A bright, blue sky faded up over the stadium again, revealing the cold morning still lingering on the plateau. Doctor Pearl stood and turned to face her riders as the applause for the Triwizard Tournament rumbled on.
“All right then, now that our friends from Hogwarts have warmed up the audience for us, let’s give them something they’ll really remember, ay?” Those holding their bridles and blankets laughed. “Let’s go!” She motioned a signal to Professor Bots in the top box and began to waddle down the stone steps over the stables.
“Now don’t go too far ladies and gentlemen,” announced Bots over the stadium crowd. “Doctor Pearl and our Vollucross riders will be joining us shortly for our first race. I’ve been informed that we’re going to see an all-team event this morning with close to a dozen fliers racing at once.” There was more thrilled applause from the crowds as everybody settled themselves into their seats again with renewed anticipation. Once more, the men in yellow were eagerly gathering betting slips, hoping to make up for their Triwizard losses.
Fifteen minutes later, the crowd was standing and clapping again as the riders walked their mounts around the inside track of the stadium. They finally lined up in the center of the field to make the final adjustments to their equipment.
“Easy, boy,” Anna said to Swooper, who seemed very apprehensive. He snorted and bellowed angrily, jerking high into the air to kick out. “What’s the matter, big guy? Are we both a little nervous this morning?” But the horse’s eyes told her he was more anxious about something to his right than anything that might come out of the contest. Anna ducked under his neck and noticed the Wendell boy cinching his saddle flap tight; she was surprised. The horse whose saddle he was tightening was none other than the yellow palomino that Swooper had fought during their first flight together. The palomino looked over at Swooper and bellowed, his red eyes narrowing threateningly. Anna saw the horse’s left wing give a slight twitch and she ducked just in time. The wing shot over her head and slammed into Swooper’s side. Anna’s horse stumbled to the left and barely recovered his balance in a spider-like sprawl.
“Keep that glue-factory reject away from my steed!” Wendell barked malevolently.
“Control your flier, then!” Anna snapped back. “Everybody knows these two have a bad history.”
Swooper leapt forward at the palomino, snorting furiously. The two stallions hauled up on their haunches and began to kick outward like two angry prizefighters. They each wrapped their necks around the other to wallop and bite.
“Separate those animals, immediately!” yelled Pearl. “Pull them apart before they kill each other!”
Swooper was grunting and bellowing in rage, finally twisting and then slamming the palomino to the ground under his feet. Wendell pulled out his wand and pointed it at Swooper. Panicking, Anna grabbed his arm.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she screamed.
“Get off!” the Defender yelled, tossing Anna sideways to the dirt. He turned to look at the horses again and found Swooper’s face just inches from his own. The horse bared his teeth at the boy and then snapped his jaws forward with a hollow clunk on the end of Wendell’s nose.
“OUCH!” the boy yelped, stumbling back and then falling over Anna to the ground. “Why –– that blasted beast –– he bit me!” he screamed, holding the end of his nose. Anna couldn’t stop herself from laughing.
“Serves you right for threatening to hex him!” she sneered, standing to dust the grass from her robes.
The boy quickly scrambled back to his feet, swearing bitterly. “I’m gonna cut your wings off, blackie!” he threatened warningly with his outstretched wand.
“Wendell! Collect your mount — now!”
The boy looked around to find his palomino running and kicking wildly halfway across the stadium field. He looked back at Doctor Pearl.
“Yes, ma’am!” he said, trying to hide his embarrassment. He then turned to glare back at Anna. “We’ll finish this out there,” he growled, pointing his wand toward the gap in the stadium. He turned to chase his mount to the sound of the arena crowd laughing and whistling in his ears. Anna smiled.
“Everything all right?”
She turned to find Eric looking down at her from his saddle. “Yeah, everything’s… fine,” she replied, still smiling.
Eric looked over at the boy chasing his horse. He frowned and then looked down. “Remember what I said about Wendell, Anna. Keep your distance.”
“Yes, sir!” Anna replied animatedly, giving him a snappish salute. Eric raised a single eyebrow as Mr. Kingston offered her a leg up. “Thank you, Jeremiah,” she said, settling herself into the saddle.
“Have a good ride, Anna,” Kingston said, looking amusingly at Wendell still chasing after his mount. He leaned over to check Swooper’s buckles and knots. “Stay to Wendell’s left,” he whispered with a little wink. Anna smiled and then nodded.
“Low and fast, Anna, all right?” Eric reminded her in a strict business-like tone. “Get to the gap as fast as you can and I’ll be right behind you.” Anna nodded again and watched her brother gig his horse around to the other side of the line.
Seated high in her saddle, Anna could see all the other riders and their mounts around her. There was Lannete Cobstone, wearing her green laborers’ robes and seated on the flyer with white socks she called Peppercorn. Anna groaned. She’ll be among the leaders for sure, she thought worriedly.
Doctor Pearl blew her whistle. “Riders — ready!” The crowd in the stands immediately stood and began to cheer excitedly. “Remember your honor out there!” the Doctor hollered at them, raising her hands high. The horses jerked at their bridles and snorted impatiently. Their wings began to flap, lifting their feet off the ground and then back down. Pearl rose into the air on her broom where she slowly turned and headed for the gap, the morning sun splashing lanes of ocher light in front of her. She blew her whistle again and the winged horses suddenly kicked off.
Swooper rose quickly and within seconds was flying just a few inches behind the twigs of Pearl’s broom. Anna looked to her left and saw Cobstone flying just off her wingtip; Eric was a little low on her right, motioning her to drop down. Anna nodded and then pushed the reins forward. Soon she was just high enough to keep Swooper’s feet off the ground.
Before reaching the gap in the stadium, Pearl made a sharp left turn as the crowd continued to wave and cheer, and the riders turned to follow her back toward the enclosed end of the field once more. They continued to circle the arena, slowly increasing their speed with every lap. Pearl called this part of the race Vollucartus, or race positioning. Its purpose was really two fold, one traditional and the other much more practical. The traditional part allowed the spectators a final look at the riders and their mounts before heading into the field. Eric jokingly liked to call this part of the race the frenzy follies, because what Pearl was really doing was whipping the crowd into an appropriate level of excitement before sending the riders off. But it was the practical part of this circling exercise that Anna and Eric cared about right now. This was the time the riders began to implement their team’s strategy for what they hoped would ultimately end in victory.
Since nobody knew exactly when Pearl would start the race, the riders fell in a line behind her three abreast until they turned toward the gap again. Then the riders would start jockeying for position while they listened for Pearl’s whistle, which would initiate an all out sprint into the Shadowed Forest. When the whistle didn’t come, they fell in line again through their turns. With every passing second, both their speed and the tension around them grew.
The pace was increasing now, and the pressure not to be caught off guard was extremely high. Everybody knew Pearl was well known for purposely sending the riders out at the greatest possible speed toward the stadium gap. Anna was below everybody, concentrating hard on her angles and keeping a close eye on her brother at all times. The teams turned toward the gap once again, and the crowd could sense the start of the race was close at hand. They were cheering and jumping up and down as the horses rocketed passed them like cattle caught in a hurricane.
And all at once, the speed of the group increased dramatically. This is it, Anna thought, we’re going to hear the whistle this time, surely. The horses were covering the distance to the gap in half the time they did going the other way. Now the riders were bumping into one another, getting as close as they could to Pearl without passing her. Anna started to rise with the thought of joining the group, but she could see Eric waving her back down. He was on the far right of the group, and then quickly veered under to the left. Something was telling him Pearl was going to make them turn again.
