for nearly two years and I’ve never been allowed to go to one hundred feet.”
Gwen looked hesitantly at the boy. “Well… you’d be good to if you spent most of the day in a stable at home,” she replied, with a patronizing grin.
Once again, the whistle sounded, and the ceiling was raised to five hundred feet.
“Up,” Anna commanded, and the horse was eager to obey. Higher and higher they soared, and Anna watched as they cleared the Union towers and sailed over the city of Spellsburg. Its citizens looked small in the distance beneath them, like ants moving around the hill that was Castlewood.
Once again, the two banked as one into a steep dive, and Anna never felt so alive in her entire life. The ground was rushing toward them at a familiar speed, and she leaned over to look at her mount from the side.
“Are you testing my courage?” Anna said, smiling. She heard the horse snort into the wind before pulling up out of the dive to rise again.
“Amazing!” said Kingston, watching Anna through her turns. “I believe she could give her brother a run for his money, doctor. What do you think?”
“Yes… I would agree. She’s a natural. A little heavy on the reins perhaps but, yes, she’s got talent,” the Doctor replied constructively, watching Anna through her binoculars.
Seconds later, Anna and Swooper were at the ceiling once again, flapping silently through the evening air, the horse rising and falling gently between his wing-beats. Out of the clouds, Anna could see one of the Castlewood trams slowly moving down its cable toward the city of Spellsburg below. Several people in the car were looking and pointing at Anna with awed faces. The horse banked away and, holding the reins with one hand and waving with the other, they dove into the clouds and out of sight. Anna’s teeth were aching from the cold hitting her broad smile.
After leveling off again, Anna looked out over the green plateau toward a beautiful falling sun. She was imagining the white cliffs of her far away home and could almost smell its sweet flowers when it happened.
From above them came a crushing blow, and Anna felt something huge smash into her left leg. Swooper grunted and then veered to the right, looking back under his left wing for what might have hit them. By the time Anna had regained her balance to look back, there was nothing to explain what had just happened.
“What was that?” Anna yelled. “What happened?”
They were struck again, this time from the back and beneath. Caught completely off-guard, Anna and her horse tumbled end over end through the air. Anna held on tight, hugging the sides of the horse with her legs, and leaning over to grip the clip on her harness to remain saddled. The blow that struck them was so vicious it left Anna’s mind struggling to remain conscious, but now she knew what was happening; something was attacking them.
The cold wind hitting her face cleared her head quickly and now she could hear Pearl’s sharp and panicked whistle shrieking below them.
“Down!” Anna yelled, but it was too late. They were slammed again, this time from the right; and that’s when Anna saw it. A huge, gold and white flying Palomino had struck them hard and was now flying along their side. Anna looked over and saw another girl, her face twisted in a fight to keep her horse from attacking them once again.
“Get away!” Anna screamed, waving them off. “Get your horse away!”
“I’m trying!” the girl yelled back. “He won’t respond to my commands!”
And then, unexpectedly, Swooper struck back. Dipping slightly right, the leading edge of his right wing suddenly shot forward, striking the other horse on the side of the neck and snapping its head toward them. The Palomino swerved off while Anna’s horse banked sharply left to get away. Looking back, she saw the other rider lose her balance after Swooper’s blow and slid off the saddle and out of sight. She could see the girl’s harness clip snap tight from the strain of its rider dangling on the other side. Anna could barely hear the whistle below her now and, looking down, she understood why. They had risen well above the five hundred foot ceiling, and were now at least a thousand feet high and still climbing.
“No Swooper! Down! We have to go down. We’re too high!”
Anna tugged on the reins with all her might, but her horse wasn’t responding. She heard grunting sounds behind them and quickly looked back. The Palomino was there, his eyes blazing like red-hot coals; spit flying from his mouth as he chased them from behind. She could hear the other horse’s jaws snapping together like heavy, wooden blocks, reaching for her horse’s legs, while Swooper kicked wildly back at their attacker. The other rider was still dangling over the side, desperately trying to throw her leg over the saddle again.
