Vollucross for Beginners
“I have a few questions I need to ask you, Mr. Grayson.”
“My name is Eric, John,” Eric replied, angrily. “You know me. We’ve worked together for the last two years, ever since I first became a Knight. But if that’s the way you want it, fine Lieutenant Hayman. Where is my sister? Where have the guards taken Anna?”
“Miss Grayson is being questioned in the Captain’s office,” replied the Crimson Guard. They were in the Lieutenant’sheadquarters, in the deepest part of the castle’s dungeon. Eric had come to this place looking for Anna soon after she had been escorted out of the Server Hall. The Crimson officer sitting across the desk before him looked very uncomfortable. “Let’s try to keep this at a professional level this time, Eric. It might make things go a little easier, all right?”
“Fine! So — what — the — hell — is going on?”
“Captain Dunning has asked me to get to the bottom of this… uh… situation. Do you know anything about the owls being sent into the Shadowed Forest?”
Eric’s face went slack. “Owls… in the forest? No… why would anybody want to send an owl into the Shadowed Forest?”
“So you know nothing about any messages being sent into the forest at anytime over the last few days?”
“I said –– no.”
“Do you know why Anna might be sending owls into the forest?”
For a moment, Eric looked dumbstruck. “Anna?” He grinned stupidly. “She wouldn’t do that. She wouldn’t… why would she do that? To whom would she –– anybody –– write in there?”
“That’s a good question, Eric. Who would Anna be writing to? I mean generally speaking, who would she write to… outside of the castle?”
“Nobody I can think of. She has a couple of Muggle friends at home, but she wouldn’t be sending an owl to them. Except for our father, everybody she knows is here at Castlewood. Besides her family, one friend, and her roommate, she doesn’t know anybody. She’s only been in Spellsburg since the beginning of the term.”
“Yes, her friend…” the lieutenant began flipping through the pages of a report, “is Gwendolyn Reese. Is that correct?”
“Yes, they’ve been friends since they were children, before Gwen moved to Pennsylvania to start school. But Anna wouldn’t be writing to her, she sees her every day.”
“And her roommate is this, Sarah Bell. Is that right?” the guard asked, flipping over another page in his report.
“Does Anna know anybody in Spellsburg?”
“No, Anna doesn’t know anybody living in the city. As I said before, she’s only been here a few days.”
The lieutenant finally leaned back and frowned. “This doesn’t make any since,” he whispered under his breath. There was a quick knock on the door and another guard suddenly entered the room.
“Beg your pardon, sir. An urgent report just came in from the Captain,” said the man, sharply. Lieutenant Hayman stood, snatched the small scroll from the guard, and opened it. It took him a while to read through the pages, but when he finished he was smiling. “Thank you. That will be all.”
“Yes, sir,” said the other guard, who quickly left.
“Well, it looks like the Captain has already cleared this up for us, Eric. Seems all of this is just a big misunderstanding.”
“What are you talking about?”
The Lieutenant took off his crimson cloak and threw it onto a chair behind him. Eric got the impression that all of the formality of their meeting had just ended.
“This is somewhat embarrassing, so bear with me while I explain.” The lieutenant sat in his chair across the table again and leaned in as if to share with Eric a heavily guarded secret, his voice was purposely low.
“According to these documents I’ve just received from the Captain, we’ve been getting reports out of his office about a criminal element passing stolen goods in and out of Spellsburg. We think the contraband is coming from the Shadowed Forest where it’s also being stored. When these criminals find a buyer, we believe an owl is sent from the forest to make arrangements for the stolen goods to be picked up. The Crimson Guard has been closely watching for any owls in and out of the forest all summer.”
“So? What’s that got to do with Anna?”
The guard took in a deep breath and shook his head reluctantly. “It would seem some of the guards the Captain put on this investigation were a bit… over zealous about finding these people in the forest. According to this report, they thought they saw Anna’s owl coming out of the woods and, quite naturally, they believed these smugglers were using it to send another message into Spellsburg. They immediately set upon the task of capturing the owl in order to gather the message it was carrying. It might have helped them identify who the sender or receiver might have been. They ended up following this owl back to the Server Hall and to your sister’s room.”
“So Captain Dunning thinks this was just a mistake?” Eric sneered, incredulously.
“Apparently so. This note also orders me to stop my investigation, and any further questioning of you in this matter.”
Eric leaned back in his chair and gave a heartened sigh of relief. The lieutenant could clearly see the morning had taken a heavy toll on his friend.
“Eric… I’m really sorry about all of this. I don’t understand how this mistake could have happened. The Captain has told me to pass on his apologies if my conclusions concur with his preliminary findings.”
Eric quickly looked up. “And? Are you satisfied Anna had nothing to do with this… this business in the forest?”
The lieutenant grinned affably. “Of course I am. It should never have gone this far.”
Eric scowled. “If you’re saying this shouldn’t have happened, you’re damn right! And I don’t believe Dunning’s entire story on this matter, John. How could they possibly think Anna, or any student for that matter, could be involved in this? If they’ve been investigating these crimes throughout the summer, why did they arrest Anna? She didn’t even have an invitation to come to Castlewood up to a few weeks ago. Did you know anything about this… what did he call it? This criminal element, this smuggling-ring, before now?”
The lieutenant’s face fell blank for a moment. “Well… no, I didn’t. But the Captain has a number of on going investigations throughout the plateau. He has a tremendous amount of responsibility for security within this castle, the city of Spellsburg, and the rest of the mountain. His management style,” he paused slightly, which told Eric that Hayman didn’t appreciate Captain Dunning’s management style for what it was, “keeps all of his lieutenants fairly segmented. While he’s given me full authority inside the castle, I’m not exactly sure, day to day, what the other commanders and their squads are doing on the other side of the drawbridge.”
“But you know how Dunning feels about my family, John. He’s gone out of his way in the past to make things difficult for the Graysons. What do you think really happened here? Once the guards saw the owl entering the Server Hall, they should have realized it belonged to a student. But no, that fact didn’t stop them from marching in and arresting my sister.”
Eric suddenly stood and walked around the table. He snatched up lieutenant Hayman’s cloak from the chair behind him and raised it up, seemingly searching for something on it. He finally found what he was looking for, a round, silver badge with the letter ‘C’ stamped on the front. He turned the front of the cloak toward the officer.