Sure enough, Pearl pulled around to the left and increased her speed yet again as she headed back into the stadium grounds; still no whistle. The shriek of the excited crowd was buzzing in Anna’s brain as she turned to follow. Eric’s knowledge of the game had paid off. He was galloping through the air directly beneath Pearl as she leveled; they were in perfect position. In a flash, Pearl dipped once more, turned right, and shot toward the open gap again. Anna finished the turn and felt Swooper begin to pour it on. Her mount’s experience was telling him this was going to be it; they would surely hear the whistle this time. The crowd had been teased into a state of frenzy as Pearl shot forward with another incredible burst of speed, leaving most of the other horses behind. Eric was frantically waving Anna forward as he crouched low over the neck of his mount.
“Now, Swooper,” Anna yelled. “Eric says it’s going to happen now!” She nudged the horse in the flanks and felt his entire body tighten as he surged forward. She looked up and could see Pearl falling at an intersecting path in front of her, the other horses diving to keep the pace. Anna and Swooper were in perfect position as they headed for the gap. The shortest distance to the first alley started exactly from where they were. Come on Pearl, blow the whistle, blow it now!
And then, it came. The scream of the whistle blared through the morning air like a newborn baby receiving the slap. Pearl was still in the middle of her dive with the remainder of the pack clustered tight behind her. She peeled away just in front of Anna and yelped in shock when Swooper shot over her in a blast of wind that nearly blew her off her broom.
WHOOSH! They were off.
Anna immediately began pulling away from the pack as they headed for the gap. Eric’s plan had worked to perfection. Anna was moving at full speed while the rest of the group was pulling up to change their direction just above the ground. The crowd was going wild, screaming with delight, and the last thing Anna heard as she shot through the gap was Professor Bots’ voice blaring out over the throng.
“And the young Guardian quickly takes the lead!”
Anna looked under her shoulder at the pack behind. They looked like a cloud of angry hornets chasing after her. She could see the stadium behind them growing dark and then brighten again as the hemisphere faded up over the crowd’s head. Anna turned to search for the first alley. The race was on.
Anna entered the first entranceway with a huge smile cutting her face. I love it when a plan comes together, shethought eagerly. Eric, my dear brother, you… are a genius.
She made her first turn in the alley, looked up, and then screamed. Looming in front of her was a wall of trees directly in their path. Swooper banked away immediately, rolling hard right to avoid smashing into the branches, but whoever was following wasn’t so lucky. Anna heard somebody scream, and then the unmistakable sound of something crashing into the woods behind her.
Her first instinct was to go back and offer whatever help she could, but the magic that was Vollucross would not allow it. Once a rider started this race, they were obligated to finish it. Even if her brother were to fall, Anna would be forced to go on without him. She was told the Crimson Guard was spread out above the woods in case a rescue became necessary, but this gave Anna very little comfort. If something did happen to her she was fairly certain, if left to Captain Dunning, she might never be found.
Left, left, right, left again… the thumping, pounding sound out of the trees was the only thing familiar here. The alleys and pathways had been changed since her last practice. In this sport, it was tradition that the riders never see the same route twice, and Anna could only imagine the magic necessary to uproot and move large segments of the forest to adhere to these old rituals.
Swooper was extremely strong this morning and his reactions were sharper than ever. He carried with him a determination Anna could feel running down the hard muscles of his back. It felt like her legs were straddling steal. They entered a series of hairpin turns meant to slow the fastest riders and, with a hollow WHOOMPH, Swooper dove straight down into a dark cavern. He twisted and rolled through a series of tunnels with Anna clutching tight to his mane and back. The roots of the trees above had been magically moved aside to allow for their passage through a burrow that looked like it had been created by some monstrous creature. Thankfully their time underground was short and Swooper was soon able to track down the exit. He folded one of his wings under his belly and used the other to rudder them out of the hole. He shot up, spinning and twisting in a manner that allowed him to locate the next gap most effectively before rotating his wings flat again. He leveled and then pelted through the next opening in the trees.
Anna was pleased by the way they had managed the underground obstacle. So well, in fact, that she didn’t expect to see anybody immediately behind her, but when she looked back her heart sank. Lannete Cobstone was right on their tail. Anna could see her green robes billowing up behind the girl and Lannete’s determined face peaking around her horse’s dipping head at them. They flew into a tight left bank, and then went right; Cobstone was closing in. Anna’s turns through the maze were amazingly crisp and purposeful, and yet every time she thought Swooper had performed flawlessly, she would find Lannete still closing the gap behind them. Finally, they shot into an opening in the trees and Anna could see the first pole glistening bright in the morning sun in front of them.
Anna looked back again and then moved to place herself between the pole and those following her. Another coaching tip from Eric: If a rider intended to pass, force them to visit the entire world around you before they succeeded.
Unfortunately for Anna, even great tactics couldn’t make up for years of hard earned experience. She leaned into the open air above the checkered pole, but as she reached out for one of the green rings, she saw it beginning to move away from her, sliding up and high on the pole. Panicking, she almost fell out of her saddle desperately lunging at the ring now floating well out of her reach. Anna looked up and gaped in awe at Cobstone flying above her. She was holding the reins in her clinched teeth while reaching for a moving ring with one hand and pointing her wand with the other. She was drawing Anna’s ring away and passing her at the same time.
CLANG! Lannete snatched the ring, completed the turn, and in a blink of an eye she was pulling away.
Anna was stunned. She knew Cobstone was good — but that was unbelievable. She could almost hear the cheering crowd from the stadium echoing across the forest floor around her. Totally shocked by her pursuer’s maneuver, Anna found herself sliding far too wide around the pole with nothing but frustration to show for all her trouble. By the time she recovered, two more riders had passed her, the Defender Michael Wendell, followed closely by her brother Eric.
Anna glided in next to her brother as they headed back toward the forest. “Eric, I missed!” she screamed, angry with herself. “I missed the ring!” Eric held up two green rings that he had taken from the pole.
“Here — take one, and don’t miss another,” he yelled back, pushing one of the rings across the gap between them. “Be on your guard next time!” Anna nodded apprehensively, took the ring, and then reached back to snap it into her saddle. Eric pointed two fingers to the front. “You chase… and I’ll block, understand?” Anna nodded again, and then nudged Swooper in the ribs. She sped ahead as her brother yelled his last warning, “Watch out for Wendell — mind your space.”
“Go Swooper, go!” Anna yelled, snapping the reins against the horse’s right hip. That was very good Lannete, but you won’t do that to me again.
By the time they reached the tree-lined alleyway once more, Swooper was right behind Wendell and snapping at the palomino’s tail. His wings were stretching forward and pulling back hard with all his strength. Anna watched the palomino’s gallop, concentrating on his hoof beats through the air ahead of her. Left hind leg, right hind leg, left fore leg, right fore leg, left hind leg again. A right-lead gallop, she surmised quickly. Her best chance to pass would come during the stretch between the right hind leg’s push and his left fore extension. But passing in this alleyway, in the middle of all these turns, would be extremely difficult. Anna stayed close, watching for Wendell to make a mistake. She found Eric was doing his part in delaying the other riders behind them. Looking back, the pack was nowhere in sight.
