Anna Grayson and The Order of Merlin

The Jungles of the World Speak

As Anna entered the Server Hall, she was praying nobody would notice her. She wasn’t in the mood for happy conversation right now. She walked quickly with her head down, avoiding eye contact with everybody as she headed up the girl’s staircase. She had to get to the Verosapt as quickly as possible. When she reached the fourth floor, she turned and ran into Gwen.

“Whoa –– hey, there you are. I just came from knocking on your door. Sarah told me you were still at prac — Hey!” Anna walked straight passed her.

“Not now, Gwen — I’ve got something important I need to do.”

“Wait a minute…” Gwen was jogging behind to catch up. “Where’s the fire? What’s so important?”

Anna whipped out her wand and blasted the knob on her door from five paces. It flew open with a bang as she entered and Gwen could hear Sarah’s panicked scream inside.

“What’s happened? What’s the matter?”

Gwen entered the room just in time to see Anna pushing her way passed her roommate and toward the bedroom to the back.

“Anna… What’s –– going –– on?” Gwen bellowed, raising her voice and glaring at Sarah. Anna’s roommate looked terrified. The two followed Anna into the bedroom and found her staring at the kaleidoscope sitting on her dresser.”

“I know she’s lying,” Anna whispered hesitantly.

“Who’s lying? What’s going on? Who’s been lying to you?”

Anna glared back at Gwen with a look of penetrating loathing. “Debbie Dunning.”

“Oh no… now what? What did she do?”

Anna stared at the kaleidoscope again. “Unspeakable lies.”

Hesitating slightly, Anna raised her hand and placed it upon the ruby mounted on the scope’s barrel.

“The Keeper commands you to speak!”

At once, a beam of red light shot from out of the gem and spread itself wide before them. Billowing gray smoke could be seen writhing inside the center of the light and the echoing sounds of a far off jungle began to fill the room.

“What’s happening? What is this?” Sarah said in surprise, backing away fearfully as her eyes darted around the room for the source of the howling birdcalls.

Gwen moved forward to stand next to Anna in front of the dresser. “Anna… what is this thing?”

“Shhh,” Anna snapped, stepping back as the enormous face of the gorilla came forward. Gwen gasped when she saw the creature reveal his massive fangs, set like sharpened bolts as he spoke. His tone was thick with malice, exposing a nature completely absent of patience.

“So… hath the Keeper FINALLY decided to pluck the strings of truth witnessed by the Verosapt?”

“I have,” Anna said, determinedly. And then, without a moment’s pause, she said, “I need to know…”

“Halt!” bellowed the great ape amidst the excited clatter of a world unseen behind him. He stared at her fixedly, and then Anna could see his eyes moving to the girls standing behind her. “Thus, it is, I am the representative of truth and knowledge, passed to me through the eyes of my brethren kind. Thou hast but to ask the question of thy choice and the wisdom of the hoard will be given unto thee. However, I must know… who art these humans with thee, daughter of Victoria? Our knowledge is meant… for the Keeper alone!”

Anna looked back at Gwen and Sarah. A small part of her wanted them to leave: Because the question she was about to ask was so private, so personal, it could very well influence the rest of her life forever. But who else would understand what the next few seconds would mean to her? Who else could comprehend the magnitude of what she was now about to do? She wanted Eric by her side, but the absent facts about her mother’s death had been eating away at the fabric of Anna’s soul for as long as she could remember. She couldn’t wait any longer.

Sarah made a move toward the door. “I’ll leave… if… you want me to,” she said, almost pleadingly.

Anna looked at Gwen.

“Yeah… I guess we’ll go, then,” Gwen said, with the transparent look of a toddler unwillingly leaving the circus. Anna thought and then turned back to the scope.

“They are my friends. I want them to stay with me.”

The creature grumbled reproachfully. “Very well.” His magical voice seemed to reverberate under the floor beneath them before his giant head suddenly loomed forward into the room to face Anna, his yellowed fangs bared.

“But thus be warned: Dost not let the wisdom thee seeketh be of vanity or arrogance, little one. The Verosapt is not to be abused with such human treacheries. Thou art permitted one question now and no other until the day of thine entry passes through time again. Pray for wisdom in what thee seeketh as we claim thy caution: Truth is the illumination within the darkness of one’s soul, and hath the power to displace all thou art or ever hopeth to be. But truth can also weigheth heavy on the mortal mind, especially… for one so young.” He stared at her, his narrowed eyes suddenly relaxing. “Dost the Keeper understand us?” Anna nodded resignedly. Finally the creature, still holding his gaze long enough to insure his meaning secure, began to fall back.

