Anna Grayson and The Order of Merlin

Help from Home

As Mister Grayson’s face floated silently in the flames rippling about his head, the rest of the Grayson family stared transfixed, looking at him. His warm smile and deep reassuring voice immediately seemed to calm the growing tension the children shared in Thordarson’s office. Mister Grayson could see the distressed look on their faces as he sat in a chair in front of his fireplace at home. He knew they wanted to hear he was unharmed, that the attack upon him the night before wasn’t serious. He would not reveal the truth that the delay in his telling them about the attack was due to Healer Nosova’s efforts to put him on his feet again, and his on-going work to insure they, his children, were well protected while out of his reach.

After the healers mended his body, Mister Grayson had taken immediate action in partnership with Professor Thordarson to increase the Grayson’s personal security at the school. This was especially true with Anna. For Mister Grayson was now convinced the attack upon his person was somehow connected to the mysteries surrounding his daughter at Castlewood. He had distinctly heard his attacker screech Anna’s name during the assault, and it was this, more than anything else, that gave him the strength he needed to fight the invader off. With the Chancellor’s help, Mister Grayson had made the necessary arrangements to send somebody from the estate to watch over Anna, and to keep him informed of her state and well being. But as he stared into the warm office, all the fears for his children’s security were immediately replaced by a father’s longing to be with his family.

“I miss you all so much,” he said, in an aching voice. “I can’t believe it’s only been a few days; seems like months.”

“Daddy, are you sure you’re all right?” Dowla asked, mistaking his shaking voice for pain.

“As I said, I’m fine… just a little sore is all.”

“What happened, Father? Who attacked you?”

“I’m still not quite sure myself. But, as near as I can tell, it was a ghost.”

Anna’s eyes widened.

“A ghost? But a ghost can’t attack somebody?” Damon said, critically.

“Bad choice of words; it was more than a ghost. More likely… a poltergeist or something transfigured, perhaps, would be a better explanation,” Mister Grayson replied, wincing somewhat as he settled himself into his seat. “The attack was quite physical and, it would seem, very personal. It also did some damage inside the house; a few bowed walls and some damaged artwork. Nothing that Widwick couldn’t fix, of course.”

“I don’t understand… why would a ghost attack you? Why would something like that just show up and do this?” said Eric, looking at the Chancellor.

“Anna knows.”

Anna eyes shot up at Tencha, who she saw was pointing an accusing finger toward her.

“Anna said something about a new ghost in the house almost two weeks ago.”

“What?” Eric blurted out, glaring back at Anna. “Anna is this true? Did you see this thing that attacked Father?”

Anna looked hesitant. In reality, the moment her father uttered the word ghost, her mind brought forth the thing calling itself the ally. And, while it had never hurt her, she also knew first hand the thing had a temper, but violent? Why? Why would it attack their father?

“I don’t know if it’s the same thing. I’ve only seen it twice,” Anna explained, uncertainly.

Mister Grayson’s stern voice seemed to boom into the room. “Anna, you should have told me about this immediately,” he said angrily. “You know Cookie won’t allow another ghost in the house. It’s his job to keep them out.” Their father leaned back to think. “It’s very unlikely two imprinted spirits would try to enter the estate in such a short a period of time. The thing that attacked me must be the same entity you saw. Was this thing ever violent toward you?” Mister Grayson’s face looked much bigger within the flames now. It seemed to loom forward into the space in front of her.

“No, sir. I mean, not really. It scared me a little, but it never tried to hurt me. It was never violent.” There was an almost deafening silence in the room as Mister Grayson’s head retreated to settle over the bowl on the Chancellor’s desk again.

“Forgive me. Perhaps it is an old man’s failing eyesight, but you look like a person troubled by other matters, Anna,” Professor Thordarson gently interrupted. “Is there anything more you wish to tell us?” The rest of the Graysons turned to look at their sister again.

Anna thought. There was more. “Daddy, the thing that visited me said it was a part of the family… it called itself… an ally.”

“Indeed? Now that is interesting,” Thordarson replied.

“Interesting? What do you mean, Professor?” asked Eric.

Anna looked at Thordarson. She could tell he knew exactly what she was thinking. He smiled at her, giving Anna an encouraging nod to tell them more.

“Because, during the Joining Ceremony, the voices in the mirror also said something about the ally,” Anna said, hesitantly. “The voices inside the mirror knew about it.”

“Did they say why it was here?” Dowla asked.

“The ghost said it was sent to act as my interpreter. It said it was sent to assist me, and make sure I was prepared.” Anna looked around the room and could tell from the puzzled look on everybody’s face that it was time to tell them all she knew. She explained everything the ghost had said, about the battle to come, the war between good and evil. She also told them what the Mirror of Enlightenment had said about the conflict, and that He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named was allegedly gathering strength again.

“You mean, Voldemort?” said Damon, disbelievingly. “But Voldemort is dead. He’s been dead for years now.” Some of the portraits in Thordarson’s office gasped at hearing the Dark Lord’s name.

“Yes… in fact he disappeared just days before Anna’s birth,” said Thordarson, titling his head down to look at Anna from under his lowered brow. The room went very quiet again. Everybody seemed to be having trouble getting their mind wrapped around all of this new information. Finally, Anna told them the thing that had been bothering her ever since she had become a Guardian.

“Daddy… the voices in the mirror also said the ally was… a woman, and…” Anna wavered slightly again, “they said she had been murdered.”

“A member of our family… murdered? But that’s impossible — ridiculous.” Eric said, skeptically. He leaned forward in his chair. “Let me get this straight. This ghost comes into our house and says she’s a member of the family, and then she tells you… she was murdered. Then she attacks our father? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Anna frowned. “No, that’s not right. The ghost said it was a member of the family and had come to help me. It was the mirror that told me the ally was a murdered woman. But the voices within the mirror also confirmed the ally was here to help me. The ally told me she remembers very little about her past. She doesn’t even remember her own name, and I don’t think she knows she was murdered. She only seems to know she was recently awakened by magic to assist me.”

“What was that?” Thordarson asked suddenly. “What was it she said about being awakened?”

Anna sat back, trying desperately to recall everything the ghost had said to her. She realized, although she didn’t understand what was happening, she couldn’t hold anything back now. This ally couldn’t have come to help her if it was attacking her father.

Anna thought hard. “The ally said both of us were awakened to fight the madness to come. Voldemort is apparently growing stronger,” there was another gasp from the portraits around them, “and his followers are gathering once again. She said she was awakened to help me, and I was awakened to…” Anna looked around at the stunned faces of Damon, Tencha and Dowla who were hearing most of this for the first time, “to keep this battle from destroying everything.”