WHOOSH, they pulled into another hairpin turn. Anna leaned in and felt her body smashing against Swooper’s back. She bore down with her stomach muscles and tightened her legs as hard as she could just as Eric had taught her. This would hold the blood in her brain and help to stave off any blackouts. They straightened again and came out of the turn with Swooper’s nose just inside the palomino’s right hip. First beat – left hind leg, second beat – right hind leg, third beat - left fore leg, fourth beat – right fore leg, first beat, second beat, third beat, fourth beat; Anna counted the palomino’s cadence.
They turned again, left this time, and Anna could see Wendell looking back at her. He gave the reins a sharp snap, tipping the palomino wide through the turn. Swooper was shoved abruptly to the right and Anna watched in horror as his wingtip began clipping and then smashing into the branches on the other side. She screamed and pulled up hard on the reins. Swooper slid back to his left, barely recovering from the near disaster, the feathers on his wingtips torn and broken.
“Swooper! Are you all right?” Swooper grunted, jerking his reins forward angrily with a snap. “Why that dirty son of a…” she yelled, looking ahead, “he could have killed us both!” Anna looked behind them again, wondering if her brother had seen what Wendell had done. Although she knew Eric was probably using the same blocking techniques on the rest of the field behind them, she somehow doubted he was doing it at the risk of pushing somebody into a life-threatening situation.
They had worked on their strategy thoroughly. Eric’s intent was to break the field into two separate races. Anna would stay in the front with the leaders and Eric would remain behind, blocking the others from passing, and using his skill as a wizard to keep them from getting their rings. As long as two horses from the same Union didn’t get ahead of him, his plan would succeed and a Guardian win would be assured. Anna knew she didn’t have to do anything now but remain close to the front riders; it wasn’t necessary to pass them to win.
But Anna wanted to do more, to deliver her best, and that didn’t seem to align itself with holding back. She wanted to attract more students to the Guardian Union and that, according to her brother, is what really mattered more than anything else. Her choices were simple: Play it safe and stay back, hoping Eric did his job, or press on as hard as she could and prove the Guardians were a serious force in all matters of interest to them. She knew if she left it to her mount, Swooper would already be looking to murder the palomino ahead of them. His brush with ruin in the trees had made him extremely angry, and Anna didn’t want to give Wendell the satisfaction of knowing he had scared them off. Again, Anna made her decision knowing her logic was once more siding with her heart, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing, but she loosened her grip on the reins anyway and leaned down.
“Let’s get him, Swooper!” she said next his ear. “Heeyah!”
The horse leaped forward. His wings were circling in a kind of eager dance, closing the space between the two riders almost immediately. Right turn, left turn… Anna and Swooper were nearly on top of Wendell again. She watched the palomino’s stride; first beat, second beat, there was the opening again, third beat, and then the right fore leg. She repeated the cadence over and over, putting the timing to memory. One, two, “get ready, Swooper”, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, wait for it, three, four.
WHOOSH – WHOOSH, the two horses completed a hard left turn; one, two, there it is, three, four. She saw a straight line of trees ahead of them. “Easy now…” she whispered, lifting her weight off of the saddle slightly. “We’ll use Jeremiah’s advice and take him on the left.” First beat; second beat; “NOW!” she yelled. Swooper cut inside the palomino and immediately went invisible again. Anna gasped, but instantly understood their jump to pass under this cloak of nothingness brought with it a higher degree of surprise; she only wished she had thought of it herself. She could see the end of the lane coming up fast, but Anna was nearly level with Wendell before he noticed her.
“What the…?” he gasped, at seeing Anna floating in mid-air right next to him without a mount to hold her up. The turn was upon them and, just as Anna had suspected, Wendell began to push them wide once more. Swooper was suddenly visible again, and his jaws reached over to chomp down on the palomino’s left ear. The other horse screamed in surprise, jerking his head up in shock at seeing Swooper unexpectedly right next to him.
“Stop that!” Wendell screamed, smacking Swooper on the back of the head with his whip. Anna dropped down and cut beneath the other horse into the next bend. Swooper whipped through the turn and then shot up ahead of the palomino.
Anna smiled as she quickly glanced back, but what she saw made her stomach twist. The palomino was absolutely insane with fury. His eyes were a glowing demon-red, and Anna could have sworn she could see puffs of black smoke blasting from its nostrils. It looked more like Viktor Krum’s Chinese Fireball than it did a horse. Although they had managed the pass unharmed, they were certainly not out of danger. As angry as the palomino looked, Michael Wendell looked even angrier. He had put away his riding crop and was now smacking the side of the palomino with the wood of his wand. Anna looked ahead, hoping to see Cobstone in front of her, but the girl was nowhere in sight. They banked into a steep drop and Anna began looking desperately for the lake.
Then, from out of the side of the alleyway, the trunk of a large oak lunged forward into their path. Anna ducked as Swooper dove under the tree. Without thinking, Anna almost screamed a warning back to Wendell, but when she looked around she could see the branch moving out of his way as he approached. Swooper gave a loud snort of panic and Anna looked forward again. Two more branches from either side of the gap had moved to block her way. What the heck is going on? Was this part of the forest alive? Swooper dove again under the first branch and then quickly over the second. Then a third branch, one the size of a battering ramp with a balled fist of branch and twisted vine, swung out at them from the right. Swooper dove down and under the wrist of the thing swinging out to kill them. They flew into a hard left turn, then right around the next corner.
They headed into a straight section of the course again and Anna had a thought. “Watch the front!” she yelled down at Swooper, and then turned to watch Wendell behind them. Sure enough, she saw the boy pointing his wand forward and looked to be speaking the words of a spell. Swooper bellowed in fright again and Anna turned around to see another large branch flying out from the left of the alleyway, this time taking the form of a huge hand looking to swat them from the sky. The forest wasn’t alive; it was Wendell, using an exceptionally nasty piece of sorcery to slow them down. Panicking, Anna pushed down Swooper’s head with all her might and headed for the ground.
SWISH! The branch missed them, but Anna could feel its end twigs raking down her back and snagging her robes.
In the seconds that followed, Anna was trapped somewhere between complete terror and an all-consuming rage. It was like being caught on some psycho, out-of-control carnival ride as she dodged and weaved about the branches reaching out for her. She knew she was in trouble, and there were hundreds of people watching back at the stadium who also knew she was in trouble, but they couldn’t do anything to help her now. She didn’t know if what Wendell was doing would be interrupted as hexing another rider or not, but in her mind it didn’t matter. Regardless whether or not he was breaking the rules, the results were going to be just as deadly if they weren’t careful.
Swooper pulled up just a few feet from the ground before leveling; his eyes darted in a wide path around them, looking for any signs of movement amongst the tangle of roots and vines on the forest floor. A shadow suddenly fell over their head and Anna could see Wendell moving to pass over the top. Her response was immediate and helped to define an inner core she would only willingly acknowledge thirty years from now: Fear begets rage.
“Oh –– no you don’t!” she yelled angrily, pushing the reins forward. “Go Swooper — don’t let him pass!” Swooper flapped hard, accelerating forward before moving up again. They blazed into the next series of turns directly below Wendell and the palomino. Right turn, left, right, left again. Anna looked up and could see the flash of the palomino’s galloping shoes just inches from her head.