“Bravery in the face of the unknown is indeed… admirable,” he said, warily. “Feareth not the fidelity of the knowledge thou seeketh, Keeper. We art of the same blood; thus, it is, the jungles of the world await thy examination.”

Anna thought. She could see she had to be careful about the way she asked the question. It should be open-ended, requiring more than just a simple yes or no reply. Anna cast her mind about for a moment and then said, quite assuredly, “I’d like to know… how Victoria Grayson died?”

Instantly, there was a mad mixture of squawking and hooting in the background as thousands of animals and creatures began to sound as one. Finally, the great ape roared to silence them. He looked down at Anna, the irritation she had seen earlier now replaced with concern.

“Art thou certain this be the knowledge thee seeketh, little one? Thus… I offer thee, for the last time, my caution of the pain such realities can bringeth unto thy heart. Be very sure of this.”

Anna was resolute. “I am sure. Tell me how my mother died.”

The gorilla leaned back to pause. “Very well… the Verosapt wilt now searcheth the truth in what it seeks.”

He tilted his head back and began to listen to the increasing clatter of the masses behind him. Anna could hear more creatures joining the exchange. From every corner of the globe, from every hovel and hole, they sang, screeched, and called: A cry of an eagle, the roar of a large cat, deep bellowing sounds emanating from an ocean’s depths. On and on they added their voices, working to resolve Anna’s question.

“Oh… my God,” Gwen said, fearfully. She slowly sat on the bed next to Sarah, her grip of what was about to happen strengthening.

“What is it, Gwen? What’s happening?” Sarah asked, looking both scared and confused. Gwen looked at her and then to Anna standing before the kaleidoscope.

“I don’t think Anna has ever truly accepted the entire story of her mother’s death,” Gwen replied, worriedly. “Debbie Dunning must have said something terrible to force her into doing this.” She shook her head. “I’m worried even if Anna finds out she already knows the truth… there’s going to be a reckoning with the captain’s sister. But if there’s more to the story, if Anna finds out she doesn’t know the whole truth…” She looked at Sarah and could see comprehension growing across the other girl’s face. Sarah looked back at Anna, who had buried her face in prayer while she waited. And then, all at once, the squawking clatter ceased and the great ape lowered his head to look down.

“Thirteen years dead and dying,” he said in a tone filled with great sorrow. Anna frowned. His words were familiar to her and pushed her thoughts back to the day when she first learned about the scope’s true purpose, when the hoard was testing her rightful place as the scope’s new Keeper. The creature had said the same words then as well.

“Thy mother was attacked… in a remote forest on the day of thine entry thirteen years ago… by a beast most foul.”

Anna was stunned, and she could hear Gwen gasp behind her. “What?” Anna said, disbelievingly. “What beast attacked her?”

“We of the Verosapt doth not speak of it! It, and its kind, wert banned from the sum to our knowledge thousands of years ago.”

“So… are you saying that my mother was killed by… this creature?”

The great ape narrowed his gaze upon her. “Yes…” he said, meaningfully.

Anna stumbled back, the sharp pain of shock was slicing into her chest; her mind was reeling. She was killed. It wasn’t an accident that took her from me; it was a creature. Why didn’t my father tell me?

“And… nay.”

Anna snapped up to stare at the ape whose eyes were closed again.

“No? No… what?”

The gorilla opened his eyes once more to look down at her. “The Keeper Victoria was attacked by a creature possessed of evil… but it didst not completely destroy her.” Gwen suddenly stood, shocked at what they had just heard.

Anna gaped. “I… don’t understand. Is she dead or not?”

“That is another question. Only one question is allowed.”

His words froze Anna’s heart to its core. She could feel a great lurch of pain in her stomach forcing its way up. She didn’t understand why this would be considered a different question, but any reinforcing notion that her mother might still be alive gave her hope.

“I don’t understand. You said Victoria died, but now you’re saying the creature that attacked her didn’t kill her. What does that…?” Anna stopped. She tilted her head to frown up at the creature within the red mist. “What did you mean… when you said, ‘Thirteen years dead and dying’? Does that mean she died, but her memory lives on?” The squawking began again while the Verosapt contemplated an answer.