“You were awakened?” said Dowla, suspiciously. “What the heck does that mean?”

Anna looked at her sister warily and then up at Damon who had an infuriating look of revulsion on his face. She knew what he was thinking, that she, Anna, was continuing to be something different than normal. She knew Damon hadn’t changed his opinion about her just because she was allowed to travel to Castlewood. Despite everything that had happened to prove she belonged at the school, he still wanted her locked in a closet and hidden from the world. Anna’s face flushed with anger as she stared at Damon.

“The power given to me at birth,” she snapped, “had been awakened.”

Damon smirked. He folded his arms and looked away as if to survey a row of books pushed into the case next to him. Once again, silence took hold of the room.

Thordarson sighed, and then folded his hands to rest his chin upon them. He seemed deep in troubled thought. “It is not possible for a spirit to awaken so long after they’ve passed without God’s help. When we die, most of us hope our spirits will travel on to the higher realms of our existence. A few wizards, however, fearing their own mortality, will use magic to leave an imprint of themselves in the world they once knew. The ghosts who walk this castle, for example, are merely an embossment of what they once were in life. But to have an imprint created after death… is unheard of.” Thordarson leaned forward to look at Mister Grayson. “Obviously, there is powerful magic at work here, Boris.”

“Yes… but the voices in the mirror told Anna this thing was a member of our family and had been murdered.” Mister Grayson shook his head. “I agree with Eric; this doesn’t make any sense. I have always taken great pride in knowing the details of our family history. To my knowledge, no Grayson has ever been murdered. There have been a few accidents, to be sure,” he said, uncomfortably, “but these things happen in every family. There hasn’t been a hint of suspicion pointing to a wrongful death among our descendants in over a thousand years.”

“So, what is this thing? Some kind of rouge ghost, looking for trouble?” asked Tencha, glancing around the room.

Anna ignored her. “Daddy, you said you thought the attack was personal. What made you say that?”

“Because of some of the things I heard it say during the assault. It said it had been deceived and betrayed.” Mister Grayson winced slightly again as he shifted his weight in his chair. “It was definitely taking out its frustrations on me.”

“The most important thing, Boris, is that you’re all right,” said Thordarson. “I take it the ministry has been notified of this attack?”

“Yes, there was still a skeleton crew here from the Committee for the Deposal of Dangerous Creatures after the attack on Anna and Damon. The disturbance inside the mansion brought them running to my aid.”

“Thank God they were there,” said Tencha.

“Yes — I’m afraid they’re back in full strength on the grounds once again,” Mister Grayson said derisively.

“Well two attacks on our family in such a short period of time should warrant a lot of their attention,” Damon said, self-importantly.

Anna peeked up at Professor Thordarson somewhat embarrassed. Damon still didn’t know it was Anna who had attacked him.

Professor Thordarson only gave Anna a quick glance. “I agree the situation merits caution. Let the Ministry do their work, Boris. I know you well enough to remember how you dislike strangers in the Grayson house, but for the comfort and confidence of your family here at Castlewood, I advise you allow the Ministry to investigate this incident thoroughly. They have the power to insure this attack won’t be repeated.”

“Yes, of course. While it’s rather problematic getting any work done while they’re here, I wanted the children to know what had happened, and what precautions I’ll be taking to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Mister Grayson looked at his family. “You should be concentrating on your studies, and not worrying about me here at the mansion. As you can see, I’m taking all the necessary steps to rid us of this nuisance. Focus on your duties at school; we’ll be all right here.”

“Yes, sir,” some of the children replied.

“I know we all have a lot of questions, but it’s my job to worry about the answers. You’re job awaits you in your lessons.” After insuring his children understood the immediate danger was past, Mister Grayson moved to finally change the subject.

“So… Anna, this is the first time I’ve had a chance to speak to you since the Joining Ceremony and the creation of the Guardians. The start of a new union at Castlewood,” he said with a far off stare, a hint of enormous pride building in his voice. “Congratulations.”

“Oh — ah… thank you, Daddy,” Anna replied, looking somewhat embarrassed at the others, “I guess,” she added, softly.

“And Eric… I’m so very proud of you too, son. Professor Thordarson told me about your final decision to reenter the mirror again. Your willingness to help your sister falls in line with the strongest traditions of our family. The change of union was unexpected, of course, but… well… how do you feel about that?”

“I feel honored the Graysons have been asked to help the school sustain this new Union, Father. Professor Thordarson and I agree with you, and feel it’s vital we do all we can to insure what Anna has started gets a fair chance to succeed.”

Mister Grayson grinned. “Excellent!” He looked at his other children. “I expect all of you will want to walk through the Mirror of Enlightenment again at your first opportunity,” he said, encouragingly. “It’s important the rest of the school see all of the Graysons coming together on this.”

“Professor Titan allowed Tencha and me to walk through the mirror again this morning, Daddy,” Dowla said, informatively. Anna looked up at them in surprise. Dowla was motioning to Tencha, who also nodded.

“It said we both still belonged in the Searchers’ Union,” said Tencha. “No change for us.”

The twins looked suspiciously at Damon, who seemed very uncomfortable about the direction of the conversation.

“And when can we expect to see you walking through the mirror again, Damon?” Dowla asked sardonically.

Damon smirked before realizing the whole family was now staring at him. He tried to recover quickly.

“I’m thinking about it,” he said coolly, glaring at Anna across the room.

Anna shook her head. She knew he was only saying this to appease their father. Damon had no intension of ever leaving the Defenders’ Union, their father’s Dynasty, for the sake of the family squib.

“Atta-boy, Damon,” Mister Grayson said, through the flames, “and congratulations, son, on being named a Defender Knight. Outstanding work!”

Damon’s lips curled in satisfaction. “Thank you, sir.”

“Two Knights in the same family; if you all continue to feed your father’s pride like this… my expectations are liable to go up.”

The children looked at each other and groaned amusedly.

“I’m glad to see everybody doing their part on their sister’s behalf. And… that reminds me. I have a little surprise for you, Anna,” her father said, turning to look at her again.

Anna snapped up. “A what?”

“It’s just my way of offering a little more support from home to help you handle these… ah…” he hesitated to smile, “…let’s call them unforeseen Guardian affairs. Professor Thordarson, if you would be so kind?”

“It would be my pleasure,” said the Chancellor, who was slowly getting to his feet again.

Anna frowned, looking over at Eric who suddenly seemed to be grinning with controlled anticipation.