The trees finally opened like a curtain before them and the two riders shot over the open lake. Anna nudged Swooper in the sides, but her horse didn’t need any help understanding now was the time to pour it on. His power and speed were all they needed to keep Wendell out of their way.
Anna could see the checkered pole had been moved to the far left this time. She leaned toward it, aware that Wendell was watching her every move above them. Another rider was coming into view directly in front of them going in the opposite direction. It was Lannete Cobstone. She had retrieved the second ring and was already heading back to the gap.
Wendell was rising to meet her and Anna’s brain screamed in horror. What was he doing? As the boy purposely flew into Lannete’s oncoming path, the girl shot something green from the end of her wand to warn him off, and he returned with his own spell that looked like it was directed at her head. Lannete quickly ducked and the hex just missed as it streaked passed her shoulder. She jerked up again, her face lit with anger.
“Damn it, Wendell, you can’t hex the other riders!” she screamed, as they crossed paths.
“Accio Ring!” Wendell yelled, and Anna watched one of the rings attached to Lannete’s saddle fly off and toward the boy. But just as he reached out to grab it, the ring suddenly yanked to a stop in mid air. Anna could now see the ring was attached to a small chain connected to the side of Lannete’s saddle. The girl smiled as she tucked her wand back into her robes.
“Not this time, Michael!” Lannete laughed as she zipped by Anna going the other way, the ring flying wildly on its chain behind her. Anna turned to watch the girl retrieving her ring, but she was more interested in where Cobstone was heading. She could see the entrance to the next gap was right next to the exit from which they had just come. It gave Anna an idea. She turned her attention back to the pole in front of her and pushed the reins forward again. Wendell was still above her, his palomino pressing hard toward the center of the lake.
Swooper began to pull away. Once again, the Thorse’s tremendous power was showing itself well in the open sky. After fifteen seconds of hard flying, they were well ahead of Wendell as they approached the pole, its flag whipping in the wind near the surface of the water. Anna made sure she positioned herself properly between Wendell and the pole to keep him from moving the rings during her approach.
“As close as you can, Swooper. Put us right alongside it,” she said, looking back one last time to check Wendell’s position. She reached out this time with both hands. CLANG! CLANG! Anna grabbed two rings and immediately leaned into the turn holding herself tight with her legs. Straightening, they headed toward Wendell coming at them the other way. She could see him pointing his wand at her.
“Mobiliaqueous!” Anna yelled, pointing her wand at the lake just a few feet below him. A column of water suddenly shot up from the surface of the lake, and she could hear Wendell cursing as he crashed into it and out the other side. Anna zipped by him with a triumphant smile, pointing her horse again toward the entrance in the trees.
Swooper was flapping as hard as he could, bearing down on the next gap, but Anna was concentrating on the entrance to the lake beside it. Come on Eric, where are you? She was sure there would be a stiff penalty to pay for taking two rings if her plan didn’t work. Suddenly, there he was, bursting out of the woods in front of her. She was relieved to see the field behind him was nowhere in sight.
“Eric!” Anna yelled, holding up one of the two rings she had taken. Her brother looked up and smiled; he stretched out his hand and nodded. Anna tossed the ring forward into the air and her brother caught it. He would still have to go around the checkered pole, but now he could concentrate on his tactics rather than gathering. “Watch out for Wendell behind me,” she warned.
“Three behind me as well. Watch before you enter the woods again!” He yelled back, as they passed each other.
As Anna glanced behind her, she could see Eric shooting several spells in front of Wendell, trying to slow him down. She looked in the direction of the outgoing alleyway just in time to see another Defender suddenly explode from out of the forest next to it. He immediately shot a burst of yellow sparks to his left in front of Anna’s entryway.
Too soon to really know if anybody would actually be there or not, the boy was obviously hoping to reap the rewards of a lucky shot. The sparks began to spin and whirl madly like a Catherine wheel, which positioned itself in front of Anna’s exit. Two more riders pelted from out of the alley and also fired to their left. Two red beams cut across Anna’s path. Swooper rotated ninety degrees, folding his wings tight to avoid the beams, and then popped open again to sweep around the yellow sparks. But when Anna looked up, her heart suddenly jumped into her throat; they had missed the entrance to the alleyway entirely and plunged directly into the forest.
Angry bits of wood and branch were attacking them from all directions as they dodged and bobbed and weaved through the tangled mess. “Oh God…oh God-oh God!” Anna yelled, just before ducking to miss one branch that might well have taken her head completely off.
Her father loved to say, ‘Good luck is the steward of hard work.’ But after today, Anna would come to understand luck could sometimes manifest itself simply as an unexpected positive result. Just when she thought they were going to be killed, they crashed through a thick mass of hanging vines and found themselves stopped, in mid-air, and dead center in the open alleyway again. Anna fell down over Swooper’s neck and let out a sigh of relief. Despite the cold fog her breath expelled from her body, she felt like her insides were on fire. She rose up to give her horse a reinforcing pat on the side. Swooper flapped in place for a few seconds, snorted incredulously at their unbelievable good fortune, and then turned to head downwind. Yes-sir, fate certainly favored the careless this day.
Right, left, right, Anna raced through the labyrinth of trees whose canopy sometimes made their path gloomy and hard to see. No sign of Cobstone. She must be miles ahead by now, she thought anxiously. Anna left the forest again and just caught sight of Cobstone entering the mountain containing the third pole. She could almost hear Swooper groaning like an old man rising with the dawn. He hated those dark caves.
Anna leaned down, “Don’t worry; we’ll take it nice and easy, okay? We don’t need to catch her to win.” Swooper gave a sharp snap against his bridle and bravely pushed on.
As they entered the mountain, Anna reached for her wand. “Lumos!” She was using the spell Gwen had taught her in one of her first magic lessons with the Guardians. It was still very difficult to see. The blue mushrooms that normally lit their path were dark this time, and Swooper was much more hesitant to trust Anna when he could sense she was having just as much trouble seeing as himself. Their pace through the tunnels was very slow, but at least Anna was sure nobody else would make it through the mountain any easier. When she entered the center cavern, she was disheartened to see Cobstone was nowhere in sight. CLANG! Anna grabbed the black ring and slowly turned toward the exit again.
She could see Wendell entering the cavern now, and he immediately started sending hexes to block her path to the exit next to him. It was like flying through a maze of ugly-green spider webs. Swooper ducked and laced his way through the net, knowing better than Anna what would happen if they touched one of its jagged strands of light. Anna reentered the tunnels again. While they had done extremely well in avoiding Wendell’s trap it had served his purpose well. It had slowed them down.
The tunnels seemed, if possible, even darker than before. The light of Anna’s wand was sucked into the blackness like water to a dry sponge. Swooper was gliding more than flying, sometimes stopping completely to be sure of the turns in front of them. Anna could hear a sharp clang reverberate in the tunnel behind them and knew that meant Wendell and the palomino were on their way. He would catch them all too quickly with Anna blazing the path ahead of him. She realized this was one time where being in front was going to be a disadvantage.
It was getting worse the further they went, and the light of Anna’s wand didn’t seem to be helping them any better. The tunnel was a giant, black hole, stealing all the light and giving nothing back in return. On two occasions, Swooper bumped directly into the wall he thought was open space. In desperation, Anna even tried a striking hex, “Everbero!” It didn’t help; the spell was absorbed into the void ahead of them in a flash of black and purple. After flying into the wall a third time, Anna finally decided they had to stop.