“This was not the badge I saw on the guards walking my sister out of the Hall, John. It was different from this badge.”
“That’s my Castlewood Squadron badge. All of the members of my team inside the castle wear it. It signifies that they work for me.”
“I KNOW THAT! I also know the Crimson Guards that serve the city of Spellsburg have a similar badge with the letter ‘S’ stamped on it. They report to Lieutenant Mantos on Laborer’s Street in the city.” Eric threw the cloak back onto the chair. “But the guards that took Anna were different. Did you see the badge they wore? It had a ‘D’ stamped on it. I’ve never, in my six years living on this plateau, have ever seen these guards before. Where did they come from? What were they doing here? And why did they enter the castle without your permission, John?”
The Lieutenant suddenly stood. “Now wait a minute. What do you mean by…?” but Eric cut him off.
“I spoke with some of the other members of your squad, John. They told me these guards didn’t ask for permission to enter the castle. They just marched in and took her!”
The lieutenant’s expression relaxed as he looked down at his desk and began to collect the various papers of his report. “There are no regulations limiting another squad from coming into an unassigned station to assist in an investigation,” he said, unconvincingly.
“Oh, really? Well I’d be rather upset if I knew somebody else had come onto my turf and did something like this, and I think I know you well enough to understand that, while there may be no formal regulations that apply here, these actions are a definite breech of the guard’s personal code of conduct.”
The lieutenantturned to face Eric again, seemingly to argue the point, but he didn’t. He appeared resigned to his disappointment as he dropped his head. He paused a few seconds before Eric heard him muttering to the floor, “They should have come to me. Where do they get off entering the castle without my permission,” he grumbled angrily to himself.
“Where is this squad’s headquarters, John? What does this letter ‘D’ stand for? Who do they work for?”
“They obviously work for the Captain — like the rest of us do, of course. But… to be honest, Eric, I don’t know anything about them. I’ve never seen them before today and, well… I don’t like what they did either.” There was a very long pause as the two men struggled to keep their irritations in check.
“When my father hears about this… there’s going to be hell to pay.”
The lieutenant looked suddenly worried. Then, when he saw the hesitancy lingering on Eric’s face, Hayman’s manner changed to one of private sympathy. “Eric, I understand you have every right to be upset. But bringing your family in on this is only going to make the situation more complicated than it has to be, and… well… it’s also going to be personally embarrassing for me,” he said in an anxious tone.
“Let me investigate the things that lead to this mistake. I admit there are things I don’t understand about what happened here. But if you’ll allow me to check into it, without the worry of outside intervention, I can assure you I will get to the root cause of these events.”
Eric was uncertain. “So… what are you going to do?”
The lieutenant sat on the corner of the desk and thought. “I admit the guards who were involved in this case trouble me,” Hayman said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I suppose it is possible that Captain Dunning has formed a new squad to investigate this case of stolen goods moving in and out of the Shadowed Forest. I’m just guessing, of course, but it’s one of the things I’d like to clear up in my own mind. Secondly, I don’t understand why I’ve never heard of this smuggling investigation in the first place. While the Captain does keep his squads somewhat segmented, we are generally informed about the top priorities of all of his lieutenants. I can’t imagine why I’ve never heard about an investigation of this magnitude before now.”
Eric took a while to think about his options, and then slowly shook his head. “I would really hate to trouble my father with all of this. He already has so much to deal with right now. His responsibilities to the Ministry, Anna’s unexpected departure to Castlewood, not to mention what’s going on here at the school with the new Guardian Union, are taking all of his time to manage.”
Hayman nodded. “I also heard about the attacks at the Grayson estate,” he added, cautiously. Eric looked at him in surprise and the officer shrugged. “My brother is a member of the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures at the Ministry. He was at the house after the second attack,” the officer explained.
Eric paused for a moment, and then nodded in a manner one does when reaching a troubled decision. “If you’ll agree to keep me informed on your findings in this case, I’ll keep my family quiet about what happened here today.”
Hayman smiled and then came around the desk to shake Eric’s hand. “Thank you, Eric. I really appreciate your willingness to work with me on this.”
As Eric left Lieutenant Hayman’s office, he saw Gwen and Sarah sitting outside, waiting to be questioned. They both jumped to their feet when they saw him.
“Eric! What’s going on? Where’s Anna?” Gwen yelped, in a worried voice. “Sarah says she was arrested?”
“It’s all right. She’s down in Dunning’s office. The situation has already been cleared up. It’s just a big mistake. You simply need to…”
“Eric, let me finish my investigation here,” Hayman interrupted, stepping between him and Gwen. “I still have a few questions to ask these girls before I can close the file. Due diligence demands I speak to them before you do. I’m sure you understand.”
“Yes, of course… my apologies. I look forward to speaking to you again when you find the answers you’re looking for, John.” He turned to Gwen and Sarah. “I’ll see you upstairs,” he said reassuringly, and then he left. Gwen and Sarah looked at each other reproachfully.
“Miss Reese? Would you please step into my office,” said Lieutenant Hayman, in an unexpected tone of politeness.
When Anna left Dunning’s office, she didn’t return to the Server Hall. She had to get away, to think about what had just happened. She found her way out of the dungeons and to the main entrance. She flung open the doors, ran down the steps into the courtyard, and then over the drawbridge into the city. It was still early, and Anna was rather shocked to see the everyday life in Spellsburg continuing as if nothing had just happened. How could it be that her entire world had nearly come apart, and yet, nobody around her seemed to care?
“Good morning,” said a round man in an apron, stacking oranges outside his grocery store. Anna didn’t say anything. She had no idea where she was going and soon found herself beyond the gates of Spellsburg, walking aimlessly out on the plateau. The grass was still wet from the morning dew and before long, Anna’s feet where soaked and cold straight through to her socks. She barely noticed. Her mind was too busy putting together the fractured pieces of the events leading up to her fight with Dunning. She shuddered, thinking about his face glaring down at her, his hands around her throat, his determination to choke the life out of her. She had never seen such fury in another person in her entire life. Although she was still angry about Hobbs, the threats from Dunning were very serious, and Anna knew she would have to do everything she could to stay out of the captain’s way from now on.