“What’s going on?” Anna said, looking at her brother as she stood to watch Professor Thordarson walk to a side door. Eric shrugged innocently, as the Chancellor opened the door.

“We’re ready for you now,” he said, looking down at the floor on the other side.

There was a flash of something grayish-green streaking across the threshold. It hit Anna full in the stomach, wrapping her legs tight.

“Oooff!” Anna gasped as she toppled to the floor with whatever it was now sitting on top of her. Anna opened her eyes to focus on the small creature sitting upon her chest. “GABBY!” The huge oval eyes of the Grayson’s house elf were quivering as they looked upon her mistress.

“Oh, Miss Anna, I is so happy to sees you!” The elf squealed delightedly, throwing her arms around Anna’s neck.

“Wha… What are you doing here?” Anna said, sitting up from the floor and hugging the elf back.

“Master Grayson has given mes permission to leave the house. Iz traveled to Castlewood all buys myself,” she said, proudly. “Iz here to help!”

“Help? Help with what?”

“Iz is to help my Anna while she is building the new union!”

Anna looked around the room and found her entire family smiling at her, except for Damon, of course, who had a look of fixed disgust on his pallid face.

“It’s only for this year,” said Mister Grayson. “I believe you’re going to need all the help you can get with your studies. And of course there’s this small matter of sustaining the new Union.” He winked at her. “Because of the abnormal circumstances surrounding all of this, Professor Thordarson has agreed to let Gabby work in the castle and help you where and when she can,” her father explained.

Anna’s face broke into a huge grin. “Oh, Gabs! This is fantastic! Welcome to Castlewood!” she said excitedly, hugging her friend again.

“Mind you, we all agreed it’s just for the year,” Mister Grayson said, in a business-like tone. His words seemed reminiscent of a vague accord, which only recently had been reached.

Gabby’s head scrunched down slightly as she turned to smile at her master. “Yes, sir. Iz understand, sir. I is to work hard, take care of my mistress, and look after the new Guar-di-di-ans,” Gabby explained reassuringly.

Anna giggled. “That’s — Guardians, Gabs.” She looked over at her father. “Thank you, Daddy. This is wonderful, and lord knows I can certainly use the help.”

“Well… to tell you the truth, she wasn’t doing a lot of good here at the house anyway. All she’s done since you left is mope around and yell at Widwick and Cookie all day. A longer transition might be good for the both of you.”

Mister Grayson let out a sigh and leaned back. “Well… I’ve got to be going. It’s still early here, and I have a conference with the Minister of Argentina at six o’clock, and then I have a security meeting with the CDDC wizards on the grounds.

“Remember our talk in the line while you were here. I expect your best work and behavior — always.”

Anna cringed. She wondered if her father had heard about her detention yet. She decided not to mention it.

“Good luck to you all; don’t forget to send your father an owl when you can. I love you. And don’t worry about things here at the manor; we’ll be all right.” His head loomed forward into the room once more to look at all of them.

“Goodbye, Daddy. We love you,” said the twins together.

“Bye, Daddy, and thanks… for everything,” said Anna, who tried to reach out to her father’s glowing face through the flames.

“Goodbye, pumpkin. I’ll see you all over Christmas.”

Mister Grayson’s head pivoted over the bowl to look to the side. “Once again, Professor, thank you for making allowances, and these arrangements. I’ll be in touch in a few days to check in.”

“Goodbye, Boris, and don’t worry about anything here. You take care of yourself now,” Thordarson replied earnestly.

Mister Grayson nodded, looked into the room at his children again, and smiled. His face began to elongate and distort as the blue flames over the bowl blazed brightly for an instant. There was a far-off whistle and, with a slight POP, he was gone.

Anna looked over at the elf. “When did you arrive at Castlewood, Gabs?”

“Iz just did. Master Eric was very kind to meet me at the ship.”

Anna looked at Eric. He was still smiling.

“After father received permission from the Chancellor to send her, I went down to the harbor and escorted Gabby into Spellsburg.”

The elf tugged on Anna’s leg. “Master Eric knows Iz afraid of heights — I is.”

Professor Thordarson smiled as he sat down at his desk. “The castle elves, with few exceptions, have full access throughout the castle,” he explained, “and they are allowed to Apparate most anywhere within this structure. Gabby should, however, have a companion for her first few days, just to make sure she stays out of danger. I will find another elf to be her escort and make sure she finds her way around.”

Anna had a thought. “I met a very nice elf in the first-year’s dinning hall the other day. His name was Tisket. Maybe he would be willing to help her.” The Chancellor nodded agreeably.

“Well, I guess we should be going, Professor. Thanks again for letting us speak to our father,” Eric said, shaking the Chancellor’s hand. “If you do speak with him again, could you…?”

“I will update all of the Graysons on his state immediately, of course.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The Graysons began to file out. As Anna entered the torch lit hallway, there was a surprised yell.

“Gabby!” Gwen was now running up the corridor toward them.

Gabby looked up and her eyes grew to the size of saucers. “Miss Gwendowyn?”

“I’ve got you now, elf!” Gwen said, her expression set with scowled determination.

Gabby’s face formed a wicked grin, and there was a slight POP as the elf unexpectedly Disapparated. With a smoky PHOOMF, she reappeared again sitting on top of Gwen’s shoulders, her legs straddled down over her neck.

“UGGHN!” Gwen stumbled and almost fell forward. She recovered quickly, however, and reached up to grab one of Gabby’s draped legs. “Gotcha!” she yelled, but Gabby had Disapparated again and reappeared down at Gwen’s feet. The elf reached up and tweaked Gwen’s knees just below her shirt.

“Ouch! Why you little — ” Gwen made another grab for the small elf as the rest of the Graysons started to laugh.

“There they go again,” Eric said, shaking his head as he watched the elf dodge and zigzag around Gwen’s outstretched hands, only to Disapparate once again. “I had forgotten… Gwen never did learn this lesson, did she?”

Anna shook her head, “No, but you have to give her credit. She’s never given up trying.”

PHOOMF!

Gabby reappeared once again, this time behind Gwen, where she promptly swatted the girl on the rump.

Gwen yelped in surprise. “AAARGH! Oh you little fiend!” she hollered, as she spun around and closed her arms around… POP… nothing. There was a hollow giggle in the air as the elf reappeared on Gwen’s left to give her ponytail a yank.

“Oooww!”

“Heeee-hee-hee,” snickered the elf who then Disapparated once again in a puff of white smoke.

Gwen stood straight, rubbing her sore head and looking around. “Where’d she go?” she yelled, looking over at Anna. The twins were laughing so hard they had to lean on each other to stand. Even Damon seemed to be enjoying Gwen’s suffering.