“Many art the shapes of death. It doth stir on levels too vast to count, but much more than a memory of thy mother still exists… in the dungeons of Drogo.”

At this, Anna clasped her mouth in horror. “No…” she moaned, shaking her head in disbelief. “It can’t be… my mother is still alive?”

The great ape surveyed her cautiously. “Thy species is limited in its comprehension of life in all its many forms. But for the sake of thy limited understanding — yes, what remaineth of Victoria Grayson still breathes in thus a form unfitting the Keeper of Verosapt.”

Anna’s head was exploding with the images of her mother, the pictures of her wedding day, the portrait over her father’s desk. She stumbled back and was caught by Gwen, who walked her back to the bed and sat her down.

“Nooo… it can’t be?” Anna suddenly burst into tears. “How can this be true? Why didn’t he tell me?” Gwen was hugging her, trying desperately to calm her friend. “Why would my father lie to me?”

Gwen pulled back. “Anna – I don’t believe any of this. That thing is speaking in riddles. First it says your mother is dead — and now it’s saying she’s alive.” She looked up at the creature within the billowing mist and shook her head. “It doesn’t really know what the truth is. How can he possibly know?”

At this, the great ape threw his head back and roared before glowering down angrily at Gwen. “The Verosapt is wisdom beyond the ages. We represent the truth in all its countless forms.”

“Stop it!” Gwen hollered back, looking at Anna who was shaking uncontrollably. “You’re confusing her with your lies. Victoria Grayson died years ago. Everyone knows that. Why are you hurting her?”

The gorilla bristled and seethed. “Didst I not warn the Keeper? Didst I not foretell the truth couldeth be as a mountain’s weight on a fragile mind?”

“What truth?” Gwen stood and angrily approached the scope. “Is Victoria Grayson alive? No more riddles — yes or no!”

“Thou art not of Jennings’ blood,” the ape snarled back. “Thus — thy questions are as insults to the hoard; thou wilt be ignored.”

“Then answer Anna’s question properly. No more lies!”

The ape roared again, propelling Gwen backwards to the floor. “Away with thee — puny human!”

Anna grabbed Gwen and pulled her to her feet with a sudden strength that stunned her friend. She then turned to face the beast.

“Please… tell me how she died?”

The beast glared angrily at Anna. “Dost the Keeper not, even now, recognize the shelter we offer it… in not answering? Have thee no insight into benevolence?”

Anna had reached the breaking point. “I’m not asking for your shelter. I want the truth — now!”

The jungle in the background suddenly fell silent. The beast glared down, piercing Anna’s soul with a fixed stare so intense it felt like her skin was being peeled away. Seconds passed like days.

“Humans…” he finally rumbled, reproachfully. “Very well. With the clarity of exactness thou might comprehend: Thus it is… the beast that attacketh Victoria Grayson, most foul, destroyed nearly all her family might summon of her memory, and what remains is locked within Drogo: Dead and dying, alive but not living, touched by death but breathing still.”

“So… my mother is alive…” Anna said uncertainly, her voice beginning to weaken.

“The answer to thy question is one of endless circled debate, lacking confidence and certainty even within our hoarded wisdom,” the ape replied. “It is best left to thy next day of entry.”

Anna sat down on her bed, the agony in her face evident as the truth pressed itself in. She fell onto her side and turned to face the wall, the weight of her entire world crumbling down upon her.

“How could you lie to me? All these years… you told me she was dead. Daddy… how could you…?” Her words were slowly drowned away in her growing sobs. “How… could… you?”

Gwen and Sarah stood behind their friend completely lost for words. As they moved to comfort Anna, the great ape spoke once more.

“Sometimes the path from truth unto understanding is long and most difficult.” He looked down at Gwen and Sarah. “Care for the Keeper: She wilt need thee now as never before.” And with these words, the gray smoke withdrew into the light, which narrowed to a single, red beam. The beam dropped into the ruby once more and closed with a soft click.

Gwen crawled in behind Anna on the bed and wrapped her arms around her shoulders. More than offering her loving support, Gwen knew she was holding on to Anna as one would a friend trying to leap off the edge of a cliff. Anna sobbed desperately, and clutched onto Gwen’s strength as her shattered mind drifted in and out of consciousness throughout the night.

