Anna had fallen asleep on her windowsill, waiting for Hobbs to return. The last thing she remembered thinking before dozing off was wondering if she might have put her owl in harm’s way by sending him off with her message into the Shadowed Forest. She would have slept in that spot all night if not for her owl’s quick return three hours later. It was still dark as he swooped over Anna’s head through the window and landed on her bed with a soft thump. His loud screeching made Anna jump with a start, banging her head against the window’s top sash.
“What did I say?” Sarah blurted out, bolting upright from a dead sleep in her bed.
“Sorry, Sarah. It wasn’t you. It was Hobbs. Shush! You’ll wake up the whole floor,” Anna said angrily, scowling at the bird as she rubbed the top of her sore head. “What’s the matter with you?”
Then, as the fog of her clouded mind started to clear, she remembered what she had sent Hobbs to do and could see why he was so excited. The letter she had given to him to deliver was gone and he was clutching something new in his fisted talon.
“What is that you have there?”
The bird screeched again and then hopped over to Anna’s lap to raise a clawed foot. Anna took what looked like a piece of cloth and raised it up to the moonlight, turning it around several times to see what was written on it.
“What is this?”
Anna got up and ran into the living room. She turned up the lamps with Sarah struggling with her bathrobe as she followed close behind.
“What is it, Anna?”
“I don’t know; something Hobbs brought back.” Anna laid the cloth out flat on the table and then moved the lamp in closer to see. “It looks like… part of a flag or some kind of banner.”
Sarah looked confused. “Now where would he have gotten that?”
Anna looked at Hobbs who had flapped over to their table, still screeching and hooting with excitement.
“Hobbs — were you able to deliver my letter? Did you see the castle?” The owl was clicking his beak and bobbing his head up and down, circling obsessively. “Did somebody take the letter from you?” The owl wiggled his tail and continued to bob excitedly.
“I think he’s saying yes,” said Sarah with a little chortle. “Where did he go?”
Anna told her about the letter she had sent to the black castle earlier that night. Sarah’s mind seemed to be stuck between gears, highly impressed with Anna’s ingenious plan and its swift results.
“Is… it possible Hobbs might have taken the flag from the castle, then?” Sarah wondered aloud.
Anna thought about her ride on Swooper. “Now that I think about it — yes, that must be it! I do remember seeing black flags waving on the castle’s highest turrets. Hobbs must have delivered the letter and then took the banner on the way back as proof that the place does exist.”
“Wow — now that’s one smart bird.” Sarah said, smiling appreciably. She reached out to stroke Hobbs’ back. “So, what’s on the banner?” The girls looked down to study the cloth again. It was ripped diagonally, leaving only half of its tattered remnants remaining, but they could plainly see a coat of arms in its center with a shield, a red cross, and two wands crossed in the middle. There were the letters S-T-period, D-R-O above the tear, and then T-O C-U-R below the shield.
“It looks like it says, Saint Dro… something,” Anna observed, smoothing out the words.
“Yes… and that looks like some kind of medical crest,” Sarah added, pointing at the shield and the cross. “It looks a lot like the medical emblems some of the winter rescuers wear on our ski hill.”
“But those are crossed wands in the front. So maybe it means it’s a medial facility or a hospital for wizards.” Sarah was nodding as Anna sat to rub the bump on the top of her head once more. “But why would they keep the place a secret? If it were a hospital, why wouldn’t everybody know about it? I mean… every hospital you see in the Muggle world has signs all over the place, pointing the way to the front door. Why wouldn’t Doctor Pearl know a hospital was out there? I don’t get it.”
Sarah sat down on the couch. “And why would they put it in the middle of the Shadowed Forest? It’s almost like they’re going out of their way to hide the place.”
“Yeah…” Anna said, leaning back in her chair. “It doesn’t make any sense, does it? The mirror said the evil one was in a prison of its own making. So, assuming that’s where it is… what is this place, a prison or a hospital?” The girls sat quietly considering all they knew. Hobbs was still hooting with delight at the success of his important mission, while Sarah stroked his back unconsciously in thought.
“Maybe…” Sarah said, looking up at Anna, “it’s both.”
“So… how long were you and Stephan out last night?”
It was morning and Anna was sitting down across from Gwen at breakfast.
“You get any homework done?” Anna asked, smiling inquiringly at her friend.
“Nope, not a bit!” Gwen answered complacently, spooning a liberal amount of jam onto her toast. “We had our ice-cream and then went for a nice long walk in the city. We barely made it back before curfew.”
Gwen looked up. “And… what?”
“Well… did anything… you know… happen?”
Gwen smiled. “Nah… we just walked,” she said, stuffing her mouth with her toast.
“So… what do you think of him? He seems nice,” Anna asked, pryingly.
“Yeah, he is.”
Anna recognized Gwen’s hesitancy. She had seen it many times before.
Gwen stopped chewing, smiled, and then shrugged. “But I’m not sure it’s going to work out.”
“I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on it. Not enough… he’s just too… serious… maybe. No, that’s not it. Oh — I don’t know what to say about him.”
“Well, he’s in the Defenders’ Union. That must say something about him, doesn’t it?”
Gwen frowned. “What do you think that says about him?”