They twisted again into a steep right turn, and this time Anna leaned in, working with Swooper’s determination to get away. She whipped the leather reins against his sides, “Go! Go-go-go!” Anna looked under her arm, and could see the Palomino falling behind. But then, without warning, Swooper suddenly jerked into another turn and headed into a cloud where he seemed to disappear from beneath her. At first, Anna thought the clouds were too thick to see anything through the billowing whiteout surrounding them, but when they turned to rise again, Anna was shocked to see the horse she was riding was gone. He had turned invisible once more.
“What are you doing?” she yelled, leaning abruptly forward to grab a handoff of his mane somewhere in front of her. Anna could feel him tense beneath her legs, his wings flapping, straining to gain more altitude. They were at twelve hundred feet, fourteen hundred feet, two thousand feet.
“Stop, Swooper! Where are you going?”
They finally broke through the clouds and Anna groaned. She could now see what her horse was planning. They were several hundred feet above the Palomino who was completely unaware of his vulnerable position beneath them. Anna could hear her horse snort furiously in front of her, and then roll into a dive toward their attacker below. Anna felt completely alone, falling at tremendous speed through the sky toward the other horse, which was getting larger by the second in front of them. She tried to hide her eyes behind his invisible head to keep them from seeing what would happen next.
“No — no — don’t!” Anna screamed, yanking back hard on the reins with all her strength. At the last possible moment, Swooper became visible again just as the Palomino looked up. His eyes widened in shock.
The collision was horrifying and, for a moment, Anna didn’t think any of them would survive the blow. The Thorse tumbled over and over as Anna held on, her eyes clinched tight. Finally, Swooper snorted angrily again and unfolded his wings to slow their decent. Anna opened her eyes at last, and watched in horror as the other horse and its rider spiraled slowly down. The Palomino’s huge feathered wings were extended, fluttering in a helpless quiver as they spun lazily down, down, down.
Anna leaned her head forward to catch her breath, her mind struggling to calm itself as she glanced around, not quite sure if what had just happened was truly over. She could see the skies were now clear around them as she yelled angrily down at her horse.
“What — are you insane? You could have killed us both.” Anna shouted, leaning over to look at her horse from the side. “And what was that disappearing-reappearing act all about? Was that your idea of a surprise attack? Listen — I didn’t like being left alone out here.” The horse snorted loudly and yanked his nose forward in disgust. “Oh yeah, big bad master of the sky. Well I think it’s safe to say we’re both in a lot of trouble. Do you have any idea how high we are? Where the heck are we, anyway?”
Anna glanced around, trying to find her bearing. They were miles north of the castle, soaring thousands of feet higher than allowed. The tops of several surrounding mountains were reaching up toward them from below.
Then, out of the corner of her eye, Anna saw something completely unexpected. She could see deep into the distance across a tall line of mountains, which usually blocked their view from Castlewood and the deepest parts of the Shadowed Forest beyond. There, in the far off expanse beyond the mountains, sat a large, black castle alone in a valley set deep in the center of the forest.
“What the heck is that?” Anna said, as they slowly descended. “Hold on. Left, go left will you?”
The horse obeyed, and Anna looked out over the dark and shadowed distance, the cold wind whipping over the mountaintops was stinging her eyes as she strained to see. And there it was again, the spiral towers of a gigantic, black castle, sitting in what looked like a lake at the bottom of the valley. The entire building was enveloped within a bluish, white haze, but she could clearly see several firelights flickering through the castle’s windows in the distance.
“I wonder who lives there?” she said ominously. “Out beyond the mountains, in the middle of the forest? How would you even get there?” They entered another cloud unexpectedly and started to drop down again. When they broke into clearer skies once more, Anna could see the black castle had disappeared from her view below the now rising mountains. Finally, at a thousand feet, Anna could hear a very shrill whistle coming from the stadium.
“Come on, we’d better get back,” she said, tugging the reins to the side as she glanced back over her shoulder again, looking for any gaps through the mountains.
When Anna finally landed, Doctor Pearl and Mr. Kingston were running over to her.
“Are you all right, my dear?” said Pearl, in a panicked voice.