TWO

Over the next several days, Anna was completely withdrawn. Gwen and Sarah did their best to comfort her, but they knew the person she truly needed more than anybody now was Eric. But to their surprise, Anna refused to see her brother. In fact, it seemed Anna had lost interest in nearly everything that mattered to her before the Verosapt had been summoned for the truth, before she knew her mother was still alive and being held in Drogo prison.

When Gwen suggested she tell Eric what she had learned, Anna flatly refused. She was convinced her father and the rest of her family already knew the truth, and had been keeping it a secret from her since the day she was born. To make matters worse, Anna had even come to believe the teachers of Castlewood had known this terrible secret and she stopped going to most of her classes and vollucross practice altogether. Her days and nights were spent walking alone and wrestling with the horrors locked within her own thoughts.

Eric could see something was troubling his sister, but he was so busy studying for his senior wizarding tests and working to find the last Guardian that he found himself completely dependent on Gwen’s interpretation of Anna’s moodiness as nothing more than the expected pressure of their final exams.

But Gabby could plainly see Anna was in trouble. Although the Grayson house elf had been nearly invisible for most of her time while at Castlewood, Gwen was astounded at how quickly the creature could sense something was wrong with her mistress.

For her part, Gabby had become something of an unknown hero to most of the students at the school, because she had taken to following Debbie Dunning throughout the castle and warning the Guardians of her movements. This was especially true in the second week of June when Janet Wardrop was nearly caught after curfew with a Searcher boy she had been dating all year. It was Gabby who saved them from the captain’s sister when the elf tipped over a particularly fowl smelling bucket of goop on Debbie’s head as she chased the couple toward the tower room. When asked what the brewing and bubbling mess was in the bucket, the elf shyly explained it was sap excrement she picked up in the forest from something she called a strangling zombie vine. The hallway where Debbie was ambushed was roped off for two days due to the nauseating smell, and Debbie Dunning wasn’t seen in class for nearly a week. Gabby’s relentless harassment of the captain’s sister was joyously hailed and cheered in every Union Hall, but the Guardians, fearful their champion might eventually be caught, would only refer to her in public as –– Debbie’s curse.

But now that Anna was in trouble, it seemed Gabby was visible everywhere. She followed her mistress on her long walks through the castle’s courtyards, and brought her food from the kitchens when she didn’t show up for meals. The elf slept at the foot of Anna’s bed and sang lovingly to her when she cried, and although the tiny creature was never told what was wrong with her mistress, that didn’t seem to matter to her anyway. An elf’s life was to serve her family.

Finally, the week of the third Triwizard task was upon them and Gwen and Sarah noticed a sudden and remarkable change in Anna’s behavior. She was flying again, and was reportedly seen soaring well above the five hundred foot ceiling on several occasions. This brought a serious reprimand from Doctor Pearl who was overheard yelling at Anna twice about traveling out of bounds and too near the surrounding mountains.

“My mistress is fine, now,” Gabby reported happily to Gwen, who had come to check on Anna one evening before dinner. “I is seeing her eating well in the Rotunda,” chirped the elf, sitting contentedly on the bed and folding Anna’s laundry.

Gwen flew down the staircase, through the tunnel connecting the Tower Room to the castle, and into the Rotunda where she found Anna eating dinner with a number of other Guardians.

“Hey,” Gwen said, surprised at her friend’s newfound appetite. Anna’s plate was stacked to overflowing with chicken, mashed potatoes, salted corn, and half a ham still on its bone to the side. She drank deeply from her goblet of pumpkin juice, and crammed thick slices of buttered bread into her mouth as if somebody uninvited was about to take it from her.

“Hey yourself… how are you?” Anna replied, through a very full mouth.

“I’m okay,” Gwen replied, sitting down across the table from her. “How are you feeling?”

Anna gulped the rest of her juice and then slammed the cup down loud enough to make her neighbors jump.

“Ahhhh…. I’m great.”

She ripped off another leg from the pattered bird next to her, and tore into it with all the enthusiasm of a starved bear. As she ate, Anna stared at Gwen intensely over her fisted meal, giving her friend the eerie feeling she might be next on the menu.

“Uhh… well… that’s good. Are you sleeping all right?”