“This isn’t getting us anywhere, Swooper. Let’s go down,” she said with a reassuring pat on the neck. She could feel her mount slowly sinking toward the bottom of the tunnel, and finally heard his metal shoes clatter upon the smooth stone. Anna unclipped her harness and dismounted. “Get down, Swooper. Let’s let Wendell show us the way out.” Swooper crouched low, finally resting his belly on the floor of the tunnel. “Nox!” she whispered, extinguishing her wand’s light. They waited there, huddled together and listening to the dripping sound of water all around them.
Before long, they could hear the approaching sound of flapping wings and Wendell’s voice cutting through the darkness. “Blast! Where are they?” he yelled, in a tone of frustrated anger. “Curse that Pearl and her mazes! I can’t see a bloody thing in here. Where’d they go?”
The walls behind them started to brighten, and Anna could see the light of Wendell’s wand filling the tunnel as they approached. She was right; it would be far better with Michael and the palomino in front of them, blazing the trail and taking all the risks. But Anna suddenly realized she didn’t want to be seen. Wendell might try to block his path behind him if something wasn’t done to hide their position. Anna dipped low and leaned over to Swooper.
“Invisible…” she said, “and be quick.” Swooper jerked his head up with a grunt. “Shhhhhh! Just do it!” she whispered. Anna watched the darkness ripple and distort as Swooper’s outline faded into nothingness. “Good boy. Now let’s hope the crowd back at the stadium can’t see us.” Anna concentrated hard on her inner core. It’s time to come out my friend… I need you now.
Anna reached out and used the coldness of the walls next to her to link with the thing sleeping inside her body. Like a stirring winter storm, the creature within seemed to awaken far too easily before rushing forward. Anna could feel the coldness belching out from her eyes and mouth, oozing from every pore of her body. The Lethifold was coming.
Swooper could feel it too. Anna’s touch had abruptly gone icy cold, and he could feel her body leaning over him changing, her weight lifting and spreading all around him. He grunted nervously and, with her last human breath, Anna tried to calm him, “It’s all right, I’m still here. Like you, I’ve taken a different form –– ssshhhh –– here he comes.”
Wendell’s flapping was slow and exaggerated. “Where are they?” he yelled. “You must have missed a turn somewhere, you stupid beast!” Anna could hear the palomino grunt and the metal on his bridle rattling as he jerked forward indignantly. The boy was scanning every inch of the tunnel with his wand. “My God, your eyesight is worse than that black devil she’s riding…”
The beam of light landed upon Anna at the bottom of the tunnel and the Lethifold froze. “They couldn’t have just vanished,” the boy said gruffly. “Move on!” The palomino’s wings tilted up and began to flap passed them.
Trying to regain her control, Anna concentrated on the warm beaches of her home and the hot, summer sun pouring down upon her face. Slowly and most reluctantly, the Lethifold retreated, but not before turning her pumping heart into a solid block of ice. Anna felt her weight pressing on her feet again and dropped to one knee clutching the stabbing pain inside her chest. Her blood felt heavy there, and the coldness made it hard to breath. The Lethifold didn’t want to withdraw. It wanted to stay in this place; the gloom and darkness was its home. Anna knew they had to get out of these dark tunnels and into the warm sun as fast as they could.
“Swooper… are you there? We…” the pain in her chest was tremendous. It felt like she was trying to swallow a gallon of ice water all at once, “… we have to follow Wendell. He’ll light the way for us now.” Anna looked up and saw the distorted image of her mount reappear in front on her. Through the backdrop of Wendell’s fading light, Anna could see the horse was looking at her in anxious surprise. “I’m all right… it’s just a little trick I do, like you and your invisibility,” she tried to explain. “Let’s go before they get too far ahead,” she whispered.
Anna grabbed the horn of the saddle, snapped her harness into its metal loop, and jammed a foot in the stirrup. She bounced twice, stopped to take another rattled breath, and then tried again. Pushing with all her strength, her weakened body slid up the fender of the saddle until her shaking knee was straight. She threw her other leg over.
“Up, Swooper!” The Thorse began to flap his wings and, rising slightly off the ground, he turned toward Wendell’s fading light ahead of them. “Not too close… I don’t want him to hear us.”
They slowly followed, Anna holding Swooper back so they wouldn’t ruin the surprise she had planned for Michael ahead. She leaned down over her horse’s back, clutching her chest. The Lethifold loved this place; it wanted to hunt here, in the security of all this blackness around them. She could feel it spreading out of her heart and into the blades of her back. It was becoming increasingly difficult to hold it in. Finally they heard a howl somewhere ahead of them.
“There’s the exit. Do you see it?” shouted Wendell, “Go, you stupid beast, get us out of here!”
Now Anna could see it too; beautiful rays of white light, streaking into the tunnel like lasers breaching a storm cloud. In her sudden exhilaration, Anna inadvertently lowered the barriers holding the Lethifold back, but instead of trying to burst forward she could feel it retreating from the approaching light. The icy pains in her back began to withdraw into her chest as she lifted the reins and pitched them forward.
“Go get them, boy,” she murmured, in an ache-filled drone. Swooper’s wings extended to their fullest length forward and kicked back hard. Anna could feel the wind beginning to press into her chest, as the light in front of them steadily grew brighter. Wendell still had no idea where Anna was, and she intended to take full advantage of his ignorance.
The tunnel exit was straight ahead of them now. Swooper was flapping hard behind the palomino, looking to close the gap at exactly the right moment. His head was slamming up and down like a piston as he hurtled through the air. “When we clear the tunnel, head for the ground.”
Wendell shot through the exit with Anna right behind him, WHOOOOSH – WHOOSH! Swooper immediately flipped over and dove straight down, flapping hard as they corkscrewed toward the ground.
Anna looked up and to her surprise she could see Cobstone no more than a half a mile ahead of them, heading for the last alleyway; the sight of it made her smile. She knew she could catch Lannete from here; she had done it before and from a much greater distance, but this time she had all three of her rings. The Amber Gates wouldn’t steal their victory this time. Only Wendell was in their way now. She could see the palomino above them angling down toward the woods. Although his distance to the next alleyway was much shorter, she was counting on their increased speed and Swooper’s strength to beat them to the gap.
“Go Swooper; we have to get to the opening before them!” Anna shouted, aware that the pain in her chest was fading with every passing second. She leaned over Swooper’s back as he galloped madly through the air. It was going to be very close. She could see Wendell coming down now. They had to be in front of him before they entered the woods; Anna wanted Lannete to herself. Every muscle in Swooper’s back was rock hard from his effort, and Anna pulled the stirrups back as far as she could so she wouldn’t hamper his wing beats. It was going to be extremely close.
Wendell was coming down fast. He looked back toward the mountain again, and smiled at the empty space he saw there. “It looks like we finally lost that impudent first-year,” he cooed happily. He looked forward again and his view of the alley entrance unexpectedly went black. Another horse suddenly shot up from below and the purple robes billowing in front of them confirmed his worse fear.
“What the…?” Wendell yelped, unintentionally yanking back on the reins in surprise. The palomino reared back in shock at the sight of another horse coming from out of nowhere to pass them. “Blast those two!” Wendell shouted angrily, as he watched the horse and its rider zip out of sight around the first turn in the alleyway. He cursed again, and began whipping his horse frantically to chase after them.