“Where is she?” Gwen hollered again. Anna smiled, shrugging innocently, but Gwen could see her eyes dart to a spot behind her head. Gwen slowly looked up to see the elf hiding behind the helmet of one of the suits of armor standing there. The elf suddenly leapt down at her.

“Aaaahh!” Gwen screamed, ducking over and covering her head.

POP!

The elf had Disapparated in midair and reappeared standing behind her. She grabbed the hem of Gwen’s robes and threw them up and over her head, giggling maliciously.

They could now hear Gwen screaming with rage. “Hey — no fair!”

“You’d better give up, Gwen,” Eric called to her. “You know this is pointless.”

“Never! Oh you just wait, elf. Where’s my wand? I’m not a kid anymore; you won’t get away with this. I’m almost a fully studied witch now! I’m gonna… OUCH!” Gabby pinched Gwen on her bottom.

“Oooohhhh, is a real witch, is she, now?” the elf said, teasingly. “You’s want to see her knickers?” she said, looking at the boys.

“Yeah!” Damon hollered.

“That might be nice,” Eric replied laughingly.

“No!” screamed Gwen, who was frantically pushing her robes back over right again. The Graysons howled with laughter at her hair, which was magically standing straight out from her head in a shocking hue of blue.

“What!?” Gwen yelled, as she began feeling about her head. “Oooo — you little… come here!”

She made another grab for the elf.

PHOOMF!

Gabby was once again sitting on Gwen’s shoulders, straddling her neck.

Gwen huffed loudly and stomped her foot, folding her arms in frustration. “Oh, all right!” she said, rolling her eyes in disgust, “I give up!”

“Happy — happy day!” yelled the elf, triumphantly. She leaned over, “Give me my circles then, horsy!”

“Oh, come on, Gabby. Don’t make me do that again,” she pleaded, with a look reminiscent of a child being told to eat her peas.

“You’s said you’s give up!” Gabby yelped, grabbing Gwen’s ponytails and bouncing up and down on her shoulders. “Circles, circles, circles!”

“Ouch! Oooow — all right, then. You evil… little… thing!”

“Come on horsy-Gwen. You started this; now you have to finish it,” chimed Dowla, still laughing with the rest.

Gwen screwed up her face and closed her eyes, embarrassed. She quickly turned a full circle to her left.

“The horsy circles to the left,” Gwen said, in an exasperated tone.

“Wa-hoo!” sang Gabby happily, while the Graysons howled.

Gwen turned another circle in the opposite direction.

“The horsy circles to the right,” Gwen started to giggle and then, looking at the Graysons roaring with delight, she started to laugh herself.

“Giddi – giddi – giddi, horsy,” screamed Gabby. Gwen was now laughing too hard to stand and almost tumbled into the suit of armor as she struggled to keep herself from falling over. “Giddi – giddi – giddi!”

Gwen began to circle again. “The horsy,” she laughed, “circles to the left and then takes flight!” Gwen started hopping forward. “One – two – three!”

“WHHHEEEE!” squealed the elf, her little hands waving madly over her head.

Anna, holding her stomach and trying to catch her breath, was snorting uncontrollably. Gwen straightened and, with her face turning the brightest shade of red, she tried hard to recover what little dignity she had left. Her face went slack as she folded her arms again in mocked disgust.

“Okay, I did it. Now will you get off me?”

Gabby grinned and then leaned forward to look upside-down into Gwen’s tortured face. The elf’s little head twisted as she turned sincere.

“You is a good horsy, Miss Gwendowyn.”

“Yeah — yeah… whatever. Now get off.”

PHOOMF!

The elf now stood on the floor at her feet, and Gwen’s soured face instantly broke into a huge grin.

“It’s great seeing you again, Gabs,” she said, reaching down happily to hug the elf.

“You is missed very-very much, Miss Gwen,” said Gabby, hugging the girl back.

“You never learn, do you?” Anna observed, sighing loudly and straightening to catch her breath.

Gwen stood. “Hey, one day, I’ll show you. I’ll catch that little runt!” she said, pointing over to Gabby, who was waddling over to stand next to Eric. “And when I do…”

“Yeah, in your dreams,” laughed Eric. “You keep trying, though, and I’m gonna end up buying you a saddle.”

Eric then turned to look at his family, his tone shifting more serious. “Listen to me, all of you. I know we’re all worried about what’s going on at home, but father has gone to a lot of trouble tonight to try and ease our fears. Something strange is going on around us and I don’t like surprises. Anna, you should have told me you were visited by this so-called ally.”

“I told them,” she replied accusingly, pointing at the other Graysons, “And besides, I didn’t know the thing was violent. I had no idea it would attack Daddy.”

“Attack?” Gwen whispered, looking down at Gabby. The elf trembled and then nodded fearfully.

Eric continued. “From now on, there are no secrets between us. If anything strange happens to anyone, anything out of the ordinary, we should all agree to tell the rest.” They all nodded. “Whatever happened to our father has now been connected to what’s happening here at the school. So we need to stay alert.”

“Eric… do you think whatever this thing was will attack Daddy again?” Dowla asked, worriedly.

“No, I don’t. Father’s position in the ministry is far too important to allow such a thing to repeat itself. I’m afraid the CDDC will become a permanent fixture at the estate until we can get a full understanding of these assaults.” Eric looked around at Damon and his sisters. He could see the worry etched in all of their faces.

“Look, if I believed for a moment our presence at home would do any good, I would withdraw from the school and put us all on the next ship out. But there’s no value we can add to the situation there, so we owe it to father to make sure we’re doing our jobs properly where we are.” They all nodded again. “So — it’s agreed: Anything abnormal happens, we report it to each other at once.”

“Right.”

“Okay.”

“I guess so.”

They could hear the clacking sounds of footsteps coming up the hall and Eric saw Tencha’s eyes widen. She jerked her head behind him, and Eric turned to see Captain Dunning marching up the corridor with his sister Debbie filling the rest of the hallway by his side. The captain strode up and stopped in front of them.

“What is this?” he sneered, looking around at the people standing in the hall. “Despite what you might believe, these hallways are not to be used for private family parties. What are all the Graysons doing here?”

Eric stepped forward. “We were summoned here, Captain, by the Chancellor.”

“Indeed? I was not aware of the necessity of such a meeting?”

Eric frowned. “It was a private family matter. It didn’t involve the school.”

Debbie Dunning glanced up at her brother and tutted loudly.