“Uh…” Anna thought for a moment, “mind you, the only people I know that came from that Union are my father and Damon, so that doesn’t exactly make me an expert. I guess the question is — what do all the Defenders have in common?” Anna twisted her bottom lip as she thought. She finally looked up and tried to summarize her assessment. “I would say both Damon and my father… are very driven people.”
Gwen frowned. “What does that mean… driven?”
“It’s hard to explain, but we did study different personalities in my Muggle sociology class last year. Putting the ability to show simple human respect aside, because Damon doesn’t have any respect for anybody, I would say they are very task-oriented.”
“As opposed to…?”
“As opposed to… say… being people-oriented. And they’re not very reserved in the way they get things done.”
Gwen smiled, “Yes… I think that’s how I would describe Stephan as well. He’s very ambitious and seems to have his whole life planned out. He wants to work in the Ministry like his father.”
Anna laughed. “Yep… that’s Damon all right.” She looked at Gwen who still looked uneasy. “Well, ambition isn’t a bad thing, is it?”
“Oh, no — I’m not saying it is, but Stephen is our age. Do you know what you want to do when you leave Castlewood?”
“Hardly,” Anna said, rolling her eyes. She reached over to take a bite of Gwen’s toast. “But I have an excuse. I just got here, remember?”
“Exactly! You see?” Gwen continued. “Who do we know that can say what they want to be right now? Nobody. So how can Stephan know what he wants already? Who’s got their life all planned out like that? It’s a bit strange, isn’t it?”
“Not at all. Some would say Stephan’s lucky to really know what he wants so early. It gives him an edge over everybody else, because he can work on his goals now. It’s that drive that probably explains why he’s in the Defenders’ Union.”
“Yeah, maybe. It’s just a bit scary being around somebody like that, you know? I feel like I don’t know anything about myself. Here he is, going on and on about his plans and what he’s going to do next year, and the year after that, and I’m standing there, trying to remember what classes I have in the morning. It made me feel like… I was a kid, listening to somebody who… oh — I don’t know… has his act together.”
“You’re not a kid — you’re just different.”
“Different? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean your personality is different from Stephan’s, that’s all. It doesn’t mean Stephan is a better person than you. It just means you’re wired differently than he is.”
Gwen laughed. “Some might say I have a loose wire.”
“Well, there is that,” Anna giggled, and then reached across the table to spoon some of Gwen’s scrambled eggs into her mouth.
“No, I mean the strengths in your personalities are different. Actually, I see you and Stephan sharing similar qualities as well. For example, you’re both fairly outgoing. But if Stephan does have a driving personality, it probably just means he’s a little more task-oriented, whereas you’re more of a people-person. One isn’t better than the other, it’s just who you are. You never know, somebody like Stephan might be exactly what you need. He might help you understand what you want to do with yourself.”
Gwen twitched a smirk. “Yeah… maybe. He’s cute though, don’t you think?”
Anna settled back, “I guess he’s got a certain appeal, so long as you can keep him off a flying horse, that is,” she said, trying to sound uncaring. They both laughed, but a strange and unexpected feeling began to creep over Anna, which she thought she recognized almost immediately. Was it a hidden sense of jealousy?
“So… did Sarah predict the winner of the Triwizard Cup last night?” Gwen continued.
“Nope. Not a peep out of little Miss Bell. But I did learn something fairly important this morning.”
“Oh yeah, what’s that?”
“I was able to prove that black castle I saw in the forest does exist.” Gwen was right in the middle of swallowing the last of her orange juice when she almost choked.
“What?” she said, through her wheezing coughs. “What, cough, did you do?”
Anna leaned in to whisper. “I sent Hobbs to the castle last night with a note,” she said, reaching over to steal Gwen’s last piece of bacon before leaning back to smile.
“You didn’t! Really? What happened?”
“He actually delivered it to somebody.”
“No idea — they didn’t write back. But Hobbs brought me back a souvenir to show me he had definitely been there.”
Gwen’s excitement was growing steadily. “What? What did he bring?”
“A piece of a flag — look.” Anna cautiously looked around at the tables surrounding them, and then pulled the black banner out of her pocket. She carefully unfolded it on the table between them.
“Wow! Your owl brought this back from the castle? Amazing!”
“Yeah, I’m going to do some research in the library tonight to see if I can find anything about the place. And I’m going to send Hobbs out this evening with another letter.”
Gwen’s face quickly turned from excitement to worried concern. She glanced around them again before leaning over to whisper back. “Anna, are you sure you want to do that? I mean… you saw how Doctor Pearl reacted when you mentioned the castle. I get the feeling you could find yourself in a lot of trouble if you’re caught looking around for information about this place.”
“I don’t see how. I’m not signing the letters, just looking for a reply. You know… trying to find a name or what the place might be used for; that’s all. It’s not like I’m planning to visit the place for tea.
Over the next several days, Anna, Sarah, and Gwen began searching the school library between classes and in the evenings, looking for information about the castle within the Shadowed Forest. Gwen even got Stephan Durkin to help them with the story that Anna was looking for information for her father. Nobody, however, had had any luck. They searched various books on hospitals and prisons, Ministry buildings, and even some rather secretive societies of the past, but still, nothing could be found.