“Never better,” Anna replied flippantly, sucking on the end of her chicken before tossing the bone uncaringly over her shoulder. Her gaze fell upon the platter again, and Gwen could hear her muttering to herself, “Never… better,” before ripping the second leg out of its socket and spattering her own face with its juice. She didn’t bother wiping it off as she wolfed the meat down, staring unnervingly again at Gwen across the table. Her gaze was only broken when Sarah sat down next to them.

“Hey Sarah… thanks for giving me some space to myself these last couple of days. You can come back to your own bed if you like,” Anna said, crunching the greasy end of the bone unflinchingly with her back molars.

“Oh, okay… it really wasn’t a problem. Heather Thomas doesn’t have a roommate yet, so she let me borrow the extra bed.” Sarah said, tentatively, watching Anna toss another mangled bone over her shoulder before turning her attention to the mashed potatoes. They watched her scoop the fluffy whites off her plate with her fingers and stuff them roughly into her mouth.

“I’ll move back tonight, then,” Sarah finished, glancing nervously over to Gwen again.

Gwen was surveying Anna closely. In all the years she had known her friend, Gwen could tell two things had happened during her long walks alone on the castle grounds: First, nothing she had learned about her mother had been resolved; and second, despite Anna’s efforts to parade a better face, the grief she carried was still clearly there. It had only transformed itself into something much worse… raging anger.

Gwen leaned forward. “Listen, Anna, how about the three of us go for a walk outside. It’s a clear night… and very warm. We wouldn’t even need our robes.”

“Nope… I’m fine right here,” Anna replied, shoving more potatoes into her mouth. “Gotta bulk up. Gabby says I haven’t been eating right.”

“Well… that’s true, and I’m glad you seem to be doing so much better, but you’re gonna’ need to walk that off. Come on — how about it? If you’re still hungry, we can go down to Mrs. Smile’s for a cone.”

Anna’s eyes brightened. She immediately swept her plate and cup rudely aside with her forearm. “You buying?” she said, enthusiastically.

“Uhhh… sure: First round’s on me, how ‘bout it?”

Without another word, Anna was on her feet and heading for the door. They left the castle together, Gwen and Sarah walking and whispering to each other side-by-side, and Anna leading the way four steps in front of them.

“Oh –– it’s nice to be outside,” Anna said, stretching her arms out to the side and twirling in a funny little circle as they crossed over the drawbridge.

“Hello there — and where are you lovely ladies off to?” It was Stephan Durkin, Gwen’s boyfriend.

“Oh — hi, Stephan. Umm… we’re just on our way to get some ice cream,” Gwen explained, glancing over at Anna who had stopped dancing and was eyeing Stephen in a most peculiar way. She was suddenly still, her head tilted down as she stared at the boy. Gwen could see Anna’s eyes darting all over him in a way that made her feel uneasy and surprisingly fearful for Stephan’s safety.

“Care for some company?” the boy offered, brightly.

“Well…” Gwen said, still staring at Anna, “it’s kind of ladies-night tonight, and… uh…” Suddenly, Gwen could hear something of a throaty hum emanating from Anna. Her eyes were now fixed on the boy and Gwen could hear the low-droning buzz getting louder. She was purring.

“We’re going to catch up on some girl talk… you understand…don’t you?” Gwen said quickly, stepping in front of Anna to give Stephan a peck on the cheek.

“Oh… okay,” Stephan replied, a slight touch of disappointment resonating in his voice. He shrugged. “I… should be hitting the books anyway: First big exam in two days. I’ll see you later, then.” He gave a quick wave and headed across the drawbridge toward the castle. Anna’s eyes followed his every step. When the boy was out of sight, she turned to Gwen and offered an evicting smile.

“Very nice,” she said with a flash of thirsty amusement sparkling in her eyes.

“Yeah? For a second there, I thought you were going to jump his bones,” Gwen shot back, folding her arms indignantly. Anna grinned and then stepped into Gwen’s face.

“Ice cream — a double, please.”

Gwen’s stern expression forced a smile. “Let’s go then.”

Twenty minutes later, Anna had finished her ice cream and was eating the rest of Sarah’s chocolate swirl. Gwen and Sarah were exchanging significant looks of concern.

“So what do you think Professor Titan will have on his final exam,” Sarah asked them, trying to turn their dialogue into something resembling a normal conversation.

“Don’t know — don’t care,” Anna said sharply, taking another huge swipe of ice cream off with her tongue.