“Everything that happens on the school’s grounds is a school matter, Grayson,” the captain scoffed.

“They were probably negotiating special Grayson privileges from the Chancellor again,” Debbie mumbled.

“Shut up, Debbie, and mind your own business,” Dowla retorted.

“Temper — temper, Grayson. My brother was just making certain you understood that we’re all the same here. Nobody is better than anybody else… despite what some of you might privately believe.”

Anna could feel her blood beginning to heat up. Where did Debbie get off turning a private meeting with the head of the school into some kind of request for special treatment?

Anna crossed her arms indignantly. “Forgive me. I’m kind of new here, so I’m still learning as I go. Captain… has your sister been granted special privileges here at the school? I mean… have you privately deputized Debbie or something?”

The captain frowned. “Miss Grayson, as it is with most of my exchanges with your family, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’ll take that as a no, then?”

“Miss Grayson, you are indeed new, so I will indulge your silly questions only to tell you to explain what you mean or keep silent.”

Anna frowned, but kept her cool. “Well, I keep hearing Debbie say we’re all the same at this school. However, judging from my own recent experience, and after speaking to several of the other students today, you should know there is a belief out there your sister has been granted the privilege of being an extension of your eyes and ears within the castle.” Debbie stepped forward angrily, but the captain stuck his arm out to stop her.

“My sister,” the captain replied, in a growled voice that barely moved his lips, “has been granted no special privileges at this school. But the Graysons should already know this, or they would have been first in line to acquire their unfair share of these liberties themselves. No, you see, my sister cares as deeply as I do that the school’s rules are to be obeyed — by all of its students. If any student at Castlewood decides to report another for breaking the rules, you will find I take all such reports very seriously, as your detention tonight should have clearly demonstrated to you.” The rest of the Graysons looked at Anna in shock.

“You had detention tonight?” asked Eric, in surprise.

“Wow — that was fast,” laughed Tencha. “That’s got to be a new family record.”

Anna ignored them and stepped closer to Captain Dunning. “So, no special privileges for Debbie? She’s just doing what all the students are doing in reporting these violations to you as she sees them. Hmm… now that’s interesting, but I think it would be just as interesting to see how many of these reports you receive come from Debbie verses everybody else, and how many were delivered to you personally verses the other Crimson Guards.”

Captain Dunning’s eyes flashed. “Be very careful, Miss Grayson. I was inexcusably lenient with you for your threats against my sister yesterday. Best you learn how to mind that attitude of yours,” he said with a hiss.

Debbie stepped in front of Anna. “So, how did you like cleaning those stalls tonight, Anna? Hope you didn’t chip a nail filling those bins.”

Anna smiled, thinking about her ride on Swooper. She had the urge to thank Debbie for one of the best experience of her life, but thought better of it.

“Oh — yeah. Please don’t send me down to the stables again, Debbie,” Anna said, in a mocked, pleading tone. “It was dreadful down there. You have no idea.”

Gwen began to giggle behind her, and Debbie stared back at Anna with a surprised and baffled frown planted on her face.

“And what are you doing in a populated hallway?” The captain said, pointing down at Gabby. The elf cringed as she hid behind Anna’s legs. “Present but not seen, elf! You should be attending the fires,” said Captain Dunning, glaring down at her.

“She’s with us,” Anna replied sharply. “She’s a member of our family who just arrived aboard ship. She’ll be… ah… staying with me this year.” Anna faltered before finishing her statement. She knew what was coming next.

“Oh… another special privilege arranged between the Graysons and our generous Chancellor?” Debbie said, with a wicked grin. “I guess the two hundred or so other castle elves that live here and take care of the rest of us aren’t good enough for Anna Grayson. No… she has to have her own personal servant following her around so she can make it through the day. Poor Anna, it must be so difficult for you to live among the rest of us, the lowly and unwashed of Castlewood.”

“Gabby wasn’t brought to the castle at my request,” Anna growled through tightly clinched teeth.

“Oh… is that right? So I suppose you’ll be sending the creature home, then… because you won’t be needing its services?”

Anna turned bright red with fury, and Debbie smiled triumphantly.

“I didn’t think so. Once acquired, Grayson privileges have to be negotiated away. A fair exchange is always important in the business of acquiring favor.”

At these words, Tencha stepped in angrily. “Listen, you squatty little …”

“Has your meeting with the Chancellor ended?” Captain Dunning asked, drowning out Tencha’s words.

“Yes… we’re finished here,” Eric replied.

“Then I would suggest you clear this hallway.”

“What — do you and Debbie patrol the corridors together every night? Like a couple of bats, looking for insects to devour and…”

“Dowla — enough!” Eric chided.

The Captain glared at them. “Clear out… and get back to your Union Halls.”

After a long-enraged pause, the family turned and left together.

“So, you threatened Debbie, huh? Excellent!” said Tencha, who bumped a shoulder into Anna as she passed her on the left.

“There’s hope for you yet, kiddo,” Dowla said, bumping her again on the right.

They laughed as they turned and headed off toward the Searchers’ Hall. “Just make sure you tell us before you bop her in the nose, Anna. Wouldn’t want to miss that! See you, Gabby!” The girls were leaning into one another, giggling maliciously, and Anna could distinctly hear them discussing a plan for putting something in Debbie’s food as they walked out of sight.

“Eric, we have a Knight’s meeting with Dodimayer in ten minutes. We’d better get going,” said Damon.

Eric nodded before turning to Anna. “Remember what I said about reporting anything suspicious, Anna,” he said, putting his hands lovingly on his sister’s shoulders. “Gabby will stay with you tonight, and we’ll make arrangements for her duties in the morning.” He kissed her on the cheek.

“Okay. Goodnight,” said Anna, as Eric turned and walked away.

“Stay out of trouble,” Damon sneered, before turning to follow Eric.

“Yeah — whatever, Damon,” Anna grumbled under her breath.

Anna, Gwen, and Gabby walked together down several staircases and entered the tunnel leading them toward the Server and Artisan tower. Anna told Gwen what had happened to her father, and how it all seemed to relate to what the mirror had said. Gwen was gripped with trepidation like a child listening to some strange camp-side tale.

“Wow… and they think it’s all connected to you being the first Guardian? That’s wild,” Gwen said, looking mesmerized.

“Yeah,” Anna said, despairingly, “it’s a dream come true.”

PHOOMF!

Gabby had Disapparated again from behind them, and reappeared heavily in Anna’s arms.

“UGGHN! Gabby, what are you doing?”

“You’s broke your promise to an elf. That is a very naughtily thing to do,” Gabby said scowling her, pointing a reproving finger at Anna’s nose.

