“Mr. Wendell, you have been called here to receive this court’s verdict on your actions of November twenty-fourth. Are you prepared to hear our decision in the matter of this case?”
“I am, Madam President.”
It was two days after the race, and while Anna lay unconscious in the hospital recovering from her injuries, a student court had been assembled to review Michael Wendell’s role in Anna’s fall in the Shadowed Forest. Nancy Dodimayer was presiding over the court. She was seated high in the center of a crescent-shaped set of benches on her left and right, which contained all of the Union Knights of Castlewood. Seated at another desk below her was the Captain of the Crimson Guard. There were raised bleachers on both sides of the courtroom, which contained witnesses both supporting Wendell to one side, and those who had testified against him on the other. Wendell’s supporters to his left looked unusually small compared to those seated and standing on the right.
“Very well,” said Dodimayer, rustling through a stack of parchment. She finally looked down at Michael who was standing alone at a podium below her. There was a very large audience of spectators seated on the other side of a black railing to the rear of the courtroom. “Mr. Wendell, we have heard from a number of witnesses regarding your actions on the day in question, and we have now called you here to answer some of your accusers. As it is our tradition, we will open the floor to you and those in the court to debate your culpability. As President of the Student Counsel, and leader of the Castlewood Knights, I will begin.”
She paused to write some notes, dropped her quill, and then stared down at him. “Mr. Wendell, I find your actions on the Vollucross field on November twenty-fourth absolutely despicable!”
“I beg your pardon?” Wendell replied, surprised by both Dodimayer’s tone and her accusation.
“You heard me, Michael. Yes –– I listened to your account of what happened, and I found it quite amusing listening to your version of the race and how Miss Grayson supposedly attacked you.”
“She did attack me!” Wendell shouted defensively. “I was kicked in the face –– she drew first blood!”
“Only after you shot her in the back with an illegal hex and then split her head open with your riding crop,” growled a Knight from the Server Union seated to Dodimayer’s right. It was Karen Scott.
“I told you that was an accident! I was trying to move her mount out of my way after using legal levels of magic to block her path. I shot no less than a dozen spells prior to her being hit. It wasn’t my fault she flew into my beam.”
“Rubbish!” bellowed Jeremiah Kingston from the right witness gallery. “Anna was flying straight and level,” he added angrily. “Flew into your path, indeed! You’re still lying to this court, Michael. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“I believe Grayson did fly into the hex!” argued a standing girl supporting Wendell from the left gallery.
“Are we admitting, then, that it was a hex?” retorted a Laborer Knight in front.
“I did not hex the girl!” Wendell seethed, glaring at the girl trying to support him; she nervously sat back down.
“You showed a total disregard for Anna’s safety from the very beginning. I didn’t see anybody else trying to kill the other riders with swinging trees,” said a stern looking Artisan Knight.
“Oh… come on. We were told before the race that we could create barriers to bar our opponent’s path.”
“Barriers? Is that what we’re calling it… creating barriers? And what would you have said had you taken her head off? That it was her fault for not ducking quickly enough? It’s a good thing Lannete Cobstone knew enough about your tactics, Michael, or we would be fishing her body out of the lake too.” Wendell glared back, searching angrily for the correct response.
“I saw you shove Anna into the trees after the first pole!” shouted a voice from the right gallery.
“So — what?” Wendell snarled. “Those who know anything about our sport understand that a rider is allowed to protect his position. Doctor Pearl, wouldn’t you agree?”
The Vollucross Steward stood among those in the right gallery. “You should not call on those to your right to help your case, Michael. I cannot in good conscious walk across this courtroom to join your supporters on the left. I warned you before the beginning of the race that I would be watching you closely. I saw what you did,” she growled. Nobody in the courtroom could remember seeing Pearl so angry. While she appeared outwardly calm, there was an unmistakable rage behind her guarded façade. “In my mind your actions were disgraceful.”
Wendell sighed. “Yes — yes — so you’ve told me several times both immediately following the race and then again today. But my question was… am I not, by rule, allowed to hold my position through the air?”
Pearl glared angrily at him from under her lowered brow and then turned to the bench. “He is quite correct… the court should understand a rider is allowed to hold his space and position through a leading turn. Mr. Wendell did nothing wrong when Anna was shoved aside. I am sure, that with experience, Miss Grayson will be more cautious in regard to her tactics when trying to pass.”
“Huh! You see?” Wendell shouted, pointing the bench Pearl’s way.
“However,” Pearl continued, her jaws were clinched tight, you could see the muscles in her cheeks flexing beneath the skin, “that does not excuse you purposely cutting her away from her harness!”
Wendell dropped his head in visible frustration. “As I said before, I didn’t cut her loose. I was trying to reinforce the strapping on her harness clip after I heard it giving way. I didn’t mean to see the girl fall.” There was a long murmur of discontent within the courtroom.
“Just another misunderstanding on the part of all those who witnessed what you did, Michael?” asked a Searcher Knight on Dodimayer’s left. Wendell glared back without answering. “But you still haven’t explained why we all saw a red flash from your wand when your spell hit the clip. It certainly looked like a cleaving spell to me, not at all the repairing charm you claim here in your sworn statement. I’m still waiting to see you produce a repairing charm with a red flash, Michael.”
“I didn’t cut her loose,” Wendell growled. The gallery started to grumble back incredulously.
“May I say something?” interrupted Captain Dunning, who was slowly rising to his feet. The crowd in the courtroom fell silent as the captain stepped around his desk to stand in the open area between Wendell and Dodimayer’s bench. “As you know, it’s difficult for me to say anything about what did or did not happen during the race. Unfortunately, I was busy working at my desk in the castle at the time in question. I can, however, offer some information about the behavior of Miss Grayson during her short time here at the school.”
“Oh… here we go again…” Tencha whispered to Dowla.
“As many of you know, most of the students here at Castlewood have spent their entire time with us without a hint of scandal on their record. They’ve never caused any trouble, in no way harmed anybody, and never gave the guards a reason to report them to this body or my office. Fewer still have ever had detention.” He paused to circle the room with his hands clasped behind his back, choosing his words both carefully and purposefully.
“The testimony against Mr. Wendell is highly egregious, and many here today won’t be satisfied with anything but the harshest penalties affording his deeds. However, I would be negligent in my duties if I didn’t point out Miss Grayson has not always been the most innocent of students in her short time here at the school.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” retorted Gwen from the right gallery.
Captain Dunning did not look up, but merely directed his response to the bench. “Miss Grayson has been sent to detention twice since September, once for threatening a fellow student in front of witnesses, and a second time for attacking the same student and breaking her nose. It would seem the girl has a need for violence that most would find…”
“That’s a lie!” yelled Gwen again. “This other student you’re taking about is your sister, and I was there when Debbie Dunning threatened Anna in the hallway first. And this attack, as you called it, happened in a fair fight in the dueling hall, which you yourself forced Anna to participate in against her will.”
“Captain Dunning,” Dodimayer interrupted, gaveling Gwen into silence, “I am at a loss to understand what any of this has to do with Wendell’s case?”
Dunning smiled coyly. “I simply wish to make the court aware of the fact that Miss Grayson has proven to be less than the ideal student in her short time here at the academy, and we should consider the very real possibility the girl did lash out at Wendell as he stated in his testimony.”