“Well — you’d better care. That exam is going to be half your final grade,” Gwen warned. Anna’s response matched her attitude. She shrugged indifferently.

Sarah decided on a more direct approach. “Anna, when are you going to tell Eric what that oracle thing said about your mother?”

Anna glared angrily at her roommate, and for the first time that night her voice was as sharp as an ice pick between the eyes. “And why the hell would I do that?” she blistered.

“Because he’s your brother, and… well… because your family and your father care about you.”

Anna looked appalled. “Puaah! My father. If my father really did care, he would’ve told me the truth, don’t you think? What kind of man lies to his own kid about her mother being dead? If Eric and my father didn’t care enough to tell me the truth after all these years… I’m on my own.”

“You don’t mean that,” Sarah said, sympathetically. “Anna, I’ll bet Eric doesn’t know anything about your mother being in… at… that place, and since you don’t know anything about her present condition, we can’t possibly understand why your father didn’t tell you.”

“That’s right. She could be in a coma, kept alive by extraordinary magical means,” Gwen added. “I’ve heard of healers having to do that sometimes in special cases.”

“For thirteen years?” Anna retorted. “And if she is in a comma, why is she locked in a dungeon? Answer me that!” Anna threw her ice cream down in frustration. She looked at them, her eyes blazing with anger. “Well I’m going to find out for myself what the truth is,” she said furiously, jabbing her thumb into her chest.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Gwen replied with a frown. “If you’re not talking to your family, how do you expect to…?” she stopped. She stared at Anna who seemed completely self-absorbed within her own thoughts. Gwen swallowed hard. “No way. You… you can’t be serious,” she said, fearfully. “You’re not… actually thinking about going there? To Drogo, I mean?”

Anna leaned back without a hint of surprise showing on her face. She crossed her arms defiantly. “And… so? What if I am? Why not?”

“Anna!” Sarah gasped, cupping her hands over her mouth in shock.

“Because it would be insane, that’s –– why not,” Gwen retorted.

“Well –– it’s a good thing I’m going to Drogo then, because I hear it’s supposed to be a really good place for incurable lost causes, right?” Anna snapped back.

“Anna… you can’t… you wouldn’t. Please say you’re not serious,” Sarah muttered, her eyes wide with fear for her friend.

Anna was unyielding. “Yes, I am. I’m very serious.”

The three sat staring at each other, Sarah in a state of shock, Gwen shaking her head in disbelief, and Anna resolute.

“I have to know,” Anna said, looking angrily at Sarah. “I have to see for myself,” her voice was rising as she turned to Gwen. “I want to see my mother.”

There was a pause filled with shocked disbelief. Finally, Gwen reached out and took Anna’s hand. “Anna, I love you like a sister, and I understand the way you feel. Your mother was supposed to be…”

Anna snatched her hand away. “You don’t know how it feels! Nobody knows how it feels. They lied to me! My father — my family; how can you possibly understand that? My mother is supposed to be dead, and what do I find? Not only is she alive, but she’s locked in a dungeon in one of the foulest places on earth.” Anna was rising to her feet, her voice gaining volume as she stood.

“Why didn’t they tell me? WHY?” Several others sitting at nearby tables turned to stare at them. Unwanted tears began to bloom in Anna’s eyes, reflecting the table’s candlelight as her rage continued to build. “Was it because they thought the family squib was too delicate to handle the truth, was that it?”

Anna threw her chair back and angrily heaved their table aside. She grabbed Gwen by her collar and pulled her to her feet. “Well I’m going to see the truth for myself!” She shoved Gwen onto Sarah’s lap and stormed away.

Gwen and Sarah worked frantically to untangle themselves. “Stop her… we have to stop her,” Sarah said desperately. Gwen scrambled back to her feet and kicked a chair out of her way before sprinting after Anna. A few seconds later, Gwen and Sarah were trotting on either side of her.

“Where are you going, Anna?” Gwen barked anxiously.

“I told you where I’m going.”

“And how do you intend to get there? You gonna walk through the forest and over those maintains in the middle of the night?”

“If I have to.”

“But Drogo is protected by the Fidelius Charm. Nobody knows where it is.”

“I know exactly where it is,” Anna retorted, walking faster.