“What are you talking about? What promise?”

“You’s said you’s would not ride the black flying horse! Black with wings as bats is unlucky, is dread. They is bad. Iz told Miss Anna this before she left home,” the elf glowered.

Anna was surprised. “But… but how did you know I was riding…?”

“Iz saws you’s on the tram when Master Eric was bringing mes to the castle. That is a bad horse.”

“Oh, it is not.”

“It is!” Gabby insisted. “Iz telling you, they is unlucky, these creatures is.”

“Maybe you should listen to her Anna. After what almost happened to you up there tonight, maybe you should…” Anna stopped Gwen with a glare.

“What? What happened to you’s?” Gabby demanded, staring up at Gwen and then back to Anna. “Something did happen. Iz knew it! You is to stay away from that beast.”

“But Gabby, nothing happened. I’m standing here now, right? I’m not hurt. You can’t hold me to a promise I made to you about a dream. Swooper is a wonderful horse, and he needs my help. He’s been very ill for a long time.” She set Gabby down on the floor. The elf looked up, her face a study of worry and doubt. “Besides, you said it yourself. All that stuff about being unlucky was just tales from the old country,” Anna said, folding her arms in defiance.

The elf looked down, shaking her head. She peered up again, her ears drooping miserably, her eyes filled with fear. Anna could see the elf’s mind struggling to choose between the safety of her mistress and the legends of old. It was a constant battle for Gabby.

“You’s were not hurt?” asked Gabby, undecidedly.

“No — of course not.”

Gabby looked unconvinced as she frowned up at Gwen again. “Miss Gwen would not let my Anna be hurt.”

“No, I wouldn’t, Gabby,” Gwen said coolly, glancing up at Anna whose eyes were burning into her like lasers.

“You’s would be careful?” the elf said, looking back at Anna.

Anna squatted down to look into Gabby’s concerned face. “Yes mother hen, you can count on it! It’s very sweet of you to worry about me, though,” she said, kissing the elf on the forehead and smoothing her cheek. The elf smiled up at her.

“I missed you’s so much, Miss Anna. Iz hope Iz won’t be a pest here at the school. Iz hope Iz can help the Guar-di-di-ans.”

Anna smiled. “I’m sure you’ll be a great help, Gabby. I’m happy we’re together again.” Gabby’s oval eyes began to fill with happy tears.

“And if Anna can’t find something for you to do, Gabs, you can help me with my homework,” said Gwen, taking the elf by the hand as they continued to walk down the brightly lit tunnel toward the Union tower. “This is great! Here I am worried about all this third year work, and then you show up. It’s almost like you knew we needed your help.”

Gwen’s words hit Anna like a hammer to the head.

“Like she knew,” Anna whispered to herself. “Like she knew?” she said, out loud. Gwen and Gabby stopped and turned around.

“What?” said Gwen.

“Sarah!” replied Anna, in surprise. “She knew. Sarah was right. She said someone in my family was going to be attacked last night, and my father was attacked. Then she said, somebody from home was coming to help me, and…” Anna pointed down at Gabby. “Sarah knew… she got it right!”

Gwen placed a hand on her forehead and smiled. “Oh my God, you’re right. Oh Anna, this is so weird. She got everything exactly right, didn’t she?” Gwen said, astonished.

“Well, almost everything,” Anna replied, somewhat mystified. “All that stuff about the dwelling place of the evil one — I guess she missed on that one.”

Gwen’s eyebrows lifted. “Anna, what if she did get it right?”

Anna frowned, and then it came to her and she knew what Gwen was thinking. “Oh my God! You don’t think? You don’t think she meant…?”

“The black castle!” they said, together.

Gwen’s face was full of excitement, but Anna shuddered. It was one thing to hear about something evil having a hand on her birth, but to think the thing was so close set alarm bells off in her head.

“Anna, we have to find out more about this place you saw,” said Gwen, turning away to think hard. “There has to be a way. Somebody has to know something about it.”

The mirror said this thing would kill me if it knew I was here, Anna thought, staring half dazed down the long hallway. Anna thought about Eric, and what he had just said about reporting anything strange. A wave of real fear poured over her, but what could she tell him? That her roommate had a dream and said something very close by was dangerous to her? Anna started to walk quickly down the hall.

“Where are you going?”

“I have to find Sarah!” Anna yelled back as she started running down the tunnel.

Anna finally made it into the tower room, adjoining the Sever and Artisan Halls. As she rounded the corner and headed toward the Server doors, she heard a voice calling out to her from behind.

“Anna?”

Anna slid to a stop and spun around. “Sarah!” She could see her roommate sitting in a chair next to one of the large fireplaces in the room. Sarah immediately jumped to her feet when she saw Anna.

“What’s happened?” Sarah asked, knowingly. “Is your family okay?” It was apparent that Sarah was expecting Anna to come looking for her.

“We need to talk right now, Sarah!” said Anna, and she grabbed the girl’s elbow to lead her back to a couch where they wouldn’t be heard. Gwen and Gabby entered the tower a moment later.

“Oh, no… something has happened,” Sarah said sadly, shaking her head.

“Sit!” Anna commanded.

Sarah slowly sat down, trembling and trying to avoid Anna’s angry gaze. “Who was it? Who was hurt?” Sarah asked her, reluctantly.

“It was my father!” Sarah looked up; her lips were trembling as tears began to form in her eyes. “But he’s all right. He’s just a little shaken up. Sarah, I need you to tell me more about what you said. Tell me more about the dwelling place of this evil one. Do you know where it is?”

“No.”

“I don’t understand. Sarah, tell me everything you know about it.”

“I don’t know anything about it. I only know what you told me I said during the night.”

Anna’s frustration was building. Was Sarah being truthful or was she just too afraid to say more?

“Sarah, this is very important to me. You have to tell me…”

“Did… that elf come to you from home?” asked Sarah, pointing at Gabby who was standing next to Gwen.

“What? Oh, yeah. That’s Gabby, our house elf. You were right about that too. Gabby was sent from home to help me.

“Gabby, this is Sarah Bell,” Anna said, quickly introducing them.

“Sarah… listen to me carefully. I have to know more about this place you said I would see today. Do you know what it might look like?”

Sarah frowned suspiciously and her eyes widened. “You’ve seen it,” she said, slowly. “You saw it, didn’t you?”

“I don’t know what I saw. That’s what I’m trying to understand. Do you know what this place looks like?”

“No… you don’t understand, Anna. It doesn’t work that way. I never remember my visions. I only know what people tell me after I wake up.” Sarah started to cry. “I wish I could help you, I really do. But I can’t, because I don’t remember saying anything.”