“I was in the stadium to see what happened, Captain,” said the Laborer Knight in response, “and while I have heard all the talk about Grayson’s brilliant retaliation in flying over her mount to strike at Mr. Wendell, I for one, give it very little credence. She was whipped around her horse in the middle of a turn and struck Wendell on the way down. To think her actions were somehow premeditated is giving her first-year skills much more credit than they deserve. In my mind the whole idea is rather ludicrous. If we’re to blame anybody for the contact, it might as well be the horse who threw Anna on top of Michael.”
“I saw her face as she came down,” Wendell related, angrily. “She looked…” he suddenly stopped. The boy’s eyes seem to be reaching back to the scene in his memory. “She… was staring at me and bearing down –– it was no accident. She knew what she was doing!”
“My point is,” Dunning continued, “the Graysons have a talent for creating trouble. Anna Grayson’s record this year reinforces that opinion beyond any doubt. With the court’s permission, I could open the files on the other members of the Grayson family as well. I believe this would show a pattern of…”
“Keep us out of this, Dunning,” Dowla shouted from behind the back railing. “This trial is about Wendell and not your sister’s swimming lessons with the grindylows!” Everybody in the courtroom began to laugh.
“That’s enough…” Dodimayer scowled, setting her gavel back down. “Please continue, Captain.” Dunning bowed respectfully.
“In summary, the Grayson family’s record of detention, violence, and rule breaking must be a consideration when trying to get to the truth in this matter. While I can sympathize with the pain and injury Miss Grayson sustained in her fall,” the man tried but failed to hide a smirk, “we cannot allow this to blind our judgment of the facts before us. We must mind our biases here. While many would naturally wish to take the injured party’s side in a case like this, it behooves us to understand the history surrounding the individual involved. If I, for example, were to let my prejudices preside over reason, I would fall to Wendell’s side without regard to further testimony if the other party in question happened to be a Grayson.”
Dunning made his way back around his desk where he finally sat. There was a murmuring rumble growing in the courtroom, which quickly fell silent when a lone figure stood to the right of the bench. It was Eric Grayson. He addressed himself to the court.
“My apologies, Madam President. I know I have excluded myself from these proceedings in all but my physical presence, but I feel it necessary now to speak. Since it was my sister who was injured on opening day, I know the court expects me to abstain from any vote put before it, and I accept both the spirit and principle of these rules of etiquette.” Eric then turned to face Captain Dunning. “I will not, however, stand by and silently listen to a fellow officer of this court attack my family name. If the captain believes the presence of my family at this school has become a detriment to the Academy’s honorable goals, then I would be happy to take these discussions up with him privately. His views regarding my family have no bearing on the case before us.”
Captain Dunning stood again to face Eric. “The Graysons are a menace to this school, and now Anna Grayson has lent her part in continuing the havoc started by her sisters.”
“HOW DARE YOU!” screamed Tencha, who then leapt to her feet. Eric stopped his sister’s outburst by holding up his hand. He was scowling at Dunning.
“You, sir, are out of line, and you seem to forget your own family’s part in the matters in which you speak. I could detail for this court the circumstances involving your sister in each and every incident in which you blame my family. All, that is, except for the most recent occasion when you had Anna arrested without cause, and embarrassed more by having her escorted from the Server Hall under Crimson escort. My family is still waiting for a proper explanation from your office as to how such a mistake could have happened, Captain.” Dunning spun around to reply, but Eric cut him off. “I say again, the dispute between the members of your family and mine have no bearing on this case.”
“Don’t presume you can defend the evils done to this school by your family as being something personal between us. This is not a Dunning-Grayson problem, but a problem within Castlewood in allowing you to stay. And that, in my opinion, goes to the root of this case and most of the others brought to my attention since I was first placed in post here.”
“Doesn’t that confirm what I just said, Captain?” Eric replied, trying desperately to remain calm. “I’m sure if we check the record, you won’t find any Grayson problems until the day your sister arrived. I think this goes to show the problem…”
“How dare you suggest that my sister is the cause of the havoc your family brings into this school? She doesn’t have anything to do with this!”
“Really? Let me understand you, then. It is your belief that the damage done here wasn’t caused by anything Wendell might have done, but simply because the Graysons are allowed to stay at the school?”
“Circuitously or directly… the Graysons are the largest part of disorder on the grounds today.” Dunning’s response showed an accumulating anger that was quickly building.
“And you believe it best for the school if the Graysons were sent home?”
“Absolutely!” Dunning spat angrily. He didn’t notice the stunned gasp from the crowd or Nancy Dodimayer’s recoiled frown. Eric’s expression remained flat.
“And what of my brother, Damon Grayson? Would you have him sent home?”
“WHY?” Dunning hollered in bewildered amazement, “Because the Graysons are known troublemakers. Every one of you should be as far away from this place as possible. Your family is…” he suddenly broke off, realizing that Eric had pressed him into revealing far too much about his personal feelings. In his seething rage, he had proven Eric’s point entirely.
Eric took a calming breath. “I believe, Captain, that my brother and I have never given this school pause to reprove us in any way, let alone subject us to any disciplinary action. Speaking of my brother,” Eric continued, leaning over to place a hand on Damon’s shoulder next to him, “Damon has never broken a school rule, nor has he ever done anything to bring down the standards this Academy expects from all of its residents. I hope my brother will forgive my boldness on his behalf, but he’s one of this school’s top academics this year, and has distinguished himself in sufficient sum to be honored and posted as a Knight. Yet, for some strange reason, you would see him leave.” Eric sighed, shaking his head remorsefully. “It is obvious there are issues here that need our full attention. Again, I would suggest we remove ourselves from this case and challenge our resolve to own the problems between us in a more private forum.”
Dunning hated nearly everything about the Graysons, but most of all… he hated this, what he called the Grayson high speech; the voice they adopted in public gatherings. Through their father’s tutorage, all of the Graysons were trained to forever shine with a high degree of conviction when speaking in public about their family. Whether the quality of their words was meant to be an instrument for protecting their so-called family honor or to project an arrogant sense of aristocracy didn’t matter to the captain; he hated it either way, and could barely contain his personal loathing at hearing Eric’s speech.
“You prop yourself far too high, Grayson,” Dunning grumbled back. “As Captain of the Crimson Guard, I wouldn’t waste my time conversing and debating with one who hasn’t lived long enough to understand how a person’s actions reflect his true nature. We are not the great unwashed you attempt to patronize here. We who are wise enough to have lived and survived on our wits in the real Wizarding world are not impressed with your brand of narcissism.”
There was a long pause as the two men stared fixedly at each other. While many in the court could barely understand everything being said, the knife-fight in their eyes served as interpreter enough. There was a level of hate here that few had ever recognized.
Eric’s response was carefully controlled. “I can respect your position, my dear Captain,” he said mournfully, “and I apologize for rising above my station in representing my family in council with you.” Eric’s repentant response seemed to take Dunning back. “Fortunately, the opportunity to lay aside our differences is still available to us. I only ask that you allow me to work with your office to find an appropriate time tomorrow where I will be better prepared to offer you a more suitable representative of my family’s interests in this matter.”
Dunning cocked his head in a tired, almost bemused way. “And who would you have calling upon me to embody your family’s views?” he said, in a bored tone.
Eric smiled. “I believe my father… would be more than happy to oblige you, Captain.”