Left turn, right turn, right again, straight, Anna looked back and saw Wendell close behind them. If they could just make it out of this forest and into the open sky she was positive Swooper could out fly them all. Suddenly, something red shot over her right shoulder; she could feel the heat from the spell warm the side of her face. What’s Wendell doing? That was far too close. The beam hit a tree ahead of them, slicing its heavy trunk in two. The top of the tree twisted slightly and then started crashing down in front of them. Swooper dove beneath it, missing the thick branches before turning again into another left bank. Anna looked back and could see Wendell pointing his wand at them again; his face looked a livid purple.
Another beam shot by them, and another, then another. Trees were falling ahead and around them, crashing down like a roof upon their heads. Swooper did a quick zigzag and darted around the splintering wood above and the sharp, serrated litter below them. Two more blasts streaked passed them just missing Anna’s head.
And then, almost expectedly, one of the beams crashed into the center of Anna’s back. The force of the hex kicked her chest forward and snapped her head back. The reins flew into the open air, and her mouth emitted a flash of light that was supposed to be a scream. Anna slumped forward onto Swooper’s neck and seemed paralyzed to stop her body from rolling to the side. Swooper jerked into another right turn and Anna toppled over the side of his shoulder. There was a sharp snap and then a jerk as her harness went taut.
Anna was now dangling helplessly over the side of the horse, her feet slapping his hooves below. Swooper was jerked to the side from the sudden shift of weight and he immediately moved to compensate. He brought his left wing up and forward, accidentally hitting Anna in the head with its leading edge. Anna was slipping into blackness. Her body was limp, but every cell of her fiber was on fire. She slammed into Swooper’s side, floated away, and then slammed into him again as he continued through his turns.
Anna raised her head in time to see the palomino flying over to pass them. The two horses flew into a tight left turn while Anna dangled helplessly beneath them. Swooper cut the inside of the turn off. Even in their present situation, he wasn’t willing to allow the other horse to pass them so easily, and Anna could hear Wendell cursing as they dropped back once again. She knew the harness was probably cutting into her groin, but she couldn’t feel her lower body anymore. Only her arms and legs continued to signal they were still there, but thankfully, that’s all she needed to begin her climb back up.
Swooper was doing his best to help. Anna could feel him flicking and jerking, trying to toss her up onto his back again, but it was difficult to assist her and watch his turns at the same time. Finally they entered a straight lane and Anna tried to throw her foot into the stirrup. Wendell was alongside them again, and doing his best to beat Swooper out of his way. He was using his whip on Swooper’s head and kicking his wings with the heel of his boot. Anna screamed at the boy to stop.
“Get… out… of my way… you devil!” Wendell yelled, whipping Swooper viciously across the face. They flew into another right turn just as the boy kicked down on Swooper’s wing. The horse let out a grunt of pain and spun into a barrel roll. Anna was thrown completely around Swooper’s left side, over the top past Wendell and down again. She could feel the nylon harness giving off sharp crackling sounds as some of the stitching surrendered to the stress. Anna’s mind flashed to Gabby’s birthday harness and all its heavy chains; the strap wasn’t going to hold her much longer. But Swooper’s roll had given her an idea. It wouldn’t get her back in the saddle, but it might stop Wendell from beating her horse.
Left, right, left – Anna was smashed time and again against Swooper’s ribs. It was like being continuously thrown against the side of a brick wall. Wendell was at it again, flying on the other side and whipping Swooper’s back and head mercilessly.
“Stop it!” Anna screamed, pulling herself up just high enough to see him over the top of her saddle. Wendell saw her and then laid his whip across her forehead in reply. The blow split Anna’s skin open and sent her half dazed back down the side. She screamed, this time more from anger than pain, and she felt an enraged growl bubble up from the deepest part of her soul as she looked up into the next alleyway again. She recognized what she needed; another right turn was coming toward them. She braced herself as best she could. “Roll right, Swooper! Roll… right!”
Swooper gave an acknowledged grunt as they flew into the turn. He tucked his right wing under his belly and began to corkscrew through the air again. Anna was hurled over the top once more, this time taking aim at Wendell as she came back down. Michael looked up in horror just in time to see Anna’s boot whipping down upon him. Her heel connected with his face with an ugly thud. Swooper finished the turn and Anna was slammed into his legs again as they leveled.
Wendell was reeling. The blow laid him flat against the back of the palomino and he was struggling with all his might to remain saddled. He pulled and yanked on the reins, desperately working to keep his balance.
Up, down, left, down, right, the two horses continued flying side by side through the maze of tree-lined alleyways. Anna was trying to use the harness strap like a rope to pull herself up to the stirrup. After lifting herself halfway, she held the strap tight as they fell into another series of turns. When she felt them level again, she began to climb; but now she could hear Wendell whipping on Swooper’s back once more. Anna gave a last heave and grabbed the horn of the saddle. Almost there — don’t give up. Come on!
Anna grit her teeth as every muscle in her body screamed in strained agony. See looked over the saddle again and found Wendell staring down at her. She could see his face was already badly bruised. Blood was oozing from his teeth and smearing the sides of his cheeks before flying out behind him. He looked like some demonic clown out of the depths of Hell’s circus. His eyes looked more than angry; they were absolutely wild with coiled wrath. Anna looked at the clip on the saddle, she could hear the strap beginning to tear and pop. She looked up at Wendell again and could see him looking at the strap as well. Their eyes met, and Wendell’s lips curled into a grotesque and bloody smile.
“No…” Anna whispered, as Wendell brought his wand around and pointed it at the strap. Anna could see his lips moving and then a bright flash of light hit the strap connecting her to the clip. There was a sharp rip and Anna was set free. She was falling, and for the lack of something else to properly focus on, her brain occupied itself with the sudden quietness of the world around her. There was an odd struggle of the sky and the green of the forest to steal her attention, and the cold-numbing air passing around her body as she tumbled down.
The first blow took Anna’s breath away, a thick and gnarled branch of a tree smashing into her ribs. “Oooff!” Oh… God, Anna thought, just before another branch hit the side of her head. “UGGHN!” It suddenly felt like she was passing through a gauntlet of angry trolls, swinging and hitting her from every direction.
WHAM – SMACK – CRACK! “AARGH!”The pain from one blow was immediately replaced with the agony of another, and then another, but all the time Anna somehow believed if she remained aware that she would somehow survive. Then, quite unexpectedly, the image of her mangled body impaled on a broken stump scared her into the proper level of terror suitable to the circumstances at hand. She started to scream, but the next thick blow into her ribs immediately silenced her.
CRACK – BLAM
CRASH — CRACK — THUD
Anna had no way of knowing how long she lay unconscious on the forest floor, but it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. When her eyes popped open again, she could still hear the falling branches in the trees around her, working to fill the hole her body had punched through the high canopy. She was lying on her back, looking up at the sun streaming through the green, umbrella-like ceiling above her. She found her mind marveling at the chattering of birds and the distinct sounds of toads burping their oblivious song.
It was one of the strangest moments of her life. Taking in the view around her like some solitary traveler contemplating a nap, Anna wondered how long she should wait before sitting up to take inventory on the injuries she would inevitably have to face. Within seconds, however, she was forced to acknowledge the reality of the situation at hand; something was terribly wrong.