Anna fisted her knees in frustration. “Damn!”

Gabby waddled over to sit next to Sarah. The elf’s movements were so subtle, Sarah actually jumped when the elf spoke to her.

“Such a sweet child,” Gabby said, kindly. “Can you’s tell old Gabby about the dreams you’s have?”

Sarah leaned away with a half fearful, half embarrassed, expression before looking up at Anna.

“Gabby has been in the Grayson family her entire life, Sarah. She’s sworn to secrecy and is one of the wisest people I know. I trust her with my life. Please… tell Gabby what you told me about your visions.” Gwen sat in the chair across from them as Sarah reluctantly began to tell them about her predictions during the night. When she finished, Gabby leaned over to her.

“You is blessed, little one,” she whispered to Sarah.

“Blessed? It’s a curse! I’m a curse to everybody around me. Nobody is safe.”

“But you is not causing these things you see,” Gabby explained.

“I am!”

“Forgive old Gabby for speaking an elf’s mind, but you is not powerful enough to make the birds sing you’s songs, or command the direction of bees.” Gabby looked up at Anna. “She has the gift of long-sight.”

“The what?” asked Gwen, inching curiously forward in her seat.

“Is very rare in wizards. She is a seer of things to come.”

“I knew it!” Gwen said excitedly, looking at Anna. “Didn’t I tell you?”

“It’s not a gift,” Sarah said, crying. “Everybody is afraid to be near me. My family hates me!”

Gabby smiled and patted the girl’s hand. “I is not afraid of you’s, child. Iz would watch over you’s while you’s slept if little Bell was in my care.”

Sarah looked up at the elf. “You would? Wouldn’t you be worried?”

“No, Iz wouldn’t.” Gabby took Sarah’s hand. “Mys end is written in the stars by God, Miss Bell. I is a very old elf, and Iz know my time is shortest ahead. If you’s tell me my end is near — is not a surprise. Is good to know heaven is so close. You is just confused. You’s is not the cause of the things you’s see —you is just the herald, the rarest of messengers, you is. You’s would not say you was the cause of the good things you see, would you?” Sarah shook her head. “You’s see? So you’s cannot be the cause of anything that is bad.” Gabby bent forward. “You is seeing that now, do you Miss Bell?”

“I… I guess so,” Sarah whimpered, timidly. Then she looked up at Anna. “I’ll speak to one of the Knights about moving out of our room.”

“You will not!” said Anna, in surprise. “I didn’t say I wanted you to leave.”

“But you wouldn’t want me around all the time.”

“Listen… my father always said, forewarned people forestall trouble. Trust me, now that I know this thing you were warning me about is nearby, I’ll be sleeping as close to you as I possibly can. I want a good head start if this thing decides to come to Spellsburg for a visit.”

Sarah frowned. “Are you sure?”

“Positive. I just wish you could tell me more.”

“Maybe Sarah will have another premonition tonight,” said Gwen.

Sarah shook her head. “I don’t think so. I’ve never had the same prediction twice, and never two nights in a row. It may be months before I do it again. I wish I could say never,” she said somberly, and Gabby patted her on the hand again.

They continued to discuss the evening’s events and Anna told Sarah about the ally, its attack on Mister Grayson, and her flight on Swooper over the mountains to the north. Soon, they were completely talked out and sat quietly watching the fire crackling merrily in the logs in front of them. For the first time since all of this had started, Anna felt she had friends with whom she could share her thoughts and fears. It was a nice feeling to know Gabby and Gwen would be around to help her understand what was happening, and Sarah Bell seemed to have more to hide than she did when it came to the Lethifold. It was somehow encouraging to know she, Anna, wasn’t the only one trying to hide something they didn’t want others to know.

“Well I, for one, have a ton of homework… and I’m already exhausted,” Gwen said, stretching. “I think I’ll go up.” But another student’s voice interrupted them.

“Well… hello again.”

The girls looked up. It was the Durkin boy from the stadium field. He looked much taller now that he was clean and dressed in his school robes, standing against Anna’s chair with a rolled newspaper in his hand.

Tired as she said she was Gwen seemed to instantly come to life. “Hi there, yourself!” she said standing. “I guess you haven’t met everybody yet, have you? Uh… you know my friend from California, of course, Anna Grayson. This is Sarah Bell of Minnesota, and this is Gabby. She’s also a member of the Grayson family. Everybody — this is Stephan Durkin. We met him on the Vollucross field today.” They all shook hands.

“It’s nice to meet you.” He turned again to Gwen. “Uh… nice hair color,” he said, smiling.

“Huh? Oh no!” yelped Gwen, covering her head and scowling at Gabby. Although the elf’s magic had almost worn off, her hair was still a striking shade of purple. “I… ah… I’m…” Gwen stumbled embarrassingly, combing her fingers nervously through her hair.

“Don’t worry, I kind of like it,” Stephen joked, before turning to face Anna. “Everybody was impressed with your riding abilities over the plateau tonight. I think Doctor Pearl has big plans for you, Anna,” he said, giving her a respectful nod.

Anna blushed. In the warm glow of the gentle fire, she could see the boy was very good-looking.

“Oh, thanks. I guess I could have had an easier first flight, though. Trying to stop two angry horses from killing each other wasn’t something I’d like to repeat soon.”

The boy laughed. “No, I guess not. But you handled yourself very well for your first time out.”

He unfolded his newspaper. “Did you all see the paper today? Big things happening overseas at Hogwarts.”

“Hogwarts? What’s Hogwarts?” asked Sarah, looking down at the paper, The Spellsburg Seer. Sarah was surprised to see three figures on the front-page moving and shaking hands.

“Oh… it’s a Wizarding school in England, one of the best in the world. Its Headmaster is Albus Dumbledore. That’s a picture of him there,” he said, pointing at one of the smiling figures on the front page. “He’s supposed to be one of the most powerful wizards of our time.” Durkin explained.

“So what’s happening at Hogwarts?” shrugged Gwen, who then looked at Anna and whispered, “Isn’t that the strangest name you’ve ever heard for a school?”

“It says Hogwarts will be hosting the Triwizard Tournament this year,” Stephan explained.

“The what?” Anna asked, frowning.

“Listen to this,” Stephan said, and he began to read from the paper.