“Yes, I know. You said you saw it once before, but Anna… that was months ago. Captain Dunning probably changed the concealment spells when he found out you knew about the place.”

“Yes… he did,” Anna spat and Gwen froze to the spot.

“What?”

She ran to catch up with Anna again, this time stepping in front to stop her. “Anna, how do you know he changed the spells?” Anna’s pursed lips curled themselves into a satisfied smile; comprehension hit Gwen immediately.

“You’ve seen it again… haven’t you?” She grabbed Anna by the shoulders and yanked her straight so she could look directly into her eyes. “Haven’t you?” Anna shoved passed her again, and Gwen looked at Sarah in disbelief. “She’s lost her mind.”

“Gwen, we have to stop her. She’s heading for the plateau.”

Soon Anna was passing through the city gates and then turned toward Vollucross Stadium. Gwen was walking quickly by her side again.

“What did you do, Anna, take Swooper up there to have another look? Is that what you were doing when Pearl was yelling at you for flying out of bounds? Taking another peek at Drogo again, were you? And what did you see? What did you see, Anna?”

“I saw it’s exactly where I left it,” Anna bristled, suddenly stopping to cut around Sarah. “The haze surrounding it was a bit darker this time, a little thicker than I remember… but it’s still there. The good captain thinks he can hide it from me… as if!”

“So –– you’ve got it all figured out, have you? So what are you going to do… jump on Swooper and fly in, just land on the ramparts like some kind of tourist?

“Something like that… yeah.”

Gwen swept in front of Anna to stop her again. “Anna, you can’t do that! Look at what they did to Hobbs just for trying to take a message there.” Anna tried to step around her but Gwen grabbed her by the arm. “Anna… those guards will kill you if you go anywhere near that place. Think about it: The guards at Drogo are trained to make sure nobody attempts to do exactly what it is you’re doing. You can’t break in without being caught. And even if you got inside, how would you hope to find your mother? What are you going to do — attack a guard, steal his keys, and go searching room-to-room, opening the locked doors of murdering lunatics to look for somebody you haven’t seen since the day you were born? Think — Anna! Think about what you’re doing. It won’t work — it can’t work!”

“Listen to her, Anna. Gwen is right. The guards will hurt you. They’ll catch you and arrest you. They’ll contact your father and tell him what you did. You’ll be expelled for breaking the law.”

“That’s right,” Gwen added. “Dunning will have you out of here in a flash, and Debbie’ll be standing on the dock laughing her fool head off as she throws your trunk and bridle into the harbor after you.”

Anna’s face was a study of tortured agony. She was visibly trembling as she fell to her knees and then sat on the wet grass. She dropped her forehead heavily onto her knees and began to sob. Gwen and Sarah sat next her, relieved to see some part of reason finally breaking through Anna’s stubborn resolve. They watched sympathetically as she rocked back and forth, howling miserably.

After a time, Anna raised her head to rest her reddened face on her arms. “You can’t possibly understand what it was like growing up without a mother. Living in that house among the portraits, without a single image of her anywhere, feeling like I didn’t belong there, Damon and my sisters constantly reminding me that I was powerless to protect myself, my father and Eric doing everything they could to care for the poor little squib, going to Muggle schools when everybody else was leaving to study magic at Castlewood. My mother should have been there for me! She could have explained why I’m so different. Maybe she would have loved me for who I am, and not for what I was expected to be. That’s what mothers are supposed to do, right?” Anna looked up at Gwen, a lifetime of pain and misery pouring down her crying face. Gwen reached in and wiped Anna’s tears with the sleeve of her shirt.

“Yeah… I guess so. That’s what mothers are supposed to do. They always make it better.”

“So what happened? Why isn’t she with me now? Why was she running around in some stupid forest, carrying her unborn child into a dangerous place like that? Okay… so she was attacked by something that nearly killed her. Fine! But why was she there? What was she doing?”

“I don’t know, Anna,” Gwen said, supportively. “All I know is — you can’t find the answers by flying off into those mountains. There are guards and spells on every door at Drogo.” She dabbed at Anna’s tears again and let out a sorrow-filled heave.

“Look… we only have another ten days before we go home. In that time, we have our final exams, the Triwizard Tournament, and your last vollucross race. Then there’s Eric’s graduation, not to mention finding the last Guardian. There’s a lot of do before we get on that ship home again. Let us help you get through these last few days, and then you’ll have the whole summer to figure out how to talk to your father about this.”