She tried to focus her mind back to the one thing she knew. Hobbs must have delivered her letters to a member of the Crimson Guard. “And that means the guards are inside the black castle as well,” she reasoned to herself. But why were they there? And what did Dunning mean when he said that she, Anna, should be in this place herself? There was only one answer that made any sense. If the castle was a prison, then Dunning must have been saying she belonged in jail for what she had done while in his office.
“Yeah, you’re the one who should be locked in a cage, Dunning,” Anna grumbled angrily under her breath. As the Captain’s horrible face burst forth into her mind once again, another problem suddenly presented itself to her. How would she explain all of this to Eric? What could she possibly tell her brother that would keep him from sending an owl directly to their father? Anna groaned. If Eric did that, it would mean going back on her agreement with Dunning, which would certainly mean her expulsion from Castlewood for attacking him. And what about Dunning? For some unknown reason, it seemed to be in his best interest to keep what happened quiet as well. And not just from the students and the teachers, but specifically from her father. What was at the black castle that Dunning was hiding?
“Hello, Anna. Out at the stables bright and early this morning, I see.” It was Mr. Kingston, the stable master. Anna was somewhat surprised to see him. She looked around and realized she had unconsciously wandered onto the stadium grounds. “Fancy yourself a mount this morning?”
“Oh, hello Jeremiah. I… ah… well, I wasn’t… ah… how’s Swooper today?” she said, searching desperately for a reason to explain why she was there.
“Right as rain! He’s eating three times his normal share these days. Seems he’s come out of his depression a hellion. Why don’t you go and see for yourself?”
“Thanks, I… think I will,” and Anna set off guardedly toward the stables.
As she peered around the corner of the last stall, she could see the black stallion eating his grain from a box mounted on the wall. Anna could hear his obsessive crunching, his neck straining to reach the bottom of his feeding box. The sight of the beautiful horse with iridescent wings made Anna smile for the first time that morning.
“Hey… go easy there, big guy. You keep eating like that, and you won’t be able to get off the ground.” The stallion jerked up and looked at Anna. He recognized her immediately and his body swerved around to center itself in the stall. He let out a nickered blow, HWHOOOO – WHAAA, that sounded like wind passing through deep pipes. He suddenly rose high on his hind legs and began kicking ecstatically into the air, the heavy sound of his fast jabs whipping out toward her. Anna smiled and opened the gate.
“Easy boy,” she said, reaching out as he fell back down onto all fours. He then shook his massive head and came forward. Anna was surprised at the sight of him. The winged horse seemed even bigger than when she first saw him the week before. She ran her hands down his ribs and felt what seemed like newly formed muscle there. “Wow, you’ve been packing on the pounds, Swooper.”
Mr. Kingston looked in. “He hasn’t been in the air since the day you took him up, though.”
“Really? Why is that?” Anna asked, somewhat surprised.
“Won’t let any other riders near him. A few have tried, of course, but they couldn’t get as near as you are now. He’s a stubborn old fool, that one.” Swooper looked up to glare at Mr. Kingston and snorted loudly. “Well — you are!” the stable master retorted. “Doctor Pearl finally convinced him to let her into his saddle the day before yesterday, but before she could get herself settled he threw her nearly twenty feet across the lawn.”
“Oh-my-gosh! Is she all right?”
Kingston smiled. “Oh yeah, she’s fine. Tough old bird, our Pearl, but I’ve never seen her so angry. Raving mad, she was. Threatened to banish Swooper into Neptune’s Veil for what he’d done.” Swooper grunted, shaking his head disapprovingly. “And you know she’d do it to, ya blue-eyed hot head,” Kingston bellowed at the horse. Anna giggled. “So, you planning to take him up this morning?” he said, looking inquiringly at her.
“Well, I’m supposed to be in class right now,” Anna replied, looking longingly at the horse.
Mr. Kingston smiled again. “I heard about your arrest this morning. Everything all right?” Anna snapped up.
“You heard about that?”
“Oh, I think everybody heard about that. It’s not often we see that many guards swooping around in the skies above the city this early in the morning. Of course… the screaming back and forth out your Server Hall window was sure to gather a lot of attention too.”
Anna cringed. “Sorry about that,” she said, embarrassed.
“Yes, well, Spellsburg may look like a big city, but it’s really just a very small town. News like that spreads like a fanned fire around here. Everybody knew who was in trouble before you even left your room.”
Anna winced. So much for keeping what happened a secret from her father, she thought miserably.
“But we all heard it was just a big to-do over nothing. Some kind of mixed up mistake is what the guards in Spellsburg have been saying. Are you all right?” Anna was so shocked she could barely speak. The news of her arrest and release making it into the city had unnerved her.
“Uh, yeah, I’m okay… I guess,” she lied, still feeling the bump on the back of her head throbbing mercilessly.
Kingston gave her a doubtful look. “Good… glad to hear it. I know Dunning can be somewhat intimidating sometimes, so –– you deserve a little break. Why don’t you get yourself into some riding clothes, and I’ll find Swooper’s saddle.” Anna’s expression changed from worried concern to long-sought hope in less than a second. She was so appreciative of Kingston’s offer that she immediately reached out and hugged him on the spot.
“Thank you,” she said, in a muffled voice against his coat. “I really need to ride right now,” she sobbed.
Kingston smiled and then pushed her back. “The fact that you need a mount at a time like this proves you’re not just weight in a saddle, Anna.” He tapped her playfully on the nose. “You’ve got the heart and soul of a true rider. Now go on, we’ll meet you outside.”
Fifteen minutes later, Anna was running out of the locker room and onto the stadium field. Kingston, as promised, had Swooper ready to go. He threw her a harness. “Your shirt’s on backwards,” he said, laughing.
“What? Ohhh!” Anna huffed angrily. She turned quickly and whipped off the shirt to turn it around. The cold morning breeze on her bare skin stung as she held up the coarse-haired shirt, trying to find the right way in. Mr. Kingston quickly turned to look the other way, giggling.
“Kind of cold to go bare-back,” he snorted.
When he could hear Anna snapping the buckles of her harness, he turned around, cupped his hands, and lifted her into the saddle. “Have a good flight, Anna, and don’t come back until all your worries have blown themselves out, okay?”
“Okay — and… well… thanks,” Anna said, wiping the tears out of her eyes before taking up the reins.