Anna continued to write her anonymous letters to the castle, but night after night, Hobbs returned without any response. That is until one evening at dinner a week later. Anna had started writing her letters at lunch, hoping that, if Hobbs came back with any new information, she would be able to see the reply before they all went to bed. Hobbs flew through an open window into the Rotunda and glided down onto Anna’s shoulder while Gwen and Sarah looked on.
“Anna, your owl has something tied to his leg!” said Sarah, excitedly.
Looking surprised, Anna untied the note from Hobb’s foot and unrolled the small piece of parchment. “Oh,” she sighed, “it’s only the letter I sent earlier today.” She sadly looked up. “I guess Hobbs couldn’t deliver it this time.”
Anna’s enthusiasm was fading. Their failure to find any information on the castle after so many days of searching had lead her to believe Hobbs wasn’t delivering the letters to anyone after all. Maybe he was simply dropping them over the castle somewhere, and the building, in reality, was just an abandoned relic long forgotten by everybody living on the plateau.
Anna dropped the letter onto her empty dinner plate and sat back. “This is a waste of time,” she sighed, miserably. But to everybody’s surprise, Hobbs was hooting obsessively and seemed even more excited than his first trip back from the castle. He was screeching loudly and reaching over to peck at the letter with his beak.
“What’s the matter with you?” Anna said, trying to wave the bird away from her plate. The owl picked up the note again and dropped it into Anna’s lap.
“He certainly is making a fuss about an undelivered letter,” Gwen observed, taking another bite of her steak. Anna picked up the letter and looked at it again. She turned it over and her jaw dropped.
“What is it, Anna,” asked Sarah, sitting her fork down. Anna looked around worriedly, and then showed them the back of the note. Written in bold letters and different colored ink were three words:
WHO ARE YOU?
“Oh… my… God,” said Gwen, in a slow whisper. “Somebody is living there!”
Anna looked up excitedly. “I told you, didn’t I?”
“But now what? What are you going to do? You’re not actually gonna give them your name are you?”
Anna thought. “No — I’m not ready for that yet, but I have been thinking a lot about this possibility over the last few days. What if I told them I’m a reporter from one of the local newspapers, looking to write a story about them? You know… a dark castle nobody wants to talk about in the middle in the Shadowed Forest? Any reporter would be interested in that, right?”
“Yeah, that’s perfect. Then you won’t have to give them your name, but you can keep asking questions,” Gwen said, agreeably.
Anna nodded. “I’ll write another letter tonight. Maybe by tomorrow —”
“Funny time of night to receive an owl, Anna,” came a familiar voice behind her. It was her sister, Dowla. Anna quickly wadded up the letter and stuffed it into her pocket. “What is it? You having Widwick forward your Muggle mail or something?” Dowla teased.
“Yeah, that’s right Dowla. I’ve got to keep all my Muggle friends up to speed on how I’m doing here at Castlewood,” Anna replied, rolling her eyes without bothering to look back. Then a sinister grin replaced Anna’s hard expression as she turned to look up at her sister.
“By the way, I meant to ask, did you and Tencha decide on a sport yet?” Anna’s eyes darted over at Gwen and Sarah, and an eager smile began to form on her face.
“No, not yet,” Dowla sighed, sitting down next to them. “That stupid Nancy Dodimayer turned down our Blazing Gin idea again. Said it wasn’t active enough to qualify as a sport — as if.” Anna struggled to hold in a laugh before turning a serious face toward her sister again.
“You know, I’ve been thinking about your problem and I believe I have an answer for you.” Anna let these words settle a few seconds before continuing. “But — well — never mind. You wouldn’t be interested.”
“What is it?” Dowla looked at Anna curiously. “Listen, I’m desperate here — I’ll take anything at this point. Otherwise… they’re going to assign us something we’ll have to do on a broom. What were you thinking about, and why wouldn’t you think I’d be interested?”
Anna grinned. “Well… because it’s kind of a Muggle game.” She saw Dowla recoil slightly. “But it’s very active and easy to do,” Anna added hurriedly.
Dowla leaned in as if she was being passed an important secret. “Okay… so — what is it?”
“It’s called… hopscotch,” Anna replied with an innocent little smile. Sarah started to snicker, but only Gwen seemed to notice.
“Hopscotch?” Dowla said keenly. “What’s that?”
“It’s simple, really. You draw a number of squares on the pavement, and then you have to hop in and out without touching the lines. It’s quite easy, but it’ll give you a really good work-out.”
Sarah was now covering her face with her napkin, trying not to burst out laughing. Gwen could clearly see the joke was on but, like Dowla, she was clueless as to what Anna was doing.
“And there’s no flying involved?” Dowla asked, hopefully.
“Nope! Well — unless you count jumping from one foot to the other as flying.”
“Great. Why don’t you write down the rules for me and I’ll try submitting them to Dodimayer tomorrow.”
Anna smiled wickedly. “Tell you what... I’ll make you a deal. I’m working on a class project to identify old ruins, but there’s one I can’t figure out. I’ve looked in the school library, but I understand the Searchers’ library is much better on certain subjects. If you’ll agree to help me find some information on this place, I’ll have your hopscotch rules ready for you by tomorrow. What do you say?”