Anna glared at her, but Gwen was ready. “Anna, it’s the only way. You have to tell your father what you know. Don’t you see? Once you do that, everything else will fall into place. Once you tell him you know the truth, he’ll have to explain what happened and why your mother is… was… sent to that place.”

Gwen looked at Anna hopefully, surprised by the logic of her own words. But deep down, Gwen knew she was only stalling for time. Keeping Anna from flying away on Swooper was only the beginning. She had to keep Anna on the ground until she saw her getting on that boat back home. She knew if she could keep Anna out of trouble long enough to get her back to California, the rest would take care of itself. Anna would finally confront her father with the truth, and although that wasn’t going to be easy, it was the only safe way to resolve the pain she was carrying. Gwen stood and reached down for Anna’s hand.

“Come on, stinky-feet; let’s get you back to the castle.”

Anna smiled as she looked up. Once again, she marveled at the value of Gwen’s friendship. She looked at Sarah standing behind her and reached out to both of them. With a great heave, they pulled her to her feet and Gwen began to brush the damp grass off of Anna’s pants.

“Ohh… your butt’s all wet. I guess it wasn’t a good idea to go out without our robes after all.”

They headed back across the plateau, through the city gate, and onto the cobbled streets of the city. When they reached the drawbridge, they stopped to watch the moat beneath them. The water was swift and muddy from the spring thaw.

Finally, Anna looked up. “Do you really think Debbie Dunning would throw my bridle into the harbor if they kicked me out of here?”

Gwen huffed. “Yeah… she would, the nasty little worm… and then I’d be forced to hex her big, fat butt in after it. Then you’d have to break into Drogo to visit me.” Anna didn’t laugh as much as Gwen would have hoped.

They headed into the castle with Sarah whispering in Gwen’s ear.

“Stinky-feet?”

“Never mind.”

THREE

That evening, Gwen lay awake in her bed, her troubled mind racing. My God… Victoria Grayson… a prisoner in Drogo prison. Thethought of it made her tremble. She was surprised and disappointed in herself for not understanding how this news about her mother would affect Anna. She had left her best friend alone, knowing she was in trouble, and that decision had nearly come to Anna’s ruin. Gwen angrily resolved never to let that happen again. She was going to spend every waking moment she could with Anna, making sure she stayed away from Swooper until that final race following the third task. Gwen moaned as she relived Anna crying on the plateau, but she felt her friend had seen the folly in what she was doing in going to Drogo and she went to sleep that night believing she had changed her mind.

Anna sat on her bed staring out the window and at the fog-filled alleyways of Spellsburg below her. Gwen and Sarah were right, of course. Drogo was sure to be well guarded by a number of fully qualified wizards from the Crimson ranks. Captain Dunning might be there himself on any given night. The entryway, doors, and windows would be locked and enchanted to keep the prisoners in and everybody else out. Even if she did manage to break in, how would she find her mother? Anna realized how thankful she was to her friends for helping her see how difficult her task might be. In stopping her from rushing off, Gwen had forced Anna to go about the job of finding her mother in a much more calculating way. It would take everything she knew of herself and her abilities to get inside the prison and find the one person inside that was her mother.

And what would she find there if she was successful? Would her mother recognize her? No… she wouldn’t, of course. I was only a newborn infant when my mother was taken away. Was Victoria even aware of her surroundings? Or was she, as Sarah had suggested, in a coma, dead and dying, gone but breathing still. Was she being kept in a well-lit hospital room, with white walls and windows overlooking the surrounding lake on sunny days? Anna frowned. Somehow, she didn’t think so. She thought instead of a dark and molding room, with only a shell of the person that once was her mother sitting alone in a gloomy, rat-infested corner. Perhaps, if God was sympathetic, Victoria’s mind would be vacant, an empty void of the realities around her, except for the distant memory of the light outside stabbing at her consciousness.

Anna closed her eyes and wept. It was the only way she could get to sleep since the Verosapt had told her about her mother. Although the great ape had warned her of the terrible consequences the truth might bring, she couldn’t have imagined this kind of pain. Anna laid her head down and then turned to face the wall. The only thing helping to push the agony aside was her knowing she had to try; she had to know the truth about her mother’s condition. No matter what the consequences, no matter what the danger, Anna was going to Drogo.


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