A burning sensation began to fill her chest and spread quickly into her throat. When the creeping, lava-like menace reached her brain, she suddenly realized what was broken. My God… I’m… I’m not breathing!
Sure enough, Anna tried to take in a breath, but to her horror found she could not. She tried to lift her shaking head, expecting to find something enormously heavy sitting upon her chest, but there wasn’t anything there. Her mind started to panic. I can’t breath! I… I… can’t… breath! Anna slowly twisted her torso to the side, her mouth gaping wide, trying to force her lungs to work. She could feel the pressure building in the top of her head now, and she knew it would only be a matter of seconds before she passed out. The alarm of not being able to breath was immediately joined by the terror of knowing that if she did black out, she would probably never wake up. Anna’s teeth closed to bite into the mildew-laden dirt pressing into her face, and then opened wide again, as if to remind her lungs there was work to be done. The outside of her body was trying to force the inside to work for it, which even in her current state seemed completely contrary to the norm.
Finally, a gurgling flutter of wind passed through her lips, and Anna felt the remaining bubbles of air leave her. Clutching her throat, she rolled over on her back again as a thrashing panic started to spread throughout the rest of her body. She was drowning; drowning in a sea of asphyxiating madness. Her vision was growing dark; blackness was creeping up from her feet like a shroud moving across her body. Suddenly, something inside her body seemed to realize it had forgotten the most important task assigned to it, and there was movement.
She sucked in a half-breath and immediately tried with all her might to push it out again. The breath wheezed its way guardedly like a new route just discovered, and Anna immediately reversed her airway to bring in another rattled heave. It wasn’t enough; she was definitively on her way out. Anna brought forth one more raged half-gasp and then quickly found she could do it again, and her lungs began to inflate and fill the space made for them. She coughed and then took in three more breaths as fast as she could, working hard to hold off the blackness that surely awaited anybody depriving their body of air for so long. The pain was incredible, radiating up both hips and into her ribcage.
Over the next several minutes, Anna lay on her side breathing deliberately until she was certain her lungs could be trusted to work unmonitored on their own. Soon, the burning in her chest and head was replaced by a hellish inferno of pain in her ribs and legs. She tried to sit up, but was instantly slammed with a bolt of pain shooting up her right leg that traveled straight into her heart. The shock of the blow snatched her breath away again. She screamed, and then fainted before her falling body hit the leaf-strewn ground behind her.
A full ten minutes had passed before Anna awoke to a completely new definition of pain. Although the trumpets of torture in her ribs and legs were still there, the symphony in her back had decided to join in. She tried to sit up, but only got as far as propping her upper body on her elbows.
She took in another deep breath and then decided to test her voice. “Hello? Can… anybody… hear me?” she called, not really listening for a reply; there was no answer anyway. “I need some HELP…! I could really… really use some help over here,” she finished with a whimper. Anna winced at the sharp pain in her leg, and then reluctantly looked down.
Her robes and skirt were completely torn open. The right knee was pointed straight up, but her kneecap was pushed over to the inside of her leg, and she seemed to have an extra joint between what was left of the knee and her ankle. “Oh dear… that isn’t right, is it?” she said, trying to be brave.
She looked over at the long, bloody gashes on her other leg. The muscle looked like it had exploded from under the skin; she quickly looked away. She started to cry, but immediately decided that wasn’t going to do her any good. She looked at the bloody gash again and reached deep for her courage. “God, I’ll bet that leaves a mark. Girl… you’re in a lot of trouble here,” she said, disparagingly. “HELLO!!” she screamed again, this time throwing her head back to yell, still no reply. Anna looked in horror at the piece of bone sticking out of the inside of her right shin. She felt her stomach give an involuntary lurch. “Now I know… that wasn’t there… when I woke up this morning,” she said, trying to hold off the urge to vomit.
She looked behind her and saw the trunk of a large tree just a few feet away. She tried pushing herself backwards toward the tree, dragging her mangled legs with her. Another bolt of lightning shot up her right leg to ring the stupid bell against her ribs. She screamed again and fell back against the trunk of the tree, smacking her head on the hardwood. Bright white sparks shot through her brain in an ugly, but strangely familiar pattern. It was the dueling hall all over again. Anna lay there for a moment with her eyes closed, trying to catch her breath. “Okay… that… was a mistake,” she heard herself moan out loud.
She was on the verge of passing out again, but something seemed to snap her awake at the last possible second. There was a far off sound in the woods she recognized; she could sense something coming toward her. Heavy footsteps were moving through the undergrowth in a searching pattern.
“Eric?” she mumbled in a dazed, half-groggy voice. “I’m over here. Daddy? Is… that… you?”
Anna opened her eyes again and looked up into the high canopy. Her vision was failing her. Everything was beginning to blur into some distorted muddle of sunlight mixed with green. She jerked her head up again, trying with all her might to stay awake. “I’m… over… here,” she whispered to the forest around her. She could still feel those heavy footsteps approaching in the distance.
And then, through her dazed and failing eyesight, Anna saw something peering at her through the bushes below her feet. She squinted, trying to focus her eyes properly. Two yellow eyes with vertical slits were staring at her, like a cat watching a mouse before it pounced.
Anna shook her head, and slowly raised herself onto her elbows again. “Hello… there…” she said, nervously. “Are you, ahhh… friend or foe, little one?” The thing growled through a row of very sharp teeth, and Anna could see something like bony horns protruding from its face.
“Uh-oh… okay… maybe not a friend, then,” she quipped, fearfully. She could hear the creature in the bushes sniffing the air from its hiding place and its eyes narrowing to focus on her bloody and badly broken legs. Anna slowly moved her hand into her robes, looking for the handle of her wand. It wasn’t there. Great… that’s just great!
She saw another pair of eyes next to the first, and then three more sets in the bushes to her left.
“Ah… listen, guys. I don’t want to be a bother or anything, but I could really use some help here,” she said, trying to sound calm. “Could I ask one of you to trot along and… ah… find one of those big, burly guys in red robes for me?” There was a pause… and then a horrible, yowling cry from one of the creatures. As bad as the sound was, it was quickly joined by several others that Anna couldn’t see hiding around her. They sounded like some grotesque choir tuning their throats before the dirge.
Anna remembered a song of her own she had once heard on a Muggle radio at school. She started to hum the tune as she reached out to gather whatever weapons she could find lying around her. “Welcome to the jungle… we’ve got fun and games…” Anna winced in pain as she found a stick lying beside her. She grabbed it and then lifted the wood over her body, “… learn to… look like a hungry animal… in the jungle where we play…” she sang in a whisper, clutching the stick close to her chest. “They look hungry for what they see…” she sang again, looking around her, “…they’ll take it eventually…”
There was another bolt of agonizing pain shooting her into the heart again. “Hoooaaaa!” she moaned, clutching the sides of her leg. The darkness trying to envelop her brain had turned her vision into a blurring, greenish haze again, and it occurred to her that it might be wise to let herself pass out. If she was going be eaten by these creatures, it would be better not to be awake to watch it happen. Only one thing was making a case to remain conscious; the footsteps she had heard earlier were very close now. But Anna’s head was beginning to spin, bringing with it a dizzying wave of nausea that forced her body back down again. Whoever’s coming had better get here fast.