Dunning’s eyes suddenly widened. “Your father? Your father will be here… tomorrow?” The abrupt change in Dunning’s tone made Tencha and Dowla grin eagerly. Even Nancy Dodimayer found something amusing in the captain’s surprised response.
“That is correct, Captain. I received an owl from California just this afternoon. As you can imagine, my father is very concerned about Anna’s injuries,” Eric replied worriedly. “He will arrive at noon tomorrow with the Grayson family healer.” He straightened. “I hope this meets well with your request for a more… seasoned Grayson representative.” Eric’s rather genteel smile suddenly turned cold as he leaned forward on the railing in front of him. “And I can assure you, Captain Dunning, my father will not patronize you in the least.”
Dunning’s worried look suddenly went rigid. “Fine. That will do, Grayson. Check with my office for an appropriate time, then,” the captain replied, and then sat down. Eric gave a slight but respectable bow toward Dunning, and then a quick wink to Gwen sitting in the gallery. There was another pause while the rest of the court tried to reclaim the business at hand.
“Mr. Wendell, are you ready to receive this court’s verdict?” called Dodimayer. Michael startled at hearing his name again. He turned to face the bench and straightened his robes.
“I am, Madam President,” he replied confidently.
The Student President turned to face the Union Knights around her. “I now ask my fellow Knights if the debate we’ve heard this morning changes your views already given to me.” Nancy looked at each and every Knight around the bench. One by one, they all shook their heads and then stood. Dodimayer and Captain Dunning also stood.
“Very well. Michael Wendell, this court finds you guilty of malicious intent and your actions directly responsible for a fellow student’s injury.”
“WHAT…?” Wendell yelped, “You can’t be serious?”
“The court before you is in full agreement,” Nancy replied.
“But that’s not fair; she drew first blood!”
“Even if Anna Grayson’s actions were somehow deliberate, Michael, she was bleeding from your whip before she struck back, and you could have killed her in your response. The only real debate we had was in the matter of your proper punishment. You should know some standing in judgment before you wanted the harshest penalty possible. But in the end, I think what we’ve finally decided is fair and equitable to all.” The crowd in the court drew a deep breath.
“The court has decided to defer your punishment to the Vollucross Steward of Castlewood. The Steward will be given full authority over the final wording in your case, and she will be allowed to offer whatever punishment she feels appropriate and within her power to bestow.” The crowd let out a gasp as everybody’s eyes immediately turned to Doctor Pearl.
“What?” Wendell blurted out. “But Pearl has testified against me in this case, and now you’re going to let her sentence me? This is — outrageous!”
Dodimayer scowled down at Wendell. “Doctor Margaret Pearl’s wisdom and discrimination, sir, are trusted and beyond reproach in this courtroom. Regardless of her feelings about the events leading up to your standing before us today, the court was unanimous in its decision to allow her to decide your fate.” With these words, Doctor Pearl reluctantly stood up and walked down the gallery steps to the front podium.
“This is absurd!” Wendell snapped.
“We are unanimous, Mr. Wendell!” Nancy retorted.
“Shut up, Michael,” Dunning said dully. “You had your chance to speak and argue your point. While we might forever debate the circumstances leading up to what happened, Doctor Pearl is a fair person. Trust me… you’re getting off easy.” Wendell looked shocked. He glared at Pearl angrily and then hopefully. Pearl stood at the podium and took a deep breath. She seemed very ill at ease with the power just given to her.
“I appreciate the court’s trust in my ability to exorcize my feelings in this case. But, in all honesty, I’m not sure this is wise. You… perhaps… give me more credit than I merit. I say this because I cannot set aside the belief that Michael’s actions represent everything the sport of Vollucross is not. It’s not about winning at any cost. It’s not about showing off a rider’s talent or the beautiful creatures we fly. It’s not about the cheering crowds or the newspapers, or the odds-makers, or even the Chancellor’s Cup. It’s about tradition, fair play, and most important of all… it’s about honor.” Pearl’s eyes locked onto Wendell. “What you did out there was absolutely shameful… despicable!”
“Doctor… please…” Wendell started to argue, but Pearl raised her hand to stop him.
“I’ve heard all your excuses before, Michael, and year after year I’ve given you far too many chances to show me you’ve changed your ways. My opinion is not only based on what you did the other day, but what you’ve been doing since the day I first let you in a saddle. In truth, I’m just as much at fault for what happened on opening day as you, because I let you fly. I put you up there. I trusted you!”
Pearl paused and then looked up at Dodimayer. “I can see what the court is doing here… and I suppose I should applaud your ingenuity.” Wendell glanced up at the bench with a look of worried confusion. “Don’t you see, Michael?” said Pearl, motioning toward the judge. “They couldn’t agree on your punishment. So they left it to me to decide, knowing full well I don’t have the authority to expel or even suspend you for what you’ve done.” Pearl’s expression then turned angry. “And trust me; if it were in my power to do so, I would see you leaving Castlewood today!” Her words hit the boy like a blow delivered with the back of her hand. Michael staggered a bit, looking truly hurt. “As it is, I can only do what I will do, the only thing left within my privilege.”
She paused again and took another deep breath. “Michael, as the Vollucross Steward of Castlewood Academy, I have it within my power to ban you from our noble sport, and that’s what I fully intend to do.” The crowd gasped.
“What?” yelled Michael, “No… please… don’t! Doctor Pearl, I beg you. You can’t…”
“Mr. Wendell, I do hereby ban you from the sport of Vollucross… forever!”
“This means you will not be allowed to participate in our noble sport.”
“You will not be allowed to approach another mount in the care of any magical school.”
“You will not be allowed to enter the stadium ever again, or watch another match. While you are here at Castlewood, you will serve detention under guard alone in your room if ever there is a match in progress. If any other Vollucross rider is caught discussing the sport with you, they themselves will be subject to the same ban. If any inquiries come to me about why this ban was placed upon you, I will personally tell them of your dishonor and disgrace. Do you understand what I’m telling you, Mister Wendell?”
Michael looked up at Doctor Pearl with tears welling in his eyes. “No… contact…?”
“BANNED!” Pearl shouted, smashing a clinched fist onto the podium. Even Captain Dunning flinched. “You tried, with malice in your heart, to kill another rider! I know some here might disagree and think my conclusions too simple, but I believe this truth with everything that I am.”
“B… banned…” the boy whimpered. He stumbled back, finding his chair pressing against the back of his legs. He slowly sat down as Doctor Pearl turned again to the court.
“As I said before, the sport of Vollucross is more than what you see outside. As I tell my riders before each and every race, it is the embodiment of the traditions we hold most dear. Honor, respect for life and magic, and the principles that have been entrusted to us throughout our history. As Steward, I have sworn an oath to keep our noble sport above any individual who might seek to tear these standards down.” She looked at Wendell again. “I am truly sorry, Michael. Not for the sentence I’ve placed upon you, but because I believe your actions have put your immortal soul in jeopardy. I can only hope that you will take the time to think about what you’ve done, and honestly ask yourself if you had Anna Grayson’s safety first in your mind as you lowered your wand upon her. I believe you still have much to answer for, to a much greater judge than those in this court today. I will pray for you.”
Wendell did not look up. He was slumped over his knees with his hands covering his head. Doctor Pearl rounded the podium, walked passed Wendell through the gates of the railing behind him, and then out the door.