The international wizarding community is all a buzz tonight after the announcement that the legendary Triwizard Tournament will commence for the first time in over a hundred years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in merry old England. Established by sporting enthusiasts seven hundred years ago, it was first recognized as an excellent way to bring together the three largest European schools of wizardry, Hogwarts, Beauxbatons, and Durmstrang Academy, in a friendly competition between neighboring schools for the benefit of closer ties between students and future sorcerers within the wizardry community.

A champion will be selected to represent each school, and the three will compete in three magical tasks during the tournament. Once rotated between these schools every five years, the competition was abruptly ended one hundred years ago when a number of champions were unexpectedly killed. One such incident happened in 1888 when the champion from Beauxbatons Academy was eaten by a Manticore.

This year, however, promises to be different, because the departments of International Magical Cooperation and Magical Games and Sports have decided the time is right to try again under some very strict new rules. First, the headmasters of each school must attend the tournament and oversee its preparation and individual tasks. Mister Ludo Bagman, head of England’s Department of Magical Games and Sports, was quoted today to say, “We’re all very excited about this announcement, and getting the corporative agreements of the heads of these schools to act as judges during the tasks ahead. It should be a load of fun.”

A second change in the rules was also announced, limiting the champions competing to only those above the age of seventeen. Mister Bartemius Crouch, England’s head of International Magical Cooperation, was reported to have said, “All the Ministry offices of these three countries have worked very hard during the summer to ensure no champion finds himself or herself in any real danger.”

The representatives of Beauxbatons and Durmstrang will arrive at Hogwarts with a small group of potential champions from their schools over the Halloween holiday in October, and the selection of the three champions will take place with the help of an impartial judge, who has yet to be announced. It was also learned that the winner of The Triwizard Cup would collect much more than the glory of their fellow countrymen and their school. A prize of one thousand galleons has been set-aside for the winner of the cup. Most of the schools throughout the Wizarding world are currently making arrangements to have these Triwizard tasks magically sent to them, so that everybody can witness this most rare and exciting event.”

Stephan lowered the paper. “Wow, can you imagine competing at that level, representing your school and your country. It’s amazing.”

“So we’re going to see these events take place?” asked Gwen.

“Yeah, I think so. Everybody’s talking about it. Somebody heard Professor Titan say we’re going to get the action projected directly into one of the stadiums outside.”

“So why is England hosting this tournament? Castlewood is a large school, I’m sure some of our seniors would do well in a competition like that,” said Anna, thinking about Eric’s prowess as a wizard.

“Well… I think it’s tradition, really. The Triwizard Tournament started over there, so I guess it makes sense that they would be the first to get it going again,” explained Stephan. “Anyway, it’s going to be exciting to watch; something besides Vollucross and Swift Slalom to look forward to during the cold winter days, huh?”

Anna yawned. “Yeah, I suppose so. Whelp, I’d better hit the books. Come on Gabs, I’ll show you our room.”

“Ah, Gwen. I was wondering if you’d like to go for a walk.” Stephan said, somewhat nervously. “It’s still a clear night, and my favorite ice cream shop is only ten minutes outside the bridge in town. Whatdaya say?”

“Sure!” Gwen said, glancing over at Anna with a scarcely-controlled glee of satisfaction.

“I thought you said you had a ton of homework to do,” Anna said, teasingly.

“Oh, that can wait. I’m ready to go if you are,” Gwen said, latching onto Stephan’s arm. She leaned over and whispered to Anna, “What can I say? The guy likes ice cream… I think I’m in love!” She shrugged as if her actions were totally beyond her control and then marched off.

Anna laughed, “Have a good time, you two.” And she watched Gwen wave as the two of them walked arm in arm out of the tower.

“She’ll never change,” Anna said, shaking her head and looking at Sarah. “She’s boy crazy, that one.”

TWO

Later that night, as Anna lay in bed, she took inventory of her day. She tried to remain awake, hoping beyond lowly-set expectations that Sarah might say something in her sleep about the castle where Anna believed the evil one was living. If Pearl and Mister Kingston didn’t know about it, I wonder how difficult it would be to find anything about the place myself? Strange… a castle kept secret to all around it, sitting in the deepest part of the Shadowed Forest.

She lay there thinking, listening to Gabby’s snores emanating from the top most dresser drawer where she slept. And then an idea occurred to her, and Anna sat bolt upright as the details of a plan began to quickly form in her mind. She got out of bed, opened her bag and took out some parchment, a bottle of ink and a quill. She quietly crept into the living room and turned up a lamp above one of the end tables before sitting to think.

If I were to write a letter to the black castle and give it to Hobbs to deliver, then one of two things would happen: Hobbs might return with the letter, having been unable to deliver it, which would leave me exactly where I am now, or… Hobbs might return without the letter or, better yet, a response. This would at least prove that the place does exist and somebody was actually living there.

She considered her moves carefully. The note should be made to sound as innocuous as possible. She dipped her quill into her inkwell and began to write. After several attempts, she finally finished, and held the parchment up to the light and read:

To whom it may concern.

It has recently come to our attention that your place of residence exists within the Shadowed Forest of Pennsylvania. We are writing this enquiry to understand who is living there, and to ascertain the building’s purpose. Please use the delivery owl to send back your reply.

Anna stopped. She wouldn’t sign it, of course. Judging by Doctor Pearl’s reaction to her saying she saw the place, she felt that might be asking for trouble. She decided to end the letter with a simple: Sincerely, A Friend.

There, she thought gratifyingly; that was adequate. Short and anonymous was the proper idea. She folded the note, stood, and walked over to Hobb’s cage who screeched angrily at being rattled.

“Shhhh! You’ll wake Sarah up. Listen, I need you to do me a favor. If you fly over the mountains north of here, and into the Shadowed Forest, you’ll find a black castle sitting in the middle of a lake. I need you to deliver this to anybody you see there, and… you might wait to get a letter in return.”

Hobbs stared at her disbelievingly, and Anna rolled her eyes.

“The castle is there — I saw it myself!” she said, in a loud whisper. The owl turned his head upside-down to look at her, as if to ask if this trip was really necessary. “Yes it is… you’ll just have to trust me on this, Hobbs. The castle is there and it’s very important that I know what the place is used for. Please, will you take the letter… or should I go to the castle owlry?”

Hobbs ruffled his feathers reproachfully, and then hopped up on Anna’s arm. She tied the note to his leg and walked him over to the window. She slid the pane up and extended her arm into the humid, night air.

“Be careful, okay? Don’t take any risks. If you think it’s too dangerous, then come back straight away, all right?” The owl gave an agreeable hoot, spread his wings, and leapt into the darkness. “Good luck,” she said, hopefully, and she watched him turn a complete circle over the twinkling lights of the city below before flying north and out of sight.


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