Dowla’s eyes narrowed. “This isn’t some stupid Muggle place you’re looking for is it?”
“Of course not. Why would I have you looking for a Muggle building in the Searcher library?”
Dowla looked skeptical, but, “All right then, it’s a deal. Tell me what you know about this place you’re looking for?”
Anna described the clues they had without telling her sister about the black castle or anything about the evil one she suspected was inside. Anna didn’t tell her the castle’s location, nor did she show her the tattered banner. She knew that would take too much explaining. After Anna finished describing the look of the crest, Dowla got to her feet.
“All right, I’ll expect that hopscotch recipe tomorrow then,” she said determinedly, before turning to leave. When Dowla was out of site, Sarah took the time to explain to Gwen that, while hopscotch was a fairly active game, Anna had conveniently left out the fact it was something generally reserved for Muggles under the age of eight.
Gwen howled. “Anna, sometimes I think you can be as evil as your brother Damon.”
“Hey… I didn’t call her over here and tell her to give me a hard time, did I? As clumsy as my sisters are, even hopscotch will be a stretch for them. Trust me; I’m doing them a favor here.”
As the twilight of evening approached, Anna drafted another letter to the black castle and sent Hobbs off to deliver it. She was getting pretty good at keeping the letters anonymous enough to make her enquiries sound official without giving up who she really was. As she watched Hobbs fly over the city and then turn toward the north once more, Anna rested her head on the window edge to think.
So… somebody was living at the castle after all. Who was it, and who finally took the time to write a response? And why didn’t they answer my questions?
Only one answer made any sense. Whoever was there was following the same pattern as everyone else living on the plateau. They were refusing to give any information out about the place. Anna felt as nervous this night as her first night at Castlewood. Although the response from the black castle was short, those three words told her a lot. How much more would she learn by keeping this up? Anna thought carefully about the risks. In her mind the danger seemed fairly minimal. Nobody knew who she was, or the real reason she was writing. Nobody knew where her owl was coming from, or who owned him. She was safe. She could keep this up indefinitely if she had to without the worry of being discovered. Little did she know, however, deep inside the black castle, a plan was being devised to locate the individual sending the unsigned letters, and Anna would soon learn the price she would have pay for being too curious about the mysteries within the Shadowed Forest.
Anna was awakened early the next morning by a soft breeze, billowing the curtains in the window next to her bed. As the sheer fluttered gently across her face, she opened her eyes and squinted into a cloudless blue sky. She rolled over. It was still early, and she could see Sarah’s tiny body rolled into a ball under her blankets across the room. Anna sat up in her four-poster, still dressed in her clothes from the night before. She quickly glanced over to Hobb’s cage. It sat empty in the darkened corner. He hadn’t returned from his evening’s journey.
Strange — what was taking him so long? It usually only took him a few hours to make the trip into the forests to the north. Where was he?
Anna stuck her head out the window to search the morning sky, and then down at the ground and the ledges around her. The city was alive with the hustle of its many residents, opening the shops and starting their daily errands. The morning dew still lay glistening and wet on the shadowed rooftops below.
Anna pushed back onto her bed and thought. He might have gone hunting after delivering the letter. Yes — that had to be it. She gave no specific orders to return right away. Anna made a mental note: Next time, she would make her wishes for a quick return more clear. She got up and headed for the bathroom.
Within seconds, however, she heard something that turned her attention back to the open window again. She listened carefully, staring out at the blue sky beyond the window’s frame. She could hear what sounded like distant screeching, and it was getting louder. The sound was terrible, a shriek filled with fright and pain, and Anna now recognized the high-pitched cry piercing the morning air.
She made a step toward the window when, suddenly, there was a WHOSH through its opening. Hobb’s terrible screeching was now magnified a hundred fold as he hit the bed and rolled several times before settling onto his back, his talons curled painfully into the air. Yellow smoke was rising off his body.
“HOBBS!! What happened?”
For a second time that week, Sarah bolted upright in her bed. “What’s going on?” she yelled, over the continuing screams of Anna’s owl. Anna ran over and gently picked up the bird, cradling him like a baby as she sat to inspect his body.
“Oh my God — Hobbs. What… who… did this to you?” Anna whispered, mournfully.
She pulled one of his wings straight and could see his feathers were burned and black where they should have been silky gray. His tail was scorched and smoking and Anna could still see tiny orange flecks of singe on their blackened edges. Anna started to cry, hugging her owl close to her chest and rocking back and forth.
“Oh God — no! This is my fault. All my fault.”
Sarah sat next to her on the bed. “What happened to him?”
“Somebody tried to kill him — look!” Anna opened her arms to show her roommate the owl. Sarah gasped. “Look at him!” Anna sobbed as she lifted one of Hobb’s blackened talons, which was curled excruciatingly into a balled fist. The owl screamed at Anna’s touch. “I’m sorry — I’m sooo sorry,” she said, releasing the bird’s foot. His beak quivered as his screeches of pain slowly died away.
“Why would anybody do this to an owl?” Sarah moaned blankly, as a shadow suddenly fell into the room.