“Let the record show… the sentence given…” Dodimayer said, somberly. “We’re finished here.”
One by one, the crowd slowly withdrew from the room until only Michael Wendell was left sitting in his chair. After a long while, he slowly rose to his feet. “Banned…” he whispered, in a long and disbelieving drone. He turned, stumbled slightly, pushed through the gates, and then out the oak doors into the hallway. The corridors were thankfully empty as he staggered almost drunkenly down the center of the stone passageway contemplating his fate. Then, from out of the shadows, a voice called out to him.
“Tough break, ay Michael?” Wendell looked up and saw a short figure stepping from out of the darkness. It was Debbie Dunning.
“What do you want?” Wendell answered gruffly.
Debbie shrugged. “Only to say, as a fellow Defender, how sorry I am and how unjust I thought your sentence was.”
“Really…? And why would you care?” he replied, turning to walk away. He took another three steps before Debbie spoke again.
“The Graysons can do pretty much whatever they please around here, knowing their daddy can always get them out of trouble.” Wendell froze, but did not turn around as Debbie whined, “It’s all been done before. You won’t be the last person to feel that family’s wrath when something displeases them.”
“Mind your own business, Debbie,” the boy said, still not turning to look at her.
“Fine… but tell me this, Michael. How did she look?”
Wendell spun around angrily. “How did who look?”
Debbie smiled and then stepped forward. “How did Anna Grayson look when she flew herself down to kick you in the face?”
Wendell looked puzzled. “I don’t understand… what are you talking about?”
“Oh — I think you do. You might have put the thought out of your mind. At the time… you might have even thought it was a trick of the light.” Debbie took another few steps toward him. “What did her face look like when she came down at you?” Wendell frowned.
“What do you mean?”
“Her face, idiot, did you see her face?”
Wendell thought about it and then realized what Debbie was saying. For a moment, Michael did remember thinking he had seen something terrible in Anna Grayson’s face just before she struck him during the race, and he almost remembered it again in the courtroom during his questioning. Was it anger he saw in her that day? Yes. Was it determination? Certainly. But there was something more. What was it?
Debbie’s eyes widened. She could see Wendell’s mind struggling to relive the moment. “What did you see?” Her words seemed to snap him out of a trance.
“Nothing… it was… nothing,” he said, resignedly. He turned again to leave.
“She’s not human, you know,” Debbie blurted out, and Wendell stopped once more. “I’ve seen that face myself, Michael. I’ve seen the fangs, the soulless, black eyes. You weren’t just imagining that when she kicked you in the face. She’s keeping a secret, that one, maybe even from her own family, and I intend to find out what it is. I mean to see her thrown out of this school.”
Wendell didn’t say anything. He was still trying to focus on the face he saw coming down at him from out of the sky. Did he really see what Debbie was describing?
“I could use your help, Michael. We could help each other. We both could pay Anna back for the pain she’s caused us. It would be so easy, you know.”
Wendell thought about the opportunity the girl was offering him, and then he sighed. Maybe it was Doctor Pearl’s words about his soul being in jeopardy that stopped him from falling further into Debbie’s maniacal embrace.
“Everything they say about you is true, Debbie,” he said flatly, without bothering to look back at her. He straightened, and then strode away. “I don’t need or want your help, Dunning. Just… stay away from me.”
Debbie scowled as she watched him leave. “Think about it… that’s all I’m saying,” she called out, before he turned the corner and was gone. “Coward!” she whispered angrily.
“I’ll be watching you, Grayson, and when I find out what you are… I’ll have you and the rest of your herd out of Castlewood for good!”
She turned and huffed away in the opposite direction. Only the flickering torches were left casting their dim glow across the stone passageway. And then another figure appeared from out of the shadows.
“You’s is not going to hurt my Anna,” said a tiny voice. “I is here to protect mys family, and Iz will be watching you too, missy,” Gabby said angrily, snapping her fingers with a sharp spark. She waddled after Dunning, staying close to the walls and in the shadows.
Anna’s eyes slowly flickered open. One would think after being unconscious for five days it would have taken her a while to remember where she was laying at that moment. She groaned. She immediately recognized the pictures of the horses on the other side of the wall. In the hospital again, she thought miserably, closing her eyes again. She stretched her legs and felt the residual pang of soreness in the muscles of her left leg. And then it all came back to her in an instant, the race, the fall, the forest floor, and the terrible pain. She tried to rise up, expecting another bolt of pain to stab her in the chest. It didn’t happen.
“Hey you…” came a gentle voice sitting next to her. It was her sister, Tencha. “How ya feeling?”
“I… don’t know,” Anna grumbled, trying to clear her throat. “Hospital again, huh?” she said, looking around again.
“Fraid so.” Tencha leaned over to place her hand on Anna’s forehead. “Pearl said she’s going to put a reserved sign on this bed for you.” Anna smiled and closed her eyes again.
“Wait til daddy gets the bill. He’s not going to be… happy… about this…” Anna said, groggily.
“I’ll be right back, okay?”
“Uhhh-huhhhh…” Anna groaned, before drifting off to sleep again.
“Anna? Can you hear me, sweetheart?” Anna jerked awake and looked up at several people standing above her. Somebody seated on the bed leaned forward. Anna squinted, forcing her vision to clear.
“Yes, honey, how do you feel?”
Anna closed her eyes again. “Tired…” she moaned drearily. Her eyes popped open again.
“Daddy!” she shouted, trying desperately to rise up.
“Whoa… whoa. Easy now… be careful.” Anna reached up frantically, grabbing at her father. They hugged each other.
“I’ve missed you so much…” she sobbed.
“Oh, I’ve missed you too, sweetheart. It’s so good to see you awake again.” He finally pushed her back onto her pillow. “How do you feel?”
“Okay, I guess… how long have I been sleeping?”
“Five days,” Eric reported, standing with the rest of the family on the other side of the bed. Doctor Nelland, their family healer, reached in to take Anna’s pulse.
“Five days!” Anna recoiled. “I’ve been sleeping for five days? How is that possible?”
“You were busted up pretty bad,” Tencha answered. “Doctor Pearl was beside herself trying to fix you up. I don’t think anybody’s ever seen her so concerned.”
“Vell, I am happy to say the doctor of Castlevood has had absolutely astonishing results,” said Nelland, who was inspecting Anna’s legs. “Doctor Pearl is von of the best I’ve ever met –– very, very good! Just look at Anna’s legs. You vood never know how badly damaged they were.”
“I’m going to be all right then, Doctor?” Anna asked, apprehensively.
Nelland covered Anna’s legs with the blanket and stood back. “I do not foresee any long term problems to be concerned vith. You vill have to use a cane for a vile, until the bones in your right leg strengthen a bit more, but I think you vill be fine.”
“And why not?” came a stout hearted voice somewhere behind them. Doctor Pearl was bustling over, carrying a tray of heavy flasks filled with a variety of colored liquids. “I am well read on the newest healing drafts and I have a very strong patient.” Pearl set the tray down with a rattled clink and then straightened to stare at Anna. “Well now… I see you’ve decided to rejoin the living again, Miss Grayson. Good! Glad to see it. You’ll need to take your drafts for me this morning.”
“Doctor Pearl, I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for Anna,” said Mister Grayson. “Doctor Nelland and I both agree… Anna’s recovery is nothing short of amazing.” Pearl smiled proudly.