The stable master grinned and then walked up to the front of the horse. He yanked down on Swooper’s clip. “And you –– behave yourself!” he said, pointing a threatening finger at the horse. “Hear me?” Swooper grunted and bared his teeth back at him. Kingston looked up at Anna. “There are only a couple of other horses out this morning, Anna. Nobody to worry about –– the skies are all yours,” he informed her, unsnapping the clip on Swooper’s bridle.
“Up, Swooper, up!” he waved.
Minutes later, Anna was at the five hundred foot ceiling and racing through the blue morning air. Flying away from a world full of problems, this was living. While up here, she didn’t care about Dunning, the black castle, or even the school now passing below her. It felt wonderful to think only as far as she could see, and breathe the cleansing air of freedom once again.
Grinning with excitement, Anna hooked the back of her heels against the saddle’s metal pegs to hold herself tight and banked Swooper into a long, slow roll. By the time they came out of the turn, they were ten feet above the ground and racing across the plateau, the wind stinging Anna’s ears as it rushed passed her. She could see the familiar outline of Doctor Pearl waddling across the lawn toward the stadium in front of them. Dressed in her usual black, the Doctor began waving merrily as they approached, and they could hear her sharp whistle telling them to go higher. Swooper let out an angry snort and then dipped lower as they zoomed by, the wind from his wings blowing the good doctor off her feet.
“Yaaaahhhhhhhhhoooooooooo!!!” Anna howled excitedly, as they rose high into the sky once again.
After about an hour of racing around the plateau and over the city, an obsessive thought came into Anna’s head to travel north, and perhaps high enough to see the black castle again. She even caught herself looking around and wondering if anyone might see her going above the legal ceiling, but her good sense held her back. She didn’t need to give Dunning another reason to send her home.
Anna quickly looked around and saw somebody gliding down next to her. It was the same blond girl who had been riding the Abraxan Palomino that attacked Swooper on her first flight over the plateau. She was riding a different horse this time, a reddish-brown flyer with white feet. “Beautiful morning for a ride, isn’t it?”
“Hi!” Anna yelled back, immediately nervous about their close proximity to each other. “Do you think it’s safe for us to be this close?”
“Oh sure,” the girl said, patting the gorgeous chestnut mount below her. “Peppercorn here is a sweetheart. She’s never been in a fight.”
“That’s a relief,” Anna shouted out across the space between them, and she watched as the other girl’s body rose gracefully between her horse’s wing-beats. Her back was stiff and proper, and Anna couldn’t help straightening to mimic her style.
“How’s the leg?” Anna yelled over to her.
“Fine; no problem. I see the two of you came out of the fight okay.”
“Everything’s all right here. Swooper is just, well, a little hot-headed.” Anna could hear her horse give out another angry snort below her.
“That’s okay. In fact, a good fighting spirit is absolutely necessary for a great Vollucross horse. Speaking of which, how about it?”
“How about –– what?” Anna shouted back, dully.
“A race, of course!” the girl returned, smiling brightly. “See if you can keep up!” And with a powerful kick, her horse zoomed off ahead of them.
“But…?” Anna started to say she wasn’t much interested in being with anybody right now, but it was too late. In the blink of an eye, the girl was far ahead and gaining speed. Before Anna had decided what she intended to do, she could feel Swooper flapping his wings harder and the wind against her chest stiffen as their speed increased. Anna leaned down intuitively against Swooper’s back, still unsure if she wanted to chase after them. She could see the gap between her and the other horse had stopped growing, however, and with every strong thrust of Swooper’s powerful wings was slowly beginning to shrink. Anna smiled and leaned down still lower against Swooper’s back to give him a gentle nudge in the ribs.
“You want to chase after them, don’t you?” she said, provokingly. “Okay then –– go get her!”
The effect of these simple words on Anna’s horse was immediate. She could feel every muscle along his back tighten, and the curl of his wing-beats change from their simple up and down motion, to a complicated array of circles, reaching forward and sweeping back to glide. Their acceleration increased dramatically, and the gap separating the two horses was now closing at an almost astonishing rate.
Within minutes, the girl who was nearly out of sight at the start was barely a few feet ahead of them. Peppercorn’s black tail was whipping in the wind side to side, almost teasing them onward. Anna watched in amazement as Swooper’s wings reached forward, almost touching their tips in the front, before sweeping back hard. She could feel his massive midriff expanding, pushing Anna’s legs apart as he swelled to take in more air for the battle yet to come. She saw the rider in front casually look back and the expression on her face turn to shock at seeing Anna so close behind them. Her head jerked forward and she leaned down. Anna saw her right shoulder give a funny little twitch, and they immediately rolled to the right and down.
“Where are you going?” Anna growled, and she snapped Swooper’s reins over to match the girl’s turn. The other rider must have thought the maneuver would widen the gap between them; it didn’t work. Swooper was directly behind them again, snapping his jaws at the other horse’s tail.
Anna looked for a way to pass on the right, but Swooper must have seen something in the horse’s movement that he recognized; something familiar that told him what the horse in front intended to do next. When the brown chestnut banked left, Swooper had already copied the move flawlessly before the rider in front thought to begin. Anna jabbed the reins up and to the left to cut inside, but Swooper moved to immediately correct her mistake. He dropped down beneath the other horse to take advantage of their speed before starting their turn. Anna, surprised by Swooper’s action, realized she had a lot to learn about this sport. Passing up here had to be calculated in three dimensions. Anna ducked low as the hooves of the other horse passed just inches over her head, and then Swooper shot up again to finish the pass.
Anna could hear the other girl screaming at her horse, “Go — go — go,” as they began chasing them from behind. Minutes later, the girl was gliding by Anna’s side once again.
“Very good, but can you do it when it really matters?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Anna said, smiling smugly. The other rider grinned back.
“Follow me!” she quipped, and the other horse banked right and headed toward the Shadowed Forest below. Anna followed her. Looking more to understand where the girl was going than to pass, she saw them drop out of sight in a gap between in the trees. Anna fell into the gap as well, letting Swooper lead the way; he seemed to know exactly where they were going. They dropped low below the tops of the trees and into an open alleyway inside the old, oak forest. The trees were zooming by them in a blur, which gave Anna a heightened sense of unbelievable speed twenty feet above the ground.