“Yes, I’m fine. We were attacked! There was another horse and it…”
“Yes, I know. We saw what happened. Swooper and that Abraxan Palomino have a nasty history over this plateau,” said Pearl, shaking her head. “We should have remembered that, but we were so preoccupied with flying him again. It was vital to strengthen his awakening right away. The important thing is that you’re all right.”
“I see Swooper took a couple of nasty bites on the legs back here, doctor,” observed Kingston, who was frowning down at the horse’s bloody injuries.
“What about the other girl and her horse? Did they make it down all right?” asked Anna.
“They took a hard landing in the plateau just outside the stadium. Young Miss Cobstone broke a leg when they hit the ground, but I’ve already mended it. She’s as good as new. The Palomino’s pride will take a bit longer to heal, I’m afraid.”
“I’m sorry, Doctor. I did everything I could to stop them from fighting, but…”
“Never mind that, dear; it wasn’t your fault. We have to accept the fact that these beasts will fight. Yes, even in the middle of a match sometimes. You handled yourself well up there and kept a cool head. I know of nobody who could have done a better job getting him down under the circumstances.”
“Sorry about going over the ceiling limit but, in the middle of all that, I think I was just baggage along for the ride. I did see something strange while I was up there, though,” Anna said, handing her harness back to Mr. Kingston. “I saw this big, black castle on the other side of the mountains. What was that?” Anna could tell from Pearl and Kingston’s reaction that she might have said something wrong.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, my dear. There are no buildings in the Shadowed Forest,” Pearl replied coolly.
Anna frowned. She could tell by the way Pearl was looking that she didn’t believe her.
“But there is. I saw it. It was a huge castle. It had…”
“Rubbish!” interrupted Mr. Kingston, frowning suspiciously. “Must have been the light from the evening sun… playing tricks on your eyes; a common thing around here, really.”
Anna would have let the subject drop if it weren’t for the worried look between the man and Pearl.
“Look, I’m not crazy. I saw it. What is it… an old school or something?”
“I’m telling you, Miss Grayson, there are no buildings out there.” Pearl said, now clearly appearing worried as she moved to look closely for any unnoticed injuries on Anna’s body.
“Enough.” The doctor’s tone turned purposefully stern, “Anna… dear… if you continue to carry on like this I’ll have to admit you onto the hospital floor again for a more thorough examination.”
“Miss Grayson?” A Crimson Guard had arrived unnoticed behind them.
“I am to escort you back to the castle. Your presence has been requested in the Chancellor’s office.”
“Professor Thordarson’s office? You mean… right now?”
“Right now, Miss Grayson. The matter is urgent.” Anna looked at Gwen, who shrugged.
“You’d better get going, my dear,” said Doctor Pearl. “Mr. Kingston and I will take care of Swooper. Off you go!”
“Are you sure he’s going to be all right?” Anna said, looking back at the horse. “The injuries on his legs…”
Pearl smiled. “Nothing our stable master can’t fix in less than a minute. Swooper will be fine. In fact, the fight probably did him more good than we know. If a good scuffle doesn’t keep him from sinking into despair again, nothing will.”
“Thank you so much for letting me ride,” Anna said, smiling broadly. “I’ve never had so much fun in my entire…”
“Miss Grayson!” interrupted the guard again.
Pearl nodded to her. “We’ll speak later, dear. You’d better go.”
Anna and Gwen followed the guard out of the stadium, across the plateau, and through the entranceway into Spellsburg.
“So what do you think is going on?” whispered Gwen.
“I think I’m in a lot of trouble for going over the ceiling limit.”
“But that wasn’t your fault. What were you supposed to do, jump off at five hundred feet just to keep from breaking the rules?”
Anna shrugged worriedly. “This is great. I went to the stadium because I was put in detention, and while doing that, I end up breaking more school rules and land in the Chancellor’s office. My father is going to kill me. Oh, I am soooo dead.”
“But I was there. I can tell them what happened, and so can Doctor Pearl. It wasn’t your fault!”