“I should not have bothered making the trip,” Nelland said with a shrug.
“Thank you, Doctor,” Anna said, reaching out to grip Pearl’s hand. “I can’t believe I survived that fall.”
Pearl smiled sympathetically. “Now… don’t you think on it another minute, my dear. You’ll be up and flying again in no time. In fact, I’ll have to ask you to make your way down to the stables at your earliest convenience. I have another patient there who hasn’t come out of his state of invisibility since the accident. I’m afraid that mount of yours isn’t listening to my positive reports about your recovery.” The woman sighed. “He’s a stubborn fool, that one.” The doctor leaned down at her and grinned, “He’ll be so happy to see you again.” Anna smiled and nodded.
“How long will you be here, daddy?” Anna asked her father, hopefully.
“I’m afraid I’ll be catching the first ship back in the morning, now that I’m convinced you’re out of danger.”
“Oh… so soon? But… I only just woke up, and…”
“Doctor Pearl has assured us that you will be allowed to join the family for dinner tonight,” her father interrupted her, lovingly. “We’ll see you then, all right? Right now, I must see the Chancellor and thank him for his hospitality.”
“And you need you to finish your drafts,” Pearl added, sternly.
“But daddy — please — stay with me. I want to hear about home. How are Widwick, Cookie, and Mr. and Mrs. Porchdow? What’s been happening at the Ministry? What’s going on with the…?”
“Later…” he interrupted. “We can catch up after you’ve rested. Besides…” he leaned in, narrowing his eyes to peek over in Pearl’s direction, “I have learned not to get in Doctor Pearl’s way over these last two days.” He kissed her forehead and straightened. “I’ll see you tonight.” Anna looked to protest.
“Not another word, young lady,” Pearl demanded. “You need your drafts, and you’re already two and a half minutes late in taking them. Everybody –– out!”
“You see what I mean?” Mister Grayson said jokingly. He turned to Pearl. “Thank you again, Margaret, for everything you’ve done. And please, think about my offer to join us sometime during the Christmas holiday at the estate. It’ll give me an opportunity to thank you properly.”
“It would be my pleasure, Mister Gray…” he frowned, cocking his head reprovingly at her, “I mean… Boris,” she finished, shaking his hand. She looked at Doctor Nelland and smiled. “Maybe we can pry some of that rare vintage out of his cellar again?”
“In your honor, Madam,” Mister Grayson replied, kissing her on the hand. The doctor blushed.
The family filed off the hospital floor as Anna settled back in the bed and reluctantly coughed down Pearl’s smoking concoctions.
That evening was a joyous celebration. The entire Grayson family was together again for the first time in three months and they certainly were making the most of it. Mister Grayson had made prior arrangements for Sarah Bell and the rest of the Castlewood Guardians to join them for an exceptional feast. There were three new Guardians present at the table that Anna had never met before, and she was told they had been announced to the school in the days following the Vollucross race. Mister Grayson was very happy with Eric and Anna’s progress in gathering so many new Guardian recruits, and the discussions throughout the evening were dominated by their future role in the Wizarding world.
Anna’s father was incredibly informative to the group, thanks in part to his on-going research on the Guardians at home. By the end of the evening, everybody came to understand what the Guardians would be doing in protecting the elements of magic were far more important than just some noble cause. They began to see themselves as part of something continual and yet vitally important in its timing. These feelings were reinforced further when Mister Grayson suggested the Guardians’ arrival in this period in Wizard history was not a random occurrence.
“Let me ask you all a question,” Mister Grayson said to the group. He was wearing very formal robes of black trimmed with white satin. “Why do you think the Mirror of Enlightenment selected you to be Guardians?” He looked around at the faces staring back at him. Nobody seemed willing to volunteer an answer. Mister Grayson prodded them further. “Obviously, you must have thought there was something special about what you saw in the Guardians to decide to try.”
“For me…” a fifth-year girl finally answered at the far end of the table, “it felt like something was missing in my old union.”
“Now that sounds interesting,” replied Mister Grayson straightening in his chair. “Did any of the rest of you feel that way?” Nearly all of the students raised their hands.
“It was only after I went to one of Eric’s presentations that I started to see what the Guardians were doing made sense to me,” added a third-year student next to the first. “The strange thing is — I wasn’t surprised at all when I was selected to join them. It was almost like I expected it before I scheduled my appointment to reenter the mirror.”
“Yeah… me too,” said another boy. “In fact, I was so confident I would be a Guardian that I packed all my stuff before leaving to go to the mirror. It was like I knew beyond any doubt it was going to happen.”
Mister Grayson thought for a moment. “I’d like to ask you another question? How did you all feel about the Triwizard Tournament?” The abrupt detour of his question seemed to surprise everybody at the table. There was a long pause of silence before somebody finally spoke.
“I thought it was terrible!” said one of the first-year Guardians.
“Terrible? What are you talking about?” said Damon impertinently. The young girl didn’t back away from her opinion. In fact, she almost seemed to be waiting for the opportunity to say something about the subject.
“I mean — I thought it was abusive.”
Damon frowned. “What? Abusive… how?”
Suddenly, the girl seemed to explode forward in unexpected anger. “The way they treated the dragons was disgraceful. They took nesting mothers away from their home, and hexed them for travel to England… and for what? To amuse us? I thought it was disgusting.” Damon rolled his eyes as he looked back at his father. Anna and Eric looked at each other and smiled.
“I felt the same way,” said another student, and several others nodded their agreement.
“How many here felt what the Ministry was doing with the dragons was in some way wrong or inappropriate?” asked Mister Grayson. All of the Guardians raised their hands, and so did Sarah Bell.
“You’re kidding?” said Tencha, looking over at Dowla in surprise. Her sister shook her head and then shrugged.
“Daddy — did you feel the use of the dragons was wrong?” Dowla asked.
Mister Grayson leaned back in his chair to think. “Not necessarily. Oh… I’ll admit, I think I remember feeling somewhat uncomfortable when I read about the loss of some of the eggs, but honestly, I don’t think I’ve given it another thought since then.”
“I haven’t thought of anything else for the last five days,” said a sixth-year girl. “It was shameful, and completely unnecessary to use those wonderful beasts the way they did.”
“Wonderful beasts? Wait a minute,” said Tencha, incredulously. “We’re not talking about fluffy-little puppy dogs here, you know. We’re talking about very big and vicious animals.”
“So, frankly, I wouldn’t mind seeing them gone altogether,” Damon said, finishing Tencha’s thought for her.
“What?” Anna snapped. “What are you saying? That just because these creatures scare you, they should be destroyed?”
“Something like that,” Damon replied with a shrug. “Yeah… why not?” There was the roar of dismay around the table directed at Damon. Watching the group’s reaction, Anna couldn’t help feeling a twinge of satisfaction.
“Forgive my brother,” she said, scowling back at Damon, “he’s a barbarian.” Damon smiled and then lifted his cup in a mocking toast back to her.
“Interesting…” repeated Mister Grayson. “Very interesting.”
“What’s interesting, father?” asked Eric.
“Well, it would seem many of you already had some very strong feelings about protecting magical creatures long before you ever heard of the Guardians. Tell me, how would you feel if I told you I wanted to tear down this Rotunda for the sake of building something… say… bigger, grander perhaps?”