Anna seethed in rage. “I’m going to kill whoever did this to you, Hobbs. I swear I’m gong to…”
Anna glared at Sarah who she could see was pointing to the open window behind them. She looked around and saw a man standing there looking in. Anna leaped to her feet and stared at the unknown man glaring in their window, his shoulders and head framed like a portrait against the wall next to her bed.
“What are you doing there? What do you want?” Anna yelled, turning to the side as if to protect her owl from the strange intruder. The man said nothing, but stared angrily into their room, the light of the day totally blocked out by his massive silhouette.
Sarah was hiding behind her roommate. “Who is it, Anna?” she trembled, peeking around to look.
“I don’t know. Go into the hall and find somebody to…” but no sooner was Anna about to send Sarah for help, when the man slowly started to back away. Finally, Anna could see he was floating on a flying door, and that wasn’t all.
“It’s… a Crimson Guard!”
Sure enough, Anna and Sarah could now see the man’s billowing, scarlet robes whipping in the morning breeze, a smoking wand in his lowered hand by his side. Anna’s fright instantly turned to anger as she leaped forward to the open window.
“Did you attack my owl? Did you do this? You did — didn’t you! Why… you… stinking coward!” Anna screamed at the guard, now floating twenty feet out of her reach. Suddenly, two more Crimson Guards flew in from the left and right, standing on their doors, and then a fourth on a boom fell into view to hover outside their window as well.
“You… there in the window! Stay where you are! Do not leave your room,” yelled one of the guards back at Anna.
“Anna… I think we’re in trouble,” Sarah said, looking under Anna’s arm. “They look very angry.”
“Report to the inner guard,” yelled the man to the other on the broom. “Tell them they’re in the Server Hall, fourth floor, first room on the city side.”
“Yes, sir,” said the other guard, before quickly turning to zoom off.
“What’s going on, Anna? What are they going to do?”
Anna stepped back from the window still cradling her owl. “I don’t know,” she replied angrily. “But they’re going to pay for this; attacking a defenseless animal this way. I’m going to make them sorry they ever did this,” Anna seethed, gritting her teeth through her falling tears and looking down at Hobbs who now looked lifeless in her open arms. The sight sickened her, and she shut her eyes tight as her whole body trembled with loathing and revulsion.
Suddenly, images were bursting forth in her brain. Unknown places and creatures she had never seen or knew before were taking shape in a whir of color flashing past her. Finally, two familiar eyes, old and gray, slowly stopped to stare at her. Although she couldn’t see his face, she could hear his far off voice speak.
“Protect that which is magical,” he whispered. “This is your cause, Sithmaith.”
Anna’s insides were writhing with maddening disgust, and she could feel a cold wave of consciousness trying to burst forth from her chest. Clouds of thick smoke began to block her vision, and she could see the blackness of the Lethifold oozing out of the pores in her arms. Crying angrily, she tried to regain her composure.
“No — not now. I can’t — I have to stay in control,” Anna blistered angrily, dropping to her knees and shutting her eyes tight to focus her concentration down inside. “Can’t let it take over — must — stay in control!” she moaned, forcing the inky coldness back down with all her strength.
“Anna! What’s happening to you?” Sarah yelled, standing over her. “Oh my God, Anna. Are you all right?”
Sarah watched in horror as thick clouds of icy, cold smoke started billowing into the space around Anna’s body, like a fog filling the gap between them. The smoke lifted into the air and then curled down and around Anna’s body like a shroud. Sarah tried to reach out, but then yanked her hand back in terror as the smoke stretched itself out like an appendage to snatch at her.
“I’m going to call for help?” Sarah yelped, as she turned to leave.
“No!” Anna yelled back, lifting her head to glare up at Sarah from the floor. Sarah recoiled in shock. The whites of Anna’s eyes were completely black, and the smoke was now creeping out of her sockets like thousands of tiny spiders running up her face. “I just — need — time to — regain my — control,” Anna sobbed, shutting her eyes tight again.
Sarah hesitated for a moment and then ran to the bathroom. She placed a washcloth under the faucet, wringed out the water, and then quickly dashed back. She dropped to her knees in front of Anna, took a deep breath, and then pushed the cloth through the smoke where she thought Anna’s face should be. It was like sticking her hand into a bucket of ice.
Anna felt the rag probing at her face and the coolness of the water seemed to pull her focus away from Hobbs for an instant, but it was enough. Sarah watched, transfixed, as the smoke seemed to slow, and then invert itself to retreat. It was like watching an explosion take place in reverse, as the blackness was sucked into Anna’s body from every direction.
As the smoke finally cleared, Anna’s vision began to return and she slowly stood to sit on the edge of her bed again. She was still sobbing. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“What happened to you?” Sarah asked, still on her knees below her, but Anna didn’t reply. She could here them coming now, the thudding cadence of several guards marching up the hallway toward their room.
Boom-Boom-Boom! They were now punching rapidly at the door.
“Open up in there. This is the Crimson Guard. Open this door!”
The girls didn’t move.
“Open the door, Sarah. It’s all right. I’m okay now. Go ahead and let them in.”
Sarah got to her feet and quickly unlocked the door and swung it open. She found five guards standing outside. One of them pushed Sarah aside to step in.
“You!” he bellowed, pointing at Anna. “You will come with us, now!”
Anna looked up, her anger still writhing. “Why did you do this to him?” she said, looking down at her owl again.