As they entered the next turn, the other horse finally came into view once again. Swooper was chasing them down through a series of tight turns when the alley opened into an enormous, circular clearing within the trees. In the center of the space stood a wooden pole, fifty feet high, painted in green and white checks. A small, red-triangular flag was flying there at half-mast. The other horse headed for the pole with Anna following close behind. She watched as the other rider banked hard into a turn around the pole and the girl’s gloved hand reached out for one of several metal rings hovering near the flag. There was a sharp CLANG as the girl snatched one of the green rings away. Anna zoomed around the pole, glancing back at the rings suspended there and Swooper gave out a disgusted snort as they flew by.
“You have to take a ring!” the girl yelled back at Anna, holding up her prize with a smile. Anna watched her reach back and snap the ring into a clip at the rear of her saddle. “Try and get the next one!”
Anna nodded and followed the girl into another gap within the trees. So this was Vollucross, Anna thought, leaning into another tight turn. She immediately understood why the sport was so popular on the plateau. The speed, the skill, and experience necessary to know when and where to pass where merged into something truly amazing. Anna leaned forward, seeking again to close the gap between the two riders. She noticed the alleyway seemed to be closing in around them; it was barely wide enough for the horses to fly here. Then, without warning, a sudden gust of the wind hit Anna hard in the chest as Swooper unexpectedly shot up to pass the other horse in front of them. But the appearance of the next turn cut his intentions short, and Anna let out a scream as the trees coming directly at her suddenly whirled left as Swooper turned to follow the other horse down into the gap again, his hooves crashing through the branches of the trees behind them.
There was another left turn, a right, right again, left. Trees were whizzing by them in a green haze, sporadically broken by the broad lines of their dark trunks. Suddenly the horse in front started to slow and Swooper saw another opportunity to pass.
“WAIT!” Anna warned, knowing full well there had to be a reason for the girl’s abrupt change of speed. Swooper shot over the top of the other rider just in time to see a wall of trees coming toward them. Panicking, Anna jerked the reins back and Swooper streaked straight up to avoid crashing. They exploded out of the gap and then turned to look down. The other rider had finished what looked like a hairpin turn at a much slower speed, but was able to stay in the gap and stretch their lead. Swooper snorted, rolled over, and zoomed back into the gap behind them, his wingtips drifting dangerously close to the ground as he raced through the turns. Anna felt the weight of her own body crushing her flat around a long, tight bend when the trees abruptly opened once again without warning. Anna gasped in surprise as they shot over the edge of a cliff and above a sunlit, crystal lake two hundred feet below them.
The other horse was flapping hard, racing for an object standing in the center of the lake. It was another pole, this time painted in blue checks, its flag perched high at the top. Anna and Swooper headed for the flag and watched as the other girl shot around the pole, their backs gleaming in the morning sun as they slid expertly through the tight turn. Peppercorn’s wings were extended wide as they closed in on the rings.
There was another loud CLANG and the horse and its rider headed back toward Anna to pass her going the other way. The girl raised the blue ring the size of a dinner plate to show Anna, and then stuck her tongue through its center as she zipped past them. Anna laughed as they fell around the pole and then turned serious as she reached out to grab one of the rings. The wind was buffeting her arm so violently that, for one brief moment, Anna thought it might tear away from her body completely. She stretched out in her saddle, concentrating hard to hold herself steady. She could feel her fingers wrapping around the steel and another sharp CLANG sounded as she snatched the ring away. Swooper bellowed with delight as he finished the turn, and then resumed his pursuit of the other horse once more.
By the time they had reached the next ally, Swooper was nearly on top of the other horse again. Left, right, right again, left; the trees were thumping by Anna’s ears like a drumbeat. They entered a third clearing and this time an entire mountain loomed up before them. Swooper chased the other horse toward the rocky slopes as Anna looked desperately for the next pole. Finally, she saw the other horse heading for what looked like a giant, shadowed face carved into the side of the mountain. The horse and its rider flew toward the massive head and Anna watched in disbelief, as they unexpectedly turned straight into its open mouth. Anna ducked low and Swooper folded his wings tight against his body to follow them. A feeling of sudden dread filled Anna’s core, as she looked up at the massive face that seemed intent on swallowing them whole. The sunlight disappeared suddenly as they flew straight down the mountain’s throat and into blackness.
The air was much colder here and felt wet as they flew into a vast cave, and then into a tunnel through the rock on the other side. Right, left, right, down, up, right again, Anna could barely see the other horse through the darkening gloom ahead of them. Every few yards, a large, blue mushroom gave off an odd glow to light their way. Anna could feel Swooper slowing down in the darkest parts of the tunnel around them and she remembered something Pearl had said about Swooper not being able to see in the dark. Anna leaned forward to speak into his ear.
“Right turn coming… here it comes… turn right!” Swooper obeyed. “Left turn coming… left! Right turn, left turn,” Anna continued giving Swooper encouragement as they went along, and it was working. Her mount was speeding up again, gaining more confidence through every turn. Anna heard a slight clang somewhere in front of them and she knew the other girl had already reached the next ring. Finally, Anna glided into a vast cavern and she yelped as her horse suddenly dipped to miss a Stalactite hanging low from the ceiling above them. Out of the corner of her eye, Anna saw the other rider exiting the cavern to her left.
As Anna and Swooper flew into the center of the enormous opening, they found the third pole, painted black and white this time, its flag lying limp and motionless at the bottom.
CLANG, echoed the bell as Anna snatched a black ring away above a stalagmite, protruding ominously up from the rocky floor. The bell reverberated and hummed against the walls around her like a ghostly tune as they exited the cavern and into the cold tunnels once more.
“Left, right, down, left-turn coming,” instructed Anna. Finally, they could see a beautiful blue dot growing bigger in front of them; freedom was close at hand. Anna watched as the blue dot winked when the other racer exited the mountain.
“That’s the way out, Swooper. Go — go!”
Swooper, seeing the open skies just ahead of them, pushed forward and they shot through the opening like a bullet leaving the barrel of a riffle. WHOOSH! They were out. The bright morning sun made Anna’s eyes tear as she frantically looked around for the other rider.