“I’d say, great…” answered Damon, now callously trying to get a rise out of the group. “The bigger the better. Progress is a good thing, right? Maybe we should expand the Union Halls while we’re at it and get more foreign students to come over from Europe.”
“And I’d say, no,” Eric replied ardently. “This is a special place of great historical and magical significance. If we need more room, there’s plenty of unused land out on the plateau to expand. Tearing this building down doesn’t make any sense.”
“Here-here,” agreed several others around the table.
“And what if I wanted to take the Mirror of Enlightenment with me when I left to go home tomorrow? Would you have a problem with that?” asked Mister Grayson.
“What in the world would you do with it?” asked another student in surprise.
“Oh… I don’t know. I could use a bigger mirror in my bathroom when I shave in the morning. I might somehow find many ways to modify it to suit my personal needs.”
“Then I’d say, no!” answered another Guardian unequivocally.
“No? And why not? Are we not wizards? Can we not undo what we ourselves have done? We made the mirror, didn’t we? Can’t we change it to suit our changing purposes?” Mister Grayson asked them challengingly. There seemed to be a buzzing storm building around the table with each word he was saying. Damon, Tencha, and Dowla sat astonished and confused by the group’s reaction. They couldn’t understand why this collection of students was roiled by their father’s harmless suggestions.
Anna sat quietly, listening intently to the conversation. Although she could have been the most vocal against what her father was saying, she knew him well enough to keep silent. Every once in a while, she would catch him glancing her way, suggesting a stronger point was soon coming. If she understood him correctly, he was trying to make an impression on the group and it wouldn’t be long before he revealed the true purpose of the debate.
Finally, after suggesting the Wizarding world might be better off without most of the magical objects known to them, Mister Grayson leaned back to witness an angry roar of rebuke by the entire group. Everybody at the table was getting upset. Talking at once, each seemed to be building on the emotions of those around them. Even Eric seemed shocked by his father’s words. Anna watched the group’s reaction in utter amazement and then sought to end the chaos. When the group took its collective breath, she finally spoke.
“Daddy… what are you doing?” Her father looked at her and slowly smiled.
“What do you mean, sweetheart?” he replied casually, a relaxed look of innocence breaking free on his face. He took a sip of his tea and leaned back in his chair. His eyes seemed to sparkle with contentment.
“You don’t really believe all of this stuff. What are you trying to tell us?”
Mister Grayson chuckled, and then looked at the group around him. “My apologies… for ah… turning what was supposed to be a relaxing evening into a brawl. I hope you understand I was only trying to test your resolve and… a theory.”
“A theory? What do you mean, Mister Grayson?” asked one of the students. Anna’s father surveyed them wonderingly, suggesting both amazement and satisfaction that something he had suspected was indeed true.
“Don’t you find it interesting that you all share the same side in this debate?” They looked at him with varying levels of confusion. “You know, I’ve asked the same kind of questions of several test groups before coming here to Castlewood. None of them have come close to the reaction I’ve seen in you tonight.” He stared at them, waiting for a response.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying, daddy,” Anna replied. She looked at Eric who was smiling at their father.
Mister Grayson turned to her. “The chances of a random group holding to such similar and some would say extreme beliefs is far too great to call it a coincidence. You are of a singular mind on many things. You felt it was wrong to use the dragons in the manner in which the Ministries did during the tournament. You all fought me on the idea of changing this magical place, and modifying or doing away with some of its magical objects. My other children didn’t wholly agree with your stand on these subjects,” he said, motioning to the twins and to Damon.
“Hey, I didn’t say I agreed with Damon about tearing down the Rotunda,” Tencha answered coolly. “I just didn’t think it was a big deal to use the dragons in the tournament.”
“Neither did I,” replied Mister Grayson with a shrug.
“What are they so concerned about?” asked Tencha, motioning to the group around the table. “I don’t get it.”
“Exactly! And that’s my point. We’re not supposed to get it, because we’re not Guardians.” Mister Grayson took another sip of tea. “Look… you all have so much in common in your feelings about how the things of magic are used and sometimes abused. I believe the mirror picked you to be Guardians because you already had a conservative nature on such things. The mirror didn’t change you when it chose you. It chose you because of who you already were. And if you think about it, this distinction is very important in understanding and defining your mission when you leave this school. You should think seriously about your role in this mission because… frankly… I believe there is great danger here.”
“Danger? What you mean, Mister Grayson?” Sarah pressed him. She suddenly looked worried.
Anna’s father glanced around the table in a manner that unexpectedly made him look fearful. He sat his cup down and folded his arms. “Who here believes your answers to my absurd suggestions would have changed depending on who asked the questions?” Nobody raised a hand. “What if the Minister of Magic told you she wanted to cage every dragon known to the Wizardry world? Would you have said yes to such an idea, just because it was the Minister of Magic who suggested it?” Again, the group remained silent. “I didn’t think so. And I doubt you would allow any Wizard, regardless of who it might be, to tear any part of this castle down.”
His eyes darkened. “And that’s what I want you to understand, because that’s going to be a problem for you. It’s not going to matter who it is that tries to do these things, whether you might describe them as good or evil, saints or demons, chancellors or dark wizards. All are going to feel your protest for the sake of magic. Like the sword between those two dragons we see on your Guardian crest, you could find yourself between everybody in this cause.” There was a long pause, as many of the students looked around the table at each another.
“I never thought of it that way,” said a young girl sitting next to Anna.
“Let me read to you something I found in my research,” Mister Grayson continued. “I think this summarizes some of the concerns I have for you. It’s from one of several old Ministry sources I’ve come to depend on in my study of the Guardians.” He opened a piece of folded parchment and began to read the hand written scrawl printed on it.
1. Thus, in the darkest days,
The evil sorcerer Honszoil stood unmoved,
And the forces of good and evil didst fight
In mortal combat each with the other.
2. Death and destruction held rule
O’re all the lands of the world Wizard,
And all, calling unto itself magic,
Was in greatest peril true.
3. An observer to many battles, where wood and field
The innocent creations of magic contained,
The Guardians stood watch,
Sentinels to protection’s cause.
4. Tears streaming from moving eyes,
The Guardians watched in horror
Their fathers and brothers slain;
By thickest red waters, mothers cry
Their echoed lament o’re the ground,
Where the blood of their fruit lay gathered.
5. For their sister’s sake, the Guardians didst weep bitterly,
But still they would not act.
They, of strongest will, stir nothing in opposition
To the evil joined with and against their kin,
Leaving unguarded and forsaken the things of magic naught.
6. Fewest sentinels didst feel the power of Honszoil,
Like a sceptered herald’s call, to join him on yonder blazed hill
And share in conquest’s glory.
Some willed to go, to share in evil’s victory, but still
They stood unmoved for the sake of the elements invisible.
7. Many ere the battles the Guardians didst fight,
And many in purple slain.
But where banners of black clashed with white,
Between two dragons the order and sword of magic set.
8. Where two armies didst collide,
The Guardians made three,
And there the protectors of magic would die battling both sides,
Brother against brother, father against daughter,
Their blood and seed destroyed, all to salvage
Some part of color amidst the savage chaos.
9. And there I, their repentant leader stood,
Praying mercy’s pardon for our inaction
In the greatest times of need, for killing to save,
And leading these brave and outnumbered souls
Unto the jaws of death against evil and their kin alike.
10. See, Father, what terrible wrongs men do
For the sake of greed, and in the name of justice?