“Get up!” the guard barked back as he stepped past her to look out the window. “We have them,” he said, waving outside.
“Good! Take her to the captain’s office immediately,” a voice yelled back.
“Yes, sir.” The guard turned to face Anna again. “On your feet!” Anna stood and followed the guards out the door.
“Where are you taking her,” Sarah asked them in alarm as she tried to follow.
“You will stay here until you have been questioned. Do you understand?” shouted one of the guards back to her.
“But… what about my classes?”
The door was yanked shut, and Sarah could hear a muffled voice on the other side say, “Guard this door. Nobody in or out without my permission.”
Anna followed the Crimson Guard down the steps and into the main Server Hall, occasionally taking a shove in the back to keep pace. Several students slowly stood to watch the procession pass, but Anna never looked up. All of her attention was now on Hobbs. The owl looked terribly weak and near death. Finally, one student stepped in front of the crowd of guards surrounding Anna. It was Karen Scott, the Server Knight she had met earlier.
“Wait — hold on, there. Where are you taking this student?” she said, assertively. The guards did not reply and marched straight past her. “I said — wait!” Karen yelled. They did not. The Knight ran to catch up to the leader, having to jog next to him to keep pace. “I asked you a question. Where are you taking our student? You don’t have the right to come into the Hall without a Knight’s permission.”
“You are a Server Knight. This student is not in the Server Union. Your permission was not required,” the guard growled back, as they continued to march toward the exit.
“Then you should have asked for my permission!”
It was Eric. He had just entered the Server Hall in front of the guards in time to hear Karen’s voice. He looked confused, but immediately saw Anna was in serious trouble. “I am a Guardian Knight. You will stop now and explain this.” The guards finally halted.
“Guardian… we have been commanded by our captain to detain this student for questioning in a matter of school security. Normally, we would have asked for your permission, as you well should expect, but the Captain of the Guard has final authority in all matters of security. You’ll have to take this matter up with him.”
“What has she done? What security matters are you talking about?”
“I am not at liberty to explain, Guardian Knight. Please contact the Student President, and have her speak to Captain Dunning,” replied the guard, who then stepped forward to pass him.
Eric quickly moved to block his way again. “This also happens to be my sister you’re marching off with. You’re not taking her anywhere!”
The guard hesitated. “I understand your concern, but I have my orders. Now, step aside,” he said, bluntly, “or I’ll have you removed.”
Eric stepped up into the guard’s face. “Just try it, and I’ll call on every student in this hall to block your way. Do you understand me? I will not allow you to come in here and…”
“Eric,” Anna interrupted. “Let me go. It’s okay. I’ll explain all of this later. I need you to take care of Hobbs for me,” she said, reaching out to hand her brother the owl.
“My God, Anna. What happened to him?”
“Please… just help him. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Eric took the bird and stepped aside to watch the guards escort Anna out of the hall.
“What the hell is going on?” Eric said angrily, as he set the bird down on an adjacent table to inspect his injuries.
Anna followed the marching guards through several corridors and finally to a hallway she had never seen before. They stopped at a metal door and the guard leading them lifted an iron ring hanging there. The clanging from his knock echoed down the hallway around them.
“Enter!” came a voice from inside. The guard opened the door.
“We have the, uh… student, sir.”
“Good, thank you. That will be all.” The guard pointed Anna into the room and then closed the door behind her as he left.
Captain Dunning was working at his desk, writing on a scroll of parchment. “Sit!” he said, without bothering to look up.
Anna sat in an oak chair closest to the door; her anger was writhing inside to the point of bursting once again. Her eyes quickly scanned the room around her. There were several portraits on the walls, previous Captains of Castlewood, and Anna noticed they all seemed quite a bit older than Dunning. She looked at his desk and her eyes immediately fell upon a Quidditch bludger-club, sitting on a display mount. Her mind was blind with rage. Yes, she thought wildly, envisioning Dunning’s head as a budger and herself as a Quidditch beater. The captain finished what he was writing and then finally looked up.
“Anna Grayson?” he said, sounding somewhat surprised. Then he sat back and sighed. “I should have known. Who else would it have been? Tell me, Grayson, is trouble going to follow you here at the school everyday?”
Anna didn’t answer. She grit her teeth, trying to hold in her last bit of resolve not to explode. The captain stared at her.
“Nothing to say? Now that isn’t like any Grayson I’ve ever known?”
He stood to gather a pile of papers on his desk. He walked over to her and dropped the parchment onto her lap. They were the letters she had written to the black castle. Anna’s mind was swimming. How could he have gotten her letters?
“Is this your scribble, Grayson?” he asked, walking over to his desk and turning to sit upon its corner. Anna remained silent. “Why have you been sending your owl into the Shadowed Forest with those letters?” he asked angrily.
“I didn’t realize our letters going out of the school were being inspected by the guard,” Anna replied heatedly. “Are all the students lucky enough to have their mail censored, or is it just me?”
Dunning smiled. “You didn’t answer my question. Are those your letters?”
“Ah, finally, a straight answer. Couldn’t have imagined seeing this kind of progress so early in the day — excellent. Now then, why have you been sending them into the forest? Didn’t I warn you along with all the other new students arriving here at the school about the dangers within the forest?”