“Where are they?” Anna yelled, squinting and looking wildly about. “There!” Anna pointed down and could see the girl entering the next alleyway into the trees below them. Swooper bellowed, and then toppled into a dive to chase after them. They raced into the gap once more and Swooper, now clearly happy he could see properly again, was pushing harder than ever to catch up. They broke into another clearing and Anna could see the other rider climbing into the sun.
“Up, Swooper. Go get her!”
As they rose, they could see the two heading over a grass-covered hill and then disappear over its crest. When Swooper cleared the hill, Anna groaned. Vollucross stadium was now in clear view just ahead of them, and the other horse was pushing hard to victory. They were so far ahead Anna couldn’t see how they could possibly catch them.
“Down Swooper! There they are! Go — go — go!” Anna commanded, snapping the reins on the horse’s side. Swooper’s thrusts were strong and determined. He reached forward and pulled back with all his strength, struggling to close the gap once more. His hooves were kicking out violently behind them with each stroke, and it was working; they were gaining on them. They did have a chance. Swooper was a far stronger flier; it was just a matter of time. But was there enough time to catch them before they entered the stadium? They were nearly on top of them now as the two horses banked into the final turn, one right after the other.
Anna followed the other rider toward two yellow poles standing just a mile from the gap in the stadium beyond.
“We’ve got them, Swooper! We’ll go through he poles and pass them on the other side. We’ve got them,” Anna yelled.
The first horse sailed between the two poles.
Anna and Swooper shot through just behind them.
Suddenly, there was a loud CRACK, a flash of white light, and everything around them disappeared in an instant. There was another loud CRACK, and everything reappeared once more.
“What was that?” Anna yelled, looking around to find her bearing. She looked up and, in complete astonishment, saw the same two yellow poles coming into view ahead of them once more. They had been sent backward at least five hundred yards.
As they approached the poles again, Anna thought to avoid them. “Left Swooper; go around them!” But the horse knew better and stayed his course between the poles. “No!” Anna closed her eyes, expecting another flash of light as they shot through the space between the poles again, but this time nothing happened. Anna looked up in time to see the other horse and its rider enter the stadium gap far ahead of them. They had lost the race. But why? Why were they sent back right when they were so close to finally catching them?
Anna entered the stadium somewhat confused and irritated. She could hear the spatter of light clapping as she entered the oval space inside the stadium grounds, and was surprised to see a dozen townspeople sitting in the stands in various positions overlooking the green lawns below. Anna could see the girl she had been chasing standing in the center of the field, hugging and happily patting her horse. Anna glided in and softly landed a few yards away.
“That –– was –– excellent, Miss Grayson,” announced Doctor Pearl, who was standing unnoticed on the side of the other horse, inspecting the animal’s wings. “Truly excellent! An outstanding chase for your first time in the field — well done!”
Anna beamed. “Thanks. It was unbelievable,” she replied, excitedly.
“She gave us all we could handle out there, Doctor,” said the other girl. “I never expected so much competition this early in the season, especially from a first-year.” She turned to Anna. “You did extremely well. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again this year,” she said, pointing out toward the gap in the stadium.
“Thanks… but I’m not sure what happened there at the end. I was right behind you until we got to those yellow poles. Then there was a bright flash of light and I found myself way behind again.”
“That was the quarter-mile penalty for missing the first ring,” the girl said, brightly. “Pretty stiff price to pay for missing one ring… especially at the end of the race. Still, you did really well. I’ve seen riders miss so many rings that the Amber Gates sent them all the way back to the black caverns.
“Really?” Anna replied in astonishment, and she shuddered at the thought of being transported back to the dark caves inside the mountain.
“My name is Lannete Cobstone,” the girl said, shaking Anna’s hand.
“Anna Grayson,” Anna replied brightly, and she watched as the girl’s face fell before peering over to look at Doctor Pearl.
“That’s right… Eric Grayson’s little sister,” the doctor said, smiling satisfactorily.
Lannete’s eyebrows lifted as she tried to force a pleasant smile; it looked rather painful for her to do. “Oh great… another Grayson who can ride,” the girl moaned miserably. “I guess the team trophy won’t come as easy this year as I thought.” She turned to Anna again. “No offense, but why couldn’t you have taken after your sisters when it comes to flying these beasts? It would have made my job so much easier this season. Oh well, hope I see you again soon,” she said merrily. “See you!”
Anna smiled as she watched Lannete turn to walk her horse back to the stables. “You can count on it,” she murmured, under her breath.
“Oh… now that’s the kind of fighting spirit this sport needs,” Pearl said, laughing at Anna’s reaction. “Don’t worry, my dear, you’ll get another shot at her. She was the fourth-year champion, last year.”
“Really? She’s the best of the fourth-years?”
“That is correct. Miss Cobstone is an extremely talented rider, and hopes to repeat as champion in her fifth-year as well. She’s impressive enough to draw the odds-makers in the city whenever she enters the field,” the doctor said, pointing at the men sitting randomly in the stands. Anna could see each of the men scribbling in little books on their laps.
“Barbarians!” Pearl said, coolly. “Turning the noble sport of Vollucross into a gambling opportunity. I’ve asked Captain Dunning to clamp down on it this year, but he said his men are far too busy to involve themselves in such mundane misdemeanors. Ogre’s dung! Most of the guards are taking bets themselves!” Anna couldn’t stop herself from chuckling.
“But it would seem the odds-makers were very impressed with you, my dear,” the doctor continued. “I haven’t seen them stand to applaud a first-year entering a stadium since Jessica Jones rode in seventy-seven.”
“Gee, I hope I’m not a disappointment to them,” Anna said, looking around at the bleachers again.
“The expectation of a close race always draws a lot of attention in the city. More attention means more business for them, and more gold in their pockets. I’m sure we’ll be seeing your name highlighted in the next racing form. Not that I ever read that twaddle myself, of course.”
Anna smiled. “Can I ask you a question, Doctor? How would somebody sitting here in the stadium know how well I did or didn’t do out in the field?”
The doctor grinned. “By the application of some very complicated spells, and the use of the Vollucross Hemisphere.” Anna looked confused so Pearl went on to explain. “You see… we’re able to track all of the riders and watch their progress here in the stadium wherever they go –– watch.” And Pearl raised her wand at the open sky above them.