Surely, into the pit for evil’s part their souls are cast,
But what of the Guardians?
11. Those who kill to protect that which was created
But by thine own same loving hands?
What will be their fate for watching
Their brothers die in agony without temper to help,
But by the sword to end their cruel suffering?
12. And what of their leader?
He who is mindful of the Creator’s gaze
Through his Ghost sent?
What punishment the soul who perverts the nature
Of a man’s being to protect his own awaits?
13. If be there a pit below the lake of fire,
I fear but one net to enter below its never-quenched flames,
Where even the fetid demons dread,
In whose punishment turn Satan himself to vomit.
14. Whereon no foot may light upon the threshold
To such a place for none but God to see,
Locked with the bolts of ageless eternity,
Where tortured screams awaken the foulest beasts
In hell above their slumber.
15. And what name shall be etched above this door, but my own?
There, my name Merlin will be.
Mister Grayson finished the poem, carefully folded the parchment, and placed it in the pocket of his robes. He then looked up at the group, his lips struggling to form a smile.
“My God…” Anna said, shaking her head. “Brother against brother; father’s fighting their daughters?” She looked at Eric and her father seated next to each other. “Is it all worth it?”
Mister Grayson took a deep breath. “I’m afraid that’s what each and every one of you will have to ask yourselves. I wish I could sit here tonight and tell you the writings of Merlin were from different time, far removed from where we are today, but I can’t help wondering why magic has brought the Guardians to us again now. I fear darker days are on the horizon. I don’t mean to frighten you, but to simply warn you, and put your mind in the proper place for the sake of clear reflection. The fact is, it might seem exciting and even romantic to start a new Union, but you must be mindful of what it all means. You must consider the worst case scenario.”
Mister Grayson had given them all a lot to think about that evening, and as they made their way upstairs to their beds, the Guardians were quiet, locked away with their own worried thoughts. Even Gwen, who never missed an opportunity to tell everyone how strange it was to enter the Server Hall after being an Artisan for so long, was quiet as they made their way to the fourth floor. She was now sharing a room with TJ Wangstaff across the hall from Anna and Sarah, which made for late evenings and less homework, but it was nice having Anna’s best friend so close.
“Is your leg still bothering you?” Sarah asked Anna, watching her struggle up the stairs on her cane.
“Oh… just a bit. Doctor Pearl said the stiffness should go away in a couple of weeks.” She was grateful to finally reach the fourth floor.
“That was some discussion we had with your father tonight, don’t you think?” asked Gwen, who was waiting for them between the doors of their rooms. “Strange how all the Guardians were almost of one mind on those questions… really weird.”
“Oh… I don’t know,” Anna shrugged. “Sarah agrees with us and she’s not a Guardian yet.”
Gwen smiled and looked at Sarah. “That’s right; but maybe we should put that to the test. Maybe it’s time Sarah walked through the Mirror of Enlightenment again? Who knows… you might be the newest Guardian in waiting.”
Sarah looked at Gwen in surprise and then slowly back to Anna. “I ah…” she stammered nervously. It was obvious the thought of walking through the mirror once again was frightening to her. Anna was quick to come to her rescue.
“When you’re ready, Sarah. All in good time, ay?” she said, patting her friend on the shoulder. She turned to enter their room.
“I … already did,” Sarah said shyly, avoiding Anna’s stunned expression for three full heartbeats before looking up.
“What? You walked through the mirror again… and you didn’t tell me?” Anna said, in shocked surprise. “When did you do that?”
“A couple of days ago… I’m sorry, Anna. The mirror said I was still a Server.” The little girl looked at Anna mournfully.
“Oh… well… that’s… that’s okay,” Anna said, trying hard to avoid showing her disappointment. She always thought Sarah was her ace in the whole, a sure bet to be a Guardian if she could just summon enough courage to reenter the mirror again. Sarah’s thoughts and opinions aligned so well with her own that Anna was sure it would just be a matter of time before she changed Unions. She forced herself to smile at her roommate.
“Listen… after everything we heard tonight… I’m not so sure wearing purple is a good idea for anybody.” She opened the door to their room and Sarah reluctantly stepped inside. Anna looked back at Gwen with a sorrowful grimace and shrugged. She looked up at the clock above their door.
[Guardians needed to sustain the Union:]
Barely half way there, Anna thought to herself. Suddenly, getting to fifty Guardians seemed much more difficult than ever before. She followed Sarah into their room and closed the door.
The next day, Mister Grayson was saying goodbye again to his family on the dock next to the Allegheny Pride.
“At least it’ll only be three weeks this time,” he said, hugging each of his children in turn.
“We’ll be home before you know it, father,” Eric replied, longingly.
“Considering I miss you already, I seriously doubt that.” Their father smiled at them. “Remember what I told you before you left home: With my trust comes the responsibility to honor yourselves and your family. Good luck, work hard, and return safe. I’ll see you in three weeks. I love you,” he said somberly, gathering them once more in his outstretched arms. The family hugged each other as one before their father turned to leave.
“Take care of them for me, Gabby,” Mister Grayson hollered as he lifted his robes and walked up the gangway. The Grayson house elf scampered forward.
“Ohs — yes, sir. Iz will, sir,” the elf said, determinedly.
“Oh… and Eric, please pass on my apologies to Captain Dunning. Tell him I’m sorry his schedule wouldn’t allow for our meeting together. Perhaps on my next visit…”
“I’ll tell him, father,” Eric replied, with a note of cynicism in his voice. The twins started to snicker between themselves.
“Daddy and Captain Dunning were supposed to have a meeting?” Anna said, grabbing her brother’s arm. “What about?”
Eric smiled. “The good Captain thought it important to speak to our father about the disruptive behavior of the Grayson children at the school.” Anna’s mouth dropped.
“Yeah — but for some reason, Dunning couldn’t find the time to meet with daddy in the three days that he was here,” Tencha explained, grinning wickedly.
“The man’s a coward!” Damon retorted.
“Dunning wanted to talk to daddy?” Anna repeated, disbelievingly.
Dowla recognized Anna’s worried look and then grinned. “Yep — and it’s all your fault — all because you deliberately tried to kill Michael Wendell during the race.”
The rest of the children laughed and waved to their father as his ship sailed out of sight.
As Eric had predicted, the next three weeks went by quickly at Castlewood. The anxiety of the end of term finals were upon them so swiftly that most had totally forgotten they would soon be sailing home for Christmas.
But as the students worked through their remaining classes, the atmosphere at the castle slowly started to change. The voices in the corridors were a lot louder and filled with much more laughter than usual, and soon the hallways were decorated with garland and enchantments of every sort, celebrating the joy of the season. Of all the teachers, Professor Titan was the most exuberant in his application of holiday cheer. He was seen decorating nearly everything within the castle that didn’t move and even some of the things that did, including the demon-like gargoyles near the Rotunda. The winged creatures screeched in protest as Titan wrapped them in gold and red-satin trim.
“Oh… simmer down,” Titan scolded them, as he set Christmas candles in their claws, “it’s only once a year!”
The student’s nervousness soon turned to relieved excitement as the last day of testing finally arrived. All, that is, except for Sarah Bell. For a time, Sarah was convinced she would be staying behind at Castlewood over Christmas, that her family wouldn’t want her to return home. Anna even considered sending an owl to her father, asking for permission to invite Sarah to the Grayson Manor over the holiday. But all of that fell away on the last day of the term.