“I wonder why Doctor Pearl and Mr. Kingston didn’t want to talk about that castle I saw,” Anna said, suspiciously. She filled Gwen in about the fight between the horses and how she ended up high enough to see the black castle deep in the Shadowed Forest.
“And you’re sure you saw this place… a big castle in the forest?” Gwen asked, lowering her voice so the guard in front couldn’t hear them.
“Yes. I’m telling you, it’s there. Just a few miles north, beyond those mountains,” Anna said, pointing at the distant hills.
Gwen frowned. “It’s strange that I’ve never heard anything about a castle before now. I wonder who lives there?”
“No idea. But from the reaction I got from Doctor Pearl, it doesn’t seem as though anybody knows anything about it, or at least… maybe nobody wants to talk about it.”
“Well, I think a little work in the library should clear it up. It’s probably abandoned, anyway.”
“I don’t think so. I saw lots of lights burning in the place.”
They made their way back across the drawbridge and into the castle. After climbing several staircases and passing through numerous corridors, the guard stopped at a blank stone wall between two standing suits of armor. He cleared his throat.
“Crimson red,” the guard bellowed.
Instantly, the suits of armor sprang to life and reached in to pull the wall open like a set of drapes covering a window. On the other side of the wall, a double oak door with intricate carvings blocked their path. The guard knocked.
“Come in!” called the Chancellor’s voice from inside. The guard opened the door and Anna and Gwen stepped inside. Anna was surprised to see all of her brothers and sisters waiting for her.
“Ah, the missing Grayson has finally arrived. Please… come in, Anna. Miss Reese, I am afraid I’ll have to ask you to wait outside.”
“Professor Thordarson, I was there at the stadium and I saw what happened,” Gwen blurted out anxiously. “It wasn’t Anna’s fault. You see there was this other horse and…”
“Miss Reese,” the Chancellor interrupted raising a hand as if to calm Gwen’s fears, “this has nothing to do with what might have happened this evening in the skies over the plateau. This is a private matter for the Grayson family. You may wait for Anna outside.”
The Crimson Guard tapped Gwen on her shoulder and pointed to the door. Gwen stared at Anna who looked just as confused as she did.
“Oh, okay. I’ll just… ah… wait outside, then,” she said, somewhat embarrassed.
“Thank you. Anna will be along shortly,” Thordarson replied kindly, directing his gaze to the door behind her again. Gwen left with the guard, leaving the Chancellor alone with the family.
Eric finally spoke, “So what’s this about, Professor? We’re all here now. What’s going on?”
Thordarson sat down at his desk. “Yes… well… I must first warn you. What I have to say will come as a bit of a shock, but first let me assure you that everything is all right now.” He took a deep breath. “There has been another attack at the Grayson estate.”
“An attack?” yelped Damon, who suddenly stood straight from the wall he was leaning on. “By whom… against whom?”
The Chancellor sighed, “I’m afraid your father was the target of the attack.”
“What?” Eric yelled, standing abruptly in front of his chair.
“But he’s fine,” Thordarson said, raising his hands as if to clam them all. “I already spoke to your father tonight and he has not been injured in any way. Just a few bumps and bruises is all. Nothing… eh… long-lasting.”
“Bumps and bruises? Who did this? Who attacked Daddy?” Anna yelled, stepping angrily up to the Chancellor’s desk.
“I’m afraid we don’t have a lot of information on that quite yet. Your father requested that I bring you together in my office at eight o’clock tonight. He should be calling in any second to explain what has occurred. Ahhh, I believe he’s coming in now.”
There was a soft whistle emanating from the stone bowl on Professor Thordarson’s desk, and the Chancellor reached out with his want to give it two quick taps on its edge. A beam of blue light shot up from its empty bottom and, with a slight pop, Mister Grayson’s head suddenly appeared over the bowl within the gentle blue flames.
“Good evening, all,” said Mister Grayson, with a smile.
“Daddy! Are you all right?” Tencha asked, leaping forward to the desk. “Professor Thordarson said you were attacked?”
“Yes — yes, but I’m fine, my dear. Please… everybody relax and I’ll tell you what happened.”