Instantly, the sky above them started to fade from sunny blue to midnight black. Unexpected moving pictures burst forth over their heads on what looked like an invisible dome dropping over the entire stadium around them. Anna gawked in wonder at seeing many of the places where she had chased the other rider through the forest and alleyways, gleaming bright above them. She saw the lake and a close-up of the flagged pole in its center, and another picture next to that of the tunnels and caves within the mountain, shining like colored windows in the heavens.
“Remarkable!” Anna whispered, as she strained to see the places she had visited during her ride.
“Ah — perfect timing. Here comes our Mister Durkin now. He’s heading for the blue marker over the lake. Let’s see how he does.”
Sure enough, Anna could see a familiar face, riding on a gray horse with peppered wings, coming onto view above them. Two more riders on winged palominos were chasing after him. Anna watched in astonishment as Stephen Durkin swooped into a right turn around the checkered pole, while his two chasers went left. They crossed around the flag in the middle as Stephan reached out for a ring.
“Come on, boy,” the doctor called out. “Get it this time!” she said, making a fist at the scene above them. There was a loud CLANG. “That’s it! Very good!” Pearl yelled. But Anna could see Stephan was in trouble again. He was losing his balance over the side of his horse. “Oh no…” moaned Pearl, “counter weight, you stupid boy, counter!” she screeched, leaning her round body heavily to the side, as if her actions might help Stephan recover his balance; it did not. Stephan toppled over the saddle and plummeted sideways toward the water below. As Stephan hit, his angled speed sent him bouncing twice off the top of the water before finally suddenly halting with one enormous SPLOOOSHHH in the lake.
Several of the odds-makers sitting in the stands groaned and gave an irritated wave toward the scene above them. Obviously, they were not impressed with Stephan’s performance either.
“Oh dear,” Pearl said, shaking her head. “When will that boy ever learn to buckle his harness?” she moaned, waving her wand again. Rays of morning light burst forth through the dome as the images above them began to fade. “I have something here that might interest you,” the Doctor said, and she handed Anna a wrapped package.
Pearl cupped her hands and watched as Anna tore off the paper. It was a book, Vollucross for Beginners, by Doctor Margaret Pearl, Healer/Vollucross Steward, Castlewood Academy.
“Wow, thank you,” Anna said, looking up and beaming with delight. She opened the front cover and, looking at its list of credits, she read: Mr. Jeremiah Kingston, Vollucross Stable Master, Castlewood Academy. “You and Mr. Kingston wrote this?”
“Yes, we did,” Pearl said with a smile. “It’s not a complete work, because… it doesn’t include all of our breeding techniques, of course.” She leaned in to whisper, “Can’t go giving out all of our secrets, now can we? Still, we’re very proud of it… and our number-one standing on the Wizarding Writer’s Best Seller’s List. In fact, we were only bumped down to number two by Gilderoy Lockhart’s book, Magical Me, two years ago,” she said, proudly. “Oh… I really love that man’s work,” she sighed, staring dreamingly off in the distance.
“I’m sorry?” Anna said blankly.
“You know, Gilderoy sent me an owl to apologize for taking away the number one spot from us. Can you imagine? An exciting man like that taking the time to write to me. He even sent me an autographed picture,” she revealed, excitedly. “Such a shame. I heard he was injured rescuing some students while teaching at Hogwarts, the poor dear. Still, thirty weeks at number-one isn’t bad, aye?”
“Thank you very much,” Anna said, kissing the Doctor on the cheek.
Pearl straightened with satisfaction. “You will find all the rules and a history of Vollucross there in those pages. Give it a read — and remember: I have my own selfish reasons for giving you that book. The Vollucross team tryouts are next month and I expect to see you prepared to do your best.”
Anna spent the rest of the day in the stables, washing down the animals and doing chores for Mr. Kingston. Although it was very hard work, she found it much more enjoyable being around the horses, even in the dirt of their stalls, than the other options open to her. The thought of going back to the castle and facing Eric wore heavily on her mind. Anna still hadn’t figured out how to explain what had happened in Dunning’s office without divulging the truth about the things leading up to her arrest. But Anna couldn’t put it off much longer. It was getting dark now and Kingston had already gone home for his dinner.
“There you are,” came a friendly voice behind her, and Anna turned to find Gwen and Sarah standing in the doorway of the stable. “I told Sarah we might find you here. We searched everywhere in the castle looking for you before it dawned on me where you would be.”
“Anna… are you all right?” Sarah asked her worriedly.
Although it had been nearly fourteen hours since she was sitting in Dunning’s office, the sight of her friends standing in the door brought the whole terrible event back as if it had only just happened. Anna stood there, gripping the handle of her shovel, trying desperately to stifle her tears.
“No,” Anna’s voice shook. “I don’t think I’ll be right for a very long time,” she said, turning her head away. She could feel her emotions beginning to slide out of her control.
“Ohhhh…” Gwen whispered, walking over to her. “Come here, sweetie,” and Gwen wrapped her arms around her friend to hold her close. Anna dropped her shovel, fell into Gwen’s tender arms, and started to cry. The flashes of Dunning’s horrible face and the shame of what she had almost done to her family in attacking him were too much to endure. “It’s all right…” Gwen said, soothingly. “It’s all behind you now.” Sarah was standing to the side, watching her roommate sobbing despondently in Gwen’s arms. She reached out to gently stroke Anna’s hand.
“What they did to you… was terrible,” Sarah choked out, shaking her head miserably.
“If my father ever finds out what I did…” Anna said, releasing Gwen to wipe her face, “he’ll be disgraced. I won’t be able to face him.”
Gwen looked at Sarah in surprise before turning back to Anna. “What you did? But you didn’t do anything to deserve… look at your hands!” Gwen stretched Anna’s fingers back to reveal several enormous blisters lying torn and broken on her palms. Anna was just as surprised as Gwen at the terrible sight. “You’ve been working your fingers to the bone in here. When will you ever listen to me when I tell you that ice cream heals all wounds, not manual labor?” Anna smiled and watched as Gwen pulled out a vial of blue liquid from the pocket of her robes and began to dab its contents on the sores. Smoke started to rise off of Anna’s palms and she could feel a slight stinging sensation spreading out through her fingers. Gwen pulled out her wand and pointed it at Anna’s hands. She muttered something under her breath and, when the smoke cleared, Anna’s hands were healed.
“Thanks,” Anna whispered.