“It wasn’t the forest that tried to kill my owl,” Anna snarled back. “That was your doing. You did that.”
“Your owl? Has he been injured? Hmm, I had no idea,” Dunning replied, smiling maliciously. “My guards were simply told to follow the bird back to ascertain who was sending the letters.”
Anna was slowly rising to her feet, her body shaking with fury. Growling under her breath, she stumbled and lurched slightly as she made her way toward the captain as his voice continued to buzz menacingly in her ears.
“It was not my intension to have the bird…”
Anna slapped Dunning hard across the face. Dunning’s head whipped back around to face her, his expression a mixture of surprise and shock. Anna was already waiting. Quick as a flash, she grabbed the bludger-club from his desk and was halfway into her swing by the time Dunning’s eyes had refocused upon her.
Anna smashed him on the side of the head with the small wooden bat. The blow spun the man around, knocking him off his desk and onto the floor. Before Dunning knew what was happening, Anna was over him, punching and kicking every part of his body she knew would hurt.
“YOU filthy, disgusting…. PIG!” she yelled, kicking him hard in the side. She heard one of his ribs snap from the blow. “I’ll kill you! You dirty, murdering scum! I’ll kill you! AAAAAH!” she shrieked, as she lifted her foot to stomp down on him.
The captain quickly rolled to his side and used one leg to sweep Anna off her feet. She crashed to the floor with a loud BANG onto her back. Immediately, the doors of the office flew open and two Crimson Guards quickly dashed in. They grabbed Anna by her arms and lifted her up off the floor.
“You’re dead, you son of a…” Anna screamed, as she stretched herself out to kick at the captain again.
The guards dragged Anna back to the chair and threw her into it hard. Anna’s neck snapped back, her head slamming against the wall behind her. Dunning was on his feet again and moving angrily toward her. She tried to rise to meet him, but he grabbed her by the throat and shoved her head back against the wall while his two guards held her arms down. The blow sent white-hot stars shooting through her brain again.
“You’ve just given me all the reason I need to expel you from his school, young lady,” Dunning growled, squeezing her windpipe closed.
Anna could see the captain’s blood trickling down the side of his head; she wanted more. She was seething in rage and spat into his face. Dunning released her as he recoiled in disgust, wiping his eyes.
“Why you little…” he clinched his fist and raised it to strike. Anna, helpless and pinned, turned away and closed her eyes. She readied herself for the blow, but it never came. She slowly opened her eyes to find the captain walking away from her, clutching his side. He pulled his chair over to the side of his desk and slowly lowered himself down, wincing with pain as he sat.
“Let her go — and get out,” he said angrily, waving the two guards away. The men, looking somewhat shocked by his orders, slowly released Anna’s arms. They stood there for a few seconds to insure she wasn’t going to rise again and then immediately left the room.
“Well… this is a first,” Dunning groaned, breathing heavily and grimacing at the sharp twinge of pain in his side. “I can’t say as I’ve ever had a student attack me before.”
“You deserved it… you pig!”
Dunning frowned and then whispered, “You know, Grayson… that mouth of yours is worse than your temper. Where did you learn such language, at that Muggle school of yours?”
“Comes with the territory,” Anna said, feeling the large lump now rising off the back of her head. “Growing up as a squib teaches you things.”
“Hmm… yes, I suppose it would.” Dunning screwed up his face as he wiped the side of his head. Looking at the blood on his hand, his eyes slowly narrowed to glare at her. “I can’t stand you, Grayson. You know that? But it’s not just you; it’s your whole damn family. Look at you. About to be expelled for attacking the Captain of the Crimson Guard in your first month at school. You must be proud.”
“You think too much of yourself. It wasn’t an honor smacking you around; it was all pleasure.”
“Is that right? There… you see? That’s just what I’m talking about — no respect. None of the Graysons have it. Can’t you see I have a position here at the school of great importance? Can’t you see that position should guarantee a minimum level of respect, regardless of your personal feelings toward me? Your family struts around this school like you own the place, using your money and influence to get and take what you want, without regard to those who have to earn the simplest things to survive. You disgust me; all of you.”
“You don’t know anything about my family. All you know is what you see at this school. If I had to judge by what I see in you and that sister of yours, I’d condemn your entire family to the tortures of hell.”
“You self-righteous little…” Dunning sneered, his voice rising. “I’ve seen how your brothers and sisters treat each other. I know much more about your family than you might think. In fact, in some areas, I believe I know more than you. All of this family honor hogwash is just that. You don’t respect one another, why should I expect you to care about anybody else? You’re all a bunch of hypocrites… lunatics all.”
Anna seethed. “Go drown yourself, you pompous ass.”
Both of them sat staring at each other, wanting to say much more than what had already been said. Matching his every blink, Anna fumed and snarled. She knew the damage was done; she was gone — out of Castlewood — disgraced. But she wasn’t going to give any ground now. She wasn’t going to beg to stay. She hated him too much to give him that.
“So what am I to do with you, Grayson?”
“Throw me out, I suppose. It’s what you’ve been working for since the day we got here. Well, you’ve finally bagged your first Grayson. You must be the happiest demon on the planet right now.”