As Anna and Sarah were leaving Titan’s class, a massive eagle owl suddenly appeared, zooming up the corridors toward them. Several of the students yelped and had to duck below the owl’s outstretched wings, which seemed to fill the entire hallway. Anna smiled amusingly at the approaching bird and raised a forearm hoping to get a closer look. To her surprise, the owl abruptly tilted back and flapped down upon her wrist. Anna beamed with delight.
“Wow… he’s a lot heavier than he looks,” she said, untying the small envelope from his foot.
“No owl deliveries in the corridors, Grayson,” warned a Laborer Knight from the other side of the hall.
“Sorry…” Anna replied, looking at the letter. “It’s for Sarah Bell,” she said, frowning. “It says, Chancellor Post?”
The Knight looked skeptical as she walked over to them. “Let me see that,” she said, curtly. She took the envelope and studied it closely, her eyebrows rising in surprise. “Wow… only the most important dispatches are allowed to carry that post mark. It means the Chancellor has given special permission to have it delivered directly to you inside the school. I hope it isn’t bad news,” she said, handing the letter to Sarah.
Sarah took the envelope and looked at her roommate. “Open it…” Anna said, excitedly. Sarah did, and began to read through the handwritten pages. Moments later, Anna could see tears spilling down her friend’s cheeks as she turned the final page over to read the back. Finally, she looked up at Anna and smiled.
“I’m… going home… home for Christmas,” she said disbelievingly.
“That’s great! Is… everything all right?” Sarah wiped her eyes and nodded happily. Anna hugged her, and was surprised when Sarah placed the letter in her hand to read.
I hope this letter reaches you. A huge owl showed up at our house this morning, carrying a letter from your Chancellor. It was nice of Professor Thordarson to take the time to send us a message about you. He told your mother and me how well you’ve been doing at school this year, and wanted to invite us to visit you since he thought you might be staying in Pennsylvania over the holiday.
Thordarson’s letter described your life there and how you’ve managed to find so many new friends. He said he was proud of the way you were able to travel to school on your own, and find your way so well since your arrival. His letter reminded me of the little girl I once knew before all of these changes began to happen in our lives. It made me realize how much I truly miss you and how stupid I’ve been in sending you away. The Chancellor has taken the time to fully explain your gifts to us, and how there might be a simple way to keep you from vocalizing your dreams while you sleep. It seems everything can be managed in a way that makes you and the family comfortable.
Sarah, I can’t really explain why I reacted the way I did after what happened. It was probably fear of my own mortality that drove me to push you away. I am truly sorry now for hurting you the way I did, and can only hope that you will forgive me. I’ve told the Chancellor that your mother and I won’t be coming to Castlewood, because we were hoping that you will decide to come home to be with your family over Christmas. I hope you’ll think about it, because your mother and I miss you dearly. Please come home to us. I need to see my lovely baby-girl again.
Anna handed the pages back with tears in her eyes. “That’s a beautiful letter,” she said to Sarah with a smile. Her roommate sniffed and nodded, placing the envelope lovingly inside the cover of one of her books.
“Is everything all right, Miss Bell?” asked the Laborer Knight who was watching her.
Sarah wiped her eyes and looked up. “Everything is wonderful,” she said happily. “I’m going home for Christmas.”
Soon, the weather on the plateau turned cold and windy. It howled like wolves around every corner of the castle, and the windows shook from the ebbing pressure outside. The days were gray and brisk as lakes of formless clouds passed indistinguishable in the skies overhead. Everything in the forest seemed to be bracing itself for winter’s touch, and soon the talk of snow was in the air.
Anna had never experienced a white Christmas, and she longed to see the snow before leaving Castlewood. Her Southern California home was known for its warm beaches and beautiful weather, and although she yearned to return to her father, the images of a traditional white Christmas were always prayerfully on her mind. Sure enough, on the day before their departure, the Pennsylvania Mountains surrounding Spellsburg were covered in thick blankets of white and carolers everywhere were gathering in song.
As if by appointment, Anna met her brothers and sisters outside, and soon Gwen, TJ, and Sarah Bell were taking part in Anna’s first snowball fight. Once Sarah had shown her the correct method for packing and perfect ball, Anna was wickedly hurling snow at nearly anybody who moved.
The yelling and laughter lasted all afternoon as several friends who came to join the fun were quickly chased out of sight with pelting waves of snow. The flow of the battle gave its attention to each of the Graysons in turn, as alliances were made and quickly broken, depending on whom they thought looked too dry. Anna was ruthless in her approach, not realizing until it was too late that such battles didn’t end until all had received their fair share in retaliation. She finally learned this lesson when the words, “Get Anna!” finally rang out over the plateau, and she was rudely chased down, pummeled with snowballs, and buried outside the city gates. It was more fun than Anna could have ever imagined. Soon they were staggering back, cold and soggy toward the drawbridge, and looking forward to steaming mugs of hot chocolate. They stopped only to watch the grindylows in the moat, who were glaring hungrily up at them through the ice, and the rest of the evening was spent sitting by the tower fires reliving the afternoon’s fun.
The next day, their trunks were packed and magically moved down to the ship waiting to take them home. Anna was late in arriving on the dock due to her insistence that she stop at the stables to check on Swooper one last time. It had taken her a full week to convince him to come out of his depressed state of invisibility again. After insuring he understood she would return after the Christmas break, Anna finally headed down the tram and boarded the ship.
In short order, the students were sailing through Neptune’s Veil aboard the Allegheny Pride and looking forward to the fleet of little boats that would finally take them home. Three hours later, the cold weather had given way to tropical sunshine and colored birds, and soon the Graysons were leaving Loon’s Lagoon aboard the BB-5 with Reye at the helm. Anna was wearing the mate’s hat and running about the boat to the Captain’s shouted orders.
“Look alive there, Miss Grayson. Stow that gear properly, or you’ll find your bloomers full of wet before they see the next port!”
“Aye, Captain,” Anna laughed. Eric smiled as he watched his sister hustling about the boat, seeing to the details for keeping them under way.
Before long, they were entering the marina and unloading their trunks for the drive home. Leaning on each other, the twins were holding their churning stomachs while Damon whined rudely that he would never again get on a boat captained by Reye. Gabby, who was unable to swim, had disappeared during the trip, but was soon found hiding below deck and praying for dry land.
Anna hugged Reye. “Take care, Captain. We’ll see you in two weeks,” she said, giving his hat back to him.
“Ahh… and you’ll be a fine sight for these tired eyes to see, Anna,” the old man said, leaning in to give her a kiss on the cheek. Whispering into her ear, he said, “And make sure yer daddy doesn’t forget about his old pal on the leg out, ay?”
Anna laughed. “I’ll be sure to remind him to send what keeps the Captain’s heart warm, sir,” she said with a giggle. The man smiled as he watched her turn and head toward the waiting cars.
“Merry Christmas!” he bellowed at them happily. “Ah… there ain’t no finer mate in any man’s Navy,” he whispered to himself as he watched Anna leave, “none finer anywhere.”
The drivers helped the Graysons load their trunks into the cars and before long they were heading off. An hour later, the cars were pulling into the iron gates of the Grayson estate. Anna looked out the window at the galloping ornaments and smiled. She was finally home.