“No problem. Just an old trick my mother taught me a long time ago. When you play the piano, you learn to be prepared for injuries to your hands,” she said, still inspecting the wounds. She folded Anna’s hands closed and looked up. “There –– good as new. Now… let’s get you out of here before you start mowing all the lawns in the arena.”
Half an hour later, the girls were seated in front of Mrs. Smile’s Ice Cream Parlor, eating Gwen’s favorite emotional food. Although the small crowd had forced them to sit outside, some of the other patrons still didn’t appreciate the rude aroma coming off of Anna’s robes.
“Pee-you!” Gwen said, screwing up her nose at Anna. “Girl, you need a shower… pronto!”
“Yeah, I guess I am pretty ripe,” Anna chuckled, looking around at the other customers staring at her.
“So what happened in Dunning’s office?” Gwen asked, taking another big lick off her double-scoop. Anna leaned in to tell Gwen and Sarah everything that had happened with the Captain. When she was finished, Sarah looked horrified, but Gwen, as expected, was positively beaming with excitement.
“You hit Dunning upside his pointed head? Oh — that is soooo great! Anna… you’re my hero!”
“Shhh!” Anna warned, looking around then. “No… don’t you see? If my father ever found out what I did…” she stopped short in explaining the dreadful possibilities. “Not to mention the fact that I think the Captain is going to make me pay for what I did for the next seven years. Assuming, of course, he doesn’t find a way to murder me first.”
“Oh, dear,” Sarah gasped, concernedly. “You don’t think the Captain would really try to hurt you, would he?” Anna leaned back and shrugged.
“Nah… I wouldn’t worry too much about the Captain. It’s Debbie Dunning you need to watch. If Captain Dunning ever put his hands on you again, he knows your father would have him sent straight to the Wizard’s prison… Azkaban. No, he’s too smart for that. But his sister… now that’s a different matter entirely. You can expect him to put her up to causing you a lot of pain for what you did today.” Anna, somewhat surprised by this idea, nodded in agreement.
“How do you think Captain Dunning got the letters you were sending to the black castle?” Sarah asked. Anna told them her theory that the Crimson Guards must also be stationed at the castle in the forest.
“Makes sense,” Gwen agreed, “but I wonder what they’re doing there.”
“No idea,” Anna admitted before turning to Sarah. “So what happened to you after I was arrested?”
“Well… about ten minutes after you left,” Sarah explained, “a guard escorted me into the dungeons. Oh, what a horrible place that was. I saw all kinds of awful....” she stopped short, “anyway, I was waiting to be questioned by Lieutenant Hayman, when another guard came in with Gwen.” Anna looked at Gwen in surprise.
“Guilt by association, I suppose,” Gwen said, proudly. “They yanked me right out of class,” she explained, and then she smirked. “History of Magic –– they did me a favor there. Anyway, we were sitting outside Hayman’s office when Eric came out.”
“Eric was there too?” Anna said in surprise.
“Yeah — and oh-boy, he didn’t look very happy. But he tipped us off that they thought your arrest was a mistake. So… Sarah and I just went along with it. They asked me about you sending owls into the forest and I told them I didn’t know anything about that.” Anna looked at Sarah.
“That’s what I told the Lieutenant Hayman too,” she said, convincingly.
“So, you see?” Gwen chimed, “you’re in the clear.”
Anna wasn’t so sure. “What about Eric? He can’t know anything about this or Dunning will have me expelled.”
Gwen frowned. “Yeah… and that’s a shame, because I’d love to see your dad go after Dunning with a good hex. I’ll bet he could get him the sack, for sure.” They sat there for a while, recovering the ice cream dripping down around their fingers. Except for Sarah, that is, who seemed to be very concerned about something other than Dunning’s future at the school.
“Anna… what happened to you? You know… before the guards came into our room?” Sarah asked, tentatively. “You were holding your owl, and then you started to… you got all smoky and almost black. It was like you were… I don’t know… changing into something different.”
“Whoa-whoa-whoa. Anna… what’s she talking about?” Gwen barked out, the top of her double-scoop wobbling precariously.
Seeing Gwen’s surprised reaction, Sarah slowly looked back at Anna. “I’m sorry… I guess I shouldn’t have said anything,” she muttered apologetically.
“It’s all right, Sarah,” Anna admitted. “Actually, I’m kind of glad somebody else saw it happen; seeing me change, I mean.”
“Change?” Gwen yelped. “Hold-on; what do you mean, change?”
Anna took a deep breath and began to tell her friends about the Lethifold, and how the transformation seemed to be brought on by intense levels of hostile emotion. Anna was surprised at how good it felt to finally tell somebody about the thing that had taken residence within her. Gwen sat there, completely lost for words, her ice cream now running down into her lap.
“You’re an Animogus?” she asked, blankly.
“Sshhh!” Anna hissed, looking guardedly around them. Hoping beyond reason for Gwen’s best response, she cautiously nodded. Gwen didn’t let her down.
“ThAT – is – so – cool!” her friend sang out. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Anna smiled. “Well, you know… with everything else that’s been going on…” she started to explain, but she could see Gwen looked scandalized. Her best friend just couldn’t understand why Anna wouldn’t have told her this amazing news straight away. “Honestly, it only happened once before I came to Castlewood and I wasn’t sure it would ever happen again. And then I was scared that, if it did happen, I wouldn’t be able to control it.”
“And… can you? Control it, I mean?” Gwen asked, in a tone filled with blatant optimism.
“I think so. I mean… this morning was difficult. It took some quick thinking on Sarah’s part to help me, but every time it happens I seem to be able to get myself under control –– eventually.”
“Incredible. Oh –– I wish I had that kind of ability,” Gwen moaned, longingly. She gave an evil smile and then leaned over to whisper, “We could sneak into the boys’ locker room and check out all the seventh-year studs.” Anna started to laugh. Once again, her friend had proven her capacity to take an uncomfortable situation and spin it into gold.
“Oh… but the boys wouldn’t be safe when Anna transforms into that creature, would they?” Sarah argued, taking the conversation much more seriously than the other two. Gwen and Sarah sat looking at each other before Anna finally spoke.
“I think the boys would be far safer with me as a Lethifold than they would with Gwen sneaking around in their locker room.” After a brief moment of silence, the three girls suddenly burst out into disorderly fits of laughter.