Dunning shook his head in disgust. Gazing around the room with a look of wanting, he said, “Oh you don’t know how much I wish I could.”
His statement shocked Anna. Of course he could, she thought. Why wouldn’t he throw her out? She could see that’s what he wanted to do. What would possibly stop him? Despite how much she hated him, Anna found herself hanging on his every word.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Dunning finally said, calmly.
“Why were you sending your owl into the Shadowed Forest?”
“Because I wanted to know who was living in the building that’s hidden there.”
The captain stared at her with a sudden look of troubled awareness. “There are no buildings in the Shadowed For...”
His face flattened. “Now, why would I lie about that? For what purpose would I have for doing that? I tell you… there are no castles in the forest!”
“I didn’t say it was a castle,” Anna replied, echoing the captain’s words back to prove he was lying. She could see Dunning’s rage building to new levels yet again. Anna grinned, her eyes flashing with satisfaction. “I saw it. I know it’s there.”
“You… you saw it? But… how could you have…” he stopped short. “Whatever you think you saw, you didn’t. But even if you did see something out there, why would it interest you?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“Oh, but it is my business. Haven’t I already told you? Everything that happens on this mountain is my business.”
“So you admit the castle is there, even if you won’t tell me what it is?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“That’s okay. I’ll find out on my own.”
The man scowled. “There you go again… that arrogant attitude of yours. Besides… how would you hope to accomplish such a task, sitting at home in that mansion of yours in California?” Anna didn’t have an answer to this statement, which seemed to bring Dunning to an acceptable level of contentment.
“Oh how I wish I could take you to the place you seek, and show you around. You don’t know the irony of this situation. Here you are, looking for a place that nobody will talk about — but where, by all accounts, you yourself should be.”
Anna’s head was throbbing, and the pain seemed twice as bad because she was fighting not to show how much it hurt. What did he mean she should be there? What was he talking about? Finally, Anna’s head hurt too much to ignore. She leaned forward in her chair and rested her aching skull in her hands.
“I’m tired of this,” Anna moaned. “If you’re going to expel me, then do it. Then I can contact my father, you can call the Chancellor, and we’ll let them figure out the rest.”
She looked up and could immediately see her words had struck a nerve. Dunning’s face began to push thick veins through the skin of his forehead. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back into his chair as if contemplating his many evil options. Finally, he came forward again to look at her.
“No…” he said slowly, and he shook his head as if disbelieving what he himself was about to say. “I won’t kick you out, but only if you will agree to three things.”
Anna frowned disbelievingly. “And what would that be?” she rumbled, skeptically.
Dunning sneered. “First, you will stop sending owls into the Shadowed Forest. Second, you will not speak to anybody about what you think you saw out there. That includes your family… and especially your father. Have you told anybody else about this?”
“No,” Anna lied.
“Not your family, a friend, your roommate?” Anna thought quickly. She had no idea what Sarah might be saying under interrogation back in the Server Hall. She had to hope for the best.
“I said, no!”
“Good. So… do we have a deal?”
Anna stared at Dunning suspiciously, untold buckets of doubt racing through her mind. She didn’t like the idea of making an agreement with somebody she despised, especially when it meant keeping something from her father. There were too many unknown elements here; it made her feel like she was striking a covenant with Satan himself. Why would the captain want her to keep quiet about this? What part of this incident would Dunning not want her father to know about? It seemed to Anna that if her father knew anything about this, she would be the one in a lot trouble. What was Dunning hiding? What was he afraid of?
“So?” he said, still scowling at her for an answer.
“And… if I say yes, you’ll just forget about all of this?” Anna said, distrustfully.
“No, I didn’t say that. I just won’t expel you.”
Anna looked down in disgust. What should she do? On one hand, she hated the idea of saying yes to this man.
On the other hand, the thought of being expelled from Castlewood was…
“Oh — come now; this isn’t hard.”
She decided to take another chance. “All right,” she said, resignedly, not bothering to look at him. “Hold on…” her head jerked up, “you said there were three things you wanted.”
Dunning slowly stood and then walked over to her. He placed his hands on either side of her chair and leaned in so that his eyes were level and just inches from hers. She could hear the wood in her chair groaning under his weight.
“As hard as this decision was for you to obviously make, girl,” he said, his stare laying waste her remaining courage, “you can’t imagine how difficult it is for me. The thought of letting you go, after what you’ve done, pains me greater than the death of my own mother, and you should know won’t get another chance like this in the future. If you ever raise a hand to me again, I’ll leave you on my office floor a bloody mess, without limbs to swing. Get me?”
For the first time since Anna had entered Dunning’s office, she truly felt fear. Dunning didn’t wait for an answer. He quickly stood straight before her and whipped out his wand. He pointed it at her, and Anna recoiled to cover her face.
Anna felt something hot explode near her legs, and her feet jumped off the floor as she looked down. She saw the letters she had sent with Hobbs curling as they lay burning on the wooden floor. Dunning was already walking away.
“Get the hell out of my sight!”
Anna stood, took three steps, and pushed the latch to open the door. She looked back at the smoldering parchment under the chair, and around at the wooden club lying on the office floor. Glancing up at Dunning’s back, Anna smiled, and then walked out.