A moment later, there was a crash of braking branches to her right and then the sound of heavy breathing was above her. Anna opened her eyes and looked up to see the shadowed outline of something big standing over her. Anna smiled drunkenly at the thing. It was twisting and bending comically in the delusional fog flooding her brain.
“You can have anything you want… but you’d better not take it from me…” Anna sang, hugging her stick tight.She giggled at the hulkish figure leaning over her broken body.
“You are all right now, Miss,” said a deep and very kind voice. “I am called Trog, I am. And Trog will take care of you, he will.”
There was the sound of Trog’s rustling feet and snapping limbs in the trees around her, but Anna’s vision had completely left her now. She had no idea who or what was trying to help her, but his gentle hands began to bind her leg tight.
“Your leg is badly broken, it is. I will splint it and take you back to the castle. You will be home soon, you will.”
“I don’t know… if I can make it that far…” Anna sobbed weakly. She could feel the thing calling itself Trog suddenly stop working on her leg. He leaned over her and gently pushed her matted hair away from her dirty face.
“You will listen now to Trog, you will,” he said, sympathetically. “You are strong in the spirit, and have survived the worst this day has to offer, you have. Faith little one, and know that even in times like this we are never alone. God is with us always, he is. Your faith is your strength, and strength is what you need. Hold on, you will. Do you hear Trog speaking, do you?”
“Yes…” Anna replied painfully through her tears. She reached out blindly to touch the stranger’s hand. “Thank… you…” Anna whispered, and then gasped loudly as he lifted her into his arms.
“You’re still in pain, are you? Where else does it hurt?”
“My… my ribs!” Anna sobbed, clutching her rescuer with balled fists and burying her grimacing face into his chest.
“You took a high fall, you did,” the voice explained caringly. “I will take you to where help is.”
He began to carry her forward through the forest, and there was an ugly yowl from the creatures behind them again.
“I have her now, I do. Thank your clan for finding her. She is in my care, she is,” the hulk replied to the beasts with yellow eyes. The creatures gave a satisfied yelp, and then quickly disappeared into the forest.
They traveled for just a few minutes when another set of voices joined them.
“Who’s there?” a man barked somewhere in front.
“I have the girl who fell from the sky, I do,” said Anna’s rescuer. “She is badly injured, she is.”
“Stay where you are!” called a second man’s voice. “We’ll come to you! Blast this bloody forest! Thick as the depths down here.” Anna could hear a number of footsteps crashing through the branches toward them.
“Hold on,” yelled the first voice, “oh… it’s you,” the man said, in a disappointed tone. “Trog, isn’t it? What do you think you’re doing? Put the girl down!”
“Put down your wand, wizard. It is unnecessary, it is,” demanded the thing carrying Anna.
“I said put her down, you stupid oaf…”
“Hold on!” called the second voice now joining them. “Hello, Trog. I see you’ve found her? Excellent! Well done.”
“I found her in the briars, I did. She has a badly broken leg and an injured cage, she does.”
“Okay Trog, put the girl down so we can have a quick look at her.” Anna was lowered to the ground once again.
“Miss Grayson, can you hear me?” said the second voice. “You’re in the protective care of the Spellsburg Guard.” Anna couldn’t answer. The voices of the men were wavering in and out of her head like a badly tuned song.
“What did you do to her!” yelled the first voice.
“I helped her, I did,” replied Trog in a defensive tone.
“Looks to me like you might have killed her!”
“Shut up, Larry. Trog didn’t do anything of the sort. Miss Grayson? Can you hear my voice?” Anna could feel somebody lifting one of her eyelids and then saw something flashing into her eye. He did the same to the other. “Miss Grayson?”
“I… hear,” whispered Anna, in a barely audible voice.
“Let’s get her on a door and up to the castle.”
“Here is the girl’s wand. I found it in the woods near where she fell, I did.”
“What are you doing? You know you’re not supposed to have a wand in your hand,” yelled the first voice, snatching the purple heart away.
“I found it in the roots. She would want it back, she would!”
“Of course she would, Trog. Thank you. I’ll make sure she gets it back,” said the second man.
“Trog will go with you, he will.”
“You know you’re not allowed up at the castle unless you’re specifically called for by the Captain,” said the first man, angrily.
“But he never calls me anymore,” the deep voice replied despondently. “I want to help, to be called to duty like in the days...”
“Called to duty…?” the first man scoffed.
“I’m still in training, I am. I can be useful.”
“In training?” said the man, mockingly. “As much a waste of time training you as those empty suits of armor up at the castle.”
“Shut up, Larry. Have some respect!” said the second man.
“Respect… for the likes of that? Why bother? You know the Captain wants nothing to do with him. It’s only because of the Chancellor that he even bothers to…”
“I said shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Anna could feel herself being lifted once again. “Let’s get her back to the castle where Doctor Pearl can do her some good.” Anna felt her body set upon something hard and then bound tight with straps. “All right, we’re all set. Thank you, Trog. We’ll take it from here; you’ve done well, probably saved her life.”
“Trog can be useful, he can,” replied the gentle voice.
“You sure proved that today, my friend.”
“Will you tell the Captain how useful I was, will you?”
“Of course I will. Hey, maybe he’ll let you join us for Christmas. We’re always short on personnel over the holidays. I’ll suggest it to him, all right?”
“I am most grateful, I am. Trog can be useful whenever he’s needed, he can.”
“So long, Trog. Stay warm this winter. It was good seeing you again.”
“Goodbye,” Trog said with a wave.
Anna could hear the sound of footsteps crunching their way toward her, and then the first man’s whispering voice. “Don’t hold your breath waiting to hear from the Captain, old-boy,” the voice said to Trog, contemptuously. Anna felt her body rising into the air. “I’ll send up red sparks to let them know we’ve found her.”
“Trog found her, you mean,” said the second man, more accurately.
“Yeah… okay, whatever you say.”
As they flew along, Anna finally allowed herself to drift into unconsciousness once again. She never remembered her arrival on the hospital floor that morning, or Doctor Pearl’s frantic efforts to heal her severely broken body. Her return was nothing more than a jumble of unrecognizable voices, yelling and screaming, with the occasional far off sounds of Eric, the twins, and Gabby asking if Anna could hear them.
But something else penetrated the racket of panicked voices and slamming doors more than anything else that morning. It was a song. But it wasn’t the song Anna had sung to herself while in the forest; this song was more of a hum. It was loving and gentle, and Anna somehow knew it had come to offer her comfort. The tone of the voice floating into her head warmed her spirit as it sang to her over and over again; a familiar lullaby that seemed to awaken a deep longing in Anna’s soul.
Over the next five days the lullaby slowly gave way to Anna’s draft-induced recovery, which was comforted with dreams of her gentle rescuer. His warm voice swam through her head as she slept, along with something else Anna had sensed about him while being carried through the Shadowed Forest. Held safe from further harm in his massive arms, Anna felt something recognizable in his nature. Surprisingly, it was something that she had sensed once before at Castlewood. Trog had a familiar rhythm about him that seemed to explain all of the kindness and soothing compassion he had given to Anna that day in the woods. More than saving her life, Trog had found Anna’s tortured soul, beaten and lost, and reminded her, even in that dark moment, that God’s presence was all around them. The stranger’s faith had sustained her in a way before now only her father could, and it would serve them both as the foundation of a friendship for the rest of their lives. So much gentle kindness could barely be contained in a soul with a single heart, and that’s what was different about Trog. He had two hearts.